Lamb Chili

Fancy, right? I made (NOT NEARLY ENOUGH) of this for my Catechism reading group last week and I realized something: if you use lamb in anything, even the most homely of dishes, people think you’re fancy. I’m guessing this is probably only true in the states, where giant cows are somehow less extravagant than tiny low-environmental-impact animals, but lets take advantage anyway.

I picked up ground lamb at the store with dreams of these baked kebabs my friend Emily made years ago after returning from a trip to Israel with spices I had never heard of. But reality set in when I got home and didn’t even know what those spices were, let alone own them. However, I did have beans, tomatoes, boring regular spices, and a dinner to host. So this happened. And I am glad it did. The lamb didn’t disappear behind the spices as I feared it might. It brings something very different to the whole chili situation than beef does, adding an unexpected flare to the experience. So fance it up with some lamb chili!

I’m going to be completely honest with you: chili is my improv territory. I never know what’s going to happen when I start making it and my “recipes” are generally written from memory the next day. So this is that. Plus I don’t even have any photos for you. And I call this a blog. But people asked for the recipe, so I thought it was worth sharing. Here’s a mental image, if you won’t make things you can’t see on the internet: it looks like chili. 

Lamb Chili

Ingredients

  • 1-11/2 lbs ground lamb
  • 2 cans diced tomato (I used one fire roasted with green chilies and one plain)
  • 1 can pinto beans
  • 1 can kidney beans
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can garbanzo beans
  • 1 can or bottle of beer (go cheap, it doesn’t really matter)
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 lime
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2-21/2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 11/2 Tbsp cumin
  • 11/2 Tbsp coriander
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • pinch allspice
  • salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Dice the onion and cook in a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt over medium heat until it begins to caramelize.
  2. When the onions start to look dry, add the can of beer and deglaze the pan.
  3. Stir in the garlic (minced) and keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until the beer is reduced by half.
  4. Add the ground lamb and stir it around until its broken up, taking on color, and the onions are evenly distributed.
  5. Mix in the spices.
  6. Add the tomatoes and beans, and keep stirring occasionally.
  7. Allow the chili to simmer for at least twenty minutes, then take a taste and add additional spices if it seems necessary. I started with just 1 Tbsp of cumin and coriander, but decided it could use more. If you’re into spice, I would definitely add more cayenne.
  8. Add the lime juice last.
  9. Serve with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream or yogurt or sliced green onion or whatever you want.
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A SOCRG Surprise

So, I have around eight posts half-finished about recent dinners, a birthday, people I must mention, a manly baby shower, and eggplants that I really need to complete and post for your probable/hopeful/demanded enjoyment. However, something occurred last night which needs to be written of immediately. So, here it is.

I’ve mentioned SOCRG before. They’re the Catechism reading group I started a little over two years ago, which has grown and grown and become very important to me and most likely to them as well. Last night was Wednesday night (as you may recall), and thus was also a SOCRG evening. Other SOCRGers have been hosting a lot lately, which has been great, but this week we were back at my house. I decided to make one of my favorite soups in honor of last weekend’s weather (which was tragically a fall false-start—something with which all Texans are familiar). I also decided to be snotty and warn SOCRG that they’d be left to their own devices in the living room if they came at a proposed 6:30pm instead of the typical 7:00pm, which spooked most of them into arriving closer to 7:00pm and avoiding the kitchen like the rabid cook’s den it had become. Just rude of me, I know. Truly uncharitable, as my first thought was that I’m the only one with a regular ol’ 9-5, might not have enough soup time, wah, wah, etc. Take this as a warning: resist self-pity or you’ll feel like a real asshole when something like I’m about to describe occurs.

So, I made my soup—this time with some rosemary, balsamic, crimini mushroom flourish—imperiously directed John to carry it into the living room, opened a beer, and was eying all the bread (and DESSERTS) everyone had kindly brought as we settled from our general milling about and talking to somewhat quieter anticipation of dinner. I did the loud, “okay,” and Miriel made the mistake of helping to shush and gather attention and was duly forced to pray for our meal and time together. I remember noting that her prayer was particularly heart-felt and touching before we all joined her in praying grace. That done, I started turning to the soup BUT was stopped by Ryan saying I don’t even remember what. That’s when I noticed everyone was looking at me with the same knowing look and casually tried to hide behind a door post. DeAnn told me I might want to sit down, and then several members of the group beautifully expressed what SOCRG has meant to them and thanked me for starting it.

Ryan, saying nice stuff.

DeAnn, making me uncomfortable.

Ryan blamed his conversion on it; DeAnn remembered the early days and remarked on SOCRG’s homelike qualities; Andrea and Miriel expressed their gratitude at being welcomed, and finding true community here. At this point I was trying not to cry (which I found later what the major goal of the evening). I mainly succeeded, just barely, much to these kind people’s frustration. Then, Luke read a poem he had written just for the occasion, which was delightful.

Luke, reading his poem.

And the freakouts did not stop there. Andrea presented me with a gift from the group that I very awkwardly started to open while everyone stared at me. She had handmade a beautiful card with herbs painted all over it, in which DeAnn had written the kindest things possible, and everyone had signed.

Looking awkward as everyone stares at me.

Then I rooted around in the gift bag and saw a box with this symbol on it:

I had a distinct fight or flight kind of emotion and just said, “no,” as all the blood drained from my face. They had given me the best knife in the entire world (Wusthof Classic line, all one piece, forged, etc.), that knife’s lil’ baby cousin (of the same quality), a Wusthof cutting board, and a honing contraption. FOR NO REASON. I mean, for lots of reasons they stated, but no distinct occasion. Just ‘cause. They had been emailing and planning it for almost a month—ever since the second SOCRGversary.

Excuse the Instagram pic; this is my only closeup of the knives.

And it wasn’t over. Ryan then stepped out and got his guitar and harmonica. He had written a song about SOCRG. So, he played it for everyone while I tried to control the weird expressions my face was making.

No, I won’t stop holding presents to listen to this song.

It was wonderful. The verses were funny and specific—about our foods and craft beers and things people have said and topics to avoid in the group. My favorite verse goes as follows: “Now we’ve got Thomists and poets, / Franciscans and Koreans, fathers and mothers to be, / And they all disagree. That’s the beauty.” When he got to the chorus, everyone started singing! They had practiced and memorized the whole thing. It was so bizarre. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’m still feeling a bit shell-shocked from it the next day.

There is something about this group that is unlike any other community I’ve been a part of. After we had eaten soup, listened to Clifton’s conversion story, discussed purgatory, tried Andrea’s best-cookies-in-the-universe (chocolate chip with browned butter, Nutella centers, and sea salt), Clifton’s delicious pralines (pecan, bourbon, brown sugar treats), Alli’s epitome-of-fall baked apples, and many had dispersed, a few stragglers and I discussed what makes SOCRG so special. The conclusion we generally came to is that SOCRG is community in its proper place. This doesn’t just mean that we have a proper amount of small group self-revelation or something—though I think we’re right on target for that. It means that the center and lifeblood (literally) of our faith is found in the Mass, and thus SOCRG cannot have a primary or necessary role in our experience of the Church. This certainly does not make SOCRG less important; it just makes it what it is: a community of personal friends joined by affection, shared beliefs, and a communal task. “Church has got to be more than that. As Flannery O’Connor said, if the Church isn’t more than that it turns into an Elks Club; in which case an Elks club would serve just as well.

As an adolescent (a period which I believe for me ended in 2009/2010), my friends were my only understanding of the Church. Trying to separate my faith, or even my personhood, from the people I was close to was a pretty impossible mental exercise that I never even tried. This might sound like a good thing to people who value community, but that’s wrong (wrong, wrong). When the group I was a part of after college disintegrated—moved away or no longer a part of my life for various reasons—I was left with what felt like absolutely nothing (and pretty much was—at this point I was living on the life-saving Moore’s futon). It was like I had never been alone with myself before, and I had to face how much less of me there was than I had believed when surrounded by a variety of shared identities. (This is related to my previous post about what we build our lives with.) Yet, I was also surprised by what remained. When day-dreaming about catastrophe in the past I could never have imagined how much I lost in 2010. Yet, when I had lost it, I survived. I didn’t just implode and die—unable to go on without the structures of relationship I had had before. So, I staggered toward the stuff of substance that remained; which is really how SOCRG started.

Anyway (excuse the most personal post of my life), the point is that that won’t happen with SOCRG. It just can’t, by nature. If SOCRG dissolved this instant it wouldn’t rock any of our self-conceptions. It just doesn’t bear that much improper weight. Despite the clear obsession, celebratory song, etc., SOCRG’s focus is not on SOCRG. We don’t just meet to catch up or eat food, we meet in order to learn and conform ourselves to the teachings of the Church. This happened in each of us before SOCRG was a stupid email subject acronym and will continue long after SOCRG is a distant (hopefully pleasant) memory. The very first time SOCRG even became self-aware was after over a year of weekly meetings. And during our first group-self-aware conversation, DeAnn talked beautifully about the grace God conveys through bringing a group of people together and then inevitably sending them apart again. The work we do is hopefully permanent; the group itself definitely isn’t.

So, SOCRG: thank you. Not just for your insane generosity in giving me the material good I have wanted most in the world, but for teaching me what community actually is: just one of the means of our sanctification. Let’s never allow our meals together to pretend to be anything other than an echo of our true unity in the Eucharist.

Soup recipe to come!

Feast of the Assumption

So, Catholics have these things called holy days of obligation. They are days that not only commemorate but participate in certain events or people in the history of the Church that are so important they obligate us to attend to them every year. Every single Sunday is a holy day of obligation, participating in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ (which is why it’s such a big deal to miss Mass). Several weeks ago we had one for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Rude of you to wonder why it takes so long for me to write about things). The Assumption celebrates our belief that when Mary’s life on earth was over she was assumed by God, body and soul, into Heaven. This is one of the Catholic Church’s four Marian doctrines that freak Protestants out—one part of “oh, you know, all that Mary stuff” which prevents interested Protestants from converting. (Though, in my experience, most people who say that have never heard of the Assumption and are referring to a vague idea that Catholics worship Mary. At least that’s all I meant when I said it years back.)

Traditionally, people bring herbs and fruits into the church to be blessed on the Assumption. Sidenote: I love getting things blessed, and I don’t care who knows it. When my old priest told me he was going to be blessing animals a couple years ago I excitedly told him I’d bring Bunny (my rabbit, full name: Lyonet Cordelia Bunny). He chuckled, rather rudely I think, and told me that pet blessings are usually just for kids. Psh. I’ll take as many blessings as I can get—and I’ll try anything to curb Bunny’s wayward, litter-kicking nature.

So, when my friends told me that a local church was having a blessing before their vigil Mass, I was all over it. Which is of course to say that I dutifully brought fruit and herbs to work so I could go straight to the blessing…then got there late and missed my opportunity to bring my produce up with the other children. Luckily a friend brought extra plants, so I scored some blessed basil, thyme, and sage—which are currently living blessed lives in a window box outside my backdoor. Well, except the thyme. Blessed or not, I have already managed to kill the thyme.

I caught most of the blessing, which was beautiful. A lot of parishes don’t do the Assumption blessing of fruits and herbs anymore, and I think that’s lame. I love how the life of the Church interacts with, incorporates, and expounds the life and rhythms of the natural world. Here are two of my favorite prayers from the blessing:

Let us pray. Almighty everlasting God, who by your word alone brought into being the heavens, earth, sea, things seen and things unseen, and garnished the earth with plants and trees for the use of man and beast; who appointed each species to bring forth fruit in its kind, not only for the food of living creatures, but for the healing of sick bodies as well; with mind and word we urgently call on you in your great kindness to bless these various herbs and fruits, thus increasing their natural powers with the newly given grace of your blessing. May they keep away disease and adversity from men and beasts who use them in your name; through Christ our Lord.

Let us pray. God, who on this day raised up to highest heaven the rod of Jesse, the Mother of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that by her prayers and patronage you might communicate to our mortal nature the fruit of her womb, your very Son; we humbly implore you to help us use these fruits of the soil for our temporal and everlasting welfare, aided by the power of your Son and the prayers of His glorious Mother; through Christ our Lord.

How wonderful. Even our plants can be latched onto the movement of grace manifest in Mary and Christ. Traditions and blessings like this make me aware of how rich our experience of the natural world can be if we allow and pursue it. Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur” and all that.

Instead of these pleasant thoughts, though, my catechism reading group (SOCRG) ended up discussing what the Assumption reveals about the nature of death rather than the nature of Mary when we met to celebrate the feast. We discussed whether or not Mary died when she was assumed. We couldn’t quite determine what it would mean to be assumed without death—her body being separated from her soul? It seems most people assume (sorry) that Mary died (the Orthodox call the feast the Dormition of the Theotokos), but the Catechism is fairly ambiguous on the point.

We all generally agreed that it doesn’t really matter one way or another; as far as Mary’s perfect obedience, holiness, requiring of our hyperdulia, etc., goes. But we (or at least most of us) were intrigued by the implications of a death vs. no death Assumption has for…you know, death—and original sin, and Mary’s set-apartedness, among other things. Did God grant Mary the grace of never having to die—as a second Eve who without original sin would not have died? OR, did God grant Mary the grace of following her Son through death, as she was not able to do during her sorrows at the foot of the cross? Or does none of that even apply to a bodily assumption, which might inherently include death? One of us suggested Mary might have desired to follow her Son even through death and God might have granted that desire as a grace. I suggested that death sucks—taking issue with death as a grace, rather than an evil which has been turned to good. Tangents included the development of doctrine, as necessarily hierarchical but not in a way which makes older doctrines better than what’s going on now, Marian hymns, Christ’s crucifixion being the apex of Mary’s suffering (as opposed to her own death), and a lot of other things as usual. We also talked about Sister Act. So, it was a good night.

We ordered pizza so everyone could go to Mass before dinner (holy day of obligation and all), so there are no recipes to share. I realize that this blog has gotten far too heavy on DIY theology and far too light on recipe sharing, but that is all to change soon!

Feast of the Annunciation

Aside from the freedom to read teen fiction and bake bread, the best part of my return to real post-Thesis life is the resumption of normal SOCRG meetings. Super Official Catechism Reading Group (which is in no way official) began almost two years ago when I emailed every Catholic or almost-Catholic person I knew in Waco and asked if they felt like reading the Catechism with me. I had recently reverted to the Catholic Church and craved Catechesis, but RCIA wasn’t quite what I needed and reading the Catechism on my own seemed daunting. There were a surprising number of Catholic students in my Baptist university graduate program, so I thought I’d just throw the idea of a reading group out there.
 
Somewhat surprisingly, every single Catholic/almost-Catholic was interested. Two years later we are still gathering once a week to eat a delicious meal, drink good drinks, and discuss any aspects of our faith that we have been struggling with or thinking about in the context of applicable sections of the Catechism—which we read aloud. We now have members spanning several departments, with all kinds of backgrounds, some married, some with children, some single, with a dozen year age span. We have become a strange, familial group in which there is much ruckus and arguing, but all in the spirit of faith seeking understanding. SOCRG is not a place to play with ideas, but to truly be transformed by our engagement with and conformity to the teachings of the Church. Members have sponsored catechumens in the group through Confirmation, we have celebrated the Baptism of SOCRG babies, and I at least have seen my assumptions about the world be increasingly formed by Catholic truth. I have never been a part of a group so devoted to sanctification, so ready to put the occasionally abstract ideas of our faith into practice, on the ground. With humor and grace and the utmost snarkiness. It’s basically the best thing about me.
 
So, missing SOCRG for about a month during Thesis-hell was just the worst. The very worst. I suppose this absence has made Lent feel very Lenten. Who needs memento moris when you’re alone in front of a computer for weeks, feeling like an idiot, missing SOCRG? That’s my question. Anyway, getting to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation in true SOCRG fashion was a wonderful way to return to the living. I took out my print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, we read “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe,” we discussed Mary as Co-redemptrix, we argued, we teased each other, and ate the most delicious potluck feast imaginable.
 
There was bountiful beer and wine, DeAnn made roasted butternut squash, Luke made bacon wrapped jalapenos on a bed of garden-grown arugula, Nathan made the most beautiful salad you’ve ever seen, Wendy made cupcakes. I made my SOCRG standard balsamic roasted pork tenderloin. Oddly, I have cooked more meat during Lent than I did during Ordinary Time because SOCRG meets on Sundays and I feel guilty serving vegetables to fasting meat-lovers on their one day of feasting each week. Obviously, the Annunciation required some serious substance so I made the meatiest meat I really make. Easy and delicious. Here’s the recipe for you:
 
Balsamic Roasted Pork Tenderloin
Ingredients:
    • pork tenderloin (there are usually two tenderloins to each package in the grocery store)
    • balsamic vinegar 
    • olive oil
    • a few Tbsp of chopped rosemary
    • a few Tbsp of chopped lemon thyme

 

  • a few cloves of chopped garlic
  • salt and pepper     

 

Directions:
  1. Chop all of the stuff you’re supposed to chop. Feel free to use any herbs you’ve got growing that go well with pork. I often just use rosemary, but I had the lemon thyme growing–so why not?
  2. Marinate the tenderloin overnight in a giant plastic bag with all of the above ingredients. Use equal parts oil and vinegar–as much as it takes to make sure the meat is covered.
  3. Pre-heat your oven to 425.
  4. Brown the tenderloin on a grill pan heated to medium-high. Don’t try to cook the meat all the way through, just get some pretty grill-marks on there so it doesn’t look like drab dead flesh and transfer to a Pyrex.
  5. Bake in your preheated oven for about 20 minutes, until the internal temperature approaches 150. 
  6. Allow the meat to sit for five minutes before slicing and arranging on a platter. 
  7. Eat.
  8. Eat some more.
  9. Put leftovers on a salad and eat again.
  10. Etc.

Scones!

Meet Lemon Cranberry (left) and Whole Wheat Cinnamon (right)
Seriously, SCONES! This scone recipe is the food MVP of my year. I have made these scones more than any other thing, and with great variety. The possibilities are endless. Lemon cranberry, apple cinnamon, whole wheat rosemary, currants, blueberries, whatever you want! Sweet, savory, breakfast, lunch, dinner. I just don’t get sick of them.
 
There is little I can think of more singularly delightful than a quiet morning with scones, butter, jams, coffee, and a good book. I have my friend DeAnn to thank for those quite mornings this year—or at least the scone part, as she gave me the recipe. It seems like she has to have lived in Waco longer than one year, but I actually barely knew DeAnn when I got this scone recipe. She is now a second year PhD student in Baylor’s English Department, and a reminder that somehow our program has attracted a number of awesome Catholic students.
 
The greatest and only photo of me and DeAnn.  
DeAnn is the source of many delightful things like monk parties, deep-seated faith, steady wisdom, Edith Stein book recommendations, Pope Benedict quotations, a good taste in Saints, a shared enthusiasm for the Sister Act movies, and so on. She SOCRGs, so I’m sure I’ll be mentioning her again. For now I will say that she has been an unlooked for (but much needed) example of a strong, single, Catholic, academic woman living a very full life very well. She is one of the new friends I made this year that remind me I will never stop meeting good, interesting people—even if I do something as terrible as live in Waco, Texas for most of a decade. Anyway, DeAnn is a truly impressive woman for so many reasons other than this scone recipe, but those of you who don’t know her can test out the scones and just imagine how great she must be.
 
I don’t know anything about music, but I imagine that food can be a lot like music. A recipe is like a song. Every rendition is a little different, taking on a unique interpretation in the same way that performance does. I guess that could be like a lot of things; but let’s stick with music. Good recipes can and should be passed around like good songs that each musician puts their own spin on. So, read these notes then perform them as you wish:

Ingredients:
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour 
  • 2 Tbs. sugar 
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda 
  • 2 tsp. baking powder 
  • 1/2 tsp. salt 
  • 1/4 c. butter, cut up 
  • 2/3 c. buttermilk (or, I use plain yogurt) 
  • 1 large egg
 Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 425˚
  2. Grease cookie sheet.
  3. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
  4. With a pastry blender (or fork, let’s be honest), cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.
  5. Beat the egg and yogurt (or whatever) together in a small bowl, then pour onto the dry ingredients and stir with a fork until the mixture comes together. 
  6. Knead the dough 5-6 times on a lightly floured surface, or right in the bowl (is what I do). 
  7. Transfer to the cookie sheet and pat into an 8-inch circle. 
  8. Cut into 8 wedges with a long, sharp knife (not all the way through). 
  9. Bake 15-17 min. until golden. 
  10. Cool on a wire rack.
That is the basic recipe, to which you can add or replace all sorts of things. I’ve never even used buttermilk because I never have it. Instead, I use yogurt which is much more common in my refrigerator. Last time I made scones I had accidentally bought vanilla yogurt instead of plain and they turned out just fine. I’m sure you could only use whole wheat flour and they’d be great! Brush the top with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar before baking and you could have a sweet sugary crust on top! Some of my favorite combinations are as follows:
  • Lemon (or Orange) Cranberry: Toss in a cup of dried cranberries and the zest of one smallish lemon (or orange) after cutting in the butter.
  • Cinnamon Whole Wheat (great with all sorts of jams): Include about 1/2 or 1 Tbs. of cinnamon with the dry ingredients, and replace 1 c. of the all purpose flour with whole wheat.
  • Apple Cinnamon Whole Wheat: Same as above, with half-ish a diced apple stirred in after you cut in the butter.
  • Walnut Rosemary Whole Wheat: Same as above, but including 1/4 c. of chopped walnuts and a Tbs. or two of chopped fresh rosemary instead of cinnamon and apples.
  • Whatever else you’d like. To each his scone, you know? If I ever tell anyone about this blog, you should comment any new versions you try.