Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Learning about The Good and Beautiful Life

Gulf Shores at sunset. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
I've been looking for landmarks.

Let me back up a little. I spent last week on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, soaking up sunshine and salt air and more than a little bit of fried seafood. We had a vacation week routine of sleeping in, lingering over breakfast, then putting on swimsuits, slicking up in sunscreen and trekking for the beach. With sand buckets and boogie boards in tow, we were good for a few hours of sticky sand, searing sun and crashing surf.

Taking my seven year old into the chilly Gulf waters with her boogie board, I remembered a story that Andy Stanley (now at his own church, Northpoint, but at that time at his father's church, First Baptist of Atlanta) told, and I'm sure he's not the first, but I remember his version from one Sunday morning sermon probably 25 years ago, about being a kid and playing in the ocean and losing sight of landmarks on the beach. Swimming and playing in the water, then looking to shore and realizing you're a bit farther out than you thought and you don't recognize the people or objects that are near. And it's true, wading in the surf, trying to keep up with my child and not lose my footing, we worked our way down the beach, farther and farther away from our belongings.

Gulf Shores at sunset. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
In order not to be completely disoriented, and because I'm the mama, I needed to look up every once in awhile and readjust my position, so I could see where we were and get a handle on my surroundings. And that's what I need in a spiritual sense, too.

Maybe it's my birthday coming up, maybe it's the daily turbulence of dealing with young children, teenagers, aging parents, a job, a house. These are all blessings, to be sure, but sometimes blessings can be overwhelming. I'm in need of a fresh spiritual breath. Put another way, I'm getting lost in the surf and my eyes are searching for a landmark on shore.

 Last fall, I joined a small group Bible study in my church, what the pastors like to call a "connecting community." It's just six of us, but what we lack in size we make up in enjoying each others' company. Our study from the first year was "The Good and Beautiful God" by James Bryan Smith. It's a very practical guidebook for getting to know God. This fall, we will take up the next in the series, "The Good and Beautiful Life." Here's a passage from the first chapter:

"The aim is to help Christians understand and implement the teachings of Jesus about things like anger, lust, lying, worrying pride and judging others. What Jesus teaches about these things is simply the truth. Living according to his teachings leads to a good life, a life that can withstand the storms and trials we all face.

"...Jesus is not making life more difficult, but is revealing that the way to the good and beautiful life is to obey his teachings. There is no other way. Either our lives conform to his teachings, or we fail to live a good and beautiful life." ~ ("The Good and Beautiful Life," by James Bryan Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
James Bryan Smith will come to my church August 16 and 17 and present a TED-style conference based on the tenets set forth in the Apprentice series. If you’re in the Atlanta area, check out the conference at First Presbyterian Church of Douglasville.

James Bryan Smith, author of "The Good and Beautiful Life."

Registration is open and the best price will be available until July 15. After that, it goes up slightly. If you’ve read the books and want to hear more, join us. If you’re looking for a warm church home, please visit First Pres ~ I'd love to see you there.

Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Create a bucket garden

Bucket garden. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

We caught the gardening bug late this year, but hit upon a great idea in the planning. Bucket gardens, decorated by my crafty girls and filled with bright annuals, ready to brighten up the porch or flower bed, depending on our whim (and the summer heat.)

Our starting point was with a video from The Home Depot ~ an informative five-minute presentation that outlined the materials required and how to put together the bucket. Instead of pails, we used the smallest garbage cans available, Behrens 6 gallon galvanized trash cans with a lid and handle. (I've learned the hard way with container plants that the bigger the pot, the more moisture they can hold, thus allowing the plants to survive any inconsistencies in watering.)

Wave petunias. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
The girls decorated the buckets using paint pens from Michaels. We like a little poetry and a little whimsy in our garden. And Emily Dickinson always inspires...

Paint markers make the artist's job easy. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Hope is the thing with feathers. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I used a heavy duty hammer and screwdriver to drive drainage holes in the bottom of the bucket and the girls filled the buckets with garden soil. I showed them how to gently pull the plants from the containers ~ Little Bit loves the phrase from the Home Depot video ~ "tickle the roots!" A little gardening lesson that she'll always remember.

The finished garden, getting its first drink. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The bucket gardens turned out beautifully and I'm looking forward to a summer full of color from the wave petunias, the lantana and daisies that we planted!

Check out the Home Depot for the bucket garden how-to and more ideas for easy gardening projects.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Girl in the Hat Goes on a Picnic

The laughing, dressed in a fresh white linen dress, joins her friends for a picnic in the mountains. She puts on her favorite straw hat over her long brown braid. The terrain is rugged, especially for a lady outfitted as a lady. The men are willing to help a young lady across the stream.

girl in hat 2

girl in hat 2

Part of being the only girl in a small family is inheriting the family history. These are pictures from my grandfather's photo album, snapshots from the 19-teens when he left Ohio and toured the West. The family thinks the pictures were made in Colorado. I was so enamored of the girl in the hat that since I first posted this story in 2010, I've made her image my avatar.

I wish I knew who the girl was - she has such a fresh face. White linen dress, big black bow, face framed by a floppy straw hat. I imagine she has a long brown braid under the hat. The pictures are from a series taken on a picnic in the mountains and these are the most interesting - which gentleman will carry the pretty girl across the river?

Imagining this grand day, I realize the romance factor has dwindled from my picnics. These days, Clark's sandals and a clean t-shirt and shorts are the order of the day. I like my straw hat, but rely on sunscreen to shield my face because I don't like hat hair.

My Picnic Menu
Pimento Cheese on Crackers
Ham Wraps with Spinach, Cream Cheese and Chives and Red Pepper Slices
Fresh Georgia Watermelon Slices
And brownies, always brownies. These are luscious, fudgy brownies, made rich with cream cheese. I intended to make a cream cheese ribbon through the chocolatey cake, but ended up stirring the cream cheese into the batter for an extra-rich brownie. You need to walk an extra mile to burn off these calories, but it's well worth it. After all, you're in your Clark's and not high-button boots. But if a gentleman offers to carry you across the river, well I wouldn't say no.

pimento cheese
Pimento cheese. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Pimento Cheese
This is a boilerplate pimento cheese. There are lots of uptown recipes, and I've bookmarked Bellwether Vance's pimento cheese to try (she also has the ultimate minner cheese story).

8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup mayonnaise, approximately, (I've never bothered to measure)
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons chopped pimentos

1. Shred Cheddar cheese on the coarse side of a hand grater or in a food processor.
2. In a bowl, stir together cheese and enough mayonnaise to bind. Add salt and pimentos. Serve with crackers or on squishy white bread.

Brownies with cream cheese. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Fudgy Icebox Brownies
These brownies came about from a failed attempt to make a cream cheese marble swirl in my regular brownie. I made both batters, swirled them to perfect marbling and placed the pan in the oven. Then I saw the bowl of three eggs, waiting to be used in the brownie batter. Ooops! Out of the oven, batter dumped in a bowl, eggs whisked in to the now-combined cream cheese and brownie batter. The resulting brownies are super-rich due to the cream cheese, and as good as they are warm, they are divine cold, so place them the bottom of the cooler, and finish off the picnic on a high note.

2 sticks unsalted butter, melted

2 cups granulated sugar

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup natural cocoa powder (I use Hershey's)

2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch-square metal baking pan.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Off the heat, stir in sugar, then the cream cheese, followed by the eggs and vanilla. Slowly stir in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, until the batter is smooth and free of lumps.

3. Spread the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick or a skewer inserted 3/4 inch into the center of the brownies comes out with just a few moist clumps clinging to it, about 40 minutes. Let the brownies cool completely in the pan on a rack.

4. Cut into squares. Store the brownies in the refrigerator in a covered container.

Watermelon slices. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Watermelon. What can I say? It's Georgia in June and the watermelons are sweet and available at every fruit and vegetable stand by the side of the road. Chill the melon in the fridge, then carve into chunks and what my family calls "pie slices"- with a handy rind handle for kids to hold.

Text and images © 2013, Lucy Mercer.
This story is a re-post for #LetsLunch, a monthly Twitter party for food bloggers all over the world. 
This month's theme is Too Hot to Cook. Thanks Grace Hwang Lynch of HapaMama for hosting 
this month's party! Check back here for links to this month's stories and recipes!

Grace's Mung Bean Shaved Ice at HapaMama
Monica’s Peanut Salad at A Life of Spice
Lisa’s Aperol Spritz Granita at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Cheryl’s Mango-Key Lime Pie at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Linda’s Escape from San Francisco Picnic at Spicebox Travels
Pat’s Almost No-Cook Rice at The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook
Linda’s Coconut Creamsicle Sodas at Free Range Cookies
Emma’s Cheese Plate at Dreaming of Pots and Pans
Anne Marie’s Lettuce Sandwiches at Sandwich Surprise

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Eggplant and tomato spaghetti

Eggplant and tomato spaghetti. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

At the height of summer, when the markets are filled with Technicolor produce, pick out a beautiful, plump eggplant and a few heirloom tomatos and make this sumptuous variation on ratatouille. Minus the squash, it's still rich with roasted vegetal and herbal deliciousness. This recipe is adapted from Francis Lam's Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free! Sauce

 Eggplant and Tomato Spaghetti

Serves 3 generous portions

1 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch dice
1 tablespoon salt
3 ripe tomatoes
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 sprigs thyme or oregano, chopped
1 cup  water
6 leaves basil, chiffonade
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound spaghetti, cooked

1. Place the eggplant cubes in a sieve over a bowl and toss with salt. Let sit for a half hour to draw the bitter juices out of the eggplant. Meanwhile, peel and cut the tomatoes into chunks.

2. In a heavy saucepan such as a Dutch oven, pour in the olive oil and set over low heat. Add the garlic cloves.

3. Wipe any moisture off of the eggplant. When the garlic sizzles, add the eggplant and stir to coat it with oil. Turn up the heat, add the tomato and herbs and stir. When the eggplant and tomato soften, add the liquid, let it come to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low. Cover the pot, leaving an edge exposed for steam to escape.

4. After about 20 minutes, the vegetables should be soft and melting and ready for the pasta. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve immediately, garnished with additional basil.

Text and images copyright 2013, Lucy Mercer.