Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Best Medicine

Can you believe Kathy still had geraniums in bloom on November 25?
Some wise person once said that laughter is the best medicine. On Sunday, our "medicine" came in the form of a 20-pound, 11-month old little girl. Randy's sister, Kathy, and family invited us to our "traditional" Mexican Thanksgiving on Sunday after church.

So, instead of having too much time to think at home on the day before Randy's surgery, we were entertained with a certain short someone. Of course, it was good to see the other people, too.
Miss Kinley probably thought she was just playing with the big girls.
Amanda, Kinley & Emily
But just as assuredly and systematically as she emptied the plastic tubs of toys, Kinley was emptying our minds of some of the anxiousness that inevitably creeps in before a major medical procedure.
Like she covered her face for endless games of peekaboo, she helped cover up busy minds and replace it with laughter.
Indeed, laughter was pretty powerful medicine. It's not bad for the annual photo Christmas card either.
Sorry Jill and Brent. You've gotten replaced with someone shorter.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Ultimate Comfort Food

Serve the Lasagna Soup with toasted, cheesy French bread for a hearty meal.
Soup is the ultimate comfort food. So as Randy recovers from his surgery, I will likely make this tasty soup again. It may not be layered like traditional lasagna, but it's definitely layered with the flavors of that favorite Italian meal.

Jill found it on Pinterest and made it first. Then she recommended it to me. Ironically, it's from one of the blogs I read regularly, but Brenda at A Farmgirl's Dabbles posted it more than a year ago, before I'd discovered her.

So it was like destiny, I guess. You can eat it without the cheesy yum component or doctor it up with all the cheesy goodness. It's recommended from both my kitchen and Jill's.
You can eat it without the "cheesy yum" but it's tastier with it!
Lasagna Soup
Adapted from A Farmgirl's Dabbles
1 1/2 pounds Italian sausage (or substitute hamburger for all or part)
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. crushed pepper flakes
1 tsp. dried basil
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 28-oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
6 cups chicken stock
8 oz. mafalda or fusilli pasta
Salt & pepper to taste

Cheesy Yum
8 oz. ricotta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. salt
Pinch of freshly-ground pepper

Additional cheesy yum:
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Brown Italian sausage (or hamburger) with onion and garlic, breaking into bite-sized pieces. Cook until meat is browned and onions are softened. Drain fat from meat. Add oregano, dried basil and pepper flakes. Cook for 1 minute. Add tomato paste and stir well to incorporate. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the tomato paste turns a rusty brown color.

Add diced tomatoes and chicken stock. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add uncooked pasta and cook until al dente. Don't over cook or let soup simmer too long or the pasta will get mushy and absorb too much of the soup broth. Right before serving, season with salt and pepper to taste.

For cheesy yum:  In a small bowl, combine ricotta, Parmesan, salt and pepper. To serve, place a dollop of the cheesy yum in each soup bowl, sprinkle some mozzarella on top and ladle the hot soup over the cheese.

The recipe suggested cooking the pasta separately if you anticipate having leftovers because pasta does have a tendency to absorb additional moisture. However, I cooked the pasta in the soup broth. We like thick soup, but when we reheated it, we just added a little more water. Makes 8 servings.
Mafalda pasta - I'd never used it before, and I was so happy that my hometown grocery store had it! They look like miniature lasagna noodles.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lessons from a High School Musical

We all need a little help from our friends. It's true whether you're Dorothy Gale, traveling the unfamiliar territory of the Land of Oz, or you're in a waiting room at a hospital, waiting on news from a surgery.
Earlier this month, I went to my alma mater, Skyline High School, to see my niece, Madison, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The unspoken messages have stayed with me long after the familiar strains of "We're Off to See the Wizard" and the applause faded away.
Dorothy is a dreamer. She doesn't get right home from school because she's too busy picking flowers, watching clouds and dreaming about faraway places Over the Rainbow. Sure, she loves her family and her home, but it's a big world out there, and she's curious about what she would find if she could just get away from RFD 2 and explore it.

But then a tornado carries Dorothy far away from the familiar Kansas homestead she shares with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. And, all of a sudden, Dorothy's biggest goal is to get back back home to the very place that she dreamed about escaping. I've been there. You want to escape a place or a situation, and then when it happens, you realize that it wasn't so bad after all.
Dorothy becomes a hero to the Munchkins after inadvertently crushing the Wicked Witch. The little ones are glad to point her on the way to the Land of Oz, where they advise visiting the Wizard for a way to get back home. Little ones often point the way, if we just listen.

There are other predictably helpful people along the journey, like the Good Witch.
Photo by Caden Patterson from Facebook. My photos with the Good Witch were blurry.
Sometimes, the people who think they are lacking some important attribute just don't realize how valuable they are.

The Scarecrow didn't think he had a brain. But he supplied much of the know-how and logic to get Dorothy where she needed to go.
The Tin Man thought he didn't have a heart. And the Cowardly Lion was sure he didn't have enough courage to make the trip. But they found enough of both to help Dorothy escape the Jitterbugs and the Wicked Witch's equally wicked sister.
Even the scary things sometimes don't look as scary when the lights come up.
We may be walking a yellow brick road or city streets. We may have to stop and get the rocks out of our shoes as we walk pebbly dirt roads. Obstacles inevitably come our way. They take a million different forms - whether situations or people or even just doubting ourselves.

But we find the most valuable asset isn't what we're wearing, even though those ruby slippers do have pizazz. And it's not always the expert who helps us find our way. It's often in the brains and heart and courage and prayers of the ordinary people around us.  They are the ones who help us find the rainbow's treasure. And we don't need a Wizard to help us when God is there for each and every step, through the hills and the valleys. Thanks, my friends. Please keep the prayers coming for Randy.

Monday, November 26, 2012

I've Got Your Back: I Hope You'll Have Ours Today

You know how friends say, "I've got your back," or, at least they do in the movies. Well, today, friends, I'd be so thankful and humbled if you'd have Randy's back.

My guy is having major surgery this morning at the Kansas Spine Hospital in Wichita. He has spinal stenosis, a narrowing within the spine, which can put pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves that travel through the spine. In his case, it's genetic and it's exacerbated by aging.  He's been putting up with pain and numbness in his legs for years. He's tried the less invasive treatments. But after consulting with several doctors, he decided that now is the time to try surgery and try to improve his quality of life.

If you know Randy, you know he's not a complainer. He didn't moan and groan about his pain. He just found a bench to sit on or something to lean against. But he wants to be able to play with Kinley and golf and yes, even work, with less pain.

Back surgery is scary. At least, it is to us.  So, could you please join me in saying a prayer for Randy and for his medical team today?
Matthew 18:20 - New International Version
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
You may not be with us physically in Wichita. But I believe you can gather with us through prayer. And I would be so grateful.
Matthew 7: 7-8 (NIV)
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
He'll be in the hospital for a day or two. (That is scary enough to me. You have major back surgery and then they send you home to a non-medically trained wife. Yikes! I'll do my best!) Then, for three months, he won't be able to lift more than 10 pounds. We have good help, and we are blessed by that.

Thanks, my friends, for having our back today. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Bovine Leftovers

As we humans feast on leftover turkey and remnants of pumpkin pie, our bovine neighbors are cleaning up the leftovers, too.

While we clean up the dollop of mashed potatoes and the few remaining dinner rolls, the cows are gleaning the leftovers from the 2012 wheat harvest as they munch on volunteer wheat coming up in stubble.
The guys put up electric fence to keep them contained. They also moved water tanks and a mineral feeder to the field. Every day, either Randy or Jake go around the electric fence on a 4-wheeler to make sure that the deer haven't run through it, giving the cattle an escape route. They also replenish the water and mineral as needed.

Earlier this week, we moved the group from one field of volunteer wheat to the location of their next "buffet." It is Thanksgiving week, after all, and the pickings were getting as sparse as that picked-over turkey carcass. The cows might as well feast at a plentiful Thanksgiving table, too, right?

It was the perfect day for a 4-wheeler round-up - temperatures in the lower 70s and no wind. I got to ride one 4-wheeler and Randy was on the other. Jake was trying to coax them to follow the pickup, which had hay in the back. There aren't many photos of the round-up. Cameras and 4-wheelers are both designed for right-handed people. So, even though I'm left-handed, it's hard to click the camera button while using your right hand on the 4-wheeler throttle. Plus, you don't do a lot of sitting still to focus while trying to get cattle to move.

The cattle took a few detours. One was an unexpected one into an alfalfa field, which really didn't look that appealing to the human eye in its fall, non-lush state. The other was more expected. The thick greens offered up in a field with the 2013 wheat crop looked like that tasty green salad on your Thanksgiving table (At our holiday celebration, that yummy green salad was made by my sister, Darci, and had brussels sprouts, dates and more, but I digress.)

Randy and I had to do a little waving of our arms and our trademark, "Hey, hey, hey!" to get the cattle to move on. (You can see the pickup in the background that they were supposed to be following!)
The cattle took a small timeout feasting on the 2013 wheat crop before we got them moved to their intended destination.
But they eventually made their way into the field of volunteer wheat, and they've been dining there ever since. I wonder if they are as full as I am after eating my Mom's dressing. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Simple Praise

Our church choir has been practicing a song called Simple Praise.

As I walk the country roads ...
As I sit at my computer ...
As I've ridden the 4-wheeler to help move cattle ...
As I've baked and chopped and stirred ...
And, yes, even as I sat in the dentist's chair with yet another tooth problem ...
The words and music of this song have drifted through my mind, over and over again.

And when I've been at choir, pictures have floated into my mind as we've sung the words.

It's about thanks giving. Not necessarily Thanksgiving, though it's certainly the perfect time to recognize God's gifts and blessings all around us. But our thanks giving should be every day, not just on the fourth Thursday in November each year.

I found one choir had uploaded Simple Praise by Craig Courtney and Pamela Martin to youtube. If you'd like, listen to the song (the link is at the bottom of this post) and look at the illustrations that have been floating through my mind and are now assembled together, kind of like that other favorite song of the season, We Gather Together.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from The County Line.

 For a canvas of colors

For a concert of sound

For the unfolding seasons
The earth spinning round

 For the birth of each sunrise
For the sky set ablaze

For these simple gifts
We give simple praise

 Simple praise for the Giver
And thanks to the One
Who has given us breath
And given His Son
To the Giver of blessings
For all of our days
  For these simple gifts

We give simple praise

For the love of a mother
For the touch of a hand
For the deeper emotions
We can't understand

For the lessons we learn
From the trials we face

For these simple gifts
We give simple praise

The heart of the Giver

 The hand of the One
From whom every blessing
Of living has come

 For measureless mercy and limitless grace
For these simple gifts
We give simple praise.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Over the (Crescent) Moon

My bread baking skills were slow to evolve. As a Pratt County 4-Her, I was lucky if my yeast bread entry earned a red ribbon. And, back in my day, 4-H judges didn't mind handing out white ribbons either. I certainly got my share of those in the yeast bread department.

I learned more as the 4-H parent than I did as the 4-Her. When Jill and her friend, Holly, got interested in yeast breads, my personal education began in earnest.

Pretzels provided their first foray into the world of yeast breads. They gave a demonstration called Fit To Be Tied for county 4-H club day and an enterprise was born. Their purple-ribbon talk earned them the right to give the demonstration at regional club days and at the Kansas State Fair. Then they sold pretzels - hundreds of them - at Stafford's Oktoberfest. (Jill's 4-H book says each girl made around 300 giant pretzels.) It was a learning experience for all of us - for Jill and Holly and for me and Tami, Holly's mom. (I recommend pretzel making as a first step for beginning 4-H cooks who want to try yeast breads.)
The year after the pretzel demonstration, they decided to try their hand at shaping yeast dough into rolls and gave another talked called Shape Up! Holly mastered the more complicated rosettes and twisted braids. Jill and I were better at crescent rolls.
From Jill's 4-H Foods and Nutrition story that year:
We showed how to make cloverleaf, crescent, Parkerhouse and rosette rolls. We made somewhere in the neighborhood of 864 homemade dinner rolls while we practiced for county and regional club days, made rolls for our families and prepared entries for the county fair.
That's a lot of rolls. But all of us - the 4-Hers AND the moms - got better at yeast bread baking. What was the secret? Practice. If you only bake yeast bread once a year for the county fair, you're not going to become a master at it.

I'm still not a master at it, but I have become my family's bread baker for the holidays. I still prefer making crescent rolls, and I have some step-by-step photos to help you conquer fear of yeast roll shaping, plus other links for recipes and videos.

Because of preferences for some of the extended family, I make some white rolls (and that's what is pictured in the step-by-step photos). But for better nutrition, use at least half whole wheat flour.  You can use hard red winter wheat flour. Now there is also white winter wheat flour available, which is often more appealing to white bread fans.

A little investment of time and effort will have your holiday guests over the (crescent) moon when you serve them homemade rolls.
Classic Crescent Rolls
2 pkg. dry yeast
2 1/4 cups warm water (105 - 115 degrees)
2/3 cup nonfat dry milk
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup margarine, melted
2 tsp. salt
3 cups whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add dry milk, honey, margarine and salt. Stir well. Using a heavy-duty stand mixer, beat in whole wheat flour until well blended. Let the batter rest for 5 minutes to allow the whole wheat flour to absorb moisture. (If you do this, you won't have to add as much additional flour and you'll have a lighter dough, so a little patience is warranted here!)

Add 3 cups of all-purpose flour and use a dough hook on the mixer to incorporate the flour. After it has been mixing for awhile, add additional flour, a little at a time, until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Using the dough hook, knead the dough mechanically for 4 to 7 minutes.

Turn out onto very lightly floured surface and knead for just a few more minutes until smooth and elastic. Take care to not add more flour than is needed. (If you don't have a heavy-duty stand mixer, you may knead by hand for 8 to 10 minutes.)

Place dough in a lightly-greased bowl, turning it over once to allow the dough to have a little of the oil (or cooking spray) on its surface. (If a skin forms on the dough, it hampers its stretch and it may cause streaks in the finished bread.) Cover the bowl with a lightly dampened tea towel while the dough rises.

Allow to rise in a warm place (80 to 82 degrees) until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. To test dough for doubled bulk, press two fingers lightly and quickly about 1/2 inch into dough. If the dent remains, the dough is doubled.

Punch down and turn onto a board for shaping. Do NOT have additional flour on your board. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes before shaping. For crescent rolls, use a knife to divide the dough into four equal pieces; you want to cut the dough, rather than tearing it. Roll 1/4 of the dough into a 12-inch circle, about 1/4-inch thick. Using a pizza cutter, cut the circle into 8 equal parts. Pick up each triangle at the wide edge and roll up tightly. Pinch the point to prevent unrolling and lay it point side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Curve ends of each roll on baking sheet to make the crescent shape. Repeat for each of the 4 parts of the dough, making a total of 32 rolls.

Cover the rolls and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Bake at 400 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes or until light, golden brown. Turn out onto cooling rack. Brush hot rolls with butter, if desired. (A note to 4-H bakers: Don't put the butter on your hot rolls for the fair. Just use that for rolls for home use!)

Roll shaping 101 via photos:

This is how the dough looks after it has doubled in bulk after about 1 hour.

Turn the dough out onto a NON-floured board. I never add more flour at this stage as it will cause streaks in the finished dough. If you've incorporated the right amount of flour when you were mixing, you don't need more flour.

Divide the dough into four equal parts, using a knife. Don't tear the dough - cut it.

Roll each 1/4 portion into a 12-inch circle using a rolling pin. It will make it about 1/4-inch thick.

Cut each into 8 equal parts using a pizza cutter or knife. (I like a pizza cutter.)

Starting at the wide end, roll toward the point, keeping the roll as tight as you can. Tuck the point under the roll and squeeze it so that the point won't come undone as it rises. Curve the roll toward the center to form the crescent shape.

After the rolls have risen for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, they'll look puffed and ready to go. If you look at the close up photo above, you can see at the curve how the dough has stretched and risen.

Bake at 400 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes. Keep a close watch. You know your oven. You don't want to go to all this work and then burn them in the end!

For more information about shaping (like shaping into these pan rolls), go to Recipe Tips: Shaping Rolls.

Want other ideas and recipes? Winter is the perfect time of year for experimenting with yeast breads and yeast rolls. You won't mind heating up the house when the winter winds are blowing outside. 

Here are some links for you to explore the world of bread baking:

America's Bread Basket (includes recipes from the National Festival of Breads)

Homemaking Association and its link to videos that show step-by-step the how-tos of making bread and rolls.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Life Preserver

I live in a sea of wheat fields, not a sea of water. Until we visited Randy's brother in 2011, I'd never seen a Life Jacket Loaner Station. But right near the boat unloading dock at Lake Cascade in Idaho, the brightly-colored life jackets caught my eye.

As I thought about this month's theme for Lovely Branches Ministries, Safety First, my mind kept drifting back to those life jackets. Someone had left them there for the next person to use. Maybe they had sold their boat. Maybe their kids had outgrown them. Who knows? Maybe their garage was full, and the handy-dandy life jacket loaner station was as good a place as any to store their own life jackets.
An Idaho fishing lake
Some days seem to be smooth sailing. All is going well. Nothing is rocking the boat. Life seems good. Who needs a life jacket?

But there are those others days - the ones that might require a high gale warning. We feel as though we're about to be swallowed up by life's storm - whether that involves health, a relationship, a persistent habit we can't seem to shake, a growing to-do list or anything else that knocks us off our feet and sends the waves crashing into us.
Tybee Island, Georgia, The Atlantic Ocean, Thanksgiving Week, 2011
At those moments, my stomach has more bubbles than the Atlantic Ocean can stir up, with wave after wave about to overtake me.
Tybee Island, Georgia, Thanksgiving Week, 2011
I've heard the song, The Voice of Truth, by Casting Crowns many times. But as I heard it again, those life jackets flashed into my brain. You can listen to the whole song by clicking below, but here are just some of the words:

Oh what I would do to have
The kind of faith it takes
To climb out of this boat I'm in
Onto the crashing waves

To step out of my comfort zone
To the realm of the unknown
Where Jesus is
And He's holding out his hand

But the waves are calling out my name
And they laugh at me
Reminding me of all the times
I've tried before and failed
The waves they keep on telling me
Time and time again:
 'Boy, you'll never win!'
"You'll never win"

But the voice of truth tells me a different story
And the voice of truth says "Do not be afraid!"
And the voice of truth says "This is for My glory"
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.

Last month, we finished the Bible study, Stuck, by Jennie Allen. Throughout the study, she was encouraging us to step out of the comfortable boat and take a risk, just like it says in the song. While we were going through the study, I also read the companion book, Anything: The Prayer That Unlocked My God and My Soul.
"To risk is to willingly place your life in the hand of an unseen God and an unknown future, then to watch Him come through. He starts to get real when you live that that."
From Anything by Jennie Allen
Do I really want to step out of a nice safe boat onto crashing waves? It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? But you know what? Just like those life jackets hanging there for the taking, God is there to keep my head above water. It doesn't mean that there won't be storms. There will be. However, just like Jesus calmed the storm for the disciples, He's there to keep me afloat, too.
Luke 8:22-30 - New International Version (NIV) 
Jesus Calms the Storm
22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
And because He's my life preserver, I'm called to be that for other people, too. Like those people who left the life jackets there for the next guy to use, I'm called to send that note of encouragement, to make that phone call, to smile at that Mom in the grocery store with a crying toddler, to cheerfully help my husband at the last moment - even if it's not on my to-do list. We can be the instrument that helps keep the other guy afloat, too, just by sharing the life-giving love that Jesus has for each and every one.

Isn't that a blessing to remember and to act upon during this month of Thanksgiving!

The Pilgrims were the ultimate risk-takers, weren't they? Read what my friend, Suzanne at Heart and Home Matters at Lovely Branches had to say about the Pilgrims, who also stepped out in faith. She has lots of practical ideas for celebrating Thanksgiving with friends and family, too. Be sure and stop by her blog and the other blogs at Lovely Branches!
Is there anything more comforting than a bowl of soup on a chilly fall day? Try this Tomato Lentil Soup. It's become a favorite at our house, and it's full of nutritious ingredients like lentils, kale and carrots. Bonus! It's healthy and tastes great!

Or, if you have leftover turkey from your Thanksgiving table, use it in this Southwestern Chicken (or Turkey) Corn Chowder.