Backyard oasis: Wordless Wednesday

A friend’s garden — more of an oasis than a backyard! Just needed a book and an hour in a comfy chair.

Swept up in ‘The Man Who Caught the Storm’

Man Who Caught the StormI thought I was a writer until I read Brantley Hargrove.

Well, scratch that: I am a writer, but I am not Brantley Hargrove.

Pick up The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras and you’ll know precisely what I mean.

In a book that is equal parts biography and thriller, the beloved film “Twister” rendered in beautiful language outside of Hollywood, journalist Hargrove delves into the life of Tim Samaras, a self-taught engineer who changed the course of tornado science with his brilliance, grit … and pure appreciation of twisters.

I get it. Family members relate with fondness the years in which I could recite the upcoming weather forecast for the next 10 days by heart. I once asked Santa to bring a Doppler radar for Christmas. While cousins at Grandma’s begged for Nickelodeon, I insisted on round-the-clock Weather Channel. Around age 10, I remember tracking a hurricane until I fell asleep, then waking at the crack of dawn to hurriedly check its progress near Florida. I was glued to the screen. How high was the storm surge?

In short, I’m a weather geek.

I might have pursued being a meteorologist had I not decided, sometime around middle school, that I was “terrible” at math. I wasn’t, in hindsight; it just didn’t come naturally to me, and I wasn’t used to working hard.

My own obsession with tornadoes never wavered, though. I’ve watched hours of footage of classic twisters over the Great Plains — and researched extensively the shocking F4 tornado that leveled large parts of the town next to my own in 2002. (I idolize the Capital Weather Gang. Dream job, man.)

Basically, I came to Hargrove’s The Man Who Chased the Storm already predisposed to love it. It had all the elements that would combine into a gripping, memorable page-turner that would dominate my waking hours for the days it took me to tear through it. Love it I did.

Shockingly, I wasn’t familiar with Tim Samaras before I started reading this account of his life and work; I approached with fresh eyes and was completely immersed in his world. Samaras reminds me very much of my own husband — enough that I immediately pushed my finished copy into his hands. Ham radio operator, electronics buff, brilliant with both his hands and mind … there’s much to admire about Samaras.

Tim Samaras

Though the book has no choice but to end on a sorrowful note, so much about Tim demands to be celebrated. Hargrove does a fantastic job of balancing the famous storm chaser with Tim the father, husband, colleague, and friend.

As we ride along with this crew of dedicated storm chasers, saying you “feel like you were there” through Hargrove’s incredibly well-researched book is an insult to the term. Take this, from its very opening pages:

Fog clings to the low swells of eastern-Colorado rangeland as dawn breaks. The mist walls off the far horizon, and for a few short hours the high plains feel a little more finite. The still air is cool and heavy, almost thick enough to drink. This is how these days often begin. The atmosphere is primed, the air a volatile gas. All it needs is a match. …

[Tim] is already en route to the plains from his home in suburban Denver. As the sun reaches its peak, his hail-battered Datsun pickup enters the storm chaser’s cathedral. … Once the sheltering Front Range fades from the rearview mirror, he’s naked to the lungs of the earth, in an unadorned country where the passage of miles can feel more like a few hundred yards.

I could really just quote, like, the entire book, but I want you to go read the book. It really is just that good — and quite the wild, memorable ride.

Perfect for:

  • Weather geeks who crave the data and the drama
  • Non-fiction lovers who want to learn while reading their bios
  • Readers ready to laugh, cry … and open new Google tabs to research while reading

5/5

Personal copy gifted by my sister; not sent for review.

Summer bowl: Shrimp & gnocchi with corn, basil, and blistered tomatoes

Shrimp gnocchi

Back in our early days of parenthood, when I was too exhausted to make decisions of any sort, Spence and I subscribed to a meal kit delivery service.

I looooved it. And I mean loved. Gone were the nightly “what’s for dinner?” debates. The angst over what to cook, when to shop, and basically how to live with a newborn was all very foreign (and overwhelming to me). Using one of those “five free meals!”-type promotions, we opted for Blue Apron. Our box came on Mondays. The recipes were fantastic and I loved the cute, perfectly-portioned meats and “knick-knacks” like red wine vinegar. I especially loved that we could make restaurant-quality meals at home … with a newborn.

If that sounds like marketing, well — it’s kinda hard to turn off, given my day job and all. It also happens to be entirely true!

As our family grew and we began getting more than a few hours of sleep, I couldn’t justify the cost anymore. That’s around the time I discovered The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook, a/k/a my cooking bible. The moment we experience an unexpected windfall, though, I will sprint back to Blue Apron … mark my words.

In the meantime? We’ll settle for eBay.

For roughly $3, my husband recently purchased a big lot of Blue Apron recipe cards from another home chef. These babies are full-size, full-color with step-by-step instructions. I kept the recipe sheets from all of our favorite recipes, so it’s easy to replicate the dishes again and again — unless they call for a tough-to-find ingredient (it happens, though not often).

Anyway. I’m in danger of turning into this meme.

Here’s a delicious summertime dinner (or lunch!) that turned out pretty as a picture. The original rendition from Blue Apron calls for fresh ingredients we didn’t have on hand, so I substituted with canned and frozen varieties … and the result was still fantastic. This is my wild-eyed, busy parent version.

It’s fresh. It’s flavorful. It’s fast, because it’s shrimp … and gnocchi, which literally cook in minutes. The description below seems long, but it is not complicated. You’re basically cooking the ingredients in batches and layering them together to create one balanced, tastebud-satisfying dish.

Dig in. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

 

Shrimp gnocchi2

Shrimp & Gnocchi with Corn,
Basil, and Blistered Tomatoes

Ingredients:
1 lb. frozen shrimp, thawed
16 oz. package potato gnocchi
10 oz. cherry tomatoes, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced or diced
2 scallions, sliced
1 can (16 oz.) corn kernels, drained
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
2 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
Parmesan, to taste

Heat a large pot of salted water to boiling. In a large pan, heat 2 tsp of olive oil on medium-high and add the tomatoes. Without stirring, cook the tomatoes until browned and blistered (about 3-4 minutes). Season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until slightly softened. Transfer to a bowl.

In the same pan, heat 2 tsp of olive oil on medium-high. Add the scallions and corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened (about 1-2 minutes). Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

Pat the shrimp dry and season with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp to the pan of cooked corn along with the garlic and red pepper flakes to your preference. Cook on medium-high, stirring frequently, until the shrimp are opaque and cooked through (3-4 minutes). Turn off the heat.

As the shrimp are cooking, boil the gnocchi. Cook 2-3 minutes, or until the gnocchi float to the top of the pot. Reserve 1/3 cup of the gnocchi cooking water, then drain thoroughly.

Transfer the gnocchi to the shrimp mixture. Return the blistered tomatoes to the pan. Add the butter and fresh basil, along with a few tablespoons of the gnocchi cooking water. Cook on medium-high, stirring vigorously for 1-2 minutes, until the gnocchi are coated in the butter sauce. (Add additional cooking water a few tablespoons at a time if your sauce seems dry.) Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkling of parmesan cheese (optional), plus more of the fresh basil (not optional — just delicious). Enjoy!

 

Sunset on the hill

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We took a drive on Friday, just needing sunshine and space. Fresh air. Ice cream. “Let’s go see the sunset,” my husband said, and we drove to Chapel Point — a great place to feel both opened up and small.

My feelings on faith are complicated. But there’s something about a church that still resonates with me — a key clicking into a lock.

I’ve never been inside St. Ignatius, a Catholic parish founded in 1641 — one that still thrives today. I have stood along its brick paths and gazed out over its cemetery on the hill, overlooking the Port Tobacco River. I have been in its shadows.

Everything I touch each day is chrome, glass, wood. We value “new.” I do, too. But there is power in the past. Standing next to the centuries-old church reminded me of all that the parish has weathered. Coronavirus (and live-streaming of Catholic Mass! Oh, if the Jesuits could see them now) … well, that’s just another page in a long story.

We whispered to the kids about sacred ground, tiptoeing only along the edges. We watched the sun sink lower. Ollie plucked a dandelion and made his wishes.

And we walked out — mosquito-bitten, grateful — hand in hand.

Making myself (un)comfortable

Beach babes

Ah, summer — you snuck on in and just made yourself comfortable.

After possibly the strangest spring of all time, Maryland’s hazy days and humid nights have settled in. Lifting some restrictions placed during the COVID-19 crisis has meant we could finally see the family we’ve missed so much in the last few months. I met my baby nephew (and can’t put him down)! Work at the hospital has pivoted from all coronavirus, all the time, to a few daily tasks as we resume some regular operations.

Normal life is slowly seeping back in, filling in the cracks of pandemic life.

Whatever “normal” means, anyway.

In many ways, of course, nothing feels normal right now. And it shouldn’t. Protests against racial injustice continue across the nation and world. The idea that it’s not enough to be simply “not racist” — that we must, instead, be anti-racist — has definitely changed my perspective lately. It’s gotten me thinking … and remembering times in which I should have said more, done more, been braver.

My own work will be partially in embracing discomfort and having hard conversations — with others and myself. It’s going to be in raising thoughtful, open, big-hearted children. And stepping forward when it would feel much safer to hang back.

And so, like always, I turn to books. I read to learn and grow and look beyond my bubble. My TBR is constantly expanding. Next up? Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. And there’s plenty more in store.

At home, we take it day by day. Spence continues to work from home with Oliver and Hadley until our daycare center reopens. While I’m eager for the kids to see their friends and get back into routines, it’s scary to imagine taking them back out into the world. Surreal, even.

I don’t know what this summer will look like. None of us do. But in processing what the last few months have meant, I return again and again to this poem by Leslie Dwight — likely circulating in a social media feed near you:

What if 2020 isn't cancelled

So far 2020 has been nothing if not uncomfortable, but it is time to grow.

I’ll keep reaching toward the sunlight.

 

Escaping with ‘Running Away to Home’

Running Away to HomeWhen it became apparent that we were all going to be settling in for the long haul during COVID-19, I immediately looked for an escape.

Not a literal escape because, you know: quarantine. But definitely a bookish one.

With my kids increasingly tolerant of Mom’s reading time, I’ve been able to devour quite a few stories recently. Jennifer Wilson’s Running Away to Home: My Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters is easily my favorite of the lot — the most engaging and delightful book I’ve read in ages.

It certainly helps that I relate deeply to Jennifer: writer, wife, and mom to two young kids — a son and daughter — who, along with her husband Jim, realized that the rat-race life in suburbia was leading to stuff, but little satisfaction. Or happiness.

Armed with the limited knowledge Jennifer has of her great-grandparents, who immigrated from a small village called Mrkopalj, the Wilson-Hoff family leaves Iowa to spend four months in a town of 800 people — where everyone knows everyone, the homemade alcohol is freely flowing, and lessons about abundance, scarcity, and friendship are abundant.

I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I cracked the cover … even if it took me eight years to get to this point. After finishing Running Away to Home yesterday, I immediately clicked over to send a quarantine copy to my mom, who identifies strongly with our Polish roots. Poland isn’t Croatia, but there were so many similarities in the stories (and recipes!) shared by Jennifer, I knew Mom would love this tale of roots and wings.

That’s when I saw the helpful “You’ve purchased this before!”-style note on Amazon. When I ordered it? Dec. 16, 2012, the day Spencer proposed. I purchased Wilson’s memoir along with a copy of The Wedding Book! (In a world before Amazon Prime, gotta get that $25 free ship.) Seven-plus years later, it finally called loudly enough to me from my bookshelf. If it’s any indication of how the past few years have gone, this memoir was perched next to Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction (helpful book, by the way).

So. Right. Running Away to Home found me at a good time.

A4B61D47-ACEC-4E9D-9D58-5E612AAA2AEDIt’s hard to put into words just why I loved it so much. Certainly tons of credit goes to Wilson’s funny, warm, astute and tight writing, which drew me in immediately and never let go. Beyond Jennifer, Jim, and young Sam and Zadie, the cast of characters in Mrkopalj — particularly Robert, their landlord/bartender/friend — were endearing and unforgettable. Everyone had so much personality … because, well, I’m sure, they do have so much personality.

When Jennifer is able to connect with lost relatives who still live nearby, I was taken back to my own long afternoons in the sitting rooms of elderly relatives in Pennsylvania, where my own grandparents grew up. We made these pilgrimages every summer, around the time of my great-grandmother’s birthday, playing nearby as the adults reminisced over meals in family-favorite restaurants.

The world Jennifer draws is at once familiar and foreign. It was impossible not to imagine my own great-great-grandparents making the decisions that led to their voyage to America (from Podkarpackie Voivodeship, Poland, sayeth 23andMe).

Running Away to Home is full of revelations about family — the ones who made us, and the one we create ourselves — without ever becoming preachy, condescending, or eyeroll-inducing. Jennifer and Jim wanted to connect with their children, with the land, with others, with each other … and they did, often in ways they did not expect.

Finishing Wilson’s book definitely had me eager to:

a) Learn to officially make my grandmother’s cabbage rolls,
b) Start a garden and grow my own herbs, and
c) Plan a post-COVID vacation to explore my roots abroad.

Recommend highly to readers who are…

  • Fans of memoirs and family sagas
  • Interested in ancestry/genealogy
  • Looking to travel without leaving the couch
  • Like entertaining stories with heart, and no tragedy

In short, what I mean to say is … I loved itAnd eight years after its initial publication, it totally holds up.

Get it for your Kindle. Grab it on audio. Borrow it from your library. I don’t care how you get here, just … get here if you can.

5/5