Welcome Christmas!

I wrote this post back in 2013 to accompany my Christmas playlist that year and never ended up posting it. I'm not sure why, except that I might have worried it was on the dark side of my normal fare.  But the words are still true. I wish you peace and hope. Enjoy this playlist here.

In recent years, I've begun to listen to Christmas music with an ear toward irony. In the midst of sleigh bells and jolliness, Christmas music often seems like a mask, a state of denial, a stretch to find small morsels of joy. I listen to "Deck the Halls" and think of someone sticking fingers in their ears, drowning out reality and singing "fa la la la la..."

At the risk of being a downer, I can't help but think of how hard this time of year can be. Sometimes we have the wherewithal to reflect, but often we work hard to deflect uncomfortable feelings of change and pain that seem to heighten during the holidays. Perhaps it's because the absence of loved ones feels especially obvious when carrying on old traditions. Perhaps it's because we put a lot of stock into making the holidays special for young ones who are in their most impressionable years, knowing that these are the memories they will pine for in adulthood and we don't want to screw it up. Perhaps it's because we spend more money than necessary on gifts that may or may not be appreciated, decorations to make us merry, and big dinners to make us full, and then January comes and we're broke, a few pounds heavier, and baby, it's cold outside, but the weather is not nearly as romantic as it is frightful. Occasionally we stop to consider those who are eating their Christmas meal in a soup kitchen, or alone in a nursing home, or those who have no idea it's Christmas at all. It may make us remember all we take for granted, but to sing "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," seems a little over-stated.

Christmas music - some of it, anyway - can be trite and grating when you stop to consider reality. And yet, it's the first thing that I look forward to after Thanksgiving. Why? I don't really know, except that perhaps it represents hope. The first and final track of this year's mix captures this feeling most fittingly - Christmas is here, right when we need it. We may all be making a desperate plea to the world to bring us Christmas joy, whether we're feeling sadder, older and colder, so let's all be festive and love each other. I hope you've had a great year and are spending the holiday with renewed vigor. Notice that the title of this year's Christmas mix is not "Welcome, Christmas" as though you were greeting an old friend. It's a command. Join me in my attempt to welcome everything that Christmas promises in the best ways. This is the time to welcome the season and to look forward with hope.


Cooking through cookbooks

Over the last several months I've been falling back in love with Excel spreadsheets. I started one back in July to track all my spending, and I feel a little silly being so enamored by it, but it's the only thing that's worked for me after trying out every other free budgeting method (the envelope/cash-only system, Mint, etc.). Then last week, after surveying my living room and all the cookbooks spread out everywhere, undoubtedly after a desperate search to find something that sounded good for dinner, I started a new spreadsheet. It's called Recipe Adventure and it's going to be one of those never-completed, long-term projects for which I could easily lose steam. But at the moment, I'm charging through like a mad woman.

How I'm doing it: I'm going through my cookbooks page by page and indexing all the recipes I would like to try someday, categorizing them by estimated but realistic time (knowing that prep takes longer than a recipe normally specifies), course/occasion, general category (like casserole, stir-fry, cookie, pie) and the key ingredients that stand out - particularly those ingredients I would classify as "occasional" that I either have and need to use up, or don't have and would need to add to my standard grocery list. This is a representation of how I look through my cookbooks, always searching for what I can make with the time and/or ingredients I have, and what I can make with just a little more planning. And because it's such a simple Excel process, I can now sort based on any of these things without hauling out all my cookbooks. If the weekend's coming up and I want to try something a little more involved, I have a whole list of ideas. Or if Joel's making a main dish and I want to contribute a side dish, all the easier. I even have a sub-category called "desperation dessert" which is a sweet treat I can make in 30 minutes or less. These are important things.

Here are two recent recipes I tried. I am having a terrible time with food photography lately (I blame dark winter days and wanting to eat food while it's still hot), so suffice it to say these tasted much better than they look.

Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce, from My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss. 

This was a nice way to use some leftover chipotle chiles in adobo and ground pork from a recipe earlier in the week. I also like that it doesn't call for white bread to bind the meatballs (because I rarely have that on hand) and instead uses zucchini to add moisture (I'm okay with buying a zucchini since I used up the whole thing here). Fresh tomatoes are used in the sauce, though if I make it again I'd probably use whole canned tomatoes since they have more flavor in these winter months. A solid weeknight meal that, for 2 people, made for nice leftovers as well. Recipe posted here.

Recipe grade: A

Teriyaki Stir-Fried Beef with Snow Peas and Mushrooms, adapted from The Science of Good Cooking by America's Test Kitchen (theirs calls for green beans and shitakes)

My complaint about ATK recipes is usually that they're slightly on the fussy side and use a million dishes, but their stir-fries (and almost everything else) turn out every time. And this is one of those recipes you really can make on a weeknight with a variable marinating time - as little as 30 minutes while you prep all the other ingredients. It was a little on the sweet side, but such is the case with teriyaki.  Recipe posted here.

Recipe grade: B+ (just because of the sweetness)


Sick day

Here's a tip: whenever you're making soup from scratch, start by frying bacon. There's a common theme to my favorite soups: lots of vegetables, beans, greens, and salty bacon on top. Bacon provides the bookends to the whole process. When you start with bacon, you can saute everything else in its fat, and then garnish it with the bacon bits (unless you tend to snack on those bacon bits while you're cooking - I'm guilty of it).

Ham bone, greens and bean soup. I have made a million versions of this soup, sometimes with squash and/or potatoes, or with pasta instead of beans, but not often enough do I include a ham hock in addition to the bacon! It adds a richness, people. And when you're stuck at home with a cold, you need a lot of flavor to break through your flattened palate. And the cabbage says you're in it to win it. I declared this my favorite soup of fall 2015 as soon as I finished eating my first bowl of it, after I blew my nose for the hundredth time that evening. 

It's kind of sick to say, but sometimes I really enjoy these sick days. Yesterday I watched a little trash TV (it's called Antiques Road Show) and went through a box of old pictures (you thought I was going to say Kleenex? I got through about half of one of those, too). I took the dog out for a long walk while my head throbbed, feeling good about the fact that I could inhale with both nostrils. I used both the dishwasher and the microwave, two convenience appliances that are rarely put to good use around here. I got dressed at noon and went to Costco to buy dog food and oatmeal and got a primo parking spot. I came home and took a bath, finished a book, and microwaved this soup for dinner. I practiced a few sonatinas on the piano. I lit candles and poured an ounce of bourbon and watched the cat flip over her scratching pad.

And then I posted the recipe over here, if you're interested.  (The book from whence it came is one of my favorites. It's filled with inspiring but mostly simple recipes for all seasons.) Try it the next time you are left with a ham hock/bone, or feel like having a nice conversation with your local butcher. Cheers to a hearty spoonful.


Book Report the Third

As is now officially a tradition in October (first time) (second time), here is an accounting of the books I read since last October.

1. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed - Everyone read this book this past year if they hadn't already, it seems. But what a story. Redemptive, gritty, powerful. Her honesty is the kind so many of us wish we had but lack the eloquence to reveal.

2. My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story by Luisa Weiss - I kind of despise anyone who was born into a life like hers that was spent between Berlin and New York City, rich with food and culture and romance. But I muddled through despite my jealousy and got a few good recipes out of the deal, namely her recipe for pea soup with little German wieners (I am a little ashamed of how much I loved a green soup with hotdogs).

3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert - Glorious. A steady-paced story that captures the quiet beauty of nature and the wilder, unpredictable nature of our souls. I loved following Alma through her scholarly pursuits and ongoing quest for answers. Lovely metaphors for life. And let's be honest, I was dying to know if Elizabeth Gilbert could write good fiction. Yes, she can.

4. Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr - Like #2 on my list, this book was just pure indulgence in food nerdery. I came away desperately wanting to name our house something as charming as Julia and Paul Child's home in France, dubbed "La Pitchoune," or more affectionately, "La Peetch," where some of this history takes place. Even more, I longed to have been part of the food dream team in their element, cooking for each other.

5. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner - I wasn't sure what kind of ending I was waiting or hoping for, but it was a gratifying read. It certainly wasn't easy, though. There were times when I felt sick with hopelessness for the characters that I had to leave the book alone for days at a time. And yet, not long ago I was in a bookstore in Boise (where much of the story takes place, coincidentally), thinking of buying another one of his books. As a Boise native, I was entranced by his portrayal of the barely settled west, of the deals people made with each other and with themselves just to get by, of the optimism that faded to dust.

6. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - This was a difficult follow-up to #5. The two main characters, both young, both vulnerable, were heartbreaking in completely different ways, coming through in the end with subtle triumph. There is so much to consider and imagine when it comes to writing about a country in war time, and for as much fiction and non-fiction I've read surrounding World War II, I find that stories like these capture the mindset of survival and the heart of humanity - particularly those of young people - in a way that makes me feel so humbled.

7. The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac by Sharma Shields - I never read these kinds of books - totally surreal and imaginative. But I am so, so glad I read this one in the name of supporting Spokane authors, because Sharma Shields knows how to write an incredible story. After the books I'd been reading, this was the most perfect palate cleanser. So playful, so funny and sad. A few gentle homages to my city, sure, but I found myself loving the Sasquatch and wanting things to end well for him.

8. You and Me and Him by Kris Dinnison - Another Spokane author, this time one I've gotten to know a little in the last year, wrote this sweet story. I think I enjoyed this book in that context most. But as best I could, I tried to read this young-adult novel through the eyes of my 15-year-old self and believed this book would have been a solace to me. Like the main character, Maggie, I was mature for my age and liked old music - would have loved to have worked in the record store Maggie worked in, and found comfort in making cookies.

9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - Clearly I was still riding on a young-adult jag when I picked this one up. What can I really say about this one, but yes, I was completely entertained. I feel like I am up with pop culture now.

10. Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell - I loved the premise because it sounded like a psycho-thriller. In the end, it was a misguided, last-minute grab from the library that made me loathe intellectuals writing about intellectuals. I don't even want to do a synopsis of this one. Even though I read the entire thing. Waste. Of. Time.

Partially read, to be resumed at a later date: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik, The Road to Character by David Brooks - I know I will enjoy these books, just not at the moments I tried to read them this year.

Accidentally omitted from last year's list: Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

As always, please feel free to suggest what should be on the list for the coming year(s)!


Two-bottle gingerbread

I've lived here long enough to learn where the afternoon sun hangs this time of year. So does the cat, and she has her seasonal spots by the front window. Right now, she likes the seat of the big green chair. In a few months, she'll migrate to the corner of the rug, unless the dog got there first.

We've been having the best weather. Each day calls for several versions of one outfit - early morning, mid-morning, and afternoon styles. The colors around the neighborhood are warm, the air grips my nose, and the crunch of leaves is still catching me off-guard on my daily walks. I just picked the last of the tomatoes the other day, and just in time: the lightest whisper of frost settled on my windshield the next morning.

And thus, I knew it was time for me to put away my most obvious summer clothes this weekend - the summery dresses that don't transition well to colder months, anything that has eyelet lace, or any item that looks like something I'd wear on a yacht. In my mind, that means thin fabric with stripes, though I'm guessing, since don't have any personal experience on a yacht.

It still may hit 80 degrees these afternoons, but on Saturday I found myself singing, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," switching out the word "look" with "smell," because I made gingerbread. The warm spices bloomed in the oven and I convinced myself that it is fall, because dang it, I just reacquainted myself with the sweaters I'd buried and now want to wear again.

This is gingerbread in a bundt pan, gingerbread that is so rich it calls for a pound of butter, and two bottles of molasses.

Seriously, two! I almost thought it was a mistake. But it was so good and tender that if it was indeed a mistake, I don't want to correct it. So just note that if you want to make this as written, make sure you have two bottles or one giant jar of the thick dark stuff.

One particularly spicy and welcome addition is chopped candied ginger. It's mixed into the batter so you get these nice little hot, chewy bits every once in awhile.

The jury's out on the lemon glaze for me. It's a welcome palate cleanser of sorts, something that cuts through the richness, but it was almost too lemony. A simple sprinkle of powdered sugar would be just as nice, though not as pretty as a glaze on a ridgy bundt, which of course you can make without the lemon.

But enough with the notes. Make this and feel good about life.

Two Bottle Gingerbread with Candied Ginger and Lemon Glaze
Adapted from Marie's (Simmons, of Bon Appetit) Rich Gingerbread in Classic Home Desserts

1 T. unsalted butter, softened, for the pan, plus a little flour
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 c. packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 3/4 to 2 c. dark molasses
3 1/2 c. flour
2 T. ground ginger
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. minced candied (crystalized) ginger, chopped fine
1 c. boiling water

Lemon glaze
1 c. powdered sugar
1-2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. lemon zest

1. Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a standard-sized bundt or tube pan and tap out the excess flour. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer at medium-high speed, until light and fluffy - about 5 minutes. Add the sugar and beat until evenly combined and smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in the molasses with a slow, steady stream, as is its nature, until evenly blended.

3. Sift together the remaining dry ingredients in a separate bowl, and stir in the candied ginger. Gradually add in the dry ingredients to the wet, just until blended with no visible flour pockets. Remove bowl from mixer and with a good rubber spatula, fold in the boiling water in 1/3 c. increments, until all is thoroughly and evenly incorporated. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

4. Bake for about an hour, until the sides begin to pull away from the pan. Cool the cake in the pan on a cooling rack for a half hour (it's okay if it falls a little bit). Run a knife around the edges if necessary and invert the cake onto a serving plate.

5. Combine the lemon glaze ingredients - the glaze should trail from the spoon like molasses - slow, but not painfully slow. If it's too thick, add more lemon juice; if it's too runny, add more sugar. With a spoon, gently ladle the glaze over the top and let it trickle down the sides to your liking. Serve warm if possible, or let the glaze set a while and eat it at room temperature. With tea, of course.


These beans

When I was 5 or 6, my sister and her friend rewrote the lyrics to Top 40 hits of the day and recorded them on cassette tape. They were hilarious. I loved it because it was humor I could understand at that young age. I remember them spending more than one occasion turning songs like Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love" into a song about a sandbox romance called "Saving All My Mud," and, as pertains to this post, Heart's "These Dreams" into "These Beans." The lyric "White skin...in linen..." became "Green beans...on china..." and to this day, the rewritten chorus gets stuck in my head: "These beans go on when I close my eyes..."

Which brings me to yet another post about beans. These beans are not the most attractive. But I will say they are among the best I've made. I did not plan ahead but I did have a free Saturday morning to quick-soak them (bring beans to boil in plenty of water, boil for a minute, then cover and leave off heat for an hour), as opposed to soaking them overnight. These beans turned out just as tender and creamy, and were ready by lunchtime. While they cooked, I washed windows. Several days later, as we ate the last serving of the beans, a bird had pooped on those windows. Seriously. Do shiny surfaces just encourage avian relief? "White poop...on window..."

Anyway, these beans are good. I'm trying to eat fewer carbs these days (greetings, My 30s Metabolism), but beans, these or otherwise, are simply part of a well-balanced diet. Take or leave the bread - I would be happy to add a bit more liquid and just call it soup. The roasted garlic makes it rich and sweet. The thyme adds a tingle. Just close your eyes and you will see, truly, that these beans do go on, as the reimagined song goes.

Here's the recipe:

These Smothered Beans (adapted from Food 52)
serves 4

1/2 lb. dried white beans (cannellini or Great Northern), pre-soaked
1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, top cut off to expose cloves
olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste)
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp. dried thyme (or to taste)

Preheat oven to 400F. Place garlic on a small sheet of foil and drizzle with enough olive oil to coat the tops of the cloves. Wrap the foil around it completely and set on a baking sheet. When oven is preheated, bake for 35-40 minutes, until the garlic is tender. Unwrap and let cool.

Meanwhile, saute celery and onion in a large pot in the olive oil over medium heat. Once the vegetables become translucent and tender (7-10 minutes), add in the bay leaves and beans and enough water so it is about an inch over the beans. Stir, bring to a boil, then back down to a simmer. Cover and cook 50 minutes, or until the beans are becoming tender. Simmer uncovered for another 10-15 minutes. Skim most of water off the top and then add the salt, pepper and thyme. Squeeze the garlic cloves into the pot and mash bean mixture with a potato masher to your desired consistency. This mixture will thicken with time, and it stores well in the fridge for a few days. Serve warm with toast!


Everydayness and enjoyment

Sometimes I listen to Gretchen Rubin's podcast "Happier." I find some of her suggestions helpful in building my days with moments of joy, reflection, and choices that positively affect my mood. In one of the episodes she spoke about taking photos of everyday things. I caught onto that concept long ago with my photo-a-day blog, and years later it's such a treasure. It's a different feeling than looking at photos from a wonderful vacation or other big events. It's the everyday things you usually forget, but when you document them, it's surprising how much joy it brings, because that's how life actually was. At the time it may have seemed like nothing special, but years later, it sometimes has more meaning.

I found these first two photos on my camera, which I'd normally think are completely deletable - I think I was just testing exposure. But it truly doesn't get more everyday than this, so I'm including them along with the more thoughtful everyday photos I usually try to post here. Just for fun.

My craft/piano room. It needs work but it still gets good use and is a nice place to be because it gets so much morning and afternoon light, and I love the lamplight in here in the evening. We plan to do something about that wallpaper...
Cookies on a cooling rack with more in the oven in the middle of the afternoon. (Look to the right - they're hard to see.) I'd just made another great recipe from Flourless - oat-maple cookies with apricots and ginger. Oh my word. These flavors belong together.
I did not do anything to this sky photo. It was actually like this and I was in complete awe.
Luna loves to sit out here with us when we're out working. It's our happy place (until the dogs next door start barking).
More smoke, more gorgeous red suns.
Different exposure, same sunset.
It's been such a dry summer. The things that normally dry up each year around this time feel especially dry and I find it strangely beautiful, if a little scary.

A few other things I've been enjoying lately:

[PODCAST] Case #3: Belt Buckle by Mystery Show - This podcast is all about solving everyday mysteries, mostly without the help of the internet. This particular episode is the best yet of the few I've listened to. Years ago a kid found a really cool belt buckle, and the kid, now an adult, puts host Starlee Kine on the case to find its owner. The resolution nearly made me cry.

[ALBUM] A Date with the Everly Brothers - I'm not sure why I but I love these crystal clear young-man voices, slightly twangy in their swells, so in tune throughout. I really wanted to hear "Cathy's Clown" the other night but ended up listening to this whole thing to get there. The album is on Amazon Prime, if you do that sort of thing.

[TV SERIES] Catastrophe - I fell in love with this paranoid/risky/risque/hilarious couple after one episode.

[FOOD] Shrimp on the barbie. True confession: I had never ever cooked shrimp until 2 weeks ago. I put a handful in a foil packet with melted butter, lemon and garlic, sealed it up and put it on the grill. It's a big-time treat for me. But I'm still trying to figure out what deveining is all about. I quickly learned I had to peel them, but the veins are still a mystery to me. Perhaps I'll look it up on the internet.

[READING MATERIAL] The New Yorker. Finally re-subscribed after continually reaching my monthly online limit. Coincidentally, this article is in the latest issue.