Monday, February 27, 2012

Meatless Monday: Recipes to get you through Lent

So we're into our first full week of Lent with two meatless days under our belts already, and right about now you might be thinking, "We've done pizza. We've done fish fry. Now what?" I've got a combination of vegetarian and vegan recipes to see you through. I'll start with a bunch today and add more in the coming weeks.

The meatless thing is easy for me since I'm a vegetarian. However, during Lent, in order to make abstinence count for something, I go vegan on Fridays. That presents more of a challenge for me, although it's not as difficult as it seems on the surface. The dish in the photo above, for example, is vegan and totally awesome. That was last night's dinner, so obviously I'm not adverse to going vegan on non-Fridays as well.

Last night's dish is from the current issue of Vegetarian Times and is attributed to Paul McCartney. It's super simple, and Dennis, who was eating chicken with his veggies, tried the cornmeal-crusted tofu and declared it "restaurant quality." So there you go. Here's that recipe in a nutshell:

Recipe # 1: Steamed Veggie Salad with Tofu
2 pints cherry tomatoes
4 cups broccoli, separated into florets
1 red pepper, sliced
2 cups sugar snap peas
2 cups baby carrots
Romaine lettuce, chopped
Scallions, minced
1 block of tofu, cut into rectangular slices
Salt, pepper, basil

4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp maple syrup
2 tsp dijon mustard
Whisk dressing ingredients together and set aside for later.

Preheat the oven to 400. Roast tomatoes for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, steam veggies in a steamer basket. (Feel free to use whatever veggies you have on hand. The original recipe called for string beans, but I had snap peas, so I made the substitution and added red peppers since my kids like those.)

Coat the tofu slices in cornmeal mixed with salt, pepper and dried basil. While the veggies steam, sauté the tofu in olive oil for about five minutes per side. Drain on a paper towel.

Put chopped Romaine lettuce and scallions on your plate. Put steamed veggies, roasted tomatoes, and tofu slices on top. Drizzle with dressing. Serves four to six, depending on how much your family loves tofu. Just add another half-block of tofu to get six big portions.

I served this with a side of quinoa. Take 1 cup of quinoa that has been soaked for five minutes and rinsed. Put quinoa and 1 1/2 cups of water in pot with a little salt. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 15 minutes or until liquid is gone. Remove from heat and let stand for five minutes. Loosen with fork.

Recipe #2: Pasta and Lentils

I shared this recipe last year after surprising success with it. Here's what I said about it then:

Before you click by this post because the word "lentils" scares you, especially in relation to pasta, I beg you to stop and just consider it for a moment because it is out-of-this world delicious. This particular recipe is actually a combination of two: a lentil sauce recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and my own addition of roasted butternut squash and garlic that gets added in right before serving. (That change-up happened because I had a squash that needed to be used and, voila, a new recipe was born.) The result is a dinner that is not only vegan (no meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) but incredibly yummy, with a complex texture and taste even though it's easy to make.

Click HERE for the pasta and lentil recipe.

Recipe #3: Kale Two Ways

Click HERE for a great Beans and Greens recipe using kale and cannellini beans. As a bonus you'll also get a recipe for Kale Chips, which are a great low-cal salty snack.

Recipe #4: Israeli Couscous with Apples and Dried Cranberries

Click HERE for a great side dish to go with your Lenten fish or tofu. The recipe I have posted suggests chicken broth, but that's easy. Just swap it for vegetable broth.

Reciped #5: Creamy Polenta with Garlic and Cheese

This can be a main dish or a side dish. It can be vegan or not, with some minor adjustments.

1/2 cup milk, preferably whole, although I used skim with a splash of half and half (Use plain almond milk to make this vegan.)
2 cups water
1 cup coarse cornmeal
I tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 spring fresh rosemary chopped, or a teaspoon of dried rosemary
1 teaspoon of chopped garlic
1 tablespoon of butter (Earth Balance for vegan version)
Grated Parmesan cheese, optional

Combine milk and water with large pinch of salt in a saucepan over medium heat. When it's close to a boil, add the polenta in a steady stream, whisking the whole time to keep away the nasty lumps. Add the rosemary.

Turn the heat down to a simmer and keep whisking until the polenta gets thick -- about 10 or 15 minutes. If it starts to look too thick too soon, add a little water. (I did this. I was fine.)

Add the butter, cheese (if using), garlic and stir. Grind some pepper into it to taste. Serve immediately as a side dish or main course. I doubled this recipe for my hungry family and used it as a side dish with baked salmon and sauteed broccoli rabe.

Variation: You can make grilled or fried polenta by decreasing the amount of water and making a thicker mixture. Don't add the butter, cheese. I'd probably skip the garlic and rosemary as well for this version. When it's done, spread the polenta on a board and let it cool for a while. Then cut it into slices -- about 1/2 inch thick. Now you can brush the slices with olive oil, salt and pepper and throw them on the grill or into a frying pan.

Stay tuned for more veggie recipes for Lent...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Don't miss the Fat Tuesday book giveaway

From my post at OSV Daily Take today. Follow the link at the end of this post to leave a comment and enter the book giveaway.

Paula Huston’s beautiful new book, Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, is so much more than spiritual reading for one particular season. With its daily meditations, practical exercises, and gentle guidance, I know this book will be one I pull out not only during each Lenten season but any time I feel spiritually “stuck” and in need of something to jump start my prayer life.

Maybe it’s because so many of the daily activities remind me of things I’ve tried at different points along my journey -- making a meal from “stored or forgotten items,” spending time in solitude and silence, turning off the cell phone or TV, learning to do the Examen. Maybe it’s because I'm intrigued by suggestions I hadn’t yet considered or tried -- sleeping on the floor for a night or covering the mirrors for a day. And maybe it’s because Paula reminds readers that her book of Lenten practices does not include Sundays, days typically set aside as celebrations of the resurrection in miniature. Do you know how many times I’ve had to argue that point with people who insist the Sundays “count”?

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paula’s introduction:

“The beauty of the Lenten season is that it encourages the development of a humble heart. In Lent, we are invited to look deeply inside, identify what is impeding our ability to follow Christ along the way of humility, and begin applying antidotes...Simplifying the Soul is meant to aid you in this process...My prayer for you as you begin this retreat is that, first of all, you enter into it with the right spirit. This book is not meant to be a spiritual version of the Girl Scout honor badge program, and if you look upon it as a handbook for self-improvement, you’ll more likely become frustrated and disappointed. Instead, think of it as an invitation to self-knowledge and as a small step in liberation from destructive complicatedness -- that is, from sin.”

And here’s a snippet from Ash Wednesday, with its focus on clearing out a junk drawer or closet, so you can get started while you wait for your book to arrive:

A junk drawer is the classic repository for what we are meant to leave behind. Not only does it symbolize our histories, but it also reveals the speed at which we lived through them: how did a sunflower seed wind up among the rubber bands and old corks, and this seventy-five-year-old baptismal gown stuffed into a brown paper sack?

When we clear out a junk drawer for Lent, we are in some small way dealing with the detritus of breathless hurry and our corresponding inability to focus. We are beginning to tear through the sticky web that binds us to our past: not only to the fine and happy times, the poignant seasons of growth and change, but also to the tears we once shed, the idols we once worshiped, the myths we once believed, and the lies we once told ourselves.

If you’re hungry for more, enter our book giveaway and you just might win a copy of Simplifying the Soul (Ave Maria Press, $14.95). Leave a comment at OSV Daily Take by clicking HERE. Share what you’ll be doing as a spiritual practice this Lent, and we’ll pick one winner at random. (My kids will be picking a name from a hat. Very scientific.)

Happy Fat Tuesday, and blessings as you begin the journey through Lent.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Being an older mom has its benefits

Chiara is the star of my most recent Life Lines column, which is running in the current issue of Catholic New York:

I’m used to being the oldest mom in a crowd, at least when it comes to spending time with my youngest, Chiara, who is only 6 years old. Having had her just before I turned 43, I am closer in age to some of her classmates’ grandparents rather than their parents.

Although on the surface that might seem to be a negative, when I am willing to look beyond the inevitable challenges of being an older mom — like not having nearly the same energy level I had when I was running around with my first 15 years ago — I think being of an “advanced maternal age,” as they say in the OB/GYN industry, has it benefits. Wisdom is the obvious gift that comes with age, but also a deeper appreciation for making the most of the moment when you’re in it. As I approach the half-century mark, I have become all too aware of how fleeting this life is, how quickly my 15 years of motherhood have passed and how quickly the next 15 years are likely to fly by.

Because of my age, many people assume Chiara wasn’t a “planned” baby, that she was an unexpected or maybe even an unwanted “surprise.” If they have the nerve to ask, they are always shocked to find that she was more than planned; she was desperately wanted. At 41 years old, when I thought I was done with babies and diapers and preschool selections, Dennis and I decided we really wanted to try to have one more baby before it might be too late. We were lucky, and blessed, because not long after I found out I was carrying Chiara.

And as much as I offer my littlest one the wisdom of age; she offers me the joy of childhood, something many women my age have outgrown, so to speak. Chiara keeps me young and gives me a chance to play, sometimes when I don’t really feel like playing but find out only after the fact that it was exactly what I wanted, and needed.

Just recently, Chiara and I went on a Daisy Girl Scout winter camping trip in the foothills of the Adirondacks. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough to scare even the bravest, most energetic mom, no matter how young or old you are. I wouldn’t have chosen this trip, but my co-leader, who is probably 15 years younger than I am and with ample survivalist camping experience in her back pocket, suggested we give it a try. And so we did, with eight 6-year-old girls and seven moms in tow.

“This is our first camping trip with just the two of us,” Chiara said with excitement, hugging my leg as we waited for our ride to arrive and take us to camp. And with that one comment every doubt about the weekend vanished from my mind.

As we pulled our backpacks out of the truck and made our way on foot down the ice-covered road with only a flashlight to guide us, I looked up and saw the night sky flooded with stars. Then I looked down at Chiara holding my hand and saw the joy in her eyes as she faced the dark woods before us filled not with fear but with anticipation of the adventure that was to come.

That night we slept in our mummy bags head-to-head on crummy mattresses on a hard floor with 28 other people and only one bathroom among us. If you’d told me those details ahead of time, I would have cringed, but there, with Chiara reaching out to pat my hair now and then from her spot inside her sleeping bag, all I could do was smile and savor the moment, grateful for the gift of being the oldest mom in the crowd and knowing just how precious life is right now.

To read other Life Lines columns, visit my website at

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why has NSS gone AWOL?

More than three weeks. That's how long it's been since I've shown my face around these parts. If any of you are still left out there, still coming back to see if I'm around, well, all I can say is, God bless you. You have the patience of a saint.

Things have been more off the wall than usual around here. It could be the fact that I'm writing back-to-back books. I turned one manuscript in on a Wednesday and started the next on a Thursday. That's insane -- even for me, and I'm the queen of insane.

On top of that, I've been dealing with some health stuff lately. It's minor, but enough to slow me down, make me wonder, and cramp my style. Things seem like they're moving in the right direction, although I've got a couple of issues going on that will keep me from doing my beloved yoga -- or any exercises involving core strength -- for the foreseeable future. Maybe forever. That has not been sitting well with me. I'm spoiled when it comes to health stuff. I expect to be able to do anything and everything with nary a pain or problem. So this is new, and I'm trying to find the lessons in all of it. I'm skirting around a couple of possibilities I hate even to acknowledge, things I think I probably need to learn from this. It's still too early to say for sure. Maybe they'll show up in a future post.

To give you some idea just how out of it I've been, here's how Tuesday went: I almost took Chiara to dance class instead of faith formation. The only thing that prevented me from packing up the ballet and tap shoes and heading in the completely wrong direction was Olivia, who said, quite gingerly, "Isn't today religion?" Yes, and an hour earlier than dance. Lucky we didn't miss it completely.

After that brain spasm, I decided I needed a cup of tea to calm my nerves. It would have been delicious had I used a tea bag. Sigh.

Then about an hour later I rolled out some pizza dough and made our Valentine's Day dinner. Dennis and I had a special pizza, loaded with peppers and onions and olives and mushrooms. It looked fabulous. I popped it in the oven, stood up to dust the flour off my apron, and stopped. Wait a minute. I don't remember putting cheese on that, I thought to myself. Bingo. I made a pizza without cheese. Good for the heart, I guess, but not nearly as delicious. Fortunately, there was time to throw some on top and salvage the dinner. So, that's how things are going here. I'm not sure I should be allowed to operate any heavy machinery, or even the dishwasher.

I'll try to be back soon to post my latest Life Lines column and to share some thoughts on those lessons I'm supposed to be learning from this slow down of mine. Stay tuned...