wednesday morning in the garden

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This morning I headed over to the (wet, again) garden on my own. The girls have been staying with their cousins and grandparents out of state this week, and so it’s been another quiet week around the house without them. The state of the garden is… green. Green and lush and dripping with moisture, punctuated with vivid colors – mostly pinks, yellows, and purples. They look almost neon bright on an overcast day.

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A year ago today, at the same time that I was roaming the garden this morning, I was headed into the second of seven professional exams. When I left the testing center hours later, I headed to the store to try on and purchase a couple of pairs of running shoes – my first real shoes post-surgery. I took my selections to my physical therapist the following day so that I could try them out with her and have her evaluate them and help me decide which pair to keep. I said goodbye to her that day which reminds me that tomorrow I really should email her with an update and a thank you for working me into her practice and giving me the best possible start at getting back to a life of activity, and walking, and now running again.

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I know that in the big scheme of things my surgery and taking those tests were just small things. They were challenging in the moment, but then they were done and life moved on. And although they certainly impacted my immediate family – first I checked out physically (walking, driving, cooking, cleaning, everything) and then I checked out mentally (studying eleven days out of every two weeks) – a lot of it was just me, doing the work, trying to reach the next goal and moving right onto the next one before even catching my breath.

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I spend a lot of time in my own head still – maybe I got sort of used to it, and now I realize that I really need it. I’ve always been such a driven person, almost manic at times. I used to be able to multi-task like that, but not so much any more. I spend more time really focusing on the moment and that’s made me quieter. And calmer. And stronger, so much stronger. I’m more comfortable in this place, in my own shoes. I appreciate those shoes more. I appreciate the work more. I appreciate the run more.

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let’s eat: on the menu, popcorn tacos

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If I had to list the most frequent question I get asked, it would be “Do your kids really eat the food that you make?” It’s sort of a complicated answer. The short answer is yes, because they do eat dinner with us every night, and I don’t make a separate meal for them. But they are kids with their own opinions about food, and each of them has a couple of particular dislikes that I respect. But even though E despises fresh tomatoes and F refuses to eat the yolk of a hard boiled egg, we still eat both of those foods with great frequency. I’m also aware that they don’t love their dishes as spicy as we do, and so I spice and sauce accordingly. And they also enjoy eating meat, so occasionally we have some on the table.

I’m really enjoying Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Eat. While I don’t limit myself to vegetarian cookbooks, I find that when I’m looking to purchase a book and find a spot on the shelf for that book, I get more bang for my buck with these. I always read cookbooks from cover to cover, and I love the way this book talks about the layering of components within a dish or meal. There’s a lot of freedom within its pages, but the templates for the dishes are really extraordinary.

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Plus, I knew if these guys were recommending it, then I was all in.

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One thing that I love to make and serve is tacos because it gives just enough freedom of taste at the table. These popcorn tacos were perfect for a Saturday afternoon. There’s no shortage of heat in this recipe, but again, the girls can taste and layer accordingly. And they never say ‘no’ to crunch and sweetness in a dish.

There are three components to this dish. First the popcorn: Add a splash of olive oil to a large pan and heat over low heat (I eventually raised mine to medium low.) Add 3 tablespoons of kernels and put on the lid. Once a minute you’ll want to really shake the pan to prevent burning. Once the corn starts to pop, pay close attention; when the popping has stopped, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool.

Mix the popcorn spices together: 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and 1 Tablespoon of honey or agave syrup. Warm them up in a small pan on the stove until combined; toss with the popcorn until it’s coated.

Caramelized Corn: Cut the kernels off four corn cobs. (I always do this on a rimmed baking sheet to try and curb the mess!) Heat some olive oil in a pan and fry the kernels until charred and caramelized, about 5-10 minutes. Add the following to the charred kernels: the zest and juice from one lime, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (go less, for less heat), 1 red or green chile, finely chopped, and salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and stir in a tablespoon of plain yogurt or crème fraîche. (You’ll want an additional 1/4 – 1/2 cup of yogurt or crème fraîche for serving with the tacos.)

Peel two avocados and small dice the flesh. Squeeze a little lime juice over the top of the pieces.

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Taco time! Warm 8 small or 4 large corn or wheat tortillas. Divide the corn kernels between the tortillas and top with the following: a spoonful of yogurt or crème fraîche, some avocado, some crumbled feta (I used cotija because I had some on hand), and a pinch of chopped cilantro. Scatter the spiced popcorn over the top, and enjoy! The flavors here are really incredible, and the spicy, sweet popcorn adds the perfect ending note. And no one ever complains about watermelon on the side. Summer Saturday lunch at its best.

anti-manifesto summer

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It feels like June has flown by. With July lurking just around the bend, I thought I’d look back at this first month of summer to see how we’re doing at making summer feel like summer. I wrote a little about that here, but I thought I’d expand a little bit more on how we’re trying to do this in small ways for these three months.

Putting big things on the calendar. We’re really great at thinking about all the things we’d like to do around town, but if we don’t actually make a list or purchase tickets or save the date on our calendar then it doesn’t always happen. There are so many great summer activities around town that help us mark the season – and in doing that, they also help us mark time with the girls. During intermission at Circus Flora we talk about acts from previous years and compare them to the current show. On the way to Busch Stadium, F wears the same Cardinals baseball cap (with ladybugs on it) that we bought for E at one of her earliest baseball games. When the girls are older and off doing their own things, I hope the sounds of a baseball stadium or the sight of a big red circus tent will bring back strong memories of their summers spent here.

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Picking a weekly (or bi-weekly) tradition, and sticking to it. Sometimes I have to fight off the feeling that because M and I work full time, year round, the kids don’t really get a “true” summertime experience – sleeping-in kind of mornings, lazy days at home, long afternoons in the backyard or at the pool. Even though classes are over, they still have to get up and out the door in the morning, and family time happens in the evenings when we still have to make dinner, get lunches together for the next day, and do all the chores that don’t get done over the course of the day. One thing we’re trying is to break up that morning routine a couple of times a week at the garden. Yes, it’s early, and yes, they’d probably also enjoy the extra sleep, but despite the extra effort it takes to make those morning walks happen, while they are happening we’re in a different mode completely. It feels like summer, and they are watching the season unfold right in front of them.

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Getting wet as much as possible. Every year we toss around the idea of purchasing a pool pass until we realize that it doesn’t really make sense – we’d never get enough use out of it. But that doesn’t stop us from getting wet, and we try to beat the heat as much as possible at some of the great public fountains and splash gardens around the city. It’s also a great place to meet up with friends and get soaked together. The fountains at Tower Grove Park are our favorite, just steps away from the farmers’ market and live Saturday morning music from KDHX.

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Learning doesn’t stop during the summer. There are so many ways to learn and grow around this city, and most of them are free. Weeknights and weekends can easily fill up with errands and chores, but we’re trying to take the long way home as much as possible – past libraries and laboratories.

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Reframe the idea of work. It’s VERY easy to let work be the scapegoat, especially in the summer. I try to watch my words, and not complain about long hours in the office that keep me from lounging poolside with a juicy novel and tall glass of lemonade. Because right behind the complaining lurks guilt, and I’m fighting that word off with all my power. Work is important too, and in the summer there are more opportunities to share that with the girls, so we try our best to do just that.

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Party on a weeknight. And the biggest (little) thing we do is our Thursday Night Blues get togethers in our front yard. M came up with the idea a few years ago, and they’ve steadily grown in size. Blues City Deli is located on the opposite corner from our house. It’s a really, really popular lunch spot six days a week, but it’s only open for dinner on Thursday nights when they serve up sandwiches and live blues from 6pm-8pm. The place has a very devoted following, and the crowds spill out of the tiny restaurant onto the sidewalks and street. The front door stays open and the music filters out into the neighborhood. It seemed like an easy and natural way to invite friends and neighbors over to our place – the energy on our block is really nice on those nights.

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To be honest, I’m not really a natural host. I love the idea of having people over to hang out, but I’m really more of an introvert who likes the quiet and escape of home. I also get really caught up in the idea that our house doesn’t feel like a house made for entertaining. Which is what made this idea such a good one. The house doesn’t have to be super clean, the vibe stays very casual, and with an open invitation out there, we’re never sure if there will be eight of us in the yard or thirty-eight of us (like last night). We put out a bucket of ice and pull out an assortment of drinks from the fridge, open up a few bags of chips, slice up a watermelon, spray on some bug spray, and relax for a few minutes after a long week at work. The girls start in on the sidewalk chalk designs and F tries to convince us that frisbee is a great sport for our miniature lawn.

And then people show up – a steady stream of them – with lawn chairs on their shoulders and a bag of something to share. We don’t really have to do much hosting – everyone comes ready to meet someone new so the whole evening is filled with introductions and conversations on any number of topics. The kids spill out onto the main sidewalk and outline the rules of some game or another. The bucket of ice stays filled with drinks no matter how many people show up – last night one family walked up with the pitcher from their blender filled with freshly made gazpacho that everyone slurped down from plastic cups because we don’t even think of putting out spoons.

The only early prep I do is make ice cream, a rotating selection of flavors each week. Luckily I made four batches this week because we were cleaned out. Few things give me greater joy than watching kids eating beet ice cream!

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Last night the skies opened up midway through our gathering, so we moved everything inside. Perhaps you’ve seen my favorite white couch in my living room? The room where all food is banned? And my lovely marble table and those newly recovered chairs? Within five minutes every surface was draped with children – eating BBQ! and Doritos! and beet ice cream! and watermelon! And you know what? It was all good. Even E commented on how chill I was! (Although I did nix the idea of housewide hide-and-seek.)

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After everyone leaves, the four of us put everything away. It’s dark and the rains have stopped for a moment and the sink is full of push pop containers and I’m grateful for this little corner of our neighborhood, and for such funny, intelligent friends, and so glad that it’s finally summer.

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