Thursday, June 30, 2011

Food & the Purpose of Life

Sometimes I live my life in a perpetual state of wondering what the next meal holds.  Most times when we have visitors at my house I spend almost the entire time prepping for a meal, making a meal, doing dishes from the meal, etc. 

Sometimes life feels like it revolves around the simple act of eating.  (I know my friend Becki can relate to this but in a much more real way as she helps her young daughter learn how to eat:  Now that we are home, we are keeping up the schedule of 3 meals and 3 snacks a day (eating every 2-3 hours) with each feeding session lasting ideally 20-30 minutes, but right now sometimes up to an hour since Aubrey is a slow eater.  This is pretty intense, as you can imagine, and makes me feel some days like all we are doing is making meals, eating, cleaning up, and then starting all over again.  In addition to her meals, we are currently feeding her 6 ounces of blenderized diet daily to supplement what she is taking by mouth.  If you are wondering, blenderized diet is just what it sounds like – several different foods blended up in the blender and then syringed through her g-tube.  This 6 ounces of blenderized diet replaces the 32 ounces of formula that she was receiving daily before we left for Seattle, so you can see from this alone that she has come a long way in how much she is eating.  Read more here:

But when I read a book, watch a movie or television show, very little of the lives of the characters are spent eating.  (The exceptions to this rule are cooking shows, The Food Network, and the movie “Julie & Julia”, based on the life of a blogger as she cooks through Julia Child’s premiere cookbook.)

So I’ve pondered at various times why it is that so much of my life is taken up with the thought of food.  And that maybe I’m missing the real plot of life as I’m focused on the food. 

These queries sort of shake me.  I don’t want to miss what’s important.  And I don’t want to make food more important than it should be.  But I do enjoy food.  Do I enjoy it too much?  Should I enjoy it less?  Should I appreciate it for what it is?  But when I go fresher & healthier with my food, the more time it consumes in my life, proportionately.  Because it takes more time to select the right food.  (Not to mention GROW it, but I’m still not quite there.)  And to prepare it. 

This leaves me in a conundrum.  I like the idea of not worrying about where my next meal comes from (and let’s be honest – I don’t WORRY about it like some have to worry about it; I know there will BE a next meal - I just don’t know whether it will be at home or out somewhere).  I don’t want FOOD to consume my life.  I want it to be in its rightful place in my life.  But just what place that is I’m still figuring out. 

And then I ponder the idea that perhaps if my life is a book and I’m writing the plot (thanks, Donald Miller, for inspiring me to desire to “write a better story with my life”!), then maybe MY book is not a mystery, action-adventure, comedy or romance.  Perhaps MY book is more of a family cookbook collection, filled with recipes and stories about how food has been a tool that’s brought me closer to loved ones.  And maybe that’s exactly what MY book should be. 

I’m still wrestling with all this.  I probably will for a very long time, if not forever.  Because I desire to be what God created me to be and live a balanced life in his name, giving him the glory.  But if God created me to be a cookbook, I don’t want to be striving to be a suspenseful thriller.  (That sounds too stressful anyway!)

Ideas?  Helpful input that’s put you on the right path?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Eye Drooling

Have you ever ordered something at a restaurant just because the picture of it on the menu convinced you it would be the most fabulous thing you’d ever closed your lips around?  Have you ever made a dinner that just looked amazing on your plate, regardless of what it tasted like?  (Though hopefully it tasted good as well.)

The other day I made lunch and I commented to my husband that the plate full of food looked nice, regardless of what it tasted like.  I said it looked “appetizing”.  He argued with me that it looked “appealing”.  I countered that the two were synonyms.  He clarified that regardless of how tasty it seemed, the colors themselves were actually attractive and appealing. 

I think most of us just dump our food on our plates and chow down, rarely considering the “art” of plating a dish.  We tend to not even consider the flavors in our mouth when we chew either.  We just insert, swallow, repeat. 

How sad to miss all that God has given us in this area!  He created so many foods and flavors to entice us.  And we are too distracted to pay attention to this.

But when a simple meal of varied colors and textures comes together on my plate, I sometimes have the rare presence of mind to take the moment and appreciate these small pleasures. 

All it took was a piece of flounder topped with mandarin oranges (see recipe here: but I had flounder that day so I substituted that for the tilapia), a side of gluten-free garlic primavera risotto (Jake LOVES: as well as frozen peas (with a little light butter). 

Visually pleasing and tasty as well.  (I should note that the first time Jake & I tried this fish recipe, we were a bit “iffy” about it.  Cooked mandarin oranges have a bit of a mushy texture.  But I quickly came to really like the mix of flavors and overcame the texture of the oranges.)  As usual, I should have taken a picture!

I would say that some of the food on our Mexico vacation fit this idea of visually appealing, especially the dishes at the French restaurant.  They took care with plating, like a 5 star eatery should. 

I definitely think visual appeal makes the meal better.  I think more about the foods I pair together when I prepare meals now.  There have been times that I’ve made all “gold” meals (chicken coated in cornmeal, side of chicken rice mix and corn!) and awhile back I had a very “green” meal (fish topped with avocado, green beans and broccoli).  Even if the food tastes good, I don’t enjoy those meals as much.  (Carrots would have been much better than the broccoli on that plate!)

What’s your favorite “visually appealing” meal?  Or least?!  Is there something that never really looks appealing but always tastes good?  Vice versa?  (I always used to think oyster soup looked appealing – like potato soup – but have tried it enough to know that it’s simply NOT.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Family Vacation

My extended immediate family (dad, siblings, in-laws, niece & nephews) meet up every year for a family vacation.  This started 5 years ago when Jake & I moved back to the Omaha area, though that was just a coincidence.  My mom had finally decided to make her dream of a family vacation happen, reserving some cabins at Nebraska’s Mahoney State Park and hoping people would show up.  We did.  (Most of us anyway – my niece was born just days after, so her parents were stuck at home on doctor’s orders since it was 2 ½ hours away.)  My parents paid the cabin rental so the rest of us took care of the food costs.  We planned the meals, shopped, prepared & cooked.  (And by “we” I mean my sister-in-law & I.)  Of course, my mom couldn’t resist bringing treats.  Her homemade “hostess” cupcakes were always yummy and the rice krispie treats were devoured within hours.

Growing up, we almost always took a family vacation during the summer.  Usually to Colorado.  My dad has a lifelong love affair with the mountains.  Which he has gladly passed down to all of us.  One of my mom’s favorite things was to have all of us back together.  Holidays, birthdays, whatever.  So planning a family vacation was pretty high on her to-do list.  When we all got older and busier, that was much harder to make happen.  But she did it. 

Unfortunately, that was the only year my mom was around for family vacation, as that winter she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away in early spring.  Family vacation was just months after that, so it was pretty hard when we all got together, knowing she would have loved to have been there.  And I think we maybe did it mostly for her that year – knowing she’d have liked it.  And then we did it the next year because it was good to get together.  And then we kept doing it because it became important to each of us.  One of my brothers even mentioned recently that it was a priority for him and his wife because family vacation is one of the few times a year they get to see everyone.  Hurrah for family time! 

But then comes the planning.   And when you have as many people to accommodate as we do (schedules, sleeping arrangements, locales, budgets) it can be tricky.  After the first few years, Dad quit paying for the cabin rentals himself (pricey!) so now we all chip in for rentals and for food.  (We find that renting cabins is still much cheaper than hotels, though.  And you can prepare your own food, which also cuts down on the cost.)  Finding a location that has cabins large enough for our crowd is tricky.  Finding one that’s cost effective and a midpoint between all of us is a nightmare.

Planning meals is still mostly up to my sister-in-law and me.  I think because we’re the “planners” in the family, for the most part.  Not that we don’t want everyone to have a say, because we surely do.  Anywho, coming up with easy, inexpensive and fun meals that delight all palates young & old and in between can be a challenge.  Normally we have pretty good cooking facilities, though last year’s left a little something to be desired: crockpot, microwave, dorm fridge & outdoor grill only.  Thankfully, this year we have more of our standard: full range, fridge, utensils & pans are all supplied.

And now we have a gluten-free and low cholesterol issue on our hands, in addition to diabetes.  Thankfully, camping normally means grilling and there’s lots to grill on our diet list.  But that doesn’t always fit “inexpensive” and sometimes isn’t always “easy” (grilling a tenderloin can take awhile & charcoal is finicky). 

I definitely have specific ideas of what kinds of food are “camping” foods. (Definitely “hobo burgers”: aluminum foil packets with burger patties, potato, carrot & onion chunks with seasoning.  Hot dogs.  Steaks & baked potatoes.)  And so does everyone else.  Sometimes those ideas don’t match up.  Also, when you have so many people, how do you plan for the food?  Does one person shop and you split the cost?  Or does every family plan a meal & cook for everyone else?

As in the past, we are having one person shop & then splitting the cost.  This year our list of meals includes gluten free pasta with turkey Italian sausage, chicken or beef tacos (with corn shells), breakfast casseroles (one with bread, one with hashbrowns and eggbeaters), salads & sandwiches and a cheat night: my sister-in-law’s crockpot meatballs over rice.  (The meatballs are not gluten free, though we can get turkey ones to cut down on cholesterol/fat issues.)  My husband is pretty happy to cheat for those, though.

Does your family do yearly vacations?  Do you have trouble accommodating different tastes & budgets?  Who’s in charge of the planning?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch

At the time of this writing, I just got back from lunch with my gal pals.  The three of us try to schedule lunches regularly, though how often we are actually able to make a lunch date happen definitely varies.  But inevitably, at the end of lunch, at least one of us says something to the effect of “we need to do this more often” which is always echoed by the rest of us and heartily agreed upon.  However, life gets in the way.  Last winter we had to reschedule / postpone our lunch dates several times in a row due to illness, weather, etc. 

I still remember the time we got together and laughed so hard we all cried.  (One of us is a fantastic story teller with fantastic stories to tell.  And it’s not me.)  And I remember the time we had a really heartfelt conversation about our spousal relationships.  And the times they let me talk about losing my mom.  And we almost always discuss the joys and trials of parenting, since they’re both moms of young ones.  I soak in their wisdom, experience, laughter and love.  I revel in their ability to take care of their offspring better than I am able to care for just myself! 

We’ve gone out, we’ve stayed in, we’ve potlucked.  But mostly we converse.  We don’t get together for the food, though we generally enjoy that as well.  One has not tried a lot of ethnic and diverse foods and we enjoy sharing those with her.  (Or maybe it’s testing / pushing her!)  Sometimes it’s successful.  Ha! 

Today we held each other up, encouraged one another, laughed, cried and paused to admit that sometimes life experiences are the best teachers of compassion and humility, though we also grieved that those lessons are most often taught through difficulties.

I always look forward to our girls day out lunches.  I can’t wait until the next one, even though it might be awhile. 

Do you have some favorite meal companions? (Other than the obvious immediate family members, so for some those individuals are not favorites!)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Online Food Journal

Recently I decided to start tracking my daily food intake.  I’ve heard before that this is one of the steps you can take to become a healthier eater.  Just seeing in print what all you put into your mouth on a daily basis can be a big reality check for some people.  Or maybe what you don’t put into your mouth too. 

A friend of mine agreed to be a kind of accountability partner for me with this.  I figured that we could start our very own “weight watchers” kind of thing.  I mean, it probably started out small with just a group of friends getting together on a weekly basis to chart their progress & encourage each other.  So why should I have to shill out buku bucks for that?

But she lives 4 hours from me.  So a face-to-face weekly check-in wouldn’t work.  Riffing off of what Weight Watchers Online provides for people, she created a Google Docs spreadsheet for us to log our daily food journals into.  We also log any exercise we do, what we think went well that day and what we can improve on.

Because I’m not always at my computer, I keep my food log in a small notebook on my counter & take it to work with me as well.  Then I update the spreadsheet when I can.  Lately it’s been once a week.  Then we can look back over our eating habits as a whole and make some connections.

After we started this, I also read that jotting down what you’re thinking / feeling / doing when you decide to eat is also helpful in targeting eating "triggers".  Like if you’re actually hungry or just bored or sad or it’s “dinner time”, etc.  I think that would probably be helpful too.

So far I haven’t been too astounded at my overall eating habits.  And some days are better than others, of course.  I do tend to skip meals more than I’d probably guessed, though, substituting mostly just crap calories for solid meals (i.e. popcorn & cheese slices for lunch).  And my water intake fluctuations wildly from day to day.  It’s interesting that it doesn’t normally go from horrible to great, though.  Usually it slides from horrible to less horrible to better to great and then back down gradually as well.  And when my water intake is worse, my grape koolaid intake increases and vice versa.  Not unexpected, but interesting to see down on paper.

Have you ever kept a food journal?  If so, did you find it helpful in your quest to be healthier?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Family Dinner

I recently read a blog by a harried mother of 4 young children in which she confessed her hatred of family dinner time.  Mostly because her children are at difficult ages and this particular time of day stresses her out to the max.  That caused me to reflect on how I feel about family dinners.

For us, “family dinner” is what we call the meal every other Monday night when my husband and I get together with my dad, the two brothers who live locally, and their families.  (Yes, my dad lives 3 hours away.  And yes, he still comes every other Monday night for family dinner.  And yes, he’s awesome like that.)

We started these family dinners 5 years ago when Jake & I moved back to Nebraska from living 5 years in Cincinnati.  (Can I really have lived in Omaha now as long as I lived in Cincinnati?!)  At that time, all my siblings with the exception of my sister lived in the area, so we all got together at my oldest brother’s house every Monday night.

Time moves on, as did one brother.  So that left the rest of us, which was still a pretty sizable group.  But after awhile Jake started working at a church across town, we bought a house pretty far away from where we’d been and life filled up a bit more.  Nephews got older and had more activities.  My mother passed away, so my dad began to visit us more.  So family dinners were scaled back from every week to every other week and my dad began to join us regularly.

At first, my sister-in-law mostly prepared the meals & I helped out with a side or dessert.  Now, the meal prep is divided more evenly and almost everyone shares in bringing something, even Dad.  There are some special diet issues and everyone is good about adhering to them.  (Though my nephews still taunt Jake about cheese on a fairly constant basis thanks to their dad’s encouragement.  Brian loves cheese even more than the normal person, so to him, that’s just about the worst thing to dislike EVER.  I can't say I disagree.)

Sometimes family dinners are a pain.  They’re all the way across town, we’re busy, they’re busy, etc.  It’s hard to prepare a meal for everyone that all will like, it’s expensive to make food for that many people, it’s hard to keep it hot on the long drive, etc.  But we always have a good time.  And if we don’t make the effort to get together regularly, we could very easily end up not seeing each other at all.  Which would be a tragedy.

When Jake & I lived in Cincinnati, our nephews didn’t know us at all.  We loved them, but weren’t really a part of their lives.  Because of “family dinner”, they know us.  And I like to think they like us.  I wouldn’t give it up.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Roja Mexican Grill

Recently we went to the newer downtown Omaha Roja site for a Smith family birthday celebration.  Even my Grandma Smith joined us!  I’m sure this was not her kind of dinner joint.  She had trouble choosing an item off the menu to suit, though she did settle on a chicken salad with some kind of cilantro ranch dressing.  It probably wasn’t her favorite meal, but she managed.  For the record, my dad doesn’t love Mexican either, but I don’t think he had quite as bad a time with the menu as Grandma did.  He just indicated that his favorite Mexican dish is fried ice cream.  I hear that!  (Though I love much more than just that in the way of Mexican food.)

Overall, I find Roja to be a decent Americanized Mexican restaurant.  A bit over-priced but for what I order, pretty delicious.  I’ve only ever ordered one thing, though.  The shrimp & crab enchiladas.  I’ve been 3 times to Roja (twice at the west location on 168th & Center and now once downtown at 12th & Harney).  The first two times were relatively close together but it’d been quite awhile since I’d been.  So the menu had changed quite a bit.  But I still found the shrimp & crab enchiladas to be what drew my eye.  This time I had a choice of sauce toppings, which I didn’t remember being the case prior (though I could just be suffering from mid-old age memory loss too).  I selected the green chile deluxe sauce.  The descriptions of the sauces on the inside of the menu suggested this sauce to be creamy, which was what I remembered from the times I’d ordered this dish before, so that’s what my gut told me to go with.  And once again, my gut was right.

The food took quite awhile to arrive, though I will concede that our party was on the large side.  But our waitress was something else.  Clearly she was peeved at something when we arrived and decided to take it out on us.  She sniped at us a couple times and when she received blank stares and short responses in return, I think she must have understood that her future financial reward was severely dwindling and she turned on the charm a bit more thereafter.  It was a noticeable difference, almost laughable.

Other than our waitress, the service was great.  The manager and hostess were helpful and pleasant.  The manager refilled our water glasses a couple different times himself.  And our waitress improved, though she was mostly scarce after we got our food. 

I must say that the chips & salsa at Roja are good.  I’m not sure I’d “rave” but they’re some of the best around Omaha probably.  The chips are greasy good & salty.  I ate some of them plain, which is not something I normally do at Mexican restaurants.  And the salsa, though it clearly has cilantro minced into it, doesn’t have that overwhelming bitter cilantro flavor that haunts me.  It was fresh and just the right consistency.

The enchiladas were exactly what I recalled.  Creamy, delicious, with just a hint of spice in the seafood mixture.  I love that they use corn tortillas for their enchiladas, of course.  And it worked well for Jake too (corn tortillas are gluten-free).  I ordered mine without the side of beans, so I received an extra portion of rice, which was perfect for me.  The two enchiladas, along with the rice, and the amount of chips & salsa I consumed waiting for my food to arrive, filled me up. 

The enchiladas were about mid-range in price for their menu items, coming in at $11.99.  Not extravagant, but not a steal by any means.

I do like the atmosphere at Roja.  I enjoy the shrimp & crab enchiladas and chips & salsa.  I probably won’t be going out of my way to go there, but I also won’t make you twist my arm too hard either.

One nice note about the downtown location: the parking in the nearby garage is free for 3 hours with a paid receipt.  No more driving around the Old Market searching for an open parking space!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Red Mango

I’ve written about Red Mango briefly before, but decided it was high time to devote a whole post to it.  If you haven’t ventured there, Red Mango is a frozen yogurt delight.  Now, if you don’t like yogurt, you might not like Red Mango.  Because it tastes more “yogurty” than most frozen yogurts – a tang on the tongue.  They apparently are more “natural” and “healthy” than say, TCBY, who I can only guess is “the other guys” mentioned on their comparison poster.  My husband is just such a person that does not love yogurt and thus was not impressed with the samples he grabbed at Red Mango.  So he decided to sit that one out. 

I like that you can grab a little sample cup & go to town on their wall of flavors.  And after you’ve selected your choice of the moment, you can grab a (HUGE) cup and fill ‘er up!  Since you pay by the weight of the cup, I’m not surprised that there are no teeny cups to be found (other than the sample cups, of course).  I did not see the price he paid, but the gentleman in front of me had to have shelled out a pretty penny, for his cup overfloweth with fro-yo & toppings (including granola, which isn't light weight stuff)!

The first time I tried Red Mango I selected their Mojito flava.  And it was AWESOME.  I topped it with fresh strawberries and paid about $2 for my conservative portion.  (My husband was delighted when it came time to pay.)  It did not disappoint.  I sucked down every spoonful before the rest of my party even sat down.

This last visit was to a different location and was several months later.  So Mojito was no longer in season. (Huh?!  Isn’t spring/summer a more appropriate Mojito time than February?) 

I grabbed some sample cups and went to town.  I tried the new Raspberry Cheesecake flavor.  Much more raspberry than cheesecake and not too bad, but not quite my style.  As soon as I eyed the Coconut, I knew I’d found a winner.  And that it was.  I topped it with fresh pineapple and again found that I was within the $2 range at the checkout.  Hurray for knowing that almost as soon as I’d pulled down the fro-yo lever, it was time to release (apparently the ticket to a conservative portion). 

It should be noted that Red Mango has a variety of toppings other than fresh fruit.  Coconut, nuts, cereals like Fruity Pebbles & Cocoa Pebbles, sprinkles, chocolate sauces, candies and more are all among the options you can choose from.  Even some kind of super-healthy looking granola mixture that I previously mentioned above, which I was somewhat tempted to try.  I’m sure it’s super-fab in their parfaits.  But the fresh fruit always looks pretty inviting there – I’m not one for mushy, jam-coated fruits that are often used for fruity ice cream toppings.  But these are just fresh fruit chunks, whole and unadulterated.  Kiwi, mango, strawberry, pineapple & more.  (And a sign that denotes the availability of banana on request – I’m sure they don’t want old slimy brown banana slices sitting out.)

One of the first things you see when you walk into Red Mango is that their fro-yo is nonfat, contains pro-biotics and has no artificial stuff (like “the other guys”).  The friend I went with deemed the existence of pro-biotics in her fro-yo as unappetizing.  I’m not put off by it, though, and decided that as long as it tastes good, I’m all for it being better for me as well!

Red Mango is always a good choice for gluten-free peeps, FYI.  And they do have non-dairy fruit smoothies for those that can’t abide dairy.

Another location is opening soon in Omaha.  I can’t wait to check it out!  I plan to sign up for their “club mango” soon as well, so I can starting earning me some free fro-yo.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sam & Louie’s New York Pizzeria

We had company for Memorial Day weekend and they happened to be gluten-free as well.  One of the requests made was that we go out to eat for one meal over the weekend.  Omaha offers quite a few options for the gluten-free crowd and Jake had just experienced Sam & Louie’s gluten-free pizza the week prior and liked it quite a bit.  This is pretty exceptional, since he never really loved Sam & Louie’s before he was gluten-free.  (I’ve always liked it fine and normally got their lunch deal with a slice of pizza, a salad & a soda.  Good for lunch with the girls!)  We decided to try it out with our friends.  But apparently the location near us had closed, so we were on a wild goose-chase to find the next nearest location.  Not until we’d arrived at the one off 156th & Dodge did we remember there was one at 120th & Blondo.  Oh, well.

One drawback is the price: they only sell 10-inch gluten-free pizzas – 6 slices – for $10.49 for a cheese pizza.  They have several specialty options for $15.39, again for a 10-inch / 6-slice pie.

Now, one thing we’ve pretty much gotten used to: gluten-free is generally more expensive.  So that’s not a huge deal at this point, especially since we’ve cut down on eating out.  But still, that’s not a great deal.

However, the pizza is good.  Sometimes with gluten-free you get weird textures or tastes due to the different flour substitutions.  But this crust was a nice crispy thin crust, no weirdness to be had.

Jake had ordered the BBQ chicken pizza: “tangy barbeque sauce, smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, grilled chicken, red bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese” (minus the cheddar, of course).  Which is a better option for him than say, pepperoni (cholesterol & all), though he was hard-pressed to give up the bacon.  And he liked it a lot so when we went back with our friends, we ordered it (again, without the cheddar) and a Hawaiian Luau: “Canadian bacon, pineapple, red bell peppers, bacon and mozzarella cheese”.  Apparently we had something for bacon, red bell peppers and slightly sweet (the bbq sauce was on the sweet side as was the pineapple, of course).

It seemed to take quite awhile for us to get our food.  Our server was pretty nice; maybe a little overly chatty but just generally in a decent mood & probably an extrovert by nature.  Since I tend to be more of an introvert these days, those weird extroverts throw me a bit sometimes.  Anyway, when it arrived it was piping hot.  And pretty delicious.

 (A pic of the BBQ Chicken from their website.  I’m sure this is the regular variety, but the gluten-free looks pretty much the same.)

Overall, this was a very good dining experience for us.  I would definitely recommend Sam & Louie’s to my gluten-free friends.  But I like the regular stuff too.  Jake & I decided we could easily go there for an $11 one-topper (not bacon or pepperoni, of course, due to the fat/cholesterol issue but maybe grilled chicken, Canadian bacon, etc) to take home and have with a side salad or something.  It’s no $11 large Godfather’s pizza that fed us for 2 days, but its MUCH better than no pizza at all.