Cheesy Ham-and-Potato Casserole

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I’m not a “food blogger”, but here is a great recipe I wanted to share anyway.  If what you’re craving is a simple, homey, soul-warming meal on a chilly fall evening, then look no further!  This cheesy ham casserole is the very definition of comfort food.  It can fill up the hungriest bellies, ease the worst of days, and maybe even provide some great leftovers for the rest of the week (that is, if you can manage to leave any for tomorrow!).  I usually can’t stop at any fewer than two big helpings of this stuff, and not just because I’m pregnant, although I’d love to use that as an excuse.

The great thing about this recipe (besides the awesome stick-to-your-ribs taste) is that it uses fairly common ingredients that many of us keep stocked up all the time.  Ham, potatoes, onion, milk, cheese…pretty much staples in our house, anyway!  I use the thick pre-cooked ham steaks for this recipe.  For potatoes, whatever type you have or like, although I’m partial to the red ones.  Most people probably prefer them to be peeled, but whatever your crowd likes is allllllright.

Probably the most time-consuming part of this recipe is the chopping of ingredients and making the cream sauce.  Hey, busy folks, no judgment here—if you want to sub in a couple of cans of cream-of-onion-or-whatever-soup you have in the pantry, I imagine it would taste just about as good!  I do adore the way this creamy from-scratch mixture blends in and soaks the potatoes in its yummy flavor, so if you have the time, I’d highly recommend trying it.  It really only adds about ten extra minutes onto the total prep time.

Once your creamy onion sauce has a nice thick texture, you’re ready to layer everything how you like it, then bake!

Here’s what you’ll need:

3 tbsp butter

1 c minced onion

3 tbsp all-purpose flour (or cornstarch for gluten-free prep)

1 tsp salt

Few twists freshly ground black pepper

1 ½ cups milk

4 medium potatoes, sliced thin

2-3 c cooked, diced ham

1-2 cups chopped fresh or frozen spinach, kale or broccoli (or vegetable of choice)

1 c shredded cheddar cheese

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375. (Many commenters on cooks.com suggested 425 degrees instead, so the potatoes will fully cook in the time suggested.) Melt butter in medium saucepan.  Add onion and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes.  Stir in flour, salt and pepper until blended.  (Be careful not to scorch.)  Gradually stir in milk.  Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture boils and thickens.  (It should eventually resemble a creamy soup.)
  1. If using fresh greens, simply chop or tear them and sprinkle in among the layers. If using frozen veggies, let them thaw a bit at room temp (or microwave a minute or so) and pat dry. *This is an easy ingredient to omit if you are feeding pickier eaters; however, if you can sneak even a little bit in there, you’ll feel a lot better about the nutritional value of the dish!  Even my toddler, who shuns almost everything green, gobbled this up, broccoli included.   There’s so much creamy cheesiness that they’ll hardly mind the healthy stuff!
  1. In a 2-quart casserole dish, layer half the potatoes, vegetables, ham cubes, and sauce. Repeat layers and sprinkle with cheese. Bake, covered with foil, for 45 minutes.  Uncover and bake 15-20 minutes longer or until potatoes are tender and top is golden brown.  Makes 4-6 servings.

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I forgot to include a picture of the pan right out of the oven, so try to picture it with a nice golden-brown cheesy crust!

*Feel free to use different varieties of cheese to change up the flavor.  We’re partial to Cabot extra-sharp cheddar at our house!

*Lower-fat options: use reduced-fat cheese (or less of it), lessen the amount of butter in the onion mix, use skim or lower-fat milk.  I can’t vouch for the taste results, but play with the ingredients and quantities and see what fits your needs.

This recipe has been adapted from cooks.com.

Seeking the applause

I’m a pretty shy person.  When I tell students that, they always look a little shocked and say, “But you’re a teacher!”  I know, as a teacher I have to stand up in front of groups of people every single day and speak and lead.  This is why I was so hesitant to go into teaching in the first place.  Fortunately, I eventually discovered that once you know your students, teaching is not the same as public speaking.  It’s building relationships with students through the material, so once I get beyond those initial days of new classes each fall, the fear and shyness usually subside.

Being an introvert, I don’t particularly enjoy the spotlight.  I don’t want people looking at me for any prolonged amount of time.  I don’t like talking on a loudspeaker, for instance, or dancing in a silly video of all the teachers that the whole school will see.  I read some verses once at my church one Sunday, and the entire week prior to that day, I felt so anxious about it, worrying over what I would wear and whether my voice would sound weird. (I know, right?  As if anyone there would care.)

However, I’m starting to realize that there are certain situations in which I actually want to be recognized.  When it comes to an area where I feel skilled or qualified, I crave some attention.  While I don’t necessarily handle praise very well at times, I still desire that recognition.  I grew up doing all kinds of music–piano, flute, and singing–and I sometimes miss the praise I would receive after a successful performance.

There aren’t so many opportunities for me to sing for an audience anymore.  I sang many national anthems at the high school where I teach, kicking off their basketball games each winter.  Hearing my voice ring out powerfully through the gym gave me a sort of thrill.  I also used to sing solos at my old church, and even though my body trembled with fear each time, it was always one of those “glad-I-did-it-now-that-it’s over” situations.  I liked it when fellow congregants came up to me and told me they loved my song or that it moved them to worship.  I loved it when my then-boyfriend (now husband) said my voice gave him goosebumps and made him want to cry.  I loved feeling like I was truly good at something.

Being a grown-up with a more realistically attainable job than that of professional musician, I find myself missing the days when I could have my own tiny piece of the spotlight.  Yes, nerves were always a factor, but that anxiety was tempered by the confidence in my ability to sing, along with the pure joy it brought me.

Nowadays I feel a bit left out when I’m not asked to sing for events or groups.  I feel like I’ve lost that part of who I am, and the people who don’t know that I sing and play the piano have an incomplete picture of me.  It’s like they don’t really know me.  Even though my performing days are gone for now (other than singing silly songs for my son), I still think of myself as a singer.  Just the other day, the song “Someone to Watch Over Me” popped into my head, and nostalgia hit as I recalled how many times I used that piece for local theater auditions.

Music isn’t the only arena where I feel like I’ve lost a piece of myself over the years.  Maybe it’s partly because our society is set up to praise youth and their accomplishments.  Just take a look at the constant awards ceremonies that parents today are asked to attend for their kids.  You get a trophy for practically everything when you’re young.  (Kindergarten graduation?  Okay, I know the kids must look super-cute in their caps and gowns, but still.  Really?)

I always felt accomplished in running, in music, in writing, and let those things provide me with a false sense of who I was.  I was special because I was good at those things.  Yeah, I did work hard at times, but much of the time, I just enjoyed cultivating my natural abilities.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the pride and satisfaction of a job well done.  Yet, how dangerous it can be when we let our abilities and accomplishments cloud our perceptions of who we truly are.  Yeah, this is where I’m going to get “spiritual”.  I think that gradually,  I’m learning again to rest in who I am in Christ.  It’s an ongoing process, one that can be painfully eye-opening.  I remember a similar adjustment as a freshman in college, and again as I entered the workforce.  We all search desperately for a place to belong, a place to feel talented and valuable and significant.  Perhaps the saddest part of this is that so many are trapped in that never-ending cycle of strive, strive, strive to be the best, which apart from God, doesn’t lead to satisfaction at all.  It leads to disillusionment.  I do believe that only in Christ can we find our true identity.

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.  Neither death, nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below–indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8:38-39, NLT

“But now, this is what the Lord says–he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”–Isaiah 43:1, NIV

What an awesome reassurance!  Even if I built up an incredible list of accomplishments throughout my life, the euphoria wouldn’t last.  It wouldn’t be enough.  It wouldn’t bring lasting peace and joy.  What I need is to know whose I am.  I don’t deserve anyone’s applause, but I’ll take what Jesus is offering–perfect, unconditional love that will never fade or disappear.

Sugar fast–birthday

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Let’s just start this post off with the happy truth: I’m most definitely NOT giving up sugar for my birthday.

My so-called sugar fast has been going great (it’s not even an actual sugar fast, just a buying-candy fast).  I started it back in mid-April and have only bought candy twice since then.  If you are my friend Taryn or if you’ve known me for more than, like, five minutes, you recognize this as a tremendous improvement.  I love candy so much and was known to be crazy obsessed with it at times.

But I’ve been much better about it.  Occasionally I get a few pieces of candy from someone (such as my boss at our monthly faculty meetings), but overall I have been avoiding it.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Out of my house, stays out of my tummy.

So here I am to say that this week, I’m taking a little hiatus from my candy-purchasing embargo.  My birthday is this Tuesday, so I’m going to be a little extra indulgent towards my sweet tooth.  Some say that’s one of the keys to sticking with many diet or lifestyle changes–allow yourself the occasional controlled “cheat” day or meal, and then keeping to your improved lifestyle will be much easier.

Thank you to the Foreign Candy Company for supplying my school’s foreign-language club with Bon-Bons, these delightful little chewy fruit candies that the students just go nuts over.  They arrived on Friday, just in time for my birthday week, and yep, I broke my rule that day to get myself a bag of strawberry-flavored treats!  I honestly worried that they might sell out by midweek, as popular as they are with the kids here.  That package was tasty, and I don’t feel the need to stock up on bags and bags of it or anything.

Anyway, I am looking forward to enjoying a little break from my rule, and just enjoyed a delectable Ghirardelli chocolate…mmm! I will gladly return to abstaining from candy-buying by the end of this week, though.  (My hubby asked, only partly in jest, if I’m also going to drop my rule for Halloween week, Thanksgiving week, Christmas, etc.).  Ha!  Nope!  I really don’t think I will.   Maybe once a month I’ll give myself a free pass, but no more than that.  I’m excited by how much less I crave the stuff compared to before, and how much more I savor the candy treats I get now that they’re so much rarer.  Now, they are an actual treat!  Plus, once the other school-group candy fundraisers begin, I have an excuse for saying no!

Good luck to you with whatever your goals may be, readers.  Keep on pluggin’ away!

Beyond comfortable

So I’m on currently on a “put myself in uncomfortable situations” kick.  Not sure what brought this on, but twice now in a week I’ve willingly done something that makes me feel…awkward.  Anxious.  Out of place.

First was the staff dance that teachers and other adults in my school perform every year at the Homecoming assembly.  Yeah, I’m not big on dancing-at least not in that situation.  I’m all for shakin’ it on the dance floor at a wedding, but the teacher dance has always been an activity I avoid like the plague.  Making a fool of myself in front of the whole student body is not my thing.  I figure, I probably embarrass myself unintentionally during class at least once a day anyway, so why add to the humiliation by doing so on purpose?

It was so sweet being on maternity leave last year at Homecoming time, so I didn’t have to deal with it at all.  Almost every other year of my career, I was in charge of Student Council, which meant I was basically in charge of ALL of Homecoming.  I figured that, plus fall cross-country coaching, should excuse me from pressure to participate in anything else.

Anyway…back to the point.  I’m attempting to do the teacher dance this year.  I still, admittedly, have zero desire to do it, but here are a few reasons that override what I want.

Sometimes, as teachers, it’s good to let students see our goofy side.  It opens up conversation and builds connections.  Plus, I’m no longer a coach or club sponsor, so I do feel I ought to be involved in something in the Homecoming festivities.  And the biggest reason for making a fool of myself  in a dance routine?  It’s important to step outside of our “comfort zone” once in awhile.  Students are required to do stuff they hate, stuff that doesn’t interest them, stuff that terrifies them, on a regular basis.  Some are uncomfortable with reading, or group work, or tests, or speeches, or artwork, but they have to try all of these at one point or another.  Everybody has to go along with something they dislike from time to time, whether for work or relationships or general life-sustenance.

Doing this dance is my feeble attempt to show students that they shouldn’t be content just doing what comes easily or naturally to them.  There’s value and purpose in venturing beyond those things.  You never know where that first step into uncharted territory may lead.  You might discover a hidden talent or passion.  You might create a new friendship.  You might gain opportunities you never even knew existed.

For me, this is just one brief dance routine with coworkers, which I don’t expect to enjoy, but it’s yet another tiny step towards a braver me.  Heck, I was petrified of public speaking when I began teaching, but I did it anyway.  I found that once I got to know the kids, it wasn’t public speaking at all.  It was simply sharing subjects I love with others.  It still scares me an awful lot, but that’s nothing compared to the fear I had thirteen years ago.  There have been some rather amazing experiences and moments with my students.  Having the courage to face my fears is what brought me into those magical moments.

So, even if I look like Elaine from Seinfeld when we perform in a few weeks, it’ll be okay.  I’ll know why I’m doing it, and I’ll attempt to hold on to a shred of dignity (but I confess, I plan to be well-disguised the second we step onto that gym floor!).

Here’s to trying what isn’t easy!  After all, how many worthwhile things in life ever are?

First night in Haiti

After over a year of serious planning (plus a number of years before that during which the dream took root in my heart), I was actually there.

In Haiti.

The real Haiti, the one that conjures images of dirt and orphanages and voodoo and poverty and primitive living.  Images that are, sadly, all too accurate.

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It was absolutely surreal.  I couldn’t believe I was really there, seeing the thatched-roof huts and middle-aged women peddling bananas and paintings and trinkets on the roadside.  Orphans swarming around my legs like puppies clamoring for attention.

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And yet, despite the crazy knowledge that I was fulfilling a lifelong dream, in a way, it all felt rather…mundane.

I had such romanticized notions of how Haiti would be, how inspirational and heartbreaking and life-altering the experience would be for me.  I had raised support from my church family in order to go, labeling it a “mission trip” and feeling rather noble.

But then I arrived in Port-au-Prince.  My friend and I maneuvered our way through the hectic airport, met up with the orphanage staff that had picked us up, traversed bumpy dirt roads for an hour and a half in a hot, dusty Jeep, and at last arrived.  This orphanage would be our home for two and a half weeks.  Just a blip in our lives, really, but at this moment, it felt like it would be a lo-o-o-ong stay. Suddenly I no longer felt equipped to handle the physical demands or the emotional aspects of volunteering with orphans.

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The kids were soooooooo freaking adorable.  When we first stepped into the nursery, dozens of babies and toddlers met us, faces streaked with snot and dirt, reaching up grubby hands to  be held.  Heart-wrenching.  Precious.  Also kind of terrifying, truth be told.

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Who was I to do anything for these children?  Yes, I could spend a few weeks with them, playing and singing and snuggling, but then I would return to my comfortable life and they would be left here awaiting adoption.  This particular orphanage is run in a very efficient and loving manner, and every effort is made to care for the children as well as get them adopted by loving families as soon as possible.  But given the nature of international adoption and the mountains of paperwork and money required to accomplish this, it takes time.   So my purpose there was to love the kids for a short period of time as a way of bridging the gap between their arrival at the orphanage and their eventual placement with an adoptive family.

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I’m ashamed to admit this next part.

That first night in Haiti, I regretted ever coming there.  I wanted my own bed, my own hot shower, my own home, and everything familiar and comfortable.  I didn’t want to be in Haiti, sharing bunk beds and showering only every other day for ninety seconds, living with a bunch of other volunteers who were undoubtedly better with children than I was.

I was a fraud.

I had traveled all this way, planned for all these months, and now all I wanted was for it to be over.  I wasn’t cut out for this type of service.  I felt like more of a baby than the kids I was assigned to love.

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See her bewildered expression?  That’s pretty much how I felt that first night.

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I’ll return to this story in upcoming posts, but for today, I want to leave you with this thought:  When have you struggled with unmet expectations, particularly when you’ve disappointed yourself?  How do you deal with that kick in the gut, the realization that you may not be all you thought you were?  Do you back away in fear, never to face those situations again?

Or do you persevere, allowing Christ to be the strength you lack?

When we fear good news…

I made a big announcement on Facebook last week.  We’ve all seen them done in a variety of ways, some silly, some cute, some serious.  It’s the pregnancy announcement.

Hubby and I are expecting our second little one in February!  I took a photo of a little onesie we bought that said “lil cheese curd” ( my husband is a Wisconsinite) and posted it the other day.

While we are certainly very excited–we love our boy to bits and we always knew we’d want him to have a sibling–it’s also a bit of an anxiety-producer.

For those of us who have lost a child to miscarriage, this happy news can be tinged with doubt. Anxiety.  The fear of the unthinkable happening again.  Will this pregnancy end with a healthy child, or with heart-wrenching loss and emptiness?

Opening yourself up to the risks of carrying a child again can be frightening.  We were really fortunate in that after our second miscarriage, we saw an endocrinologist who ran just about every kind of test possible to narrow down the problem, and it was an easy fix.  No major interventions or surgeries needed; I just had low hormone levels and took supplements.  Knowing so many couples who have gone through much worse to try and have children, sometimes ending with empty arms after years of struggles, I felt so lucky that in our case, we were likely to have no more early-pregnancy losses.

Even so, the first trimester with our son was terrifying.  We told no one of the pregnancy, wanting to spare them the pain of a possible loss (and ourselves the pain of having to tell everyone sad news again).  We went to my specialist once a week for blood tests to check the hormone levels and for ultrasounds.  Let me tell you, those weekly visits were an enormous comfort, but at the same time, the scariest part of our lives at that time.  Every week, the night before the appointment, I would begin to worry.  I had gone through ultrasounds before when the doctor was silent, and I knew that terrible silence meant there was no heartbeat.  We were hopeful that everything would be fine with this baby due to the supplements, but no longer able to take a happy-go-lucky attitude about it.  Every week I was preparing myself  for another silent ultrasound, another surgery, another case of dashed hopes.

I suppose I could say that each week, the stress was alleviated slightly.  As we passed the seven-and-a-half week mark, when I had lost both of our other babies, our hopes grew.  The fears grew as well, but the closer we got to trimester two, the calmer our hearts became.  The endocrinologist empathized well with us, having experienced such losses himself with his wife.  He always told me, “You won’t truly relax until there’s a baby keeping you up at night.”  How right he was.  Our worries lessened after the first thirteen weeks, but we were still plagued by uncertainty.  We didn’t tell any family or friends until safely into the second trimester, and I think even then we still lacked some of the sheer joy and excitement we had exuded when we’d announced our first pregnancy.  We had learned caution.  Sadly, the miscarriages had robbed us of some of the happiness we should have enjoyed throughout the whole process.

Praise God, our son was born full-term, perfectly healthy, fifteen months ago today, and is the ultimate joy of our lives.  I won’t say that we love or appreciate him any more because of the losses we suffered before him–I think that’s unfair to parents who had so-called “easy” pregnancies and births.  Those parents don’t love their children any less than we do.  But we are mindful of the road we took to bringing him home, and when we think of that, we are so grateful.

Just over a year later, we learned there was to be a sibling.  Now, you’d think that after my pregnancy with Liam was so successful, we would have been totally relaxed this time around.  After all, we had pinpointed the issue and everything was fine with him, so why wouldn’t this baby be fine?  I don’t know; I just know that I panicked a little and called my doctors immediately and pushed them to get me supplemented right away.  I couldn’t fully enjoy the great news until I felt we were out of danger.  My husband was more rational and calm, thankfully, and helped me to trust God and what we knew to be true.

Still, we waited a few more weeks before telling anyone the news.  We have been much more confident this time, telling some family at seven weeks and others over the next several weeks.  We know there are always some risks, and things don’t always go the way we plan, but we’ve been able to enjoy sharing our good news with our loved ones as we visited them this summer.

The next big step was to tell the Facebook world.  While it’s not as important as our families, of course, the scary part is how public it is.  Many people will know once you post it on social media, and many more will find out from those people.  There is no stopping the news/ gossip once you’ve shared it online.  Nate was fine with it, but I hesitated for days before making my announcement.  In my mind, there was always that tiny voice of doubt taunting, “This might not work out the way you want it to.”  Whether that’s the evil one or just common sense, I don’t want to listen to it anymore.  I finally decided it was time to take a step of faith and share our good news.

Now, everyone in our lives knows there is a baby on the way.  The only people I haven’t told are my students, but we just started school and I’m sure they’ll figure it out pretty quickly, anyway.  I still experience little moments of weakness, worrying that something may go wrong.  Most of the time, though, I’m able to trust that God knows what He’s doing and He is always doing good.

I don’t know if everyone experiences this kind of fear when good news strikes them.  I feel like it must be fairly common, though.  We don’t want too much good in our lives for fear of it being taken away, just as it happened to Job.  I hope that you and I will keep learning to hold on to Jesus, knowing that yes, all our earthly joys are ultimately temporary, but that doesn’t mean we don’t embrace each piece of good news with sheer joy and thankfulness.

 

 

Naptime

Work out?  Write? Take a nap?  Read a book? Wash windows?  Play on facebook?  Organize stuff for the garage sale?

So many options run through my head every day when naptime hits!  It’s always a debate over how to spend that one-and-a-half to two hours in the afternoons while my precious little one sleeps.  I love him so much and have so much fun playing with him the rest of the day, but that midday time when he finally lays down for his nap is a much-needed break for me. 

It’s much easier now than when he was a newborn, of course.  In those days, we were so exhausted as new parents that most of his naptimes were devoted to a nap for ourselves (or food)!  Occasionally there would be enough time left for a shower as well.  Now there’s still a sense of pressure every time the little one sleeps–what should I do with my brief time off from being a mama?  It’s so hard to decide sometimes, and then all too soon, naptime is over. 

It’s frustrating because I never seem to get through everything that needs to be done.  Most days it seems like I just barely get started on a task and then he wakes up again.  The upside is that now I’m usually much more efficient with my “free” time than I ever used to be.  I can get stuff done much more quickly than in those pre-parenting days. 

Parents, you all understand about prioritizing all your tasks to be done! I wish you all good luck and happy naptimes!