Here, Taste This : Citrus and Avocado Salad

Grapefruit might be my favorite fruit. Right next to peaches. And mangoes. And perfectly ripe strawberries. And juicy sweet blueberries.

I like fruit, is what I'm saying.

But I do think citrus fruit is perfectly gifted to be in season right now, when deepest, darkest winter has set in and we are all fogged in by the relentless grind of being indoors and eating root vegetables at every meal. (Californian friends, just nod and act like you know what I'm talking about.) A bright pink grapefruit, a sunny orange, even a gleaming lemon, remind us of summer days and warm breezes and a sky as clean and fresh as the juice dripping down our chin.

This salad can be a butt-load of work, I'm not going to lie to you. (Of course, I have time-saving tips; see below.) But it so exquisitely combines the tang of citrus with the butteriness of avocado and the zip of pomegranate seeds, it's worth it.

(my apologies for the pitiful picture; apparently, I have few pictures of this salad because I'm too busy eating it immediately)

Citrus and Avocado Salad with Pomegranate Seeds

3 oranges, segmented
2 grapefruits, segmented
2 avocados, sliced
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
spring greens or spinach

1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
pepper to taste

1. First, make the dressing by combining all the dressing ingredients and blending until emulsified.
2. Section the fruits and slice the avocados. (More on that below.)
3. Place greens or spinach on plate; arrange citrus and avocado on top. Sprinkle on the pomegranate seeds and drizzle with dressing.

1. Segmenting citrus sounds so scary, doesn't it? "Here, Dr. Watson, take these grapefruit in the back and SEGMENT them." But it's not, I promise. It takes more patience than skill. Here's a great video by Mario Batali that shows you exactly how to do it, accompanied by kicky jazz and snarky subtitles.

2. My favorite time-saving tip of the year: If you have a Costco near you, look for their cups of ready-to-eat grapefruit in the cooler section. They are already segmented pink grapefruit stored in juice and OH MY WORD, they are the best. I bought my first box to use for this salad, and  I've turned into a raving grapefruit lunatic, now that I can eat them all the time without any prep work involved.
3. You know how to deal with avocado, right? Again, not hard. Just takes patience. Here's another awesome video that shows you the basics.

4. And here's where I would show you a video of how to get pomegranate seeds out of a pomegranate - which, OK, I'll show it to you anyway, because it's just cool and clever, and it's a fun thing to do with kids, if you have some who are interested in cooking. Plus, the pomegranate is one of the most gorgeous, sensuous fruits out there. Did you know many cultures believe it was the fruit that the serpent used to tempt Eve?

BUT! If you don't want to go through the trouble, you can now buy pomegranate seeds in most grocery stores. Look for fresh arils in the produce section, often under the brand name Pom-Poms.
5. One last tip: I'm a dressing minimalist, so I usually make half the dressing called for, or I save it for another day. This salad is delicious enough just with the flavors involved. It should not be drowned in goop. If you do, I will be forced to give you the disapproving dog face.

You've been warned.

On Raising Boys and Other Feral Things

I was sitting at my desk the other night, when Kieran emerged from the bathroom. He was nekkid from the waist down, clutching his nighttime pull-up and his polar bear fleece pajama pants. Pretty routine for this boy; if I had a dime for every time I found him without pants lately, I could fund his college education. I started to help him put his bottoms back on when I saw his left foot was splattered with liquid.

My mind pressed rewind.

One minute earlier a tinkling sound had come from the bathroom. I had ignored it, thinking he was using the potty. But the discovery of the wet foot led to a wet leg which led to a scurry to the bathroom where I found an empty potty.

"Kieran! Did you go pee-pee?" I tried to keep the terror from my voice.

"Yep!" he answered proudly. "In der."

And he pointed to the shower.

My shower.

Sure enough, there was a splatter of liquid gold still trickling to the drain.

"Buddy! What did you go potty in the shower instead of the toilet?" I asked, completely befuddled.

"I dun know," he shrugged.

Boys. They are feral things, wild creatures we welcome into our hearts only to find pee in the shower and exactly zero underwear in the wash. (Because it's too much work to go get a clean pair after the shower, Mom.)

I am confused by them but equally delighted. My three-year-old Kieran wipes his snotty nose on my shirt sleeve and then says, "I wuv you so much, mama" and hugs my neck hard. My 10-year-old Connor has to be reminded every day to brush his teeth, every day, as if it's a new task we've suddenly given him instead of a twice daily routine he's been doing since he was three. But he also shows me the new comic strip he's drowning and lays his head on my lap each night before bed with a quiet, "Will you pray for me, Mom?"

I can't predict them, and Lord knows I don't understand their native ways. (Why is burping so funny?)

But I love their otherness, and I can't imagine my life without their hugs, their adoration and their boy grunts and giggles.

Even if it means there's occasionally some pee in the shower. At least it's not on the front rug, right?

Here Taste This, Polar Vortex Edition : Chicken Spinach Soup with Barley

So it's Monday, and my kids are home from school again. This is the fourth school cancellation day this month, and I feel certain day five will come tomorrow. It's not that I disagree with it so much; temps of -20 and wind chills of -45 are not to be trifled with. It's more that it's insanity. Even for Minnesota in January, this is wicked cold.

The best way to fight back - besides a trip to the Caribbean - is soup. So today, I'm breaking with my self-imposed rule to do "Here, Taste This" on Fridays, and I'm posting a Polar Vortex edition. Because this soup is perfect for these frigid days. It's fast, simple, healthy and it will fill you with warm goodness.

Chicken Spinach Soup with Barley
adapted from Everyday Food

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 carrots, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup quick-cooking barley
5 cups raw baby spinach, roughly chopped

1. In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, heat oil over medium-high. Add carrots and onion. Cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Add chicken, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until chicken turns white on the edges, about 2 minutes.
2. Add broth and and bring to a boil. Add barley. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and simmer the soup until barley is tender and chicken is cooked, 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Remove cover, add spinach and stir until the spinach is just wilted, about 1 minute.
4. Season to taste with more salt and pepper and serve.

1. The key to this soup is quick-cooking barley. Most grocery stores stock it, but you might have to ask where they keep it. Some keep it by the oatmeal, others in the soup aisle. Quick-cooking barley has all the nutrition of pearled barley, only it's flattened so it cooks in much less time. It should look a little like oatmeal when you pour it out of the box.
2. I like pepper, so I add lots of it just before serving. Be sure to taste the soup before you serve it and salt and pepper to your taste.
3. Serve with crusty bread and cut-up pears and apples. Eat next to a roaring fire and smile smugly at the wind howling outside. The cold can't touch you now, baby.


Expectations are tricky buggers.

Often, we don't know they are there, lurking beneath the surface, until they aren't met. And then they pop out like some sort of demon-infested honey badger and unleash venom on us and the people around us.

Take the cold, for example.

Here in Minnesota, we are enjoying our third day of school cancellation this month because of wicked wind chill. This morning, had my kids been waiting outside for the bus, the air temperature (-13) combined with the gusty wind would have made it feel like it was -45 outside. You know, colder than the surface of Mars. Exposed skin freezes in less than five minutes in temperatures like that. So we are staying inside today, enjoying a surprise morning of extra sleep and extra cuddles. The sky outside my window is piercing blue; there's no other word for it. The sun is crystalline and the whole world glitters like a diamond. A brittle, cold, sharp diamond.

But then again, it's January. I expect this in January.

Come April? It best not be -13 in April, with the snow piled high on my roof and bitter winds blowing from Canada. Because in April, it should be spring. Winter should have gasped its last by that point, and warm sunshine should be coaxing out the buds, and the birds should be trilling with joy.

I don't expect cold in April. Ergo, it makes me crabby when it happens. For proof, see pretty much every post I wrote April 2013.

Of course, my expectations were different when we lived in San Diego. Then, anything below 60 made me whine, no matter the month. Corey and I both laughed at ourselves when we were at an outdoor Christmas event in Balboa Park one year. We were shivering uncontrollably, even though we were wearing coats and mittens. The temperature was 45.

Which is the second tricky thing about expectations - they evolve. Life pushes and pulls them, like so many waves imperceptibly moving you downshore from your towel. It's wise, I think, to stop and notice this and recalibrate, when you can. It minimizes frustration and maximizes peace.

For example:

Because of Corey's travel schedule, I no longer expect him to be home. I expect him to be gone. This is huge, because I don't grouse nearly as much about solo-parenting when I view it as normal. Having him home is an added extra, a treat that isn't for every day.

Because of my children and their relentless desire to be with me, I no longer expect to get an unbroken night's sleep. It's been months, if not years, since I slept straight through. Thankfully, I fall back to sleep fairly easily, and maybe because I'm so used to sleeping with tiny bodies who dream they are punching kangaroos, I can sleep through a lot. I just no longer expect to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch.

Because of my own wrestling with God, I no longer expect to figure Him out or to "be right." I have grown to accept He is wild and big and, above all, boundless in grace and love. I don't expect a controlled God anymore, a God that can be explained and predicted. I expect awe, frustration, joy. I expect the opposite of what I would reason with my brain. I expect the unexpected. And I've never been so excited about the adventure of following Jesus.

What do you expect? It's an important question. And a good one, for a cold day in January.

A December to Remember

So winter quiets me. But you know what? It doesn't quiet my children. It doesn't mute my life. Winter slows the core, like sap in a maple. But it doesn't ever freeze solid.

All that to say: a whole lot of living happened the last few weeks, while I was transitioning from December's sparkle and bustle to January's possibilities and paralysis analysis.

Last month, we managed to buy our Christmas tree, decorate it, put the holiday lights on the house and arrange the front porch pots full of winter greenery exactly two day before the first snow storm of the season. (And exactly one day before Corey left for North Korea. More on that later.)

In a flurry of caffeine and sugar induced hyperactivity, the kids and I mixed, scooped, baked and decorated all our Christmas cookies - all 20 dozen of them - in one day.

Sadly, all that baking didn't preemptively burn off all the cookie calories. (And I still have some chocolate mint brownies, if you want one. I'm done.)

Christmas was more relaxed than it has the right to be. Our kids don't wake up at the crack of dawn anymore, and since we don't have tons of family in the area, the day was more about playing with the new toys, taking naps and walking together through the snow-covered neighborhood than craziness.

There was also a lot of laughter. I love that kind of Christmas.

And then we got even more relaxed. Corey enjoyed some vacation after his Korea trip. We got the backyard ice rink ready for business. We tortured ourselves with a 1000-piece puzzle. We slept in and saw "Frozen" twice and we went sledding and we had an epic snowball fight on an above-freezing day.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

And then we rang in 2014 with our annual cheese and chocolate fondue extravaganza. Because what we really need after a month of rich foods and extra treats is - cheese and chocolate!

Not pictured in any of the collages above: the whiny moments, the exhausted meltdowns, the cries of "I'm bored" coming from the middle of a mountain of new toys and the five or ten extra pounds left by the holidays. They were there, woven into the fabric of reality. But that's not what I remember when I look back. I mostly remember a Christmas break almost magical in quality. Corey was home for three weeks in a row, which hasn't happened since July 2012. We were just ... together. It was glorious.


The photo collages above were all created with the help of my favorite monkey on the Internet, PicMonkey. Ever since the demise of Picnik two years ago, PicMonkey has become my go-to for basic, easy and painless online photo editing. It's the perfect solution for people like me who want to touch up photos, maybe make a collage or add some text but who don't want to go to the trouble, time or expense of mastering Photoshop. The basic service is free, or you can pay a small monthly fee to upgrade to more editing options. Maybe my favorite part is PicMonkey's sense of humor and general cheekiness. Any website that has a monkey winking at me is alright by me, you know?

A few weeks ago, PicMonkey contacted me to see if I would share my love here on the blog - which I agreed to immediately, since I rave about PicMonkey in real life and I'm a little abashed I haven't told you about it before - in exchange for giving away a one-month subscription to their upgraded services. So there you go! I've told you of my monkey love. Now you get the gift.
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The giveaway will close on Sunday, January 26.

Winter Always Quiets Me

Winter always quiets me.

At first, it's a quiet born of distraction. December's hustle consumes. I am mesmerized by the sparkle, absorbed by the traditions, seduced once again by Immanuel made new. It's a roller coaster that allows no time for reflection until the ride comes to a end, gently slowing, returning to where it all began.

And then it's January, and I'm flat worn out. I'm satiated, almost gluttonous with the richness of the past few weeks. I'm ready to fast, to cut back and reign in. The snow falls fresh, and the hustle is but a distant rattle of a train long passed. The silence of winter is palpable, you can sink into it if you sit long enough. Even the busy thoughts - I should fold the laundry, what happened to that homework paper, maybe I should write something - get swallowed up by the stillness. Instead of doing, my soul listens.

That is a good quiet.

But there's another side to winter's noiselessness. It's the chill of apathy, the freezing fingers of fear. It's when the polar vortex of lies slips in through the cracks and works its way into your bones without you really noticing. All of a sudden, I find myself chained to the couch, huddled under a familiar old blanket, drowsy and dull. Goals and dreams have no power here. I am rooted in fear, not rooted in love, and I am stiff with cold.

That is a bad quiet.

Wisdom is recognizing which quiet has captured me.