Monday, August 22, 2011

#26 He Listens to My Grandmother

My grandmother is famously known to base most of her decisions on either what she sees on TV or hears from someone who appears of a snobbishly rich status. This usually leads to a lot of nonsense and comical conversation which include the eventual realization from her that the famous person she is basing her choice on is in fact not the originator of whatever it is that they are currently promoting.

However, (ah, however) occasionally she makes a decision that proves in the end to be worth all the status quo hullabaloo that my family is forced to listen to quite frequently.

After my grandfather passed away in 2005, my husband and I started to take my grandmother to Atlantic City every so often. She would reminisce about going with my grandfather and how they would always follow the same dining routine: lunch at Pickles in Bally's Casino and then dinner picked up at the Columbus General Store on their way back home. Yet, she would also mention a little restaurant that they always passed, one which he would never take her to. My grandfather was very set in his ways, and unchangeable, unless it was his choice to be changed. Thus, he seldom gave in to such bizarre suggestions as going to a different restaurant.

How my grandmother knew of the restaurant is quite another story. One involving gangsters, a girlfriend, and the desert. Her memory of wanting to go and never being given the chance led us to stop there one night on our way home from Atlantic City.

Thank you Gram.

Without her wacky desires and fantasies of glamour, I never would know the goodness that is Joe Italian's Maplewood Inn. It is quite the opposite of glamour, however, I assume the person who once told her of it must have herself been rather glamorous to have convinced my grandmother to want to go there. Perhaps. The atmosphere and decor produce an instant homey feel with the restaurant seating probably no more than 150 people tops (and that's counting the bar). There are two rooms with sit down tables, however, it is very tight. Arriving exactly at dinner time is not a good choice, unless you like squishing behind those who are sitting comfortably at the bar as you wait for a table to clear.

Personally, I don't mind. I tend to grow extremely tired of only having chain restaurants available as a decent choice for a dinner out. Nothing against them, but I'd much rather have something exclusive to my area, which doesn't sacrifice price or flavor for being so.

Dinner always starts with salad tossed in their house dressing which is perfect. Alongside comes a loaf of fresh bread, still warm, and slices of garlic bread.

If you're feeding me before I've put in my order, you are automatically a winner in my book. But remember, a winner with flavor.

I cannot order anything but the Chicken Parmigiana here. I've tried, honest I have. I ordered Chicken and Broccoli Alfredo a few times and it was a perfect blend of creaminess, pasta, and veggies, but I have always had to return to the Chicken Parmigiana for one reason: they pound this bad boy ridiculously thin. It is so thin you might almost think for a second that they thought you ordered the veal. But you didn't. The breading is crisp, the cheese is evenly spread, and the sauce is fresh and sweet. I always get their homemade pasta on the side, but you can pick from an assortment of other sides if you are crazy and don't like pasta.

(I got so hungry I forgot to take a picture of my plate when it was beautiful, but the above picture will have to suffice. It comes from my husband's plate and yes, those are french fries hiding in the back).

My husband usually gets "The Fisherman's Delight" which includes an assortment of fish: lobster, king crab, clams, scallops, and shrimp served kettle style. The first time he ordered this was the first time I tried scallops. From that day of I dubbed scallops the filet mignon of fish. Can there be anything better?

Dessert at Joe's is, of course, to die for. Just don't order a cappuccino to go with your tiramisu or you might have to wait for a while (especially if it is a busy night). All their desserts are homemade and complete perfection.

The cost is probably what will make it or break it for most people. My husband's Fisherman's Delight costs $26.99 which is fair for all that fish. My Chicken Parmigiania comes in at $16.99. This really isn't horrible. If we look over at a chain restaurant like Olive Garden (who, yes, I do love despite that they are a chain and despite that people swear that they are not true Italian food) they are serving the same meal for $13.95. So it's $3.04 cheaper there. Just remember that the cooks in the back of Olive Garden aren't lovingly pounding your chicken paper thin. No, they are pulling it from a bulk bag that says, "Chicken Parm" on it and then throwing it into the oven.
(*Note: I do not know this for a fact, but one can only assume...)

In respects to a true Italian meal, Joe Italiano's is where it's at. Cost, flavor, and location all taken into consideration, it wouldn't take a trip to Atlantic City to get me to drive the 45 minutes from my house to eat here on any given night of the week.

Again, thank you Gram.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#25 He Tells Me I've Accomplished Something

My basking in the sunshine of freedom has found its demise; I have finally returned to work. It is with great delight that I reminisce on my summer as I share what I have accomplished.

Truth be told, at one point I did feel as though I had accomplished not a lick of what I had set out to do. Try as I might, I never could get a solid summer schedule working. Each day was so different from the next because of other commitments that I could never sit down and decide on a set schedule. I tried to occasionally set a daily schedule--an hour doing this, an hour doing that, but let's face it, there were no demands forcing me to do this and that. I had no deadline except my final day of summer vacation which, when summer began, felt miles away. And a deadline felt so not summer-y.

After all, my summer off wasn't supposed to stress me out. It was supposed to be a chance to do things I couldn't do during the school year, and to complete tasks that had been put off. So the philosophy I soon took on was that as long as I was not sitting around twiddling my thumbs as I stared at the TV or sleeping poolside, I was ahead of the game.

Since I love bullets, here is my bulleted list of my accomplishments, notice that most, if not all, of them are not throw your hat in the air and hoot and holler kind of accomplishments, but they still are something to be proud of.
  • I Read.
One would think as not only a teacher, but a writer and lover of books that I would read all the time. Sadly, it just is not so. This summer I hoped to eliminate that truth about myself. I read four books, all completely different, and am in the middle of three (Don't worry I'm not crazy, this can be explained). Not fantastic, but a start.

I finished off Little Women which I say with red cheeks that I started in December '10. I read through The Giver in two days to remind myself of the story. I have always moaned that I wish I lived in a society that gave out careers as they are given in The Giver, and my husband always points out the lack of freedom that such a society would have. This I know, but feel life would be so much simpler if we all grew up knowing what career was destined for each of us.

I read The Beginners Guide to Chickens because I bought it two years ago when I first decided I wanted chickens and was tired of seeing it propped up between my bed and nightstand. And finally, I read SuperFreakanomics per my husband's suggestion. It'a pretty good book if you want to be enlightened about statistical craziness that occurs in the world around you.

Now, the three books I am in the middle of. Each night I have been reading little by little The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx. It's not exactly a book that requires to be read cover to cover without interruption and it provides a good laugh here and there. Second, I started Dante's Inferno that my older brother loaned me probably over a year ago. (Hopefully he won't remember that I still have it...shhh, don't tell!) The problem is that I either get spooked out or get tired from flipping back and forth from the text to the end notes that I don't have the umph to continue on without breaking for a day, week, or month. Lastly, I started reading 1, 2, 3 Magic for Teachers: Effective Discipline Pre-K Through Grade 8 towards the end of summer. I have been reading it here and there as I take an occasional break in putting my classroom together before the start of school. So far it has been pretty good despite two typos I caught in the text (This is not exactly something that someone who WANTS to be published wants to see when reading something that someone else ALREADY has had published.
  • I Wrote.
My full intention for how to spend the summer was to put all my efforts into rewriting a book I completed a little under a year ago. In essence, it is my memoir of growing up with a brother who has Down syndrome. After opening the continued gift of rejection letters, I decided that it was time to change the book around, drastically. This required an entire rewrite cover to cover. I felt a little like a failure as the beginning weeks of summer passed and I still hadn't found my start. Everything I wrote felt forced or too happy go lucky. In the mean time, I worked on a children's Christmas story that I began last Christmas and when writer's block took hold of that story I then wrote another totally different children's book. This one I sent to eight publishers and have gotten my rejection from two. Here's hoping to hear back from all eight. It was probably a little over a month into summer that I got my inspiration for improving my memoir and then finally began attacking the original document with full force. I'm about a third of the way towards completion.

(Pictured: My desk mid-creative process).
  • I Cleaned.
This was one of the first things I did in my days off and it never ended. It is extremely hard for me to do anything else if there is a mess lingering in the next room. Somehow deep inside as I try to get something else done I know the mess is there and it takes over all of my attention. It was when my husband commented that he hadn't washed a single dish since my summer vacation began that I knew I was doing extremely good.
  • I Cooked.
In addition to writing, cooking was one of my top priorities. I've already mentioned my obsessions to The Pioneer Woman Cooks and The Farmer's Almanac Everyday Cookbook, but there were so many many others involved in the cooking madness--websites like and included.

Some Of My Favorites:

*Tex-Mex Chicken: A simple simple slow cooker recipe. It was basically chicken, salsa, corn, and black beans mixed together and cooked four hours on high, then poured over white rice. Yum!
*Pesto Sauce: Paired with, die, for.
*Pineapple Coffee Cake
*Perfect Chili
*Chocolate Sheet Cake: This is heaven spread thin. I don't even have words for how wonderful this was, but if you ask my thighs they might have an answer for you.
*Knock You Naked Brownies (pictured below)

The Stinkers:

*Dinner Pasta Salad: Slow cooker recipe gone bad! Italian seasoning and pasta sauce cooked on low do not blend into anything but a bland irritation.
*Peanut Butter Cup Cake: Bland and boring.
*Easy Cranberry Chicken: My first disappointment from the Farmer's Almanac. It wasn't horrible, it just wasn't amazing like all the others.
*Soft Pretzels: Not horrible, but I could have just made bread and dipped it in salt. The next time I'm thinking about getting down and dirty and coating them in butter and then pan frying them after baking---to give it an Auntie Anne's type feel.

Last, I've been working on perfecting my own pizza pie. I'm doing my best to model off of the holiness that is Kate and Al's pizza, but I haven't gotten it quite right yet. I'm almost there though, I can feel it.
  • I Exercised.
Last summer, my husband and I attempted to complete the workout course titled, "Insanity". Unfortunately, the only insane thing I've discovered about that program and any type of exercise is that it is nearly impossible to keep up while working full-time and keeping two additional part-time incomes. Let's face it, exercise is the last thing I really want
to do at the end of the day. But despite the excuses, I need it. So after the first week off, I had the time, so I began taking walks everyday.

While walking one day I watched as a girl jogged at the slowest pace ever and then realized the beauty that is jogging. I've always avoided running like the plague. After about three seconds I'm dripping in sweat, gulping for air, and pretty sure that I will expire if I continued any longer. Perhaps it is just the over achiever in me that didn't realize there was an in between to walking and running named jogging. I started jogging for about a mile and then walking another mile everyday. The problem I'm facing now is that I desperately want to keep it up, but now would have to get up extra early to do it before work, or give up relaxing in the evening to do it at night.

  • I Played.
  • There are only two things I could ever do and be 100% passionate about. Writing (about things I want to write about) and music.Marriage, a new home, yearly job changes, and just about any other excuse I can think of kept me from keeping that passion occurring in my daily routine. By the middle of summer, I dusted off my violin and began chugging away at exercises that eventually made my wrist sore as a subtle reminder that yes, I had indeed been away too too long. By the third or fourth day of practice, I was close to my usual strength and intend to keep at it hoping to eventually audition for a chair in a local orchestra.
  • I Day-tripped.
Don't think I've forgotten about my list of inexpensive fun things to do (see post under June titled "He Lets Me Have The Summer 'Off'".) Not only did I get all the above done, but I managed to do 9 out of 23 things on my list.

* A Day at the Beach
*A Night at the Beach
--I Got to experience my first ever room service. Totally in love with it.
* Picnic at the park
--Done on one of my first days off with hubby.
* Go to the Local Farmer's Market
--Just about every week! We were stocked with local produce throughout the summer.
* A Day at the Pool
--Let's face it this should really be "Days at the Pool". My grandmother has a nice in
ground pool which I visited frequently (*note, only after I had accomplished a lot
already in that day.)
* Shopping
* Farm Fairs
* Festivals
--A rodeo counts right? Totally an out of the ordinary, yet fun experience.
* Go to see Fireworks
(Philly as the sun sets before fireworks come on the Fourth of July)

Of course, there were things that I wanted to do from my list but didn't get to, but only a few. The ones I wish I had done were: Grounds for Sculpture, the Freehold Racetrack, and NYC. Don't worry for me though, I'm sure I will get there eventually.

Overall, in retrospect of my time spent at home I have to say I loved it. (But, you knew that already didn't you?) I guess after years and years being just a housewife might get boring, but being a housewife my way I don't think could ever get boring.

Friday, August 5, 2011

#24 He Recognizes True Pain and Perseveres Through

While writing and later reflecting on my post of the continuous transformation of character I face with my hunger demon, I couldn't help feeling how absurd it truly was. I feel I may have presented it as an affliction, and by affliction I mean something that pains me, something I suffer from. And while it may be true that this may be a psychotic issue I have that I cannot resolve (after all, someone's mood being affected to a point where they go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde can perhaps only be labeled as psychotic, or chemically unbalanced at the least), please know for sure I suffer from nothing. I have no pain in my life.

A few years ago I wrote this as a reminder to myself of a true lesson of pain and perseverance. Enjoy!

Having your wisdom teeth pulled is not usually a time in a person’s life when they are given a great epiphany. Yet, for me, that whole horrible experience provided a new outlook on appreciating the simple capabilities that we possess.

By my second day of recovery, I began to realize how easily the ability to chew food is taken for granted. I soon grew frustrated with the fact my stomach was never full, aggravated with the limited selection of food: ice cream, yogurt, and mashed potatoes, and restless with each inconsistent night’s sleep. It didn’t take long for me to begin feeling a lot of pity on myself and start singing that all too familiar tune, “Whoa is me!” Yet, while my flesh was aching and screaming out how unfair this pain was, I could not completely meditate on these feelings without the thought of my Aunt Linda, who endured cancer of the tongue and throat. Within a year of being diagnosed, she was unable to speak or eat. She had to be fed through a tube and had to write down anything she wanted to say.

During my oral recovery, I was on the couch more than 75 percent of the day. I skipped Sunday morning church, avoided two dinners at my parent’s house due to not wanting to smell food I could not eat, and cooked one pathetic meal for my husband. This may seem normal and acceptable. Most people do not expect someone in pain to be serving others, or to give of themselves in the least. Yet when I reflect on this time, I am surrounded with constant shame of my self-pity and drama over my short loss of the ability to chew food, sleep through an entire night, and have a face that is not in constant pain.

Even while my aunt was experiencing the worst of her cancer, even days before she passed away, she was constantly moving, constantly serving her husband and those around her. She had to be rushed to the hospital many times because of blood loss, yet days later she’d be home baking cookies or home-made bread for her husband to take to work. She died right before Easter of 2008, yet had plans to cook a feast for her husband and children. She felt much more pain than I ever experienced, yet did not let it get her down. It did not change her character. She did not allow self-pity into her mind.

She had to endure smelling food she could not eat and writing down words she could not say, but she never complained. It would have been so easy for her to tell her husband that she couldn’t cook for him and didn’t want him to eat anywhere near her. No one would have looked down on her either if she had chosen to lie around on the couch all day.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of taking the easy way out, of making your problems bigger than they are. Think about the healthy wife who refuses to cook for her husband because she, ‘just doesn’t feel like it’, or the healthy husband who uses a sick day to lie around the house and milk a mild cold. Think about when we complain because it is left-over night and old spaghetti is on the menu, or when we avoid talking on the phone with someone we can’t stand. If all our abilities were taken away, we’d give anything just to be able to serve our husband and cook him a meal, just to be able to work one more day at our job, just to be able to eat a left-over meal or just to talk to someone we can’t stand.

Aunt Linda was a true inspiration of what it means to persevere and endure. Although I am far from being like her, I aim to have half the strength that she possessed. I want to look at every hard circumstance I am faced with and see the good I can bring from it. Each day I want to recognize the simple abilities I have been given such as my health, the ability to talk, the ability to eat, the fact that I have two arms and two legs; and never take them for granted. I want to see pain as an obstacle for me to overcome, not something that I will allow to overcome me. I want to greet each day thanking God for another chance at life, another chance to make a difference in the world and try my best to be an imprint of Aunt Linda for all to see.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

#23 He Respects My Hunger Demon

There is something very unnatural that happens to me when I have not eaten. You might be thinking that everyone is crabby when they are hungry, and perhaps that is true, but I literally become a different person.

It is a good thing my husband knew this before marrying me or life could be very different right now.

This problem seems to come with an obvious solution: if you are hungry, eat something. However, while I am not a picky eater, I am a picky hungry eater. When I've reached that point of absolute hunger (therefore, transformation of my character, also known in my family as going from Jessica A to Jessica B) I want to eat something of quality. I don't want carrot sticks or crackers, I want a meal (that is, after all, why I am so hungry at that point, right?)

In learning how to control this hunger demon, I have also recently learned another important element: cooking when you are hungry is never a good thing. While you might think that this would cause you to eat anything and everything you come in contact with, for me that is not the case. While cooking and extremely hungry every element that goes into my final product makes me gag. That's right, gag.

Yesterday I got this fabulous thought to make two sauces for dinner from scratch: Alfredo and pesto. Over the course of four years of marriage, I've made tons of mock Alfredo sauces. This basically involves using cream cheese rather than heavy cream, not really a huge calorie relief. The only true positive in these recipes is that I often have cream cheese on hand rather than heavy cream. However, the result is always of a lesser quality than true Alfredo sauce. It's like buying a frozen pizza rather than a fresh one. I never made pesto sauce before, but considering that it merely required throwing a bunch of ingredients into a blender--I thought to myself, how hard could it be?

I made the pesto first. The recipe said to add extra olive oil if the sauce didn't reach the desired consistency. So I dipped my finger into the blended sauce, then peeked my nose over the blender and it was all over. The absurd hunger welling up inside of me overcame the incredible delight that is pesto sauce and caused an undesired sensation: the gag. I did my best to avoid the smell and dumped the sauce into a dish and set it aside, choosing not to test taste it, and feeling my dinner a failure before it was even complete.

I then made some chicken, which I guess out of the habit of making chicken so often I was able to avoid my stomach being affected.

And I will tell you, if ever you are in a time pinch and need some yummy chicken that isn't just Shake and Bake (although, I'm not knocking Shake and Bake because I definitely use it when in an even tighter pinch) here is all you need:

*Italian Style Bread Crumbs
*Eggs mixed with a little milk
*Chicken cut up in whatever size you want (the smaller the pieces the more crisp flavor)

Set yourself up a little assembly line and begin dredging the chicken pieces in this order: flour, egg mixture, bread crumbs. Then fry in a liberal amount of oil until browned, set cooked pieces on a plate covered in paper towels to drain, and enjoy your life.

When it came time to start the Alfredo sauce, I learned from my mistakes, and chose to not purposefully smell anything. At that point, my hunger was putting me in a mood of not wanting to eat anything I was making anyway. Part of my problem stems from the fact that when I am desperately hungry I want to eat something familiar, not a fresh new recipe that I've never tried before.

I know, I have problems. I don't choose the problems I have, so don't judge me.

But the good news is, the meal was phenomenal. As I was making the sauces I realized I had two colors of the Italian flag and remembered I had some tomato sauce in the fridge from earlier in the week, so the following was born:

Beautiful, just like the Italian flag. I must mention it is also like the Hungarian flag which shares the same colors and is my other half.

The sauce recipes came from The Old Farmer's Almanac Everyday Recipes, which I love.

Alfredo Sauce:
1/4 cup of butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup parsley

I doubled the recipe because I'm insane and figured there was no sense in cutting a stick of butter in half and having a half a pint of heavy cream left over in my fridge. But, in doing so I realized the amount of Parmesan cheese and parsley was a little overboard for me, so I skimped on it and was pleased.

The sauce is literally a three step process:

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan
2. Add the heavy cream and simmer for 5 minutes
3. Add the rest of the ingredients and whisk quickly. (If you don't whisk quickly, your husband's one complaint will be that the Parmesan cheese was not mixed in well enough)

Pesto Sauce:
(Which will not cause you to gag once the dinner is completely made and you have sat down to eat it)

4 cloves garlic
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 ounces Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup olive oil, divided

Reserve half of the olive oil, blend all other ingredients. Slowly add the rest of the olive oil. And, here is where you add even more olive oil if the consistency is not of that which you desire.

The recipe says that the pesto sauce can be frozen, I'm hoping that the Alfredo freezes well too because I had, clearly, too much.

Here's my favorite way to enjoy pesto although it was also great mixed with pasta: