Ashley Dale and I worked together a job or two ago. We met at my interview. I believe the circumstances were she had been promoted, and I was interviewing for her old job. I liked her immediately. Women who make it in the construction industry have a certain toughness and no bullshit-ness about them that resonates with me. Ashley has it, and is also funny and smart. She’s the whole package.
It’s a good thing we got along. The recession was in full swing, and the construction industry was hit hard. There were layoffs and cuts all around. Business development and marketing were particularly lean. We did more with less, and that often meant working long hours and on weekends. Ashley and I spent many a late night putting proposals together or rehearsing presentations. It was exhausting and stressful, but at least the people we worked with were smart and funny and worked equally hard.
Ashley and I have since moved on to new and better jobs. Ashley’s killin’ it – not only has she bumped up the work food chain, she’s president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services. She’s also had a baby. Little Abby is a toddler now, and Ashley somehow manages to work full time, have a beautiful home, be active in professional and charitable organizations, play tennis, care for her daughter AND cook up a storm in the kitchen. My mind was spinning just thinking about it. How does she do it? How do any of us do it? I asked her if she’d like to do a post with me, and I was thrilled she said yes.
I arrived at Ashley’s home the weekend before Thanksgiving, and she was putting up Christmas decorations. It seemed a little early to me, but after she explained her whirlwind holiday travel itinerary, I totally understood why she had two Christmas trees up so early in the season. This was my first hint at how Ashley is able to successfully navigate the working mother waters: Have a Plan. Take a look at the big picture, figure out what you need, break it down into small steps and get ‘er done. If that means Christmas trees up before Thanksgiving so your daughter can enjoy the decorations before visiting family, so be it.
As we made our way into her kitchen (which is amazing, by the way – every gadget and cooking utensil you could possibly imagine), she told me what she was going to prepare for dinner – chicken parmesan. It’s her husband’s favorite dish, and she makes every component from scratch. And when I say every component, I’m talking about the bread, the breadcrumbs, the pasta, the sauce and even the ice cream for dessert! I couldn’t believe it. In fact, I was waiting for her to say she makes the cheese from a cow she has tethered out back.
I immediately asked Ashley why she likes to cook. Her life is obviously very busy, so why would she make time for this activity? She answered, “It’s therapeutic. I enjoy the creative aspect of it. I love taking a recipe and making it my own. I may dirty every dish in the process, but I love it!”
Here was the second hint: Have a Creative Outlet. We’re challenged all day with obstacles out of our control (deadlines, budgets, car pools), and we often put the needs of our jobs and our families ahead of our own. Having a hobby, sport, or creative outlet of some sort offers a chance to use our God-given talents in a way that is personally satisfying, which gives us the energy to give back to our jobs and our families. So knit that sweater! Bike that hill! Write that blog! (Oh wait, that’s me…)
Interestingly, cooking wasn’t a big part of Ashley’s life growing up. She lived all over the Southeast, and has memories of her mother canning and baking homemade bread, but Ashley wasn’t involved with the process. It wasn’t until she was a young adult living in Birmingham, just starting to make her way in the world, that Ashley discovered her talent in the kitchen. She’d have all her single friends over to her teeny apartment for dinner and wine, and they’d talk and laugh all night. (There’s something especially nostalgic about those days, no? Sharing your hopes and dreams with your girlfriends over a good meal… Knowing it’s all ahead of you and you’re about to jump in feet first… Sigh…)
Around the time Ashley started making the ice cream, her husband Billy joined us in the kitchen. Billy is a Deputy Sheriff with the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department. The two met at Cowboys, a country line dancing club in Kennesaw. They started dating, and it wasn’t long before Ashley cooked him her famous chicken parmesan. The rest, as they say, is history. In April, they’ll be married 10 years. The two are a true partnership and share household and parenting responsibilities pretty equally. Here we have the third hint: Have Plenty of Help. If you don’t have it, ask for it. None of us makes it alone. Having the support of a partner, family member, friend or neighbor can be the difference between sailing and sinking. And most people are eager to help – so ask!
By this point, Ashley was cooking full tilt. Her exceptional planning abilities were front and center – she baked the bread on Friday for croutons and breadcrumbs. Saturday she made the sauce and the salad dressing. Sunday, the day I arrived, she made the ice cream first (it needed some time to set) and the chicken and pasta simultaneously. It was a very intricate dance that I watched from the sidelines with my mouth agape. The best part was having little Abby help out She clearly enjoys spending time with Ashley in the kitchen, and Ashley’s love for her is evident in the sweet way she talks to her and encourages her help. She’s a very patient mamma.
This point in the day reminded me of being at my neighbor Carlos’s house when he roasted a whole pig on New Years Eve (see: A Cuban New Year, aka, Pig in a Box). We were getting close to meal time, and the kitchen smelled fantastic. I was eager to start eating, but since I wasn’t cooking, I started circling the kitchen like a shark. Thank God Ashley asked me to set the table. When we all sat down (me, Ashley, Billy, Abby and Ashley’s half brother Pete and his wife Mary), we dug in with gusto.
The meal was fantastic. Big pieces of chicken, coated with homemade breadcrumbs and pan-fried, smothered in Ashley’s sauce and topped with mozzarella. Homemade pasta (which tastes different and even more delicious) served on the side with more sauce and cheese. And a little salad for lightness. I can see why Billy married Ashley after eating this dish. It was comforting and filling and completely satisfying.
Ashley makes being a working mother and homemaker look easy. In addition to being an exceptional planner and having a supportive partner, she approaches her living situation with a positive attitude. She doesn’t hem and haw over if she’s doing the right thing – she just does it. And that makes it the right thing at that moment, no? There’s a lot of back and forth in the media and amongst mothers about who has it harder – working mothers or stay at home mothers. My question is, why does it have to be a competition? Why seek out the validation of other women for our own choices? We can each only do the best we can in any given situation and help each other along the way. And that’s good enough for me.
Side Bar – It is nearly impossible for me or my husband and daughter to say chicken parmesan. In our house, we call it chickie chickie parm parm. We got it from a hilarious scene in the TV show Parks & Recreation. Leslie asks Tom out to lunch, and he proceeds to explain all of his food nicknames – everything from aps and zerts (appetizers and desserts) to future birds (eggs). We laughed out loud the first time we saw it and incorporated many of his terms into our vernacular. Check it out!
The following recipes are from the creative mind of Ashley Dale…
4 boneless chicken breasts
2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
2 cups flour
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp water
6 oz. mozzarella cheese (1 ball), sliced
pasta sauce (see recipe)
salt & pepper
Heat over to 350°.
Add olive oil to a large skillet to cover the bottom of the pan. Heat over medium-high heat.
Beat eggs and add water to make egg wash. Mix bread crumbs and parmesan cheese.
Season chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in flour, then in egg wash, then coat in seasoned bread crumbs. Place chicken breasts in skillet and cook approximately 10 minutes on each side until golden brown (the chicken will not be fully cooked at this point.) Place chicken breasts on greased cookie sheet or in a shallow pan.
Top chicken with a generous spoonful of pasta sauce and then place mozzarella slices on top of sauce. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes (depending on the chicken’s thickness) until cooked through.
If you’re feeling daring, make the sauce and the pasta as well!
Pasta Sauce a la Ashley
4 14.5 oz. cans of diced tomatoes (no salt)
1 can tomato sauce
3 large carrots, chopped
3 large stalks celery, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1/3 red onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves minced
3 tbsp basil or fresh if available
2 tbsp oregano
1½ tbsp coarse sea salt
1½ tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp Thyme
¼ cup olive oil
You can also add 1/3 – 1/2 cup parmesan cheese to the sauce to make it creamier and sharper in flavor.
Heat olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add shallot, onion and carrot. Sauté until onions are translucent. Add celery, tomatoes (including all liquid) and tomato sauce. Reduce heat and simmer for approximately 15 minutes with cover on pan. Add all remaining ingredients and simmer (covered) for 20 minutes. Use immersion blender to smooth out sauce, replace cover and continue to simmer for 1-2 hours. Sometimes I’ll let mine simmer for 3+ hours.
Quick Cook Option
This works fine by also combining all ingredients in the sauté pan at once and cooking over medium heat until boiling. Reduce heat and simmer 20-30 minutes until vegetables are soft. Use the immersion blender to smooth sauce to desired consistency and serve. The flavors develop more when using the long cook method, but it still tastes great with the quick cook.
3½ cups flour
1-4 tbsp water (depending on humidity)
pinch of salt
Mix all ingredients in a Kitchen Aid at high speed with the blade attachment for 30-45 seconds. Switch to dough hook and continue to mix on low speed for 2 minutes. Form dough into a ball, cover and let rest for 20-25 minutes. Divide into quarters (keep pieces not being used covered). Roll out to desired thickness and cut/style. Note: keep the sheets and noodles covered with slightly damp towels to keep from getting dried out.
Drop pasta in boiling water with a few drops of olive oil. Boil for 3-5 minutes, strain and serve.
Makes about. 1 to 1 ¼ pound of pasta
Extra points if you make the ice cream!
Vanilla Ice Cream
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
2 tbsp vanilla extract
½ – 1/3 cup sugar
1-2 vanilla beans (scrape seeds out of pods)
dash of sea salt
Combing cream, milk, salt and vanilla in mixer or blender. Add sugar and vanilla beans. Mix for 1-2 minutes until frothy.
Pour into ice cream maker and prepare according to machine instructions.