Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mexican Sausage Cheesy Noodle Casserole

I know my food photos are ironically unappetizing.  I'm a children and family photographer...food isn't my forte.

Oh my word, this is delicious.  Like, my husband declared its supreme deliciousness, and proclaimed that it shall be in the regular rotation.  Yup, you want to make this.

I have been getting sick of ground beef.  I make so much Mexican food, and I'm starting to feel like it's all the exact same ingredients just arranged in a different order.  So, I decided to see how sausage would taste instead.  Um, wonderful, that's how.  Thanks to the seasoning in the sausage and salsa, this dish ends up being really spicy and flavorful without having to add any spices or seasoning powders!

1 lb ground sausage (I used regular, but this dinner is SPICY, so go with mild if you want to tame it a bit)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1tbsp minced garlic
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 16-oz jar green salsa (I love the Herdez brand)
2 cups penne pasta, cooked and drained
4 cups shredded cheese, divided (I like colby jack)

optional toppings: tomatoes, sour cream, black olives, jalepenos

1.  Preheat oven to 350. 
2.  In large skillet, brown sausage with garlic and onion until cooked through and onions are tender.  Drain any grease, then stir in cilantro.
3.  Once cilantro is wilted, add entire bottle of green salsa, stirring to coat sausage.
4.  Stir in cooked pasta until well mixed, then add two cups of the cheese, stirring until cheese is melted and mixed in well.
5.  Add mixture to lightly greased 3-qt casserole dish.  Spread remaining 2 cups of cheese evenly over top.
6.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until bubbly.
7.  Garnish with optional toppings, if desired, then serve!

We divided this dish into four equal servings, which ended up being right about 30 carbs each.  Not too shabby for a pasta dinner! 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review:: The Whispering Road

The Whispering Road by Livi Michael

I'm not even sure where this book came from...does that happen to anyone else?  I am one of those people that hoards books, but as a rule, I typically buy books based upon their cleverly written synopses or their visually appealing cover art.  I'm guessing I just liked the title of this one. 

This ended up being a really great, unique read.  It's set in 19th century England, and follows a young boy, Joe, and his kid sister, Annie, who escape from a workhouse in search of their mother.  Several years before, their mother had given them over to the workhouse out of desperation, having just been widowed and unable to provide for them.  She had intended to come back for them as soon as she got back on her feet, but after years of suffering abuse at the hands of their masters, the kids bolted in hopes of reuniting with her on their own.  The book follows their journey, which is riddled with danger and disappointment.  Annie has strange supernatural abilities that strike either fear or awe into the strangers they meet along the way, and Joe grows weary of her bizarre behavior, which hinders them greatly along the way.  When the opportunity to abandon her presents itself, he takes it, joining a child gang in a large city.  His new life is a treacherous one, and he must literally fight for survival on a daily basis.  When circumstances leave him all alone again, he begins to regret leaving Annie behind, and determines to find her again. 

I loved that this entire novel was written from a child's perspective.  How different a story it would've been if written any other way!  So many times throughout the book, I found myself questioning what was real, what was the imagination of a kid, and what was pure superstition or fabrication.  And it was brilliant.  In general, the story was heart-wrenching, and the human condition described among the poorest of England's citizens left little to the imagination.  The atrocities committed against the children in the book are unthinkable, yet true to life.  Aside from the superstitious aspects of the story, I almost believed I was reading a diary.  There were even great philosophical talking points woven throughout speaking to a plethora of moral and political issues.

I loved it.  I think you would, too!

Book Review:: The Reader

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This was a random purchase on a recent trip to Gardner's Book Store a few months ago.  The synopsis on the back captured my attention, painting it as somewhat of a mystery novel. Well, if I'm honest, I found it to be a little strange and not at all mysterious. 

The novel is set during WWII in Germany, although the main content of the book completely ignores the war as it is happening...the book is more about the relationship developing between the two main characters, Michael and Hanna.  Michael is a 15-year-old boy, who after getting sick on his walk home from school one day, is tended to by Hanna, a woman in her early thirties.  Hanna cleans him up and walks him home.  It ends up Michael's sickness was caused by hepatitis, therefore causing him to miss nearly an entire school year to recover.  During that time, while taking doctor-prescribed walks, he made daily visits to Hanna at her apartment, where they began a very bizarre romance.  Hanna is secretive about her life, only telling Michael tiny bits here and there, which include the fact that she works as a trolley ticket taker.  Say that three times fast.  Their lusty affair begins to wane as times passes, partly because Hanna is too busy being an adult with a job, and partly because Michael regains his health and rejoins his friends and their high school existence.  Then one day, Hanna just disappears leaving no explanation or any way to contact her.

Years pass, then the war trials begin.  Michael, now in college, is assigned with his class to attend these trials by one of his professors.  Lo and behold, one of the women on trial for her crimes committed at a concentration camp is Hanna.  While every other former guard on trial defends herself vehemently, Hanna seems to refuse to do so, even implicating herself on occasion or accepting responsibility that apparently wasn't hers.  Her motive for acting thus was supposed to be the big mystery of the novel.  I figured it out in the beginning chapters of the book, and was a little amazed at how long it took Michael to come to the same conclusion. 

I know I've more or less just beat down the whole book, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it really.  There were some aspects of the book I found interesting.  The psychology presented, for example.  Michael's narrative was always very pensive, and he raised very interesting questions about morality, loyalty, honesty, and love.  His obsession with Hanna throughout his entire life, and the dysfunction that resulted, seemed very real-to-life.  Reading the viewpoint of a child (albeit a fictitious child) of German parents who looked the other way while a genocide was taking place was another illuminating high point of the book.  While it wasn't my favorite summer read, I can honestly say it was intriguing.  I'd be interested to hear what you think about it if you give it a go!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review:: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

This is one of those books that will forever change me.  I'm really not sure why it had such a deep impact on me, but it ached my heart to read every page. 

On a cold winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry's wife, Norah, goes into labor during a terrible blizzard.  Once they've started toward the hospital, they realize their car will never make it, so they decide to stop at his office, where he is an orthopedic surgeon.  Along with the assistance of his trusted nurse, Caroline, he delivers his own perfect, healthy son.  And then, to their surprise, his little daughter, who very obviously has Down's Syndrome.  While Norah was sedated, Dr. Henry makes a fateful decision to send this imperfect child away, telling his wife upon her awakening that the child was stillborn.  He hands the baby to Caroline and instructs her to take the infant to an institution just out of town.

That one decision, hastily made in an effort to spare his wife the potential pain and struggle of raising a child with a disability...a disability that may lead to an early death...cost everyone involved, including both children, something precious.  Norah falls into a deep, inconsolable depression that haunts her for the rest of her life.  David's shame and guilt force him to overcompensate in some areas, and fall so short in others that a great divide is created between him, his wife, and his son.  Caroline, who once setting foot through the doors of the mental institution, decided to keep this sweet child for herself, uprooted her entire life, running away to another city to raise her new daughter.

I am not exaggerating when I say that every single page of this book broke my heart.  While there were joyous triumphs enjoyed by each of the characters, present for all of them was an overwhelming sadness for what could have been.  Human character is revealed in how each person's decisions are motivated out of a love for the others involved, whether those decisions were the right ones to make or not.  And that complicates things exponentially.  You want to despise the doctor for what he did, yet when you discover what in his life led him to want to protect his wife, you can understand why he did it.  You want to love Norah, but her bitterness and inability to move forward wear thin on you, causing you to lose patience with her.  Caroline's seemingly heroic act, in the long run, was also a tragic mistake, costing another mother a lifetime of opportunities with her own daughter, and a boy with his twin.  There is some redemption at the end of the novel, which ends on a hopeful note, yet the theme is the utter heartbreak of the human condition.
This novel is beautifully written, and compels you to love these make-believe people, flaws and all.  Reading this book has given me a fresh perspective on the motives of others who are in pain, and has strengthened my appreciation for the blessings I have been given in life.  I highly recommend this book.

Book Review:: Remember Me?

Remember Me?  by Sophie Kinsella

Early this summer, I was invited to a girls' night in to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Brooke.  Everyone invited brought a book, wrapped to conceal its identity, and each party-goer left with a mystery book!  We had a brilliant time playing charades and the like, and I walked away with this hilarious book.

I've loved the Confessions of a Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella, so I already knew this was going to be a fun read.  I was not disappointed.  Ms. Kinsella has a wonderful voice in her heroines, and manages to make you feel like you yourself are the narrator.

In this witty book, Lexi Smart, a 25-year-old carpet salesperson with little money, a dumpy apartment, and a loser boyfriend.  After a hard week of work, on the eve of her father's funeral, she and her girlfriends go out to drown their sorrows, and while hailing a cab, Lexi trips and falls, hitting her head.  Next thing she knows, she's waking up in a hospital....three years later.  Only, she wasn't comatose for all of that time.  No, she was just in a minor car accident a few days before, and the knock to her noggin erased three years of memories.  What's even more disconcerting is that she doesn't even recognize her life.  All of the sudden, she's in perfect shape, her teeth and hair look amazing, she apparently crashed her Mercedes (WHAT? She didn't even own a car!), and she was, gulp, married. 

At first, this new life is everything she's ever dreamed of having...perfect husband, huge hilltop mansion, closet the size of a normal person's house, high profile job, live-in housekeeper.  But as time passes with no sign of her memory ever returning, she begins to miss her former life.  And she discovers that the new her missed the old her, too. 

I seriously laughed out loud throughout this book because of the clever narrative and witty banter.  There were a few curse words I could've lived without, and an extramarital affair that is somewhat glorified and excused.  The underlying message, though, was solid:  be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it."  And what it costs to get what you desire may just be your true self.

Book Review:: One Lane Bridge

One Lane Bridge by Don Reid

This beautiful book's cover caught my eye.  Yes, that's right, I totally judged it by the cover.  I've just love a little country house plopped out in the middle of nowhere, what can I say?  Thankfully, all of those words between the covers kept me thoroughly entertained, reinforcing my track record for loving books with pretty artwork adorning them.

This story follows a fellow named J.D., who is heavily burdened with the stresses of life.  One evening, in an effort to relax his mind and calm his spirit, he takes a drive out in the country in his old convertible car.  Well, as old cars do, it overheated, stranding him on an unfamiliar country back road with no hope of any cell phone signal or passerby.  He hikes up a long driveway to the only house he can see to ask for help.  The family he meets there is destitute, with barely enough food, and an ailing mother.  The man of the house fetches some water from the well, helps J.D. get the car started back up, and sends J.D. on his way.  The plight of the family weighs heavily on J.D.'s heart, so the next day, he and his wife decide to revisit them with a carload of groceries.  Here's where the plot twists:  once they reached the spot where the driveway had been, there now stood a gas station.  J.D.'s wife is convinced that they've taken a wrong turn, but J.D. knows for certain that something far more supernatural was happening. 

Over the following hours, J.D. obsesses over this bizarre mental glitch, and manages to find the house once more on another solo drive, only to discover years have passed for the family, while only a day has passed for him.  J.D.'s wife and best friend are starting to worry that he's losing his mind, and he isn't too far from joining their sentiment.  The encounters he has with this family lead him to a strange woman in town, who helps him to locate relatives of the poor family.  What he discovers reveal to him the great providence of God, and His mercies and protection.  He begins to see how we're all connected, and how God always has His hand on our lives. 

Book Review:: Eli

Eli by Bill Myers

About a month ago, my little family of three set out on a week-long beach vacation on Galveston Island.  Unlike every other vacation we've ever taken as a family unit, we decided this one would be totally laid back with zero scheduled outings.  We slept in every day, watched a little television (which was met with quite a lot of excitement by the Pooh Bear, since we cancelled our cable subscription at the beginning of the year...he'd missed Sponge Bob), dropped more than a few quarters at the hotel's arcade, splashed in the hotel pool, ordered room service, waded in the waves on the beach...you get the idea.  Basically, if we couldn't walk there from our hotel room, we didn't go.  And it was divine.

In that week, I managed to read a book a day.  I'm already jealous of my vacation self.  The first book I read was this very thought-provoking novel, Eli.  The premise is honestly quite simple, and because I know my bible, the story was fairly predictable, yet I must say that its effect on my heart was quite profound.  The story follows a man named Conrad Davis, who is critically injured within the opening pages of the novel.  As his body lay in a coma, his soul is transported into a parallel realm in which every single detail of his life is the same as it had been before his accident.  With one major difference:  Jesus Christ had only been born about thirty years prior, rather than over two-thousand years ago.  There is no New Testament in any bible that exists.  Believers in God still seek salvation in works and travel to temples for redemption and blessing.  The world is awaiting its Savior. 

Because Conrad works for the media, he is catapulted into circumstances that allow him to closely a man named Eli, who's words of truth and hope are attracting quite a following.  While all of the logistics and minute details are substantially changed in a more modern setting, Eli's words, mission, and miracless coincide exactly with that of the Christ of the bible that Conrad had heard of from his pre-crash existence.  Conrad recognizes Whom he is following, and over time, walks away from the life he knows to follow Eli.

Like me, if you know the gospel, you'll feel the stories of Eli's ministry unfolding with a comfortable familiarity, and get a giggle at some of the modern day tweaks.  I especially loved the miracle of loaves and fishes, which ended up being Big Macs and french fries.  But like me, you might also feel a pang of shame when you read of the state of the souls of this world, especially when you get to the chapter which describes the mega-church temple where believers gather to worship.   

The most poignant thing I took from this book was a keen realization that the people whose stories we've read over and over in the bible were just like us.  They were real people.  They desperately needed a savior.  And they got so caught up in man-made religion that the majority of them completely missed Him when He stood right in front of them.  His ways and His words were radical.  He spoke the truth, He loved unconditionally, and He expected His followers to lay down their lives to follow Him. 

With two thousand years of hindsight, it's easy to question how the people were able to just hand Him over to be crucified.  It's easy to misunderstand how they didn't recognize Him for who He was.  But, what if, as in this book, He were walking among us now?  And His words went directly against everything you've been taught your entire life?  And if He were labeled as a lunatic cult leader?  And following Him may cost you everything you hold dear on this earth?  Would you believe Him?    Would you admit to loving Him?  Would you risk it all to follow Him?