WHEN PASSION SURPASSES YOUR ABILITY

“On the first morning, when one of the chefs asked me why I took the class, I told him that my enthusiasm for cooking had outpaced my technical skills.” – Shauna Niequist, Bread & Wine: a love letter to life around the table.

I have felt this same dilemma.  My passion for cooking far surpassing my abilities.

If I could squeeze more life out of this one, I’d enroll in a full-time culinary arts program.  But since I don’t want to quit any of my established roles with family, friends, and vocation – graduating from a prestigious cooking school will not be a part of my story.  Because a good and bad part of being a grown up is accepting that I have to choose to say no to many good things to be great at a few things.  And for me, saying yes to writing and speaking about hospitality means saying no to culinary school.

Nevertheless, I can still push through the plateau of my cooking abilities by inventing creative opportunities that better fit my resources of time and money.

Of course – for foodies like me – culinary programs, cookbooks, and recipe magazines are inspiring.  But nothing develops skills like actually rolling up your sleeves and practicing.  We can be inspired by watching someone else, but we can’t truly learn until we do it ourselves.

And so, one of the ways I have learned to be a better cook – with the resources available to me for professional development – is to gather with friends who share my passion and simply cook together.

Back when our kids were all school-aged, Carla, Rachel, and I would gather monthly in one of our kitchens so the host could demonstrate how to prepare a recipe that she had mastered.  A home-cooked dish that people around her table love to eat.

We learned new recipes and techniques.  We test drove each others kitchen gadgets.  We talked about the best places to purchase ingredients.  And, of course, we feasted – just the three of us – at our tables.

We taught each other how to make shrimp ceviche, chicken curry, and apple cake.  We didn’t just learn how to prepare recipes – it was a time to learn about the best citrus juicers, the best ethnic markets to shop at, and the best pans for getting crispy edges on baked goods.  And as we stood in the kitchen cooking, we also shared about our lives, and our families, and our dreams.

We gathered to cook, to laugh, to learn, and to eat.  Pretty much my favorite things about this life.

Learning to be a better cook with women who have become two of my dearest friends has yielded a great return for the investment of 2 hours a month and the cost of ingredients.

If you want to be a better cook but can’t afford the time or money for a formal culinary education, I encourage you to invite the best home cooks you know into your kitchen and cook together.  I am certain that you will be pleasantly surprised by the joy of developing your culinary skills and meaningful friendships.

CHICKEN CURRY

Chicken Curry is one of my favorite restaurant meals, and so I’ve made several versions of this rich, savory dish at home.  This is the easiest Chicken Curry recipe that I have prepared, and so it’s pretty awesome that it is also the most flavorful!

The key to recreating the authentic flavor of this restaurant dish is purchasing ingredients that were made in Thailand, not a factory in America.  

If your local grocery store has an ethnic isle, check there for products labeled from Thailand.  Or better yet, see if you can find an Asian market in driving distance from your house.  For those of us who think that local food is the best part of any vacation, a trip to an ethnic market is a delightful mini-getaway from our usual routines.  

During my most recent trip to an Asian market I discovered fresh Jackfruit (the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, that smells and tastes a little like musty bubble gum, and has seeds that look like peeled garlic cloves). It was a fun culinary adventure to bring home and share with my family.

Another great option for purchasing ethnic ingredients is Amazon.com, especially if you have Amazon prime.  I use Amazon Prime often to buy hard to find ingredients.  Rather than driving all over town, they just show up on my doorstep within two days.  I checked, and all of the Thai ingredients that I used to make this dish are available on Amazon Prime.  You can click on each of these ingredients in the recipe to go to an Amazon link.

For a complete meal, serve this savory curry over Jasmine rice with fresh cut pineapple and warm naan (flat) bread.  Also, this meal doubles well and is a great choice for feeding a crowd gathered around your table.

Enjoy!

CHICKEN CURRY,  serves 4-6

ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 2 boneless, skinless Chicken Breasts, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 3-13.5 ounce cans Coconut Milk, divided (do not substitute light coconut milk)
  • 2 tablespoons Yellow Curry Paste (add more or less to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons Palm Sugar, grated
  • 2 tablespoons Fish Sauce
  • 2 small gold Potatoes, diced into large chunks
  • 1 large Carrot, diced into large chunks
  • Jasmine rice, made according to package instructions

directions:

  • Pour olive oil into a 5 quart stock pot or dutch over.  Turn heat to medium-high and heat oil until glistening.  Turn pan to spread oil evenly over the surface of the pan.  Once evenly coated, add chicken slices in batches, laying each piece flat in hot skillet.  Quickly brown each side, and do not overcrowd the pan.  Set browned chicken aside in a plate and finish with remaining chicken.  (You don’t need to cook the chicken all the way through at this point.  You just want to get a little caramelization on each piece for better flavor.)  Leave brown bits in the pot.
  • Pour coconut milk into the stock pot or dutch oven used to brown the chicken and set over medium heat.  Add 2 Tablespoons of Curry Paste.  Whisk to combine until blended and bring to a simmer. 
  • Add Palm Sugar and Fish Sauce to the pot, stir to combine.
  • Add browned Chicken, Potatoes, and Carrots.  Stir until blended.  Cover and cook on low for 15-20 minutes, or until potatoes and carrots are cooked through.
  • Serve over steamed Jasmine rice.

HOW TO KEEP LISTENING FOR THE SONG OF OUR DREAMS

I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately.  Triaging endless tasks that feel urgent and then never having enough during the day to pour into the things that seem most important.  Discouraged by how hard I work every day keeping all the balls up in the air for a life I truly love, and yet not making progress on dreams that matter to me.

And I’m certain that I’m not the only one feeling this way.

So today let’s hit the pause button on our hectic schedules to think about how to listen for the consistent beat of our hearts that hum the song of our dreams not just our responsibilities.

My dream is to write a book.

A lovely book about hospitality and community and sharing meals.  It’s filled with inspiring stories about how we connect and change and love each other well when we gather at the table.  It includes how-to advice, and recipes shown with instructions for creating each dish for 4-6 people, 10-12 people, and 18-20 people.  It’s a hard cover book with beautiful photography worthy of being displayed on coffee tables and kitchen book stands.

It’s almost absurd how deeply my heart and soul are invested in a thing that feels so real, yet only exists in my head.  Because it’s not a thing at all.  It’s just an idea.  And yet my heart is attached enough to this dream to feel its existence.

I love my imaginary book so much that it’s overwhelming to let it out.  In my head it’s beautiful and delightful and perfect.   But every time I sit down to start writing my book I just stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen and end up wondering why I can write so freely about every other topic that is meaningful to me and then feel so hindered when I want to work on the one that matters to me the most.

This book project is my baby.  And I’m searching for the way to magically birth the finished product.  

If my book stays in my head I can keep it safe and perfect.  But there’s no way to transform this baby into something you can hold in your hands without letting it first be clumsy and awkward.  And I’m realizing that I need to give my dream permission to be out of my head in a childish state so that it grow and develop on paper – trusting in the process of writing to mature and refine it into something remarkable.

There is a lot of releasing in the journey of pursing our dreams rather than protecting them.

And letting go always demands courage.  

Because releasing something we care for deeply always leaves us standing for a moment with empty hands before the new thing that replaces it begins takes shape.  And the moment of standing empty handed and uncertain is at best highly uncomfortable, and sometimes its downright terrifying.

But when I step back and take in the big picture view of my life so far I realize that I have already lived this hard and scary journey many times:  

  • Loving my teenagers is a hair-raising adventure of loving and releasing the three young men who actually are large pieces of my heart with arms and legs.  
  • Choosing not to pursue a career as a social worker when I became a mom six weeks after I completed my graduate program is a continual journey of loving and releasing my well-thought out plans.
  • Building relationships and community with young adults who are navigating a season of great transition is an ongoing story of loving and releasing people I care for deeply into their next chapter. 
  • Living a life of faith is the never-ending practice of loving God and others, and releasing selfish desires.  (And I use the word “practice” here intentionally, because some days I do this well, and other days not so much.  But I keep at the practicing so that I can live my faith better, even though I will never be able to do it perfectly.)

The love and joy that comes after the release are enough of a reason to do the hard work of holding the empty space created by the risks and the loss and the fear and the disappointment that life’s demands.  If we choose a life of love and purpose over safety, then this is the road we all must walk.

Perhaps we hold our ground in the uncertain space by listening for that hum.  The consistent beat of our hearts that hums the song of our hopes and dreams not just our responsibilities.  Using all of our spiritual senses – not just what we can see – to guide us towards the fulfillment of our deepest desires.

The hum fills the space of the empty handed time, singing a tune that reminds us why our dreams matter and why pushing through the struggle of the uncertain and uncomfortable middle space is worth it.

I think connecting with other humans around our tables by sharing a meal matters.  The dinner table is where we invite others to experience the common ground, unity, and belonging that everyone desperately needs.  And too many people confuse entertaining with hospitality.  Our communities need us to get back to creating moments that matter at the table, rather than moments that impress.

I believe this to the depths of my soul, and that is enough to keep me anchored to the courage I need to let my dream out of my head so that it has a chance to grow and become a thing, not merely an idea.

What is your dream, and why does it matter?  How can we hum a tune of encouragement to each other in the middle time when we are standing empty handed in the space between releasing our dream from the protection of our minds and the fruition of the song it will become?

AN INVITATION TO VISIT NEIGHBOR’S TABLE

Sarah Harmeyer – the woman who’s story of loving people around her backyard table for twenty inspired mine – has launched a website for her “Love Mission”.  

And it. is. amazing.  

Neighborstable.com offers motivation, stories, and an online store.  You can even order a custom table for your backyard!

If you have a passion for hospitality, community, and sharing meals – then please accept this invitation to visit Sarah’s beautiful site.  

TIP # 6 – A CREATIVE WAY TO ORGANIZE HELP

One of the biggest challenges to hosting a community meal isn’t necessarily asking for help, but knowing how to best organize the group of people who are willing.  So often doing things ourselves actually is easier than pausing every time someone comes through our front door to think through who is already doing which tasks, and what help is still needed.

That is why I love this idea by Sarah Harmeyer.  A simple cloth bag, filled with tokens imprinted with all the jobs you need help with.  As guests come in they simply draw a token from the bag and know how they can jump in and help.

Sarah’s story is the inspiration for my table.  And she recently launched a website called “Neighbors Table”.  It is a beautiful.  The photos and the posts are deeply inspiring.  If you are interested in topics related to hospitality, sharing meals, and community – you definitely want to spend some time visiting her site.

I ordered my table tokens from the shop on the website.  And then purchased a bag of wooden tokens from a local craft store and added a few more with specific jobs that I want help with at my community dinners.

Simply lovely.

BLACK BEANS & SAUSAGE

When this link for “Quick Budget Friendly Recipes” showed up on my Facebook feed, I knew it was one worth saving.

On Monday the girls and I made Martha’s Black Beans and Sausage Skillet Dish, and it delivered as promised.  Great flavors, with relative ease and low expense to prepare.

I did make a few adjustments to the original recipe – substituting one-12.8 ounce package of Trader Joe’s Smoked Andouille Sausage for Martha’s 1 pound of Polish kielbasa, and quadrupling the ingredients to serve 16.

If you’ve never tried Andouille sausage, it is a smoked meat bursting with spicy Cajun flavors.  And it’s delicious.

We browned most of the ingredients in batches in skillets and then transferred everything to a large stock pot to combine the caramelized flavors with the broth and beans.  Our finished dish came out more like a thick, rich soup than a skillet meal – requiring bowls and spoons to enjoy it.  But it was deeply satisfying.

I served it with a dollop of whole milk Greek yogurt (which cut the spice of the sausage nicely), crunchy beer bread (made from a boxed mix), and a tossed kale salad kit. Everything for dinner was purchase in one stop at Trader Joe’s.

A fantastic, low budget dinner for 16, prepared in one hour.

Enjoy!

BLACK BEANS AND SAUSAGE, serves 4

ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1-12.8 ounce package of andouille sausage, sliced into 1/2 inch coins (You can substitute any smoked sausage that you prefer in this soup. Please note that andouille sausage is spicy.)
  • 3 medium carrots, diced small
  • 2 shallots, diced small
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cans (15.5 ounces each) black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, plus more for serving
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt, for serving (I prefer whole fat Greek yogurt. You get more flavor with a smaller serving.)

directions

  • In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add sausage and cook until browned on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add carrots and shallots to skillet and cook until beginning to soften, about 4 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add black beans and broth and bring mixture to a boil. Add sausage, reduce heat to a rapid simmer, and cook until carrots are tender, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley. Serve with more parsley and a dollop of yogurt.
  • That’s it.  It really is that simple.
  • If you double, triple or quadruple this recipe for a crowd.  Brown the sausage, carrots, shallots, and garlic in batches.  And then transfer to a large stock pot to combine with beans and broth.  Bring to a boil and then simmer for 12 minutes.

Enjoy!

BECAUSE COMMUNITY ISN’T A SYSTEM OF EVEN EXCHANGES

“I can’t believe that you let me sign your table the first time I came to your house for dinner.  I’m surprised that you don’t want to be sure that I’m going to come back.”

“Of course!” I replied, “Everyone who shares a meal with us at our table is invited to sign it regardless of whether you come one time or for years.  Signing our table isn’t an invitation that you have to earn.”

I continue to ponder this conversation that I shared with a lovely young woman standing on my candlelit patio a couple of weeks ago.

We all feel this way some times, or a lot of the time.  That we don’t deserve someone’s offering of time or kindness or grace unless we have somehow earned it.

But community doesn’t flourish under a system of even exchanges.

Community at it’s best is created when we share friendship and care for each other regardless of whether or not it’s been earned by the time or efforts invested.

And I’m beginning to see that one of the greatest reasons that community has grown to be so significant in my life is because I’m willing to ask for and accept help in meaningful – and sometimes extravagant – ways from people who I haven’t necessarily spent a ton of social time with.

During my darkest seasons I’ve reached out to people who have walked through similar circumstances, as well as to people whom I admire for how they live their life – regardless of how much time we’ve invested in a reciprocal relationship.

These walks and coffee dates have grown into a handful of kindred friendships that are closely bound into the fabric of my life even though they aren’t necessarily the people that I socialize with.  The amount of time we’ve spent together isn’t nearly as significant as the depth of meaningful life moments we’ve shared.

I think this is what God intended when he established his Church.  Not to be merely a house of prayer, worship, and teaching, as well as a social club that fills our calendars with activities. But also to be a place where we can reach out to others and say I’m sinking in a storm that is raging around me and I need a few trusted people to throw me a life preserver so I can keep my head above the deepening waters.

I too am guilty of smiling on Sunday morning and saying “Good.  Thanks.” in response to the greeting of, “How are you doing?” even when my whole world feels like it’s falling apart.  Or even worse, I’ve stayed home from church just because I can’t handle the angst of that scenario when I know the expression in my eyes will likely betray the facade I want to present.

The truth is that I don’t want to talk about my problems to everyone at church, and there’s a boundary in there that’s healthy and honors the people who are driving the narrative of my hardest stories.

But that necessary boundary is also balanced with the value of telling a few people at church what’s really going on in my life and asking them to come along side and help me.  These ladies are now a beloved part of “My People” not because we hang out all the time, but because they are among my lifelines when life is hard.  What a gift.

There’s a difference between being a receiver and a taker.  And I wonder if too often we get them confused.

Taking is getting something into my possession by force.  I don’t ever want to be a taker.

But receiving is taking something into my possession that is being offered.  Receiving care and kindness and help is beautiful.  And the love I receive through My People is why I can feel strong, confident, joy-filled, and hopeful in all circumstances.

I think there are more people around us in our community willing to offer help than we realize when we are wounded or sad or scared.  We unnecessarily limit the pool of support around us when we pre-decide that we haven’t shared enough life with someone in our community or our church to ask them to come along side us – especially when we know that person possesses the wisdom that we need because they’ve already been walking on a similar road before we got there.

I don’t try and carry life by myself.  It’s far too heavy.  I carry it with my people.  And not just the ones who I given enough too that I feel like it’s okay to ask for their support.  That circle would be too small to hold some of the burdens that have troubled me.  Life has required me to reach out to people who aren’t in my closest circle and their response has been overwhelmingly grace-filled.

And that has made all the difference in my response these days when someone asks me, “How are you doing?”  And I smile and say truthfully, “Really good. Thanks.  How are you?”

HOW TO THROW A GROWN-UP PITY PARTY

I was having a particularly bad day.

I had planned on using solitary time at home to catch up on my to-do list. But I ended up laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling instead. Telling God my list of grievances, and finding comfort under the blanket of self-pity.

I am forty-four years old, but sometimes I still pray like a teenage girl. A very immature teenage girl – all wrapped up in my own perspective and ego and needs and wants. Prayers consumed by what I think is right. What I think is fair. What I think I deserve.

I’ve been intentionally growing in my faith for twenty-seven years, but I have yet to take all of my petty thoughts captive. I have merely developed the ability to recognize when my thoughts are self-aggrandizing before they are formed into words that come out of my mouth.

The truth is that while I have developed a genuine desire to be a reflection of Christ at all times and to all people – I do not always feel that way. Nor have I completely outgrown self-absorption.

Sometimes as maturing adults we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to think noble, faith-filled thoughts despite our circumstances. Or at least appear that way to others.

But every life is marked by moments of exhaustion and frustration and weakness. And there is a process for transforming my heart into something that is useful to God and others when it has become weary.

So can I just throw it out there that perhaps an occasional pity-party is okay, even when we are no longer adolescents?

In fact I have actually found a good, grown-up pity-party to be quite helpful under two conditions:

  • as a short-term aid.
  • when I invite God to attend.

Sometimes before I can receive “the peace that surpasses all understanding” or “the strength that enables me to overcome all things” or “joy in all circumstances”, I just need to just take a few moments to feel sorry for myself and wallow in my mess.

This is a dangerous place to linger for too long because it’s an awful place to get stuck.

And it is rarely helpful to invite a lot of people.

But for a brief moment, exposing my uncensored and unfiltered feelings before God – trusting that He will meet me in that unbecoming moment with compassion, not condemnation – deepens my intimacy with Him.

As mature adults, when we are hurting or scared or weary we are often too quick to throw out the powerful banner statements of the church and our faith. Even though I believe that the big promises of God are absolutely true, I am also learning that there is something powerful and healing in just sitting with God for a moment in the ugliness of my sadness and anger and fear.

Before I start pushing forward toward overcoming and victory and restoration, I need a few moments to let myself feel and express the injustice or the wrongness of a broken situation or a broken person – in the company of God.

Not to be fixed, but to be seen.

In a recent experience of shameless self-pity – lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, voicing my frustrations to God – my phone rang.

Even though I had decided that it would be best to cut myself off from communication with people that afternoon, I answered because it was my roommate from college. She has already experienced my self-absorption when it was at it’s peak, and she loves me anyways. With her I never have to pretend to be anything other than exactly how I am feeling.

But before I could say anything other than “Hi Roomie”, she told me that she was calling because I was on her mind. And she’d been praying for me. She just wanted me to know.

I cried.

Because I heard the voice of God speaking gently to me through her words.  Reminding me that when I feel alone or rejected or unappreciated or ignored or forgotten, God sees me.

When I pause to listen for God’s gentle voice after I have finished my pubescent rant – He is always faithful to remind me that:

I am loved.

I am valued.

I am seen.

In my most self-absorbed moments, it is God’s presence and voice – spoken through the Holy Spirit, or scripture, or a loved one – that lifts me up and enables me to get back to the hard work of living and loving and serving and growing.

Because God’s unconditional love reconciles the teenage girl and the maturing woman that both live inside me.

God loves me just as I am.  And He loves me too much to let me stay that way.

That’s grace.

Celebrated at a pity-party.

TIP #5 – BE A GUEST

The menu was Mediterranean.  The potluck was DELICIOUS.  The table was gorgeous – and it wasn’t mine.

This is my friend’s table, where I experienced the blessing of being a guest in someone else’s dining room.

It was lovely.

The guest list was made up of 12 friends, representing multiple demographic boxes, who know each other at varying depths, from acquaintances to soul-bearing.

The reason we gathered was simply because we want to share life by sharing food.  So together we’ve created a monthly supper club.

Sitting at someone else’s table – my soul being fed and nourished by someone else’s hospitality – reminded me how delightful it is to be a guest.

Even though I love to gather people around my table – it really is my favorite – supper club is already teaching me that to be a good host, it’s important to intentionally make time to be a guest at someone else’s table.

Because being nourished at another person’s table:

  • breaths life into my passion to nourish others at mine.
  • teaches me fresh ideas about how to host, entertain, organize, and care for the needs of my guests.
  • gives me an opportunity to recognize that I can also connect with people gathered around the table simply because of who I am, rather than what I do.

The last point is important enough to repeat – being a guest gives us an opportunity to connect with other people because of who we are.  If we are always the one hosting and serving, it becomes very easy to rely on our ability to DO things for other people as our confidence in making meaningful connections.  There is something raw and beautiful and vulnerable and necessary in experiencing the slight (or not so slight) discomfort of letting other people get-to-know us even when we aren’t doing something tangible for them.

I believe that this is a significant way that we connect to the delight God feels for us because of who we are – his beloved creation.  The pleasure of a father who’s love is never-ending and never-changing regardless of what we do, or don’t do.

If you are reading this because you love to practice hospitality, I hope you have many, many opportunities to be a guest at someone’s table.  A practice that completes the circle of loveliness created by our passions for hospitality, community, and meaningful living – by connecting to an awareness of the value of who we are, not just the beauty of what we do.

 

 

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