Holiday Traditions

 

IMG-2067The bitter cold that had followed repeated snowfall and settled over New England for a week or so finally broke here yesterday, just in time for Christmas.

At nearly 40 degrees yesterday, it felt positively balmy as I was out shopping with my Mom, getting us stocked on groceries for the holiday and after.

With just a couple days left, it’s finally feeling like I might be ready for this holiday.  My shopping is done, the packages and (most of) the cards are mailed, and while I’m still wrapping gifts, it’s getting there.  I have one more day of work and then I’m on vacation through New Year’s, which I’m so ready for.

Christmas dinner is at my house this year.  My former husband and I divide the day – someone gets morning, the kids waking up, and a leisurely breakfast, and someone gets the afternoon, Christmas dinner and a lazy December 26th. I like both, and I miss the kids for whatever part I don’t have, but I’m also at peace, knowing that they get a great day without either parent missing out on everything.  Technically it was my year to have the morning,  but seeing as my ex-husband just settled into his new house and is building traditions there, it seemed like the best thing.  Traditions are great, everyone should have some, and none should be so set in stone that you can’t flex for changing situations.

Dinner this year is turkey, one of my more favorite winter dishes.  I try to roast at least one a year.  Making a big meal while trying to pull off Christmas magic can mean one person spends most of their day in the kitchen, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to hone what can be done in advance.  And the answer is that a lot can be done.  My four-cheese mashed potatoes will be made tomorrow and refridgerated overnight, to be baked just before eating.  Sausage for the stuffing can be cooked tonight and left in the fridge to chill.  Vegetables can be chopped and prepped the night before, as the turkey brines.  Even stuffing bread can be cubed and bagged.  And then there’s the benefit of keeping things simple – this year, just a very nice cheese board, with lots of little snacks such as marinated cippolini onions and mushrooms, olives, and feta spread, will precede dinner.  Pretty, and easy to make, a cheese board is just the thing for a busy day.

But the simplest thing to prepare and serve, popular with even the kids, is my sister Sharon’s Cranberry-Raspberry sauce.  This is our family variation of the traditional jellied stuff, and let me just say – it blows the doors off it.  Not only is it beautiful, easy to make and delicious, the leftovers can be swirled into scones, muffins or quick breads, or used as a spread on toast instead of jam.  I’ve never tried it as a cake filling between layers, but I’ve been mulling it over.  In short, this is not a sauce that will sit and moulder in the back of the fridge, until it finally gets deposited in the trash (or in our case, the chicken coop) once it becomes a science experiment, complete with green fuzz.

You’ll want to eat this stuff, trust me.

And it couldn’t be easier.

You will need:

2 16-ounce bags of fresh cranberries
1 16 ounce package of fresh raspberries or the same amount frozen
2 ounces of water
Sprinkling of sugar
1/3 cup raspberry liqueur, such as Chambord

You put it in a pot.  You boil it for a while on low heat until the raspberries break apart and the cranberries are soft.

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Let it cool, give a whir with an immersion blender, and pop it in the fridge.  You can skip the sugar if you want, but I don’t recommend skipping the liqueur – it’s what gives it the depth of flavor, and the alcohol will cook off.  If it’s a little sweet, a dollop of lemon juice will help.

May you have a low stress and delicious holiday!

 

Holiday Mindfulness

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

 

It’s 5 days until Christmas, and between work, life and holiday preparations, it’s a little chaotic around here.  With packages and holiday cards left to mail, and not yet even started on my wrapping, it’s easy to get lost in the list of to-dos. All that work on the Salsa Verde turned into gifts, with gorgeous tags made by my artist husband.  My spiced nuts are packaged up into gift bags and being delivered along with the salsa and cookies.

Modern life is so busy.   Not only are our houses supposed to be decorator-perfect but we’re always supposed to be doing something fun.  Creative.  Interesting.  Instagram-worthy.  It’s not enough to do enough – the pressure to do more and more is overpowering.  Yesterday after Connor’s first-grade concert, then it was class party.  We have Elves on our shelves, Advent calendars to fill, and even the kids at my daughter’s riding class were giving out gifts.  “I was supposed to do that?” I wondered, not for the first time, as I rushed out after to buy a last-minute gift for my daughter’s teacher.  

No wonder we’re all so tired.

Which means that this is the moment for some mindfulness.

We’ll do more baking this weekend, but it’s also going to be fun – Eli and Connor have an outing planned this weekend, while Kiera and I go into Boston with her close friend and the friend’s mom for a day of exploring.  We have a very special house guest coming to visit too – our former intern resident from last summer, H, is returning to us for a night.  We’ve missed her.

So it was time to remember that somehow, some way, the holidays always come together, and I know it will this time too. I don’t have to do everything perfectly, and if yet again I don’t get to making homemade truffles, it’s ok.  There’s always next year.  I have to remember that teaching my kids that holidays are a time of rushing and stress is not the message I want to send.

Instead, I want to send the message that yes, we put effort into things that make us proud to give, but what’s really important is what we give to one another.  There will be busy nights between now and Christmas, but ultimately it’s more important that Connor gets to wrap the gifts we’re sending to Auntie Liz and Uncle Joe over general perfection.  If dinner is ham and cheese and Cheerios occasionally, it’s hardly the end of the world.  If the Christmas cards arrive at some houses on the 26th, we’re not exactly committing a cardinal sin.

So this morning, after making sure the bunnies had food and water and were making it through the cold, I tossed in some laundry, put on the coffee and just..sat.  Looking at our tree.  Collecting my thoughts.

Breathing.

It’s ok to put it down sometimes.  No, it’s more than ok.  It’s necessary.  If your friends come over and there’s clutter in the corner, whatever.  Did you feed them?  Do they love you?  Is their presence more important than whether you did everything perfectly?

Today, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to go get my hair done, I’m going to work, I’m going to make something easy for dinner, and we’re going to sit and watch a movie.  Maybe we’ll make some sugar cookies, maybe not.

We are here, warm and safe, surrounded by love.  We have enough, and some left over to give to those less fortunate than us.  Are the tree lights perfectly spaced?  No.  Am I going to get everything done?  Nope.

Will I do the things that really count?  Yes.  Yes I will.  So will Eli, as he always does.  This year, our first year as a family, I don’t just want to celebrate what we’ve done, but also who we are.  We’ve accomplished a lot, sure.  But none of it matters if we’re harried and snapping at one another.

So sit.  Breathe.  Look at the lights.

Remember you do enough.  You’ve bought enough, baked enough, cared enough.

You are enough.

 

 

Holiday Spiced Nuts

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I finished the last of my work travel for the year, getting home late on Thursday evening, just as the kids were getting ready to head off to NYC with their dad and his parents, celebrating not just Christmas but his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  While the kids were having fun watching the Rockettes and checking out everything the Big Apple has to offer, Eli and I headed into Boston for a night, to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, then dinner in the North End and a little holiday shopping.

IMG-1978We got home this afternoon after a stop at the grocery store, and I got into serious nesting mode – we’re 10 days to Christmas, and we still have a lot to do.  Other than a few bottles of wine to give away, we’re basically done with all but the baking of things and mailing of a few packages and well, all the Christmas cards.  Just a little behind.

Since those packages have to be mailed out ASAP, and I always want to include some of my homemade treats,  I set out to make my Spiced Nuts, which are a great addition to boxes of cookies and fairly addictive.  I took the original recipe from a book called Food For Friends by Sally Pasley Vargas, which, if you like to give food gifts, is worth ever cent of the $4.35 that Amazon is currently selling it for and then some.  I tweaked the recipe to combine it with a recipe my Great Aunt Sally used to make, and I think the edits I have made turned both very good recipes into even an even better one.

I’m a huge fan of giving cookies and homemade things as gifts, but I tend to like things that are savory more than sweet myself, so most gifts of sweets get eaten by the other people in my life.   These nuts are a the best combination of salty, sweet and spicy, perfect for a cheese board, in a basket of goodies, or for a hostess served with a bottle of wine.  Ideal for cold January nights in front of a fire too.

Most of all, while a little time intensive, they are absurdly easy, with 2 caveats: Don’t stray far from the kitchen when cooking – nuts go from browned and yummy to burned very quickly.   These are great to make when you are already in the kitchen preparing dinner. And prepare the walnuts separately from the almonds and pecans – they burn easier.

You will need:

2 Cups Pecans
2 Cups Almonds
4 Cups Walnuts
3 Cups Sugar
1 1/2 Cup Water
4 tsp Vanilla Extract
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil (don’t substitute olive oil here)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
dash or two of cayenne (if you aren’t going to have small people eat them – if they might, skip this)
2 large foil-covered baking sheets

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix together the cinnamon, salt and pepper in a small container.  Set aside.
Combine the sugar and the water and turn on low heat.  Add the first 4 cups of nuts and bring to a low boil for 5 minutes.

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Remove the nuts with a slotted spoon and spread out on the first baking sheet in a single layer.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes, watching to ensure that the nuts brown but do not burn
Repeat for the walnuts, using the same sugar water.
Remove the baked nuts from the oven and move into a heap on the foil.
Sprinkle each pile of nuts with 2 tsp vanilla, then oil, then half of the spice mixture, stirring to coat.

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Spread the nuts back into a single layer and return to the oven for approximately 10 minutes, watching closely.

Remove from the oven and let cool.  Combine the nuts into a container.  Use within 10-14 days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Stockpile

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It’s freezing this morning, at about 18 degrees F, and the house feels like it – I woke up this morning to the igniter having gone off  and the house was very, very cold.  A simple reset got it working, but the house will take a while to warm up.

The other night we arrived home from our wonderful Thanksgiving road trip to visit my sister, brother-in-law and their family in upstate New York with a lot of Black Friday loot.  Mostly for us, although we did bring home a little extra on request.  This isn’t your typical Black Friday shopping – we did it all at a place about 30 minutes from her house called The Carrot Barn, a family farm that has a wonderful little sandwich and baked goods counter, local meats, candles and pottery, and a lot else besides.  But the thing that had us going an extra 26 miles west before turning to come home was their bulk vegetables – priced, for the most part, infinitely cheaper than I could ever source here, and locally grown.  Our haul includes 20 pounds of onions, 10 pounds of carrots, 5 pounds of turnips, 25 pounds of potatoes, and a bushel each of butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

We tossed in a Christmas wreath, some garlic, a spaghetti squash and a few other goodies, but the majority of what we spent yesterday is an investment in warm meals for the future.  Besides the carrots and the turnips, these are all ‘keeper foods’ these will winter over in the kitchen by the back door in their boxes or bags, and slowly – or less slowly – get used up.  Last year the onions lasted until February, and the sweet potatoes longer than that.  I guess that’s a perk of our old, drafty house, that the kitchen stays cool enough for vegetable storage.

The first squash became Butternut Squash Lasagna with Garlic and Rosemary for our second round of Thanksgiving last night with my other sister and family.  Today, aside from some holiday decorating, we’re almost 100% dedicated to storm preparation, as 8-13″ of snow and ice are due in starting later today.   This means clearing the pumpkins from the porch by saving those that will become future meals in the kitchen and giving the rest to the chickens, who love a good pumpkin for a treat.  We’ll also be bringing in firewood, and making sure there’s extra water in case we lose power, as well as firing up the wood stove just for the general coziness.   The animals will be warm and safe – Eli had already cut a tarp to cover the bunny hutch, so they will be protected from wind and weather, and we’ll shut up the coop with the two heat lamps for the chickens.  Add to that a pot of soup on the stove and some homemade bread or popovers, and we’ll be about as prepared as we can be.

But back to those vegetables, and the nearly 8 hours of driving in 2 days to get them.  Why, when we can just go to the store around here?  Farmstands abound near me, absolutely true.  Well, for one, we got a lovely overnight and holiday with my sister and her family, who I adore.  And while it’s probably true I could get the carrots and the potatoes for the same rock-bottom price around here, it’s not quite the same thing.  For one, I can chat with the farmer who grows them while I shop there, about how business is and his 23 grandchildren.  I know there’s nothing on this food he would worry about his family consuming.  For another, small farms are failing in the US, and if my dollars can help support one or a few, great.  Honestly though, it’s just good food, and we’ll eat it.  I love sweet potatoes in nearly any form, same for squash.  If I had thought we could go through them in time I would have bought a bushel of Delicata Squash too, but they don’t keep as well as the Butternuts.

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It  is the sweet potatoes though, that I am most excited about.  I eat them in almost every form except that which they are the most known for – candied with marshmallows on top (just ick).   Sweet potatoes are incredibly versatile, and often serve as my Paleo starch when I’m not eating bread.  I love to just slice and roast them with olive oil, salt and pepper, but the options are near-infinite.

This is part of our winter stockpile, and we’re just about done.  The freezers and pantry cabinets are full to bursting.  Our meal plan for the week includes homemade Clam Chowder, French Onion Soup, a roasted chicken, and a favorite keep-us-warm standby, Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen.  Food, that central part of human existence, is one thing we do right here.  As the winter weather sets in, our home – and our stomachs – will be warm.  I wish the same for all of you.  IMG-1882.JPG