The Art of Friendship.

Dear friends,

I’ve been a busy bee lately. Not just with the sewing and quilting the projects I shared in my last post, but also spiffing things up around the house.

If 2017 was the year of the Great Clean Out, 2018 is the year of the Great Spruce Up.

I don’t know . . . “spruce up” sounds so blah. And I’ve been anything but. I’ve been energized and energetic in a way I haven’t been in a long time. It feels so good to tweak my home. It’s a process that gives me great joy and creative inspiration.

The main project I want to show you today is an art refresh. Here’s what my living/dining room (can you say “open concept?”) looked like in December 2016.

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The sofa you see in this photo was moved to the den and I purchased a new, more modern one last year for this space. The old sofa is currently at the upholstery shop being recovered in a plush navy fabric that will be perfect for the cozy den (recently refreshed with a new coat of paint, new drapes, and a new light fixture, all of which I’ll show you in a big reveal when the sofa returns).

But what I really want you to notice today is the art above the sofa. When we moved into our home 7+ years ago, those large panels were left behind by the previous owners and were blank. I thought they were so odd — both the burlap covering and the blankness — then I realized they are acoustical panels meant to absorb sound in the vaulted living space.

When an artist friend from Oklahoma visited shortly after we moved in, I mentioned how creatively stumped I was by that large stretch of wall space and asked if she’d be interested in a commission to create art for it. (I envisioned a triptych, probably square, probably abstract). My friend Alisa hesitated for probably half a second then declared “Let’s paint the panels you have!”

And so with nothing more than leftover black interior latex paint, an old trim brush (not an artist’s brush) and some red craft paint (pretty much all the supplies I had on hand), Alisa created the beautiful art you see in this photo. She painted on my front lawn. In about 20 minutes. Her husband Greg, who suggested the inspiration for the design after noticing a painted tray sitting on my ottoman, was kind enough to re-hang the panels for us by perching on a rickety ladder that Mr. Mom steadied. It remains the best housewarming gift I’ve ever received.

But as my home has slowly evolved from a mix of colors, some of them warm and earthy, to a cooler, predominately grey-and-blue palette, the art just didn’t jive. When a scheduling quirk meant that I’d be driving to Tulsa two weekends in a row for family occasions, I immediately texted my friend and asked if she’d re-do my gift if I brought the panels to her this time. Of course she said yes. And the result delights me.

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Here’s a close-up view of the second panel.

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The project was fraught with complications but I managed to make it work. The first was fitting all five panels in my two-seater sports car for the first trip to Tulsa. (The largest panel is 5-foot by 2-foot and fit in my car with a mere 1/4″ to spare.) The second was a painting disaster of my own doing. I had told Alisa I would paint the panels grey to save her time, but it was a disaster. (The paint just blobbed on the canvas and wouldn’t spread. See the evidence below.)

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I texted Alisa in a panic, very nearly in tears. She assured me all was not lost and encouraged me try gesso (a product artists use to prep their canvasses). Of course I had to drive two hours to find it (since I didn’t have time to buy online and wait for delivery), but it worked like a charm. It worked so well, I left the canvasses as is and never painted them gray.

For the second trip to Tulsa, instead of traveling alone, my husband, my son, and my son’s girlfriend were joining me. I had planned to rent an SUV for the trip but availability was limited in my small town. I managed to secure the only available vehicle for that weekend (a Chevy Traverse), and after a little logistical planning and a trip to the rental lot to measure the cargo space, I determined it would fit my entire family, our luggage, and the art. Thank goodness for stars aligning!

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If you compare the first photo to the second, you’ll notice the changes — other than the sofa — are pretty subtle. I edited the walls a bit (removing a few framed pieces) to make things a bit more airy. I changed out the chandelier shades from burlap to grey linen. I bought new grey and white drapes to replace the seafoam ones and I removed the blue window shades.  I painted the dining room chairs grey. I simplified the rugs from a layered look to a single rug. I switched out an end table and added some live plants. And I moved the bar from a display configuration on the desk behind the sofa to a hidden cabinet in order to visually declutter the space.

And just in case you’re curious, here’s a couple of shots of my mantle and the part of the room you can’t see from the other photos:

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I’ve now turned my attention to the master bedroom where I’m doing another refresh with new paint, light fixtures, rugs, etc. It’s not finished but rest assured I’ll reveal that space, too, just as soon as I get can.

With gratitude {for friends and helpers},

Joan, who wouldn’t really mind being called JoJo, in keeping with her favorite interior designer Joanna Gaines.

 

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The Great Clean Out of 2017.

Dear friends,

The master bedroom during the middle of a closet purge.

Before the arrival of every new year, I find myself contemplating resolutions. I’ve always thought of myself as the Queen of Self Help. Someone who has both the drive and resourcefulness to set ambitious goals and meet them. Ready, set . . . GOOOOOOOOOO!

And then I cave.

(My philosophy is if a goal isn’t intimidating enough to make you cave early on, it’s probably not worth being called a goal. Cleaning the kitchen, for example, requires little forethought or dedication.  It’s a “just do it” kind of thing. But cleaning and organizing the whole house? That’s enough to make you gulp. That’s a goal. )

But, sometimes, after I cave, I find the fortitude and the stamina to take a deep breath and dig back in. It seems to me the persistence to keep digging in, again and again, is the key to any kind of success. And though I haven’t always persisted in every endeavor I’ve pursued, I recently completed a very big goal worth writing about.

Dubbed the Great Clean Out of 2017, my goal was to clean and organize my home in a way I had never before pursued. I was feeling leaden, a bit cornered by the clutter, and looking for a fresh start. I know my age has something to do with it, but I was slowly starting to panic about the size and maintenance demands of our home. I told Mr. Mom how frightened I was of becoming one of those old couples whose home “caves” in on them because they lose the ability to keep up with things. One day they wake up old and surrounded by too many objects too many decades out of use or style. It’s a literal nightmare for me.

So I vowed to tackle our entire home and to give myself a year to do it. It seemed reasonable and the more I thought about it, the more my motivation grew. I started telling everyone of my plan. I vowed to not only clean and organize, but to purge. And purge some more. Followed by a side of purge.

I made a list. (Because nothing feels as good as check marks on a list.) I divided big jobs into little jobs. I knew I would never find the motivation to clean and organize the laundry room, for example. It’s too big, too full of built-in cabinets that had been stuffed and ignored. So I wrote down 45 items on my list, items I thought sounded manageable, such as “Kitchen desk,” and “Night stands” and “Buffet drawers” and “Coffee cart.” Things I could do in less than an hour so that I might feel energized to tackle another item on the list. Then another.

My strategy worked. I started 2017 with a bang and, by March, I had checked off more than a third of my list, including two really big/challenging spaces such as the dish pantry and the kitchen. (It took me multiple days spread over two weeks, but cleaning out every single drawer and cabinet in my kitchen — as well as scrubbing and streamlining every surface — was a true mood booster and personal triumph.) I was stoked.

Then life got hard and my enthusiasm waned. Long hours and challenging dynamics at work diffused my focus on my goal and sapped my energy. I tried to keep plugging along but the check marks slowed.

The one thing on my list I had been too overwhelmed to break down into smaller chores was the basement. I had written BASEMENT in all caps at the bottom of my list, a visual representation of the enormity of the task.  I put it on the bottom of the list because I rationalized my Great Clean Out would be deemed a success if everything but the basement got done. I mean, who would blame me? It was so stuffed that we couldn’t even walk around. Much of the contents were boxes we were too exhausted to unpack when we moved into this home, topped off with six years of stuff we should have purged but chose instead to throw in the basement.

Fortunately, my daughter offered to come home for Labor Day weekend and help me. Between her and Mr. Mom, who did all the heavy lifting and hauling off while Kate and I sorted, purged, organized and cleaned, we finished the basement in a single (albeit long) day.

There’s nothing quite like completing a project that has intimidated and plagued you for years. Finishing the basement was like a tonic, and it gave me the energy to check off a few more items on the list in the following weeks.

I was so inspired, I even added new items to the list. I decided to paint and recover my dining room chairs, a project I started before Thanksgiving and finished today. I painted the buffet and the mantle and two mirrors. I made a new slipcover for the ottoman in the den. I cleaned and repainted our deck furniture and bought all new cushions. I replaced the light fixture over the kitchen island. I hired a company to clean our carpets. After Parker moved out, I redecorated the guest room with new side tables and bedding and cleaned out his long-ignored closet. I bought a new mattress and all new bedding for the master bedroom. I reupholstered a wing chair. I bought a new sofa and recliner for the living room and new slipcovers for the sofa in the keeping room.

As 2017 drew to a close, I had two remaining chores on my list — the dreaded laundry room and the refrigerator.

First — I know a refrigerator should be cleaned regularly, not part of a major purge. But I spontaneously scribbled it on the list thinking it would be an easy win, and then I proceeded to ignore it for a year. By the time I completely emptied it last week and scrubbed every surface with soap and water, it was in dire need. If you need a mental boost and decide to do nothing else, clean your refrigerator. It seriously might have been the most energizing and pleasing project I completed all year.

Second — despite breaking the laundry room down into four manageable items on my list, I ignored it until the bitter end. I gave serious thought to skipping it all together, thinking I could still pat myself on the back for doing everything BUT the laundry room. But on Dec. 30, still clad in my pajamas at 11:00 am, I decided to dive in. I even tackled one item not on my list — our four-drawer filing cabinet (which happens to reside in the laundry room), which hadn’t been attended to in more than a decade.

Guess what? I found my “lost” passport. I found my daughter’s immunization record, which she had asked for last fall but which Mr. Mom couldn’t find despite digging through the filing cabinet. I found three savings bonds I didn’t know we had, gifts to my children 20 years ago from a family friend. I found our wills, which I thought had long ago been lost. Score four for the motivated mother cleaning in her PJs on the day before her deadline!

Now that I’m done, I’m enormously gratified to say that I literally touched (and cleaned or purged) every single item in our home. The only thing I ignored was the garage. It’s Mr. Mom’s space so I never even put it on the list. And I don’t feel bad. It needs a lot of love (and a deep clean) in my opinion, but it’s not my hill to die on.

With the interior of the house “done,” I’ve started thinking about the outside. When spring arrives, I hope we will find the energy and inspiration to power wash our exterior and our driveway. We need to re-stain the deck and wash the windows. But I really just want to enjoy the satisfaction of finishing the Great Clean Out of 2017 for a while before I think about the next list of projects.

Because the truth is — keeping up a house is never-ending, just like keeping a drawer or cabinet tidy takes continual attention. If I hadn’t ignored things for so long (hello basement), a year-long clean out wouldn’t have been necessary. But since it was, necessary, I’m awfully glad to have it behind me.

With gratitude {for finishing},

Joan, who once set a goal to run a thousand miles in a year and didn’t achieve it, but thinks the Great Clean Out might have been even more demanding.

PS: I’ve included quite a few photos in case you are curious and/or looking for inspiration to tackle your own dreaded chores. Under the label of truth in advertising, I should note a whole lot of personal interests took a back seat to this year-long endeavor. Yes, I cleaned and organized my entire house and purged several pick-up loads of excess baggage. But my quilting took a hit and I finished only one small baby quilt and a few pillows in 2017. My fitness took a real dive. Cooking and baking seriously diminished except around holidays or special occasions. And my writing was non-existent. I guess what I’m saying is everything comes at a cost. I spent an entire year focusing on our home at the expense of other interests and I’m looking forward to a change-up in 2018.

A clean desk is so satisfying. And handy.

Freshly scrubbed and de-cluttered, the kitchen project was enormously satisfying.

 

The reorganized cleaning pantry.

Refurbished deck furniture.

Room to spare in the reorganized sewing room closet.

The BASEMENT! Clean and organized after only six years.

The refreshed guest bedroom.

Refurbished dining room chairs.

The living room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You didn’t really think I was going the rest of my life without dessert, did you?

Dear friends,

applecrisp2

As you might guess, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen. While I’ve been a relatively attentive home cook since college, I’m feeling very ’90s lately — as that represents the era when I had babies and first devoted considerable time to preparing food (versus merely assembling or reheating food-like stuff). Back then, I had few utensils and fewer skills and minimal understanding of how food ingredients and techniques worked together. Every dish required a recipe, and every recipe required an investment of mental and physical energy. Eventually, my knowledge and my skill expanded considerably and I learned both to cook from memory and to improvise.

So that’s why going “clean” the last month has left me feeling like a kitchen novice. A plant-based diet can be highly satisfying but it requires its own set of knowledge, skills and ingredients. I finally got my footing enough to experiment today, and what better to experiment with than dessert?

After all, did you really think I was going to eat kale and quinoa for the rest of my life?

I decided to start simple. I had no dreams of vegan cupcakes. Instead, my taste buds hearkened back to my childhood and one of my grandmother’s staple desserts, the humble Apple Crisp.

One of the reasons a plant-based diet offers so many health benefits is that whole or minimally processed foods do not prompt a strong insulin response. I’ve been amazed how much better I feel now that my blood sugar isn’t spiking after every meal or snack. The more I eat this way, the more I’m searching for foods and recipes that fit the “whole or minimally processed” criteria.

That’s why Apple Crisp came to my mind. It’s built around apples and rolled oats — two foods considered staples of a healthy diet. After perusing several recipes, I created my own, trying to keep it as “natural” as possible.

The result was as tasty as I remember, without a lot of the “gunk.” See what you think.

With gratitude {for the original Marie and her culinary legacy},

Joan, who’ll never fry a chicken with the same perfection as her namesake but may have matched her in the quilting category

Joan-Marie’s Apple Crisp

5-6 small to medium apples, cored and thinly sliced (I used Gala, but you can use a mix or your favorite variety)

2 TBLS lemon juice

2 TBLS cornstarch

3/4 cup rolled oats

1/4 cup buckwheat flour

2 TBLS flaxseed meal

1/4 cup sliced almonds, or more if you like

1/3 cup brown sugar (loose, not packed)

2 TBLS vegan butter (I like Earth Balance, but Coconut Butter would work well too)

Salt

Cinnamon

Pure Maple Syrup

After slicing your apples, put them in a bowl and sprinkle them with lemon juice. Toss to combine. Sprinkle them with cornstarch, cinnamon to taste (about 1-2 tsp) and a generous pinch of salt, then toss again to combine. Finally, pour in some Maple Syrup to taste (I used about 2 TBLS) and mix thoroughly.

Pour the apple mixture into a well-seasoned cast iron skillet (I used a 10″) and spread the slices around the pan evenly. (Alternately, you can always use a metal or glass baking dish of your choice, but I prefer cast iron.) Set the skillet aside, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees, and make the oat topping.

Combine rolled oats, buckwheat flour, flaxseed meal, sliced almonds, another generous pinch of salt, a hefty sprinkle of cinnamon, brown sugar, and the butter. Work with your fingers until the butter is evenly distributed. Sprinkle the oat topping over the apples making sure it is evenly distributed. Give the whole skillet a light drizzle of Maple Syrup. Bake for 1 hour.

Serve alone, or if you’re not worried about dairy and/or sugar, with whipped cream or ice cream. Serves 4-6 depending on how big your appetite is.

Preparation Notes

The apples: You’re right. I didn’t peel my apples. Mostly because I’m lazy and I don’t mind apple skins. If it bothers you, peel yours, although you’ll never persuade me the ROI is worth it.

The maple syrup: I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed the “granola crowd” loves it. But you have to buy the pure stuff, otherwise it’s just corn syrup and maple flavoring. It’s pricey, but my modest research indicates it is better for your blood sugar than most alternatives.

The brown sugar: Yes, I’m aware it’s nothing more than white sugar with added molasses. I know it’s bad for you. I caved at the last minute remembering my Gram’s Apple Crisp, but I’m not convinced it made that much difference in terms of taste. Next time I make Apple Crisp I’m going to leave it out and see what I think.

The flaxseed meal: This stuff is packed with Omega 3 oils and fiber and I put it in practically everything now. It has a nutty flavor that I think added a lot to this recipe.

The almonds: I like them a lot, but you could use any nut you have on hand. Pecans and walnuts come to mind as tasty alternatives. I almost sprinkled some sunflower seeds on at the last minute but decided against it because I thought my sweet Gram would have shuddered.

The buckwheat flour: Besides the fact that buckwheat flour is gluten free, it offers a lot of health benefits so I used it instead of regular flour. If you’re not familiar with it, I encourage you to check it out.

Tasting Notes

Yes, it’s been 30 days since I ate dessert, but I still moaned when I took my first bite. It was every bit as good as I remembered. Maybe better because I knew my version was vegan and significantly cleaned up.

I’m not gonna lie — you can’t eat dessert and feel as good as you do when you eat a salad. I definitely had a bit of a sugar rush, which may owe more to the size of my portion than the dish itself. But the feeling was short-lived and it was a good reminder that desserts should be enjoyed in small portions and on infrequent occasions. Still . . . if you’re gonna eat sweets, it’s hard to imagine you’ll find one as reasonably healthy as this one. Keep your portion modest and there should be no guilt with this one.

More yummy. Less yucky.

Dear friends,

lasagna (1)

I’ve been away from this space for a while. Life after loss is always an interesting hokey pokey. One step forward, one step backwards, a little sideways shimmy and start over again.

A few weeks ago I was feeling particularly dull and lethargic and — not knowing if my symptoms were the result of grief’s natural progression or some bad habits I picked up during my father’s illness and death — I decided to make some healthy changes.

First, I gave up soda pop. Now the truth is I hadn’t been a pop drinker for more than a decade, but between May 1 and August 1, the desire for something comforting on long road trips to Oklahoma found me guzzling it almost daily. Most people lose weight when they’re under stress, but I put on 5 pounds over the summer and I’m certain it was the many, many cans of 7-Up I drank. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble snapping out of my delirium and giving it up.

Second, I recommitted myself to fitness. My running was severely curtailed during my father’s illness for a million excuses, some legitimate, some not. But beyond the running, I’ve been feeling unusually weak, as if getting myself up off the floor is a major chore. One night while talking in bed, Mr. Mom and I decided to start going to the gym together for weight training. Maybe we’re both feeling old or maybe we needed the mutual encouragement and support, but we’re almost three weeks into a new regimen that has put some pep into both our steps.

Finally, after a year of vegetarian eating, I’ve gone vegan. For at least the last six months, I’ve been noticing an increase in GI difficulties. I won’t get too graphic except to say giving up meat solved my acid reflux but I’ve still been suffering from a variety of stomach difficulties with symptoms that lead me to conclude I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A friend of mine told me about a book called Clean Gut. Written by a cardiologist, the book’s recommendations helped my friend feel better than ever. (Side benefit: she lost 20 pounds.)

The basic premise is that our gut is the center of our health and vitality and we can solve many of our own problems by being far more thoughtful about what we put into it. The book recommends a very strict diet called a “cleanse” for 21 days. (By strict, I mean no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, and no caffeine, with some other restrictions related to starchy, sugary whole foods like corn, potatoes and fruit.) After the 21 days, which is essentially a re-boot of your GI system, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods, such as gluten and dairy, one at a time and test your reaction to them. If you have a strong reaction, you need to eliminate the food from your diet. If you have a mild or moderate reaction, you need to limit your exposure.

I have long wondered if I have a gluten or dairy sensitivity, so following the book’s advice made sense to me. Beyond that, it gave me a framework for taking matters into my own hands and solving my own problems, hopefully without a visit to the doctor’s office or a prescription for medicine.

I’m only 7 days into the cleanse but I can already feel a big difference. I feel like the mental fog is slowly lifting. I’m not yet back to my old self, but I’ve blown away some mental cobwebs and I feel more awake and focused. More importantly, my stomach feels a WHOLE lot better. I don’t want to say too much too soon as I plan to write a post detailing the whole experience at the end of the 28-day cycle but, suffice to say, it works. And I’m excited about the possibilities.

In the mean time, here’s a really good recipe I developed this weekend for a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna pictured above. (The Caesar Salad is vegan and is from The Kind Diet, another good book recommended by a colleague.)

For anyone who followed me from Mayberry Magpie, you may remember I have a killer Classic Lasagna recipe that I perfected over many years. It includes lots of meat and cheese, along with a white sauce, and it’s so good I’ve never found a better lasagna (and I’ve tried many at every restaurant imaginable). I have to admit the idea of any lasagna beside my classic recipe left me more than a little uninterested. But I promise this one is good and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. My tastebuds are as picky as they come and this dish left me completely, utterly happy to have eaten it. Even Mr. Mom said “I don’t care what you call this, it tastes good.”

Best of all, my gut was happy. No sleepy, no sicky, no burpy is a great way to end a meal, especially one that thoroughly satisfies, especially with a dish that usually sits heavy on the gut or induces a long nap.

Enjoy!

With gratitude {for friends and good books},

Joan, who purposely avoided telling you about the tragic treadmill accident she had on a recent trip to the gym, except to say if anyone had recorded it she would be a viral internet sensation (and she still has the bruises and deep scabs to prove it)

***

Joan’s NEW AND IMPROVED Lasagna

1 batch Red Sauce (see below)

1 batch Cashew Risotto (see below)

2 very large or several small zucchini, sliced and roasted (see below)

2 cups packed fresh spinach

Olive oil

Fresh parsley, chopped

Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

For the Red Sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 oz. wine (I prefer dry red, but sweet white is good too)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves minced fresh garlic

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes

1 TBLS sugar

3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried Italian Seasonings

Cracked black pepper to taste (I like a lot, probably close to 1 TBLS)

Heat olive oil in large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat (I prefer cast iron). Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and stir and continue to cook until at least half of the wine has evaporated.

Add tomatoes and seasonings and cover; bring to a boil, then stir well again and reduce heat to low. Simmer with lid on for as long as you can; preferably an hour but 20 minutes will do in a pinch, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water if sauce needs thinning after a long simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If too acidic, add a bit more sugar.

For the Zucchini:

While the red sauce is simmering, prepare your zucchini. Wash well, trim off ends, and slice lengthwise as thin as you can (1/4” works well, but you can go thicker if you have difficulty. Just don’t slice them very thick.) The key here is to slice your zucchini to resemble lasagna noodles, long and not too thick.

Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to sweat out much of the water and get the zucchini at least halfway cooked. It’s okay to leave them in longer and let them get browned in spots. The brown bits taste really good. I have gone for as long as 40 minutes before depending on thickness. By the way, you can prepare the zucchini ahead if you like. They’ll be fine at room temperature for several hours or in the fridge for 3 days. If you happen to be grilling, you can also grill the zucchini and save it for this and other recipes.

For the Cashew Ricotta (from The Simple Veganista):

1 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 garlic clove

Dash of onion powder

Salt & cracked pepper, to taste

Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water, covering the cashews with about an inch of water as they will puff up a bit.

Drain cashews and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. Taste for flavors adding any additional ingredients. Some like a salty ricotta so feel free to add as much salt as you want.

Store in refrigerator in an air tight container for an hour or two as this will stiffen the mixture a bit. You can also just prepare your dish with it straight away without refrigeration if needed.

Makes approximately 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 11”X14” deep dish with olive oil or Pam and layer ingredients in the following order: red sauce, zucchini noodles, spinach leaves, cashew ricotta, a sprinkle of Italian seasonings and chopped parsley. Repeat the layers as many times as you like, reserving enough red sauce to end with it.

If you find the cashew ricotta difficult to spread, just drop dollops of it around the dish and use a spatula to flatten it out and spread it around. Don’t worry if you move the spinach around a bit, just do your best to spread the ricotta around so it’s not in big clumps.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes until bubbly and edges are turning brown. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Preparation Notes: I know it looks like a lot of work, but I made this from start to finish in about an hour (not including final baking time). You can always use sauce in a jar to speed things up, but try the homemade sometime. It really is worth 20-30 minutes of your time. We stopped buying sauce in a jar 10 years ago and have never looked back. Both Mr. Mom and I can make this sauce from memory in no time, and we use it for pizza, spaghetti, baked ziti – all our Italian recipes. You can double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for convenience.

And the zucchini and cashew ricotta can be made in advance, too. If you have everything on hand, you could layer this recipe up and have it in the oven in about 10 minutes.

If you are not gluten sensitive, you could add regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles in your layers and make this more of a classic veggie lasagna. But I’m avoiding gluten right now so that’s why I substituted zucchini for lasagna noodles. The great thing is that I didn’t even miss the wheat noodles – plus this recipe offers the added benefit of not sitting heavy on your stomach or making you sleepy afterwards!

PS: I forgot to mention — yes, the red sauce has a tablespoon of white sugar in it. That’s because it’s a recipe from my pre-clean eating days. I think all red sauces need just a bit of sweetener to balance the acidity. If you’re sensitive to sugar, replace it with your favorite alternative . . . Stevia, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave juice, the choice is yours.

A new kind of foodie.

Dear friends,

I’ve been happily tucked away, these days of late, cooking and empty-nesting and enjoying the transition to cool weather and shorter days. My acid-reflux is almost entirely under control, without medication, which in the (modified) words of our Vice President, is a big freaking deal!

I’ve been meatless since Sept. 8 and I haven’t missed it once. I bought two new cookbooks and it’s been a culinary wonderland in my kitchen. If you follow me on social media, you know I’ve posted endless photos of my new, healthier approach to eating.

Despite having dabbled in vegetarianism for years (actually, I’ve called myself a flexitarian many times), I’m still a little surprised how good food can be without meat when you put your mind to it. Let me be clear, though: I haven’t given up all animal products. I still eat yogurt and cheese daily, and I eat eggs a few times a week.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just the meatless approach that has improved my reflux. I’ve also cut out most processed foods (except for the occasional saltine). Once again — this is a big freaking deal, giving up packaged snacks. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Mom and I were watching television and he mentioned how much he wanted a snack. “Just think,” he remarked, “a month ago I would have said that and we would have finished off an entire bag of chips while watching the Daily Show.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that my partner in crime, who’s always been more than happy to follow my lead in the kitchen, has lost 20+ pounds. Don’tcha just hate men and their metabolism? Still, I’ve lost half that amount, without trying. I didn’t set out to lose weight, though I certainly needed to. I set out to cure myself, and I seem to have hit upon the recipe: meatless meals + much smaller portions + no eating at least three hours before bedtime, which for me means no food past 6:00 pm. I’m also taking a probiotic supplement and digestive enzymes with each meal.

Take a look at just a few of the beautiful dishes I’ve made in the last few weeks:

blackpeppertofu

This black pepper tofu was Asian-restaurant quality.

leek

These leek fritters were filling and comforting.

parsnips

These roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes with caper vinaigrette were a platter of health and beauty.

onions

These stuffed onions were mild and sweet and reminiscent of stuffed shells — a perfect alternative to a heavy, baked pasta dish.

pita

This pita sandwich with black bean hummus and veggies was a perfect lunch on the go.

polenta

This creamy polenta with slow-baked Roma tomatoes and a poached egg is a perfect weekend breakfast.

I’ve also made black-bean burgers, Indian hash, tofu enchiladas with green sauce, lentil/quinoa pilaf and salads galore — all of which delighted my culinary sensibilities while protecting my GI tract.

But — by far — the best vegetarian recipe I’ve made to date is this spectacular rice dish:

ricechickpea

It’s called basmati & wild rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs. Even Mr. Mom, who’s been a big fan of my new concoctions, took one bite of this dish and said unequivocably “This is the best vegetarian recipe you’ve made!”

The combination of two kinds of rice with chickpeas (spiced with curry powder), sweet currants and fried onions is unbeatable! If you’d like the recipe, click here. I’d recommend you triple the amount of curry powder in the recipe as I did. You won’t be sorry. By the way, if you have a well-stocked spice pantry, I also recommend you make your own curry powder. I used this recipe, with the only modification being I doubled the amount of ground chili pepper. I guess you can tell by now I’m not afraid of a little heat in my food. I have two dear Indian friends and their culinary influences and tutoring have definitely rubbed off on me.

In eight days, Mr. Mom and I are heading to one of America’s culinary meccas to celebrate our 23rd anniversary. I planned our vacation to New Orleans before I turned over a new leaf, but I’m confident I can eat well there while staving off reflux. I plan to indulge in my favorite treat — oysters on the half shell — hopefully without incident. Whether I can spend an entire week in the French Quarter without succumbing to the allure of beignets remains to be seen. I’ll no doubt take a ton of photos and let you know.

In the mean time, Kate’s coming home for Fall Break, I’m working a 60-hour week due to a flurry of special events, and we’re celebrating Parker’s 19th birthday (with Kate as Executive Chef for our family dinner Thursday night!). I’ll circle back around when the dust has settled to catch you up.

With gratitude {for the bounty of God’s green earth and great chefs, distant and near, who’ve helped me make the most of it},

Joan, who has a whoppin’ big announcement to share with you when she returns, not to be all sneaky or anything, but a little bloggy anticipation is a good thing

PS: If you’re as smitten by these dishes as I have been, I highly recommend you buy these two cookbooks by Chef Yotam Ottolenghi: Plenty and Jerusalem

Acid: 1. Joan: 0.

Dear friends,

soup

Joan’s Miso/Soba/Tofu Soup. So simple, so clean, so comforting.

A few months ago, I had a vivid dream I was having a heart attack. I woke up groggy and fairly suspicious I was having a real heart attack instead of a dream about one. I even awakened Mr. Mom, but after a few moments of assessing my symptoms, I realized I really was suffering from a wicked case of heartburn.

I had been waking up miserable for a long time — bloated, gassy, and nauseated but without the tell-tale “burn.” It wasn’t until the heart attack dream that I bothered to Google “heartburn,” after which I figured out I had all the classic symptoms of acid reflux.

My first instinct, of course, was to load up on over-the-counter medicines. Surely a cocktail of Tums, Pepto-Bismol and Zantac could quell the fire within, I reasoned. It wasn’t until Labor Day — when an excessive platter of barbeque chased by beer and pie resulted in 24 hours of misery — that I was finally prompted to consult my physician.

The prescription-strength Zantac my doc prescribed did nothing to calm my symptoms. I went back to my doctor and ended up with a prescription for a popular proton pump inhibitor, although I was more than a little unnerved by the two-page list of possible side-effects.

I had been joking with colleagues that food is my only joy in life, so I wasn’t about to declare my diet the enemy. But there was something about the warnings on my medicine bottle that persuaded me a lifestyle change might be advisable.

Thus, I’ve spent the last two weeks keeping a detailed food diary in an attempt to identify possible culinary modifications.

It may be a little too soon to go all Sherlock Holmes on my case, but it appears that cutting back on meat (where cutting back = eating vegetarian) has helped quite a bit. It also appears that with the exception of chocolate (to which I have an immediate reaction), various foods and spices aren’t the triggers as much as timing and quantity.

For example, I ate yellow curry three times with no reaction. (The curry was plenty spicy and oily, the combo of which can be troublesome for many folks.) Then I ate spicy Mexican twice, with painful results. The difference was that I ate modest amounts of the curry at least three hours before bedtime, while I consumed far too much Mexican food not long before turning in.

Big meals or regular snacking after 7:00 pm are a recipe for middle-of-the-night disaster, it seems. So far, making a few timing adjustments and eating far smaller portions appears  more manageable than what I feared would be the wholesale elimination of all joy in my life.

I’ve always been a fan of tofu, so switching from meat to soy has been easy-peasy. And loading up on vegetables and whole grains has been similarly effortless. The biggest adjustment has been staying out of the kitchen/pantry after 6:00 pm, when every snack known to man calls my name.

Acid Reflux may have gotten the first punch, but my footwork is improving and I wouldn’t count me out yet.

With gratitude {for a new emphasis on culinary diversity and moderation},

Joan, who, after months of acid-reflux insomnia and 4:45 am wake-up calls to run, spent somewhere north of 15 hours in bed on Saturday and finally woke up heartburn free and well-rested, praise the Lord

 

Kitchen therapy.

Dear friends,

yellowcurry

Whenever life beats me up, I retreat to the kitchen. There’s nothing like a day spent puttering over the stove to help me find my center. Chopping, measuring, blending, sauteeing, frying, tasting, stirring . . . all are a form a meditation for me. Eating my creations afterwards is my Zen moment.

I spent a good portion of Sunday making a shopping list and visiting the grocery store to restock my empty pantry. I cooked chickpeas, which I later turned into hummus, and quinoa, which I turned into this yummy Asian salad I found on Pinterest. I chopped bags and bags of veggies, then I fried up some firm tofu in order to pack “Super Bowl” lunches next week. (By the way, if you like tofu as much as me and don’t have a tofu press, get one now. I love, love, love mine!)

But the highlight of my day was a yellow curry that surpassed the one Mr. Mom and I ate at a new restaurant last Thursday. We’re longtime fans of Thai food so we were thrilled when a new Thai restaurant opened up in our town. Their yellow curry was so good I was inspired to make my own.

I consulted several recipes on the internet but couldn’t find a single one that was precisely what I wanted. So what follows is Joan’s adaption, culled from a variety of sources. It’s not difficult, and it doesn’t have to cook long, but it does take time to prep. The payoff is totally worth it, though, so I hope you’ll give it a try soon and let me know what you think.

And you don’t even have to wait until a bad day.

***

Joan’s Yellow Curry

1/2 recipe yellow curry paste (see recipe below)

1 cup cooked, chopped chicken (I used leftovers from a rotisserie chicken)

1 medium potato, peeled and chopped small

1/2 medium white onion, cut into thin slices about 3″ long

2 carrots, shredded and chopped

1 7-oz jar of pickled baby corn, drained and rinsed

2 TBLS vegetable oil

1 cup chicken broth

2 13.5-oz cans of coconut milk

Chopped fresh cilantro

Hot cooked rice, I prefer Jasmine

Put vegetable oil in large saucepan and heat over medium high heat. When sizzling, add onions and carrots and saute until tender. Add coconut milk, chicken broth, and curry paste and stir well. When mixture is almost boiling, add potato and cover until mixture boils. Lower heat just a bit and cook about 15 minutes or until potatoes are nearly tender. Add chicken and corn, cover again, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for another 15 minutes or so. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. If not salty enough, add salt or fish sauce. If too sour, add brown sugar. If not hot enough, add cayenne pepper. I made several adjustments while cooking my curry, adding salt, sugar and cayenne until it was “perfect.”

Serve a cup full of hot curry over a bowl of jasmine rice. Top with chopped cilantro.

Yellow Curry Paste

You can buy curry paste in the Asian aisle of many stores. But I always prefer to make mine fresh. It’s easy, and you can taste the difference.

1/2 stalk lemongrass (this is only occasionally available at my grocery store; they were out this week so I omitted it)

2-4 serrano peppers, chopped with seeds left in (I used 2 but recommend 4 because I had to add cayenne at the end to boost the heat)

2 shallots, sliced

4 garlic cloves

1 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced

1 tsp coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 TBLS cinnamon (I used 2 but Mr. Mom recommends 1)

2 TBLS fish sauce

3/4 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp white pepper

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 TBLS ketchup

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup coconut milk, or just enough to keep your food processer blades moving

Put all ingredients in your food processor and blend thoroughly. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

With gratitude {for a day spent in my happy place},

Joan, who has no explanation for why it’s taken her this long to cook a yellow curry since Mr. Mom orders it every time we eat at a Thai restaurant

Well that didn’t last long.

Dear friends,

lovepillow

Remember how I told you I tackled a couple of big projects to keep me busy during my first summer of empty nesting?

Well, yeah. It’s already over.

I don’t know what I was thinking because everybody knows I go crazy when I start something. (Honestly, I can start and finish a project faster than most people can think one up.)

I finished the guest room makeover earlier this week and it’s left me scratching my head. So what’s an idle girl to do but enroll in an online class on foundation paper piecing (a rather complicated quilting technique) in an effort to stay busy.

Anyway Parker’s room, er the guest room, looks so much better.

Before I show it to you, though, I want to show you my inspiration photo. I was browsing through Pinterest and admired it. About a day later my brain clicked and I decided “Hey, I think I’ll make over the spare bedroom like that photo I saw.”

inspiration

Source: Pinterest

I love the combination of spa blue walls, black drapes, natural blinds, navy and red accents and the green chevron pillow. The room I’m working with is small so I wouldn’t have nearly as much space for furniture and accessories, but I knew I could make my own version work.

Here’s my interpretation:

bedroom

For such a small room with so few accessories, there was a lot to do. I painted the golden oak bed and dresser black, and painted the antique oak mirror white. I painted the walls. I bought new bedding, added curtains, a rug, and a nightstand. Changed out the lampshade and wall art. And added dresser-top accessories.  This, after cleaning out the closet and all the dresser drawers.

Since my room is small and I don’t have a wide angle lens, I couldn’t get a good shot of the dresser, but here’s my best try:

dressertop

Parker ribbed me about the mirrored tray. But when he inhabited this room full time, he had a bad habit of leaving his contact lens solution and case on the dresser. The solution he spilled daily on the dresser ruined the finish in several spots, so I instructed him that now, as a guest in this room, he needed to use the tray. I think he rolled his eyes while I was busy making the bed.

Mr. Mom ribbed me about the “goofy-dog-in-a-sweater plate.” I reminded him that at age 7, his son practically memorized our encyclopedia of dog breeds and can still recite chapter and verse of every breed known to man. “It’s an homage to Parker,” I countered. I think he and Parker both rolled their eyes as I carefully arranged the items on the dresser top. By the way — the glass vase replaces the pickle jar Parker throws his change in. Sometimes this crew I live with just needs a little classin’ up.

Here’s a better shot of the mirror:

mirror

Mr. Mom was aghast that I painted the hand-carved oak frame. But you know what? It didn’t bother me in the least. My mother gave this treasure to me  more than 30 years ago after literally pulling it out of a trash dumpster and replacing the broken mirror. It has hung in my home all of my adult life and I like to think she’d like the new look. After all, I get my urge to redecorate often from her. Every few months she was painting something, or refurbishing something, or moving things around. She had the itch just like me and I know she’d understand.

Here’s a shot of the bedside table and lamp:

bedsidetable

Parker’s girlfriend gave the guest room two thumbs up when she visited. Parker’s dirt-bike riding buddy dropped by and said “Dude. Your room turned girly.”

All I know is I’ve got two different groups of overnight guests coming later this summer and I think they’ll appreciate my efforts.

After all — look at this before photo:

before

I know. It was fine for my teenage boy — not so much for an idle empty nester.

You won’t be surprised to learn Mr. Mom encouraged me to “learn to sit on the porch” after hearing me wonder aloud “Now what?”

I tried it. For about 5 minutes before enrolling in my quilting class.

I’ve run out of rooms to make over, but I can sure spruce up a few beds.

With gratitude {for inspiration, energy, and an indulgent partner who patiently helped with moving furniture and all chores involving power tools},

Joan, who learned long ago from her friend Carolyn you ALWAYS paint the wall with select samples and study them in changing light for a few days before making a decision because NOBODY can make a good choice based on a paint chip

PS: I didn’t plan it this way, but the guest bedroom perfectly coordinates with the guest bathroom I redecorated a couple of years ago and featured in this post. Guess I’m more drawn to the black-blue-red combo than I realized.

PSS: In case you’re curious, the wall paint is Benjamin Moore’s Aura in Harbor Fog. It is one of this month’s House Beautiful featured colors, though I didn’t know that when I chose it. I never use anything but Benjamin Moore and their Aura line is pricy but smooth as silk and durable.

The best cake you’ll never bake.

Dear friends,

iceboxcake

I made a cake on Saturday that was not only a showstopper, it was surprisingly easy to put together. Combine showy with simple — and throw in amazingly good flavor — and you’ve got yourself a winner.

My friend Gina was hosting a pool party to celebrate the birthday of a mutual friend, Mary. We’re a group of ladies who have bonded around food so Gina wisely planned a potluck to take advantage of diverse culinary talents. I was tagged for the cake because . . . well you’ve read my blog before, right? Some would say I kind of have a thing for cakes.

But on this day of this week, I just couldn’t get myself revved up. Many of my favorite cakes require specialty ingredients and six or more hours from start to finish. After a week of working double shifts on my home improvement projects, I didn’t have it in me. Honestly, my friends were lucky I showered before I showed up.

Fortunately, I tripped across this Lemon & Thyme Icebox Cake on the blog She Wears Many Hats.

I won’t repeat all the ingredients and directions here because you can and should simply click on my link to her beautiful blog. But I will say a few things about this cake that the author doesn’t.

First, if you don’t have access to fancy-pants cookies, don’t sweat it. I live in a small town and all I could get my hands on was good ol’ vanilla wafers. They worked perfectly. You’ll need two boxes, and you’ll use about 20 cookies per layer.

Second, don’t be tempted (like I was) to use something other than honey to sweeten the cream. The combination of thyme, lemon and honey is both brilliant and sublimely simple. It’s why this recipe works, so don’t mess with it.

Third, make your candied lemons a day in advance. You don’t have to of course, but it’s a time saver you’ll appreciate. By the way, if you’ve never had candied lemons, don’t be tempted to skip this step. They are not only beautiful, they are addictive. Between Mr. Mom, Parker, and me, it’s a wonder we had any left to top the cake.

Fourth, when I first started whipping together the cream cheese, honey and lemon juice, it looked like a watery, curdled mess and I panicked. Don’t. Just keep whipping it with the electric beater and it will eventually come together. More whipping is good in this instance. Fear not!

Fifth, the first layer of this cake is a real challenge. Basically, you’re being asked to put a ring of cookies on a plate and smear them with a sticky mixture of honey and cream. The cookies simply won’t stay put and “spreading” the mixture on top of them is laughable. I ended up dropping mounds of the cream mixture on top and doing my best to smash it around in anything resembling a layer. But from then on, you’re home free because the cookies stick to the cream beneath them (kind of like tiles on grout) and it all works. Next time I make this, I might try putting a little cream mixture on the bottom of each cookie to see if I can get the first layer of cookies to stick to the plate.

Don’t worry about slicing the cake when you’re ready to serve it. (But do refrigerate it first for 2-3 hours. Despite the fact that the entire time I was assembling this cake, Mr. Mom and I were dunking Vanilla Wafers in the cream mixture and eating them, I think it tastes better chilled and you need time for the cookies to absorb the moisture of the cream.) Slice it like you would any cake and transport the slices from the cake stand to a plate with a cake server. You won’t have any trouble.

In case you’re curious, the cookies and the cream melt into a lovely texture that is — to me — reminiscent of Tiramisu. The combination of a light, lemony flavor with a light texture is perfect.

The next time you need an easy but elegant dessert, I hope you’ll give this one a try. After all, it’s Magpie tested and approved!

With gratitude {for other, more qualified bloggers with fantastic ideas just when I need them},

Joan, who came home from the party and took a two-hour nap, which alcohol aside, is in her book the sign of a really fabulous shin-dig

Home remedy.

Dear friends,

I took a few days off over Spring Break with ambitious plans, most of which didn’t come to fruition.

I spent my first day cleaning house and my second day re-organizing my dish pantry. Over the course of several months, the pantry had become a junk closet — one you  could no longer walk into because the floor was covered with piles of objects I was too lazy to put away. But by day’s end, it was clean, tidy and organized.

pantry

Despite my early productivity, additional plans to clean out my quilting cabinet, wash windows, take care of some nagging paperwork, and finish a quilt-in-progress never materialized.

Instead I watched television, took more naps than I can count, and abandoned my dreams of vacation productivity in favor of a very slow pace — so much so that by Friday evening, I was feeling pretty let down.

Whenever I’m feeling lethargic, there’s nothing like a day in the kitchen to re-charge my batteries. Cooking has long been my fail-safe home remedy to cure what ails me. Cooking and baking are both my motivation and my therapy.

I started early with a tried-and-true cake recipe. By the time Mr. Mom woke up and joined me for coffee, he wondered if someone had lent me a hand in the kitchen.

rear

Note to self: Black yoga pants aren’t the best baking attire. No wonder pastry chefs wear white.

After the cake, I set my mind to three new recipes culled from a cookbook by Food and Wine and one from a food blog. By 5:00 pm dinner was on the table, and oh what a table it was!

tabletop2

There was Maple Glazed Chicken with Mustard Jus; Brown Rice and Barley Tabbouleh with Apricot and Mint; Roast Zucchini with Ricotta; Romaine and Avocado Salad with Garlic-Anchovy Dressing; and Vanilla Layer Cake with Raspberry-Cointreau Filling and Chocolate Buttercream Icing.

When food is this good, it’s a treat.

When it’s beautiful too . . .

cake

It’s almost too good to be true.

And it totally makes up for a few undone projects.

With gratitude {for a happy Saturday to end my vacation and the best Spring Break meal in a million years},

Joan, who urges you to try every single one of these recipes because aren’t you hungry now? And PS: Is there anything that perks up a table more than a cheery vintage tablecloth?