You could say that the last couple of weeks have been eventful. Christmas came and went yet again, 2016 gave way to 2017, and Jonji and I got engaged!
A week before Christmas day, Jonji and I sped home with both cats safely ensconced in their carriers in the back seat, listening to Hamilton, Harry Potter, and various podcasts. The following week was filled with trips Downtown to buy gifts, walks with Pippin, and coffee in the mornings with Cristy, Mom, and Dad. (The clearest takeaway from their Italy trip, Mom’s new obsession with espresso has now infected Jonji.) We spent a couple of enjoyable evenings at Pat and Taz’s place, along with Taz’s parents and Debbie, where we compared the United States to New Zealand—specifically in terms of truck driving and pies—over a few glasses of wine.
A few days before Christmas, Mom and Dad made the decision to get a new stove, as theirs was failing. Mom found an incredible deal on Craigslist, so off they went to pick up their new Viking. After Mom, Cristy, Emma, Danny, Jonji, and I crowded around, trying to help navigate the stove into the house, Dad made it clear that he really only needed one or two people to help. I lurked in the living room while he and Jonji maneuvered the large appliance into the kitchen, trying to stay out of the way. Once in the house, all Dad needed was one small part to connect the gas to the wall. Unfortunately, Ace Hardware failed him multiple times, and he spent the rest of the day as a roaring bear as his attempts proved more and more fruitless. Finally, we were forced to leave to get to my cousins’ dance recital in time, so Mom volunteered to stay behind to get the part from somewhere else. Growling, the bear accepted defeat for the time being, and Bailey, Emma, and I crept into the car. Our moods lifted once we saw Tessa and Siena Irish stepdancing across the stage, impressing us all with their quick feet and boundless energy.
Christmas Eve arrived, brisk and sharp. I spent the day making the pumpkin cheesecake for Christmas dinner, and then left with Jonji for his family’s Christmas celebration at his brother Jason’s house. We stopped by Station 14 to surprise Dad, where I surprised him so well that he actually jumped. Then we traveled the short distance to Jason and Shellie’s place. We chatted with everyone, ate, and handed around gifts for the annual Secret Santa. Finally, we said our goodbyes and drove back to town.
Christmas morning we woke up early and went to see Oakes and Arrow open presents. Oakes excitedly explained that Santa went by their house the night before—I love to see the wonder in kids’ eyes as they contemplate the magic that is still so real to them. We ate scones and lemon curd and exchanged gifts, all before 9:30 am. I said my goodbyes and set off for home, stopping by THREE different stores in search of heavy cream, two of which were closed. I made it home, rather miffed, but quickly perked up at the sight of coffee, more scones, and raspberry muffins.
After an excellent brunch Bailey still wasn’t home (she flew back from Matt’s family’s place in LA that morning), so we took Pippin out to the forest. We trekked over damp earth, saw what may have been a mountain lion paw print, and breathed in lungfuls of cold, forest air. Pip raced back and forth, shepherding us together just like his ancestors did centuries past.
We got home at 2 pm, shortly before Bailey and Jonji. Once the hot chocolate was ready, we finally sat down to open presents. Mom got thoroughly excited over Cristy’s gift of a “Fortune Teller Miracle Fish,” and laughed uproariously as it flipped off of Jonji’s outstretched palm. But Pippin was happiest of all, rooting around in his stocking and delicately unwrapping new toys.
Christmas dinner was a delicious and enjoyable affair. Dad made everyone cocktails as we worked together to cook all the food and I enlisted Emma to help me construct 12 apple hand pies, rushing them into the oven just as we sat down to feast. After cheesecake and pie, we all became rather sleepy and soon went to bed.
The rest of the week passed by too quickly, and both Jonji and I ended up with a slight cold. On our last day, Wednesday, Mom got word that Manga (her mom, my grandma), was in the hospital. She’s ok, but it was very serious, and Jonji and I accompanied Mom to visit her. Once home, Dad asked Jonji and I to take Pip out while he prepared for a casual cocktail party and dinner that night. Jonji suggested walking among the trees by Roaring Camp, where he used to live and where his old dog is still buried. The last time I’d been there was five years previous, where we had talked and walked together on our first date.
A few minutes into the trees, we stopped to look out at the small waterfall. I didn’t think anything of it until he got quite sentimental and reached into his vest pocket. There may or may not have been a Lord of the Rings quote involved. All I can remember saying, as he got down on one knee, is “No way, no way!” But it was real, and he opened the little black box to reveal the most beautiful diamond ring. I accepted, of course. Giddy, laughing and hugging, we began walking again, Pippin seemingly grateful that we had remembered the purpose of our excursion.
Back at home, I was surprised to see Shannon and Shauna already there, and we all hugged and admired the ring. Dad had been in on the plan, as had Bailey and Emma. Mom, who can’t lie to save her life (sorry, Mom, but you know it’s true), was as surprised as I had been. Each of us was handed a glass of champagne and toasted to the future. We were joined in celebration later by Pat, Taz, their boys, PK, Naveen, Debbie, Tash, Aaron, and Matt. Dad once again showed off his excellent bartending skills with a new grapefruit drink, and whoever could stay late enough sat down to a simple dinner together.
We stayed one extra day, to share our good news with others and enjoy the company of our families. Wanting more than ever to live closer to home, we set off for LA on a rainy Friday morning, watching the sky turn from pink to yellow to green in the face of the storm.
Nothing has really changed. And yet, it has. The presence of a ring is such a simple symbol of commitment that simply moves the intangible future one step closer to the present. Jonji and I had, of course, already agreed to spend our lives together. But now we get to plan, to put in motion those ideas that previously stayed on the back burner. We’ve placed a significant pin on the map; there is so much more to discover, and so much more to learn.
Maybe I should be providing a more romantic recipe but, hey, this is real life, and we all need to eat. And anyway, Jonji loves this one. Disclaimer: this is gluten-free because there is no pasta, but if you want to sub pasta for the zucchini, be my guest. I find that I don’t really miss it.
makes 1 9×13-inch pan
1 lb ground beef
1/4 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper
3/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp ground cayenne
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
couple glugs of red wine
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp each fresh thyme and oregano, chopped
optional: a couple leaves of basil, chopped
water or broth
several mushrooms (I use crimini), diced
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
3-5 zucchinis (depending on size)
1–2 sweet potatoes (not yams), thinly sliced
4 carrots, grated
Heat a pan over medium heat and add a glug or two of olive oil. Add the ground beef and break it up with a spatula. Cook, pouring off any excessive fat if need be. Before it’s almost all browned, add the salt, pepper, paprika, cumin, oregano, and cayenne. Stir to combine. Once the meat is fully browned, remove from the heat and set aside.
Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add a few glugs of olive oil, then the 1/2 chopped onion. Stir, and cook until slightly translucent, just a few minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes. The onion should be pretty soft. Add the red wine and cook for a minute, then add the crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper, and chopped herbs. Add a little water or broth if it looks a bit thick. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Finely chop up the mushrooms and add them to a pan over medium heat along with some olive oil, the 1/2 tsp thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are soft and slightly browned. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare the layering elements: thinly slice the zucchinis, lengthwise, and the sweet potatoes. (Note: If you’re worried about the potatoes cooking at all, just cut them thinly, toss with a little oil, and roast on a sheet pan in the oven until soft. Just make sure to do this first so they’re ready to layer once everything else is done.) Grate the carrots. Have the mozzarella ready, and get out a fine grater for the parmesan.
Once the tomato sauce is done, add the meat and mushrooms to the sauce and stir.
Spread half the meat and tomato mixture in the bottom of a 9×13-inch pan. Sprinkle half the grated carrots over that. Lay zucchini slices over the carrots in a single layer. Top with mozzarella (I’ll leave the amount up to you) and some grated parmesan. Repeat with all the ingredients, but layer on the sweet potato slices before the last layer of cheese. You’ll end up with two full layers, with sweet potato on the top layer of zucchini.
Cover the tray with foil, then bake for 30 minutes. A fork should go cleanly through the layers once done. Uncover the pan, then broil quickly just to brown the cheese. Enjoy!