Out with 19 in with 20

 

Growing up, I heard repeatedly that whatever you were doing at midnight on December 31st would set your path for the year. When added to the fact that I was born on January 1st, the amount of pressure auto-built into those two days was immense, literally from day one. Then I decided to get married on December 31 as well (it seemed celebratory at the time), and it’s a complete pressure cooker. Not to mention, most of my favorite restaurants are closed on New Year’s Day.

Now that I am solidly in middle age, I still feel this trifecta of the holiday squeeze. We’ve tried to move any celebration, minimal as it is, of our anniversary away from the end of the year landmark which is a step. For New Year’s Day, it’s best to focus on what is available — though since we no longer imbibe, and sobriety is now for the cool kids, it does seem a tad ridiculous that there is such a long list of closures on the first day of the year.

Taking all this into account, my truisms for ending this past year should serve me well into this new year as well.

  1. Rely on Asian restaurants – always. Chinese, Thai, Indian — have several favorites and one is bound to be open on January 1 (much like Christmas). This year, City Lights of China in Dupont Circle opened right on time at 11:30 am — just in time for brunch with friends. Next, rely on tried and true institutions — there will always be a museum open, somewhere close by. This year time at the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum — and the piece above reminds me of my own olden days of New Years gone by on the town (Karen LaMonte’s Reclining Dress).
  2. Stick to the basics when it comes to activities — what do you really love? What is the one place that offers solace? For me, it’s the East Potomac Golf Course. It’s where I met my husband, played endless rounds with friends in my 20’s and it’s where my kiddo had her first golf lesson. It’s no country club, but it is gold. We really should’ve gotten married here.
  3. Midnight — well that’s all bonk. On the years I’ve been fast asleep it didn’t predestine me to great sleep the following year; the years I’ve been out late champagne-ing with friends didn’t necessarily predict a year filled with bubbles. Now we hygge on the last night of the year — carpet camp-out, appetizers from Trader Joe’s and possibly too much pie. This year, I did forget to light our TJ cedar candles; and don’t think I don’t miss black dresses, stockings with runs and the champagne — because I really do and I hope this kind of celebration circles back. But for now, it’s hygge.
  4. I am not too old. For all of us at midlife, squeezed between generations, career changes and concerns over college savings it is completely daunting most days to figure out how to get all the laundry done and ponder anything new. My own vow (not resolution, I don’t believe in those) is to remember every day that I am not too old to have what I truly want whether it’s a PhD or a book deal — it’s all about the focus and most importantly, eliminating obstacles. A fresh decade awaits – as Oprah famously mentioned several years ago — we’re going to be 50 (or any other age) regardless.

 

 

Stopping by the woods…

The first snow of the year is most certainly the best — and it looks like this one may not melt before the next one arrives. We are lucky enough to live near a network of trails, that are often highly used for commuting as well as general meandering. Yesterday’s journal to the trail, brought Robert Frost’s poem to mind, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as I had just taught this last fall — and it would’ve been so wonderful to do a reading live in the snow.

Snow is meant to give pause and as Frost notes, “He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.” Those moments when no one is watching us take a breath – how delicious it truly can be, palatable, just a small break to savor beauty or silence or even chaos unfolding. Most often we believe the “snowy evening” to be ethereal when in fact it is really precisely, figure skater-like, chaos — from the careful landing of each flake to the swirling of miniature ground-touching wind, snow — while generally silent, makes its presence known in crevices we did not know existed just moments before. The jaggedy, often long cracks in the rock face often mirror that of the soul — where oh where, will the soft flakes land, and will we have eyes to see them?

Frost carefully notes, and repeats that his journey must continue — as every journey must. His horse has naturally, as a staid and true worker, questioned Frost’s pause to ponder and wonder — with the not so subtle reminder of his harness bells — harkening Frost back to the path ahead. “And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.” The path, the promises — it’s all the same, and often feels never-ending. But the snow, glorious snow, offers those moments of reprise — the opportunity to observe peace and chaos existing side-by-side in simultaneous fashion and that loveliness exists within that chaos. Top the journey off with a short pour of Bailey’s after, and the day is near perfection.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Snow Scones

For the last several Januaries, my daughter and I have made a list of items to conquer in the kitchen over the next year — our list is not long, and it often includes basic items that had elluded us in the past (okay, mostly me, she’s too young to have a long list of kitchen failures). This year scones and flaky (not hockey puck) biscuits are tops on the list. With our weekend snow storm, and a new pastry blender, time was on our side to dive into blueberry scones.

As an English teacher, part of what I help students to understand, I hope, is that writing is 50% process and 50% action and that actual writing takes up only 20-30% of that action time. So, this is my new approach to cooking — goal, objective, method. The idea of making a homemade scone, with the merging of the butter to flour for the perfect crumble was a real stumbling block because the “idea” of it was daunting. I’ve made scone for years from using Fisher Scone Mix, that of my childhood and the Puyallup Fair — this mix only requires water. So the resolution? Spend the most time finding a recipe that is not overwhelming, easy to follow steps that actually make sense, and no rushing. Using my 50% process, 50% action scenario I assumed the most time would be spent on finding the recipe and securing a non-wimpy pastry blender, and ingredient gathering is easy (we take an elevator downstairs to the grocery, which helps with the amount of time spent on action items). The real boon of this project — a snowstorm — and I’d already gathered the critical items of blender and recipe.

After scouring around the internet, I went to my go-to baking site King Arthur and located a blueberry scone recipe. Now if you follow this link, be sure to compare their photo and my non-stylized photo — I think we ended up with a pretty good match and really, I was convinced this was the right recipe based on one line of the instructions, “Use a muffin scoop, jumbo cookie scoop, or 1/4-cup measure to scoop the dough onto the prepared sheet in scant 1/4-cupfuls, leaving about 2″ between each.” Muffin scoop! No needing on a floured surface, folding or cutting in perfect angles. And if no muffin scoop is available, two other regular cooking utensil items are offered as alternatives. Looping back to my goal/objective/method process — here we have a method for scone prep that is accessible and understandable that accommodates just about any home baker. Breaking down any project into digestible and accomplishable bits rests solely on methods that make sense and lead to results that the writer/baker/plumber/painter can parlay into results that lead a reader/eater/viewer/person with clogged pipes to understanding. 

For this scone experiment — the results are gone. Our little family devoured nine scones (that may sound like excess, but reminder: snow day) by mid-morning. Taste — just like the photo in the recipe — a slight crunch on the outside, soft inside, blueberries in-tact, just enough butter for a smooth crumb, the salt rises to meet the outside crunch. There is still snow, loads of it, so today may lead to a blackberry or raspberry version. Thank you King Arthur Flour!

One last gingerbread…

img_20190104_055100It is the last day of Winter Break…one of the saddest days of the year, to me. Yes, we’re only several days into the year — but the return to routine, is a bit like a door closing on a season that is all too short; we are urged from every direction whether our faith community or the news — to slow down, be mindful, take more time with loved ones, focus on what is really important…yet there is always a reckoning day – the day we must face the reality of routine and accomplishing tasks and we march toward a myriad a goals to be realized.

My answer: one last gingerbread breakfast.

This may not seem like a solution to most folks that see cake for breakfast as a bad thing — I however celebrate cake for breakfast in its many forms. As a person that has worked through numerous nutrition scenarios over my now 50 years (I have the privilege and anguish to have the rarest of all U.S. birthdays, January 1), I can say that cake for breakfast has provided the mental buoy that I have needed to glide into many challenging days. For those that find themselves agape, with the horrified hand to cover their wide open mouths (the sugar! the lack of protein!), I’ll tell you this — the serotonin boost from the anticipation of a spicy, dark cake breakfast soothes even the dreariest day and does more to combat the cloying grayness than any protein-infused breakfast.

While I often make gingerbread from scratch, Trader Joe’s is the best mix available — as soon as you open the bag, the ginger symphony wafts upwards to greet you, and an immediate calm covers you. Now, I do make an alteration to the prescribed mixing instructions substituting apple sauce for oil, which adds nutrients and subtracts calories. At the beginning of the season, we anxiously await the release of this mix and this year stopped by several TJ locations (thankfully we now live in an area with many) to see which days the stocking of the mix would commence — and yes, we went on day one. Four boxes pretty much sees us through the season and so as not to take any risks, we buy all four on our “fist day on the shelf” shopping trip.

Gingerbread, and all its delicious glory and grace is to me, metaphorical for how this year will go — layered flavors, spice, savory but sweet, a respite. Gingerbread rallies our little team, its packable and mobile (unless you put cream on top), and it is the pause before a flurry of snow or activity. It requires that you slow down — there is no way to eat gingerbread fast. It is quiet, rich, comforting when all else seems to be speeding away and out of control. As light begins to creep into the day, it seems clear that rain is not so far away — again. But for today, we’ll start with cake to trick our brains away from the desolate color, the fact that the routine is about the begin in earnest, and make small plans to enjoy this last morning of freedom.

Fondue: Before and After

On the left, our Christmas Day fondue spread and on the right, our Boxing Day brunch casserole — made with the leftover bits from the fondue spread. First, the list of fondue items included: sourdough cubes, baked french fries (Trader Joe’s), cornichons, honey crisp apples, ham cubes and broccoli. My interest in fondue came from three distinct directions: 1) I am a child of the 1970s, therefore in some way fondue must be in my soul. 2) Every night, my daughter and I listen to Flat Stanley which has a reference to fondue (and poutine at some point) and 3) I found this lovely Swiss Emmi cheese in the market just downstairs — a fortuitous find in my quest to have an easy but fun Christmas meal for our small family (it’s our day to read and go to the movies, and we’re anti-travel on any major holiday).

The best part of the fondue journey was our trip to Target to find the pot — though my husband insisted that from his memory you could make melty cheese in any regular sauce pan (because melty cheese is pretty much sauce anyway), but I wanted the full-in 1970 experience including matching skewers. We arrive at Target, and because we didn’t see any pots near the regular crock-pot type area (which I assumed to be a close match) I ventured to ask the first associate I found. First, he kindly explained he only worked nights and then offered to help us find someone with the right scanner for electronic searching. On our walk towards this new person, he wanted to know what fondue was — so I quickly explained. Then he relayed this to our new person, associate #2 — who looked at my like I was nuts. A pot for melting cheese? She decided we better get associate #3 involved who quickly proceeded to start typing into his handheld device – but on second thought, asked me how to spell fondue. And, key the Property Brothers “aha lights” and we have a match in the Target database! And there is one, or several in the store, on the aisle directly across from where we are standing! Now, all five of us — me, my daughter and three Target associates are going to see the magical fondue pots. As we get closer, I pick up the pace a little because it’s at the end of the row and the shelf looks pretty bare except for a display model (with skewers) — now I can show everyone how fondue works, right here in aisle 29! And snag the very last one (boxed) from the shelf for our little celebration of melty cheese. I am pretty sure we still left our three associates a bit befuddled…I really thought fondue was making a come back.

First, fondue is easy. Second, the leftovers make this great casserole for brunch the next day along with four eggs, some milk and a little mozzerella for the top at 350 for 30-40 minutes. If there is left over Emmi or other fondue cheese (who ever has left over cheese?) that would work for the topping as well. There’s been a lot of coverage in the news recently about “adulting” classes — and I like to think of breakfast casserole as one of those essential adulting meals — you just know what to throw together, from what leftover, that will melt well together into a one-dish meal. Easy, breezy and I don’t know why schools obliterated home economics — I know it doesn’t meet an AP standard or raise SAT scores, but really it should be mandatory learning for all high school students to understand how to turn fondue into casserole. As a teacher myself, any student that can write out the instructions on this conversion will show me not only creativity, but the fact that they can survive on their own, and that will always garner a gold star from me.

Jólabókaflóðið = Christmas Book Flood

IMG_20181225_064318Jólabókaflóðið or Jolabokaflod (Christmas book flood) is the Icelandic tradition of giving books (and reading) during Christmastime, due to the fact that most books in Iceland (Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature) are published during the autumn months. Our family adopted this tradition early on, since not only do we buy lots of books anyway, but it seemed like a good way to spend part of Christmas Eve anyway by stopping into a bookstore as part of our hygge-like celebration of the season. We’ve hit a variety of shops over the years from the local Barnes & Noble, to last year’s visit to the amazing Strand and this year to Politics & Prose.

Books are the backbone of this home – stacks are often found well outside any shelf, and really there are never enough shelves no matter which home we’ve lived in for any length of time. There are books in storage, in the basement, under beds and in closets. We also have three working Kindles (great for travel, audio books and music). If books decorate our home, a trip to the bookstore is a serotonin boost for us — to be near all of those words, with their stories (albeit some better than others), and to get a coffee and cake after perusing and buying the next treasure? Best days ever. No matter how we’ve often lived on academic salaries, lay-offs and what seems like an unending tide of medical bills — for books, while we may pace ourselves, we’ll find a way to buy what we consider friends and bring them home to be members of this otherwise small family of three. There is no such thing as too many books for us and here’s why — because these are our friends, we can always go for a visit — a favorite passage, or an entire round-trip visit, a quick view or an afternoon, doesn’t matter; like our human friends, some days we have more time to chit-chat than others. We love libraries too, more on that later.

Merry Book Flood one and all!

 

It’s Never too Late for Gingerbread

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Somehow 2018 has vanished, but when I found myself on the eve of Christmas eve with a bit of stamina left (everyone else passed out on the couch or with earphones on), I decided it’s just never too late for gingerbread. And maybe this will be my mantra for the year going forward. I went with the simple method on this batch, no rolling/cutting/decorating — so these look a little more like peanut butter cookies in traditional shape but with the distinct taste of ginger and cloves — with just the right amount of satisfying crisp around the edges with smooth centers. Recipe courtesy of my favorite flour, King Author.

I think of gingerbread cookies as the hardest working cookie on the Christmas platter: it’s sturdy, spicy and substantial. On the nutrition side, these cookies actually come in quite well: using my method these come in at 69 calories a cookie (60 cookies per the King Author recipe, using a 1/2 tablespoon + a smidge as a size guide). This recipe also includes a bit of iron, potassium and Vitamin D — anytime you can pick up Vitamin D in the winter, from a cookie no less, is an excellent use of calories. Analyzing recipes may not sound glamorous, but this one from verywell fit is excellent, easy and now I know about the Vitamin D, which I didn’t know before. Of further note on gingerbread — these are excellent for hikes, breakfast nearly year-round, with tea or coffee, though probably not with chai — that’s maybe too much spice?

Grinding Coffee at Costco

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I buy all our coffee at Costco — ok, all of my coffee as no one else drinks it in my house. And based on my age and lack-of-sleep pattern, I’ve learned to concoct a special brew that combines varying degrees of caffeine. For this process, Costco is the clear winner when it comes to the cost-experiment ratio of possibly dumping out a batch that either causes the jitters, or reduces motivation to zero.

Inevitably, like last Saturday though, I find myself along with my gal pal to be beyond the line where the Costco folks use highlighters to draw lines across our receipts — when I realize I did not grind the coffee. Again. I’m wondering if I’ve done this “forget” routine part of my forages so often that it is indeed, a routine. Thanks to gal pal, I didn’t have to trek to the car to unload the roasted chicken and baby lettuce before returning to the receipt line for my green sticker so I could return to the grinding machine. With the eye roll and nod I received, clearly I’m not the only person on this particular afternoon to walk this same path.

The commercial grade grinder at our local quasi-surburban Costco is wedged between the  .25 bottled water cooler and the condiment bar — yes, ketchup and ground-up pickles are mere inches away. This naturally creates an odd range of odors, and collection of people hovering in the same area. Not to mention, cleanliness is not first on the minds of either customers or employees on this stretch of industrial steel counter. On the best days, there is a marginally functioning tape dispenser and a pair of scissors covered in coffee mist on the grinder’s section of table — on the not-so-great days, you have to carefully maneurver back to membership to secure your fresh roast.

But when you remove the iron-clad tab, flex your triceps to open the seeled bag of two pounds or more of beans — the aroma snakes its way out and starts to cover the mustard smell down the row. Dumping those beans in is satisfying not just for the nose but for the upcoming victory over cheap condiments you’re about to win. Turn that dial to finer roast and you know it will be insta-coffee dist spewing forth in just seconds. Is there a word bigger than aroma? I don’t know and I’m too lazy to pull out the thesaurus just now (it’s spelling bee season, and I’m wearying on word-aides). Bigger and louder to the senses than scent, aroma, odor or all the rest — when that on button is pushed, nothing short of powdery intoxication comes forth — overtaking your brain and the rest of the counter crew. Instant seratonin boost, followed by waves of memories and expectations rolled all into one brown-ish cloud of desire.

And then I realized I forgot to push the off button when all the beans were pulverized, which would explain the continuing cloud of dust holding sway over my hands and possibly the folks to my right. Um, whoops; clearly I’ve been washed away in my own dreams of cookies at my great-grandma’s house, what kind of cream I’ll be using in the morning, do I have any cream, and maybe I should just drink this as soon as I get home.

There is no way to remove each and every brown crystal of former bean from your hands once you try to reseal the newly soft, pliable bag…solution: shake hands a little, then just rub in the rest so that while driving, you can reach your hand near your face, for a little whiff of what is to come.

Snow Angels

IMG_20180117_104226.jpgYet another snow event has blanketed the near-South, in winter wonder — this time not so much powder as last time, a little more wet and without a doubt this morning will be an icey mess. My family is struggling through a new health diagnosis for one member of our small team; and it is into this snow that I walked as I pondered the angels among us. While I am not the person of the strongest faith (in anything), I do try to take my time in nature as a gift from above and I regularly see the messages — not always the best messages, but clear interventions nonetheless. When I see a bluebird, I know it’s my gram sending a direct dispatch to me to either wake-up, or get moving — metaphorically, intellectually or physically — as standing still was just not her thing.

Yesterday, as I headed out into this scene the wind was starting its whip and froth — having just driven home a few nights before in a severe storm (in which a tornado touched down, too much to think about digesting that right now) I was a bit tentative as the first stings of wet snow scratched my cheeks. But as I walked on, the most glorious circular wind grasped the top of a rather overgrown tropical tree on the corner, and down plopped powdery-marshamallow like snow-drops all over the street. It was as if, a leaf full of snow gathered itself into a froth and joined the circular wind, and down came the goblins — or angels to smatter and splatter the pavement — and our coats.

For every frosty landscape, of mind or time, perhaps there really are angels, or breaths of air that buoy and comfort us. Perhaps not naturally, and maybe it is just wishful thinking. For today, I will be on the hunt for the wind to see if might just produce another angelic moment.

Hygge, Hearts and the Solstice

IMG_20171205_131721.jpgLast year the New Yorker named 2016 as the year of hygge — the Danish tradition of “getting cozy” during the winter months; for those of us with Danish and other Nordic roots, hygge — and open faced sandwiches are routine parts of the winter holidays and that the New Yorker, is sort of way behind. Candles and wool socks, warm rice pudding and pea soup are not a new things, and in fact, many of us grew up this way — along with grandparents with accents from all of the Scandinavian countries (hygge is not limited to Denmark). The idea of hygge is one of comfort — in both the environment around us, and in our own skin — which sometimes craves wool, snowflakes and soup. Hygge is not a fad, but an emphasis on the beauty of the soul and our relationship to nature; there is never bad weather, but there can be the wrong outerwear.

So to kick the hygge season off, here are a few of my favorite things:

Danish Sandwiches or Smorrebrod : during cozy times, it’s important to eat well — sandwiches offer creativity, variety and fresh flavors — and the opportunity to gather friends and family to partake in preparation. More on sandwiches from Serious Eats for further ideas on how to concoct delicious creations. Of note: if you’re looking for an excellent, and easier-than-roasting-a-20-pound-bird Thanksgiving, consider smorrebrod with a turky-ish and cranberry flair. We went this route this year, and a total success — amongst our variety we included a turkey (chicken works well) salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, honey and mustard resting atop a rustic sourdough cranberry bread, lightly toasted, with plenty of Finlandia butter as a base. Always open-faced, always use a knife and fork.

Juleharter = Danish woven hearts: a quick tutorial and template from the site Bits of Ivory. Red and white are the traditional color scheme, but going a little rogue is okay. Scandinavian holiday decorations lean towards the natural with use of materials such as wood, wheat, wool and of course these hearts which may adorn trees filled with treats or as a simple exchange with a friend. Legend has it that Hans Christian Andersen invented this simple woven treasure — like Santa, this is a legend I think is worth embracing.

Aebelskiver – round, ball-like pancakey donuts: a little trickier than sandwiches and a special pan is needed to create these treats, or a weeknight dinner or brunch in the winter months depending on how you choose to fill them. This recipe is excellent, but I simply use pancake mix and modify — whether with jam filling, ricotta, bacon or really any ingredient that is choppable and droppable into the batter in the aebelskiver pan. Tip: us a wooden skewer (kabob) stick to turn the sometimes wiley rounds of batter — this will take practice, and is totally worthwhile once you’ve conquered the pan and there is no smoke simmering from your stove. Do not use any cooking spray on this pan, unless a black tinge is something you crave with pancakes.

Bokaflod or Julebokaflod: book flood i.e. buy books and read books for the holiday season. This is an Icelandic tradition and most publishers there issue all their new releases in November to get folks ready to celebrate; and if you’re going to pursue hygge — a stash of books purchased for or during the holiday season, then you’re half-way to sandwich making. Think — a mug of strong coffee, a few butter (spritz) cookies, a few candles (pine or balsam scent) your brand new woolen socks and perhaps a high-performance fleece — a fire and now your stack of reading material. You’ve now achieved hygge nirvana.

As the solstice approaches — remember the outerwear — get yourself outside and enjoy the natural world, as there is no better way to begin to understand the majesty and wonder that abounds when darkness merges to light.

Happy Hygge!

p.s. don’t forget to post a few gnomes!

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