In the middle of all the Christmas mono mania--the list of gifts to procure, the wrapping, the social events, the endless carols playing everywhere--we made a departure with dinner last night: Johnny Cash was singing while we ate shakshuka.
Well, maybe there's a tenuous and unintentional connection between tonight's dinner and the holiday, since both the dish and the Christ child were born in Israel. But that's just occurred to me now. I really made the shakshuka to appease the curiosity developed after reading about it on the Smitten Kitchen blog and to use up my accidental surfeit of eggs purchased for all the holiday baking I have yet to do. (Some year, I swear...)
Shakshuka is basically eggs poached in a tomato sauce spiced up with onions, (in this version, although an alternate and very Jewish source I checked out forbade them), hot peppers (I used jalapenos), garlic, cumin, and paprika. The lively concoction then gets garnished with crumbled feta and chopped parsley for more flair.
From my limited research, I gathered that this dish is Isreali home or comfort food. It's usually served as I did, in the skillet in which it was cooked, to be dished out at the table. Some restaurants pretty it up with individual skillets or ramekins, but I like the rustic idea of plunking it down in the center of a hungry gathering and participating actively in its diminishment.
We certainly diminished ours. We left just enough to see if it's good for breakfast tomorrow with father-in-law's spicy sausage and toast. We have to make it to Lupper time for Christmas dinner, so bring on the protein in the a.m.!
While I admire any recipe that can make dinner out of inexpensive ingredients in one dish (I added spinach to make it complete), my favorite part of the shakshuka experience (other than its name, which sounds like a vigorous exotic dance to me) was savoring the creamy yolks as they complemented and tamed the spiciness and acidity of the sauce. Of course, warm whole wheat pita bread for sopping in all that sauce isn't a bad thing either. Not at all.
Frankly, I'm glad for any chance to cook dinner this week, whatever the meal. Christmas shopping and socializing has had me, and will continue to have me, away from home, kitchen, and blog for most of this week. (Which is why I love January, but that's another grinchy topic.) I'm grateful that during the readiness festival that is Christmas week, there was this total departure dinner that made me think of dancing instead of demands. Viva la Shakshuka, baby!
Serves: 4 to 6
1/4 cup olive oil 5 anaheim or 3 jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped 1 small yellow onion, chopped 5 cloves of garlic, crushed then sliced 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 tablespoon paprika 1 28-ounce can of whole peeled or diced tomatoes Kosher salt, to taste 6 eggs 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped Warm pitas, for serving
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. (Deb called for a 12-inch, but I used my 13-inch French skillet without incident.) Add chiles and onions, and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and golden brown, about six minutes. Add garlic, cumin, and paprika, and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft, about two more minutes.
Add tomatoes to skillet (If using whole tomatoes, place them in a bowl and break them up with your hands before adding.) along with 1/2 cup of water, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Season sauce with salt.
Crack eggs over the sauce so that the eggs are distributed evenly over the sauce's surface. Cover skillet and cook until yolks are just set, about 5 minutes. Using a spoon baste the whites of the eggs with tomato mixture, being careful not to disturb the yolk. (If you forget this step, which I did, rest assured that it will be good anyway.) Sprinkle shakshuka with feta and parsley, and serve with pitas for dipping (and sopping and smearing your plate pretty much clean.)
I originally planned to make pasta with Brussels sprouts, walnuts, and parmesan for very practical reasons: The dish would use up the 1/2 pound or so of sprouts hanging out in the crisper and provide a vegetable in the entree as well as the salad. I had no idea that I, and my man, would love it so much.
Oh, I felt sure that I would like the combination, or I wouldn't have chosen to make it dinner's star. I like Brussels sprouts, and how could they suffer from being thinly sliced and sauteed in olive oil and butter? (I don't know why, but sauteed sprouts seem to taste better when they're somewhat shredded. Is it just me?) I like walnuts, too. Parmigiano, I love. The whole party sounded like a win-win-win.
And it was. But not a simple, solid, that'll do win. It was the kind of winning dish which prompts those instinctive noises of satisfaction. (You know the ones. I am not going to try to spell them.) From the moment that the first bite entered my mouth, I liked it. No taste blooming, chewing, or thinking required. That, I didn't expect.
We kept on liking it, intensely and vocally, until our bowls were empty. Who knew that a Brussels sprout-based entree could be that good? I didn't, and I thought I liked the little buggers. Apparently, their vegetal potential has been way too under-rated in my life.
In fact, tasting the sprouts without the pasta made me think that they would be good cooked this way as a side dish. So the yum factor had nothing much to do with the belly-sating powers of the noodles. This dish simply let the little ole sprouts shine brighter than I knew they could.
That sum-greater-than-parts goodness wasn't missed by Molly over at Orangette, which is where I found the idea. She got it from a friend, who got it from Gourmet. It was of course tweaked at each step along the way to me, and I tweaked it myself. My old buddies the walnuts subbed for the pricey pine nuts, and I forgot to buy the cream so I skipped it.
OK. That's not true. I tried a smidge of milk instead, but it was both a waste of time (Is there really any substitute for real cream?) and unnecessary. I ended up scooping the sprouts out of the pitifully inappropriate liquid result of my experiment and still loving them. Obviously, I needn't have bothered. Molly had added the cream for her own reasons anyway. See? We all get to do our own thing.
Oh, and let's not forget that it's my other favorite thing after good--EASY. I mean, you slice and saute some sprouts, throw them on top of cooked noodles along with some nuts and cheese, and voila! Inordinate goodness. Now there's everything to love about Pasta with Brussels Sprouts, Walnuts, and Parmesan.
I don't know where I'm going with this now (except bed, soon). The important thing to remember is that you want to eat this dish. You may not know it yet, but you do. Your taste buds will thank me in chorus with the first bite.
Pasta with Brussels Sprouts, Walnuts, and Parmesan
4 tablespoons walnuts 3/4 pound Brussels sprouts 1/2 pound long pasta (linguine or fettucine) 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon salt Fresh ground pepper Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, for topping
Toast the walnuts in a skillet or in the oven at 350 degrees until they are golden and fragrant. This step will take about 10 minutes in the oven. Skillet toasting tends to bore me, so I don't know how long that would take. Mere minutes, I'm sure. If you choose the skillet method, you can reuse it for the sprout cooking. If you're really cheating, spread the nuts out in the microwave and zap on high for a minute or so. Whatever your method, set the toasted nuts aside.
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil over high heat.
While the water is coming to a boil, trim, halve, and thinly slice the Brussels sprouts, grate the Parmigiano, and gather your other ingredients, however few.
When the water comes to a boil, put the pasta in to cook, following package directions.
While the pasta cooks, prepare the Brussels sprouts. Warm the olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the Brussels sprouts and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until the sprouts are bright green and tender.
When the pasta is done, reserve a 1/4 cup or so of the pasta water and drain. Add the reserved pasta water to the sprout mixture. Place noodles on your (warmed, surely) plates and top with the Brussels sprouts, Parmigiano, and walnuts. Then eat and be amazed.
Dinner tonight: Sausage, mushroom, zucchini, and cheddar frittata; arugula, red pear, and sliced almond salad with mustard pot dressing; red-wine poached pears with vanilla ice cream.
In the years after I became a professional baker and before dinner became My Dream come true (and also before I dared to spend time writing semi-publicly), I often described dinner as my hobby. I didn't knit, craft, jog, or make scrapbooks. I didn't garden or make jewelry. The closest to a hobby I'd ever had was sewing, but in those busy years I only sewed when I needed something made. Dinner was what I thought about, read about (I used to read cookbooks like novels), planned, and eventually made with my own two hands.
I've always been interested in food in general, with baking in particular being my steady pleasure until I became a professional (the plumber's leaky pipes phenomenon, you understand). But being up to my proverbial eyeballs in both for years meant that I wasn't dashing into the kitchen to whip up multiple angel food cakes for extra fun. (I was tired, people.) Baking was also knocked down the totem pole because I became committed during my bakery years to more healthful eating, perhaps as a consequence of sugar saturation. In fact, I staunchly maintain that working in a sweets bakery drove me to craving beans and vegetables. You can only taste so much butter cream and brownie batter before the scales must be righted or at least neutralized.
So, with my baking itch obviously scratched quite raw but my foodie nature needing an outlet, dinner was the antidote. It had to be done, and I could play there with food that was healthy, necessary, and not what I made all day long. And so it got my loving attention, becoming my vanishing domestic art medium that made life nourishing and lively. Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on the couch with a stack of cookbooks and a note pad, trolling for what seemed appealing to eat in the coming week. The dreamy planning part was, and still is, as much fun as the cooking and eating, both because I'm a reading and research nerd and because it makes the cooking part smoother. Although I've found a more efficient way to plan our meals now, I still enjoy the process--and the anticipation it provides. I look forward each week to making the plans and each day to making the enticing plans real. The week's meal plan is really a menu of treats waiting for me to craft them into existence.
You might wonder how all this planning squares with the improvisation I claimed in my last post. I guess the answer is that I'm improvising or being creative in the planning process more than in the execution, which is progress for a recovering perfectionist.
Relative progress aside, the armpit of the afternoon is not the time for me to be challenging my glucose-starved brain cells to QUICK, think of a use for artichokes and pepper jelly, STAT. Sunday afternoon, when I'm freshly fed both physically and spiritually and have hours to dig up intriguing possibilities for that half a zucchini, is a much better time to be thinking about what's for dinner. And with the thinking done, the execution is more fun and less pressured. It's a win-win proposition.
Besides, isn't the puttering of the mind as well as the hands a component of a hobby? Back when I did sew as a hobby, before I had a child and a job at the same time, I did as much thinking about it, reading about it, and scouting for fabric for it, as I did actually sewing, a ratio that makes my current pattern sound about right. Or really nerdy. But I am who I am, and we eat really well, so who cares?
If a hobby is defined as an enjoyable activity involving tinkering and satisfaction rather than "work" and drudgery, then yes, dinner qualified for me. I skipped right past the undeniable need to eat regularly and made dinner an avocation, a source of experimentation and play, so much so that we seldom eat the same thing twice.
With all the time, effort, and money I've now put into Dinner: The Research Project (i.e., culinary school), I hope that Dinner the Hobby will someday, somehow grow into the right kind of more for me. Until that time, I'm lucky. I have a hobby that can be different and useful every day and even shared with others in quite a dreamy fashion. That's fine enough for now, because I have...
Dinner tonight: linguine with Brussels sprouts, Parmesan, and toasted walnuts; arugula, orange, and red onion salad with mustard pot dressing; apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.
It just occurred to me today that our menus the last week or so here at the barn had a theme: making meals out ofleftovers.
First there was the salad dressing made out of the dregs of a mustard jar. I found the idea in a recent issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, credited to none other than Nigella Lawson, who also inspired my current favorite granola. (Just today I ran across her intriguing idea for crumble topping. Apparently she's had a few good ideas.)
The basic technique is to mix up vinaigrette in the mustard bottle after it's down to a few smears on the glass that normally go to waste. She gave measurements that I'll share in a few moments, but I didn't follow them. I used sherry vinegar instead of red wine and scaled up for more quantity to match my generous mustard remains (see photo below), keeping in mind the standard 3:1 vinaigrette ratio I learned in school, although I've seen recipes with all sorts of ratios. You could also do 2:1 or even 1:1 if that suits your taste better. You get to pick!
Way more than 1/2 a teaspoon here.
I should scrape better.
In case you're not feeling free-wheeling, here's Nigella's formula.
Mustard Pot Dressing One nearly empty Dijon mustard jar (or 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard) 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1/2 teaspoon honey Pinch of salt
Pour vinegar, oil, honey, and salt into mustard jar. (Or combine mustard, vinegar, oil, honey, and salt in a clean jar.) Top with the lid and shake to mix ingredients well.
My other rescue-turned-dinner involved a roast chicken frame and veggie trimmings stored in the freezer. Combined in a stock pot and allowed to simmer, they became broth which in turn became the base, along with a few chicken tenders left from a cutlet experiment (don't ask), a Parmigiano rind and a bunch of cilantro stems, for chicken and barley soup. It was a simple one, with no other herbs or strong flavors. Just homey, chickeny, whole grain goodness--perfect for the early cold days we've been having. (Someone needs to inform the weather gods that it's not officially winter yet.) Then, just last night, I turned a bit of leftover roast pork into a rice and pork salad with kalamata olives, pepperoncinis, feta, half a zucchini, and two of the final tomatoes from the yard that had finally (barely) ripened. With a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice and a bed of peppery arugula, it made a confetti-bright supper out of things that needed using. Not bad eating from odds and ends. I'm very pleased to have redeemed these castoffs into quality suppers. Of course, yesterday I threw away the last of the previous week's pear crisp that got buried in the back of the fridge and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes that expired in 2009, but hey, I'm not perfect. I'm just learning to be improvisational at long last.
I'm sorry that I don't have denotated recipes for my leftover miracles, but now you have the ideas, which are the important things. And they are:
The carcass of a roast chicken can be used for broth. Simmer it gently with a couple of quartered onions, a couple of ribs of celery, a couple of carrots roughly cut, a few peppercorns, and a sprig or two of parsley if you have it. Any bits of meat can be picked off to go in whatever soup you devise or a completely different dish if you use the broth for cooking other dishes. If you don't need the broth right away, freeze it for later in ice cube trays and store in a freezer bag or container until you need it. Frozen this way, you can take out what you need--a few ounces for a pan sauce or a quart for soup or anything in between.
Parmesan cheese rinds can be simmered in soups to boost flavor, an old Italian trick. They contain natural glutamates that add savory depth.
Cilantro stems can be used to flavor soups. Chop into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces or tie together with kitchen twine and remove when the soup is done. This handy idea I picked up from Molly at Orangette, who got it from her mother, who got it from Gourmet magazine or somewhere. I'm just passing on the good news. Parsley stems can be used the same way--perfect for stock.
Bits of leftover meat are handy for chopping and adding to soups, frittatas, stir fry, fried rice, etc. They can always be stashed in the freezer for later, too.
Veggie trimmings can be saved for adding to the chicken stock pot or for making vegetable stock in its own right. Now those part of carrots, onions, and celery that you normally discard can be put to good use. Just stash them in freezer bags as you go until you need them. Some say that other veggies can be used, too, but I can't personally testify to that at this point. (Who's got money on me finding out? )
Isn't this great! Even the compostables can be part of great meals. Our great grandmothers would be so proud.
Every year, when we get out the ornaments to decorate the tree, I'm reminded again of how they tell some of the story of my life. These baubles of glass and plastic have an emblematic provenance for me.
The plastic pears and gold balls recall sweet friends who showed up at my door with gifts to trim my tree when I sorely needed both the tree filler and the encouragement they offered. Another sweet friend cross-stitched this one for me during those same dark years. The decorated eggs were bought in Prague on trips that reminded me of who I really am at a time when I wasn't sure. They still move me with their painstaking artistry, executed on something that would normally be discarded, and with what e. e. cummings might have called their intense fragility. One ornament holds the 7-year-old thumbprints of my son. Some are gifts--from my mother or old friends now gone from my life or the bakery where I worked for 9 1/2 years. One was given to me and Dave by his mother for our first married Christmas. The sailor was bought in honor of Dave's stint in the Naval reserves. I still remember where I was traveling when I found it. A tin icicle bought my first solo year dangles beside the vintage style Eiffel tower I picked up on clearance at Target the day after Christmas last year. This jaunty spatula was a gift, just yesterday, from the director of the Christmas play I was in this year. (You had to know the character. And I do!) There is no theme or color scheme here, no designer touch. Our tree is trimmed with what life has offered up over the last nine years--gifts, intuitive purchases, and even desperation measures.
For years I dreamed of a designer tree, where everything is chosen and color matched and perfect. But to achieve that goal, I would have to reject the stories and gifts and choices that are the real story of my life in favor of what goes with this year's colors. I can't see me re-boxing my son's childhood craft just because it "doesn't go."
The Christmas that my dear friend brought me the pears, I decided that planned decorating just wasn't going to work for me. I had tried to concoct my own fresh scheme for purely aesthetic reasons and felt absolutely uninspired. I ended up with unplanned plastic pears that I cherish to this day because they're an emblem of rescuing love.That old saying that life is what happens while you're planning something else apparently applies to Christmas trees, too. I still have my longing for the magazine version of Christmas. But every year I choose real life all over again, with it's messy variety and unexpected warmth. I hang the motley but meaningful assortment of ornaments, remembering who and what and where and when.
After all, If I had my perfect tree, it would only please my eyes. It wouldn't speak to my heart and mind the way our scruffy cedar with it's collection of memories does. I embrace the life-story decor that happened while I thought I wanted to plan something else and anticipate the additions to come.
Our tree may not be perfect, but it sure tells me a lot about who I am. Look at your own ornaments with fresh eyes. What story do they tell?
Decorating for the Christmas holiday has become one of my favorite activities of the season. With more time available this year, I've spent parts of two days, in addition to the monumental tree raising, prettying up our little barn, adding small touches to delight the eye.
Like a dining table centerpiece
and red boxes (picked up on clearance after Christmas last year) stacked in a corner of the dining room
and by an old spindle that was a housewarming gift from David's aunt.
The smallest one sits on our end table in the sitting area with a little bear for company.
I decorated a miniature tree (really a bouquet of branches) for our bedroom
and hung a greenery-and-bow-garnished antique sled from the farm outside, both of which are new levels of holiday nest fluffing for me.
A snowman and a rusty metal bell snug up to a winter arrangement of dried thistles and bittersweet berries on the wicker side table in the dining room,
and more rusty metal decorations hang on the front door.
As a bonus, both of these can stay to bring me joy all winter.
I even tucked cedar sprigs in my bottle collection on the kitchen window sill, in a candle holder on the coffee table, and in a tin on top of the microwave.
Now most of the places I see as I go about my day are graced with some touch of seasonal decor that sparks a smile.
That's pretty fine, considering that I spent almost nothing. The tree and greenery were free from the farm (lucky us). Extra lights for the enormo-tree and a few other supplies totaled only about $22.00. All the more money for gifts, my friends.
I may not be done. This morning, I thought of another idea for outside, involving the top of my extra free tree and the remaining cheap-o bows I picked up at WalMart. I am unsupervised, you know.
Maybe next year I'll think of ways to bring a touch of Christmas to the bathrooms even, or hang pretties from the chandelier. It could happen. I own floral wire and cutters now. I'm ready for anything.
I've already received two early gifts this year, but not from any person. They were not objects, but moments of a feeling I've been hoping for and cultivating and needing all my life--self acceptance. They were beautiful and intimate experiences that I choose to share, only after consideration, in the hard won knowledge that I ignore gut instinct at my own peril and in the hope that my weakness may become another's strength.
A few Sundays ago, as I was driving to church for Christmas play practice, Leeann Womack's song I Hope You Dance came on the radio. I sang along because I love what it says, and teared up as I thought of how much I want those sentiments to be true in my own life and how fervently I hope that I can pass on such wisdom to my son. That part was normal for me when I hear that song. What came afterward was not.
I suddenly felt, not sentimentally teary, but ready to sob. I was alone, so I rode the wave of part longing and part gratitude as it briefly passed through me. Then, like the clean calm after a summer storm, came the thought "I'm OK."
That might sound like reassurance to myself after an unexplained crying jag, but that's not the case. I knew that I was all right, regardless of sudden tear squalls. I've gotten used to my emotionality, even though I strive to be a steadier person. No, this was more like an unexpected status update from deep within the running inner monologue we all have. My thoughts were telling me that I was OK just as I am--as in enough, acceptable, worthy.
I've been trying to get my deep animal brain to believe that for some time, ever since I learned that self respect was a necessity for a healthy life. I've said it to myself over and over. I've tried to repeat affirmations on occasion. I've prayed, trying to understand that God loves me just because. But those efforts always seemed hokey or forced. I was paying lip service to what I knew was supposed to be truth, but I didn't really believe it, not way down. Instead, I traveled through years listening to a serpent's mantra of unworthiness. If inner life can be characterized in a sound, there was a lot of moaning in there, much gloom and expectation of rejection. I came at the world with my head down, saying "Well, I'm probably lame, but here I am."
Not that I didn't improve my life and my situation anyway. I have healthy, loving relationships now. I took advantage of an opportunity to learn a new, better paying skill. I fulfilled a seven year dream by going to culinary school at the age of 40. I started writing. Through good years and bad I've served others at my church.
But all that growth was an upstream swim against a current of my own hidden shame and fear. I had identified it, but couldn't seem to remove it. A friend eventually named this voice of doom Gilbert in an effort to objectify and diminish it, but still he hissed in my ear "Uunwoorrthy". Or tiraded about the futility of my efforts and the audacity of my hopes. Or just buzzed with doubt and despair. I began to wonder if my mental background noise was always going to be woe.
What a surprise then to hear, not me trying to convince myself that I'm OK, but myself stating that I was--I am--sufficient. Basically, I gave myself a passing score for the first time in my life, laying down the measuring stick I've always carried. I felt a tiny warm light, like a birthday candle or a Christmas bulb, glowing in my geographic heart.
After all this time and effort, here was the simple state I'd been seeking, just arriving as I drove along a country road. I offered gratitude for it, hoping that it wouldn't be a distant memory before the night was over, as often happens with emotional highs, and keeping it to myself until the morning, when the thought and its glow were still there, and I felt ready to tell my husband about this experience that seemed to me like a small, lustrous pearl I'd been given.
In the following weeks, as I would if I were carrying a jewel in my pocket, I would reach for that new feeling and find it small but still there, and I would be both relieved and thrilled. That treasure would have been enough for quite a while.
Then last week, while lying over a rolled blanket to stretch my poor tight shoulders, I again suddenly felt the urge to sob, again tasted the mixture of longing and gratitude, again felt at peace with letting this new wave just roll through me, and again experienced a marvelous new thought that has never before lived in my mind: I love myself.
Oh, dear goodness, that might sound so kooky, but I risk that chance because it's true. I actually felt a genuine, not a taught, caring for myself just as I am. I laid there with my heart open to heaven and treasured the feeling, with its lightness and relief, which I can only describe as the first spiritual ecstasy I've ever known.
It was utterly wonderful to be released in that moment from the toxic self worthlessness that usually haunts me. I felt as if a heavy Less Than sign board had suddenly been lifted from me, or as if someone whose approval I'd always wanted finally gave it to me. My load of shame, that demon lead that has always weighed down my feet and my hands and my spirit, was blessedly and instantly gone. The moment held a bigger warm glow than the one in the car, enough to visualize holding my hands over it like someone just in from the cold after a long dark journey. I had been given another pearl that I again hoped I'd be able to keep.
It's been days now, and the new thoughts are still there: I'm OK. I'm enough. I really am as good as anyone else. I can enjoy my life because it's good enough, too!
After years of trying to earn my own love and approval, after decades of trying to be good enough to be satisfied with myself, I finally GET that it's fully acceptable to be me just the way I am right now--not after I'm successful (whatever that means) or enlightened or better than someone else, but right now, with all my limitations and scars and unfulfilled dreams.
Years ago I read a definition of humility that was new to me and apparently needed by me. It said that humility is understanding that you are neither no better nor any worse than anyone else. Obviously, I've never had a problem with the first part. It was the second part that was my failing. Although we usually think that those who deem themselves better than others are the ones who need to learn about humility, I'm living proof that the opposite can also be true. Just as many painful errors can be committed when you think you're worthless as when you think too highly of yourself. We don't need to be puffed up, but we aren't much good if we're downtrodden, either.
I have no desire for a fuzzy but false and lazy sense of self-esteem or to think that I'm absolutely fabulous. I would only like to be without shame and the worry that I'm not good enough. I don't want to measure up. I want to stop the measuring itself. I want an innocent first grade pride that doesn't need comparison at all. And while I long to just feel good rather than bad, I don't want it only for me. I want it so that I can be a good wife and mother and sister and daughter and friend, for my loved ones will benefit from my true humility as much as I will. Just ask my husband, or the others who've endured my darkness in the past.
For now, I'm grateful for the pearls in my pocket. Sometimes I can't feel their glow, but I know that they're there. I hope for more, enough for a long rope necklace whose weight will help me remember and carry myself upright.
In Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she records a piece of advice a friend gave her about writing her book, which was "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth." That's what I've done here--told my truth because it's what I have and what I feel that I need to do. These are my stitches. The tapestry is up to God.
Christmas may have officially commenced for the rest of America on Black Friday or late Thanksgiving night when the shopping frenzy started, or maybe back in September when Christmas decorations prematurely appeared in stores, but we aren't on that schedule here. As my son said recently, quoting a friend, we like to give Thanksgiving a chance. I refuse to get all Christmas-y until Thanksgiving has had its day.
I used to wait even longer to start Christmas, refusing to launch project Noel until after my son's mid-December birthday. That holiday deserved a chance, too--especially when we thought he was too little to separate the two. I switched to the more normal Thanksgiving weekend during my years as a professional baker. In that era, if it didn't happen in that blessed lull before the storm that is December in the goody business, it wasn't going to happen.
That was still my plan this year, but Dave and I weren't in the mood on Thanksgiving weekend. We savored the quiet instead and made last Saturday decoration day at our house, starting with bringing in the tree.
In the years since I married a farmer's son, we've had a tradition of going out onto the farm to find our very real (and free) tree to decorate. We take the father-in-law's old four wheel drive Blazer to the back 240 and bring it in the old fashioned way, saw and all. It's a good time of being together out in the brisk cold, sharing a tradition that links us to generations of rural folk who've done the same.
This year provided the perfect Currier & Ives day for our tree hunt. We woke to snow, the convenient kind that pretties things up while neatly avoiding the roads. We trudged through the pasture's white mantle, finding and dismissing several possibilities (Nope, twin trunks. Nope, the fence is attached to it. Etc.),
before locating a winner that was growing down by the creek.
The men sawed it down, along with an extra one for my garland plans that would later prove pointless, at least for that day.
I never made it to making a garland, or a wreath for the front door, or any other projects because it took the rest of the productive hours of the day to erect and decorate the tree, due to its height of TWELVE FEET. Yes, they always look smaller out in the field than they do in a house, but that wasn't the reason for losing our minds so.
We all got carried away and chose a big tree because we could. With the vaulted stair area that also forms part of the sitting area being the best location for our tree, we hadn't the usual 8-foot ceiling height restriction. Maybe that wasn't a good thing.
None of us had any idea that a few more feet of tree would bring so many demands. It took all three of us to simultaneously hold the tree, secure it in the stand, and assess it for straightness (my job, of course), and it still had to be secured to the stair rail with fishing line to be sure it wouldn't fall (and it still isn't straight). We had to buy two more strands of lights to make a decent showing. The garland we had wasn't at all long enough to use, and we barely had enough ornaments to make it look adorned. Today I cut ribbons from some twenty-year-old Christmas fabric and tied bows around some of the branch ends to fill it out some. I'm just about to cave and get out the gold balls that I don't really like just to make the poor monster look more fully accessorized--as soon as I get more ornament hangers. We used all those, too.
Once it was up and decked, Dave said "Wow" a few times, being quite impressed with the size and generosity of the thing. Apparently both men think having an immense tree is cool. I just wanted to be sure we could still get to the stairs without knocking off ornaments. (We can. Barely.) It's just a liiitle out of scale with our snug barn, but hey--we can say we've been there and done that, went over the (tree) top just once.
Whatever its size and degree of difficulty, it still smells good. And that's one of my favorite Christmas treats--the crisp, resinous scent of a real tree, something we didn't have last year at the parents-in-law's house. I'm glad it's back in our lives. I loved the hunt and the decorating, and I loved sitting in its glow while Christmas music played. Even if I don't get to do all the other small and medium touches I hoped for, it now feels like Christmas because we have the tree.
It's a good thing,too. I've got to hang up my Denial hat and get shopping!
In the wake of our Thanksgiving feasting with its inevitable leftovers, I had another frugal foodie inspiration to share with the world.
This former poor girl who hates to throw food away was faced with the question of what to do with a leftover cup of delicious butternut squash puree, which had been oh so lovely in its blue bowl on the big day*, but was now languishing in the reduced circumstances of a plastic storage container and approaching the limits of its temporal endurance.
Squash in need of a purpose.
Since I had just made my son's pumpkin breakfast muffins for the week, it occurred to me to treat this puree in the same manner and make a quick bread for grownup snacking.
I dug up a recipe from my files (Cottage Living 2006 RIP) and gave it a try, adjusting the sugar down since the puree was already delightfully sweetened with maple syrup. Other than that change and the addition of chopped pecans for a little protein, I followed the recipe exactly as printed because the alleged point of collecting these things (and I have a file crate almost full of them) is to test the recipes. Or, at least, that's what I keep telling myself.
Anyway, I'm happy to report that my idea worked. Now the world can know how to give purpose to a bit of leftover squash (or sweet potato, I'm sure) puree. The puree could even be frozen for later thawing and baking if it's post holiday time and one is sick to death of baking for a while.
I'm also happy about the lovely crack on top of my experimental quick bread because it's just so pretty and a sign of vigorous raising. Well, mostly because it's pretty--just like those magazine pictures that may or may not be real. Many times I've baked quick breads that, although quite tasty, had boring, flat or barely rounded tops, much to my disappointment. Taste may be the most important thing, but good looks are nice, too. Further testing will be required to determine if the attractive cracking was due to luck or a good recipe, but that shouldn't be too long coming, since t'is the season for all things squashy, and I love pumpkin bread from way back. I will report.
The magazine staff had a wild idea of their own that might compound the frugality. They suggested making two loaves and using one to make bread pudding. So if you have two cups of leftover squashiness and no desire to freeze for later--or don't trust yourself to ever carry out your good intentions and exhume the stuff--you could have two loaves, or a loaf and a dessert. Trash into treasure is such a beautiful concept, isn't it?
In short, a week after the Thanksgiving holiday, I'm still giving thanks--for my frugal loaf with flair. As God is my witness, I'll never have to throw away another cup of squash puree or dab of sweet potato casserole again. And neither will you!
Frugal Squash Bread
Makes 1 loaf
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 cup sugar 1/3 cup canola oil 1 cup leftover squash puree 1 large egg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour (Or just spray. I told you, I'm lazy) an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch loaf pan. Sift or whisk together the first six ingredients.
Combine sugar, oil, and pumpkin in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed of an electric mixer until smooth. Add egg, beating until well blended. Gradually add dry ingredients, beating at low speed until blended. Transfer batter to prepared pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour 5 minutes or until loaf is golden and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes. Remove from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.
*You know you're a serious foodie if...you transfer your golden orange butternut squash puree from the perfectly serviceable and already dirtied bowl in which you mashed it to a brilliant blue one just to make the dish more beautiful.
Today when I folded the laundry the socks that went missing last week were back! As we all know, that doesn't always happen. I was so satisfied to reunite them with their mates waiting hopefully on the shelf that I quit wondering where they'd been.