Extra, extra: a cheeseburger contains more calories than lettuce does!

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So, it turns out that fries, burgers, chicken nuggets, pizza and nachos are high in calories …. and these foods can make your children fat, if they eat enough of them. I know, I know – it’s like a bolt from the blue, am I right?  I. Had. No. Idea. I thought that deep-fried battered mechanically separated fish was helping my daughters grow strong bones and muscles. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who is shocked to discover that ice cream with chocolate sauce and sprinkles is not a healthy dessert for a kid to enjoy after consuming a pile of salty, melty, greasy, mainly beige food …. Fries and broccoli are not equally nutritious? Say what?

If I were to say these things to you, and you weren’t able to detect the sarcasm in my tone, you wouldn’t believe your ears – you would think “surely, Beth is not serious – she must be dumb as a bag of rocks”. However, if you were everyone’s indefatigable nanny, Ontario, you might find yourself nodding sagely, and mentally patting yourself on the back for being right about all those poor, naive parents out there. Because the government of Ontario thinks you need to be told that fast food is high in calories.

I am not denying that childhood obesity is a problem in our province. Are kids fatter than ever? Yes, they are. Is their diet contributing? You bet. If this new legislation is passed, will it help? Probably not. Parents already know that the best way to feed their kids is at home, at the table, with fresh food prepared from scratch. They already know that the fried-n-salty offerings of fast food joints are the worst way to feed their kids. They know that chicken nuggets are not equal to skinless chicken breasts. They know that potatoes in fry form don’t count as one of the five daily servings of vegetables a kid needs. They know that a bowl of grapes is nutritionally superior to a frosted donut. Most parents I know use that knowledge to help their kids eat a healthy diet. And the ones who don’t? Well, they have all kinds of excuses …. They’re too busy to make healthy dinners or pack balanced lunches. Their kids won’t eat healthy food. They’ll only drink milk if it has strawberry syrup in it. Their kids take multi-vitamins and play soccer on Saturdays, so it doesn’t matter if they eat pizza three nights out of seven. The excuse you never hear, though, is “I don’t know what’s healthy and what’s not”.

This initiative is just another way for people to avoid taking responsibility for their children’s health, and for the provincial government to look like they’re doing something about the rising tide of future heart disease and diabetes victims. McDonald’s, the favourite whipping boy of food industry dictators everywhere, already provides calorie counts (along with fat, sodium and every other component one might be concerned with when it comes to menu options). Yet McDonald’s sells about a million Happy Meals per day ….

My daughters have a reasonably healthy diet. Most days, they eat a variety of veggies and fruits, and most of their treats are countered by an apple or a granola bar or a dish of yogurt. So, when we go to restaurants and they order chicken nuggets and fries and blue Jell-O topped with a whipped edible oil product for dessert, I don’t worry about it. I know what’s in those things, but I feel that their calorie intake most days makes it just fine for them to chow down on fast food every now and then. I certainly don’t welcome having to reassure them that they are not going to keel over if they eat the cheese pizza and goldfish crackers and fruit gummies in front of them, after one of them worriedly reads the health warning. I want them to enjoy their treats, not feel bad about them. Let’s face it: the calorie count in a muffin the size of a baby’s head is not news, and won’t save anyone.

After all this talk about fast food, I want poutine. And, no, I don’t give a damn how many calories are in it. In fact, I just might slap someone if they try to ruin my fun by reminding me ….

On love and loving ….

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And now for the post I meant to write on Valentine’s Day …. Not long ago, a friend of mine tossed one of those questions that makes for a fascinating discussion at me, and some of our mutual friends. “What is love?” People have been trying to define and describe love time out of mind. While I had to admit that I really don’t know what love is, attempting to answer her question gave me a better idea of what I think it is. Two quotations immediately came to mind.

“Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will.” For a while, I had forgotten the source of this line – but it came back to me just yesterday. It’s from a song by Christian folk singer Don Francisco. In the eighties, my parents had a tape by him – may even have had more than one – and this song stood out to me, even as a child. Here’s the song, with lyrics …. If you can get beyond the cheesy line about Jesus not dying for you because it was fun, you will find that the song has a deep meaning. As Christians (that is, Christ-followers), we are called to love as Jesus loved. Jesus didn’t just say “I love you”, he lived and died it. He bled it. He wrote it in the invisible but powerful ink of excruciating, dehumanizing pain, large and loud enough that we still hear the echoes more than two thousand years later. (Whether you believe that Jesus Christ was real and did what the Bible says he did, or you think it’s a myth, the beauty of the story is undeniable.)

Jesus’ version of love is doing, whether you feel it or not. This is a concept that helps me daily. No, I don’t always feel love. Sometimes, I feel nearly its opposite – even for the three people I believe I love dearly, and for whom I would take any number of bullets. Love, in hard times, becomes my choice. My choosing to respond with kindness when someone is being a jerk. My choosing to show patience when someone is leaning on my last nerve. My choosing to give hour number two of listening when I maxed out during hour number one and I’ve heard it before anyway. My choosing to sacrifice what I desire in order to help someone else, when what I’d really like to do is tell that person to go play in traffic, and sit on my ass with a glass of wine and a good book …. That, to me, is my love in action. Yes, I say all the right words, because I feel them and because I believe my family needs to hear them – but anyone can do that. It is in those rubber-meets-the-road moments, those times when the feeling of love is losing its glow – that’s when love ceases to be feelings and words, and solidifies.

The other quotation is this one: “You have had too much therapy. Or not enough. God knows how to love, Kiddo. The rest of us are only good actors.” This comes from a wonderful book I have read about a dozen times, “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. When we say we love someone, and we do all the things we believe love requires, and we commit to that person for a lifetime …. We are still incapable of the perfect mercy, kindness, empathy – and endless forgiveness – of God. Because we are only human. We will say and do the wrong things – and sometimes we won’t even know what the right things are. Sometimes, our resolve to choose love will falter, and we will act in ways that are unkind, ungenerous and even cruel. If we understand that about ourselves and others, we will be more gentle with ourselves and others. We will offer forgiveness instead of resentment. And, in the absence of the bitterness that hardens us, love will be able to grow and mature.

So, I love Ryan, Fiona and Bridget – and many others – by choice. It is an act of my will to give these people the gift of my imperfect attention and service and care – and I have the best of intentions, I really do. But I will fail them again and again, because I’m so far from being God, the perfect lover. My friends and family, though they know this, return their imperfect love to me. And, somehow, it keeps the wheels turning in the vast and beautiful mill that is life ….

And then there’s the picture at the top of this post …. I went searching for images of love, and Google came up with this one (along with hundreds of others, of course).Two snowmen, so small that they would go unnoticed by most larger creatures, lumpy-headed and cock-eyed and wobbly-grinned, reaching out to each other with the gift of love …. They know, deep in their frozen little hearts, that they’re not getting out of this alive – because none of their kind does. They know that someday they’ll be nothing but a damp spot on the ground, and the little paper heart will be trampled or blown away or both. But they’re doing it anyway. And so are we.

Amazings!

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I was planning to write about love today. Because, you know, Valentine’s Day and all. But there’s something going on that’s caught my attention, and I’m going to write about it instead. Guess I’ll save my love-themed post for some other day …. In our house, we listen to the Jewel 98.5 alot. Yes, Ryan and I are in our thirties, not our fifties – and we listen to lots of other stations, too. But we love us some Air Supply and Bread and Dan Fogelberg and Jim Croce and Gilbert O’Sullivan and America …. and the Jewel gives us copious amounts of all of them, plus alot of other beautiful music that you won’t hear on stations with a classic rock, new rock, top 40 or country format. Or on stations called Jack, Bob, Frank or any other monosyllabic male name. Anyway …. One of the Jewel’s sponsors, for years, was Eve’s Laser Clinic. The commercials were, without exception, horrible.

In one, a couple of guys are at the beach, and one guy reacts to a beautiful woman, and asks his buddy if he thinks he has a chance with her. His buddy says “that’s my wife”. The one who was about to unknowingly hit on his buddy’s wife expresses astonishment that she looks so good, and it is explained that she went to Eve’s Laser Clinic to get rid of her cellulite. Because your face is unremarkable; it’s your ass and thighs that confirm your identity for others.

In another, also featuring two guys, one guy remarks that his friend seems happier than he’s been in a long time. The happy guy explains that his sex life has heated up, and his friend assumes he’s got a new girlfriend. But no – Mr. Happy and his girlfriend went to Eve’s Laser Clinic, and his girlfriend’s “needle legs” and “the jungle” on his back are now a thing of the past. Because, you know, people with no body hair have way better sex – and more of it – than the rest of us.

A third commercial features one guy telling another that his wife now does “that thing she used to do before they were married”. Whatever she has resumed doing for him isn’t stated, but there is a line in the commercial about “a job well done”. That’s right: if you havn’t done any manscaping, don’t expect sexual favours, not even from someone who loves you.

There’s one in which a little girl is terrified by a creepy plastic woman following her. She is reassured by the creamy voice of her mother that it’s just Aunt Margaret, who “wouldn’t look so plastic if she’d gone to Eve’s Laser Clinic for her Botox”. No hugs for you, Botched Botox Barbie.

The most recent one was a couple talking about friends of theirs. The woman says she ran into them, and she can’t believe how good they look – they both look twenty years younger! All their “wrinkles, baggy eyes and saggy, leathery skin” have disappeared. When I run into friends, I don’t notice these things. I’m just happy to have a chance to catch up with people who are special to me. Their faces – every line, dimple and freckle – are dear to me because they are dear to me. And I’m fairly certain they feel the same way about me.

Every time I heard one of those commercials, I felt rage well up inside. If our daughters were with me, we would have yet another discussion about who we are mattering more than what we look like. I would explain to them that Eve’s Laser Clinic is just trying to make people feel like they’re not good enough so they’ll come to the clinic and lay down a chunk of cash for a few sips from the fountain of youth. We would talk about how hurtful these commercials are to people who are already self-conscious about their wrinkles, cellulite, scars, and hairy bodies – that is, most of us.

Lately, though, the commercials have been airing less frequently. This is likely connected to the fact that Eve’s Laser Clinic is being investigated by Ottawa Public Health. Apparently, Eve has been offering clients Botox and thread lifts without the presence of a doctor. Even more alarming, she has admitted to performing rhinoplasty and invasive “vaginal beautification” surgeries on clients (because women should worry about what body parts look like even if they never look at them).

Eve may be facing jail time and a fine of up to $25,000 – and I’m glad. Not because she’s broken the law and put her clients’ health at risk, although those two acts are, indeed, worthy of punishment. No, my reason for cheering on the downfall of Eve’s Laser Clinic is more personal: I’m glad the clinic is being investigated and might be shut down, with punitive measures against the owner and operator, because money made from making people feel shitty about themselves is dirty money. More than $25,000, it should all be taken away from her, the way her business’s commercials stole from people’s contentment. Those commercials held a mirror up to alot of people’s deepest insecurities, and threw on the harshest possible light.

The human body is amazing. We were all given the gift of amazing, the day we were conceived. We spend our whole lives inside this amazingness, and it bears the marks of our experience. We are who we are because of how we got where we are – why stretch smooth, burn bald, and slice away pieces of ourselves? Why not say thank you for the gift of amazing by loving ourselves, just as we are – and by recognising others as fellow pieces of God’s beautiful living artwork?

Sometimes, when I start writing, I have no idea where the piece will lead – and this one has surprised me by being about love after all. Happy Valentine’s Day, amazings!

Kitchen love: sugar, sugar!

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Admit it, now the Archies are singing in your head …. Go ahead and be goofy for a minute (or, to be exact, three minutes and one second)! Ok, now that our musical interlude is over, it’s time for more kitchen love! Did you think I’d forgotten the desserts? No way! Desserts are the best, and I saved the best for last. (Instead of frantically shovelling it into my gob like I’ve been known to do at times.) Like the soups, I couldn’t choose just one dessert. So, lucky you, I’m giving you two. The first one is carrot cake. I know what you are thinking: carrot cake? That’s nothing special. That’s what your granny likes. That’s the dried-up little square you take six of at the end of a Chinese buffet, knowing you’ll probably only eat two. I promise you: if you try the recipe I’m about to divulge, you will never think the same way about carrot cake again. This one is an oft-requested star in our house. Here goes ….

1 cup flour

1 tsp baking powder

3/4 tsp baking soda

2 eggs

1/2 cup canola oil

1 cup sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 cup grated carrot

4 oz crushed pineapple, drained

1/4 cup crushed walnuts

12 oz cream cheese

3/4 cups butter

3 tsp vanilla

icing sugar (to taste)

Blend the first ten ingredients together, and bake in a greased cake pan at 350 F for thirty to forty minutes. For the frosting, cream the cream cheese and butter, then add vanilla and blend well. Gradually add icing sugar, by quarter cups, to taste.

The other dessert I’d like to share with you is a little more decadent …. If one can be a little decadent, that is. This one was invented by me, through trial and error, and has no name. In fact, I’ve never attempted to put it on paper (well, on screen) until now. It’s a branch of the cheesecake family tree, I guess. Maybe it should have a name …. All right. After thinking long and hard, I’m calling this dessert “The Beth”. There.

1 cup butter

2 cups flour

1 tsp almond extract

3/4 cups icing sugar

1/4 cup corn starch

16 oz cream cheese

1 cup icing sugar

1/3 cup coffee

1 oz Irish cream liqueur

1/2 cup dark chocolate

For the shell, mix the first five ingredients, and press firmly into a pie plate. Bake at 325 F for fifteen minutes. Cream the cream cheese and cup of icing sugar, then add coffee and liqueur. Blend until completely incorporated. Fill your shell with the cream cheese mixture. Melt the dark chocolate and drizzle it over the top of the dessert.

I hope you thoroughly enjoy all of the recipes I’ve tossed your way this week. Most of all, though, I hope you enjoy the experience of cooking them and sharing them with whoever your special someone is.

 

 

Kitchen love: soup’s on!

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Can I take a moment to sing the praises of soup? It’s healthy and delicious, and warms us from the inside out. A steaming bowl of soup makes you feel good, and its role as a placebo for people who are under the weather has been well-documented. Not to mention that it often tastes even better the second time around …. After chili, shrimp gumbo and macaroni and cheese, I give you soup. In fact, I couldn’t decide which of my soup recipes to feature and ended up choosing two: beef barley and chedder ale. First, beef barley …. This one has never been written down, really, it’s in my head – I learned it by watching my mother make soup, then adding my own little touches.

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup worcestershire

salt

pepper

1 chopped cooking onion

1 lb cubed stewing beef

3 beef bouillon cubes

2 ribs diced celery

2 diced carrots

1 diced parsnip

1 cup dried barley

1 cup dry macaroni

Melt butter in a large pot on medium-low heat. Add worcestershire, onion, beef, salt and pepper. When the beef has browned, fill the pot halfway with water. Add bouillon cubes. Bring to a boil. Add celery and carrots. Boil for five more minutes, then add parsnip, barley and macaroni. Continue to boil the soup until the vegetables have reached desired texture.

And now, cheddar ale ….

1 tbsp butter

1 chopped leek (white part only)

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 chopped red onion

1 1/3 cups heavy cream

1 1/3 cups chicken broth

1 bottle your favourite ale

8 oz old cheddar, grated

salt

pepper

In a saucepan, on medium-high heat, melt butter and sizzle leek until translucent (but not browned). Add garlic and sizzle a little more, until garlic is green. Then, add all remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat, and simmer gently for about thirty minutes. If the soup is not thick enough, gradually stir in a little flour.

Both of these soup recipes are hearty enough to be the main event of a meal, and they’re wonderful with warm bread slathered with butter. They freeze well, too, which means you have a ready-to-go meal for another day when you don’t have time to make anything from scratch (and we all have those days).

 

Kitchen love: macaroni & cheese!

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When it comes to comfort food, macaroni and cheese is almost a synonym of the term …. It’s thick, rich, flavourful – and, for many of us, it invokes memories of childhood. Sitting at a table that’s too tall for you, legs swinging and curling around your chair, leaning on one elbow, devouring a bowl of warm mac-n-cheese on a cold day …. (Yes, I am still too short for alot of tables and chairs, and I still put my elbows on the table. Guess I never really absorbed the popular camp rhyme urging kids not to do that.)

So, we’ve had chili, and we’ve had shrimp gumbo …. Today’s offering is simpler, but no less tasty. If you don’t want to fire up anybody’s taste buds, you just want to make them feel warm and cared-for, try macaroni and cheese. This is my mother’s recipe and, even after years of ordering it in restaurants, it’s still the best I’ve ever had.

2 cups dried macaroni

1 tbsp canola oil

1 tbsp salt

3 cups cheddar (grated)

1 cup mozzarella (grated)

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup mustard (prepared)

1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce

3 cups milk

bread crumbs

parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Add salt and oil to a large pot of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, and add macaroni. Cook for ten minutes. In a saucepan, melt butter, and blend in flour, mustard and worcestershire; stir constantly until bubbly. Gradually blend in milk, and cook until slightly thickend. Stir in cheese, and continue stirring until it melts. Combine the sauce and macaroni in a casserole dish, and sprinkle bread crumbs and parmesan cheese on top. Bake for forty minutes, uncovered for twenty and then covered for twenty.

A nice complement to this dish is a colourful salad …. Come back tomorrow for a couple of solid soup recipes! (“Solid” as in awesome, not – obviously – “solid” as in not liquid.)

Kitchen love: shrimp gumbo!

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So, yesterday I posted my favourite chili recipe …. Today, I am posting the second installment of my Valentine’s Day gift to you: shrimp gumbo! This is a colourful, flavourful, lively dish that will warm up even the coldest, greyest of days. It only takes about thirty minutes to prepare this dish, once your veggies are sliced and diced. The changing colour and scent of shrimp gumbo, from the butter sliding and sizzling in the bottom of the pot to setting steaming bowls of it on the table, makes cooking this dish a sensory pleasure. If you like Cajun food as much as I do, you’ll love shrimp gumbo!

1/4 cup butter

1 chopped cooking onion

1 chopped green bell pepper

1/2 cup diced celery

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 liter stewed tomatoes

2 cups tomato juice

1 can red beans, drained

1 tsp dried parsley

1/4 tsp dried oregano

2 bay leaves

1 tsp salt

2 tsp your favourite hot sauce

1 lb shrimp

1 1/2 cups uncooked brown rice

10 oz chopped okra

Melt butter over medium heat, and add onion, green bell pepper, celery and garlic. Cook until tender-crisp, about three minutes. Add stewed tomatoes, tomato juice, beans, parsley, oregano, salt, hot sauce and shrimp. Bring to a boil over high heat, and add rice. Cover; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for ten minutes, then add okra. Cook, covered, five minutes or more, until rice and okra are tender. Remove bay leaves before serving.

This dish goes well with toast or biscuits. If you’re in the mood for more meat, you can add sizzled chicken or beef after melting the butter. Another nice addition is spicy sausage, sliced and cooked, and added at the same time as the rice and okra. Laissez les bons temps rouler!