Giving Life, Celebration & Aidan’s Pizza

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Have you ever read my About Page here? Take a look at #6. Today is the day.

“I started this blog because I have promised myself to follow in William’s light. This is just another example of me stepping out of my comfort zone. If it helps just one grieving parent celebrate their child’s life then my mission has been accomplished.”

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April is Donate Life month.

Krista Skinner is mom to Kyle, Molly and our donor hero, Aidan. Krista follows Good Grief Cook. She, her husband and children hope to spread awareness about organ donation by sharing Aidan’s story.  After Aidan died she became involved with The New England branch of Donate Life where she spoke about a family decision to donate Aidan’s organs. An honor followed when Boston Children’s hospital asked to share Aidan’s story as well. Krista wrote to me last week asking if I would be willing to share her story on the blog. She wrote, “I am giving you the link because your blog inspired me to share with others, and I hope you will read what you gave me the courage to write.” It’s an honor to celebrate Aidan Skinner here today.

My blue-eyed boy: The decision to donate life

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Hot, humid air arrived that last week in June 2014. Our family was looking forward to a summer of entertaining, barbecuing and sharing our newly built patio with friends. Spending time as a family hiking, traveling or just hanging out at home was important to us. Aidan was ready to head off to a three-day goalie lacrosse camp. It was something he had begged to do all winter long.

Aidan loved life and he lived it with passion. Aidan or AJ, depending on who you asked, had his future completely planned. He played basketball, swam and skied. As a Boy Scout, he had spent many days camping and hiking throughout New England and he worked each day delivering the local paper on his bike. In the winter, he loved to create huge, elaborate snow forts. On vacations, he and his two siblings were thrill-ride junkies. He loved to draw and doodle.

A Lego fan, his creations are everywhere in our home. It was a Christmas tradition for him and his brother to spend a good part of the day building. Aidan was a dedicated student: a treasurer for the student council, a member of the Junior National Honor Society, a part of the debate team and a volunteer at every charity event. Every other Sunday, he was an altar server at our parish. But above everything else, Aidan loved lacrosse and cooking.

The aspiring chef, Aidan, planned on attending culinary school at Johnson and Wales. From there, he was headed to Harvard to complete his MBA so he could start building his restaurant empire. He had even planned his first restaurant, Boston Water, a floating building in the harbor. I still have the menu he designed. As a family we spent many days together in the kitchen or by the grill creating meals. We loved to travel and one of my favorite memories was Aidan’s excitement shopping in a local neighborhood market in Paris. He had no fear at the age of ten trying to get vendors to understand his incredibly limited French. He would try any food you offered him!

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AJ, the lacrosse goalie, was a leader. He wasn’t afraid to take charge. His dream was to play on the high school’s varsity team. Every day he was out there practicing alone or with friends. We knew going to goalie camp was going to be the highlight of his summer. The evening before he left, we grilled pizzas and planned the Fourth of July menu. He wanted to impress my friend, one of his teachers, with a new recipe.

Aidan had a great first day and night at camp. My husband received a text saying he was “definitely” having an awesome time. He spent the evening texting friends. The next morning, July 1, while on the practice field, Aidan suffered a massive brain hemorrhage caused by an undiagnosed AVM. He had always been a healthy, active boy and was rarely ill.

Aidan was resuscitated on the field, and he was taken by med flight from a local hospital to a critical care hospital. By early afternoon, we learned that Aidan, at the age of 12, would not survive. When they first asked us to consider donation, before my husband or I could even open our mouths, it was Aidan’s older brother and sister that said we were going to do it.

Our family has been touched by donation before. My husband is a living organ donor and Aidan had written about how much he wanted to help someone like his dad someday. We knew that Aidan would want to help whomever he could. On July 2, 2014, my blue-eyed boy left us to become a hero.

Aidan touched many lives. As a very tall 12 1/2 year old, Aidan’s organs were able to go to people with a wide range of ages. His recipients ranged from teenagers to people in their 40s. We also donated AJ’s corneas. Generous friends and family honored our wishes to support New England Organ Bank.

We continue to be overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we have received by our friends, community, schools, New England Organ Bank, the hospital and people we have never met. Aidan is missed by many friends who continue to honor his memory and share their stories with us.

Although there is not a moment that goes by that we don’t wish that Aidan was here with us, we find comfort in the fact that he was able to help others to begin to live life fully again. Aidan was generous with his time, held his hand out to those that needed it, laughed loud, fought hard and loved with a love that still surrounds us today.

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Did you notice that delicious looking pizza Aidan was making? How about that crust edge? I don’t have his recipe, but his mom remembers it to be a combination of grilled duck breast, a maple bourbon BBQ sauce, smoked gouda and another cheese (I am guessing fontina) plus shallots and cranberries. At 13 he sure knew his way around a kitchen and a pizza.

Thick crust or thin here is the best recipe for pizza dough. It requires “00” or Italian style flour. This kind of flour is finely ground with less protein than the basic all-purpose flour. It creates the most supple and easy to shape dough. The crust bakes up light and airy and most importantly crispy. It has enough structure to hold all of Aidan’s abundant toppings, too.

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Pizza Dough

1-teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon sugar

1 ¼ cups hot water

½ bag (1 kg) “00” flour (4 ½ to 5 cups)

1 packet yeast

drizzle of olive oil

Dissolve salt and sugar in hot water. Place flour in large bowl, forming a well in center. Pour hot water into well. Pour yeast into water. Mix with a fork, dissolving yeast into the water. Slowly incorporate the flour. Get your hands in there and need the dough for 5 minutes or until smooth. Lightly oil a bowl and turn dough into it. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rest for 1 hour. Punch dough down; divide and shape into 4 smooth balls. The dough is ready for crust making now or can be individually wrapped in plastic to ferment in the refrigerator for up to 36 hours. Shape, top and bake at highest temperature the oven can muster. I do mine on a lightly oiled perforated pan at 550F.

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A Day In the Life of a Cook-Off Contestant

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She rises early for a cross-country trip that takes 13 hours. The hours of preparation to get to this point are even greater. A creative thought process, grocery shopping, recipe development, more shopping, testing, food styling, photography, writing it all down and submitting to the sponsor of the recipe contest; it takes a lot of time. She is passionate about what she does and has a positive outlook. As the airline agent checks her overweight bag filled with all the necessary cooking utensils she prays her bag arrives safely. There is no question that her recipe is darn delicious. She hopes the professional judges at the garlic cook-off love it, too.

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Welcome to the 38th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival and The Great Garlic Cook-Off. The ultimate summer food fair is truly one of the greatest shows on earth. Run by over 4000 generous volunteers, this event has raised over 11 million dollars for local charities since its inception. Celebrating the love and appreciation of garlic it has everything you’d expect from a top-notch festival including family fun entertainment, arts & crafts, food and cooking contests. There’s even a scholarship pageant featuring a stunning and accomplished garlic queen and her court waiting to crown a garlic cook-off winner. It won’t be me. Happily, I’m in attendance as a food blogger following one of the finalists and reporting on her experience.

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My friend, Veronica Callaghan, beat out hundreds of others to take one of the 8 highly coveted finalist spots. She is a well-seasoned cook-off winner and after a full day of sourcing a few local ingredients she is ready to go. Just prior to cook-off time she is feeling a little nervous. Apparently, she took a big risk entering her garlic-roasted pizza. “Pizza has never been done before on this cook-off stage!” announces the emcee. Will she and her homemade yeast crust rise to the top? Veronica is worried her oven is not getting up to temperature. A hot oven is crucial in baking the thin, crispy crust she is aiming for.

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Veronica and fellow competitors have two hours to cook in a most professional kitchen stadium. The set-up is one of the best I have ever seen with each contestant having plenty of space in their individual kitchens including stoves and sinks and counters. In addition, each contestant is assigned a volunteer helper and Veronica’s couldn’t have been more wonderful. Chris happily takes direction from Veronica grating fontina cheese, pouring a most refreshing peach sangria (yes, I got to taste) into judges glasses and cleaning up as they go, so Veronica can fully concentrate on the execution of the perfect pizza.

Veronica does not disappoint. She preps and cooks several pizza toppings like a pro. The aroma  of rosemary roasted garlic, wine infused sriracha caramelized onions and perfectly crisp bacon fills the stadium. She is in the cooking zone and cool as a garlic clove (or is that cucumber)?

It’s obvious she is happy with her pizza dough. She rolls it out and tops it with an artistic flair finishing it off with sliced dried figs for sweetness, a sprinkle of  flavorful cheeses and fresh rosemary. It’s oven ready. With a flick of her wrist it slides onto a hot pizza stone.

It’s clear this pizza is not your average take-out, but is the crust crisp and does the garlic shine? Did the oven get hot enough? You betcha! When it comes time to face the judges one of them holds up a slice to the audience and does the ultimate crisp crust test. He snaps it into the classic fold and it holds its shape.

The Italian judge is so impressed with her presentation, balance of fresh ingredient flavors and crust execution that he confides in me that she should go into the pizza making business. In fact, all the judges seem to be over the moon with her pizza, but they have 7 more garlic infused fabulous dishes to taste and score.

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The final results are tabulated and the contestants wait anxiously for the announcement. “By the hair on a frog” (I swear the judge said it) Veronica just misses first place, but is pleased to take second and receive a garlic crown. Her hard work is further rewarded with a generous cash prize and the admiration of all her peers.

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Do give her pizza a try. It just may inspire you to enter the cook-off next year or at least to up your own game on pizza making. Check out this link to find out more about the other contestant entries and if you are interested in purchasing the cookbook you may order by phone: (408) 842-1625.

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Congratulations, Veronica and thanks for letting me tag along. You inspire me.

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Garden Therapy & Digging a new Pizza

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butterfly weed

What makes creating a garden so therapeutic? A day spent in the yard is typically hard work that involves getting sweaty and now (at my age) a little achy. What is so great about clearing weeds or worse picking off icky intrusive insects and dropping them into a glass of soapy water? Why do I choose to dig my hands into the dirt rather than that soothing soak at the salon followed by choosing a trendy shade of nail color?

baby butternut squash..needs more time

baby butternut squash..needs more time

There is something healing about the interaction with nature. Much like cooking and baking, gardening is a bit of science, art and magic that result in a feast for the eyes, nose and taste buds. It is a wonder every single time a seed planted grows into something beautiful to decorate the living room or so delicious it sends me into a creative frenzy in the kitchen. Clearly, the garden is like a private grocery store, only better. More fragrant and fresh what’s just picked is what’s for dinner and totally worth digging dirt out from underneath those unpolished finger nails.

a good place to hide

a good place to hide

The garden also brings me back to simpler times with my kids. The lure of the internet and video games wasn’t there for them. Playing in the dirt or in the woods is where they’d be. Today, as I see my Caitlin designing her own gardens and planting her own seeds I am ever so grateful that she continues to find comfort among the beauty only Mother Nature can give. As we continue to share and grow our spaces together there is nothing better than the joy in her voice or the stars in her eyes as she marvels over fields of sunflowers or the tasty fragrance of fresh picked herbs. Yesterday, we discussed some new shrubs for fall planting. This is what makes gardening therapeutic.

yellow roses are her favorite

yellow roses are her favorite

Here is what I picked today:

fresh picked

fresh picked

And here is what I turned it into for dinner:

Vegetable pizza with caramelized BBQ onion sauce, bacon and basil

Vegetable pizza with caramelized BBQ onion sauce, bacon and basil

Checkout my new favorite pizza crust recipe from Jeff Hertzberg,M.D. and  Zoe Francois. Their story and book, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day is inspiring. What seeds are you planting?

catching garden toads

catching garden toads