Benches & Blueberries

Will's Bench at Lake Elise Middlebury, CT

Will’s Bench at Lake Elise
Middlebury, CT

What do benches and blueberries have to do with each other? Well, it has to do with some of my fondest memories of my family and friends back in Connecticut. On one warm day in July, my friend, Carol, organized a venture out to a local farm to pick blueberries. On this particular day, as we headed in to get our filled buckets weighed, the screaming came out of nowhere. Without warning all my friends were suddenly standing behind me. Completely bewildered by their scared behavior, I said, “WHAT?” As they were hugging my back and pushing me forward, they pointed to a garden snake crossing our path. Well, I nearly peed my pants (sorry) responding, “What am I? Your secret service agent waiting to take the bullet?” In reality, I was quite flattered that they looked at me as the strong and brave protector. It certainly was how most saw my son, William.

Soon after the news of William’s death Carol went into organization mode again and this is where benches come in. She mobilized an entire community to join in to celebrate William with a memorial bench placed at his favorite fishing spot along the shores of Lake Elise. It is a protected place where one can enjoy the beauty of the lake and remember the boy who often went out of his way to make one feel loved, respected and protected. I love visiting this place with family and friends. After a bit of tearful silence we usually, without warning, turn to laughter, recalling the mischievous boy who made us so proud to be a part of his life. Lake Elise is worth the trip. Drop me a line if you ever take a seat on Will’s Bench. To those who have lost don’t hesitate to build a memorial celebrating your loved one. It is a good thing.

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So, if blueberries and benches have something in common why not blueberries and coconut. Luckily, winter fresh and frozen blueberries are readily available this time of year. Paired with coconut the blueberries make for a most memorable and comforting bread pudding. Kind of like a warm hug from an old friend.

Blueberry Coconut Bread Pudding

Blueberry Coconut Bread Pudding

Blueberry Coconut Bread Pudding

1 (8 to 10 oz) loaf challah bread, sliced into 1-inch cubes

1 ½ cups winter fresh or frozen blueberries, divided

1 (15 oz) can sweetened cream of coconut

1 1/3 cups milk

¼ cup sugar

1- teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon coconut extract

4 eggs

½ cup shredded sweetened coconut

Garnish: powdered sugar, mint sprigs

Spread 2/3 of the bread cubes over the bottom of a 9-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle 1 cup of blueberries over the bread. Top with remaining bread. In small saucepan, over medium-low heat, stir cream of coconut, milk, sugar, vanilla and coconut extract just until the sugar is dissolved and mixture is smooth. The mixture will be warm, but not hot. In large bowl, lightly whisk eggs; add warm milk mixture and blend well. Pour milk mixture over bread in baking pan. Using the back of a spoon gently push bread down into milk mixture. Sprinkle top with remaining blueberries and coconut. Bake 50 minutes or until puffed and golden. Serve warm Dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

Inspirational Kid-Friendly Meal

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Crispy Coconut Chicken Dippers with Wowee Maui Mustard.   Photo by: Southern Living

It is a rainy Saturday morning in Connecticut on April 16, 2011; a good day to make lentil soup and prepare for the Easter week ahead. Like many families, the kids are coming home for the holiday and thoughts of sandwiching myself between my two babies fills my heart with fun anticipation reminding me of just how blessed I am. It’s delightful to be planning a menu around their favorite dishes. As my thoughts turn to Crispy Coconut Chicken Dippers with Wowee Maui Mustard the doorbell rings.

family photo

my favorite sandwich

Through the window are two men in uniform. My heart begins to race and before I say hello I ask, “Why are you here? He has been safely home from Afghanistan for 6 months. “ All I could do was invite them in, turn off the soup, wait for Bill to come home and hope to wake up from this nightmare. My head is spinning handing the military chaplain a photo album illustrating the last 5 years of William’s life and commitment to the Navy. The only sound comes from the front porch where the Navy and American flags are trembling in a rain of tears.

Cooking and baking are so very therapeutic. There is nothing like getting into the kitchen and banging a few pots and pans together to de-stress and express something from one’s heart. The food is about who I am, where I’ve been and those who inspire me. It’s a generous piece of me on a plate. Find something you are passionate about and just do it. Be inspired by the ones you love and the ones you’ve lost. Out of chaos comes creativity and our very survival depends on that.

As I am constantly tinkering with my recipes I rarely make the same thing twice. This recipe is an exception. After all it is one of my children’s favorites and won the “Kid’s Category” at the Southern Living Magazine Cook-Off in 2005.

Crispy Coconut Chicken Dippers with Wowee Maui Mustard

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3/4 cup lime-flavored seltzer water

2 cups sweetened flaked coconut *

1 cup fine dry breadcrumb

vegetable oil ( for frying)

salt (optional)

Maui Wowee Dipping Sauce

1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

1/2 cup red pepper jelly

3 tablespoons whole grain mustard

Cut each chicken breast into 4 to 6 (1-inch) strips. Whisk together flour and next 4 ingredients in a bowl. Combine coconut and breadcrumbs in a large shallow dish. Dip chicken pieces in flour mixture, and dredge in coconut mixture. Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches in a deep skillet or Dutch oven; heat to 350°. Fry chicken, in batches, 2 to 3 minutes or until golden. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle lightly with salt, if desired. Serve with Wowee Maui Dipping Sauce.

 To make the dipping sauce simply mix all the ingredients together in a bowl

*Note: unsweetened coconut works well, too. I like Bob’s Red Mill unsweetened shredded coconut