Savoring Break: Cranberry Chai Baked Oatmeal

I am a huge fan of this thing called “break”.

Waking up without an alarm clock after eight hours of restful sleep. Thinking “What do I want to do today” instead of “How many items can I knock off of my gazillion lists before the day’s out?”

Having time to spend with friends and family so my sister tells me every single day: “You are so much nicer and happier now”. I had no idea what a monster school made out of me.

I may be over sugar and cookies, but I am not ready to say goodbye to the holiday spirit. No siree. I am going to savor every moment for as long as I can.

Days like yesterday. I puttered around half the morning before bundling up and heading out in the sub-freezing temperatures for a run. I kept my mind off my frostbitten nose by planning a warm, nutritious breakfast. Then I ran harder to get back home and into the kitchen.

My vision of Cranberry Chai Baked Oatmeal was whipped up and baking away quicker than the drive-through at Dunkin Donuts to cash in my brand spanking new gift card. Thank you, Aunt Robin. That large coffee was the perfect accompaniment to the delicious smells of winter spices and orange zest wafting from the oven.

Breakfast was everything I hoped for and much more. I “mmmed” at every bite and felt so good making two healthy decisions that morning. It was the perfect balance for spending the rest of the day with friends, sprawled on the couch and eating chocolate covered strawberries.

My free days are fleeing by and there won’t be many more days to drink in the joys of life, of family and friends. So right now, I’m just going to be thankful. And savor every delicious bite.

Chocolate-covered strawberries and oatmeal alike.

Cranberry Chai Baked Oatmeal~ serves one ~

Ingredients

  • 1/3 c. water
  • 1/3 c. vanilla almond milk
  • 1 Chai tea bag
  • 1/2 c. oats
  • 1/4 t. baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 T. ground flax
  • 1/2 banana, mashed*
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1/3 c. chopped cranberries
  • orange zest
  • stevia to taste

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 375 and spray a ramekin with cooking spray.
  • In a small saucepan, heat water and milk with tea bag until it simmers lightly. Remove from heat and allow tea bag to steep for a few minutes. Remove bag, squeezing to release flavor. Stir in remaining ingredients.
  • Pour batter into prepared ramekin and bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Serve with honey, maple syrup, or jam.

* The banana is to bind the batter together. If you’re not a banana fan, you can substitute either one whole egg or 1/4c. unsweetened applesauce.

I’m going to make this tomorrow morning so I can feel okay about my last hurrah, snacking all night and ringing in the New Year. It’s all about balance, folks.

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Simply the Best

Sometimes the simplest moments are the best. A favorite song playing on the radio. A letter in the mail from a friend. A few red leaves fall on the hood of the car. A cup of Vanilla Caramel tea, flannel pajama pants, and a ginger spice candle on a chilly evening.

On Saturday, I went to Queens for a street fair. I was helping a church I had grown to love this summer. Driving back into the city, walking back on familiar sidewalks past the same delis and boutiques and bagel shops, a wave of nostalgia and sweet memories rushed over me. I thought of little hands pressing into mine as we traced jungle animals; little giggling, singing faces lifted to mine; little arms tightly wrapping around my legs. That week back in July, my heart had expanded far beyond what I thought it was possible in love for these children. When I came back home, I carried their memories with me, in the many precious “I love you”s, the handmade cards, and the camera full of pictures. They have been on my heart and in my prayers ever since. I wonder how they are, what they are doing, and it makes me sad that I will never know what became of these lives I felt so closely bound to.

The tent of our stand fluttered in the crisp autumn breeze. Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day for a street fair. I was quickly busy cutting muffins, labeling brochures, and setting up the face painting station. But the whole time my hands and feet were moving, I was watching the people streaming by. So so many people. People I didn’t know, would never know. And again the wistful longing tugged at my heart in a way I didn’t understand.

And that’s when I saw her. Standing on the outskirts of our stand, clutching her brother’s stroller, her dainty black braids dancing in the wind. I knew her. She was one of mine — one of the sixteen five year olds who intertwined with and shaped my life that special week in July.

What was even more thrilling was that she knew me. She came close, her little almond eyes raised to meet mine with a shy smile and her little arms wound around my legs. It was a small moment, but my heart overflowed in praise for it. God had shown me once again that He cares for me, even the little desires of my heart, and that love and prayers are never a waste. Sometimes the simplest moments are the most profound.

This is one of the most simple recipes I’ll ever post. Probably because the naturally sweet flavors of butternut squash and apples need little enhancing. Or, probably because when you’re having company over tomorrow, you search your recipe box for the quickest and easiest side dish that will still impress and not taste like something that came out of the freezer in a cardboard box.This autumn bake does that and much more. What is a more simple October pleasure than walking to the farm stand for fresh butternut squash and apples? It is really the perfect fall side dish — a touch of sweetness, a bit of crunch, the smell of cinnamon, warm and comforting — and a healthy alternative to the sugar and fat-laden Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole. If nothing else, you must at least make the candied walnuts. Please. And then throw them on everything you eat the next week. They are life-changing. One of those simple ingredients that bring so much joy and color to life.

Roasted Butternut-Apple Bake with Candied Walnuts

  • 1 large butternut squash, chopped into cubes
  • 3 medium apples, chopped
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1/4 c. maple syrup
  • 1/4 t. salt

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400F. In a large baking dish, mix squash, apples and onions. In a small bowl or jar, whisk balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, maple syrup, and salt. Pour over vegetables and mix to coat thoroughly. Bake about 40 minutes or until squash is soft when pierced with a fork.
  • Stir candied walnuts (recipe following) into warm vegetables. Sprinkle raw sugar or brown sugar over the dish, if desired. Serve warm.

Candied Nuts

  • 1 c. walnuts
  • 2 T. Balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 c. maple syrup or honey
  • 1 T. coarse raw sugar
  • 1/2 t. cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. salt

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400F. In a medium jar, combine balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Secure the lid on the jar and shake to thoroughly combine ingredients. Add walnuts to the jar, secure lid and shake until nuts are coated with the wet mixture. Spread nuts in a single layer on a lightly sprayed cooking sheet. Bake until they turn golden brown and give off a fragrance (be careful not to burn!). Cool completely before eating. Candied nuts make a great addition to salads, baked goods, ice cream (yum!), fruit salad, and lots of other things! Simple, but fancy!

Because sometimes simple is all this blessed soul can take.

Not Your Italian Grandma’s Parmesan

Growing up in a New York Italian family was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. At every family gathering there are loud enthusiastic conversations, exuberant kissing and hugging, and everyone always congregates in the kitchen which always smells spaghetti sauce, roasted peppers, and olive oil. There we stand around the counter, munching drippy mozzarella cheese on toasted bread, cutting huge wheels of Locatelli with guitar strings (well, how would you do it?), popping olives, and making memories.Yes, I pretty much loved growing up.

I never got to know my Italian grandma, but her heritage is still very much alive in her descendants. From the pictures I’ve seen, I know my dad carries her features and that she gave me her dark hair, short legs, and olive skin. My grandpa tells me how they met after the war as he tenderly strokes her picture, and my aunts reminisce about her as they stir a bowl of steaming pasta. And through their stories, I’ve grown to love her.

Last summer, our big Italian family stayed in a huge house at the Outer Banks. There were many loud enthusiastic conversations, lots of exuberant hugging and kissing, and since the sun was scorching out and the ocean freezing cold, everyone congregated in the kitchen.One of my aunts brought along photo albums and Grandma’s recipe box and we all gathered around to relive preserved memories. Fingering through the frail, stain-splattered, well-worn recipes, cookbook pages, and shopping lists written in the faint script of my grandmother was like opening a treasure box. Her instructions for Italian egg-rolls, chamelli cookies and stuffed peppers were connections to my past, little clues into a woman who has passed on to me her love of family and food.

When I started to eat healthier, I did not want to give up the foods I grew up eating, that are so tied in with my ancestry of Italian deli owners. So I began experimenting, and recreating old favorites while keeping the flavors I loved. Kind of like how each generation changes hairstyles and locations, but maintains the family heritage — no matter how far we grandchildren roam, we still gather for loud conversations, exuberant kissing and hugging, and memory making in the kitchen.

Not Your Italian Grandma’s Eggplant Parmesan

  • 2 medium eggplant, sliced thin
  • 6 slices stale wheat bread
  • ¼ c. ground flax seeds, divided
  • ¼ c. sunflower seeds
  • ¼ c. wheat germ
  • 2 t. garlic salt
  • 2 t. basil
  • 1 c. almond milk
  • 2 T. hummus
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • ½ c. tomato sauce (Quick homemade sauce: Sautee tomatoes, onion, and bell peppers in olive oil until very very soft and the juices have leaked)

Cheez sauce: Blend all ingredients until smooth.

  • 1/3 c. hummus
  • ¾ c. silken tofu
  • ½ c. almond milk
  • 1 t. garlic salt
  • 1 t. parsley

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 400. Spray a cookie sheet with non stick cooking spray. Prepare Cheez sauce by blending all ingredients together until smooth. Set aside.
  • In a food processor, grind bread, 2 T. flax and sunflower seeds, wheat germ, garlic salt and basil until breadcrumb consistency. Set aside.
  • For binding mixture, blend hummus, milk, and 2 T. flax seed in a blender until smooth.
  • Dip eggplant slices into the hummus mixture and then coat with breadcrumbs. Arrange on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for 15 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
  • In a small casserole dish, arrange half of eggplant in a single (or slightly overlapping) layer. Spread ¼ tomato sauce over eggplant. Then spread  about half of prepared“cheez” sauce over  the sauce. Do one more layer of eggplant, sauce, and “cheez.” Top with sliced tomato, a sprinkle of parsley and oregano, and any left over cheez. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until cheez is somewhat set and  casserole is warm throughout.

My Italian grandma would have served her eggplant parmesan with a side of spaghetti. I ate mine with a salad. But while I was cooking, all the females of our family were in the kitchen together, laughing, spilling breadcrumbs and sneaking spoonfuls of sauce. I thought of my Grandma cooking with her two sisters and four daughters, creating delicious meals as gifts of love for her family. And if she could see me carrying on that tradition, even if I left off the mozzarella and pasta, I think she would be pleased.

>Orange Colored Dreams

> I know autumn is here when I start counting pumpkins instead of sheep at night. In my opinon, a fall without pumpkins is like a summer without watermelon. Or a wedding without the groom. Seriously, it is that important. Stout, orange, and oh so handsome. Totally swoon-worthy.

I am always dreaming up new ways to keep us close. Not just the cute fellas lining our front porch (and walkway, and driveway), but I’m really talking about their cousins of the Libby’s 100% pure-bliss-packed-in-a-can variety. Around the end of August, pumpkin makes an appearance at almost every meal — pumpkin spice latte with pumpkin oatmeal for breakfast, pumpkin yogurt or quesadillas for lunch, and pumpkin chili for dinner.

Yes, dear friends I’m obsessed. Just ask my sisters who watch in incredulity as I fill shopping baskets and kitchen cupboards with an ingredient they thought was reserved for pie. But don’t worry. The fascination usually fades with the season…to be replaced by a new love.

I only wish I could keep my thoughts occupied with anything so harmless. Unfortunately, my mind doesn’t stop at pumpkin, but is always running headlong to places it shouldn’t. Then fears, doubts, jealousies, and preoccupations with the good opinion of others consume me and expose me to all kinds of temptation.

And I struggle and beat my fists in the air and resolve that I will never allow my thoughts to spin out of control again. But just a few moments later, I find myself once again entangled in unkind judgements, covetous schemes, and self-gratifying contemplations. Wearied and frustrated, I eventually decide it an endless fruitless cycle that I can’t do anything about.

But then I open my Bible. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

It’s dangerous to think that what goes on in our mind is harmless. God’s desire if the meditations of our hearts to honor Him and bring Him glory. Any thought that does not put Him first does not bring Him pleasure. Our minds are the battlegrounds where sin is either triumphant or vanquished by the truth of God’s Word. It is true that my thoughts are flawed and “prone to wander”, but God’s Word lasts forever and is not bound. In season and out of season, it never returns void

“Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him” (Proverbs 30:5). My spiritual life can only withstand temptation if my mind has been placed on the altar and immersed in the life-giving, purifying words of God. The Lord who searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9) speaks specifically to my needs: my weakness, inadequacy, doubts.

It discerns the true state of my heart, enables me to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and replaces wrong thoughts with a new preoccupation — the preeminence and glory of Christ.

My mind, Lord, is yours. Work Your cleansing power and change it by Your grace into a sanctuary — a place of worship where the offerings of my thoughts bring a sweet savour before You. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24)

I’ll be back to talk about ways God’s Word speaks to our thought life. But not before I share some of the pumpkin recipes that are crowding my brain.

You didn’t think you were going to miss out on that, did you?