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!

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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!

 

Entertaining Angels

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have even entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

It was actually something my husband and I discussed quite a bit before we got married – hospitality. I was raised around a table that often had guests seated at it and I wanted to continue that practice in my own home. Alex took that a step further and said that we must always have a spare bedroom for the guests who needed a place to stay the night. He lives with the assurance that we could travel nearly anywhere in the United States and have a bed waiting for us, his friends and relations are scattered across the map and would welcome us. He wanted to be such a spot on the map, a place of promised welcome.

In the almost two years of our marriage, our little home has been pressed into service more times than I can count. There is an empty bed and several empty chairs waiting for company, and that’s exactly what how we want it.  We have had the privilege of entertaining friends, family and strange angels alike and hope to do the same for many more as long as we have a roof and food to share.

The meals are often far from perfect (like my soupy lasagna, or the lemon pie with the inedible cardboard crust) and the spare room isn’t always completely free from storage (guests can go to sleep after counting boxes of diapers and spare cookbooks), but I like to think that we make up for that in warmth and good conversation!

Our little son is turning into quite the host, giving our visitors his best grins and entertaining them with long stories about his morning bath or nap time woes before demonstrating the strength of his tiny lungs or the great size or his appetite.  I think his charm is going to go a long way towards smoothing over the rough edges of imperfect cooking! This past week we had one of Alex’s childhood friends over for dinner. Mike lives in California now and was back in the area visiting his family and we asked him over for the evening. We had baked chicken, wild rice pilaf, and roasted butternut squash and then ice cream for dessert. Alex said that the squash was one of the more delicious things I’ve made to date so I thought I would share that recipe.  Squash is a perfect side dish this time of year. You can get all different varieties of squash at the local markets, but our favorites are acorn and butternut.  I have used this recipe for sweet potatoes, too and found it quite delicious!

 

Roasted Butternut Squash

1 large or 2 small butternut squash

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 Tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon poultry seasoning

1/4 cup maple syrup

13″x9″ baking dish

350 degree oven

 

Peel and dice your squash into 2-3 inch chunks – seems like a simple enough task, but I’ve been trying for years to find an easy way to go about this. So far, the most tear-free way I’ve found is thus: peeling the squash with a sturdy veggie peeler then using my Big Knife to halve it and chop it into cubes after the ‘guts’ have been scooped out with a sturdy spoon.

Toss the cubes into the waiting baking dish and add the remaining ingredients. Give it all a good toss to mix it together before popping it in the oven for about an hour. It’s ready to serve when the cubes are easily pierced with a fork or knife.

This is a good season for opening our doors to family, friends and angels, even as the windows are closing and cold weather is setting in, you never know who is going to bring an unexpected blessing with them. The food doesn’t need to be complicated as long as the hearts are warm that offer it!  Enjoy…

 

in the morning

Somehow I thought there would be more tea and cozy robes…

Welcome to 6 am on a Tuesday morning. Something has just smacked me in the chin and when I open my eyes I find myself staring into the large, brilliant and dark eyes of my two month old son. A look of victory flashes across his infant face before he dissolves into tears. Piteous, moaning, “I really mean this”, morning tears accompanied with much grabbing and banging – he’s starving, fading, waning, expiring and something must be done. I’m not quite coherent as I begin to feed him and check the time. I’ve been asleep for all of two hours. He’s been doing so well with the whole ‘sleeping’ thing, but every so often we hit a bit of a hiccup and neither of us sleeps. This was one of those hiccupy nights. I think of tea and my cozy robe and suddenly enjoy a swell of warmth as I start to fall back asleep, hoping that he will do the same. My little one coos and gurgles and I feel myself reluctantly opening my eyes again. This time he is smiling broadly. His smile has more charm and finesse than you would expect from a person who has no teeth, it’s rather irresistible. I pat his back, hoping a burp will make its way up and realize that the warmth I felt washing over me was not only the thought of tea and coziness – we are both soaking wet. Soaking, I say.

Bruin lies there, smiling his charming, gummy grin, both full and empty in all the right places. I realize at that moment that the morning will be filled with laundry and baths.

For me, breakfast is the hardest meal to deal with. I’ve spoken before about the cruelty I feel is involved with making people cook while still half-asleep, well, how about half-asleep and soaked with an infant who is also half- asleep and soaked? It’s just not going to happen! I’ve lost before I’ve even started.

Let me introduce you to my secret weapon. I actually have *two* secret weapons; the first is called a Rubber Sheet, a magnificent device which is laid down beneath the child to keep the entire bed from becoming damp and needing to be laundered (Ooooooo); the second is called Apple Crisp, a delightful dish that was once only thought of as a dessert option but is now rising with the sun into breakfast glory (Ahhhhhh).  Here’s how I do it…

Firstly, you need apples, about 6-8 cups of peeled, cored and sliced apples. As to peeling, you needn’t be too particular. I figure that as long as I get roughly 55%-67% of the peel off it’s considered good and anything that is left behind is healthful roughage. So there. Add to your apples about 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1/4 cup maple syrup and 3 Tablespoons flour. Mix well. Dump the lot into a deep, greased 8″x8″ pan. In your bowl put 1 1/2 cups of rolled oats, 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 Tablespoons whole or ground flax seed and 6 Tablespoons of butter. Mix this together until the butter has broken into bits and the texture is something like damp sand (with bits of oatmeal, of course…). Crumble this mixture onto the apples and then slide it into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until the crisp is brown and the apples are bubbling.

There are a couple of  ways you can make this an easy fix in the morning. I bake mine in the evening and serve it for dessert after dinner then simply reheat it in the morning with yogurt, or you could put it together the night before and bake it in the morning. Either way, you have an exceedingly nutritious and delicious morning meal that can be enjoyed with or without tea and a cozy robe. Enjoy!

the first man whose heart I won and the cookies that did the job

Roger lived up the road from the tiny homestead we lived on when I was a teenager. “Up the road” is common enough to hear out there, even though all the roads are flat as can be. To this day, my brothers and I have to say the words in our best ‘German Midwest bachelor farmer’ accent, followed by a deep sigh and then, “Poor Bob….” It’s become a tradition, and you’ll have to ask me about it another time.

But – back to Roger. I believe he parked his old truck on our front lawn the first day of fair weather the year we moved there, introduced himself and told us in great detail about having died after a heart attack and how the miraculous physicians at the Toledo hospital had resurrected him. My brothers and I stood amazed and slightly terrified on the stone driveway, but we very quickly came to realize that Roger had a talent and deep passion for telling amazing and terrifying stories, and sometimes they were even true.

He was sixty-five and retired from a life of doing anything and everything that was dangerous and just barely decent. When he was young, brave and insanely good-looking he shipped himself off to the jungles of who-knows-where to fight some smokey war and when he came home he married a fiery Quaker girl and kept right on fighting. He was a widower now with not much adventure left in his hard-used heart, so he took up with our farming ventures and was always deeply interested in whatever it was we had going on. He would park his truck on the side of the road and lean against our fence and talk for hours if we’d let him. He never came in the fence, never stepped foot inside the house, he was just as happy as could be standing on the side of the road telling stories and doling out advice.

One day I baked him cookies and he ate them right there.

“Annie – I swear you’re gonna make some poor shmuck a good wife someday! Mark my words. Why, if I were a hundred years younger, your mama would have me to deal with!”

I blushed deeply and didn’t know what to say. I was fifteen and still reeling from the dizzying heights of my most awkward phase.  “You know, you remind me something of my Marty – she was quiet and all domestic and ornery as heck! ” I tucked his words inside and kept them there as protection against the spinsterhood I saw rapidly approaching (at fifteen!!)

He would spoil us with warm, juicy Indiana melons in the summer – a luxury we could never really afford, and we baked for him. One spring he presented me with the loveliest yellow rose bush that fragranced my entire garden. He watched us ‘grow out our pinfeathers’ as it were, and go from a bunch of ambitious kids to a handful of dreamy-eyed young adults bent on moving far from home and finding adventure of our own.

 

Roger’s Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter or shortening

1 cup each brown and white sugars

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon each baking soda and salt

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats

1 cup raisins

I admit, this recipe doesn’t seem to hit the mark health-wise but it certainly reminds me of good times and the sweet man who lived up the road and made a very awkward, frizzy-haired teenager feel pretty with his blatant praise. In my old recipe notebook I’ve scribbled out the proportions for tripling the recipe, which goes to show you how well-loved these cookies were, simple though they be!

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the fat and sugars then beat in the eggs until the mix is ‘fluffy’. Add the vanilla and stir again, then add your dry ingredients. Stir to combine well then drop the cookies with a cookie scoop onto a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes.

Share with a neighbor, served with icy milk on a warm Spring day.

 

dessert for the dessert-challenged

Desserts are not my specialty. Whenever I am asked to bring one to a gathering or dinner, my heart chokes on a beat a little. My favorite go-to recipe for dessert has been apple crisp or, *gasp*, boxed lemon meringue pie with a homemade cardboard crust and wilted meringue. I do brownies and the occasional cookie – but that’s about it. I admit it –  I’m a dessert disaster waiting to happen to a friendly neighborhood gathering near you.

Add the fact that Alex and I, as well as most of our friends are trying to eat healthier – less sugar, less fat and less dessert in general and you have a first-class dessert emergency.  I need something sweet and satisfying that isn’t going to kill anyone – this removes ooey-gooey brownies from the line-up  and boxed lemon pie with my special crust (which unfortunately may prove to be slightly deadly on its own).

Well, I found an answer that is going to set me up for a while and keep me in good graces for many friendly dinners to come.

Fruit Cobbler. It’s ridiculously easy, quick to make up and doesn’t have enough sugar to throw one of Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas into a coma (heaven forbid). I made it the other night to bring to a friend’s house and it was quickly consumed – always a good sign – and there were enough pleasant noises being made to satisfy my wonderings about its success.

Suddenly Fruit Cobbler

makes enough to serve a dessert-crazed crowd of 10 or so.

for the fruit:

3 – 8ounce cans of peaches (I bought the kind that is packed in 100% juice with no added sugar)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/3 cup honey or maple syrup

for the cobble:

2 cups flour (you can use whole wheat or white or a mixture of both)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

4 Tablespoons butter

1 cup milk and 1/2 cup plain yogurt

I know, “You’re using CANNED fruit?”

Yes I am, because this dessert is a balance between *easy* and *healthy*. This recipe was developed in desperate times for desperate situations. It’s a weapon, folks. I’ll tell you what, popping open a couple of cans of sugar-free fruit just about ended the war on time-crunches.

Alright then – on to business. Lightly grease a 13×9 inch baking dish and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Open the cans of fruit and gently pour them – juice and all – into a bowl. I say ‘gently’ because I recklessly dumped them in and was showered in fruit juice. Yum.

Next, add your spices and honey or maple syrup and stir it all together. This gets poured into the baking dish and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. Cut the butter into pieces and mix with a fork, pastry blender or your fingers so that it gets blended into the flour mix. This is always my favorite part for some reason, I love cutting in butter! Your flour mix will end up the consistency of slightly damp sand, holding together when squeezed, but falling apart as soon as you tap it. Pour in the milk and yogurt and stir it all together. You should have something akin to a very thick batter. This is going to be spooned onto the fruit, creating the biscuit top.

It’s baking time! Put that lovely dish in the oven and set the timer for 20-25 minutes. Depending on your oven, it might take a little more or less than that. It’s done when the biscuit crust is well-browned and cracked in the middle, showing just a bit of its fluffy inside. You can serve it warm, in bowls with a bit of the fruit ‘syrup’ spooned over top and a dollop of whipped cream, or it is just as tasty cool.

So – I guess if you invite us for dinner and ask me to bring dessert you know what you’ll get, but that’s ok because it tastes good and until I get my dessert-making down, believe me – you won’t miss the surprise!

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!