Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winter Soups (and celebrations!): Wonton Soup and Chinese New Year

I instantly liked Ashley Riherd when I met her at a group playdate. She loves her family. She loves parties. She blogs about both at The Riherds (eating Cheetos) Even though we've only met in person a handful of times, her presence in my life has been a blessing.  

Families are created in a variety of ways. Ashley's family of three knew another member of their family was in the world somewhere.  I read with tears of joy and pain as she honestly and bravely documented their adoption journey to their youngest daughter. She captures the emotions of a woman waiting for her child. Her faith and heart kept me returning to the blog for more. For a few glimpses of their story, follow these "adoption" links.  

Ashley joins us today for our winter blog series, and I'm so excited. She came with lots of recipes and ideas. Most of all, I'm thrilled to introduce more people to her and her blog. They're both definitely worth your time.

Ni Hao!
Did you know that Friday is Chinese New Year?
Well, to be honest, I probably wouldn't either if it weren't for this precious, silly munchkin.
My husband and I adopted our youngest daughter from China one year ago.
There are no words for the instant your child is placed in your arms for the first time.
There is this overwhelming sense that God planned this moment from the beginning of time.
Realizing that He is so big, yet so intricately personal.

Now before I get all mushy like a bowl of leftover lo mein, let's get to the main reason I'm guest posting:


In honor of Chinese New Year, please allow me to share with you a simple Wonton Soup recipe.

My family is currently living in Cleveland with about 10 inches of snow on the ground and a wind chill of -17. This soup is like a Chinese version of chicken noodle soup, which is especially delicious when trudging through the winter blues.

Also, before diving into the recipe, I understand that Chinese take-out is typically very affordable, which makes it tempting to just call it in rather than dirty up your own kitchen. But I've discovered it's fun to give things a try yourself every now and then. I'll also admit there is a wonderfully strong sense of pride and accomplishment when you make 30 cute, little wontons. I hope you'll give this recipe a try...


Serves 6-8

6 oz ground pork
1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
1 TBSP soy sauce
1 TBSP Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons finely chopped scallion
pinch of sugar
pinch of white pepper
dash of sesame oil
30 square wonton wrappers

8 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 TBSP finely chopped scallion

(FYI: Wonton Wraps can be found in the produce section of most grocery stores, and you can find the other Chinese ingredients in the Asian section.)

1. For the wonton filling, mix together the pork, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, scallion, sugar, pepper, and sesame oil. Stir well. Set aside for about 20 minutes.

2. To make the wontons, place a teaspoon of the filling at the center of a wrapper. Fold the wonton in half and bring the opposite points toward each other and press the edges together with a little dab of warm water, creating a flowerlike shape. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. If you are a visual person (like me) click here to see a video on how to wrap the wontons.
3. To make the soup, bring the stock to a boil and add the salt and pepper. Boil the wontons in the stock for about 5 minutes, or until the wrappers begin to wrinkle around the filling.

4. To serve, put the scallions in individual bowls, then spoon in the wontons and soup.


A kid-friendly option for a side to your Wonton Soup -- Sushi Sandwiches!
Just take whatever you have on hand, roll it up, slice it, and hi-yah! your kiddos will think it's so cool!
Add some chopsticks (mine love these training ones) and really make it exciting.
(Sushi is actually Japanese, but I won't say anything if you don't...)
(photos from Pinterest)

Now, if you want a little more of a "grown-up" side dish to go along with your soup, let me recommend this recipe from my Bee Yinn Low's cookbook: Easy Chinese Recipes. You'll never have to go to PF Changs again. Well, unless you want a slice of their Great Wall of Chocolate. But I digress...


3 dried shiitake mushrooms
8 oz. skinless, boneless chicken thighs, ground
3 fresh water chestnuts, chopped finely
2 Tablespoons oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 head iceberg lettuce, rinsed
1 heaping Tablespoon chopped green onion (scallion)

1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon oyster sauce
1/4 dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine or sherry
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 dashes white pepper

Spicy Hoisin Dipping Sauce:
4 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili sauce or to taste
1 Tablespoon warm water

1. Soak the dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water in a small bowl until they become soft. Squeeze the mushrooms dry with your hand, discard the stems, cut and dice the mushrooms into tiny pieces.
2. Combine the ground chicken meat, mushrooms, and water chestnuts with all the Seasoning ingredients. Marinate for 15 minutes.
3. Mix all the Spicy Hoisin Dipping Sauce ingredients in a small saucer or bowl. Set aside.
4. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over high heat. Add the garlic and then stir-fry to light brown before adding the ground chicken.
5. Using the spatula, stir the chicken continuously to loosen and break up the lumps. Continue to stir-fry until the chicken is cooked. Dish out and set aside.
6. Peel off each lettuce leaf from the iceburg lettuce carefully. Do not break the leaves.
7. Scoop two heaping tablespoons of the chicken and place it in the middle of the lettuce leaf. Wrap it up and dip the lettuce wrap in the Spicy Hoisin Dipping Sauce before eating. Garnish with green onion (scallion).

Now for dessert, I recently discovered this tasty treat:
Click here to get this simply delicious recipe.

Another kid favorite:
I actually made these last year for Valentine hand-outs for my oldest daughter's friends.
They were a hit and super easy to make.


Now let me be the first to say our family knows a tad bit more (or maybe not) than a Google search of "Chinese New Year traditions", but we're learning. The Chinese culture will always be a part of our family's fabric now, so we will continue to strive to learn all we can. Of course there are times I am sure we are doing everything wrong, but we have good intentions so that counts for something, right?

To give you a just a few basic tidbits about Chinese New Year, in case you're interested...

The Chinese New Year actually starts with a large meal on the Eve of the New Year. 
It just so happened that we had family visiting over this past weekend, so we decided to have our Chinese New Year's Eve meal a tad bit early. (Which worked out perfectly to feature this post!)

Chinese New Year is a two week celebration, which concludes with a lantern festival on the last day.
The main color during the entire two weeks is RED.

Oranges / tangerines are common gifts as well as red envelopes filled with money and/or chocolates and given to children.
Fireworks are lit at midnight to start the two week celebration and often set off on the final day of the lantern festival.
There are also elaborate dragon costumes and dances performed during the New Year.
Check around your local area to see if there are any events or activities planned. 
Many local libraries tend to have some scheduled events that would be fun for the whole family.

Now, before I go, one last thing...

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Friday, January 24, 2014

How do you ship your art?

One of my goals for 2014 is to "ship my art." My art is writing, which means I'm going to enter contests and submit my novel to agents.

Do you have a story to tell?

Listen to Your Mother provides the opportunity for people across the country to take the stage--actual and virtual--and tell a story about motherhood. Last year I was part of Oklahoma City's debut performance. You don't have to be a mother or a woman to submit. You also don't have to go solo. Submit here. (Check back here next Friday for more on what I've done about the experience.)

Check out Oklahoma Writers Federation's contest to enter over twenty different categories for $20. Each entry gets a critique. Deadline is February 1. They also have a conference that offers useful information to newbies and professionals.

Speaking of conferences and the opportunity to meet with agents, Oklahoma has an outstanding  chapter of Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators led by Anna Myers. We're having a conference in Oklahoma City on March 29.

If you're not a writer, what is your art? What passionate thing do you do to create change in the world? How do you ship your art?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Winter Soups: Apple Butternut Squash

I'd much rather buy decorations and party favors for a party than cook for it. But that whole culinary dilemma doesn't stop me from inviting everyone to my virtual potluck this winter where guests bring soup. 

I'm glad you stopped by this week because Valarie Olson brought her yummy, creamy Apple Butternut Squash. When Valarie shows up at your house, she's going to bring food. Probably in her cute little striped basket so that it's all neat and orderly--like she's the star of her own cooking show, The Portable Chef. Valarie is joyful in the kitchen, and it rubs off. I suspect she possesses a magic spice she sprinkles in her food to make you believe you can cook, too.  Valarie doesn't have a blog, but she is one of the most talented people I know.  She's a writer, photographer, musician, yoga instructor, military wife, and all-around super mom and friend. Plus, she grinds her own wheat to make bread, ya'll.

Meet Valarie:

Before we get down to the nitty gritty, here are a few fun facts about this post: 

Just because I'm Brandi's friend doesn't mean that's why she asked me to blog about this soup.

A few months ago we hosted Brandi and her sweet family for a carve-a-pumpkin soup-bar night. There's probably a more clever title, but when you eat a variety of soups and carve pumpkins...

I walked everyone through the kitchen, introducing the evening's menu, and Brandi walked over to the crockpot of butternut squash soup, inhaled, and smiled. It took me a few moments to bring her back. Yes, it is butternut squash soup. Yes, I made it. Yes, I have the recipe. BFF's right there.

Apparently years ago, Brandi had tasted and fallen in love with a William's Sonoma butternut squash soup. Ever since then she'd been searching for the recipe. Destiny brought me and my little soup recipe to Tahlequah, and Brandi and her little family to our home that night.

I must say, this soup is also near and dear to my heart. Come with me to New Year's Eve 2007.

A friend of mine hosted a decadent evening to celebrate the coming year. Four couples, a seven course meal, and all evening to celebrate (sans kids).  We all contributed to the meal and prepared gourmet dishes we'd (never serve our kids but) always wanted to try.

We. ate. for. six. hours. Six divine hours filled with appetizers, soup, salad, a palate cleanser, entree, another palate cleanser and dessert. I met and fell in love with Apple Butternut Squash Soup.

Apple Butternut Squash Soup
1 medium butternut squash, washed
1 large golden delicious apple, peeled and cubed
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 1/2 T sugar (optional)
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c heavy cream

Forget all you've ever learned, read or observed about butternut squash preparation. Allow me to introduce you to a method I discovered through running the gauntlet of thick skin and slimy seeds: roasting.

Turn oven to 350 degrees. Score the squash all over with your butcher knife. (For effect, yell ha-yah!)  These slits provide an escape for air when cooking. Place the squash in a 9x13 glass casserole pan and fill with water 1 1/2 inches deep. Cover with foil and place in oven.

All ovens are different, but cook for about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours. Check periodically and add more water if needed. You're looking for your squash to "give" when you squeeze it. You want it soft.

Remove from oven, set aside.

In a large pan or stockpot on medium heat, combine apple, chicken broth, applesauce, sugar (FYI I've never added sugar), ginger and salt.

Back to the squash. On a cutting board by your garbage can (using an oven mitt if needed), slice the ever-so-soft squash in half from top to bottom.
Scoop out seeds with a large spoon and toss effortlessly in the garbage. Gently scoop out the squash and place in the soup mixture.

Do you realize what you've just done? You put the oven to work for you. You didn't have to worry about slicing your finger trying to peel the thick skin; or concern yourself with an accidental slip off the hard-as-a-rock squash in your attempt to cut it into 1" cubes. Instead, you had an hour+ to yourself (except for when you were checking to make sure the water hadn't all evaporated, right?) while your squash roasted. And roasting, my friends, brings out the flavor in any vegetable. Proven fact. I think everyone should have the experience of roasting a tough, ornery butternut squash and scooping it out of its skin lickety-split.

Special Trick
Let me let you in on a little secret. Butternut squash also comes PRE-CUBED. Yes, I've seen it with my own eyes. You can even stash these in your FREEZER and throw them directly in with your soup mixture. Now, that's efficient delegation folks.

Bring the soup mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing the apples, admiring its deep, rich color. If you're fancy, you'll pull out your immersion blender and stir to a smooth consistency. If you're like me, you'll carefully, but bravely, transfer the steaming soup to your Ninja blender and mix to a smooth consistency.

Last but not least, add 1/2 cup heavy cream. You may try to leave this out (as I did once), but trust me. Just add the cream. Or for presentation, swirl (warmed) cream into each bowl of soup. 

At this point your kitchen smells like...New Year's Eve, 2007; or a picture perfect William's Sonoma kitchen where you are seated, served and not required to wash one single, solitary dish.

Inhale, exhale. Repeat. And then do your dishes.

Apple Butternut Squash Soup
1 medium butternut squash, washed
1 large golden delicious apple, peeled and cubed
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 1/2 T sugar (optional)
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Score squash, place in glass casserole pan with 1 1/2” water (continue adding water if necessary) and roast for about 1-1/2 hours or until soft. Remove squash from oven, let cool.

Combine apples, applesauce, sugar, ginger and salt in a large pot. Slice roasted squash lengthwise, remove and discard seeds and scoop squash into large pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, simmer for 15 minutes. At this point you can begin to mash against the side of the pot. Add the cream, simmer for another 10-15 minutes. Stirring/mashing occasionally until you reach your desired consistency. (You can follow up with a blender if you want a smoother texture.)

Serve with crusty bread or a roll.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Princess Alexandra

Princess Alexandra loves playing with other princesses. Boys, however, are another story.

:Would you like to dance?

Alexandra turns her back on him.

: Would you like to dance?

: No. No. Go away. You can't dance with us.  Go away.

: May I have this dance?

She hurls the prince across the room.

Then she looks up.

:Superman? (She thrusts Superman at me and batts her eyes.) Talk to me, Superman. Talk to me. (She sways to music only she and the little princesses clutched in her fists can hear.) Dance?

Okie dokie.  No normal guy. No prince. The girl has standards.  She wants Superman.

I can live with that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Winter Soups: French Onion Soup...and Quick Quiche

C'est moi a long time ago.


I'm glad you dropped by my virtual potluck today because Mari Farthing is visiting. We met at the first table reading of the Listen to Your Mother OKC.  You may remember her from our summer party or her blogs at Oklahoma Women Bloggers, Music Mamas and Mari's Virtual Notebook.

Today, she brought a little bit of France with her. The recipe is fancier than I usually attempt, but it is French, and who can say non to that? Mari is nice and didn't make fun of me at all when I asked her what it meant to make an onion "sweat" and what the difference between stock and "broth" are. In case you are as challenged as I am in the kitchen, I added some links to explain these culinary quandaries further, and realized it really is pretty easy. If you already know all the cooking terminology, then skip the links and feel smug.

Bon appétit! 

I'll leave you and Mari to chat....

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (i.e., before kids), my husband and I were blessed to live in Europe for four years, courtesy of the USAF. During this time, we were able to travel all around the continent and see as much of the world as we could. The final trip we went on was to the Normandy region of France, where we could visit places that would meet both of our wants—the landing beaches of DDay, the American WWII cemetery and Caen war memorial for him; Monet’s home in Giverny and Le Mont Saint Michel for me.

It was a gorgeous trip; as I recall it now (as one is wont to do), the weather was agreeable, the locals were gracious and still effusively thankful and happy to see Americans (which, to be honest, was something of a rarity in France). This trip stands out from all the others because it was our last time to travel before returning stateside. We still didn’t know where we were heading, so there was an excitement in the air—adventures awaited us.

On that first stop in Giverny, we had a bit of free time and stopped at a café—that’s something that Europe does with aplomb. Even the tiniest of villages has a café (or two) with character and outdoor tables that provide the best possible entertainment in the form of people watching. As we perused the menu at this café, using our limited knowledge of French language to navigate the offerings, we found the perfect lunch: French onion soup and quiche.

I realize now that perhaps I should have chosen a less perfect meal, as the soup and quiche were so well done as to eclipse all other attempts at this treat. On second thought, nah. I’ll never be sorry for that lunch eaten on the street at a café in a small town in France. I hope to someday repeat the experience!

Magical Meal Combination
I’ve since made both quiche and French onion soup in my own kitchen, and if you throw in a salad of baby greens with a mustard vinaigrette, you’ve got a pretty perfect lunch. Even better if eaten al fresco with a nice glass of wine.

Special Tricks...bonus recipe!
Quiche is very easy—I like to make it on a day when I’m also cleaning out the fridge. If I’ve got leftover eggs, leftover vegetables, some type of protein and shredded cheese? There will be quiche. 

I make mine in a muffin tin, no crust required. Spray the cups with oil, portion out your fillings and fill the cups to about ¾ full with a beaten egg mixture (about 6 eggs with a splash of milk or cream if you so desire). Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or so and freeze what you don’t eat.

But back to the soup! Here is a good basic recipe that I’ve put together, inspired by my dad’s recipe and celebrity chef Anne Burrell. It’s a worth-the-wait soup that has few ingredients but results in an amazingly rich soup to warm you on a cold winter’s night.

French Onion Soup

6-8 large onions, thinly sliced into rings
¾ cup red wine (something you like to drink)
4 bay leaves
small bunch of fresh thyme
2 quarts of chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste

Coat the bottom of a large pot with olive oil and add the onions. Sprinkle with plenty of salt and stir well. Turn heat on medium, cover and let onions (I used half white and half yellow because that’s what I had) sweat for about 15-20 minutes.
before the onions sweat
sweating onions

Onions should now be very soft. Cook uncovered for about an hour until onions become reduced, browned and sweet. If you’ve seen Chef Burrell make this soup, you’ve heard her assert that there is no shortcut to this; you must take the time and let the flavors develop.

Add the wine and let it reduce for about 15 minutes. Add the bay leaves, thyme and chicken stock. I prefer to add my stock warmed because I’m usually defrosting it when I make the soup. Simmer again for another hour or so (the soup will look somewhat purple when you start this part, but mellow out to a lovely, rich brown after cooking). Season with salt and pepper to taste (the onions do become surprisingly sweet after cooking). If the soup seems too thick, add a bit of chicken stock to thin it down a bit.

To serve, ladle soup into a stoneware bowl, top with a lovely slice of crusty bread (croutons can work here quite well), grated cheese, and broil until the cheese gets bubbly.

Bubbly cheese. That’s the magic right there.

Magic Onion Soup
served with a Malbec
& toasted ciabatta bread and brie from Whole Foods
Freeze it if you don’t eat it all right away!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Favorite: Slow Cooker Liners

I love my crockpot(s).

Yes, I have two. No, wait. I own three. The last one has three compartments.

Crockpots are hard to clean, though, so I won't use one without this kitchen helper:  
Slow Cooker Liners are magical!

Santa considered putting these "crockpot condoms" in stockings this year.  They're that awesome.

What is a must-have helper in your kitchen?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Winter Soups Virtual Potluck


All I want to do is cozy up with a warm soup and a good book. 

To celebrate the wonder that is winter, I'm hosting a party. You're invited to join me every Tasty Tuesday through March for a virtual potluck.  If you joined me for the Summer Salad Virtual Potluck, then you'll reunite with a few friends. Plus, I'm so excited to introduce you to a couple more. You're going to love them.

They're all bringing soup!

This chilly weather calls for chili, and I have the perfect recipe. Easy chili. Crockpot chili.

You may have the ingredients in your pantry. Happy dance! We're having fun already.

With crinkled nose, my five-year-old insists the chili looks better in person.
Everyone's a critic.

My mom gave me a similar recipe years ago and through experimentation (okay, making mistakes and not paying attention to the recipe), I created this one.

Easy Crockpot Chili

1 pound ground beef
1 onion, sliced
3 cans kidney beans, drained
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 can of Rotel diced tomatoes
1-2 Tsp. chili powder
1 Tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tsp. salt

1.Brown the beef and onion. (I know.  This part is more work than I prefer.)

2.Place all ingredients in crockpot.

3. Everything is cooked, so the purpose it to allow it to ruminate.  2-3 hours on high or 6-8 hours on low.

Magical Meal Combination:
My son, who doesn't like "spicy," declared his love for this chili if he has milk and cornbread to "cut the fire."  My daughter prefers crackers. Toss out some carrots or celery before the meal and everyone is happy.

Special Tricks:

  • Grab a crockpot liner to make clean up as easy as possible. 
  • Also, if you want a shortcut, you can brown the meat in the microwave and place the uncooked onion in the crockpot with the other ingredients, but browning them together tastes better.
  • Use paper bowls to make clean up even easier.
  • If it seems a little too soupy, lift the lid at the end of your cooking time and it will evaporate.  My house always needs more humidity this time of year anyway.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

List Maker, List Maker, make me a list!

Santa doesn't check his list twice because he fears improperly categorizing children--magic doesn't make mistakes, silly.  He does it because checking things off feels good.

I understand this addiction. I, too, am a list maker.

Each January provides the opportunity to create a new list of goals.  When someone asks me if I made a New Year's Resolution, I struggle not to roll my eyes like a twelve-year-old girl.  Resolutions are made to be broken. Ask anyone whose bank account still sends money straight toward the local gym even their gps forgot how to locate.

And a single resolution? pu-leeez.

This girl (moi) makes a measurable list of goals with a plan to achieve them. It's fun.

Plus, coming down off the high of the holidays isn't so bad when one has the opportunity to check a list and see improvements in existence.

The list for 2014 is 2 1/2 pages long.  Single spaced. 11 point font.  My husband and I select a theme (Live More in Two-Zero-One-Four) that becomes a mantra, influencing decisions throughout that year. We categorize goals for each of our children, our family, our home, our relationship, and our office. We list personal goals and sometimes add a separate category depending on the year.

Obsessive? Perhaps.  But we find satisfaction in measuring growth and acknowledging what we need to improve. For example, two years ago I didn't accomplish a single goal on my personal list, but in 2013 I accomplished most of them. I had to see it on paper before I recognized how I was cheating myself at life. Progress!

When we didn't make annual goals, we shuffled through life beating ourselves up. If one doesn't pause to reflect, it's easy to get bogged down in the major stresses.  If one doesn't pause to plan, it's easy to lose sight of hope.

This year, my blog has goals of its own.  Several series are planned that I'm really excited about. Since connecting people is one of my favorite pastimes, I will continue to do so. Recognizing the magic in everyday life is another.  I'm going to be more thoughtful and courageous in what I share as well as more helpful.

Because this year will pass, I want to make it count.  What about you?

Check out Lisa Marotta's blog on planning goals for your year.
If you are in a relationship, check out Shel Harrington's post for improving that in 2014.

I find magic in everyday life and shout it to the blogosphere. 
What little thing happened to you recently that felt magical to you?