Food for the Soul. And Tummy.

I don’t put a lot of stock in the whole “Love Languages” thing. Whether you chalk it up to my rebellious aversion to labels or the fact that I think people are just more complicated than one language of love, I just don’t put my eggs in that basket. If I DID, however, I would have to add a category: Cooking.

Cooking feeds my soul. It’s how I express love to people. If I cook you a meal, you really mean a lot to me. I don’t really follow recipes, so I have put a lot of time, sweat, creativity, and trial-and-error into a meal if I have created one for you. The only thing I love more than cooking a meal is watching someone eat it. Even if they don’t particularly like it, I learn a lot about that person as well as our friendship when we share a meal together. Sharing a meal is so incredibly sacred – it’s the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before he was killed. It’s one of the most intimate forms of communication. We are pretty vulnerable when we eat because we all do it differently.

I had the chance to experience three special meals this weekend, and all were sacred in their own way. One of my absolute favorite things to cook for myself is mussels in a white wine garlic sauce. I got hooked on mussels when I lived in Charleston and that was my biggest treat – when I could go to Rue de Jean in downtown Charleston and eat mussels. Once I went with my dad, and we talked to the waiter for a while about how the broth was made and tried to guess what was in it. After that, I spent years perfecting what, I believe, is the best mussel broth and now I make it when I really want something special. Mussels are pretty budget-friendly, too, which is imperative for me. I was able to get a pretty hefty bag of hue mussels at Fresh Market for $9.00.

So Friday evening, I made myself mussels. I was dog sitting for a friend and watching one of my favorite movies (The Darjeeling Limited…A Wes Anderson film) and I slowly cooked (because that is the fun part!) and then even more slowly enjoyed a steaming bowl of mussels in my now ten-years-in-the-making white wine and garlic broth. They were DELICIOUS. As I watched a movie about the journey of life, and all of its crazy turns, and enjoyed my favorite meal, I gave thanks for everything that has gone so unexpectedly in my life and for where I am today.

Saturday I was able to share a very different kind of meal with two friends. Liz and Matt, a married couple whom I met in graduate school and remain friends with today, are precious people. They are also my “theme park buds”. We all have resident passes to Universal Studios, so every so often we will throw some water bottles and sandwiches in a backpack and head to ride roller coasters for the day. I love going to Universal with Liz and Matt. They are so much fun, and like I tell them often, they give me the freedom to just be my goofy kid self. I still get just as excited and speechless every time I walk into Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, and the three of us totally geek out together. (I should mention at this point that I have now been to Diagon Alley no less than 9 times since it opened. I still fan out when I walk in.)

This particular Saturday was really fun because Universal is still celebrating Mardi Gras! We didn’t pack food because we were holding out for the temporary Bourbon Street the theme park sets up with pretty good Cajun food, music, drinks, and LOTS of beads. Earlier in the day, I was feeling nauseous so I grabbed a hot dog and most of the mustard ended up on my shirt. My white shirt. Which I wore to a theme park. To ride water rides. We stood in line for Dudley Do-Right’s Ripshaw Falls and giggled at the huge yellow stain on my shirt, which I tried to wash out with water from my water bottle (fail), and which only got blasted with water on the ride. The giggles continued after we sat on some steps and ate jumbalaya, red beans and rice, and gumbo because I looked down and realized I was wearing most of my dinner. And you know what? It was great. I love that I don’t care if the Starkeys see me with my lunch and dinner all over my shirt. I so enjoyed sitting on the steps to a fake building with them and laughing about the day and anticipating the Mardi Gras parade that it just didn’t matter. That was a fun meal.

My weekend of special meals ended with Easter Sunday. I think Easter is my favorite holiday. It isn’t complicated by gifts and everyone celebrates it differently. I have never met two families who celebrate Easter the same way. My Sundays are pretty full, so I went to church early, then went to the jail, and then raced back home because I was having people over for Easter Dunch (brunch for dinner). Easter isn’t Easter unless I have had some cheese grits and blown a Peep up in the microwave, and I really wanted to cook for my friends. About 12 people came over – couples, kids, adults, etc – and we just sat around and laughed and ate and drank and listened to Hillsong United in the background. I cooked three of my favorites: An overnight French toast casserole, really cheesy grits, and asparagus wrapped in bacon. My friends brought fruit, sausage and biscuits, mimosas, brownies, adorable cookies, and so much more. We had quite a spread! I pulled in chairs from the porch and rearranged the mis-matched furniture a bit and we just sat around and enjoyed our food and each other.

I love watching my friends eat because eating while talking is such a good equalizer. No one looks good doing it, yet no one seems to care. I was able to spend precious time with precious people while saying, “Thank you for being in my life”. I usually thank people by cooking for them, and yesterday was a great opportunity to do that.

Today my heart feels very full. And so does my belly. I spend most of my time worrying over what I am putting into my body and how much of it I burn off, and this weekend was just a fun celebration of my own gratitude and my gratitude for friends. I am just really thankful.

If you want to share some food with friends or family, here are some of my “recipes” (I use that term very liberally. Normally I am just dumping things and tasting as I go). Enjoy, and make them your own!

Overnight French Toast Casserole
(Feeds 6-8)

1 loaf authentic French Brioche, slices 1-1.5 inches thick
4 tblps (1/2 stick) of butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 cup whole milk
8 eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tblsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
Extra cinnamon and brown sugar for sprinkling

Melt the butter and add the brown sugar. Mix well and pour/spread across the bottom of a greased 9×13 inch Pyrex dish. Layer the bread to cover the entire dish. It is ok to overlap! Whisk the eggs in a large bowl, and add the milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger. When well mixed, pour the egg mixture evenly in between and all over the bread. Make sure to really get it in there! Sprinkle the top of the bread slices with cinnamon and brown sugar. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refigerate over night.  When you are ready to bake it, heat the oven to 350 and let the dish sit outside of the fridge for a good 15 minutes before putting it in the oven. Depending on how quickly your oven cooks, bake the dish for about 20 minutes. You want the tops to be just browned and a little crispy, the toast to be cooked through (no mush down there), but you don’t want it to be dry. Serve with your favorites: syrup, powdered sugar, strawberries, pecans, whatever you wish!

Really Cheesy Grits
(Feeds 15)

6 cups whole milk
6 cups chicken broth
3 cups stone ground grits
8 cups shredded monterey jack and cheddar mix cheese
garlic powder (lots)
salt and pepper
ground paprika
1 stick butter

Bring the milk, broth, and about 2 tblsp of garlic powder to a boil. Add grits. Stir well and frequently to prevent burning on the bottom of the pot. Follow the instructions on your package of grits, but once the grits are boiling, reduce heat to Low and let cook for about 15 minutes. Once the grits are good and thick, throw in (literally) the whole stick of butter and stir. I add the cheese about 2 cups at a time so I can stir it up well in between additions. Add salt, pepper, more garlic, and paprika to taste. Let the grits simmer for a few minutes to really get the flavor how you want it, but don’t forget to stir! Serve hot and save leftovers. These are delicious when reheated!

Bacon Wrapped Asparagus

Depending on how many people you are serving:
2 bunches of fresh asparagus
1-2 packages of thick cut, applewood smoked bacon
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and pepper
Lemon juice
Garlic powder
Parchment paper (if cooking in the oven)
*These are best on the grill, but oven works just fine.

Wash and trim asparagus stalks. Dump them in a large bowl and cover with about 1 tblsp of olive oil, 1 tblsp garlic powder, s&p, 1 tsp paprika, sprinkle with lemon juice. Toss until all stalks are well-covered. Gather asparagus in bunches of three or four stalks and wrap tightly with one slice of bacon. Try to make the bacon cover as much of the stalk as you can, rather than wrapping it all around the center. Use a toothpick to secure the bacon if you want, but if you wrap it tightly enough, it will stay on its own. If you are cooking these in the oven, heat the oven to 350 and place parchment paper over a pan or sheet that has a lip on it (the grease will run off if you use a cookie sheet). A jelly roll pan works best. Cook for about 15 minutes – until the bacon is brown. You don’t want to overcook these, though, because asparagus gets mushy. If you are cooking on the grill just cook until the bacon is cooked. The asparagus really doesn’t require much cooking. Serve hot and enjoy!


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