One of my best friends, Amy, and I have a joke about making dinner. I’ll text her a picture of the rotisserie chicken I grabbed at Kroger and make some humorous comment about secret recipes. She’ll send back a picture of her family-sized Chick-Fil-A bag and reference how she’s “cooking”. One day she messaged, “Are cake pops a meal?” We’re hilarious.
The truth is, life is busy. We’re both mamas. We’re both writers. We’re both trying to hold all the pieces together. And that means some nights the best dinner we can muster up comes in a box or a bag. This of course is absolutely fine, because our people eat a hot meal (or a meal with frosting). But there are other nights, despite our hysterical text stream, where our best dinners involve actually cooking.
Today was a cooking day. My oldest baby is home from college visiting. I wanted to make her favorite dinner—lasagna. I learned long ago from a chef friend that the secret to good food is good ingredients. The better the ingredients, the better the meal turns out. So, when I actually take time to make lasagna, I use hand-rolled, fresh mozzarella from Jungle Jim’s, this fabulous market near us. Guys, it’s not even the same substance that comes shredded in a bag. It is so amazing. I also use these tomatoes from Italy. I know. They’re canned tomatoes. Who cares, right? But they’re yummier. They’re sweeter. They just are. They’re not more expensive than regular canned tomatoes, they just taste better. And fresh basil? Sigh. This is my favorite ingredient. It adds a layer of flavor that can’t be replicated.
The better the ingredients, the better the meal. I think this mantra holds true to all parts of our lives.
Which translates into bringing our best games to everything we do, because the more we put into it, the better it will turn out. This is so true. When I prepare before a conference call, thinking through the questions I want to ask and the questions I might be asked. When I pull out my favorite notepad and a brightly-colored pen jotting down some main points prior to the call and taking notes during the call, the conversation is more productive. If I read all the passages, pray, research and journal about them for the Bible study I lead, Tuesday morning conversations at study are more focused and richer. When I get a great night’s sleep, eat healthy, am hydrated, stretch before and after, my morning runs are fantastic, energizing for my body and therapeutic for my mind.
But we all know that’s not always how it goes, is it?
Today Kroger was out of fresh basil. They just didn’t have any. They had this fresh-ish basil in a tub, which is far superior to dried basil in a spice jar, but not the same as fresh-cut leaves from my yard in the summer. Sometimes I’m rushing to my desk for the call, flying through the Bible-study lessons, and my legs feel like lead.
So how do we do this? How do we metaphorically cook with the best ingredients, when they’re not always available?
We look in our pantries, open our fridge, swing by the grocery and bring the best ingredients we have. Whatever that is today. Often this means improvising. That might mean basil in a tub. Or stewed tomatoes instead of diced tomatoes. It could mean a run that morphs into a stroll to be able to complete my route. It could mean getting to just a little of my Bible every day, the parts I can get to, and if I can’t journal, at least trying to think through some of the questions in our study book in my brain.
It always means praying. Because talking to God about all the things going on is the best ingredient I’ve got up my sleeve—the secret ingredient to save all the recipes, even the ones it looks like I’m burning or flubbing up. Praying over the conference call before the phone rings. Praying on the way to Bible study for God to fill in all the places I’m not prepared, to give me words where I need to speak, and silence when I need to hush. Praying over my children, my interactions with them. Praying over my marriage. Praying over my writing. Praying over all of the things all of the time.
Because the best ingredients available for today’s recipes might be totally different than the best ingredients that will be available tomorrow. We’re never sure how our legs or voices or patience will hold up. We can’t control if someone else is running late or running out or stands us up or if they raise the prices for the things on our list. Some days we come down with the flu or the blues. But we still need to show up. We still need to try. And we still need to sprinkle in the secret spice of prayer. My best tomorrow looks totally different than my best today and it looks completely different than yours on any day. Some days my best is homemade lasagna and others my best is pizza delivered to my doorstep. But when we keep trying, keep giving today the best ingredients we have to offer, praying over all the places we and the world falls short, together, we’ll make the tastiest lasagna. And ultimately we’ll make our world, delicious.
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We were driving down the highway when both of my daughters started cracking up in the backseat. “Look at that lady!” They eventually squeaked and pointed between peals of laughter.
In the van to our right was a woman not just singing by herself in her car, but all out busting a cold move. She was flapping her arms and bopping her head and despite looking a little odd, she also looked like possibly the happiest person on the planet. “That must be her absolute favorite song!” I decided. As we drove past we noticed her license plate read SONGS1. “And,” one of the kids added, “she must really love music.”
Twenty minutes later in our drive as cars wove forward and back, switched lanes and repositioned themselves we were again beside SONGS1. Still her entire upper body was moving and grooving. She was still in an all-out-sing. Clearly she was on to new songs, but it seemed that all songs brought this woman so much pure joy.
What brings you that kind of joy? When was the last time you experienced it?
The other day at the pool, two of my kids were on the basketball court. A little guy, maybe three or four years old, came bounding up to them and proclaimed, “I knew you were playing basketball over here! I am really good at basketball!” He proceeded to swing his arms haphazardly while the ball kind of bounced beside him and the biggest smile in the world shone from his face.
Do you know this kind of uninhibited joy?
Do you sing at the top of your lungs?
Do you start dancing if the music makes your foot tap?
Do you grin from ear to ear, join the game, approach strangers, and bounce the ball just because it’s fun, because it makes you happy? We should. God wants us to.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music
I know there is work to be done. There are bills to be paid, meals to be prepared, practices to drive to, tanks to be filled, and always laundry and more laundry to be put away.
But God calls us to make a joyful noise. Yes, He wants us to be responsible—to do the work set in front of us, but He also wants us to delight in all of the beautiful, marvelous experiences He placed in this world for our pleasure. Driving to work? Call a friend who makes you laugh. Sweeping the floor or exercising? Put on some great tunes and “burst into jubilant music”.
Wear the clothes that make you feel good.
Paint your walls your favorite color.
Eat the foods that make you say, “yum” out loud (think watermelon and corn on the cob from the local farmer’s market).
Have a spontaneous dance party.
Roll your windows down and let your hair blow in the breeze.
Find the things that bring you great joy. Take time for them. Read a chapter by your favorite author. Stop by your favorite bakery. Go for a bike ride on that gorgeous trail by the stream. Make popsicles. Then eat them! (It’s so easy to make popsicles! I made these with the juice at the bottom of a bowl of watermelon we’d devoured, two mushy bananas, and a handful of leftover blueberries. I dropped them all in the blender, whirred them together, poured them in these plastic molds, and popped them in the freezer. The whole process took about four minutes. They are sweet and so very refreshing on a hot humid afternoon).
And by all means shout for joy and bring a gift of laughter to all you do, wherever you go. It will make you feel good inside and out. And maybe someone will look at you and say, “They look like the happiest person in the world.”
On your feet now—applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into his presence
I’d love to hear…what brings you joy? How do you intend to incorporate it into your life this week?
“All you need is love,” the Beatles sang to me when I listened to them non-stop in junior high.
“The greatest of these is love,” the Bible reminded me in 1 Corinthians 13 as I searched for answers and understanding of this life.
And they were both right. Only I didn’t know where to find love. So I looked in all of the wrong places. I searched for love in the form of approval – maybe if I got good grades I would be loved, if I got great grades I’d have an even better chance. I searched for love in the eyes of guys I dated—maybe if they thought I was pretty, or funny, or fun they’d love me, I’d be loved. I looked for love in my job—if I succeeded, did another deal, got another promotion my co-workers would respect me, my boss would be proud of me, and those things are kind of like love, aren’t they?
Kind of. But not really. Because all of those types of love slip through our fingers. They’re temporary. There will always be another test to take, another dance to find a date to, and another deal to land. Once the quick fix of approval is over, the buzz of being sought or appreciated dies down, so does the love. Where are you looking for love today?
There is one true love. A love so real, so true, and so fulfilling I can’t get my mind or arms around it. It is the love of Jesus. His love letter to us is the Bible. It starts with Him creating the world, a beautiful place for us to live, because He loves us. He created each of us, exactly how we are, no matter what are grades are, no matter what are relationship status is, no matter what size or shape we are, no matter how successful by worldly standards we are. God’s love letter goes on to explain what He’s done, what He will do for us. He’ll part seas for us. He’ll knock down walls for us. He’ll pull us out of fiery furnaces. He’ll slay our giants. And then, as if that weren’t enough to show us how deeply and completely He loves us—Jesus will take all of our imperfections and mistakes and wash them clean. I mean, who does that? Only someone who loves us utterly and unconditionally.
All the years that I searched for love on Valentine’s Day, that I longed for an extra special heart to be stuffed in my decorated box, or for flowers to be delivered at my door, or for Prince Charming to arrive on his white steed, I already had love all along, and so do you. Jesus loves you. He made you. He died for you. And He wants to be your Valentine.
And once we truly let that sink in, allow His love to flow over us, stop trying so hard and comparing ourselves to all the people and things we are not—that we were never intended to be—once we realize we were created to be exactly who we are, and that we are loved for our individual priceless unique selves, then we can feel the real love of God that completes us. And when we accept that true love, we can also begin to love ourselves, to see ourselves for our true lovely selves, see our true reflections. And once we know where to find true love, then we can realize love IS all we need and the greatest of these IS love.
I’d to hear your favorite Valentine’s recipes or traditions or your favorite parts of God’s love letter. Share in the comments section below.
It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas to me if I weren’t busy baking Christmas cookies. I love gathering my kids into the kitchen creaming butter with sugar, sniffing the relaxing scent of vanilla from the bottle, melting chocolate chips until they blend into a smooth, rich mess, the smell of sweet concoctions wafting from the oven all while we seem to end up with a dusting of flour on our shirts and a smear of batter on our chins.
And so I interrupt my normal blog with a Christmas recipe for you. Our family favorite is Buckeyes – basically a Reese’s cup shaped like the fruit of Ohio’s state tree, the Buckeye tree, a.k.a. Ohio State’s mascot, Brutus.
My recipe is an old one, laced with tradition. It comes from my great grandmother Mildred, who everyone for unknown reasons called, “Mul”. You know it’s an old recipe when it begins with: blend one pound Oleo with two pounds peanut butter… Yup, OLEO, do not confuse it for Oreo. Do. Not. Because Oleo is just a fancy cooking term for lard, think the original Crisco. Told you it was old. Also, any recipe measured in pounds gets my attention. I’ve modernized this baby by swapping butter for the Oleo, just couldn’t bring myself to cook with Crisco. We have nut and gluten allergies at our house, so I also sub in Trader Joe's Sunflower Butter for peanut butter to make this a safe-to-eat treat. If you were looking for one last cookie to make, give them a try. I dare you to eat just one.
2 pounds peanut butter, sunflower butter, or almond butter (pick your favorite)
1 pound butter
3 pounds powdered sugar
24 ounces chocolate chips
½ cake paraffin (This is cooking wax sold in the baking aisle. The only brand I know is Gulf Wax. It makes the chocolate shell easier to dip, harden more quickly, and gives it a pretty shine. It does not change the flavor and is safe to consume)
At room temperature mix peanut butter, butter and powdered sugar. Mold into small balls, slightly smaller than golf balls. Set on wax paper and chill over night. Next day melt chocolate chips and paraffin in microwave at 50% power. Dip balls into chocolate with a corsage pin (or toothpick), leaving a tan center (the iris of the buck’s eye) uncoated. Set on wax paper to harden. Eat! I like mine cold from the fridge.
Have you ever eaten an apple from Walmart? Sure all of the apples in the ready-to-go, easy-to-carry, plastic bag are the same shape and size. They’re even all the same color. Even if they’re multi-colored apples, it’s uncanny how they manage to package eight apples with the exact shade and portion of yellow marbled into the exact hue and percentage of red all in the same bag. But once you bite into one of those look-alike apples, you forget you’re eating an apple. Instead you get a mouthful resembling mealy cardboard.
Have you ever picked apples in an orchard? Off a real, live tree? Or at least purchased apples from an apple farmer, at a roadside stand, or a farmer’s market? They’re all unique. One might have a ding. Another an uneven spot. You might find one with its stem and leaf still attached. Their surfaces aren’t as smooth or shiny (translate waxy) as the ones at Walmart. Even apples from the same tree are different sizes with distinctive curves. Ever bitten into one and experienced the layering of sweet and tart, crisp and juicy, like crunching morsels of cider? These apples are like ambrosia. It’s almost blasphemy to use the same word to label this fruit as the kind they’re calling apples at Walmart.
God created us to be orchard apples.
Not Walmart apples.
He designed each and every one of us in His image. He knows exactly how much water we need, what kind of fertilizer we require, how to keep the pests away. He appreciates us when we are seeds, seedlings, beautiful pink blossoms in the spring, and as we grow into solid fruit. He doesn’t judge us along the way, try to grow us in a rush, pick us too early, or stuff us in a plastic bag and ship us before we’re ripe. See, God made us; therefore He loves who we are at every stage of our life, our dings, our rough spots, our natural surfaces. He doesn’t ask us to be anything we’re not, or try to cram us into a bag, force us to like someone else. No, through His love, God helps us become the best versions of ourselves. Much like those fresh from the orchard apples. Some of us are sweet, and some of us are tart, and some of us are a mix of both. We are red and green and gold and pink and all kinds of swirling combinations.
A Granny Smith does not want to be like a Golden Delicious, she’s too sassy for that. A Pink Lady has no aspiration to be a Honey Crisp, because she’s amazingly sweet and crisp and beautiful just like she is. Each apple just tries to be itself, because that’s who it was made to be. Us too. We need to relish in who we were made to be our Creator. Remember you are an orchard apple, not a Walmart one, so delight in the layers of your personality, your one-of-a-kind shape, size and flavor.
I love to bake. One of my family’s favorites this time of year is Apple Crisp. The secret to this recipe is to use a variety of apples. The different degrees of sweet and tart, crisp and soft all meld together when they bake into something unbelievably scrumptious. We deal with gluten and nut allergies, but this dessert is safe for all of us to savor. It is warm and sweet and spicy. Top it with some vanilla ice cream that melts over the crunchy topping, and you’re pretty close to this side of heaven. You don’t need any skills to make it, just a great variety of farmer’s market apples and a peeler.
7 medium-sized apples peeled and sliced thinly. A variety is best, some gold, some green, and some red. Mix it up.
1 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups gluten free rolled oats (you can use regular, but don’t use steel cut, they don’t work as well)
½ cup gluten free flour (I use a ready-made blend, but you can make your own blend, or use GF oat flour or use regular flour. They all work the same.)
½ tsp. Cinnamon
Vanilla Ice Cream or if you’re feeling festive, whipped cream
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
What's your favorite way to serve apples in the fall?
Laura L. Smith