Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault

It all started when my wife, Julie, returned to the paid workforce. My kids had been used to home-cooked meals, but her lack of time had them dining on fast food, delivery pizza, and frozen entrees. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a family cooking day that I labeled, “Cooking With Dad Thursday.” My goal was to provide my kids with more than a meal, I wanted to teach them how to cook and have them experience the fellowship of sharing a group-made meal.

The task was multi-faceted. We would plan, shop, cook, and clean up together. Each cooking Thursday culminated with a Facebook post where I would upload a photo of the plated and completed meal. Naturally, I tried to present our dishes in their most favorable light on Facebook. I would always ask my kids, “Reality or Facebook reality?” when I posted the photo in an attempt to emphasize that most things that you see on Facebook are highly curated. Another effect of posting the picture surprised me; friends started to post pictures of their homemade meals. Also, “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” spawned a mini-movement of others preparing real food from scratch.

I grew up eating great food. My mother magically threw things together in the most delicious ways. She didn’t teach us how to cook, but she did write down some of her recipes in a ledger style notebook, which was passed to my brother when she died. Her musings provided her with the information that she needed to remember a recipe but they were incomprehensible to anyone else.

Most of the “Cooking With Dad Thursday” recipes originated from conventional sources. Standard cookbooks like “The Betty Crocker Cookbook,” and “The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook” provided some inspiration, but most of my recipes were procured and printed off of the internet. I have always felt comfortable cooking, as the process is a form of practical chemistry. I have been making meals for decades and can interpret a list of ingredients quickly. Most of the recipes that I selected had to conform to the tastes of my kids and also be essential enough to teach a particular cooking technique. 

Many of the dishes were well-liked by my children and warranted saving, but where? The answer came early in the form of an old and somewhat beaten up school folder from my son William’s elementary days. Its bright orange color made sure that we wouldn’t lose it; all that it needed was a little updating. With a black marker, I scratched out Will’s name on its front, and in a bold and sloppy script, I wrote “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault.” The folder was neither super-secret or a vault, but reality should never stand in the way of a creative process. During any Thursday meal, I would ask the kids, “Is this dish worthy of saving in the vault?” If the answer was yes, I would toss it in the folder. One checkmark indicating pretty good and two checkmarks noting that the dish was excellent. 

Nowadays, my kids can make anything from a savory lasagna to 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. However, they are in college and beyond, causing “Cooking With Dad Thursday” to become a school break activity.

When a door closes, a window opens. With our new empty nest status, Julie and I had to negotiate who would be the meal preparer. In an egalitarian fashion, we decided to split the duty. I’m now the Sunday chief, and so “Cooking With Day Thursday” has evolved into “Simple Sunday Supper.” Julie is a more adventurous eater than the kids, and so I can revisit the culinary memories of my past, including soups, stews, and casseroles. However, she has banned peas from the list of acceptable ingredients. 

My new routine often starts with an internet search for a potential meal candidate. Once printed, I check our larder to see what we have in stock. I’ll highlight any needed purchases directly on the recipe, fold it, and stick it in my pocket to serve as a shopping list. I dislike large stores, and so I’m fortunate to have a little grocer called “Fresh Thyme” just a few blocks away. Although limited in selection, they have all of the basics plus a good meat counter and an excellent fruit and vegetable section. It is a short and easy trip for me to buy any needed ingredients, and the store’s limited selection prevents me from overbuying.

I have also taken over the weekly house cleaning, which I do on Sundays. It is a bit of a balancing act when it comes to time management. However, I’m getting good a juggling these tasks and cooking is hardly a hardship. 

Yesterday I made Italian sausage and lentil soup garnished with a little sour cream and served with chewy ciabatta bread. Total cooking time in my Instant Pot was 25 minutes, and it was the perfect dish for a frigid fall night. Julie gave me a thumbs up on dinner, and so I marked the recipe with two checkmarks. Where did I save it? In “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault,” of course!

The folder is now over two inches thick. It has been loosely divided into categories such as “stovetop,” “oven,” and “Instant Pot.” In that old and now worn-out folder resides years of recipes and memories. It may not have the charm of my mother’s handwritten cookbook, but it is wholly legible and clear. I hope that someday one of my kids will want the collection, and perhaps they will teach their children using some of the recipes that we so lovingly made. The vault may serve as a new tradition as well as a vehicle for my kids to tell their kids about their crazy dad and the food adventures that were spent together.

Traditions don’t have been elaborate, they just have to be. What traditions do you have? 

The old repurposed orange folder.
The vault is over two inches thick representing many dozens of cooking adventures.
I usually post an ingredient shot. Why? Because I think it looks nice.
Last Sunday’s meal. An Italian sausage, lentil soup with chewy ciabatta bread.

Halloween, And First Snow

I heard the weather report on Tuesday. It would snow on Wednesday and Thursday. Not just a little dusting of snow, but 4-6 inches. I felt my heart sink. Thursday was Halloween, and it would be cold and snowing.

I always thought of Halloween as a fun holiday. A day to dress up, be creative, and a bit silly. 

My involvement with the day has changed over the years. When I was single, I often worked late, so I was one of those houses where a doorbell ring yielded little for an expectant trick-or-treater. When Julie entered my life, either one or both of us were at home to pass out candy. Early on, we established the tradition of eating Chinese carry-out on Halloween. A habit that started out of chance, but is now has become an expected event.

The introduction of children to our family brought new traditions. I would carve pumpkins to the specific instructions from my kids, and Julie and I would help them realize their costume visions. One year Julie blew up dozens of purple balloons to turn Grace into a bunch of grapes, and I remember spending many evenings perfecting a costume for William that transformed him into a living Lego block. 

Julie would pull a kitchen chair into the front hall so she could be close to the door to pass out candy. She especially liked seeing the little kids dressed up, so excited and fresh. I would walk with our kids, protecting them from imaginary danger. My reward was their company. 

Our Halloween decorating was simple, a few candlelit pumpkins on the front stoop, and a giant blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn that I had purchased from the Dollar Tree. That monstrosity graced our home for at least a decade, although its internal lights ceased operation after the first 5 years of service.

As my kids aged their trick-or-treating became more independent, then stopped altogether. However, I could vicariously remember those pleasant days by passing out candy to the next generation of young candy seekers.

However, this year, Halloween was predicted to be very snowy and very cold. Even if the kids did come out, they would be sealed in coats and hats hiding their costumes and blunting their wonderment. With all of our kids out of the house, this functional cancelation of Halloween felt especially harsh. It was another life-change to deal with.

I discovered that it snowed more Wednesday night when I got up for my morning walk at 4 AM on Thursday. I have a morning routine set on my Google Nest smart speaker, which includes the weather. Bitter cold and more snow were the agenda. I cleaned up, got dressed, drank coffee, and prepared myself to face the snow and cold. 

I stepped out of the front door, and I was met with a winter wonderland. The air was still and calm, and a thick carpet of snow lay on the ground. The trees had not yet shed their fall leaves, and these appendages served as landing pads for snowflakes that transformed them into glistening ornaments. 

The snow had served as sound insulation, adding to the stillness of the morning and making my walk even more meditative. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of calm as I traversed the distance between my house and the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue.

Julie had decided to lighten her workday, so she would be home for the bulk of the trick-or-treaters. At 4 PM, I was ready for our transient guests with bucketfuls of candy that were placed in a massive orange bowl. Eventually, Julie came home, and we ordered Chinese food from Grub Hub; Pot Stickers, Brocolli Chicken, Spicy Tofu… enough food for the night and lunch the next day. 

We decided to start another tradition and streamed a horror movie. Our first watch was “Aliens,” a movie new to Julie, but one that terrified me so much the first time that I saw it in 1986 that I checked the back seat of my Nissan Sentra when I left the theater. This time around, it was less frightening; muted by time and the much smaller screen of our family room TV.

Halloween concluded with only three groups of trick-or-treaters (less than 20 kids) gracing our doors. Yet, the day was a success.

Dear readers, as you know by now, I look at every event and experience as a potential tool for learning. I had an expectation of what Halloween was supposed to be, but the weather dashed that dream. However, Mother Nature didn’t take away, it gave. My morning walk was quiet, beautiful, and serene. Yes, there was a lack of trick-or-treaters, but that allowed us to start the new tradition of watching a scary movie. The day was different but no less pleasant or special.

I wanted to pass out candy as a way to revisit the time when my children were young, naive, and full of expectation. That didn’t happen, but instead, I was given new experiences combined with some of our old traditions. My Halloween symbolized my current life, build on the foundation of the past, but changing in an unknown way. My current life direction is not that different from the expectations of my children in the past. I, too, await with excitement to see what tricks or treats will be placed in the bag that I call my life. 

Snow on the autumn leaves made them look like glistening ornaments.
The carpet of snow dampened the sound and made my walk quiet and meditative.
Downtown Naperville as I walk towards Starbucks.
Even my back yard looked like a winter wonderland.