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!

Advertisements

Hunter’s Breakfast

Here I am, cuddled away under layers of flannel pajamas and an over-sized hooded sweatshirt. The sun is just coming up and the quiet beams of light illuminate the icy stars etched on the window next to my bed. The frost has outlined the glass and framed the world outside like a perfect picture, crimson and orange leaves are waking and shaking off their night’s worth of ice and I can’t help but think of the determined people out among the frost, hunting. My next immediate thought concerns breakfast.

It’s the time of year when people don a contradiction of blaze orange and woodland camouflage and no one thinks anything of it. We see them at gas stations with large, hot coffees, at the diner grabbing a quick bite to eat, or walking along the outlying roads of the town.

I’ve known many hunters and they each have their reasons for gearing up each fall and winter and heading to the wilds. Some like the sense of getting their meat ‘the old way’, some enjoy the solitude, some are thrilled with the sport of it, and then I’ve known some who just really like the taste of wild game.

My husband and I were up visiting some friends in Northern Maine and they served us this delightful breakfast casserole made with moose sausage. It was incredible. Not only was it simple to make and good for a crowd, but it could be made ahead and cooked up when it was needed. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a breakfast so much, accompanied by fresh, hot coffee and a cinnamon roll – I felt ready to go out and conquer the wilds myself!

Hunter’s Breakfast Casserole

1/2 pound game sausage

4 eggs

4 slices of bread, cubed

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheese

1 Tablespoon flour

1 Tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon basil

1/4 – 1/2  teaspoon each salt and pepper

 

*You could very easily substitute regular pork sausage for the game, if you so desired.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8×8 baking dish.

The first step is to brown the sausage in a frying pan, breaking it up into small pieces as it cooks. Once it is thoroughly browned, turn off the heat and scoop out the sausage  onto a plate that has been lined with paper towels. This will help to absorb any excess fat from the sausage, especially if you are using pork. I don’t believe game is as greasy and you might be able to skip this step if yours is dry enough already.

While the sausage is draining and cooling, beat together the milk and eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, pepper and basil, stir well, and then add the bread cubes and shredded cheese. Once everything is mixed, add the cooled sausage and stir once more. Pour the whole thing into your waiting baking dish. Cut the butter into small pieces and place around on top of the casserole.

I usually put the baking dish onto a baking sheet before putting it in the oven, just because the eggs can be a little bit excitable and spill over the sides sometimes. The casserole needs to bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the center of the dish is rather firm.  Remove and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

If you are saving the dish for another day you have two options; you can bake the casserole and let it cool before covering with foil and keeping in the fridge until it is wanted – in which case you would gently heat it up in the oven, covered, at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or you can assemble the casserole and *not* cook it, but cover and keep in the fridge to bake in the morning – uncovered.

This meal could easily switch ends of the day and be served as a dinner, just add a cup of cooked spinach, broccoli florets, sauteed onions or bell peppers – you are only limited by your imagination!

Happy Hunting!

 

My Fair Breakfast

Of all the meals in a day (counting snacks and that bizarre meal eaten while watching a late-night movie that no one has seemed to have given a name…), I have the most trouble with breakfast. It’s a typical love/hate relationship, I know the popular opinion seems to be that it is the most important meal of the day, but how fair is it to hang so much on a meal most of us probably prepare and eat while half asleep? I don’t know about you, but when *I* wake up, my hair – left to its own devices all night – appears to be on the warpath with anything and everything in sight. Am I honestly expected to make a decent omelet under those circumstances? Omelets seem like something that should be taken rather seriously and I can’t take anything seriously while looking like I am wearing a poorly designed circus clown wig.

My inner breakfast conflict has often tempted me to skip the meal entirely, immediately attack my ‘to-do’ list and eagerly wait for lunch. This is *never* a good idea, I repeat, it’s a *bad* idea. The uncomfortable truth is that I need breakfast. My husband needs breakfast. My blood-thirsty hair needs breakfast (just kidding, my hair needs a retired lion tamer).

What’s a person to do?

Meet the meal that changed my mind about breakfast, in fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to say that it changed my whole life – at breakfast.

I found a recipe for Baked Oatmeal. Baked oatmeal is a revelation waiting to happen to *your* mornings, just as it happened to mine.

It’s the perfect breakfast food, being wicked healthy for you (full of fiber and protein while low in sugar and fat)  tasty as all get-out, and easy – I mean ‘pre-coffee’ easy, taking only about five minutes to throw together and 20 minutes to bake. Mix it up, throw it in the oven and then hit the showers – it’s ready when you are. How convenient is that? You can bake your oatmeal the night before and have it for the next morning, or you can *freeze* your baked oatmeal in individual portions and with a few minutes of defrosting, have a convenient meal *almost* at the snap of your fingers. Exciting, isn’t it?

 

Baked Oatmeal  (Basic Recipe)

2 eggs, beaten or 3 egg whites

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup brown sugar

2/3 cup apple sauce

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup milk

 

While your oven is heating up to 375 degrees, mix together the eggs, oil, apple sauce, sugar and vanilla in a bowl. When these things are well blended, add the cinnamon, rolled oats, baking powder and milk.

Pour into an 8 inch square baking dish and then slide it on in the oven. This will bakc for 20 minutes or so. To check it, stick it with a toothpick or thin-bladed knife and if it comes out clean – you have yourself some baked oatmeal!

Now, as I mentioned before, this is the basic recipe, which, while tasting fine, can seem a little dull. The awesome part about this meal is that the variations are endless. I personally like to substitute 1/4 cup of pure Vermont maple syrup for the brown sugar, add 2 Tablespoons of flax seeds and 1/4 cup of craisins or raisins. Yum.

How about skipping the cinnamon and adding a 1/4 cup of chocolate chips? That there’s the best of breakfast *and* dessert. Speaking of which, serve it warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and you have instant deliciousness. Brilliant!

I send a square off with my husband as a mid-afternoon snack, and pack one in my own bag to stave away the 3:00 munchies while I’m at work. Breakfast, snack, dessert – is there anything baked oatmeal *can’t* do? I think not. If we thought about it hard enough, I bet we could come up with a way to make it a satisfactory dinner food, too.

So give baked oatmeal a chance, give your mornings a chance – it might just changed you!

 

 

 

 

it came out of nowhere

I Love Leftovers. For this home chef, ‘Leftovers’ is code for, ‘Easy-Meal’ and that’s a good thing. I usually plan for leftovers when I can; cooking an extra chicken breast and stashing it away, boiling too much rice and storing the extra, or sauteing two onions when I only need one then saving the rest.  In this day and age, time seems to be as expensive a commodity as fuel and food and it makes sense to cook two meals at once, saving time, energy and thought.

But, even with all this careful meal planning, every so often I face an interesting situation. It usually goes like this; there are two more days until it’s time to go shopping and we’re running low on ‘regular food’. The main meals I planned have been cooked and eaten, the leftovers conveniently consumed, and I am left with a smattering of completely unrelated ingredients. A couple of eggs, a quart of chicken broth from Monday’s stewed chicken, half a cup of lemon juice, a serving or so of cold white rice from Tuesday’s stir-fry and some garlic.

For all my love of easy-peasy menu making and ‘second meal’ strategizing, I do love the once-in-a-while meal challenge. I need a meal to come out of nowhere – something recycled, repurposed, reconstructed, rethought. Something that is going to spring from the cupboards and fridge and appear in delicious completion on the dinner table – and, oh yes, I need a meal in less than 30 minutes, if you please. If there were such things as Good Kitchen Fairies, this would be the time to summon one, but as I am yet Kitchen Fairy-less, I must think of something all on my own.

Last night was such a night in our angled apartment. I needed a meal, a good, recycled sort of meal that was going to take the culinary cacophony in my fridge and turn it into a poem of  a meal – and fast. How do eggs, lemon, chicken broth and cold (slightly old) white rice sound?

How about Avgolemono? It’s alright if you can’t say it – I barely can, but thankfully for us we don’t need to pronounce it to be able to enjoy it. This is a traditional Greek soup that just happened to call for several of my misfit ingredients. Here’s how you make it:

Avgolemono

4-8 cups of chicken stock

1 cup cooked white rice (you can also use small pasta if that’s one of your random ingredients)

3 eggs

4 tablespoons of lemon juice

1 garlic clove, grated or minced

salt and freshly ground black pepper

In Greek, the name of this soup means “egg” and “lemon”. Ah ha.

 The first order of business is to put the stock into a pot and get it boiling. Once it boils, add the grated garlic and let it simmer for a minute. Now, add the rice. While the rice is being warmed by the broth, beat the eggs until they are frothy. Add the lemon juice and stir well. Now, this is the tricky part – tricky, I say, because if you dump the cold egg into boiling broth you will end up with a Greek-styled egg drop soup. This is Not what we Want. You are going to gently, kindly introduce the hot broth to the egg mix. Take a spoon and add a few spoonfuls of broth to the egg, stirring well. When that’s mixed in, add a couple more spoonfuls of broth. This warms the egg mix up slowly so that you can bring the two together without tragedy. It’s important that the broth isn’t boiling, so you might want to lower the heat to make sure it stays just ‘really really hot’.

When you have mixed enough broth into the eggs to make the egg mix relatively warm, stir it into the broth. Don’t let it boil again, or the egg will curdle. Take it off the heat, stir in salt and pepper and serve.

You’ve done it. You’ve made a meal come out of nowhere. Impressive, isn’t it?

because it wasn’t enough just to eat it

Surely my little chicken friend could be put to use in other ways – – surely.

Eggshells. They’re now drying on my widow sill, waiting to be ground up and added to  the soil around my tomato plants – a little trick I learned from my father-in-law. It’s going to help them grow big and loverly…

Ah so.

what meal is it?

I have taken to tying my hair up with ribbon at night. And, I just painted my fingernails a restful shade of lavender. I don’t have nice hands (I know, oh my… some people do, some don’t- I don’t) and I don’t have long nails (what a pain) but what I do have now are *purple* stubs of nails that look strangely adolescent.

Tonight we had Breakfast Burgers, a corrupted interpretation of a delicious experience I had in a Denny’s restaurant somewhere in northern New York this past October. I was with a literal busload of Amish people and we stopped to get lunch, I picked the most calorie-dense food I could find – a quarter pound burger covered with hash browns, cheese and bacon, then crowned with a golden, runny-yolked egg. Yum. “What meal *is* this?” I thought, “It has the best of All Three!” It almost needs a new meal category; not breakfast, not lunch, not quite dinner- What meal is it?

I thought my heart was going to clog up and stop, but I didn’t care much, it was easily one of the best things I have ever eaten. Ever. I was missing my boyfriend, lost in New York and the only one with lime green toenails in the bunch- it was one of those times when a heart-stopping meal was very appropriate. I promised myself that one day I would attempt to recreate this fabulously decadent meal.

Well, one day came today. I began plotting last week. Alex is taking me on a short vacation this weekend (woot woot) and we are trying to eat up all the fresh food this week before we leave, so everything has been weighed out and carefully planned. I had the beef, the eggs, the potatoes, the cheese, the bacon (which we don’t use, but I like the thought of it tucked away in the back of the freezer for a rainy day. It’s rather like the baby tooth you keep hoarded in an old box as the symbol of childhood past.) and the time to put it all together, PLUS it would use up some of the food that needed to be eaten. I warned my husband that this would probably be the most impressively bad meal he had ever eaten, but if he breathed easy and appreciated the fact that there was no bacon, he would Enjoy It. I made some alterations to the recipe as I remembered it to try to add depth and take away cholesterol, and this is what I came up with….

Breakfast Burgers – Ann Style

1 lbs lean ground beef (don’t skimp, get the good stuff, 85% fat-free or higher)

1 medium onion, shredded or sliced thinly

2 potatoes, shredded

4 eggs

4 slices of cheese (I used Vermont’s own Cabot Cheddar)

4 slices of bread (used to make toast, this is optional however)

4 slices of bacon (also optional)

1 tsp garlic

1 tsp apple pie spice (just wait, it works)

salt and pepper to taste

This makes four servings.

This meal is best approached in steps. Trust me now, I thought this out long and hard for days (because I am dense like that), steps works best. It’s like a list, and Lists Are Awesome. BUT, if you can think short and easy and come up with something better than what I have discovered, please, please, please- share your wisdom.

Step One: The potatoes. Wash them, peel them if you want and then shred them. I did this early on in the day and kept them in a bowl of cold water in the fridge. The onion is going to be peeled and shredded as well and added to the potatoes. These two foundations of cookery hung out in the cooler all day while I got my errands done.

Step Two: The burger. The beef should be mixed with the garlic, spices and a little bit of salt and pepper. I am not sure where I got the idea to add the sweet spices to the beef except that I was thinking of French Toast at the time, and how well those spices seem to go with breakfast. I mean, think of sausage- it’s got a ton of sweet spices in it, and we always eat it with maple syrup and eggs- don’t we? I heard that’s what people in Vermont do anyway… This step was also completed in the morning (or, my morning, which was more like two in the afternoon) then the meat was formed into four thin patties of Equal Size and left in the fridge to visit with the potatoes and onions.

Step Three: The Construction. This is an impressive meal to put together, but it comes off like a charm and looks really cool when you’re done. Firstly, the potatoes and onions need a while to cook. If they’ve been swimming in the fridge all day, they must be drained and then patted dry. You could conceivably cook them all at once in a big skillet, but I have a slight obsession with crispy spuds, so I fried mine in four small ‘batches’ so that they made flat potato ‘cakes’. Yum. It would be awesome if you had a Fry Daddy and could deep fry them. Double Yum. During this time, you are going to want to cook and drain the bacon too, if you want bacon. This step could probably be done earlier in the day and the bacon reheated when needed.

When I had half the potatoes done and waiting on the side, I started to cook the burgers. Since I used very lean meat, and didn’t want to use a bunch of fat to fry the burgers in, I just put a little bit of water in the bottom of another frying pan and waited for it to boil and then cooked the burgers in that. Now, you’re not Boiling the Burgers, heaven help us, the water in the pan is only to keep them from sticking until the burgers themselves can produce a little fat and moisture, and then they can be drained and you lose a good deal of the fat from the meat. Hmmmm. That’s a little tip I got from my mama.

So, the burgers are almost done, the last batch of potatoes is being removed from their happy pan, the cheese has been sliced, the eggs have been gathered from the chicken coop (not really, I got mine from the fridge where, thank God, there are no chickens) and you’re about ready to put this show together! How exciting… At this point my husband was lured in to the kitchen by the incredible scents, I ranted and raved and got slightly emotional about something I can’t quite remember, and we had a short dance. If you want toast, this would have been the perfect time to be doing that. If you opt out of toast, go ahead and dance. The bacon is now going on to the burgers and you’re going to let the cheese faint right over the whole thing, the eggs are broken into the now empty potato pan (I love it when I can multi-purpose cooking equipment) and are frying away. Ideally, the eggs should have runny yolks, but if that doesn’t float your boat, feel free to poach them, scramble or fry them over-hard.

Last Step: The finale. Put on dramatic music, or anything that is going to add to the momentousness of the occasion. Here’s how it goes: Toast. Burger with bacon and cheese. A portion, or cake, of hash browns. An egg. Viola. Ours didn’t have toast or bacon, so I layered the burgers on the hash browns, then the cheese, then the egg.

It’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Forever, because it will take you that long to exercise all that off.

It’s so worth it, though. That first bite should be the best, make sure to get a little bit of everything drenched in yolk. Oh. My. Word. It’s incredible.

20120213-221902.jpg