Christmas Eve Memories

The apartment complex courtyard was unusually silent and empty. The snow had fallen after the residents of The Gardens had gone in for the night and nothing stirred, nothing made a sound. The tall, blank-faced buildings were hushed under a thin quilt of white and the air was so cold that it caught in my throat and brought tears to my eyes. The night was painfully crisp and clear and the stars glittered like shattered glass in the depth of black sky. I felt as though I had stepped into a fairy tale. We rarely got much snow, especially for Christmas and it was often blown about by violent East winds, filling the ditches and piling against houses and fences leaving nothing but a dusting on the grass. Tonight the wind was quiet and every inch of the dusty courtyard ground was covered in Snow. My brothers and I were bundled up against the frigid night air with only our noses and eyes exposed and those froze in the moments it took us to walk down the sidewalk to the parking lot where our big maroon van was parked.

We were on our way to midnight mass at the small, old church in town. It was deliciously late, another rarity, but it was Christmas Eve and if any night during the year was ripe for irregularity, this was it. I yawned and shivered as Mom ushered us toward the van. The stillness of the night seemed to seep in through our many bulky layers and infuse us with quiet awe. We piled in and after buckling up, covered ourselves with the several heavy comforters that were waiting for us in the back. Our van had no heat so we had to make the best with what we did have – blankets and comforters. I wrapped myself up, pulling the quilt over my head  and tight against my body and then rested my exposed forehead on the window beside me. The icy glass was painful at first but soon warmed to my skin and I dozed as we drove into town.

The church was almost as quiet as the town streets. The sanctuary with its wooden pews and broad, dark beams looked majestic decked in greenery and red velvet. The walls were baptized with the light of what seemed to be hundreds of candles and the flames danced and trembled around the shadows of the other members who had gathered. Hymns were sung, prayers said and as the bells tolled midnight, a tiny statue of the Christ Child was laid in the straw of the manger scene before the altar. It was all so achingly beautiful to me as a child and I sat on the flattened cushion of the pew, half asleep, with tears in my eyes.

When the service was over and the great wooden front doors opened, cold night air came rushing in and ended what seemed to be a dream. The congregants  milled out and went back to their homes while we made the short hike back to our big, chilly van. We bundled in once more, this time with a little more commotion because we were *not* going home as all the others were. The silence had been broken and our Christmas had begun. We were headed to a friend’s house where we would spend the holiday. Literally over the river and through the woods, across fields and to the next county we drove in the middle of the night towards our friend’s cozy farm where warm beds and Christmas morning waited for us. Presents, snow and a delicious brunch were just on the other side of sleep.

Christmas Brunch

1 lb bulk sausage

1 cup chopped onions

3 cups cooked spinach

1 red pepper, chopped

1 cup flour

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 tsp salt

2 cups milk

8 eggs

1 cup shredded cheese

Heat oven to 425 degrees

Grease a 13×9 inch pan. Brown sausage, onions and garlic and then spread the mix on the bottom of the pan. Top with cooked spinach. Mix other ingredients in a bowl before pouring over the sausage. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is firmed. Cool for 5 minutes before serving.

A Merry Christmas to You and Yours from Me and Mine… Enjoy!

before he hits repeat

Someone – please stop my brother.

The youngest one of us (who is also usually the most jolly) has been needling us to anarchy for weeks now.

“Can I play Christmas Music?”

“Let’s turn on some… Christmas Music…”

“Who’s for a little bit of … Christmas Music!!?”

“Oh good – I’ll sweep the floor… andplaychristmasmusic…”

He thinks if he inserts these words quickly enough into a normal, every day, inconspicuous conversation that we the old ones will be duped into saying, “Oh sure – wonderful idea!”  He thinks wrong.

As my brother must learn, there are rules. There is protocol. There are expectations and reservations and limitations that keep time from happening all at once and becoming a Horrific Mess. The End. And since I am so much older and so much more experienced and so much wiser, I see that these boundaries are what give the holidays their extra glimmer. If we go around playing Christmas music all helter-skelter any ol’ time – we will wear it out and the world might end, or we might start another Black Plague, or at the very least we will all be sick of the sound of it by the time Christmas actually rolls around. We, the old ones, must preserve the sanctity of the holidays from they, the jolly ones. *steps off soap box*

At any rate, the fact is that the holidays are approaching at a frighteningly swift pace, and I can’t believe it. I’m still dawdling around wondering when the trees will reach peak color. How did I get so far behind? Keep up, Ann! In just a few days the Christmas music will start and reality will set in and I must be prepared.

A huge part of the holidays, for me at least, is the food. Yay food! The oldest brother said to me several weeks ago that he was planning on loosing something in the neighborhood of 20 pounds in preparation for the holidays. I have no idea how far he’s come towards that goal, but I admire his gumption. November and December have a cruel way with waistlines, and it’s terrifying and mystifying and wonderful all at once.

The recipe I’m going to share this week is a little secret weapon in the food-fight that will begin in mere hours. It’s a veritable bomb of comfort and joy that utilizes handy leftovers as well as several other ingredients that aren’t Holiday specific at all, just in case you need to call a time-out and recoup your losses.

 

Turkey Soup with Quinoa and Spinach

otherwise known as ‘Holiday Pause Soup’

You will need:

3-4 quarts of turkey (or chicken) broth

1/2 pound turkey meat (which could always be increased or decreased to your preference)

10 oz frozen spinach

1/2 cup quinoa

1/2 medium sized onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, diced

salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbsp butter or olive oil

Optional other leftover ingredients such as corn, chopped roasted veggies, etc.

 

Dice the onions and garlic and then sauté them in your butter or oil in a large soup pot. When the onions are translucent and limp, add your quinoa and let it brown for a minute or two. Then pour in the broth and cap it. Let the quinoa simmer in the broth for half an hour or so before adding the rest of the ingredients. I think a little pureed squash or sweet potatoes would add such great texture and taste fabulous! Let this boil until the spinach is cooked, about 10 – 15 additional minutes and then you are ready to serve. It’s a clever way to change the outfit of heavy holiday foods and add some much needed yule-tide greenery to your dish.

Well, gentle reader, so it begins. Are you ready? Make sure to double up on your vitamin C and get enough liquids in the midst of all the merry making. Honor the things that make this time of year precious and don’t be afraid to take a pause every now and then to reset and recharge. Have a bowl of soup, count your blessings and go forth and be merry!

 

Eggnog French Toast (in other words, the holidays are over)

The Holidays are over.

And the whole world lets out a sigh. Half of us have already moved on, leaving the glitter of the holiday season for the more reasonable, rational business of Getting Back To Real Life. Others of us still can’t remember what year it is. I am the befuddled resident of this latter category.

Am I the only one who feels utterly confused after all the twinkling lights and sugar-laden foods? I always seem to stumble into January by accident and then can’t find my way around, I can’t remember what day it is or what I am supposed to be doing; for months my mind has been settled on Christmas and now it’s all gone. Sometimes I have to stop in the middle of the road and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” Mostly, I get honked at and people say mean things as they drive by, but they don’t answer my questions. The new year can be somewhat harsh to those of us coming out the thick fog of yule-tide cheer.

It’s times like these when I have to reset. I have to step back and reenter the year without being hungover  with sugar cookies and late nights. I do this best by hiding in my kitchen until things make sense again. The kitchen of any home I’ve ever lived in has been my default haunt, if I could sleep there, I probably would. I feel at home, in control, able and in my right element. After the bustle of December I am happy to drift back into my favorite room, brew a cup of tea and get this show that is my life back up and running.

This is a breakfast I made early this week to ease us back into the swing of things. I love french toast; it is a hearty, homey food that is quick, easy on the budget and easy on my queasy baby stomach. Usually, recipes have you season your dipping mixture with cinnamon, but I decided to try something new. Inspired by the residue of Christmas passed, I added vanilla, some sugar and a little bit of nutmeg to the mix and came up with eggnog french toast. Instant win.

Post-Holiday French Toast

4-6 slices of day-old or older bread

1 1/2 cups milk

2 eggs

2 Tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

butter or oil for frying

This is an excellent use for bread that is about to go or has gone out of usefulness. Don’t misunderstand me, it will not resurrect moldy bread, but a slice that just won’t cut it for peanut butter and jelly might be nigh onto perfect for breakfast.  Didn’t quite finish that loaf of bread you made from the last column? – here’s your solution.

In a wide bowl, mix together the milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. It may seem like a lot of egg, but I like the fact that it adds a boost of protein much needed in the morning. Whisk all the ingredients well and then heat up your frying pan over medium heat. Add a little oil or butter once the pan is hot.

Dip your slice of bread into the milk and egg mixture, flipping them over once and making sure that it is covered completely. I use a fork to do the flipping and then pick the piece up and let it drip for a moment or two before placing it in the frying pan. Happy sizzling ensues. Each piece will need to cook for 3 or so minutes on one side and then flip them over for another 3 minutes. The toast should be firm and golden brown. Depending on how big your slices of bread are, you should be able to make 4-6 pieces of toast.

Serve hot with lots of butter and warm maple syrup and watch this new year become a more friendly, familiar place! Enjoy…