Christmas In August

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As it rolls into late summer, and we begin to harvest more and more from the garden (translation: the zucchini is becoming unmanageable and we start to consider leaving bags on our neighbor’s doorknobs, and running away before they can catch us doing it and try to give it all back), our thoughts turn to the winter holidays.   No, it’s not that we don’t have enough to do – there is always way too much to do – but because this is exactly the time to get the winter holidays under control, or at least something resembling under control.

And this means I’ve been dicing a LOT of oversized zucchini.  I mean, a lot.  Because I do’t have a food processor. Yet.  It’s on my list but it will show up in my life when it does, and I’m in no hurry to shell out $200 for a good one, so instead I mince.  This is a fair bit of work but kind of mindless and I don’t really mind it.

More concerning is that the zucchini plants keep producing and if I take my eyes away for even 5 minutes they grow to the size of my leg.  If I left them there they would probably grow to the size of Godzilla, develop Artificial Intelligence and take over the world.

I pick them to save all of us from that fate.  You are welcome.

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But back to Christmas and getting that sorted.   The monster zucchini and endless chopping is a key component.

‘Sorted’ has multiple parts.  The first is budgetary – we’ve done varying degrees of spending on holidays, but we’ve really been working to ratchet it down, both for our immediate family and those around us.  Which means a lot of what we do is homemade.  This year, Eli will be making some gifts with his woodworking skills, and we as a family always do food gifts.  Baked goods, for sure, along with our ubiquitous Peppermint Bark, but there is always food in jars to accompany, along with a handmade tag by my husband.  Last year we made infinity jars of Salsa Verde, this year it’s masses of Zucchini Relish.

Here we come full circle to the dicing effort.

By my estimates, we need 16 jars of the stuff and some to keep, but maybe more.  I can make 3-4 jars at a time, and each batch takes about 24 hours, because the onions and zucchini bits need to brine in salt overnight.  So for right now, each day I make a batch of relish, and then chop the onion and zucchini for the next batch.

Once the 16 – or 20 – or something jars are canned and ready next week, they will be stored for the holidays, which is when everyone wants sweet pickle relish, right?  I mean, what’s December without that.  But seriously though, this stuff is really amazing, and a complete labor of love.

And then, we will set aside the jars in a cool dark place (translation: box in closet) until it is time to line them up, apply tags and add them to boxes of cookies to share.  But the effort will have been expended in August, also the planning.  There’s no need to think of what to get the people we love, because it’s there, complete and ready.

 

Zucchini Relish to Eat and Share
Makes 3 pints

8 cups zucchini, finely chopped or shredded
4 cups finely chopped or shredded onions (yellow or red)
1 tablespoon of salt

Combine zucchini, onions and salt in a bowl.  Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

Rinse and the zucchini and onion mixture, then add to a large stock pot.

Add:
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups vinegar
2 1/2 tsp ground tumeric
3/4 tsp ground pepper
1 tablespoon of mustard seeds (any color)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 red pepper, finely diced
1 jalepeno pepper finely diced

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Bring the zucchini mixture to a boil for 5 minutes, and then turn off heat and let sit for about 15 minutes, which will allow the relish to thicken.  If you have hand-chopped the ingredients, use an immersion blender to process the mixture, leaving a fair amount of chunks.  Return relish to a boil and prepare your jars.

Here’s how I do the jars: I fill our water bath canner (this is an old enamel pot, but calling it my water bath canner is both accurate and sounds nicer than ‘old soup pot’) with water, and put it on to heat, immersing pint jars and rings. Wash the rubber lids separately, and don’t boil those.

Bring everything to a boil, and then when you are ready to can, pull out the jars onto a waiting towel.  Use a towel you don’t mind getting stained or dirty for this.

Fill the jars most of the way, leaving about 1/2 inch at the top.  Wipe off the rims with a wet towel and place the lids and rings on.  Be careful, because the jars will be pretty hot between the boiling and the relish.  Using a jar lifter or pair of tongs, place the lidded pints in the boiling water bath, making sure there’s enough water to cover them completely.

Boil for 10 minutes, remove the jars and set them aside to cool.  Once they are cool, remove the rings and lightly test the lids to make sure they have sealed by pulling on them just a little tiny bit.

Store in a cool place without the rings over the lids.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Search of Thanksgiving

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I used to think that the  endless proclamations of gratitude and blessings around this time of year were a bit disingenuous.  I was cynical at best, and not terribly convinced of the goodness of humanity at worst.  Why today, and only today?  But something changed – maybe it was my children’s arrival in the world.  Maybe it was the recognition that cynicism is the worst of all things, creating a false sense of superiority that prevents us from really enjoying what’s in front of us.  Maybe it was the return of an eternal sense of wonder when I took up gardening.  I don’t know – but whatever it was, it was a gift.

Thanksgiving is a funny holiday – like many things, the stuff we celebrate and what actually happened are kind of different.  A bunch of white people – including a couple ancestors of mine – arrived after a long boat ride to a place they had never been, getting here too late to plant anything to feed themselves.  They assumed that the land was theirs for the taking without, you know, ever asking.  Turns out that was the gift of a smallpox epidemic arriving in advance of said boat full of people, which left the land empty.  A lot of the boat people starved.  Also turns out that lack of food leads to tragedy – half of them died, and only 5 women were left at the end.  You would think we could have held on to that lesson and made feeding the hungry our top priority going forward, but humanity has short memories.

In 1621, the first full year of the Mayflower settlers, there was a successful harvest in Plymouth, and the settlers did feast.  Whether this was the first Thanksgiving or not is in question – other players include Virginia in 1619 and 1623, or when, in 1637 Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop did declare a day of Thanksgiving after colonists slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women and children.  I’m not sure killing people is much to be thankful for, but that is what happened.  While the colonists would have starved some more if not for their native neighbors, the goodwill between the parties didn’t last long, and it’s never really returned.

All that history aside though, I still think Thanksgiving is a thing to celebrate.  First, it’s our one holiday here that revolves around family and food, rather than gift giving or candy.  It’s literally a celebration of coming together with those different from you, which has a lot of good lessons for all of us about building bigger tables, and the discussion about who belongs at them.  It’s a message to stop and take stock of what you have, not what you are missing, and who you have.   It’s a reminder that some folks are lonely and have nowhere to go, and you can help with that.  It’s a reminder that the sharing of food is one of the building blocks of human society.  And it’s a reminder that most of us in modern society need to stop and make a list not of the things to acquire on Black Friday, but of the things that make our lives full and rich and blessed.

And for me, one day out of 365 days each year isn’t quite enough for that, but it’s a good start.  I think today should be for remembering and acknowledging that American history isn’t just red, white, blue and success, but also one of tragedy and oppression – and a commitment to doing better.  Let’s not just pardon some turkeys here, let’s actually figure out how to pardon – literally and figuratively – some of our fellow humans.  The ones with less than us.  The ones who said or did something cruel.  The ones we have no emotional charity for on a typical day, whomever those are.

I try to remember at least one thing I am grateful for, every day.  Whenever the litany of life’s annoyances take over, I make a list – my children, my husband, my home, my family, that I am warm and safe and well-fed, when so many aren’t, the sunset after the rain, my wonderful friends who make my life so much more beautiful and colorful.  And it works.  Whatever it is, whatever is on my mind, slowly becomes less powerful.  Gratitude, thankfulness – they have huge power to change the human perspective from what you lack to what you have, and to find strength to bring that gratitude into the world.  Thanksgiving becomes an action rather than a single day of the year.

For all the people and possibilities that have brought me to where I am in life, I’m so grateful.  For all of it, thanksgiving.

And to you and yours as well.  Whether you are eating turkey and stuffing or just sleeping in, may it be a wonderful day for you and yours.

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Early Holiday Preview

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Garden Gate at Dusk – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

November arrived, and with it the cold.  The other night it rained, and in the morning I found ice pockets in the downed leaves in the front yard.  The chickens seemed confused by the cold when we let them out to roam, and the heat lamp in their coop is on full-time now.

There’s nothing left to do outside other than tidy up the garden and yard for next year and prepare for the winter holidays, which are my favorites.  It’s time for a pot of chili and a fire in the wood stove.

It’s almost time to start baking for the holidays.  Maybe it feels early, but this is the time to start thinking about it.  There’s a few things that we always make – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookies, sugar cookie cutouts, and others that I’ll blog about, but most important is our very simple Peppermint Bark.  This is a great thing to make early and store in the refrigerator until it’s time to give gifts.  And it’s SO easy, and even small kids can do it with a little supervision

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Here’s what you need:

A double boiler or two pans, one with about an inch of water placed below one that is absolutely dry.  If water hits melting chocolate, it will make it grainy, but the water in the pan below will keep it from burning.

3 cups milk chocolate chips
3 cups white chocolate chips
Crushed candy canes
Sheet pan
Wax paper

Cover the sheet pan in wax paper.  In the double-boiler, over low heat, melt the chocolate chips.  Spread onto the wax paper-covered sheet pan, and wash out the chocolate pan.  Dry it completely either using an oven burner or a towel.  Repeat with the white chocolate chips, spreading carefully on top of the milk chocolate so they don’t combine.

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While still warm and soft, sprinkle in crushed candy canes.  Place in the fridge to chill.  When ready, break up into 2-3″ chunks and put in goody bags or boxes.   Let the kids eat the scraps and shards that aren’t big enough to give away.