Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ramping Up My Recipe Repertoire: Spaghetti Bake (Yes, Spaghetti Bake)

You might not consider the humble spaghetti bake add-a-new-recipe-to-the-repertoire worthy, but when the man you love requests it, then there's no room for hoity-toity judgment. Plus, who doesn't need a quick, easy-to-fix, satisfying-on-a-cold-winter's-night recipe in her repertoire?

Not me.

Lower the calories and fat by substituting reduced-fat mozzarella and either lean ground beef, ground turkey, or even turkey sausage for the Italian sausage. If you can afford it, buy a chunk of real Parmesan cheese. The salty, savory flavor you get from a wedge - instead of the green can -- is truly noticeable in a dish like this, with its few and rather bland ingredients.

My husband gives this recipe from the Kraft Recipes website a glowing review. I'm not a fan of spaghetti bake, preferring my spaghetti tossed in a sauce, rather than bound together in a casserole. It's a texture thing. But judging on flavor alone, this IS good.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ramping Up My Recipe Repertoire: Crunchy Sweet Brussels Sprouts Salad

One of my goals for 2015 is to expand my recipe repertoire. The plan is to try one new recipe each week. I know that life will sometimes get in the way of my plan, and that's okay. That good news is, I'm off and running!

I've had Sunny Anderson's Crunchy Sweet Brussels Sprouts Salad recipe stuffed in a drawer for four years -- four years! -- and chose it to launch my 2015 goal.

In the Ford house, there's one criterion for judging a recipe's success: Do we want this again? It's that simple. If the answer is yes, it's a keeper; if it's a no, it's tossed.

We'll be eating this salad again and again. It is delicious...and that's saying a lot because I'm a picky eater. I would have been every mother's nightmare as a child, but not for my mom. Because in our house, you ate what mom made or you didn't eat. I hated Brussels sprouts...and potatoes, and lima beans, and cheese cake, and, well, it would be easier to list what I DID like. Brussels sprouts were at the top of my hate list. They were mushy with a stench that grossed me out before I even put them in my mouth. 

But the tiny little cabbages are so nutritious. As an adult, I absolutely WANT to like them. And because of The Food Network's Sunny Anderson, I do! 

The ingredients' list is short and sweet:

1 pound Brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries


1. Cut the Brussels sprouts in half, remove the core (two slices with the point of a sharp knife makes it easy), and thinly slice. Rinse and thoroughly drain. This is the most time consuming step. Once this prep is done, the dish comes together quickly.

2. Warm olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the Brussels sprouts, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Cook, stirring until the sprouts are bright and slightly wilted, about 2-3 minutes. Add the walnuts and cranberries. Toss to combine. Turn out into  serving bowl and serve.

I altered the recipe slightly.  I didn't have Craisins on hand, so I used dried cherries. The sweet is a nice contrast with the Brussels sprouts that lose their in-your-face flavor when their cooked. I'll use Craisins next time, just because I think I'll like their tartness even more. I also opted for roasted almonds instead of walnuts and will stick with that. Walnuts can taste a little too "woodsy" for me, especially black walnuts. The roasted almonds I used were lightly salted and delicious.

And the final dish is so visually appealing!

 I haven't yet chosen next week's recipe but that won't be a problem. Trust me: I have several file folders full of them, everything from pasta to main dishes, casseroles to desserts, snacks to soups. I'm leaning toward a pork chop, green beans, and roasted potatoes dish.

Come back next week to see (1) if I even made a second recipe, (2) what it is, and (3) if it's a keeper.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Eileen's Lime Jell-O Delight

My mom, Eileen's, Lime Jell-O was her signature holiday dessert. My sisters and I continue to make it and give it a place of honor on our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables.


1 large box of lime Jell-O (regular or sugar free)
1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple that's been chilled and drained. (RESERVE JUICE.)
2 small containers of heavy whipping cream
1 8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened (regular or reduced fat)
1 cup pecan pieces
1/4 cup pecan pieces for garnish


Pour package of Jell-O in large bowl. Stir in 2 cups of boiling water until Jell-O is dissolved. Add enough cold water to the reserved pineapple juice to equal 1 1/2 cups liquid. Stir into the Jell-O. Let mixture cool on the counter for five minutes, then combine the cream cheese and about 1/3 of the Jell-O in a blender until smooth. Pour the cream cheese/Jell-O mixture into a 13 x 9 pan and stir in remaining Jell-O, pecans and crushed pineapple. Refrigerate until slightly set. While Jell-O is in the fridge, whip the whipping cream with sugar or artificial sweetener, to taste. Don't use Cool Whip. Its texture and taste don't work in this recipe. Once the Jell-O is slightly set, fold in whipped cream. Refrigerate overnight. Garnish with remaining pecans before serving.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The REST of the Story

I don't know how many of you heard last Thursday's BLT, but somewhere around the 24 minute mark in that show, Lynne and I started discussing the WBCL House Build partnership with Habitat for Humanity. My day to work the Habitat Build was this past Friday, and I told Lynne that I knew I would need a hard matter what I was doing. Like even if I was serving lunch, I was going to need that hard hat. I am, in a word: klutzy.

Lynne EVER so lovingly named me Stephanie Urkelette and said I would have to shuffle around the work site all day saying {all nasally of course} Did IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII do thaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? You know:

I joked on air about how I would ABSOLUTELY give the day my best Steve Urkel if only I had a pair of suspenders.


I'm about to tell you why you should never "if only" on the air: because somewhere, somehow, your mama is always listening.


She fired off a message to me that she would be happy...HAPPY!!!! find my dad's green snowman suspenders so I could do this Urkel thing at the Habitat site.

What could I do? I had "if only'd" on the air.

And so it was that Friday morning, before heading north to the Habitat site, I did my best Urkel and made Ryan take a picture.
He asked why I wasn't doing this at the Habitat site, and I told him that I was far too chicken to GO dressed as Urkel. I packed all the stuff in the car and promised that if listeners coming to volunteer that day wanted to know where the stuff was, I'd put it back on.

He actually felt that was a really wise decision.

And boy was it EVER. I knew before I went that there were going to be over 20 volunteers at the site that day, but what I did NOT know was that not a single one of them was affiliated with WBCL.

They were college students.

All of them.

A class doing a service project.

Twenty-five college students and one Bekah.

When I came home and told Ryan the story of the day, I ended with Can you even IMAGINE if I'd showed up dressed like Urkel?

My face is red just thinking about it.

THAT would have been my Did IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII do thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat moment!!!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Write It Down!

I don't mean to bore you with yet another Italy story, but here's the reality: it was a Red Letter holiday on every level! So if you want to click out of the blog and get on with your day, boy, do I understand. I say go without guilt!

To those who've chosen to stick it out, I hope what I have to say is a morsel of goodness for your soul.

For our first trip to Italy, my friend Laura bought me a special travel journal.

I love the understated elegance of the simple compass/North Star icon. First day of that first trip, I logged my excitement with a sparse two words: We're off. Days Two and Three were also memorialized. Then...nothing. NOTHING! I stopped writing altogether.

That first trip was magical. But I don't remember many details. Seeing the David for the first time? That is seared into my memory. But specifics about reactions, responses, and experiences - mundane and monumental - are lost because I didn't write them down.

Fast forward nine years. 

We - my journal and I -  return to the land of my del Grosso ancestors. But this time, yes, this time every day is accounted for. Not as an exercise in legalism; but as an offering of thanksgiving.

September 16: We're off! (This appears to be my standard first day post, though I did add details about unruly preschoolers and their parents whose super power is the ability to tune out their progeny's whining and temper tantrums.)

September 18: Ponte Vecchio: colorful, bustling, BEAUTIFUL! Lit a candle at St. Michael's and prayed for healing for Perry and Joe.

September 20: Day Three of being 59! It's time to cook at a countryside villa...a white sanctuary with red doors and 360 degree views so stunningly perfect, they have the appearance of paintings. Leaving Florence tomorrow. MUST COME BACK!

September 24: Back to Michelangelo's church. An embrace of beauty. Reading Joseph's story in Genesis. He interpreted Pharoah's dream: 7 years of plenty, 7 years of famine...a famine so severe it would erase any memory of the good years. O, the importance of memory which is fueled and fed by daily praise & thanksgiving which brings God near -- though He is always present -- as He inhabits the praise of His people.

September 30: A spectacular fireworks display tonight, as if the city of Sorrento wanted to give us a special send-off. Ix-nay on the mousse-nay.

The Sunday after our return home, Doug and I met our traveling companions, Steve and Ellen, for coffee. They gave us a flash drive containing the 2,000+ photos they had taken of the trip. You know, just in case we had missed capturing something worth remembering with our measly 1,000 photos! As we were getting ready to leave, Ellen expressed a single regret about the trip: She hadn't written anything down. Oh, she has an iPhone and camera full of photos, but she's already forgotten the details of those twelve days., like my entry on September 30: Ix-nay on the mousse-nay. It means nothing to you, but for Steve, Ellen, Doug and I, it brings back hilarious memories of our final meal.

There were some nights, after a long day of sight-seeing (I know, wah!), that I just wanted to fall asleep reading my Kindle, but, instead, I made myself journal. And I'm so glad I did. Otherwise I would have forgotten the full accounting of each place. Not just what I saw, but what made that moment, my moment, instead of another vacationer's interpretation. And I would have forgotten the people: our tour guides including Nicholas, Carlo, Mario, Emilio; the toothy beggar who prayed with me outside Michelangelo's church in Rome; and the elegant hotel supervisor, Antonio, whose wife's ancestors, like my mother's, hail from the Azore Islands.

If the moments of an amazing trip can escape my memory, just imagine what common day gems I'm forgetting. Maybe it's time I treat my life with the same appreciation I treat a vacation and remember it in writing.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Make a List!

My first boyfriend and I began dating in college. We had a rather unconventional beginning to love, and practically nothing about our relationship was ever normal, but it's still a sweet part of my past, because it was the first time anyone had ever taken an interest in me and invested in me like that.

It is with a slightly red face that I confess we began dating as the result of the classic, "Do you like me? Circle yes or no."

Let me explain.

He and I had been "talking" for a while but had skirted that all-important defining talk, so we both bumbled about wondering how the other one felt and if there was something actually happening between us. It was all new for me, and I relied entirely on the advice of my roommates, who assured me that guys did NOT, in fact, "just come over" with gifts unless they were interested. {Mercifully they left out the additional detail of "especially after you answer the door wearing red plaid pajamas."}

One of my roommates was dating a prankster who took great delight in the awkwardness of our fledgling love. One morning, I returned to our apartment after my morning class, to find a note scribbled on the white board of my bedroom door. The note said, "Do you like me? Circle yes or no." I knew INSTANTLY her boyfriend was behind that note, and I cracked up.

Then I stopped laughing.

What if MY guy had stopped by the apartment that morning while I was gone to class and thought I wrote the note for him?

I do believe my face would have matched those garish pajamas at that moment.

I erased the note, but had no choice but to try to figure out if he'd seen it. Unfortunately I did not possess a single smooth cell in my being at that point, so the conversation went something like this:

Me: Did you stop by the apartment this morning?
Him: No, why?
Me {way too quickly, and an octave higher than normal}: NO REASON AT ALL.

Yeah that didn't fly. I had to confess and he ended up asking me what I would have circled if he really had left me that note.

{Enter the swirling notes of harps and little confetti hearts flitting from the sky.}

All of the above was simply for your entertainment. Here is what I really wanted to tell you;

I struggled pretty heavily with low self-esteem at that juncture in my life, and he made it his personal mission to try to help me improve. It was a monumental {read: impossible} task, but he was stubborn and persisted in trying to get me to see myself differently.

He was stubborn enough, actually, that he gave me an assignment.

"I want you to write 100 positive things about yourself," he said to me.

WHAT? I'm in COLLEGE! Do I not have enough homework? This could take YEARS!!!

He didn't give me years. He gave me until the end of the week.

Do you know how long of a list ONE HUNDRED THINGS can be? Excruciatingly long. I folded up some loose leaf paper and carried it around with me, scribbling down good things as they came to mind and spent more time painfully conjuring up things that could be deemed as good.

And then we met for a date in the campus coffee shop and I read him the list.

I have never forgotten that assignment. It was, I believe, the beginning of learning to love the girl God made me to be.

And I firmly believe everyone could benefit from something like this. One hundred is a LOT. But I would love to challenge you today to write a list of twenty good things about yourself. TWENTY. Write them down and look at them to remind yourself that you do have gifts and good qualities about yourself.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made - inside and out. Celebrate it!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hats off to Antonio Gatto

Vorrei comprare un capello. I want to buy a hat.

That was my singular request during our recent trip to Italy. Everything else was up for grabs; well, except for a repeat visit to see the work that brought Ephesians 2:10 to life before my very eyes: Michelangelo's David.

And not just any hat. No, I wanted one made by Antonio Gatto.

I'd read an article about the renowned and respected Florentine milliner who, as a child, hid under the sacred vestments embroidered by his aunts, “watching their fingers dance on the cloth," while memorizing how to do basting stitches. He's a sculptor of hats, transforming some of the most humble materials - felt and straw - into works of art. But that wasn't my primary motivation for acquiring a hat made by Mr. Gatto.

No. I simply wanted a hat that fit my head. Women's hats come in one laughable size: fits all.

Uh, no. They don't.

You need a hat to survive cold, snowy, blustery Midwest winters. One with a brim is crucial for protecting your eyes. I've made due with all manner of one-size-fits all chapeaus. Made due is the key phrase here because once I pull the crown far enough down to cradle my head, the brim is below my eyebrows, requiring me to lean my head back in order to see. This gives me an excellent view of the sky but not where I'm walking, which has caused a few embarrassing stumbles. Thanks to my amico, Antonio, things are looking up for the winter of 2014 because I'll be looking straight ahead!

When Doug and I arrived at his narrow shop, just steps from the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Pitti, we were tired, hot and sticky with sweat after a day of sightseeing. The store was empty. Not a soul in sight. Which hat would I buy?

Maria, Antonio's delightful assistant, returned from lunch and carefully helped me try on a handful of possibilities. Once I saw myself in the mocha felt charmer, the deal, as they say, was sealed...almost. I wanted a black hat. My only option was the mocha hat because Antonio makes one, just one, of each design. Using a combination of hand gestures, rudimentary Italian and Spanish, and the tried-and-true-but-totally-unhelpful technique a talking LOUDER, I was able to make Maria understand that I wanted a custom-made version of the mocha that was measured and cut to fit my black.

Next thing I knew, she called the man himself, Antonio Gatto, and announced that he was coming to the store.


These types of spectacular, perfect-timing moments don't happen to me. But on this day, September 18, 2014, my 59th birthday, I was graced with an I-see-you-treasured-daughter gift from God.

Five minutes later, in strides the short, compact designer dressed in caramel pants and turtleneck, sunglasses and cell phone in hand.

He's honored I want to buy one of his hats. Yes, he will make one for me in black but he doesn't have the materials in stock. He'll buy what he needs the next morning. Could I come back tomorrow night at 7:30 and choose a hue of black from the felt he'll buy in the morning? That will give him enough time to craft the hat before we leave Florence on Sunday. Of course, I reply. Before we say goodbye, he measures my head.

The next evening, a Friday night, Doug and I make our way across the Ponte Vecchio to old Florence, where Antonio's shop is located. Approaching his store, we see him sitting at his work table, bathed in the golden glow of an overhead light. We take a moment to simply watch him, this man who creates art that serves a practical purpose.

I was in for a shocking surprise: I wasn't there to choose fabric. Antonio had done that himself and had finished my hat!

He carefully placed it on my head and slid it, pressed it down into place. Oh. My. It felt like a warm caress.

“A hat by itself is incomplete,” says Antonio. “It is the person who completes it, by wearing it a certain way, giving it a soul and a personality.”

Dear Antonio. You don't realize that making hats is a ministry, but it is. It's a blessing of beauty and calling out the uniqueness of God's children, including me.

My beautiful 59th birthday memory is secure in my head. Better yet, it's secure on my head.

Dio vi benedica, Antonio. God bless you.