Gift Basket Situation (Or Unexpected Gifts)

A friend of mine is going through a tough time. I’ll spare you the details — mostly because his story is not my story to tell — and partly because the point of this story is the Get Better Gift Basket I made him today.

We’ve had countless conversations about soup since we met, so I wanted to start there. (We’re weird. Don’t ask.)

Because this was kind of a last-minute emergency gift basket situation, I couldn’t make a soup that needed a long time to simmer. I decided to make clam chowder because: a) it doesn’t require a complicated broth, b) it’s awesome, and c) because we agree that our favorite bar needs it on the menu. (I used this recipe for New England Clam Chowder.)

And because no mood-lifting gift basket is complete without homemade cookies, I baked some of those too. We both love oatmeal cookies, but we disagree on the nuts and raisins of it all. (I’m pro. He’s anti.) I found a recipe on Epicurious that fit the anti bill. You can find it here.

We also have an ongoing debate about the superiority of peanut versus peanut butter M&M’s, so I threw in a bag of his favorite. (I’m team peanut butter. He’s team peanut. In case you were dying to know or whatever.)

We do agree on Modelo, however, and luckily I had a few bottles in the house, so I added a few of those as well.

He’s a contractor, so I arranged everything in an aluminum bucket I picked up at Home Depot, and I added a funny card because he has one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard.

It’s infectious.

img_7053

img_7054

I have a messed up sense of humor. Don’t hold it against me.

I set out to cheer him up today, and in the process a curious thing happened.

As I was putting the oatmeal cookie dough balls onto the baking sheet, a wave of emotion hit me almost out of nowhere… and I realized today was January 10….

January 10, 2017.

It would have been my cousin Justin’s 30th birthday today.

Justin committed suicide when he was 25 years old.

I think somewhere in my unconscious I knew today’s significance even before I set out on my mission to cheer up another man in a dark season. Sometimes our soul knows before our mind does.

I cried while the first batch of cookies baked, and when my tears stopped flowing, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to use the pain of my cousin’s unrealized dreams to assuage the pain of someone else’s unrealized dreams. (Honestly, I was also a little grateful for a cathartic cry that wasn’t related to an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.)

I called Justin’s mother while I was en route to deliver the gift, and we had a nice conversation. Her strength, grace, and faith astound me in the face of all she has endured. Superheroes should take a lesson from her.

True story.

But before I get too maudlin, I’ll just show you the pics from the Get Better Gift Basket.

img_7060

The blue ribbons don’t match.

I’m trying not to freak out about that.

img_7058

I told you it was a last-minute emergency.

img_7059

But it still came together pretty well — all things considered.

So, anyway, life is beautiful, messy, and unexpected, and sometimes when you’re trying to give someone else a gift, God gives you a gift of your own.

Today that gift was an unexpected opportunity to honor my cousin, and to show someone else that there is hope — even in the face of a hopeless situation.

The Issues That Truly Divide: Manhattan versus New England Clam Chowder (Or I Like My Clams with Cream)

OK, now that some of the presidential election insanity has blown over let’s move on to other divisive issues like: Manhattan versus New England clam chowder.

Given my love of dairy and my somewhat complicated relationship with tomatoes, my choice is clear: New England in a landslide.

Last weekend, I defied mother nature and her unreasonable, unseasonable heat, and I made a pot of creamy New England clam chowder while watching football. I’ve tried countless recipes over the years and so far this is my favorite.

The recipe is below.

I have a weakness for New England clam chowder… and boys from Boston. The latter is  probably a problem.

New England Clam Chowder
Adapted from Bon Appetit

3 8-ounce bottles clam juice
1 pound potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 T unsalted butter
3 slices bacon, finely chopped
2 C chopped onions
1 1/4 C chopped celery
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
1/4 C all purpose flour
6 6 1/2-ounce cans chopped clams, drained, juices reserved
3/4 C half and half
1/2 C whipping cream
1 tsp hot pepper sauce

Bring the bottled clam juice and potatoes to boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are slightly tender, about 7 minutes, before removing the pot from the heat.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until the bacon begins to brown, about 8 minutes. Add onions, celery, garlic, and bay leaf, sautéing until the vegetables soften, about 6 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. (Do not allow the flour to burn.)

Gradually whisk in the reserved juices from the canned clams. Add the potato and clam juice mixture, clams, whipping cream, half and half, and hot pepper sauce. Simmer for about 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently.

Season the chowder to taste with salt and pepper. This chowder can be made one day ahead and also freezes well. If you like your chowder to be thicker, try substituting heavy cream for the half and half or the whipping cream.