COVID-19 Morale Boost:May the 4th Disney at Home Day

After the success of our first Disney at Home Day, which I had planned very much on the fly, the kids kept asking to do it again. On our first day, we had park hopper tickets and visited all of our favorite highlights from each park. For subsequent Disney at Home days, then, I thought it best to divide them into specific park days. What would a perfect day look like at Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios?

The first thing I did was hop on Shop Disney to look for merchandise the kids could “shop” for. They had asked for Animal Kingdom first, because that’s our favorite park. And then I knew I wanted to send them to Hollywood Studios because we all love the Mandolorian and they’ve been asking for Baby Yoda/The Child merch. We have a Disney Visa card from Chase, which means I’ve accrued quite a few rewards dollars. I usually save them for the 2-3 years in between Disney vacations to spend in the parks, becoming our shopping budget while on vacation. But, since we were “going” to the parks, I opted to use rewards dollars to purchase the special tokens they would take away after each park visit. I always let the kids pick an item at each location because it provides something concrete for them to help hold on to the memories we made there. It’s less about what it is and more about the activity of picking it out while they’re in this moment and place and carrying it with them.

I was still thinking Animal Kingdom would be up first, and zeroed in on some merch for that park that aligned with some of our new family traditions. Then I pre-ordered a Baby Yoda plushy that I knew wouldn’t be released in time, but that would make a fun surprise later (who knows, maybe we’ll “visit” Disney Springs and go shop some more?). And lastly I found these customizable Baby Yoda t-shirts that I knew they’d love, especially after I added one of our favorite tag lines to the bottom. Score. I ordered everything, acknowledged the Shop Disney polite warning about COVID-19 and shipping times, and then thought we likely wouldn’t be able to enact any of these visits until the end of May.

I set about planning the details of the Animal Kingdom day, got that situated, and then plotted the Hollywood Studios day. Much to my delighted surprise, a week and a half after ordering these customized t-shirts, they showed-up on my doorstep looking all adorable and perfect whereas the Animal Kingdom merch was yet to arrive. It was two weeks before May the 4th (be with you), and so how perfect would it be to go to Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios on that day?

The kids still would have e-learning, but I knew I could build-in some “hotel relaxation” time for them to handle it, and we could also turn some things in a day late, if necessary. The kids’ morale and motivation had been suffering, and I’d perked them up with a “field trip” to the Starbucks Drive-Thru (oh how our standards of what constitutes an outing have shifted). I finalized my plans, made sure Brian was on board with a few details I needed him to help with, and then let them know that in a week they were getting a surprise so they had the joy of anticipation.

On the morning of their surprise trip, I woke them up with a shocked expression and said, “You guys! Our house has magically transported to Disney World! Wake up!” then let them stumble out of bed to discern exactly where in Disney World we were. They immediately caught-on and happily joined the pretend game, and discerned that our living room/dining room/kitchen were in the parks, and the bedrooms were our house back at the hotel, which after looking out the window we decided was our favorite hotel, Coronado Springs. We then had great fun laughing at the fact that Disney apparently employs cats to walk around their parks and greet guests now, as Charles and Kali (our two kitties) greeted the kids.

Here’s the basic schedule for the Disney at Home Hollywood Studios visit
-Early Magic Hours: Breakfast at Woody’s Lunch Box in Toy Story Land
-Score a boarding pass for Rise of the Resistance during
-Ride all Toy Story Land rides before Early Magic Hours end and lines are shorter
-Leave to go back to hotel (e-learning), but shop on Hollywood Blvd on our way out
-Reservations at Sci-Fi Dine In Theater with a special viewing of The Mandolorian
-Fastpasses immediately after for Smuggler’s Run in Galaxy’s Edge
-Shopping in the Batuu Marketplace in Galaxy’s Edge
-Boarding Time for Rise of the Resistance
-Dinner at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano
-Ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
-Watch Galactic Spectacular fireworks

Early Magic Hours at Woody’s Lunch Box
Woody’s lunch box features delicious homemade pop tarts, one of them being a Nutella-filled delight. While I didn’t have quite enough Nutella to fill all the pop tarts, I made sure to do 2 Nutella-filled, and then mixed more traditional pop tart flavors in for the other 4: brown sugar and cinnamon and strawberry jam. I had the Toy Story Land music playing thanks to YouTube and had already plated their homemade pop tarts, so that as soon as they walked into the main living area they would be able to guess where we were and join the game.

Homemade Pop Tarts
Yield: about 6

2 C AP flour
1 T sugar
1 t salt
1 C butter, cut into chunks but left very cold
2 large eggs (or 1 extra large)
4 T milk

Strawberry Jam
1/4 C brown sugar mixed with 2 t AP flour and 1/2 t cinnamon

1/2 C powdered sugar
2-3 T water or milk (to desired consistency)
scant drops of colors of your choice
sprinkles of choice

1 beaten egg for brushing the pastries

For the dough- Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the cold butter into thirds longways and then sliced across the thirds in 1/4 inch slices, leaving you pats–not too small to make your dough not flaky but not too big that it’s difficult to cut-in. Cut in the very cold butter just until you have large pecan-sized pieces. A pastry cutter will make this job so simple, but if you don’t have one use your hands, but work fast to avoid melting the butter with the heat of your hands. Blend the eggs with the milk until well-combined, and then mix that into the dough with a rubber scraper. The original recipe called for less egg and less milk, but I had to add more to get the dough to come together, and so I’ve reflected those changes here.

Divide the dough into two roughly-shaped 3 inch by 5 inch rectangles, cover, and let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. This will help the butter firm back up so you can roll the dough without flattening your nice big butter chunks (these chunks are what will make your pop tart crust flaky and delicious).

The filling- While the dough is resting, organize and/or prep your fillings. It’s easiest to do one filling, and really, I would have if I’d had the amount of Nutella I needed. If you’re making the brown sugar cinnamon filling, just incorporate the brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon together in a small bowl with your fingertips and set aside. You will need around 2 T of filling per pop tart.

Assembly- Generously flour a board. Roll-out one rough rectangle of dough until it’s about an 1/8 of an inch thick. Trim the uneven edges off to make a rectangle and set those aside. This is the bottom half of your pop tart. If you’re doing one filling, you can spread the filling evenly over the whole rectangle. If you’re doing multiples you can either spread your filling in thirds (for three fillings) over the rectangle now, or, if its easier for you to visualize, you can go ahead and divide your dough into sections and then spread the filling. I went ahead and divided my dough so that I could be sure the fillings would not mix once I topped and cut.

Roll-out the second rough rectangle the same as the first. Place it on top of the filled rectangle or rectangles, depending on your technique above. Use a fork to crimp the edges down to seal the edges. Be a little firm with it so you know you’ve got a good deal and no filling will leak out (this is most important for jam. The other fillings tend to behave a little better). Take the fork and lightly prick the top of the pop tarts with some holes to help steam escape. Beat an egg and use a pastry brush to wipe egg onto the pop tarts (this will help them turn golden brown in the oven). Place the pop tarts onto a parchment lined baking sheet and put into the fridge again for 30 minutes. I did all of this^ the night before so I could wake-up and bake.

Baking- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake pop tarts for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool for 10-15 minutes and top with icing and sprinkles of choice.

Icing- While pop tarts are in the oven, combine the powdered sugar with a teeny bit of water and whisk. You want a drizzle consistency, so you can add more water or more powdered sugar to get it right. Life the whisk and watch the drizzles running off of it to see if it’s as thick as you’d like. I divided mine to color it into three different colors (for three fillings), but you could leave it plain or just use one color. Go light as there’s not a lot of powdered sugar and the dye will be pretty vibrant. Once the pop tarts have cooled, use the whisk or a spoon to drizzle the icing over (or you can spread it if you made it thicker), then top with sprinkles and let harden. Serve.

These can be frozen–score!
adapted from this recipe from King Arthur Flour

Ride all Toy Story Land rides before Early Magic Hours ends and lines are shorter
Thanks to many YouTubers for their most excellent ride POVs. We have a few favorite Vloggers (most notably Tim and Jenn Tracker), but a quick YouTube search for “Slinkly Dog Dash Ride POV,” for example, will net you plenty of results. We like ones that show us parts of the cue at entrance and exit, as well, because it adds to the illusion. For Toy Story Mania, we used video game controllers to pretend we were able to steer and shoot, and it added to the fun.

Leave to go back to hotel (e-learning), but shop on Hollywood Blvd on our way out
Here’s the link to the t-shirts again. There were lots of wonderful choices for tees at Shop Disney. The kids were so excited, Liam ripped-off his pajama shirt and threw it on the ground so he could put his new Baby Yoda shirt on (I’d already washed them). Thankfully, we had a Disney Store reusable bag I could put their purchases in. We played Hollywood Studios Hollywood Blvd background music while I walked very slowly to the bag and made loud commentary about finding them the perfect item. The important part is to stay in character–if you’re having fun and acting like you believe we’re actually there, then they’ll follow.

Reservations at Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater with a special viewing of The Mandolorian
What’s more fun than eating burgers in a retro car while watching movies? I had thought we’d start watching Rise of Skywalker (we saw it in the theaters), but with e-learning, our schedule got compacted and so I opted for re-watching some favorite episodes of The Mandolorian. I asked Brian to help by making a cardboard car for them to sit in, and he didn’t disappoint. If we’d really been over-achievers, we could have painted some of the details on, but honestly, the kids loved it just the way it was. The important part was a windshield.

For lunch, I pulled chairs over to make it mimic the scale of the Sci-Fi Drive-In, but immediately after lunch, you’ll notice the windshield plays an important role in ride experience for Smugglers Run. We had grilled-out cheeseburgers a few days before this (deliberately planned), so I just had to reheat those and add more frozen french fries.

The big ta-da here, though, were the Baby Yoda Crazy Shakes.

You may recall I had bought an ice cream maker for myself. Well, I’m definitely making good use of it.

Baby Yoda Crazy Shakes:
Yield: 2 pint-sized shakes

For the shake-
3 scoops homemade or store-bought vanilla ice cream
2-3 T Hershey’s chocolate syrup (optional)
1/2 C milk (to desired consistency)

For the glass-
1/4 C white chocolate, melted
1/4 C sprinkles of choice

For the cookie-
Your favorite cookie, store-bought or homemade. I bought mine off Market Wagon. I have my limits and I was not up to making cookies.

For the Baby Yoda element-
I had Brian 3D print this from Thingiverse
What, no personal access to a 3D printer? Shocking. 😉 There’s some cute ones on Etsy.

For the glasses- Melt 1/4 C white chocolate in a bowl set over a pot filled with a few inches of barely simmering water. Use a rubber spatula to stir and stir. You want the chocolate to melt with residual heat more than anything, as if you get it too hot it’s likely to seize or separate. If you were extra fancy, you’d use a thermometer to make sure it’s within 87 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (called tempering), but we’re not that fancy. If it’s melted and not lumpy or gross-looking, it’s okay. Remove the bowl from the pot and set on a tea towel. Prepare a small flat plate with the sprinkles of your choice. Working quickly, take two pint mason jars and dip just the tops where the band of the lid would normally go. You may need to use the rubber spatula to help it coat all the way around. Lift out of the chocolate and into the sprinkles, coating all the way around. You may need to hold the jar horizontal for a few seconds, above the sprinkles, to keep the chocolate from running. Once this is done, set the jars upright on a baking sheet and transfer to the fridge to cool and harden.

For the milk shake- Scoop ice cream into a blender. Add any desired mix-ins or sauces. Add milk. Blend that yummy goodness.

Assembly- Pour the milkshake into the prepared and cooled mason jar. Top with half or a whole cookie of your choice. Put that adorable Baby Yoda onto your straw, and serve.

Fastpasses immediately after for Smuggler’s Run in Galaxy’s Edge
Smugglers Run features a team-play element, wherein a pilot, an engineer, and one or two gunners (is there a mechanic? I’m not sure. We’ve never ridden the actual ride) work together to get the Millenium Falcon safely on its mission, avoiding the bad guys as much as possible. Remember that windshield on our cardboard cars, well, it’s about to become the viewscreen of a space ship. Chairs removed, everyone sat on the floor in position (pilot in front, gunner on one side, engineer on another) and we aligned the windshield with our television. After loading a Smugglers Run POV on the screen, we each pretended to play our roles–steering with a video game controller, pushing make-believe buttons to shoot at bad guys, and pushing more make-believe buttons to fix the ship–while following the POV on screen. If you’re wondering whether this tricks your brain into thinking this just might be more real than it is, it does. It was super fun.

Shopping in the Batuu Marketplace in Galaxy’s Edge-
Because it was May the 4th, and lots of other things are taking place on the internet, I gave each kid $25 (just like I would set a budget if I planned to turn them loose in the actual Batuu Marketplace) and turned them loose on the internet, with the caveat that their purchase must be Star Wars and/or Disney related. Liam selected a Kylo Ren Fortnite Skin and Chloe got some special May the 4th merch in Roblox. This gave me some time to clean-up and finish-up some work I had to do.

Boarding Time for Rise of the Resistance
Because of our Early Magic Hours, we were able to score boarding passes for Rise of the Resistance (which is not using the Fast Pass option just yet). We reconvened at our designated boarding time, and found a good POV on YouTube. It’s a long ride, especially with cue entrances and exits.

Dinner at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano
I made a classic Italian-American feast: appetizer, soup/salad, pasta, breadsticks. The appetizer was frozen mozzarella sticks, minestrone soup, breadsticks made just like my pizza crust with garlic butter, but in stick form, and lemon pea shoot pasta (recipe coming on another post). The lemon pea shoot pasta was not classic, in my opinion, and a good meat sauce marinara would have been more authentic, but the lemon pasta is also quick and easy and I was tired. 🙂 I found some Italian background music on YouTube to complete it.

Ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
Such a cute ride. Like every other ride, we looked for a ride POV on YouTube.

Watch Galactic Spectacular fireworks
Of course we would. This also was searched for on YouTube.

What a wonderful day filled with good memories and happy thoughts and feelings. I think the kids felt loved, special, and excited; ready to tackle e-learning and sheltering-in-place with renewed vigor. It was exhausting for me, not the least because I was also trying to finish-up some important work in the pockets of time in the schedule. I’m glad we did it, though, and I’m excited for our next Disney at Home day–Animal Kingdom. Stay tuned!

Snacks: Crunchy Chunky Granola and Healthier Chewy Oatmeal Cookies

One afternoon late last week, I started making granola and wound-up with cookies.

It was a rainy day near the end of the spring semester at my university, and even while I had so much to do to wrap-up one semester, I was also preparing for the summer term. My email inbox was hopping, messages flying in and out and back again almost as quickly as I sent them. My head was pounding, and I hadn’t even started on the main item on my work to-do list for the day; and that item had a serious deadline. I needed reinforcements.

Or, refreshments, rather. Now that the entire family is obsessed with British gardening television, we watch it of an evening as a family, commenting on it the way others might a fashion show: “would you look at the size of that tomato plant; it’s beautiful!” “yes! shhh I think he’s going to tell us what variety it is.” “do you think he pruned early or late?” 🙂 While we enjoy our program, it has become a new family tradition to take tea, just as we watch our British gardening heroes enjoying their cuppas. So, naturally, when I needed a refreshment, I reached for tea.

But I also wanted something delicious to accompany it. Rainy, hard days are good for tea parties, but I was so tired and my head was pounding and the thought of even attempting something as simple as a scone seemed ridiculous. What’s something I just have to stir? I began to make our old standard granola recipe. I used to keep a cookie jar of it full on the counter for easy, relatively healthy snacks that could satisfy a sweet and/or crunchy craving. Liam, as a toddler, would always ask for “granilla,” as a special treat, and I was happy to oblige, knowing that it was healthier than other items on the “sweet treat” list.

Since the shelter-in-place order I have been making it again, much to the delight of my family. Except, something happened that afternoon. I did all the same steps, and then suddenly, I just didn’t even think. I acted on pure, refreshment-deprived instinct. I added a single egg and a cup of flour before I stirred in the oats and other mix-ins. Realizing what I had done, I then went for broke and added a touch of baking powder and some chocolate chips and baked them in cookie shape rather than pressed into the pan, as I would for granola.

Did I just decide to make granola chocolate cookies? Yes, yes I did. And they were delicious. So delicious I ate three with a cup of peppermint tea and that, my dears, is when the sun came out. Was it the cookies? We’ll never know. 😉

Healthier Chewy Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
Yield: 1 dozen

1/3 C raw honey or pure maple syrup
1/3 C brown sugar
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 C coconut oil, melted
1 egg
1 C AP flour
1/2 t baking powder
2 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 C sliced almonds
1/2 C shredded unsweetened coconut
3/4 C chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt the coconut oil over medium heat. Meanwhile add the honey/maple syrup and brown sugar into a bowl and stir to combine. Add the extracts, cinnamon, sea salt. Add the melted coconut oil and whisk. Then add the egg and whisk. Stir in everything else. Use a cookie scoop or spoon to portion out into a cookie shape on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, cool, and then devour. Serve.

Hull Family Granola
Yield: 1 half baking-sheet pan

1/3 C raw honey or pure maple syrup
1/3 C brown sugar
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 C coconut oil, melted
3 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1 C sliced almonds
3/4 C shredded unsweetened coconut
1-2 C optional dried fruit mix-ins (at the end after baking)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt the coconut oil over medium heat. Meanwhile add the honey/maple syrup and brown sugar into a bowl and stir to combine. Add the extracts, cinnamon, sea salt. Add the melted coconut oil and whisk. Add all the dry ingredients (oats, almonds, and coconut) and mix well. Lightly grease with coconut oil a baking sheet or half baking sheet. Press the granola mixture into the pan just as you would as if you were making rice krispy treats. Evenly spread it and push it into the corners (not the full pan if you’re using a full sheet. Just build a straight-edge at about the halfway point of the pan). Bake for 25 – 30 minutes. If you want a cereal-style granola, immediately upon removing the pan from the oven, break the granola up with a wooden spoon and mix in your dried fruit. If you want big chunks of granola “krispy” treats, wait until the granola cools before breaking it apart. Most of the time we forego fruit mix-ins and go for the krispy-treat style chunks that make for a satisfying, cookie-jar snack.

Weekly Recipes: Sweet and Sour Chicken

This recipe has been a family favorite for 6 years and is, by far, one of my kids’ most requested dinners. I originally found this recipe on Pinterest, and it was labeled as a baked sweet and sour chicken. While it is technically baked to finish it off, the chicken still gets fried in a little oil first. So, nice try, internet, but this recipe is not super healthy. Mind you, it’s not deep-fried, so it likely still is much healthier than it would be if you’d ordered it as take-out from your favorite local Chinese restaurant.

Since sweet and sour chicken is just darn delicious and crave-worthy, I’d rather have a version in my arsenal that can satisfy and be a bit better for all of us. Over the years I’ve adjusted it to suit our family’s tastes more specifically, but have still linked the original recipe at the bottom of this post. I hope you enjoy!

Sweet and Sour Chicken
Yield: 4-6 servings

2-3 large chicken breasts
1 C cornstarch
4-5 eggs (my eggs vary in size, but if you buy extra-large you may need only 3)
sea salt and fresh pepper
olive oil

1 to 1 1/2 C sugar (to taste)
1/2 C Simply Heinz Ketchup
1 C distilled white vinegar
2 T soy sauce (Tamari lower-sodium recommended)
2 t garlic powder

Heat 1/4 C olive oil in a wide-bottom skillet. Cut chicken into small pieces then season with salt and pepper, tossing them to combine. Crack eggs into a small bowl or tupperware and beat well with a fork. Put cornstarch into another small bowl or tupperware. Dip the chicken into the cornstarch to coat well, then place dipped chicken into the egg mixture until well-coated. Gently place into hot oil, only as many pieces as will comfortably fit with room for turning. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until golden brown, then use tongs and turn the pieces over, cooking another 1-2 minutes. Remove pieces to an 8×11 inch baking pan.

Combine everything with a wire whisk until well blended.

Assembly & Baking-
Preheat the oven to 325. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Use tongs to turn chicken over in the sauce and bake another 30 minutes. Serve over steamed basmati rice.

Adapted from the Life in the Lofthouse.

Garden Progress & Weekly Meal Plan: The Raised Bed Garden Reveal!

As I write this I am sitting, still in my pajamas, on our sofa overlooking the back patio. The door is open and I can hear all of the birds and wildlife. Overnight we had gentle, rolling thunderstorms that has blanketed the garden in dewy raindrops, and the sun, hidden behind the remaining clouds for most of the early morning, is just now starting to play peek-a-boo.

Yesterday we had, as expected, a very busy day in the garden. Temperatures reached almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit here in Central Indiana and it was gloriously and unapologetically sunny. Most of the plants I’d ordered for the butterfly perennial garden had arrived, and a few others were at a local store for pick-up, so yesterday was one of those brilliantly satisfying gardening days. You know, the day when all of the digging and wheelbarrowing you’ve done pays off in a big way; the kind of day when you start a day off with one view, and end with an entirely different one.

We’re still missing a few structural plants, such as boxwoods, and I haven’t gotten my spring bulbs in yet, but the bones are there. It’ll take time to grow-up, of course, but we are patient. The color palette is a mixture of soft purples and pinks with a few bright bursts of yellow and white, offset by green foliage in various textures and heights. Most plants in this border are either a butterfly/bee attractor, a medicinal herb, a tea-garden herb, or a culinary herb. I have a variety of spring and fall bulbs to fill-in gaps, and I will no doubt have too many plants for the space in a year or two, but can happily take some out and move them around the rest of the garden. That’s the utter joy of cottage-style planting.

We planted Fragrant Lavender Hedge Roses near the path and eating area, and are training an Amethyst Falls Wisteria to climb the pergola. Amethyst Falls has the same beautiful fragrant blooms as other wisterias but with a smaller footprint and a more controllable climb, making it perfect for this spot. We would love to keep the burning bush in the middle of the bed, but even after a good pruning he’s a little big. He may have to get transplanted to another bed. Two boxwood hedges will tuck in to the bare spots, mimicking the alignment on the other side of the path, and a meadow sage sits happily at the front with other perennials such as asters and daisies.

On the other side of the path is a Buddleia Buzz Skyblue butterfly bush, that, like it’s neighbors across the path, features a smaller footprint than other buddleias, making it easier to fit into our smaller border. The border is given structure by two varieties of boxwood hedges that will grow at different heights and mounding types through the center, allowing the long grasses, such as Mexican Feather and Lucerne Blue-Eyed to blow gently around them, and the perennials–purple and honeydew coneflowers, bee balms, and a happy mixture of bulbs I’ll describe in a later post–will pop in and out of the picture.

In the raised beds we have the Mediterranean herb bed at the front, in the sunniest spot. This bed features an almost 50-50 blend of pea gravel (what the Brits would call “horticultural grit”) and topsoil very lightly enriched with compost. Most Mediterranean herbs grow in rocky, poor soil with good drainage and a lot of sun, so it’s best to try to mimic those conditions in the garden. So far we have lavender, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, tarragon, and oregano. I plan to add a cooking sage (as opposed to the meadow sage in the perennial bed), and I’d love to get my hands on some winter savory, though I’m having a hard time finding seeds or starts. Oddly enough, basil will actually be happy near its tomato companions, and so I won’t include it in this bed, and I also sow cilantro/coriander and italian parsley in rows for a continual harvest, and have found those tolerate a richer, loamier soil so long as it has good drainage (which a raised bed does). I have also omitted mint, though I have several varieties, because those will be best kept in a pot to control their growth, as they tend to spread and take over. Other herbs I could add into this garden would be fennel, which I still might, and bay (though that tends to grow well as a small tree in a container if you can bring it indoors during winter).

The second raised bed is a second herb garden that has a topsoil/compost blend. It has two rows of cilantro/coriander and italian parsley, and then also features chives, lemon verbena, patchouli, and catnip. I’ve placed dill and chamomile in the perennial bed just below the raised bed, and have yet to get lemon balms and bee balms in the ground. Dill, fennel, and lemon balm all can get quite large, so I am trying them in the border. If they don’t do well, next year I’ll move them into the raised beds. I have space leftover in this bed right now and will find something, I’m sure, to fill it.

The third raised bed is the least filled as of yet. It has two cucumbers starting to poke-up at the back. This bed will feature our “kitchen garden” selection for easy grabbing while cooking–cucumbers, cherry/grape tomatoes, a pepper plant or two, and basil.

The final raised bed is our spring garden bed. It is sheltered from the heat of the afternoon sun, but gets ample morning light, which helps extend the season for spring crops such as peas and broccoli, and keeps our lettuces and other greens happy. Presently we have arugula/rocket, radishes, a small romaine-style head lettuce, spinach, and broccoli. Our peas are still under the grow light at the shop, but will be moved over to the homestead and planted out next weekend.

We have some odds and ends yet to do to have this new garden area be completely finished. I have to finish the edging all the way around, there’s still some staining on the pergola, and our brick edgers around our patio are still being set. In addition, we have our sights on the very old, not well-loved holly we inherited when we moved in. Given the formal structure of the raised beds, your eye goes straight to it as a focal point at the end of the garden, so we’d love to put a little more effort into that area. That may come next year, though. And, we are still on the hunt for a hot tub, but aren’t really wanting to spend a lot of money on one, so that may not happen this year (though I know the kids are hopeful). Each good deal we’ve encountered on Facebook Marketplace has featured a hot tub that is simply too large for our small space. We really only have room for a 3-4 person at most. If I had room for a 6-8 person hot tub, we’d already have one.

Next week is my birthday and Mother’s Day, and so we are ready to turn our attention to the main garden. It will get another good load of compost and we’ll be ready to start planting. Brian has a wonderful idea for the new fence, and we’re hoping he’ll do an arbor, as we have a climbing rose and clematis ready to go in that will help bring visual continuity to the two garden areas and also help attract pollinators to the fruit.

Not only is it my birthday, but it’s also May the 4th (be with you) and Cinco de Mayo. I have a surprise planned on May the 4th for the kids (so look for a post about that), and Mexican food is my absolute favorite kind of food, so despite not being of Mexican heritage, we like to celebrate a little by cooking and eating Mexican food (so delicious). I’ve got an easy meal planned for my birthday because–hey, it’s my birthday and I don’t want to have to cook something elaborate–and then for Mother’s Day I’ve planned an elaborate and hearty afternoon tea on the back patio. Here’s the rundown:

Weekly Meal Plan:
Monday = “Mama Melrose’s” — mozzarella sticks, italian-style salads, spring pea pasta
Tuesday = cilantro-lime chicken tacos, black beans, rice
Wednesday = tomato soup and BLTs
Thursday = leftovers
Friday = steak on the grill, sweet potato mash, big fat salads, cupcakes
Saturday = leftovers or maybe pizza?
Sunday = Mother’s Day tea — tea (obviously), chicken salad sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, cheese and jam sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, bakewell tarts, and some kind of delicious cake (victoria sponge? lemon? strawberry-rose?). Dinner much later, after our afternoon tea — Santa Fe Salad.

Throw Back Thursday: Summery Ground Turkey Stroganoff


Summery Ground Turkey Stroganoff

Ah Sunday dinner, that somewhat bygone tradition from yester-year, and one this family is trying to bring back.  You know Sunday Dinner, right? Cloth napkins, nice plates, candles, and a big family-style feast?  A time for everyone to reflect on the weekend, to talk about the upcoming week, and to spend one last family bonding moment before the hectic ways of modern life begin once more on Monday, where dinners may not be eaten all at once around the table, and where everyone may not even eat the same thing.

Yes.  So we’ve been bringing the Sunday dinner back – whether it’s here just the four of us or with my parents.  It’s a nice tradition, one that further grounds my kids to something more solid in life.  And that always makes me happy. 🙂

So, it’s Sunday evening right now, and as it happens, we just finished Sunday dinner.  Liam is presently and rather incessantly asking me for an apple, Chloe is outside riding her bike, and Brian is putting the finishing touches on our composter (FINALLY!! YAY!!).  I have cleaned the kitchen and put the food away and have found myself with a block of free time.

And here we are. 🙂  This recipe was yummy enough to share:

It’s turkey stroganoff! Stroganoff was all the rage in the 50s and 60s, then kind of faded away until Hamburger Helper picked it up in the 80s in box form.

Stroganoff is a very unpleasant food memory for me, so unpleasant that I only consumed it that ONE TIME, and indeed, it was the Hamburger Helper version of so many 90’s kids’ households. Suffice to say, it is not unpleasant because I didn’t like the taste. You can fill in the blanks, if you dare.

Alas, tonight I realized I had some nice mushrooms on their last legs and some fresh dill about to expire.  What’s a girl to do but decide to tackle her worst food memory and try to overcome it?

And overcome it I did!!  I googled several recipes, then pulled ingredients from other dishes of mine I enjoy with mushrooms, and voila! Eureka! An absolutely delicious stroganoff was made, and no one got sick.  Win!  Chloe liked it, Liam ate the noodles (which is why he wants an apple), and Brian and I pronounced it good enough to make again (which doesn’t always happen in this house). 🙂

I steered clear of the overly rich and heavy flavors of traditional stroganoff and took a lighter approach.  The result is something Brian labeled “summery,” so that’s the term we’ll go with. 🙂

Summery Ground Turkey Stroganoff
Yield: about 6 servings

1 1/2 pounds lean ground turkey
1/2 very large sweet onion, sliced thin
8 ounces of portabello mushroom caps, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 T olive oil
3 T flour
2 t sea salt
1 t black pepper
1/2 t white pepper
2 T brandy
1 T dijon mustard
2 T worcestershire sauce
2 T soy sauce
1 T lemon juice
1 1/2 C beef stock or water
1/2 C sour cream
1/2 C cream cheese

2 C uncooked wide egg noodles
4 T salted butter
2 T chopped fresh dill
2 T chopped green onions

Heat the olive oil and butter in a wide and deep skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions and mushrooms and cook until soft.  Add the ground turkey and season with the sea salt and both peppers.  Cook until turkey is done.  Add the garlic and the brandy to deglaze the pan.  Let the brandy cook out.  Add the flour and stir it around the pan for 30 seconds, then add the beef stock and stir.  Add the dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and lemon juice.  Let this mixture bubble about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring, to let it thicken and let the starchy flavor of the flour cook out.  Stir in the sour cream and cream cheese.

Meanwhile, heat a pot of salted water to boiling.  Add the egg noodles and cook 5 to 6 minutes, just to al dente.  Drain well.  While draining, melt 4 T of butter in the pot.  Add the noddles and toss it all around, then add the fresh dill and green onions and stir well.

Serve the noodles under the stroganoff.  Garnish with  more chopped dill, if desired.

Weekly Recipes: Lemon Honey Chicken with Herb and Butter Noodles

Growing up one of my favorite meals my mother made was called Lime-Grilled Chicken, and believe it or not, it was a very old Weight Watchers recipe from the 1980’s. Chicken marinated in a heck of a lot of lime juice, a smashed clove of garlic, grilled, and topped with honey-butter (though I’m certain it was margarine in those days) – what’s not to like?

When I had my restaurant, I created a version of her chicken I titled Citrus-Honey Chicken, and that is actually what I served to guests at Brian and mine’s wedding (our reception was at my restaurant, naturally). Lime was still in there, but so was pineapple and orange.

Eventually that evolved again and I made a Tropical-Honey Chicken with mango and passion fruit flavors. Truly, the possibilities for fruit here are endless.

Today, in honor of my beautiful Meyer lemon tree I just had the pleasure of receiving (dream come true!), we’re making Lemon-Honey Chicken. Same method. Different citrus. Still delicious.

What is going on inside my living room? Ignore the far right edge of the photo please. 😉

You can mix-up the sides, naturally, but honestly, the reason I served this at our wedding is because this was one of the first meals I ever cooked for Brian. He ate everything on his plate, went back for seconds, and pronounced it, “the perfect meal.” Why mess with perfection?

Lemon-Honey Chicken
Yield: 6 servings

3 chicken breasts, 6-8 ounces each
sea salt and fresh pepper

1/4 C olive oil
1/2 C meyer lemon juice
1 T meyer lemon zest
3 cloves garlic, smashed open
2 T honey

Honey Sauce-
4 T melted butter
1/4 C honey (to taste)
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t lemon zest (optional)

Combine all ingredients with a wire whisk in a glass bowl large enough to accommodate the chicken breasts.

Your goal is to make 6 normal portions of chicken out of 3 supermarket sized breasts, which are usually larger than portion-size. To do this, halve the chicken in butterfly-fashion by cutting evenly across the middle of it lengthwise so that you can get two distinct breasts. You aren’t cutting slices across the top, but rather holding the top of it with the palm of your hand and running the knife underneath your hand evenly between the top and bottom portion of the chicken. This will give you two even breasts. Place your breasts into the marinade. Cover and refrigerate several hours, or overnight.

Honey Sauce-
Make the sauce while the chicken cooks by melting the butter in a pan, adding the honey and lemon juice, and whisking until well-combined.

Assembly & Cooking-
I recommend grilling the chicken, though in a pinch you can place it under the broiler of an oven. Cook until chicken is fully cooked. Serve with herb and butter noodles, steamed peas, and honey sauce for drizzling.

Herb and Butter Noodles
Yield: 6 servings

1/2 pound noodle of choice, I’ve used everything from thin spaghetti to egg noodles
4 T salted butter
3 green onions, chopped or 1 t dried chives
2 T fresh tarragon or about 2 t dried
3 T fresh italian flat-leaf parsley or about 3 t dried
sea salt and pepper to taste

Prepare noodles in boiling salted water, drain.  Set aside. Meanwhile, melt butter in skillet over medium-high heat.  Let brown slightly, just about 1 to 2 minutes.  Add fresh chopped parsley, tarragon and green onions and cook 1 minute.  Add cooked noodles, season, and toss to combine. I will often drizzle the honey-sauce over my noodles, too.

The last bit to this perfect meal is simple steamed, buttered peas.

Weekly Recipes: Refried Bean Burritos and Spaghetti

My family knows I absolutely love rice and beans; truly, it’s pretty much my favorite meal (stay tuned for my birthday meal!). My family tolerates this love, and even participates to a certain degree, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm based on person or bean-type. Baked beans are an adult-only delicacy (which I don’t understand because baked beans are amazing), black beans are tolerated as long as they come with plain, steamed white basmati rice. Refried beans, which for years had been side-lined as “utterly gross,” and “inedible” by my children, have been allowed back into the mix. Chloe really likes them mixed into a burrito. Liam tolerates a very small amount of them in his mainly rice and cheese burrito. Brian and I feast on the leftovers for easy lunches the rest of the week, so I call that a win.

Refried Bean Burritos
Yield: about 6 burritos

1 C dried pinto beans
1/2 large sweet onion
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 t smoked paprika
1 t cumin
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 t sea salt
1 t black pepper
3 1/2 – 4 C water
olive oil

olive oil
1 C basmati rice
1/2 sweet onion, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and diced
4 ounces tomato paste
1/2 t sugar
1 t ground cumin
1/4 t ground oregano
sea salt and pepper
2 C water

burrito-sized flour tortillas, warmed in a foil packet
cheese of choice
salsa (optional)
sour cream (optional)
guacamole (optional)


In the Instant Pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and soften for 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeno, and spices and saute for 30 seconds. Turn off the saute function. Add the beans and water. Cook on Manual using medium pressure for 15 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally, or carefully release it, and use the slow-cooker function to keep beans going as long as you’d like. I like to do this in the morning and then circle back to them in the evening, but you don’t have to do this step. The beans should be cooked fully.

Using an immersion blender, blend the beans until they’re pasty. If it’s too liquidy for your taste, you can turn the saute function back on again and cock the lid askew and cook them down a little for 10-15 minutes.

In a wide-bottomed skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the onions and green bell peppers for 5 minutes. Add the jalapenos and garlic and rice and saute another 5 minutes, turning with a wooden spoon or spatula to keep the rice to brown and to keep the garlic from burning. Add the seasonings and turn to combine. Then add the tomato paste and water, stirring to dissipate the tomato paste. Cover and let simmer 20 minutes over medium-low heat, until rice is cooked through. If desired, you can stir some frozen corn in when rice is done and let set, covered, off the heat for a few minutes to thaw.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Make a foil packet large enough to hold your flour tortillas. Sprinkle a little water onto the tortillas and seal in the packet. Heat in the oven 5 minutes. This will steam them up and make them pliable and delicious. Remove the steaming tortillas and fill: first rice, then beans, then toppings of choice. Seal-up by folding the tortilla up and over the fillings, tucking it a little with your fingertips under the toppings, then folding in the sides as you roll over and up. You may eat it now, or for added deliciousness, place the burrito back in the foil and heat 2 minutes, until cheese is extra melted.

Ah spaghetti. It’s a classic, and one I’ve made and tweaked a lot over the years as nutritional needs and tastes have evolved. For a few years I relished in making a “hidden veggie” version, where I would jam as many vegetables–carrots, celery, bell peppers, mushrooms, and spinach–into the pot as I could, simmer it all down with the sauce, and then puree it all with an immersion blender. This was very handy when the kids were young and going through that phase where they’re suspicious of all vegetables except cucumbers. Now that they’re older, they love vegetables and eat a lot of them, so I find I’m able to focus my efforts on a more traditional red sauce. I like this one because it’s made rich by the addition of plenty of wine (you can add even more than the recipe calls for if you’ve got a bottle on its last legs that needs using). I no longer puree the sauce smooth, either, preferring the chunks for more texture, but you can certainly still do that if you have picky eaters hoping for a more commercial-style sauce.

I recommend Cento brand tomatoes because they’re the best-tasting store-bought canned variety I’ve found, but they are expensive. Sometimes this is alright (say for a special occasion meal), but other times spaghetti should be a cheap and accessible meal. Get whatever canned tomatoes you like. Often, when there’s been a good garden year, these are my own home-canned tomatoes. I can’t wait to get canning for this year!

Yield: 8-10 servings

olive oil
1 sweet onion, diced small
3 stalks celery, diced small
2 carrots, diced small
1/2 green bell pepper, diced small
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 28 ounce cans whole tomatoes (recommend Cento brand)
1 14 ounce can tomato sauce (recommend Cento brand)
1 6 ounce can tomato paste (recommend Cento brand)
1 C red wine
1/2 T dried parsley
1/2 T dried oregano
1/2 T dried basil
1 t dried marjoram
1/2 t ground fennel
1/2 t ground rosemary
2 bay leaves
a pinch of crushed red pepper
1/4 C sugar
sea salt and pepper

pasta of your choice, just remember to lightly salt the water
grated cheese of your choice for topping

Garlic Bread

Heat a few turns of the pan of olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Saute all of the vegetables up to the garlic 3-5 minutes, until soft, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and all of the seasonings except sugar, and saute for 1 minute. Add everything else. Cover. Bring it all to a low boil and immediately reduce the heat to a gentle simmer on low heat. Simmer covered for at least 1 hour (though I often let this go all day in the slow-cooker). Remove cover and, using the back of a wooden spoon, break-up the whole tomatoes by scooting them to the side of the pan and pressing gently until they “pop.” Keep cover removed and simmer another 30 minutes, letting it thicken slightly. Remove bay leaves and stir.

Cook pasta until al dente in salted water, about 6 minutes (usually a minute or so less than the package states). Drain and, if waiting to serve, drizzle a little olive oil over the noddles and toss with tongs to coat to keep them from sticking together. Ladle the sauce over the noodles, top with grated parmesan cheese (if desired) and garlic bread (optional).

Garden Progress and the Weekly Meal Plan: April 27 – May 3rd

It’s been a rainy Sunday morning, which has created a very welcome lazy mood here at the Homestead. The kids are out hunting for morel mushrooms in the forest after a morning spent tending their Minecraft homesteads (they each have their own virtual homesteads with gardens and maker spaces and I am so tickled about it). Brian and I are on our second cup of coffee. We’ve tinkered with the to-do list and the garden plan, but the sun is starting to peek out, so we’ll likely get to work here shortly.

Speaking of work, yesterday we were so busy doing work I didn’t have time to do a garden update post, so I’m combining it with the weekly meal plan post today. We shoveled out and wheelbarrow-ed around two full truckloads of compost: one for our new butterfly and perennial garden and another for the raised bed garden we bought for my parents, who are first-time vegetable gardeners. It’s a 12×4 raised bed, so is deceptively large. It took the full truck load and, frankly, could have used two or three more wheelbarrows to top it off. They’ll be able to grow a good amount without it feeling overwhelming, and knowing they have source of fresh produce during all of the chaos of the world right now makes me feel better.

Chloe and Liam helped us shovel and fill the wheelbarrow for both truckloads and I was so proud of their ability to stick with it. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m glad they’re learning how much manual labor and planning goes in to a successful garden. They were far too young when we put in the main garden to be aware of anything, and since then have only benefited from the rewards of all of this hard work each season–the delicious food.

The perennial bed will need a little leaf mould forked in at planting time to help with drainage, but should be ready to receive the abundance of flowers and herbs I’ve got planned. The bed will be a cottage-style border, but will retain some structural shrubs for year-round interest, and should make a striking visual transition between lawn and the more formal raised bed garden area. I hope to provide ample food for bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, as well as sprinkle in a few medicinal and tea herbs, mainly ones that I can’t squeeze in to the Mediterranean herb raised bed and/or cannot not expect to share the rich-soil of the other herb raised bed (but more on those two beds next week).

We will need at least one more load of compost for planting and mulching over as the season progresses because our own compost heap is not substantial enough for our expanded space (plans to make it substantial enough are in the works) but I do believe we’re nearing the end of unloading truckloads of things, which is very welcome, though my core is feeling a welcome burn from all the wheelbarrow-ing. 🙂

During the week, I worked on mainly cosmetic improvements such as staining and re-arranging on the patio. We were able to enjoy our first patio cup of coffee, which is our favorite spring, summer, and fall tradition. It just makes every morning a little bit better to be outside. But I did start more seeds in the greenhouse and the kids helped me plant-out some lettuce in our spring garden raised bed (so named because it will get some shade during the heat of the day, which will be good for more tender, cool-weather plants). This bed will be filled primarily with different lettuces, spinach, and arugula, but will also be home to our crop of peas for the year, which I’m hopeful do well in this location. They have always produced fairly well in the main garden, but for a very short time given how much sun the main garden gets (and heat, which gets trapped by the wall of forest and the house and seems to settle right on the garden. It’s marvelous for tomatoes, peppers, and chili’s, but less so for anything remotely tender). It’s an experiment and we won’t know the results until it’ll be too late to do anything about it this season, but that’s part of gardening–trial and error.

In just a few weeks we’ll be planting out everything else, and I can’t wait to begin the more restful garden work of weeding, pruning, mulching, and picking. I’ve already planned the menu for the biggest week of the year: May the 4th (be with you), Cinco de Mayo, my birthday, Mother’s Day, and Planting All the Things. Stay tuned for next week’s Weekly Meal post to hear more about that. 🙂

On the menu this week is more stuff I can make mostly with what we have on hand. I also placed an order through Market Wagon for some produce, so that should help. I told Brian that once we get our garden growing, thanks to the investment in infrastructure we’ve made this spring, the engine of the garden doesn’t have to stop. We can have our own fresh produce year-round now in a lovely cycle of harvest, propagation and/or starting seeds, greenhouse, and back again. It’s going to be glorious.

The Weekly Meal Plan:

Monday – roasted red pepper and sun-dried tomato pasta
Tuesday – meatloaf, mac n cheese, and peas
Wednesday – sweet n sour chicken
Thursday – spring minestrone soup and homemade rolls
Friday – burgers, baked beans, and homemade french fries
Saturday – leftovers
Sunday – salad bar night

Throwback Thursday: Sweet Potato and Turkey Shepherd’s Pie


Sweet Potato and Turkey Shepherds Pie and About That Long Absence….

Another long hiatus from blogging, it would seem. And while I can’t guarantee this post is the start of a new, more frequent blogging trend, I *can* tell you with some certainty that I think the valley I’ve been walking through for some time is finally ending.

I’m not going to lie: this past year was hard. There have been a lot of breakthroughs, a lot of light, a lot of love, but in it, at the core of it all, was healing. And healing, if its true, always seems to make more hurt at the outset.

I still tap out my thoughts every now and again in a book. Perhaps one day I’ll publish it, for most of them are not thoughts I want to delve too deeply with here. But for now, let me tell you that most recently I learned that I had begun to guard my heart in an unhealthy way, as if by building up a wall around parts of it I could keep out more pain. It’s something I’ve never done before, as I’ve always shared and given freely of myself, even when it hurt me.

But this part of my heart I had been guarding had to do with Chloe. It’s hard for a mother to admit, but I was, with the help of our therapist, finally able to admit to myself that what Chloe and I have gone through these past four years was painful for me. I kept pushing it down, because I worried that focusing on what it did to me would take away what it was doing to her and how I could help her. And for awhile that was true. I had to hone in and use every ounce of my intuition to chase every possible answer and soothe in any way I could.

But once the answers started coming. And the professionals.  And she started kindergarten. I was left with a shocking emptiness filled only with painful memories. I felt cheated – robbed, really – of all the fun things I’d wanted to do with her while she was in preschool. Things we couldn’t do because of her issues. I felt exhausted, just worn so thin from the fight of it all, that it rubbed me raw. I felt isolated. So very alone in this painful emptiness. And then the bitterness set in and became a poor bedfellow.

And the worst part was that, because Brian and I, while both incredibly strong, are also incredibly different in our strengths, we have disagreed on how best to handle and help Chloe through all of this. And that disagreement gave birth to anxiety, stress, fear, anger, frustration, and hurt.

Recently I had to learn to let go of that wall around the big Chloe section of my heart. I didn’t want to. I fought tooth and nail to keep it, in fact. And tearing down that wall was, in a lot of ways, the absolute most painful thing I have ever had to do. In the end, it felt like I ripped out that part of my heart and offered it up on a silver platter.

Yet in tearing down those walls, I gained healing. And I know that was part of God’s desire in this all along. I can look back on Chloe’s preschool years and find the happy and the joy, I can see past the pain to all the good it has brought to us. And I can be, for the first time ever, thankful for this journey. I would not be the mother I am, and she would not be the kind, compassionate, amazing little girl she is, without it.

And because I was healing and hurting, my husband – my amazing and strong husband – finally got to see past his own frustration at being unable to “fix” my feelings for me, and unable to “fix” Chloe’s problems for her, and instead for the first time really started to try to understand it all. And in doing that, we healed years of communication struggles between us.

So here I am! Unguarded. Free. Healed. Whole. Loved and Loving. And I’m ready to write about our journey again.

On a brief bit of news, we have re-done Chloe’s bedroom now, having taken a brief hiatus from finishing our entire home remodel (yes the kitchen remodel became “let’s remodel the entire house all at once), so I will write a reveal post about that soon. And, believe it or not, we are coming to a close on the bulk of the remodel shortly and I can actually reveal that soon, as well.

But for now, a recipe. I continue to cook predominantly dairy-free, unless it’s a meal made special for just Brian and I, and this one is no exception.

Over the weekend it was rainy and gloomy, and we had been working ourselves ragged trying to finish-up the pantry, and so on a whim, I just decided we needed some good old-fashioned comfort food. And it was delicious. So delicious Brian had seconds. 🙂

Turkey and Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie:
Yield: 1 8×10 inch baking pan – enough for at least 6
2 T olive oil
1 pound lean ground turkey
1 sweet onion, diced
6 medium cloves of garlic, minced
4 large carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1/2 C cut frozen green beans
1/2 C frozen peas
1 1/2 to 2 t sea salt (to taste)
1 t black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 t crushed red pepper (to taste)
1 t ground rosemary
1/2 C balsamic vinegar
4 ounces tomato paste
1 T worcestershire sauce
3 T brown sugar

1 very large sweet potato, peeled and quartered
3 to 4 medium to large russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 to 5 green onions, green part only diced
1/4 C Earth Balance Soy-Free Vegan Buttery Spread*
1/4 C plain unsweetened coconut milk*
1/2 t white pepper
1 t sea salt
1/2 t black pepper

*You can eliminate both of these for a good chicken or vegetable stock if that’s your preference. Or, of course, you can also use real butter and real milk if you don’t need it to be dairy-free. 🙂

For the Filling: heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add all the diced raw vegetables (but not the frozen ones) and cook until nearly soft. Add the meat and all the seasonings (salt, both peppers, and the rosemary) and cook until the meat is nearly done. Add the green beans, peas, vinegar, tomato paste, worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar. Cook until all the green beans have softened a bit – about 4 or 5 minutes.

For the Mash: Add the potatoes to a pot of salted water and bring it to a boil. Boil for 10 to 15 minutes, until very fork tender (you don’t want a stiff mash for shepherd’s pie). Drain in a colander and return the potatoes to the hot pan over the hot burner for 30 seconds to finish evaporating any lingering water. Remove the hot pan to a heating pad. Add the green onions, butter, milk, and seasonings, and mash with the beaters of an electric mixer not turned on until it’s almost fully mashed. Then turn the beaters on and whip it until fluffy. Yes, even if you prefer lumps in your mashed potatoes, for shepherd’s pie – trust me – you need them to be whipped. They should also be lighter than what you’ want for plain old mashed potatoes. We’ll get to the why of that.

To Assemble: Dump the filling into the bottom of a glass baking dish. And here comes the special part: Add the potatoes to an empty pastry bag with no tip fitted. Squeeze bursts of potatoes out into blobs, similar to a cupcake, on top of the filling in rows. It’s great if you have little ice-cream-swirl-like tips on the top. The more the merrier. If you don’t have a pastry bag, take a rubber spatula and just kind of frost it on the top and make some spikes, kind of like frosting a messy cake. Then you’re going to stick this whole thing under the broiler on high for a good 5 to 10 minutes – until those little spikes start to brown and the filling bubbles a bit. This will make it delightfully crisp yet soft, the perfect texture. 🙂 Serve immediately and enjoy!!

Weekly Recipes: Italian and Ground Turkey Hobo Dinners

Italian Hobo Dinner
Yield: 6 servings

2 packages turkey smoked sausage
1 sweet onion, sliced thin
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into cubes
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips
4 sundried tomatoes in oil, sliced into strips
1 14 ounce can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 recipe zesty italian dressing (recipe below)
3 T tomato paste
1/2 to 1 t sea salt (to taste)
1/2 t black pepper
1/2 t dried ground rosemary
1 t dried basil
1 t dried parsley
dash crushed red pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese for topping (optional)
garlic bread for serving (optional) (recipe below)

Zesty Italian Salad Dressing
Yield: 1 cup

1/4 C red wine vinegar
1/3 C water
1 t lemon juice
1/4 C sugar
1 T red bell pepper, finely minced
1 T sweet onion, finely minced
1 t fresh garlic, finely minced
1 t ground oregano
1 t dried basil
sea salt and pepper
about 1/3 C olive oil

Garlic Bread
Yield: enough for 8 servings

1 baguette, homemade or otherwise
about 1/3 C olive oil
sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
1 garlic clove, split

In a blender, add a piece of red bell pepper, onion, and garlic, then stop with everything else but the olive oil. Let the blender run, finely chopping the peppers and onions. At the end, open the pour spout and drizzle in the olive oil while the motor runs. Remove and store half in a container for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.

Assembly & Baking-
Preheat the oven to 375. In a mixing bowl, combine everything but the parmesan cheese and garlic bread and mix thoroughly. Spill out onto a baking sheet (you can place foil down, if you like) and then wrap foil to around the top, crimping the edges to seal. Bake sealed in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove the pan, carefully remove the foil, and let cool slightly. Serve with a spoon, including some of the tasty liquid into each portion, and top with parmesan cheese, if desired, and garlic bread to help mop-up the liquid.

Ground Turkey Hobo Dinner
Yield: 6 servings

Turkey Patty-
1 pound ground turkey
1/4 t sea salt
1/4 t fresh ground pepper
1/4 t garlic powder
2 T lemon juice (this helps the ground turkey stay moist)
1/4 t ground porcini mushroom powder (to add the savory umami flavor of beef)
1 T worcestershire sauce

1 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 russet potato, peeled and cut into cubes
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into cubes
1/2 C green onions, chopped
1 T dried parsley
1/2 to 1 t sea salt (to taste)
1/2 t fresh ground pepper
1/4 t ground white pepper
2 T olive oil
2 T butter, cut into cubes for dotting over the top

Assemble everything in a mixing bowl up to the butter, and mix until thoroughly combined. Spill out onto a baking sheet (you can place foil underneath to form a packet, if you like).

Ground Turkey Patty-
Combine everything in a separate mixing bowl until well mixed. Use palm-sized amounts to form into a ball, then slap between your palms to form flat patties. You should get about 6.

Assembly & Baking-
Place the formed patties onto the prepared vegetables on the baking sheet. Dot the top lightly with small pats of butter all over. Season one last time lightly with sea salt and pepper, and then seal the foil over everything. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully remove foil. Serve with buttered rolls or bread.