Friday, August 23, 2013

Better Than Famous Chili

Remember back in first grade when your teacher assigned you a “How To” project? You had to pick something you were good enough at doing so that you could explain to your classmates how to do it. I am about to travel back to that time with my very first How-To blog post. Hopefully it isn’t terrible.

In keeping with the introspective nature of my previous posts, it is time to talk about something that is of utmost importance to me. I LOVE soup. I could eat soup for every meal, everyday. One of the soupy varieties I like best is chili. It is one of my favorite things to make, it tastes delicious, and leftovers are even better. Despite this affinity, I rarely order chili out at restaurants; even though they brag about their “famous chili” on the menu (By the way, how can everyone’s chili be famous?), the bowl containing the so-called celebrity is usually a monochromatic mixture of meat and beans floating in a broth of oily tomato disappointment. Nothing else. I have been deceived! There has to be more than this! That can’t be the best you’ve got! Where is the color? The crunch? The excitement? In my world, chili is a reasonably spicy avenue through which wonderful meat, beans, AND veggies enter my hungry tummy. The vegetables are the secret to my Better Than Famous Chili.

The beautiful thing about chili is that you can adjust the ingredients to make it your own. Here is how I make mine . . .

I like to use:
- Olive Oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 1 lb. ground beef (I like to use 80/20 for chili)
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- one small can of tomato paste
- one cup of beer (if you are 21+) (you can also sub chicken/beef/vegetable stock)
- one large can of diced tomatoes, with juices
- 3 cans of beans, rinsed and drained (I use black, kidney, and great northern)
- one red bell pepper, diced
- one orange bell pepper, diced
- one yellow bell pepper, diced
- one small zucchini, large dice
- ½ cup baby bella mushrooms, diced
- 1 pepper (You can use serrano, jalapeño, whatever you like. Remove the seeds if you want less heat.)
- 1 tsp. cumin powder
- 1 tsp. chili powder
- 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
- Salt and pepper to taste

Optional Toppings:
- sour cream, avocado, shredded cheese, onion, tomato, cilantro

Get started by heating a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a stock pot over medium heat. I never measure, I just make sure the bottom of the pot is coated. Add the diced onion and stir occasionally as it cooks. If you are using fresh garlic, add it in so that it has time to soften. If you are lazy like me and you are using the jarred stuff, wait until the onions are nice and translucent, then throw in the garlic and stir it around for a minute, but don’t let it go too long or it will burn and become bitter tasting and make your breath stink (and nobody wants that).

Break up the onion-garlic-fest by adding in the ground beef. Side-note: this might sound odd, but I think ground beef, and red meat in general, is so good looking when it is raw. Maybe that makes me weird? Regardless, it needs to be cooked, so break it up into bite-sized pieces, and make sure it all gets browned. If you don’t have one, the Pampered Chef Mix ‘n’ Chop tool is perfect for this job. I have seen a similar utensil at retail stores, too.

Once your cow stops mooing, stir in the tomato paste so that it coats the ground beef. (If you are under age 21, add your cup of broth and skip the rest of this paragraph, because you can’t buy or consume alcohol. Bummer for you.) Then, add in one cup of a beer of your choice; please, for the love of beer and chili, just don’t pick something akin to water. I used the gluten free Omission Pale Ale. Get excited about the beer getting all fizzy in the pot, and let it simmer for a few minutes so that the alcohol cooks out and the flavor stays in. Drink the rest of the beer during your short break.

After the liquid has cooked down, add the diced tomatoes and then let your favorite beans in on the party. I usually use three cans: one is black beans, one is great northern (they add a creaminess to the finished product), and then a can of some sort of red bean. Stir in the bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms.

Time for some fuh-lay-vor! Add your hot pepper of choice, cumin, oregano, chili powder, and salt and pepper to taste. Admire how wonderful your chili smells as it simmers for a few minutes while all the spices meld into the stewy chili goodness. Meanwhile, prepare whatever toppings you like.

When you just can’t stand waiting any longer, taste your chili (without burning your tongue, please) and adjust any seasonings, if necessary. The zucchini and mushrooms should be soft but not mushy, and the peppers should maintain some of their crunch. Ladle into bowls, accessorize with toppings, and enjoy!

Get creative with it and add, subtract or adjust ingredients throughout the process to suit your desires. I like cheese, sour cream, and avocado with mine. I made some cornbread muffins to serve with the chili, too. Sometimes I skip the spoon and just use tortilla chips to shovel it into my mouth. This time, though, I enjoyed using our brand new soup spoons, which are more like small ladles! This tastes amazing hot out of the pot, is great leftover, and freezes well so you can do double duty and prepare a future meal while you cook tonight's dinner.

As a teacher, I have to say that constructive criticism is welcome; please let me know how I did with my “How-To” presentation!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Moving On

So far, all of the major milestone moments in my life have been accompanied by a significant move. I have to laugh, because I learned in AP Psychology that certain life events are identified as being significantly more stressful than others, even if they are “good” stress, and it seems like I don’t take on one at a time; I like to double or triple them up. Go big or go home, right? (Check out this site to see how stressed out you are.)

Notice that change in residence is worth 20 “life change units” out of 100. I personally think it should be more points, considering all the changes that go along with a move to a new home, but there are several ordeals at the top that have got to be worse (let’s hope none of us ever find out). Adding a move to another life event or three might feel daunting, but I have found it is best to take on the challenge and welcome it as a blessing disguised as brown boxes and clear packing tape.

Here is my own track record:

Two weeks after graduating from high school in Maryland, my family moved to Florida. Two months later I moved to the University of Florida to begin marching band camp. My Grandpa suddenly passed away a couple of days later and I traveled back to Maryland for the funeral, then flew back to Florida and attended my first college classes the next day and learned my first college halftime show in one practice (thank goodness it was simple).
End school (26 points) (<= Peace out, high school!)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Hello, sunshine!)
Change in schools (20 points) (<= Go Gators!)
Begin school (26 points) (<= Where are my classes?! When are my classes?!)
Death of a close family member (63) (<= I miss you, Grandpa.)
Grand Total: 155

After completing my M. Ed. at UF (before officially completing it, actually), I moved to Inverness, Florida to teach high school history. I started work at the end of July, graduated on August 7th, and had my first day with students on August 9th.
End school (26 points) (<= What do you mean, I’m not in college anymore?)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= This county doesn’t have a Target?! Panera?! Five Guys?! Chipotle?! Kohl’s?! A bookstore of any kind?!)
Change in working hours or conditions (20 points) (<= Employment is nice!)
            Change in financial state (38 points) (<= Paychecks are the best!)
Change in social activities (18 points) (<= I suddenly didn’t have many.)
Grand Total: 122

My husband and I married each other on June 8th 2013. Following our honeymoon we lived in Drew’s apartment in Miami. At the end of June we moved into the spare bedroom at the home of his very wonderful and gracious friends as we waited for news about Drew’s job transfer. When we got the go-ahead, we packed up and drove to Dallas where we stayed in a hotel for a week and half, then moved to a hotel in Arlington for five days, then moved into our apartment with the help of my amazing father who drove all of our junk from Tampa to Arlington. (There’s your little nod, Daddy. Happy?)
Change in working hours or conditions (20 points) (<= Bye, bye, CHS.)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Inverness to Parents’ House)
            Marriage (50 points) (<= Mrs. Smith is in the house!)
Vacation (13 points) (<= Honeymoon!)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Parents’ House to Drew’s Apartment)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Drew’s Apartment to Friends’ House)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Dallas Hotel)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Arlington Hotel)
Change in residence (20 points) (<= Home, sweet home!)
Grand Total: 203

Despite all the addition I just did, this post isn’t really about the points. There are no awards to be earned here, but it is interesting to quantify stress this way. I don’t add up these things on a daily basis, of course, but years later, I can look back at all the stuff that was happening in my life and be pretty proud that I came out on the other end relatively sane. I think. You tell me.

Anyway, this has been a very looooong digression. My POINT here is that I am thankful that God placed moves in my life when other big things were going on; I think moving ended up feeling less like a big deal and simply part of the natural process of whatever else was happening. In a cool way, these many re-locations serve as a clear break in each chapter of my personal development. There is no doubt in my mind that I grew up in Maryland. I went to college in Gainesville. I taught 11th grade U.S. history in Inverness. Now, I am married and I live in Texas. For people who prefer compartmentalization, follow my example and you will be happy as a clam.

Admittedly, moving and unpacking and making new friends are added inconveniences when you are trying to start college, or a new job, or a marriage, but it has made all of those experiences more intense and significant to me. I know that I learned more about myself by moving around than I ever would have if I had stayed in one place all of this time. As a kid I imagined that I would always be able to go “home” to my parents’ house in Maryland, but I have since realized that it is okay to move, to form new traditions, to feel love and loyalty to more than one “home.” I don’t know where the future will take me, but when I find out, I am pretty sure my cynical response will be, “Oy ve! We have too much stuff to put this all in boxes again!” In the end, though, I will let optimism prevail, “Move on!”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The WAS Epiphany

Anyone who knows me also knows that I love words. They make me think through their many layers and shades of meaning to get down to the true definition. I also love it when I learn a new word and it seems to pop up everywhere. (Does that happen to anyone else?) I like knowing what words mean and understanding the nuances that make even synonyms different so that I can pick just the right one each time. I was the kid who wrote English and History papers with both the dictionary and the thesaurus perched on my desk, ready to provide assistance. Scrabble and Boggle are two of my favorite games and I relish in finding a big word that scores mega points. This post however, is about a small word, because the little ones deserve some attention, too.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today’s word of the day is: Was

The word WAS gets used everyday, probably by everyone, in many different contexts. It can recall any emotion or memory: regret, happiness, sorrow, excitement, longing. If it happened in the past, then WAS is there when we talk about it in the present. WAS is an itty, bitty word that most people probably don’t even think about using. I know I never did. I recently realized, though, how beautiful and powerful WAS can be. As we were getting ready for bed and talking about the day, I said to my husband, “I felt a little bit woozy for a moment today, but not like when I WAS sick. After I ate something I felt fine.” (No, I am not pregnant.) It occurred to me that I hadn’t really referred to the past year as a WAS. 

Twelve months ago I WAS not feeling that great and I could not figure out why, nine months ago I WAS feeling terrible and some days passed in a blur, and six months ago I started to feel so much better thanks to a major overhaul of my diet. The past six months have been both a challenge and a blessing. There have been really aggravating moments when I wondered if I would ever get to the bottom of the “What’s wrong with me?” question. There were also moments when I surprised myself by finding that I did not think about my health at all because I felt good. I became even more patient and more sympathetic to others with ailments and I learned, again, that it is okay to take time to care for myself. To keep it all in perspective, I reminded myself that so many people suffer far more intense health problems than I did. Now, I am utterly thankful that, all things considered, I am very healthy. My supportive family and friends who love me and pray for me make me constantly aware of how lucky I am.

I married Drew a few days past one year from the time I started feeling unwell. As frustrating as the prior year had been, I got through it day in and day out, largely because of his unwavering love and encouragement. How many men are willing to dive into gluten free, sugar free, yeast free, dairy free cooking? (Praise the Lord, most of that food is back in my diet, to one degree or another.) Because of him, our wedding vows meant so much on our special day and I barely made it through “in sickness and in health” without bursting into tears. Today, I feel like a different person than who I WAS one year ago. God willing, I will continue to feel this way. WAS has the power to put something in the past. It is a subtle word, one that I am blessed to say passed through my lips with ease.

And since this has been stuck in my head the entire time I WAS writing this:
Fuzzy Wuzzy WAS a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy WASN’T very fuzzy. WAS he?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

1,534 Mile Move

We made it to Texas! 

I thought it was never going to happen. I told Drew, “I won’t believe that this job is for real until you come home from your first day of work. Maybe.” We waited for months and months – almost a year. And this is not some experiment with hyperbole I have here. Anyone who has worked for the government can relate, I am sure. Drew first heard about the possibility of this job at the end of last summer. Six months later, this past March, the job was opened for applicants.  MARCH. We found out while on our honeymoon in JUNE that we would be making the transition from Miami, Florida to Arlington, Texas. FINALLY! The waiting game was a major trial of my patience; I could not understand why everything was taking so long. Coming from the world of education, where jobs are snatched up before you can say, “The bell doesn’t dismiss you, I dismiss you!” this whole the-government-drags-out-the-process-to-a-painful-extent thing was all quite new to me.

It took almost another month before we found out when Drew would be starting his new job, and then at that point we had about a week to make the move. Before the wedding I moved all of my things to my parents’ house in Tampa (my wonderful, blessed parents who sacrificed their living space to let my many, many boxes crowd their daily lives) and the things Drew had in Florida ended up there, too. So, on the morning of my baby sister’s 17th birthday, we jammed the cars full of the things we would need to survive two weeks in a new city without the rest of our belongings (most importantly, we packed our brand new cookware) and we headed out for Birmingham, Alabama, our midway stop between Tampa and Arlington.

The journey was fun and memorable and we’ll have some great stories to tell our kids someday (well, at least we will think they are great). Like how we had two-way radios to talk to each other in our respective vehicles and how I sang the entirety of Bohemian Rhapsody to cheer up Drew when he was cranky. Or how Drew misplaced his car keys and though we entered Birmingham with two cars, we exited with one. And how the hotels we stayed in upon our arrival were sub-par but we managed to make them temporary homes. And how we had to move two cars worth of stuff with only one car. Twice. And how we found and moved into a two-bedroom apartment with more boxes of stuff than we know what to do with. And how every time we get annoyed with each other or feel frazzled and overwhelmed, we end up sharing laughter and hugs and a sense of relief that we are in this together.

Drew is enjoying his new job and I smile every time I get a text that says, “We are really going to like it here. This job is great.” My current job title is “Apartment Organizer Extraordinaire.” This is what all that time spent rearranging my dollhouse was preparing me for, and the challenge has been fun. Everyday our apartment starts to look more like our home and not just some borrowed floor space. Boxes are unloaded and broken down and our belongings are reentering our little world, although some of them are being promptly kicked out (I need to find a donation center, ASAP). And, though I do enjoy figuring out how to arrange all of our things, I am looking forward to the morning when I wake up and everything is just right, even if only for a moment. And then I will probably start moving stuff around again.