Saturday, July 25, 2015

Comfort Food: Pink Lemonade Pie

Pink lemonade pie is the perfect frozen summer treat. I remember my mom making this multiple times each summer and I would savor every bite of the cool, sweet, tangy treat. Now, you might think I'm crazy since the title of this speaks of pie, but the photo above shows this concoction in a 9x13 pan. You can make this into a graham cracker crust pie shell, but you will need two shells if you like it in a pie shape. Also, this is a super sweet and rich dessert. A small, frozen square of this will satisfy your sweet tooth for quite some time.

Here are the cast of characters:
2 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs
6 Tablespoons of butter
1 small can of frozen pink lemonade concentrate (thawed)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
1 small tub of whipped topping (thawed)
A few drops of red food coloring

For the crust:
Pour 2 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs in a medium sized bowl. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in the microwave. Pour the butter into the graham crackers and mix together with a fork. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of a 9x13 pan.

For the filling:
In a large bowl, mix together the lemonade concentrate and the sweetened condensed milk. Be sure not to cut your tongue on the lid of the can as you lick the lid - yes, I know you do it whenever you open a can of sweetened condensed milk!

Add in the whipped topping. You'll probably need to use a whisk to get it fully incorporated into the milk/lemonade mixture.

At this stage in the process, the mixture is a very pale pink. If you want a "pinker" pink lemonade pie, add some red food coloring.

Mix well to combine the food coloring until you get the desired color. Then pour the filling into the crust.

Sprinkle a few crumbs on top of the pie and put it into the freezer for at least a few hours. Yes, it will be hard to let it set up completely before you want to dig in, but it is so worth the wait. It's supposed to be about 106 degrees here today, so by later this afternoon, we'll be enjoying a piece of this cool, summer dessert.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Comfort Food: Juicy Burgers

Most people call them "sloppy joes," but in our house growing up, they were always "juicy burgers." I'm not sure why. The original recipe in the 1971 Logan Methodist Church cookbook calls them "skillet burgers" but I'm not sure why my mom called them Juicy Burgers.

Whatever you call them, they are good. Really good. I mean Pavlov's slobbering dogs good. Whenever I make them and I start to smell everything coming together, I'm immediately taken back to about 1977. The kitchen in our house located on Main Street in Logan, Kansas. (That sentence has way too many prepositions for my liking, but I'm focusing on these juicy burgers right now.)

I remember growing up in the 1970s and 80s and seeing TV commercials for Manwich and wondered why my mom never bought it at the store. She knew better. This recipe for juicy burgers was way better than any canned sauce could do — and making these babies are just about as easy as opening a can of sauce.

Here's the cast of characters:
  • Hamburger
  • Onion
  • Green Pepper
  • Ketchup
  • Yellow Mustard
  • White Vinegar
  • Brown Sugar

I already had the hamburger/green pepper/onion in the skillet before I thought about blogging this recipe, so here are the rest of the characters.

This is a large batch of juicy burgers, so I started with three pounds of hamburger, one green bell pepper and a medium onion. Place the ground beef in the skillet (add salt and pepper) and then add the chopped onions and green pepper. Cook until the ground beef is browned. Drain.

After you've drained the grease off of the meat mixture, it's time to get the "juicy" going for these. I think the original recipe (I can't find my 1971 Logan UMW cookbook right now) calls for about 3/4 cup of ketchup and 1/4 cup of yellow mustard. I put about a cup of ketchup on this and about 1/4 cup of mustard - give or take. Then pour about 2 Tablespoons of white vinegar into the mixture and about 3 Tablespoons of brown sugar into the meat mixture.

Then start mixing it all together. This is when the art of cooking overtakes the science of cooking. You always have to give it a taste and see where you are at. Maybe it isn't "juicy" enough or it might be a little sour if there's too much vinegar. If you like them sweeter, add a little more brown sugar.

When you've got it all mixed together, it should look like this and smell like my mom's 1977 kitchen (with bright orange cabinets everywhere).

Once everything is incorporated, you are ready to eat. It's time to turn off the burner, open a bag of hamburger buns and a bag of potato chips. I like to take a chip and scoop some on that chip for my first bite. It is heavenly. My wife prefers to put shredded cheddar cheese on her juicy burger, but I'm pretty simple. Bun and meat. Sometimes I'll eat it with a fork, sometimes not. Sometimes open-faced with meat on both sides of the bun, sometimes not.

However you eat them, you will never want to open a can of Manwich again. These are the very best juicy burgers/sloppy joes you will ever eat.

Hands down.

They are great right out of the skillet or also work great in a crock pot for a football-watching gathering of friends. The meat reheats well for lunch the next day, too!


Thursday, April 23, 2015

23 Things I've Learned in the Past 23 Years.

In about six weeks I will be celebrating another trip around the sun. I'll turn 46. I'm not saying that I've learned everything there is to know about life, but when I was half my current age (almost 23), I was looking towards my senior year in college, where I thought I knew everything about life in general.

Boy, was I wrong. I still had lots to learn about the human condition and what we call life on the third rock from the sun. Here are a few. Twenty-three, to be exact.

  1. The friends you make in college will be some of the best friends you have for your entire life.
  2. Your parents are smarter than you think they are. They just want the best for you and when they are gone, you will miss them terribly.
  3. Don't force love. When you meet the love of your life, the one person you were meant to be with, you will know.
  4. A good marriage is hard work. It's not a 50/50 relationship. Each side has to put 110% into a marriage to make it through the happy times and the crappy times. But it is so worth it to wake up each morning snuggled up to your best friend.
  5. You don't have to be involved in everything that comes your way. This one was a hard lesson to learn. I've always been that type of person who would say "yes" at a new opportunity to grow professionally, volunteer for a community organization and devote lots of spare time to a cause I felt was worthwhile. I've especially learned in the past couple of years that you can get burnt out real fast when you don't have enough time for you, your family and friends.
  6. Don't give up on God. He won't give up on you.
  7. Appreciate good health.
  8. Appreciate good food.
  9. Appreciate good, healthy food.
  10. Exercise is not the enemy. Sometimes you don't want to, but a good walk around the neighborhood will make you feel better both physically and emotionally.
  11. Cherish every moment of your children's first few years. This is the time when it is the hardest to understand why you would want to remember all of the dirty diapers, the sleepless nights, the spitting up and the tantrums. Someday you will look back and wonder where did the time go? I was just rocking him to sleep and now he's getting ready to drive.
  12. A hand-written note is still one of the best ways to say "Thank You" to someone after they did a good deed for you.
  13. Do good deeds for others.
  14. Learn how to cook. Some of my most enjoyable moments are spent in the kitchen and around the dinner table with good friends and family. It is also good to know what goes into your body.
  15. Forgive. Holding onto a grudge is just hurting yourself. Someone once said, "Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick."
  16. Learn to watch baseball. From little league to high school to the major leagues, there's something relaxing intertwined into those nine innings.
  17. Don't sweat the small stuff. Learn what is important to you and focus on that. When people are looking for attention by creating false drama, you must remember to focus on what's most important. 99% of the time, it isn't someone else's drama.
  18. Love your children.
  19. Hug your children.
  20. Laugh with your children.
  21. Be a parent to your children - not their best friend.
  22. Be your spouse's best friend.
  23. Call your mother every opportunity you have. Someday that opportunity will be gone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Life Examinations.

Socrates is quoted as saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Some very interesting words to ponder. I've had lots of time to think about my 45 years in life. To some, that 45 years might seem like a long time. I know it seems like I'm very old in my 9-year-old son's eyes. But to others, that 45 years seems like just a drop in the bucket. To my dad, who just turned 77, I'm sure he thinks 45 was just a few moments ago.

I read online the other day that there are only a few people alive who were born in the 19th century. That would make them more than 115 years old. Can you imagine what all they have seen in their lifetimes?

But back to mine.

45 and one-half years. That's about 16,500 days - give or take a few.

Richard Nixon was in the White House when I was born. Just one month and ten days later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The fall of Vietnam. The Bi-Centennial in 1976. Bruce Jenner and Nadia Comaneci excel in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Star Wars. The 444 days of hearing Walter Cronkite tell us about the hostage crisis in Iran.  The launch of the first Space Shuttle. Ronald Reagan is shot. Sony introduces the Walkman.

I've spent several hours these past few weekends going through thousands of photographs my mom had kept throughout her 57-year marriage to my dad. Some of the photos even pre-date their marriage. It's been fun to look through these glimpses of our past. I've especially enjoyed the ones that were taken before my birth. As the youngest grandchild on my mother's side and the third to the youngest on my dad's side, there are lots of older cousins in these photos. It's been fun to look back and think.

Think about what was going through my parents' minds when they were taking those pictures. It was a simpler time, but yet a time filled with turmoil. 1968 was a pretty tragic year when we think about the killings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. There were major riots at the national political conventions. War made headlines daily. But yet, my parents were doing there best to raise a "normal" family in mid-America. I remember when I was probably about 10 years old and had realized I was born during the Vietnam Conflict, I was almost appalled to think that my parents would have a child in time of war. Why were they not fighting the fight of the war effort and making sure to do their best to conserve food and energy for the war effort? Obviously I had seen too many episodes of MASH on TV and read too much about WWII, of which, they were just young children when we went to war in 1942. They were just living their lives in middle America.

When I was just one, they decided to pack up us kids and their belongings and move back their home town to raise a family. I believe it was the best decision they ever made. We were raised with many cousins living up and down the street and grandparents living just blocks away - not thousands of miles like some of today's families face.

I feel so lucky to have grown up in a small town (population 700) in Northwest Kansas. One set of grandparents lived just two blocks to the south and the other set of grandparents lived four blocks to the east of our house on Main Street. Several of my dad's siblings raised their families in the same community - so there were lots of cousins around all the time. In my senior year of high school, there were 23 of us. Of those 23, at least half of us (if not more) started together in Kindergarten and now many of us are connected once again by social media.

Although I am raising my family in a bigger town (20,000), I still love living in Western Kansas. We're some of the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Well, I'm done rambling for now. I wonder what the next 45 years will be like?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

365 Days After a Heart Attack

One year ago today, I had a heart attack. And what a year of ups and downs we've survived as a family. We experienced trauma, happiness, death, celebrations and thankfulness. We've learned to grow and take the road not taken. We've also learned that people express their feelings much differently in times of crisis.

Having a heart attack at age 44 is something I would have never expected - except that I have had Type I Diabetes for over 30 years. Diabetes is a silent killer that ravages many different parts of your body. The heart. Your kidneys. The eyes. Your entire circulatory system. In the past 20 years, Diabetes has taken its toll only on my eyes. I was diagnosed with Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy about 16 years ago and have several laser treatments, two Vitrectomies and two cataract surgeries. Thankfully, my eyes are stable now and I've had no problems since my two cataract surgeries five years ago.

But then came my heart attack. It wasn't the 'clutch your chest, collapse on the floor' type of heart attack that is portrayed on TV. Yes, some people do have heart attacks like this, but mine wasn't. It was an 'I don't feel so good, mild chest discomfort, can't catch my breath and sweating' feeling. I was going to shake it off, my thankfully my wife decided to do the smart thing and take me to the ER. We are very lucky in Hays, Kansas to have a hospital with a certified chest pain center in the ER and the Michael DeBakey Heart Institute of Kansas. These two things saved my life.

People with Diabetes typically don't have the typical signs of a heart attack. Neither do women or the elderly (at least that's what my ER nurse told me as he was checking me out that day). After lots of tests, poking and prodding, a heart catheterization and a few more tests, it was determined I was to have quadruple bypass surgery - also known as Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG) the following day.

It was quite a shock to my family and friends and one hell of a shock to me! But we survived. One step at a time and one day at a time. I came home after a week in the hospital and went back to work six weeks later.

After surviving open-heart surgery, I dealt with depression and anxiety that many OHS survivors do, but tackled it pretty easily. I realized I was given a new lease on life and I am so thankful for a second chance to spend the rest of my life loving my wife and kids.

A few months after my surgery, we were able to celebrate my son, Gabriel's first communion and then a few weeks later, my nephew's graduation from college. We celebrated Memorial Day with extended family, but knew that my mother was having some health issues. The week after Memorial Day, she had minor surgery on her neck to determine the cause of extreme neck and back pain she had been experiencing the few months before. All of her tests came back ok, but she had a hard time recovering. Later in the summer, we celebrated her 76th birthday. I lost a college friend to a tragic motorcycle accident in late June and once again was reminded of my own mortality.

In late July, my mom's health issues became worse and after a brief hospitalization, it was determined that she had stage 4 abdominal cancer. Six days after her diagnosis, she died.

This began the most devastating time of my 45 years. The loss of someone's mother is always sad, but when it is YOUR mother, you just really don't know what to do. Your mom is your first love. She is the one who is your biggest fan and now she was gone. It's only been 3 1/2 months since she died in August, and I am getting better every day. There are some days I miss her terribly and other days I laugh when I see something that reminds me of her.

But there is one thing I know for sure. If it wasn't for my heart attack and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery one year ago, I wouldn't have survived the stress of losing my mother. My family would have been dealing with both her death and my death.

One of the most important things I've learned from this past 365 days is the kindness of friends and strangers. If it wasn't for friends (a hell of a lot of them), our family wouldn't have been able to get all of our belongings moved into our home (I had my heart attack on moving day). I also realize the importance of a kind word, a hand-written note or even an e-mail or Facebook message when someone has lost a loved one. We received notes and cards from people I haven't seen or heard of in 20+ years after my mom died. I'm now a note writer and have written several to people since these events.

Although we've had one hell of a year, I'm thankful for what happened one year ago today. It proved that I can survive a heart attack and heart surgery and I can survive life without my mom. It really sucks many days, but it is really good many more days.

Bring on the next 365!

Monday, August 25, 2014

What I've Learned About Life from my Mother's Death.

My mother died almost three weeks ago.

As I've gone through life this past three weeks without her, I've cried, laughed, gotten angry, been sad and been grateful for the love she had for all of us.

She lived a full life and was only sick for about a week before her death at age 76. As her "baby," I was the youngest of her three children and had the privilege of being loved and nurtured by her for 45 years. I was a "pill baby" born in the 60s and she often referred to me as "the best mistake she and Dad ever made."

Mom lived for her husband, my dad, and her kids, grand kids and great-grand kids. I don't think she ever knew a stranger and would gladly talk to anyone about her family. She always had a picture in her purse of a grandchild and always had a story to tell about any of us kids and her grandbabies.

She was a very talented artist, specializing in folk arts and crafts. She and dad made thousands of handicrafts and went to hundreds if not thousands of arts and craft shows. I always remember her walking at various lakes and ponds that she and dad were fishing at looking for pieces of driftwood that she would paint Santa Claus faces on and sell at craft shows. She could paint, sew, decorate beautiful cakes, cook and make anyone feel at home in her home.

I remember as a child she would decorate cakes. She would make beautiful frosting roses on pop bottle caps fastened to nails in a wooden board (something my Grandpa Fox had created for her). She would take those flowers and make gorgeous cakes for many people's birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and other special occasions.

She was a gracious host. Our house was always open to friends and family and there was always something good to eat on the kitchen counter - especially when we got home from school. Homemade long johns, cakes and cookies were normal at our house. When she and Dad had retired and they volunteered for the American Legion and Legion Ladies Auxiliary, they were the ones always making soup, ice cream or baked goods for the many fundraisers they had.

I know there will be thousands of times I will miss her, but especially at Christmas. For the past 25 or so years, she has made each one of us kids a homemade angel Christmas tree ornament. Each one is different. Some years we each got one and other years she would make a set of three for each of us three kids. She also used her sewing talents to handmake a doll and doll quilt each year for each of her granddaughters. Each year a new doll. My 21 year old niece has 21 of those dolls! My 10 year old daughter, Grace has 10.

Another Christmas tradition that will live on forever in our family is our Christmas stockings. When my older brother and sister were little (in the 1960s), she made personalized stockings out of felt for her, Dad and my brother and sister. When I came along in 1969, there was one for me, too. As we became adults and got married, our spouses each received a personalized stocking, and as each grandchild was born, a new stocking was crafted. Each year at Christmas, she made sure that each stocking was filled with special gifts for each person, along with an orange in the toe.

I'll miss that.

I'll miss her smile, her laugh and some of her other quirky habits. I'll miss her love of cinnamon bears and clove-flavored candy.

I'll miss her "Watch for Rudolph" warning when we were leaving her house after dark to go home, reminding us to watch out for deer on the Kansas highways.

When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 abdominal cancer (they believe it started in the pancreas) just one week before her death, she took the news gracefully. We talked about how she wanted to handle the situation and she took it head on. She said she didn't want to sit in a dark corner and feel sorry for herself. When the oncologist visited with her the day we got the diagnosis, he was amazed that she hadn't been in severe pain for several months (based on the degree of how the cancer had spread to many of her organs.)

She was a very lucky woman to have gotten a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and was gone in a week. Yes, the cancer diagnosis was a complete shock and then her sudden deterioration and death was another shock, but once again, my mom handled this gracefully. She talked about her living will with us and that she didn't want any extraordinary measures to prolong her life. She knew she had a terminal diagnosis and also knew she was loved by all of us. As we looked through the safe deposit box a few days after her death, we all felt comforted when we read her living will. We made all of her end-of-life decisions just the way she had directed.

Although it was heartbreaking and the hardest thing I've ever lived through, I'm so glad I got to be there for the last 10 days of her life. I got to witness the true love and devotion of her and my dad. Married for 57 years, my mom and dad breathed the same air for a majority of their lives. The love and dedication my dad showed to Mom in that last week was amazing. After only two nights in the hospital, he moved out of his hotel room and stayed by her bedside for the rest of her hospitalization. He was there in the middle of the night when she would wake up disoriented and upset and would be the one to stroke her arm and whisper reassurances to her that she was ok.

The last 24 hours of my mom's life on earth was so surreal to me. It was the first time in probably 30 years that just the five us - Mom, Dad, my sister, brother and I - were together alone without spouses and children as a nuclear family. We spent those hours in her hospital room and shared stories, favorite songs and just time together.

So what have I learned in the last three weeks?

I've learned that the love of a mother is the strongest love a child can feel. When she's gone, there are other people who love you, but nobody can replace that love of a mother for her child and the love of a child for his mother. My heart aches, but it is also filled with joy that she was a Christian and is in Heaven with God, free of cancer's evil hold. She's surrounded by my grandparents and her grandparents looking down on all of us - surrounding us with her love.

I've learned that nothing lasts forever, including your parents' lives.

I've felt the pain and heartache that my own wife felt just four short years ago when her mother died suddenly. But I've also felt the love and support that my wife has provided me as she knows the pain I'm feeling.

I've also learned that support from friends and family is very important to get you through these rough spots in life. The day we got my mom's cancer diagnosis, I got in touch with a few of my closest friends from college to let them know I would be needing their support as we went through this next stage of life. Each one of them offered their support and we talked many times that week. The night my mother died, I had a 2 1/2 hour drive home and I was able to talk to each one of them as I drove home. Each one cried right along with me. I knew they hurt right along with me as I was processing how I was going to live without my mother.

I've learned not to take anything for granted.

Ten days before my mother's death, I had no idea how much time we had with her.

I'm glad I got to spend time with her.

I'm glad I was picked by God to be her son. She taught me so much about life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Andy's Ribs

I love to cook. I love to eat.

I love to cook and eat these ribs.

Now, if you don't like sweet, messy ribs then just leave this page now. These ribs are awesome!

Here's the scoop on how to make them.

You'll need two racks of pork baby back ribs and this cast of characters for the rub.
Brown Sugar
Your favorite BBQ spice/rub
Chili Powder
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Black Pepper

I start with about a half cup of the bbq spice/rub and then add about a cup of brown sugar. Then let your creativity and your nose be your guide. A little bit of this and that from the cast of characters. Mix it up and then rub it all over the ribs. When you are done, they will look like this.

Now here's the skinny on these ribs. They have a rub on them and then you soak them in apple juice. Yes, apple juice. Put the ribs you've rubbed all this sweet spicy mixture all over into a roasting pan and then pour some apple juice about half-way up the pan.

Once you've poured the apple juice into the pan, put the lid on and let these babies sit in the fridge for an hour or so. I went and worked out during this time so I could prepare my body for this rib fest. I'm glad I did!

After about an hour in the apple juice soak, turn the oven on to 300 degrees. When the oven is at temperature, pop those ribs in.

Let them cook at 300 for about 2 1/2 hours. The apple juice will be boiling and those ribs will enjoy their time in this sweet and savory hot tub. When you pull them out of the oven, they'll look like this.

Now it's time to head outside to the grill. But before we do that, we'll need to make the sauce. Yes, these babies deserve their own sauce with its own cast of characters.
Apple Juice
Honey style BBQ sauce
Heinz 57 sauce
Peach Preserves

In a small mixing bowl, pour about half the bottle of BBQ sauce in and then add about 2 tablespoons of Heinz 57 and 2 tablespoons of honey. Take about 1/2 to 1 cup of the peach preserves and put in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave for about 30 seconds to a minute until it is hot, bubbly and almost liquid. Pour those preserves into the sauce mixture and then add a couple tablespoons of apple juice. Mix it together and wait until it is time to take the ribs out to the grill.

 Pop the ribs on a hot grill so they can finish cooking out here. Turn them over a couple of times to get some good grill marks and some crustiness on this awesome apple juice infused pork.

When they are about done, it's time to put some of that delicious sauce on them and let that bake in for a few minutes...

When everything is hot and bubbly, bring those suckers in and enjoy!!!