Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken Soup

January. It's cold, it's dark, the holidays are over. This is the time of year when I have to reach deep to find my love of winter, when I have to replace my Christmas tree with an equal number of fairy lights, when I build fires and light candles and admit the below-zero temperatures do offer a compelling cryogenic nostril cleanse.

This is the time of year when I need soup.

And this soup fits the mid-winter bill. It features a creamy base, nutty, chewy wild rice, enough vegetables to feel virtuous without putting off the kids, chicken - and bacon. Because January demands bacon. And bacon makes all things better. Even, especially, winter.



Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken Soup

4 cups (32 ounces) chicken broth
2 cups water
3/4 cup wild rice
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup shredded carrot

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
2 cups half and half
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp poultry seasoning
2 cups cubed, cooked chicken
8-12 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2-3 tbsp sherry

Directions:
1. In a large saucepan, combine broth, water and wild rice. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer of 20 minutes. At that point, add the onion, celery and carrots, and simmer for another 20 minutes.
2. In a separate saucepan, melt butter. Whisk in flour to from a roux. Once the roux is bubbly and combined, slowly whisk in half and half and spices. Stir until smooth. Let it simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
3. Add white sauce mixture to wild rice mixture. Add chicken, bacon and sherry last, just before serving.

Tips:
1. My kids find the sherry flavor in this soup off-putting. So feel free to leave it out. It's still good. But I do think it adds that extra something, that unnameable umami, that puts it over the top for most people.
2. You want to add more bacon? DO IT. It only makes the soup better.
3. You can substitute milk for the half and half. The soup will just be a little less creamy. I highly recommend the half and half, but if are stranded in a blizzard and you have everything else to make this soup but that one ingredient. Fine. You have my blessing to use milk.
4. If you shop at Costco, buy their packs of cut-up rotisserie chicken for the chicken in this recipe. It's cooked white meat, already in chunks. You just need to go through and cut it into bite-sized pieces, and cut off any skin or gristle that may have gotten mixed in when they were pulling the meat off the bones. Super easy.

Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Gardening experts always advise: Don't plant mint. Or if you do, plant it in a self-contained pot. Because mint is the virus of the gardening world. It spreads easily, sometimes mercilessly, and it's almost impossible to control. It just keeps coming back until it's taken over.

I don't subscribe to the experts advice. Because I like mint. (And because I'm lazy.) So I have a rather large crop of mint in my backyard, that grows larger every year. Come August, the mint is a little smug. "You are so toast, lady. I'm going to own this yard in a few shorts weeks, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Enter this recipe. It requires two cups of fresh mint leaves to make this ice cream, which results in some of the lightest, brightest, freshest mint flavor you've ever laid taste buds on. And pulling that much mint will show your plant who's boss.

And if it gets sassy again, make more ice cream. Or just smile with the knowledge that winter will be here soon enough. End game, mint. End game.



Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
2 cups lightly packed fresh mint leaves
1 tbsp. vanilla
1/3 to 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Directions:
1. Add the milk, sugar, 1 cup of the heavy cream and the salt to a medium saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warmed through. Add in the mint leaves and mix to combine, making sure all the leaves are immersed in the mixture. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep at room temperature for about an hour.
2. Set a fine mesh sieve over a medium bowl. Pour the mixture through the sieve, pressing on the leaves to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the mint. Add the final cup of heavy cream and the vanilla and stir.
3. Let the mixture cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions. Near the end of the churning process, add in the chocolate chips.

Tips:
1. Your ice cream might end up with a very subtle green tint, depending on your mint. Or it might stay white. If you want that classic mint green color, add a few drops of green food coloring before you put the mixture in the fridge to chill.
2. I have a Cuisinart 1-1/2 Quart Ice Cream maker and I love it. This recipe makes the perfect amount for that size of ice cream maker.
3. If you're an ice cream aficionado, you will notice I don't call for egg yolks in this recipe. That's because I don't find the texture of custard-based ice cream to be enough of a reward for the work entailed.

Spicy Grilled Pineapple

Spicy grilled pineapple might be one of my favorite summer desserts. And that's saying something, because: Pie. Ice cream. Fruit cobbler. S'mores. Pie.

This dessert shoots to the top of my list because it's SUPER easy but unique enough that it impresses people. Plus, all that caramelized goodness on top of sweet pineapple? It's hard to beat. Don't forget the ice cream.



Spicy Grilled Pineapple

1 fresh pineapple
1/4 cup pineapple or orange juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves

Directions:
1. Peel the pineapple and core. Cut into long wedges. You should have about 8-12, depending on the size of your pineapple.
2. Combine the juice, sugar and spices in a small bowl.
3. Put pineapple in a glass container or a Ziplock bag. Pour marinade over, and cover or seal. Marinate in fridge for 1 hour or overnight.
4. When ready to grill, remove pineapple from marinade and grill over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, turning once, or until edges are brown and crisp.

Tips:
1. When shopping for a ripe pineapple, pull a couple of the crown leaves. If they come off easily, the pineapple is ripe. (If you can't find a ripe pineapple, leave it on the counter or the top of the fridge for a few days to let it ripen.)
2. Serve this with ice cream for an extra special treat. Top the ice cream with the extra marinade if you want your friends and family to weep with joy.
3. For a grown-up version: substitute rum for the juice. *hiccup*

Here, Taste This: Lasagna Soup

I am seasonal eater.

Perhaps this surprises no one.

I am drawn to the drama that plays out every day on the other side of my window. Spring's freshness and hope, summer's sparkle and joy, fall's glory and longing. And winter. Winter's quiet and reflection. Each season speaks to me of different flavors, different sensations. I revel in the rhythm of it. I don't want stew in summer, and even though I could technically grill in January if I'm willing to stand in the snow, something about that turns me off.

No, winter demands soup.

And this soup, my friends, is all that is right about soup. It sticks to your ribs, thanks to the pasta, and it dances on your tongue, thanks to the Italian sausage, and it is bright with seasonal veggies. (Carrots, spinach, I'm looking at you.) Best of all, it's a one-pot meal that can go from start to finish in less than 30 minutes. Just enough time to hide some fresh mozzarella in the bottom of each dish, slice some baguette and rinse some grapes.

Then sit down to a steaming bowl of the best winter has to offer. Maybe, just maybe, you'll give thanks for January.


Lasagna Soup

1 lb. hot Italian sausage
1 cup onion, chopped
2 cups carrots, cut into coins
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp. garlic
4 cups chicken broth
1 14-oz. can Italian diced tomatoes
1 10-oz. can tomato sauce
1 cup mafalda pasta
4-6 cups fresh spinach, roughly chopped
fresh mozzarella
Parmesan cheese,
4 tsp. thinly sliced fresh basil

Directions:
1. Brown sausage in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
2. Add onions and carrots; saute 3 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and garlic; saute another 3 minutes.
3. Add broth, tomatoes and tomato sauce; bring to a boil.
4. Drop in pasta and simmer until al dente, about 10 minutes.
5. Stir in spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.
6. Place fresh mozzarella in bottom of soup bowls and ladle hot soup on top.
7. Garnish with Parmesan and basil.

Tips:
1. The easiest Italian sausage to use in recipes like this is bulk sausage, usually found near the breakfast sausage are in your local grocery store. If you're worried hot Italian sausage will be too spicy (aka you're Scandinavian), it's fine to use "sweet," or regular.
2. Mafalda pasta looks like mini lasagna noodles.(I will pause here for us all to embrace the cute.) But if you can't find it - and I can't, right now - feel free to use bowtie or even penne pasta in its place. I often use campanelle, or bellflowers, just because I think they are pretty.
3. If you can find the fresh mozzarella balls known as bocconcini, use those for this recipe. It's easy to throw three or four balls of cheese in the bottom of each soup bowl and call it good. If you can't find bocconcini, feel free to dice up any fresh mozzarella you can find. It will all melt the same, and what we're after here is easy meltability. (Totally a word.) Every bowl should have its own soft little nuggets of wonderfulness.
4. Does the price of basil in the winter bring you down? (Plus, it's not exactly seasonal, is it.) Then use a drizzle of pesto in its place. You get the same fresh herb flavor at half the cost.

August


Summer is finally slowing down and stretching out, like long shadows on a lazy afternoon. June and July were energetic. Three different VBS weeks, baseball, family camp, drama, church activities. We practically ran from one event to the other, powered by the drugs of early morning sunshine and fresh cut grass.

But eventually, the adrenaline wears off and tempers wear thin. Structure, even fun structure, becomes a prison. And so we limped into August and fell head-first into a calendar filled with nothing but white space.

So here we are, week three of August. We have three weeks of summer vacation left. And I'm starting to feel my shoulders relax and come down from their perch by my ears. These are the days when I make plans with friends because the openness of our days scares me a little, when I let the kids stay up until 11:00 to watch family videos, when I say, "Oh, all right" when asked if they can have a treat after eating a paltry serving of vegetables.

This is the summer Sabbath. A time to rest, for sure. To recharge and refresh. But also to celebrate and enjoy the work of our hands. August is when I remember how much I like being with my kids when we have no demands intruding on us. It's when I treasure the simplicity of life as it is right now, when I have enough silence in my soul to behold it. Little ones in fresh-smelling pajamas. Connor and Natalie laughing over a video. The sound of lullabies competing with the hush of the trees after dark.

These are the days I wish August could last forever.

Coffee, Smoothie and Lucky Charms: Life at 43

I turned 43 last week. On my birthday, I posted this picture on Instagram.



It made me laugh - because Lucky Charms at 43 feels vaguely rebellious. But as the day passed, I began to think of it as prophetic. That breakfast is a fairly accurate snapshot of my life at this age.

Coffee: I know what I need. I am comfortable in my own skin. I'm not wasting any more time "looking for myself." I'm right here. I know myself, and I like her. Certainly, I have flaws; I have accepted that I cannot do everything I want or be everything to everyone. But I am OK with that now. I am done striving. I feast daily on grace. Give me this day my daily coffee. It's what I need to get through.

Smoothie: At 43, I am not who I was when I was 23. This seems obvious, but it's not when you are the one inside your own skin. It takes wisdom and observance to realize that age is happening to you. Change is required. Maturity doesn't just happen. So a few years ago, I stopped eating empty calories. I cut out obligations not suited to me, fighting the guilt that says "but you should; there's a need." I created margin in my life. I went to bed at night. I started to work out again - gingerly, after four babies. I gained new respect for my body, this physical frame that carries me through. I fell deeper in love with my husband. I started listening only to Jesus, and stopped craving other people's approval. I discovered what it's like to be nourished. My new way of life became less about what I gave up and more about how good I felt on this side of the divide. That's when change has roots. So now I start most days with a spinach-berry-OJ smoothie - not because I have to or because I fear gaining weight if I eat toast or because I want to appear Pinterest-worthy. I drink that smoothie because I love it. I do it for me, and for the God who made me.

Lucky Charms: I want to grow in wisdom and love and grace and truth. But I do not want to grow into a person who is dour and practical and predictable. Life is a gift. So let's celebrate! Have a dance party! Teach the kids to love Bon Jovi! Go for ice cream at bedtime! Love someone anonymously! Carry granola bars and water in the car to give to the homeless! Sing loud! Mourn with those who mourn. Laugh with those who laugh. Savor the sunset. Every dawn, a new party is laid before us. At 43, I'm done missing it. I color my hair aquamarine and purple, and I dance my heart out at Zumba, and I make no apologies.

This is good news for my friends who are 23 or even 33. It's your choice, of course, but life can get better with each passing year. Pain cannot dull the colors, loss cannot diminish the gift. It just grows more precious and beautiful.

At 43, I know what I need, I know who I am, and I've learned to savor. I'd say that's learning to love well.

Boo Your Neighbors: A Halloween Chain Letter In Real Life

You know what's harder than choosing a costume for Halloween?

Waiting for Halloween.

By this point in mid-October, my kids are whipped into a fun-sized frenzy. Costumes are paraded nightly, and their merits debated. Halloween classics are read (the Great Pumpkin feels less offensive in print), Halloween-themed TV shows are watched (our family favorite is the The Backyardigans - It's Great To Be A Ghost). At least three times every day, someone asks me, with an exasperated sigh, "Is Halloween tomorrow now, Mommy?"

Anticipation can be excruciating.

But fear not, gentle parents. I have a solution. Channel that pent-up energy and Boo Your Neighbors.




Under the guise of darkness, choose two of your favorite neighbors (preferably those with kids, but I imagine kids of all ages would enjoy this). Quietly creep to their doorstep and leave a bag of treats*, a You've Been Boo'd sign and an explanation of the game. (Both are below.) Try not to giggle as you sneak away.

And then watch and wait, as Boo signs mysteriously show up all over your street between now and Halloween.

It's like a chain letter - only with candy instead of a curse.

You can download PDF's of the the Boo sign and game explainer below. Or make your own! Use some more of your kids fevered excitement and let them go with markers.

Halloween Boo poem and directions
You've Been Boo'd sign

Happy Haunting.

*We all know you have an open bag of Halloween candy in your house right now. It's OK. No shame.