The Invisible Elephant Saga, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zoo

On Tuesday I’ll be 33. According to some think tank in the UK, that’s the age most people report to have been the happiest.

I certainly plan on doing my best to support that position with the help of some silly, smart, spectacular people in my life. Several of those people accompanied me to the Omaha Zoo on Saturday, a trip that’s been on my “Midwestern Bucket List” for some time.

The zoos of today are a far cry from the rows of caged, stressed out animals from my youth. Zoos are heavily involved in education and conservation and have made many improvements in their animal display areas.

One such improvement is adding in more space – more space for the animals as well as more space in between them. And that means more walking for us, which, in most cases, we can totally use.

The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha is a great sprawl of a place. When we arrived we were instantly dwarfed by the huge desert dome at the front. Inside the dome, I stood face-to-flapping-wings with a cave full of hundreds of bats. I walked through a dark swamp with alligators and nutria and felt like I was back at home in Southeast Texas. (Not that I ever actually walked through a dark swamp there. Alligators don’t tickle when you disturb their naps, even if you try to pacify them with marshmallows.)

We visited giant apes, some who were curious about us…

And some who were too busy contemplating the complexities of life to bother with our stares.

*Sidenote: Have you ever looked into a gorilla’s eyes? I got to, and the intelligence behind them was almost overwhelming. I wanted to hug this guy and tell him I loved him. I figure he’s not a hugger though, and I get that.

We took a little time to let our Monkey attend to some, uh, monkey business. He was in such a mood all morning, wanting nothing more than to be left alone in his wagon to eat. He ate nonstop for the first two hours of the visit, but eventually wanted to get out and look around.

Now here is where the aforementioned saga actually begins.

The entire first couple of hours at the zoo were spent in a descent through ramps and elevators, through the desert and swamp and apes and all, until we reached this guy.

At first it looks like he’s all, “Hai! I’m a bear!” but really he’s laughing at us. He’s laughing his dirty bear butt off because he knows what comes next.

The zoo map tells us that up the hill are rhinos and elephants and sea lions, oh my. The kids want to see all these fantastic creatures and so do we, so up the hill we hike.

We see the rhinos, muddy and quite fat. We watch the sea lions swim around in their pool and wish we could jump in because the temperatures are climbing. Then we begin the trek up yet another hill to see the elephants.

Only, the elephants aren’t there. Instead there’s a pretty sign that announces, “Future Elephant Site.”

By now we’re hot and sweaty and pissed because nobody likes invisible elephants. They’re useless. Our friend Tyson quipped that all of Nebraska must be uphill and it occurred to me later that this must be where all of our grandparents lived when they had to walk to school.

Monkey studied the map for awhile as we took a break to recover from the hill hike. I love his friends’ faces here. You cannot imagine the immensity of the effs they do not give at this point.

One of the older members of our crew, obviously seasoned in the ways of the zoo, suggested a train ride so we could rest our haunches and cool off.

I could have hugged this man. Not only did he do most of the pulling of the children up the hills in the wagon, but he saved our sorry selves with that suggestion.

The train route took us back up the hill so we got to enjoy the sights without huffing and puffing.

Little prairie dogs scurried up out of their burrows alongside us to stare as we chugged past. Monkey and I snuggled, waved at them and mugged for the camera.

When we left the train, we were reinvigorated and ready to finish our trip. But then the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees and it looked like it might storm, so the entire visiting population of the zoo crowded into the aquarium.

Our reactions to the massive mob were quite different. Some of us (the smart ones) moved quickly through and ended up on the other end enjoying sno cones.

I was not one of the smart ones, and ended up in a human traffic jam with my little six-year-old sidekick. We made the best of it though and got to see monster crabs, deadly jellyfish and happy stingrays.

One of our crew didn’t make it through though. Yup, that’s my kid, passed smooth out in his wagon where he stayed until we picked him up to put him in his carseat. Homedude was done, y’all.

The best days are those where you’re too tired to walk at the end, but you have a head full of memories and a disc full of pictures that will always remind you that you’re loved. Thank you Greta, Tyson, Henry, Ivy, Essie, Ervin, Maggie and Jim for joining my family as we visited all the wild and wonderful creatures Omaha had to offer.

Now, can someone please tell me WTF this is?

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In the Kitchen: Meal Planning with Pinterest

By now I’m sure most of you are using Pinterest, if for nothing else than to amass a large collection of obnoxious Someecards.

Or maybe that’s just me?

Pinterest is useful for other things too though, like meal planning. Since I tend to Pin links to recipes all willy nilly, it can be daunting to go dig back through them each evening for a particular link. So, I’ve begun making a weekly menu that has helped keep me organized.

On grocery day I browse through my collection on my Kitchen board, then re-pin any recipes I want to use for that week on my This Week’s Menu board. I make my shopping list from there.

When it comes time to prep a meal, I can access everything with just my phone in the kitchen. This is a vast improvement over the days when I used to haul my laptop in there and try to find a safe place for it among the splatters. Oh, and hey, who remembers those things called cook “books.” So quaint.

Using the Pinterest app for the iPhone, I go to my boards.

If I just selected Kitchen, I’d have to dig around for my recipe. Oh look, I pinned nothing but carbs. How…usual.

This is where This Week’s Menu comes in handy again with its much smaller selection.

There it is, there’s the Pin for the shells I want to make.

When I tap on the Pin, it takes me to the website where the original recipe was posted. (If I’ve Pinned it correctly, that is. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

I can even use my phone to take photographs of the food, although I really should take a class in food photography and presentation, ‘cause mine never turn out quite as pretty as the inspiration.

But it still tastes pretty great, so that’ll do. That’ll do.

*If you’re not on Pinterest yet and are looking for a tutorial, may I direct you here or here. Or you can just find me on Twitter or Facebook and I can help walk you through. It’s a great tool for organization and inspiration and doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as some might make it out to be.

In the Kitchen: Lasagna soup

Y’all, I’m changing Monday Meals over to “Soup’s On” Sunday. I’m doing this for several reasons. One, so I can participate in Stasha’s Monday Listicles, and two because, well, because I can!

Oh, the joys of being your own boss.

(For those of you who’ve never heard the saying, “Soup’s on” is just a way to call people to the table for dinner.)

I came across this recipe for Low-Fat Lasagna soup on Pinterest. I’m not a real big fan of low-fat anything, but I figured this would be a good start to my own version of the soup.

(It’s really more like a spaghetti sauce with broken-up lasagna noodles in it, but I’m forbidden to serve spaghetti around here since my husband claims it’s all he he was fed growing up and he’s sick of it, so this is the closest I can get. If you’d like to make it soupier, increase the chicken stock to 40 oz, or cook the lasagna noodles separately, drain and add them.)

In my version, I replaced the turkey and sausage with ground round, spiced it up with some red pepper flakes, and added onion because the smell of sautéing onion makes me very happy. If Scentsy made a “sautéed vegetables” bar, I’d be all over that.

Although I’m fond of the “lazy spaghetti sauce” my mother-in-law used to make for us without fail every time we’d visit, I think I’m going to trade in the can-of-rotel-can-of-tomato-sauce-packet-of-spaghetti-seasoning cheat and go with this from now on.

Lasagna Soup (serves 4)

1 lb ground round
1 small onion, diced finely
1 green bell pepper, diced finely
2 cloves garlic
1 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes
32 oz chicken stock
8 uncooked lasagna noodles, broken into small pieces
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp basil
1 tbsp oregano
red pepper flakes to taste
salt
pepper
cheese, your choice (mozzerella, parmesan, even ricotta)

In a large pot, combine the stock, tomatoes and seasonings. I like my food heavily seasoned, so you can adjust your measurements according to your taste. Bring to a boil and then simmer on low for 15 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, brown the meat, stirring in the vegetables about halfway through. Drain the meat mixture and set aside.

Bring the sauce up to a boil again, and drop in the noodles. Stir frequently until the noodles are soft, then stir in the meat mixture.

Give it another five minutes or so to meld the flavors. Stir in chunks of ricotta here if you like it. (I don’t, so I left it out. Smells like feet. Not a fan.)

Scoop a serving of soup out into a large bowl. Sprinkle your choice of cheese on top, then cover with a plate (or give it a couple of minutes under a broiler) to melt the cheese.

Goes great with garlic bread and could be easily double/tripled for a crowd.

When mom and dad let you down

It’s Wednesday evening and I’m pulling ingredients for dinner out of cabinets and drawers. I’m going to attempt chicken fried steak again, my old nemesis. I tick things off the checklist in my head.

Monkey stands at the gate to the kitchen, doing his Stewie routine.

“Mom. Mom. Mama. Mommy. Mom.”

“Yes?” I ask, distracted by the task at hand.

“Cheeto please,” he says.

“No, mama is making dinner,” I reply.

He frowns at me, dimples disappearing. His brow furrows. He walks off to entreat his father.

“Dada. Dada. Dada.”

“What can I do for you, son?” his father asks.

The request is the same.

“Cheeto please.”

“No, Mama told you, she is making dinner,” his father says.

Twice denied, Monkey plops down on the floor. He’s considering his options. He could whine, but that never does any good anyway. He could go get the Cheetos himself, but that gate is proving to be quite the deterrent.

Hm. OH! That’s right. That’s how you get the Cheetos. That never fails.

The revelation brightens his features, the dimples return. He stands up, takes a deep breath and puts on his most charming smile.

“Dada, call MawMaw.”

Red Dragon, Lunchmeat and why there won’t be a Monday Meals Post

I want to tell you about that time that I purposefully placed turkey cold cuts on my face.

That time was yesterday.

It started out as a great day. I kissed my boys goodbye that morning and headed to meet my friend Greta for lunch and girl time.

I enjoyed a fruity Blue Moon and a spicy Red Dragon roll while GFunk and I chatted about family and future plans.

She gave me my birthday present, a really cool bird’s nest necklace that she made herself. No one has ever made me jewelry before. I totally love her. She’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, both inside and out. Also, she’s hilarious after a cocktail.

After negotiations with my husband via phone, I managed to eke out a few more hours to hang with my pal, so we went to see The Five Year Engagement.

Y’all, I’ve never watched a more awkward movie in my life. Maybe that was the point? I don’t know. The previews were good though. Ted? The talking teddy bear? I’m so there for that movie. And the Judd Apatow flick that’s like the sequel to Knocked Up? Hilarious. Can’t wait.

Anyway.

About an hour into the movie, I started to feel weird. My throat got really dry. My head started pounding. Eventually I had to excuse myself to drive home so my husband could make it to work on time.

The drive across town was miserable. My face felt like it was ballooning out. The road kept blurring.

But I made it, and walked into the house where hubs handed over kid duties, kissed me goodbye, and left for work.

I got the kiddo settled with cookies and juice and took my temperature. 101.4.

Great.

I downed some ibuprofen and over the next 20 minutes just kept feeling hotter and hotter. I took my temp again. 102.

Awesome.

Later, while I was prepping dinner for my son, I stuck my head in the fridge. My face was on fire. My gaze alighted on a package of honey smoked turkey lunch meat. The thought crossed my mind that it would feel really good on my sizzling skin.

So I took a piece out and slapped it on my forehead.

Y’all, it felt great. I smelled funny for the rest of the day, but those few minutes of instant relief until the medicine kicked in were worth it.

Eventually my fever made its way down to 99, and I put the baby to bed and went to sleep myself.

I woke up this morning still feverish with a splitting headache and a throat full of lava. Right now I’m riding the Nyquil wave, so I’m feeling minimal pain but I just realized that I have nothing scheduled for Monday Meals, and there’s no way I’m cooking today.

So maybe you could go visit a few of my favorite recipe spots instead. Try here. Or here. And definitely here.

Or you can have a cheeseburger. Here ya go.

Oh man. I can’t wait to read this tomorrow when I’m less delirious.

How was your weekend? When you’re sick, how do you handle it?

The bucket

Image source

During my training as a teacher, I was given an analogy that compared relationships to a bucketful of acorns.

The speaker held up an empty metal bucket. He said, “This is the person you’re in a relationship with.”

He placed acorns on the table in front of him. He said, “These are moments. They are kind words and insults. They are good deeds and trespasses.”

He handed the bucket to a woman sitting nearby. He told her she was doing a wonderful job at preparing for her career. Then he placed an acorn in the bucket.

Then he left the room and came back with a soda from the machine outside. He handed it to the woman and put another acorn in the bucket.

Then he kicked her.

Not hard. Just enough to catch her off guard and make her a tiny bit nervous.

He reached in the bucket and took out an acorn.

“Every interaction with people consists of deposits and withdrawals. You want to make sure you’re making as many deposits as possible, because eventually, even by accident, you’re going to end up making withdrawals,” he said.

I think about that demonstration all the time.

***

Now I’m not so great at banking, but I do know that if there’s $100 in my checking account and I write a check for $150, it’s gonna bounce.

And so I also know that with people in my life, if I care to have them around at all, if I care to make a positive impact on their life or want them to trust me, I need to invest in them.

I need to put acorns in the bucket.

But what happens when you’ve made several deposits in the other person’s bucket but they never make any in yours? What happens with they’ve given you no acorns and then they walk up and kick you?

Even if you’re a forgiving person (and I struggle with that) you’re going to feel that person is bankrupt after awhile. You’re going to take your empty bucket and go somewhere else.

You can’t ever get back the acorns you put in their bucket either. You gave time and thought and maybe even money to this person, but it’s an investment you can’t ever touch, because really what they’ve done is just dump out the bucket.

Today I realized that I made deposits in another’s bucket for no reason. I realized that every time I gave, and they took, that they never tried to reciprocate.

I looked down and not only was my bucket bereft of acorns, it had some IOUs in there. It was an account that was severely overdrawn.

So I’m closing that account. I’m taking my bucket elsewhere. And while I’m not ok with that, while I had hoped for better, I have to accept that some people are incapable of handing out acorns.

Are your buckets full? If not, how do you wish others would invest acorns in you?

In the Kitchen: Church food

When you grow up a Southern Baptist in Texas, you grow up with a love for Jesus, sweaty preachers and casserole dishes.

We moved up north a bit, so the preacher is quite a bit calmer, but Jesus and the casserole dishes are sure the same.

I’ve been serving meals at our church for about a year now, and I’ve seen all manner of food prepared and eaten there. Once, I had to make a pizza casserole, and I was a bit nervous because the recipe called for half a bottle of Italian dressing to be dumped in there with the pasta and pepperoni. (People ate it. Nobody died.)

From this group of Midwestern Christian folk, I’ve learned not just that there are other dressings besides Ranch, but that peanut butter balls are called “Buckeyes” and sometimes, cake is so good you can eat it off the floor.

This last week was my final week on the food service team, and I thought I’d serve up a little taste of home. I made a double Texas Sheet Cake (which everyone kept calling brownies, sheesh) and a Chili-Mac Casserole – homemade Hamburger Helper for those of you used to eating stuff out of a box.

Hamburger Helper always makes me think of my friend Rach’s husband, who seems obsessed with the stuff. He’s usually out of luck, cause she won’t serve it in her kitchen, and I can’t blame her. But here’s a recipe for a made-from-scratch version that is hearty and tastes great. (I’m not even kidding. We had the leftovers for dinner two nights in a row and no one complained. At all.)

The cake? Well, don’t make it unless you’ve got company coming, or you’ll eat the whole thing yourself. You’ll go cake crazy, like my little one who keeps running into the kitchen yelling, “CAKE. CAKECAKECAKEYCAKE.” Or you’ll make yourself sick, like a guest I had once who, while the rest of us were in the living room chatting, sat in the kitchen and devoured about half a pan.

 

 

Chili Mac Casserole
(adapted from allrecipies.com)

1 (16 oz) package elbow macaroni
2 pounds lean ground beef
1 small onion, diced
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1 (14.5 oz) can Rotel
1 can sweet corn, drained
1 (15 oz) can light red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 envelope taco seasoning mix
1 envelope chili seasoning mix
1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup
¾ cup milk
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 cup crushed tortilla chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, if you’re going to serve this right away. If you’re making it ahead of time, clear out a BIG space in your fridge or freezer. No, bigger. BIGGER.

In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the ground meat and drain the excess grease. Mix in the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, corn, kidney beans, taco seasoning, and chili seasoning. Then bring it to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes.

While it’s simmering, cook the macaroni, drain in a colander and set aside.

Whisk the soup and milk in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Add in half the shredded cheese, the sour cream, garlic powder, salt and pepper.

Arrange the cooked macaroni into the bottom of a 10×15-inch baking dish, and mix with the soup mixture. Pour the ground beef chili over the macaroni, and sprinkle with the rest of the cheddar cheese and, if you like them and you’re cooking it right then, the crushed tortilla chips.

Bake in the preheated oven until the casserole is hot and bubbling and the cheese topping has melted, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve topped with dollops of sour cream.

*If you’re making this ahead of time, take it out to defrost in the fridge the day before you want to cook it. Then, set it on the counter for 20 minutes while the oven heats.

 

 

Texas Sheet Cake

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 cup butter (Yeah, you read that right.)
1 cup water
5 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

Icing
6 tablespoons milk
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup butter
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract (Or bourbon, if you’re not Baptist. Or if you are Baptist but appreciate some of the finer libations available on this earth.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Taste the bourbon to make sure it’s good. Grease and flour a 10×15 inch (jelly roll) pan.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Beat in the sour cream and eggs. Set aside.

Melt the butter on low in a saucepan, add the water and 5 tablespoons cocoa. Bring mixture to a boil then remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly, then stir cocoa mixture into the egg mixture, mixing until blended.

Pour batter into prepared pan. It’s gonna be really runny. Don’t freak out.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. For the love of Deuteronomy, don’t over bake this thing. It needs to be m…m…moi…that word I can’t say but means wet and gooey.

For the icing: In a large saucepan, combine the milk, cocoa and butter. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Stir in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla, mixing until blended. Spread the frosting over warm cake.

Keep the cake covered until you’re ready to serve it so it melts in mouths appropriately and doesn’t dry out.

In the Kitchen: Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

So, we eat a lot of these. And by “a lot” I mean several bags a week. And be “we” I mean me.

I thought it would be fun the other night to make my own in the hopes that maybe by taking so much time to craft them I’d be less likely to inhale them.

Not so much. These cookies lasted 18 hours in our house. Maybe you have more willpower?

 

 

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

1/2 cup butter-flavored shortening
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups flour

Filling:

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar

Make the filling first. Combine the peanut butter and sugar and refrigerate until somewhat firm.

 

 

For the cookies, combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl and set aside. Next, cream together the shortening, peanut butter, sugars, egg and vanilla.

 

 

Gradually add in the flour mixture on low speed. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and chill the dough for about 20 minutes, then roll it onto waxed paper.

 

 

Cut out identical shapes using a cookie cutter. Or, if you’re utensil challenged such as myself, a measuring cup works great. Bake the cookies for about 8 minutes or until they begin to brown on the edges. They won’t spread, so you can fit them in closely.

Cool the cookies on a plate or wire rack, then spread a tablespoon of filling on half the cookies and top with the other half. Hide them from your husband and toddler. Sneak downstairs at 2 am and enjoy with a glass of cold milk.

Why don’t you just go fly a kite

I have a love/hate relationship with Kansas City, my home since winter of 2008.

The weather is insane, hate. The crime rate is really high, hate. The sports teams are ALLCAPSAWFUL, hate.

But the BBQ is heavenly, love. The highways make it a dream to get around, love. And there is so much to do here.

LOVE.

This morning we woke up with no direction. We ate breakfast, sat around in our pajamas with SportsCenter on (I’ve been brainwashed) and watched the late morning sun shake off the chill of last night.

Normally I’m happy to do this, but today I wanted to go GO GO. And of course, so did Monkey. He’ll even tell you, “Shoes, Mama. Go. Go car. VRRRROOOM.”

So after a quick Google search of events in our area, we headed out to the 2012 Flights of Fancy Kite Festival. I wasn’t sure what to expect since I’d never even heard of this thing before, but that’s kind of the beauty of living in a “newish” place – there’s always something new to discover.

When we pulled up next to MCC-Longview, the sky was a sharp blue and the breeze barely tickled the tops of the trees. Parking was easy enough to find with only a short walk to the festival field.

Monkey had fallen asleep during the drive so when we got him out of the truck he put on his best grump face, crossed his arms and slumped in the stroller. But as soon as we made it around the bend, he saw this and perked right up.

There are certain days in spring where living feels like Heaven on Earth, and this was one of them. The breeze picked up. The savory smells from the food trucks intermingled with the sweet scent of the freshly-mown grass. Strains of rock music provided a beat for the announcer as she told us all about the different kites in the sky.

People are serious about kites, it seems. They have a club, y’all.

One guy had several kites that he would rotate through. Some of them were fast and capable of quick, twisting maneuvers, like this one. Others were large and capable of pulling some weight and he would have to throw himself backward onto the ground to keep from being pulled aloft.

While many, many people brought their own kites, we were just happy to stand and observe, to be a part of the landscape and to witness such a perfect day as this.

Today was love.

In the Kitchen: Grilled Pork Skewers

While I was in Texas a couple of weeks ago, I took my nephews to the South Texas State Fair. We got there in time for opening ceremonies, where I patiently waited through all the hoopla to not only get in free, but to gorge myself on the most awesome of fair foods: The Pork Kabob.

They don’t mess with veggies on these kabobs – it’s just a giant skewer full of marinated, slightly charred meat.

The boys spent their entire evening riding ridiculous things like this, while I kept my feet planted safely on the ground and periodically gnawed my way through my dinner on a stick.

When I got back to Kansas City, I made my way directly to the grocery store where I picked up several packages of country-style pork ribs. This cut of meat is can be found boneless, but does have a considerable amount of fat and connective tissue, so a little at-home carving is necessary before cooking.

But worth it. So worth it.

I couldn’t find anyone online willing to give up the marinade secret for fair kabobs, so I took inspiration from here for the basic idea and ended up with some tender, juicy kabobs that we polished off with much gusto. (And ok, I did throw in some vegetables to make it a proper meal. But they never, not once, came in contact with the meat.)

Grilled Pork Skewers

2 lbs boneless country-style pork ribs
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp garlic powder (or minced fresh garlic if you have it)
1 tsp white pepper
Two splashes of Sriracha, if you like heat

Trim the meat and cut into chunks. Mix ingredients in a large plastic or glass bowl. Marinate the meat overnight, or at least 4 hours.

Drain the marinade into a squeeze bottle, then slide the chunks of meat onto the skewers. (Be sure they are pre-soaked if you’re using wood.)

Grill the skewers over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, basting the meat with the leftover marinade occasionally. Low and slow is key when cooking pork, otherwise you end up with shoe leather.