Family Al Fresco

It’s that time of year. School is finished (or soon to be), the temperature is rising and sleeping in is on every teens agenda. If you have kids at home, a common summertime question is ‘What’s there to eat?’ I might be able to help with that last question with some simple summer meal items.

I recently posted on social media about a family meal we had outside (al fresco: in the open air). I was contacted by a few people asking me to post a more detailed explanation. I promised a blog post about some DIY tablescape hacks that made the evening a little easier and the simple summertime recipes we used to make our family meal a success.

My extended family came to visit us in California. The enormous sacrifice they made – financially and most importantly, timing and scheduling – meant a lot to me. Scott and I wanted to have one evening where we all sat down together around a family table and simply relaxed into an evening of conversation and California weather.

For those of you that are fans of the tv series, Parenthood, you’ll understand my desire to have a Parenthood-style dinner together in our backyard, under the lights and California setting sun.

First of all, I needed a long table.

We took our dining room table out to the patio plus used another dining table we have in the garage that Scott uses as a work table. The work table was a few inches shorter than our dining table so we used wooden blocks to prop it up to be an equal height.

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I was tempted to do a charcuterie board down the center of the ‘long table’ but ultimately decided it was too fussy and one more thing for me to plan out. My goal was for all of us to feel comfortable and laid-back so I nixed the cheese board idea.

Instead, Scott cut me a long piece of 2×4 board, sanded all the edges round and stained it. He coated it in coconut oil to seal in the stain.

I cut rosemary from our large rosemary bush and lavender from the three Spanish lavender bushes we bought in the Fall. They were three small bushes when we purchased them but they have grown SO BIG over the past six months! As an aside – I knew the rosemary would last a long time but I wasn’t sure of the lavender. I cut it all just a few hours before our meal. For awhile, it was sitting in the hot afternoon sun. The rosemary held up great but the lavender got a little wilty looking. By the next day it was shriveled. So make sure to cut the lavender fairly close to the event. This served as a nice centerpiece but also held off any flying insects that don’t particularly care for the smell of the rosemary. Win-win! At the last minute, I grabbed some clementines in our kitchen and haphazardly placed them among the rosemary and lavender for a pop of color. I also cut a small sprig of rosemary to place on the napkin at each place setting. Super easy way to put a finishing touch on the appearance of each setting. If you don’t have a rosemary bush in the backyard, rosemary plants are easy to find at grocery stores and gardening centers. (We use ours for cooking all the time!)

I wanted the table to be somewhat minimal in decoration. Casual and welcoming. Here are a few ways I hacked the table decor…

I am a big fan of this set of three candlesticks from IKEA. I have two sets and use them in different spots in our home. Their stark black added just the right amount of drama to the setting without being fussy or overwhelming.

I am a big fan of linen. I love its look and universal appeal. It’s not faddish or decade-specific, which is just the kind of decor I adore! But if we’re all honest, linen can be expensive, right??

A good rule of thumb for just about every decor situation (and more!) is to mix and match real with fake. I went to Harbor Freight and bought two canvas paint dropcloths. They resemble linen and cost about $15 each. Spilled wine? No problem. Dropped food? It will either wash out or, I have a new dropcloth to use! No fuss. No problem.

I even used another dropcloth I had to sew a basketful of coasters for the table (instructions here.) The trick to using dropcloth for your projects is to wash them first. I generally wash them 2-3 times to soften them up and get the distinctive smell out of them. Once they’re softer, the possibilities are limitless.

I mixed the canvas tablecloths with actual linen napkins from World Market. I used 4 different neutral colors to tie everything together without looking too matchy.

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I have really enjoyed my ‘wonky’ dishes from Magnolia. It seems like not that long ago that we lined up outside Target, waiting for the doors to open on the new Magnolia line, Hearth and Hand. I elbowed and crowded in with other Joanna Gaines style followers. I think I grabbed a 4-plate setting the first day and have been picking up more bowls and serving trays ever since. They’re a little harder to find these days but they pair well with a line of dishes from World Market. Again, mixing and matching takes the exactness out of any task (my biggest design hint.) I love the uneven edges of both lines. They look like they’ve just come off a potter’s wheel. Love it.

The table was set with a mixture of items but they all fell into a neutral palette, therefore pulling them all together cohesively. The neutral foundation allowed the colorful food to stand out and shine.

And speaking of the food…

I had to constantly put before myself the goal of the evening: easy, laid-back, casual. I didn’t want Scott and I to have to spend all our time in the kitchen and not sitting with our family enjoying the evening. The following were some of the recipes we used. Many can be put together in advance.

This Avocado Corn salad is de.li.cious. It tastes like summer. It killed Scott a little to have to buy tomatoes since his aren’t ready yet -ha. (All the recipes are at the end of this post.) I’m of the opinion that putting an avocado with just about anything makes it better. You can use fresh corn on the cob but we opted for frozen sweet corn from Trader Joe’s. The very smell of cucumbers makes me want to rush outside. It is such a fresh summer smell.

I’m sure I will receive a lot of crap for this (probably deservedly so), but……..I don’t care for fresh onions. There. I’ve said it. The color of purple onions would round out this salad nicely and 99.9% of the world will put it in.

This Pecan Apple Slaw is a constant in our refrigerator this season. It’s light and easy to keep in the fridge for those quick food cravings. The juicy Craisins make it almost snack-like.

My sweet 21-year-old niece sent me a thank you text after they left to go back to Kansas City. She ended the text with “…and I neeeeeeed that zucchini boat recipe!” -ha! Again, these are easy to make and a great addition to just about any meal. The recipe came from Ina Garten so you know it’s trustworthy! We’ve made them several times and are always happy with the results. Crunchy and salty – my favorite combination.

The main dish was Caprese Chicken. For an easily prepared dish, it packed a lot of flavor. The key is fresh mozzarella and the balsamic glaze.

To be honest, we were introduced to balsamic glaze by a friend just last year. We’ve been ardent fans ever since. There are soooo many things you can use it on! It’s thicker than regular balsamic and adds the perfect tangy-sweet flavor to side dishes as well as many meats.

Maybe it’s just me, but drinks for a dinner can get a little stressful. Do you offer a million options or do you limit it to just a few? My answer for this very flavor-packed meal was to simply serve water. I used some inexpensive water decanters and placed mint leaves in milk white jars on the table. My neighbor gifted me with a starter lemon mint bush and wowzers has it grown! I can’t use enough mint to keep up. So even if it was just decoration and no one used it, it was worth trimming back my container and it added another natural element to the table.

We ended the evening with a HAPPY BIRTHDUATION cake for the people having birthdays and graduating high school. Had it not been for that, I would have gone with a simple Peanut Butter Pie. It’s another easy recipe you make ahead and is always a crowd pleaser.

And because we’re in California, the evenings can get a little chilly if the conversation lingers long enough. I rolled up some favorite throw blankets, put them into a basket and took it outside. When people started getting cool, they grabbed a blanket and the conversation never even paused. No searching for or asking about a blanket – it was right there at the ready when they needed it. (And bonus: it looked cute while it was waiting to serve!)

I hope these suggestions sparked a few ideas of your own. Gathering family and friends together (no dreaded ‘kids table’ separation!) is always my idea of a perfect evening. Multiple conversations interrupted only slightly by the ‘Could you please pass me the…’ requests is pure joy to me.

Before sharing the recipes with you at the bottom, will you indulge me in a few family shots from our Family Al Fresco evening??

Wishing you a season of good food, simple pleasures and all the bent-in-half-ugly-laughing your soul can take!

Corn Tomato Avocado Salad

INGREDIENTS
corn kernels from 1 large steamed corn on the cobb (1 cup)
5 ounces diced avocado from 1 medium avocado
1.5 cup diced Persian cucumbers (about 3 small)
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2T diced red onion
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt
fresh black pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS
Toss all ingredients together and serve.

Cranberry Pecan Slaw

INGREDIENTS
2) 11oz bagged cole slaw mix
1 large Gala or Honeycrisp apple – chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecan

Dressing:
3/4 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup sour cream (can substitute with yogurt)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2% honey
1/2 tsp salt

DIRECTIONS
1. Add slaw mix, apple, cranberries, pecans and onions to a large bowl. Too to mix all ingredients. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, add mayo, sour cream, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Whisk together until smooth. Pour 3/4 of dressing over slaw and toss until mixed well. Add remaining dressing if desired.
3. Serve immediately. Slaw can be stored, covered in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Toss slightly.

Zucchini Boats

INGREDIENTS
3-4 smallish zucchini
2T fresh parsley
2T fresh basil
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
3/4 cup panko
3.5T olive oil

DIRECTIONS
1. Cut the ends off the zucchini
2. Cut in half lengthwise
3. Scoop out center seeds (this is what makes it watery)
4. Put on a sheet pan and brush with oil and salt
5. Turn them over (scooped side down)
6. Cook at 425 degrees for 12 minutes
7. Turn them back over
8. Fill the cavity with panko mixture
9. Put them back in the oven for 8-10 minutes until browned and crisp

Chicken Caprese

INGREDIENTS

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
1T olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp dry Italian seasoning
4 thick slices of ripe tomato
4 slices of fresh mozzarella cheese
2T balsamic glaze
2T thinly sliced basil

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat a grill over medium heat
2. Drizzle 1T of olive oil over chicken and season to taste with salt and pepper
3. Sprinkle Italian seasoning over the chicken
4. Place the chicken on the grill and cook for 3-5 minutes per side, or until done. Cook time will vary depending on the thickness of the chicken breasts
5. When chicken is done, top with a slice of cheese and cook for one more minute
6. Remove from heat and place chicken on a plate. Top each breast with a slice of tomato, thinly sliced basil and salt and pepper to taste
7. Drizzle with balsamic glaze and serve

Peanut Butter Pie

INSTRUCTIONS
1 graham cracker crust
1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream
1.5 cup creamy PB (or crunchy PB for more crunch)

DIRECTIONS

1. Soften ice cream enough to swirl in PB completely (considerably soft)
2. Mix in PB as evenly as possible
3. Pour into crust and freeze
4. Remove a few minutes before serving for easier cutting

Learning the rhythm of relaxation…

It was an unseasonably cool day today. I know I have a long way to go with the California heat (and truly, I’ve enjoyed the warmth of it) but it’s also nice to have an incredibly cool day with the windows open wide.

We are excitedly anticipating a big group of family coming to see us at the end of the month. But of course that means projects and to do lists. Admittedly, I love to have looming projects ahead. I love the challenge of overcoming and conquering the unknown.

But I am learning more and more the value of stopping. Sitting for a few minutes. No, not just sitting but sitting and unwinding the Monkey Brain of mental activity even when physical activity has momentarily stopped.

“Destroy the idea that you have to be constantly working or grinding in order to be successful. Embrace the concept that rest, recovery, reflection are essential parts of the progress towards a successful and happy life.” – Zach Galifianakis

We DVR’d and watched the CNN show, Chasing Life, last night. Dr. Sanjay Gupta travelled to Norway – in the midst of their three month period of 24/7 darkness – to find out where they find their happiness (consistently ranked the Happiest Nation in the World.)

It was fascinating to hear their stories. Stories thick with personal challenge and empathy for others. Kindergarten classes held in the forest with little play supervision. Can you imagine a U.S. classroom teacher allowing their students to climb high trees?! It made me cringe to watch. And yet the students developed such a strong sense of independence and self-confidence. Not to mention how they helped each other through the process of play.

Dr. Gupta interviewed a ski-survivor. After a horrific ordeal in frozen water…heart stopping for several minutes…she was now alive and participating in all sorts of sports. When asked if she was back 100% her reply floored me:

“I’m not 100% but I am 100% of what I need.”

Do I have 100% of what I need? It is a worthwhile question to hold close for awhile.

As so many others in the world, I have felt such a heavy loss with the sudden death of author, Rachel Held Evans. And just like others, she represents such a moment of hope for me. I was at a crossroads when I found her blog. Having been brought up in a strongly conservative christian church, I was feeling at odds with what I understood God to be and how He was represented within the Church as a whole.

Rachel merged the contradictions for me. She led me through the difficult process of letting go of human church expectations and pointed me more fully to the face of my Heavenly Father. To compassion and forgiveness. To acceptance of all humans as possessing equal value in the eyes of God. I was challenged to look at the periphery of life and notice those that were being left out of the public conversation.

I have been simultaneously grieving her 37-year-old-wife-mother-of-two-young-babies presence in the world while also feeling challenged. When such a strong human advocate leaves a void, how is it best filled?

And with any tragedy, it shook my priorities. I spend more mental space than I care to admit on what my next Instagram picture will be. It suddenly seemed so meaningless. I mean, let me be clear: being on Instagram is not meaningless. Finding inspiration is never unnecessary. Nor sharing inspiration. But the amount of mental space it takes up in my mind is silly.

Everyone knows blogging is dead. Yes. I realize that’s a commonly accepted thought. In my heart of hearts I think it might experience an uprise as people tire of quick and easy and return to a deeper delve into thought and ideas.

I am not good at vulnerability. While I don’t believe in divulging everything to everyone, I would like to go back to a time that I was more open and honest with my blog readers. A braver time. I think there are areas in my life that might be similar to others. Things we tend to brush under the carpet and smile relentlessly.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we tried to work through some of that together? There is a place for frivolity and fiction in life. It’s good to sit back and relax. It’s necessary. But I’ve spent too much time in the realm of easy lately. Self-examination has fallen by the wayside; too wide of a pendulum swing.

Iron sharpens iron we are told. I need your input and advice. I value it. I need to re-learn to do life in partnership with others.

Drawing from Dr. Gupta’s discoveries: Challenges give us confidence and self-worth. It stimulates creativity. Spending time in nature, exercising, developing deeper empathy for others – all foundations of happiness.

I’m up for the challenge. How about you?? We need to take care of each other.

 

Terra Cotta Dreamin’

Possibly it’s due to the overexposed sun here in California that has led me to fall in love with a very California, desert-color scheme.

Earth tones:
Greens. Grays. Terra cotta. Cinnamon. Mustard. Mauve. Teals. Blues
Soothing. Grounding. Natural.

Imagine looking at a desert scene. Starting at the ground level with it’s bluish-gray sage mixed with the tans and grays of the sand and rock. Moving up you would find the greens of the foliage plastered against the mustard yellows of a terra cotta-cinnamon sunset that bursts a few streaks of pinkish-mauve into the sky, before turning into the various teals and blues of the setting day.

Now grant it, it’s not a huge leap to ‘earth tones’ from ‘natural whites’. But I see the earthy tones making their way into our home more and more since living out west.

I’m not really a ‘southwestern girl’ when it comes to decor, but I do appreciate the natural elements of linen and leather, hand-thrown pottery, hand-woven textiles, wicker and wood. Those natural items feel more intentional and less fad-driven.

I recently grabbed some very unstaged pictures around the house, of the earthen tones that are finding their way into our rooms. The space heater is out – for the chilly mornings still. Things are as they are in our everyday life. I think that’s the part of this sensation taking me over: a willingness to embrace more of what is, and less of what should be. Maybe it’s California. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s just part of the evolution of life – but in the great scheme of things…there’s very little that needs to be worried over and we waste a lot of time doing it.

I’d rather spend more of my brain space on thinking about the things for which I have to be grateful. It’s a retraining of the mind.

The days are getting brighter and warmer around here – making the occasional rainy day a direct insult. What do you mean I can’t go outside today?!

Most of my plants have new leaves, still tightly curled but peeking out now and again to see if the atmosphere is right for their unveiling. Scott and I have had more than just a few lunches and talks out on the patio and the birds have been devouring their bird food in the feeder.

I have been daydreaming more and more about a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. And more and more I want to learn the history of the northwest. We are surrounded by beautiful land and sea. Now that the rains are letting up, I look forward to more and more exploring.

The first desert pictures are images found on Pinterest. The below image is from The Joshua Tree House at Saguaro National Park…and the inspiration behind my desert dreams of late.

PLACEMAKER by Christie Purifoy

I am currently reading this beautiful book by Christie Purifoy, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty and Peace. The book releases in mid-March 2019 and will be a soothing balm for our overly-stressed, multi-tasking souls.

Placemakers is for the home lover. The outdoor admirer. The family gatherer. The story collector. For the past decade I have felt very strongly that one of my biggest roles in life is to create a welcoming home. My regret? That I didn’t embrace this role stronger when my children were young. Perhaps that is a natural occurrence for many of you as well. When your babies are young, there is so much clutter and lack of sleep. As they mature, there seems to be nothing but running and doing. Concerts and sports events. Home tends to be a quick landing spot between the lines of your to do list.

But the older I get, the more I realize the respite that is home. It has been my passion to create a soothing and calm place for Scott to land after a 12-hour day at work. Even in writing that line I am aware of how genteel and old-fashioned it sounds. Perhaps even egotistical. I balk at the pollyanna nature of it, but I know in my heart that it is the mission I have been given. Does this sound anti-feminist? I certainly hope not as I stand here a proud feminist. We too often acquaint progressive women’s rights with doing and becoming. But the true essence of the movement is to create space where women can become anything they wish to become – which does not exclude the role of supporting and encouraging those we love. But it isn’t all done just for my family. Beauty and consistency makes my own soul feel calm and settled.

We plant seeds or saplings in neat rows. We prune limbs, and we tend the soil. We do not make the trees, but we make a place for them.

I did not have a word for the role I play until Purifoy so elegantly termed it: placemaker.

When I was first married and moving into our apartment (my first home ever away from my childhood home and college dorms), I found great pleasure in creating a homey home. I remember one of my friends came over for the first time and as she left she commented: “Your home doesn’t look like you just moved into it. It looks as if you’ve lived here for years.” I considered this a huge compliment – and still one of my favorites.

For friends and family to find a place that evokes feelings of warmth and welcome – that is my greatest joy. I am (…to a fault and the butt of many jokes…) constantly tweaking things around our home. And now, with the California weather, our backyard is merely an extension of our physical house. I am invigorated by dirt and the care of each plant and tree. I grieve when they die and I feel empowered when I can help to save them.

Making and tending good and beautiful places is not a dishonorable retreat. It is a holy pursuit. We were never meant merely to consume the gifts of creation. We were made to collaborate. We were made to participate. This book is an invitation to reconsider your own relationship to the ground beneath your feet and roof over your head.

I expected this book to be a pretty addition to our coffee table. How surprised I’ve been to find the girth of insight and encouragement I’ve found between its pages. A book that I could probably ‘whip out in a day’ has become a slow and methodical read – filled with underlined words and many pauses for reflection. And sometimes shouts of ‘YES!, that’s exactly how I feel!’

You can pre-order the book now. I strongly suggest you rush to your favorite book-selling site to grab one for yourself.

Meanwhile, I continue to read…

Can I tell you about something kind of cool that happened to me?…

Let me first say that I’m not posting any of this for sympathy or trumped-up praise. Please know that from my heart.

There are areas in all of our lives where we feel confident and strong – and other areas in which we lack inner strength.

I’m not sure if it’s my personality or the fact that I am a person with a bent toward creativity. Whatever the case, my confidence in my ability to write is always low. I enjoy it. I get the buzz, not unlike the endorphin rush of a runner (I’m told.) People have periodically encouraged me to write. But there are soooo many really great writers in the world. And I don’t just mean famous ones. I am lucky enough to know some extremely talented wordsmiths that work other jobs and fit it in when they can. I truly respect and admire their talent.

So every time I sit down to write, I face two paths:

  1. Be overwhelmed with all the immense talent already out in the world – and sit back and hide, or
  2. Try to be brave, sit down, and write anyway. Just for the discipline of writing.

Again, I don’t mean to sound pathetic. But it is a real and immense struggle for anyone faced with creating something from nothing. And especially when it involves personal reflection.

Yesterday I wrote a book review post on this blog. I posted a condensed version of it on my Instagram. I wrote it the day before, posted it early in the morning, and then went on with my day.

A few hours later I popped back on Instagram while waiting on a load of laundry to finish drying and found a message from Jon Cohen, one of the authors I mentioned in my blog post regarding his endearing book, Harry’s Trees. In his message he pointed out a section of text I wrote:

This book celebrated the freedom of forgiveness. The adventure of reading. The beauty of nature. The cost of holding on to self-perpetuated ‘truths’. The ripples of redemption. And as with every good story, it contained an enchanting touch of magic.

He commented:

I like the cogency and rhythm of your words, particularly, in the paragraph that starts, “This book celebrated . . .”

It’s just a little line. A line that instantly brought fat tears to my eyes. (Not a usual reaction for me.) My throat clenched shut and I sunk back into myself.

I reread the line. (And in 2019 style, I did a quick screenshot of it on my phone as if it could disappear into the ethers at any given moment. Like perhaps I was imagining it.)

It wasn’t a spouse or a parent or a friend online saying it. It was a published author I respect, commenting positively on my writing. I cannot find the words at the moment to convey the significant importance I felt while reading it. I had a small, but brief, moment of feeling like Sally Fields at the Oscar’s. Or more recently, Kalen Allen’s reaction when Oprah commented on his Instagram post.

He could have said, ‘Thanks for the great review’ and I would have been impressed he even found my post and glad he commented on it. But after thanking me for the review, he took it a step further and returned a small amount of praise to me as well. It was a quick comment that left a big footprint on my squishy, self-effacing heart.

I have so much to learn about writing as well as finding the confidence enough to push ‘publish’. We are so accustomed to seeing articles and reading online posts nowadays that it is easy to dismiss the immense amount of bravery it takes for the writer to go public with their words. It can be a suffocating and stifling fear.

—–

What an amazing moment of pure, unadulterated joy. Especially because when writing, I particularly like the flow of words. I edit when a sentence seems to lack a particular rhythm and musical cadence. That’s something that’s very important to me.

And yesterday, a published writer commented specifically on that trait. 

I must tell you. It felt really, really good…

If you get the chance today – encourage the Creatives in your life. They need it more than you’ll ever know. It’s not easy being them. Their mind is always at battle with their ability. They need your affirming words.

♥️