Heirlooms

I can be overly sentimental about the things I love; collections or bits and bobs of things that evoke a certain memory or glimpse of a bygone era. I am especially fond of those things handed down or gifted to me by family members – pieces given out of love and the desire to pass along a good story or two.

I have written about my Aunt C before and her knack for choosing just the right gift for me. We share the same birthday and she seems to know this innate part of me that few others see. This year, for my birthday, she sent me the most dear ceramic spice shakers from her own kitchen. Also included was a compendium of recipes and stories from a local Philadelphia bakery called ‘Brown Betty’. Lastly, she included her own family recipe for old-fashioned lace cookies from her mother’s kitchen.

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I keep my spice shakers together with other special gifts from my Aunt C – a decorative light plate (Aunt C has small bits of whimsy like this throughout her California bungalow), a knob for a drawer to hold all those beloved bits and bobs, and a vase shaped like a bunch of radishes (to honor my passion for gardening).

I’ve made the “Plain Cake” recipe out of the cookbook several times now – a cake that was born from a Brown Betty family recipe shared at Sunday dinners and yearly birthday parties. The flavor of the cake, buttery and golden, tastes like home, like family. You feel sated and enfolded in warmth as it melts in your mouth.

If we are to accumulate “things” in this life, I am glad to have such a collection of things that lovingly speak to me of family and tradition and history when I use them.

Winter Traditions

Time has certainly gotten away from me this winter season. Isn’t that always the case, though, when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s go flying by in quick succession? I think bears have the right idea with hibernation. Ideally, I like to slow down in winter – try to go to bed earlier as the sunlight is so fleeting, relax more with reading or crafts, and cook hearty dishes whose leftovers taste better as the days wear on.

I don’t think I have a favorite season. I seem to appreciate each natural cycle of the year for its unique personality – spring brings a sense of hope and awakening and rejuvenation as the days lengthen and stretch their legs, summer is full of energy and doing and our attempt to wring every last bit of joy out of each day, autumn is a riot of color as the leaves change and the heat and humidity give way to “sweater weather”, and winter is full of tradition, change, and expectation as we enter the new year.

I love our winter family traditions here in Philadelphia. They have changed over the years (my father no longer types out a Christmas morning letter from Santa, but the dining room centerpiece from the local florist arrives years after year) and feel a bit different than they did when I was a child, but the ritual layers beneath are mostly the same. I still think that there is something quite magical about the whole season despite the dark and cold that surrounds us.

Preparation – 5 or so years ago, our next-door-neighbors started a tradition called “Advent Soup Night”. In the Catholic tradition, Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas when Christians look forward to the joy that Jesus’ birth brings. It is a time of reflection and quiet as individuals think about all that has transpired in the past year and look ahead to the excitement and fresh start that is implicit with the coming of a new one. We celebrate this season by getting together with our neighbors and friends each Sunday evening for 4 weeks before Christmas. The evening notably features soup and bread. Each evening features anywhere from 2-4 soups depending on who is trying out a new recipe or if there is demand for an old favorite. Over the years, people have added small appetizers, wine, and dessert, turning our humble meal into a bit of a feast. Before eating, our host leads us in a reflection that is universal to all guests regardless of personal faith. Often the themes address darkness, light, hope, joy, sorrow, and peace. Then we sing a verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before everyone grabs a bowl and heads into the kitchen. Advent Soup has become one of the most important traditions in my holiday season and I often find myself out of sorts if I have to miss a night due to work.

The tree – As long as my mother lives and breathes, we will have a live Christmas tree. A Douglas Fir to be exact. It’s scent heralds the coming of Christmas and I never get tired of finding the same, decades-old ornaments hanging from the branches.

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Easy, peasy Christmas banner

The lights – We always have little electric candles in the window. Actually, we keep these up year round. At Christmas, my brother and I add lights to the exterior of the house, carrying on the job my father would have done. There is nothing more comforting than coming home to those warm, tiny lights. No matter how long or how bad my day, I can always find my way home.

The food – Cookies are imperative. Each year, I try out a new recipe or two in addition to the tried and true “roll out cookie”. This year I added spiced and candied nuts to the mix. I usually gift these treats along with other edibles I have preserved throughout the year. I find baking very soothing. And what is more satisfying than a warm, homemade cookie?

The gardens – My mom and I have love taking in the holiday lights display at Longwood Gardens. I look forward to dinner in their cafe, hot chocolate, and strolling the grounds as the sun settles in for the night. In the dark, the landscape is a sea of colored lights upon the trees. The conservatory has a different theme each year – this year it is “stars” – that is elaborately conveyed through the many rooms of flowers and other flora.

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Roof of the conservatory

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Paper lanterns

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Halo of stars

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Kumquat Tree

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Water features

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Fantasy table display

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Outdoor display

Soup Season

I love soup.

If for nothing else, I love fall and winter because they are soup seasons. There is something very comforting about sipping warm broth on a blustery evening. My neighbors are also big fans of soup and we gather every Sunday during Advent (the month-long season of preparation before Christmas) for a soup night where we enjoy the company of friends and family, give thanks for the many blessings we have, and look forward to the coming new year. Each Sunday brings a new group of soups and we eat bowl after bowl of long-time favorites and new variations. I look forward to this tradition every year. Maybe more so than Christmas itself.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of meals in big pots. I am especially fond of her bright orange Le Creuset dutch oven that I can only now just lift. A lot of good, family meals have come out of the piece of crockery – meaty, melt-in-your-mouth pot roasts with a menagerie of root vegetables and burgundy broth that was sometimes served with creamy mashed potatoes or over egg noodles, pork roasts with apples and tart apricot glaze drippings, and hearty stews with deep brown gravy that creeps up the flesh of crusty bread as you clean your bowl. The other big pot is a silver stock pot that was used to wilt collards and kale for traditional southern “greens”. Sometimes the remains of a chicken or ham hocks or turkey legs would find their way in for stock. We would ladle out thick, green split pea soup or maybe a variation on a corn chowder or possibly something bursting with beans of all shapes and sizes.

Soup is easily my favorite meal. You can make a soup as complicated or as simple as you like given your time frame and list of ingredients. With the marvel of modern technology, we can now add a few cans of this or that and be done in an hour’s time. If you have a crock pot, cooking time can be drastically reduced as well.
Soup is also a very easy way to hide a multitude of sins as you don’t have to worry about getting every detail just right – you can adjust your flavor and your ingredients as you go along. Not to mention that it is such an easy way to incorporate those foods that are tremendously good for you but not palatable in their raw form. I will easily eat my weight in kale if it is in soup.

A friend of mine passed along a recipe for kale, sausage, and cannelloni (or cannellini) bean soup that she and her family had given high marks. My version of this idiot-proof dish is below. I was skeptical about the addition of lemon juice but found that it added a bright flavor that contrasts well with the smokiness of the sausage and more bitter flavor of the kale. This recipe could be easily made vegetarian or vegan if you substituted vegetable or mushroom brother and left out the sausage. In the future, I may add more vegetables and beans to boost the antioxidant value of this meal.

Other tweaks I made:

  • I did not use sundried tomatoes packed in oil as I didn’t want to add extra fat/calories. I found that my local Whole Foods sells sundried tomatoes in a resealable pouch that I can just keep on hand in the fridge.
  • Crushed or diced tomatoes could be used to avoid the mess of chopping whole tomatoes.
  • I used the “juice” from both the tomatoes and the beans.
  • I added a few extra leaves of kale and used regular curly leaf as I could not find lacinto. Wash well! Kale often has little tiny pests that look like gray or white fuzz.
  • I used 4 links of italian-style turkey sausage. I cooked it first then cut it into pieces.

The recipe says that it serves 4, but unless your family includes 4 giants it will easily feed you several times over. I placed a few portions in the freezer for later this winter. As a single lady, I do not shy away from recipes that make many portions as I love being able to pull things out of my freezer that are already made!

Kale, Sausage, and Cannelloni Soup

* 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

* 3 to 4 sausage links

* 2 cloves of garlic, minced

* 2 cans of cannelloni beans

* 1 can of whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

* 40 ounces of low sodium chicken broth

* 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, julienned, packed in oil and patted dry before using

* 1 bunch (6 to 8 leaves) of lacinto kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped

* juice of 2 lemons

* 3 Tbsp grated parmesean cheese with more for serving

* 1 tsp salt, more to taste

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and cook sausages through. { I wanted my sausage completely cooked before being added to the soup } Add garlic and sundried tomatoes and cook for one minute. In a large pot, add chicken broth, beans, tomatoes, lemon juice, kale, 3 Tbsp cheese, sausage/garlic/sundried tomatoes from skillet, and salt. Simmer on low, uncovered for 30 minutes.

To serve: Ladle into bowls, top with more cheese and serve with crusty bread.

A “Lowe’s” Kind of Saturday

This Saturday was one of the best Saturdays in a long while.

I woke up entirely too late but, when I did, it was to a room suffused with bright sunshine and a breeze blowing the scent of warm grass and peonies in through my windows. Bali, my tortoiseshell cat was languishing next to me, eyes closed against the light, breathing tiny puffs of air onto my cheek.

Bali really enjoys lounging in the sink if you’re taking a bath

It was the kind of day you want to bottle so that you can take it out of the closet in the winter to be reminded that, yes! there are better days ahead. I am grateful for such days in the Northeast as we have had great amounts of rain lately and our summers are usually characterized by sleep-inducing heat and humidity.

I felt bouyant and energized. Strangely, those Lowe’s and Home Depot commericals that try to motivate you to get out and re-landscape your yard or build a treehouse make me feel the same way, so I told my mom that it felt like a “Lowe’s” kind of day.

I pulled out two bunches of kale from the latest CSA delivery that I had stashed in the fridge and set to work making kale chips. I completely forgot that I am not quite to the “eating kale chips” part of the post-surgery diet. I had perused several recipes from the Food Network and Smitten Kitchen and others before deciding to combine a few ideas.

Kale chips are unbelievably easy. Fool-proof even. Here are the guidelines that I followed:

  • Procure kale – wash – dry thoroughly
  • Remove stems and spines (I used a knife for this so as not to end up with lots of stringy bits)
  • Tear kale into large pieces (they really shrink in the oven)
  • Toss with enough oilve oil to coat but do not saturate
  • Toss in a few pinches of salt (I used grey sea salt)
  • Arrange on a cookie sheet
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesean cheese (easy on the salt if you add cheese or you might end up with some very salty snacks)
  • Bake at 300 degrees for 10 minutes.

You want the chips to be good and dry when you remove them from the oven so that they are flaky like dried seaweed. Otherwise, they become a soggy mess when you store them. I stored mine in an airtight container and others in the house have been happily snacking.

Into the oven they go!

Feeling confident, I decided that the rhubarb in the fridge wasn’t going to become a pie due to my current dietary restrictions. I flipped through my brand new copy of Food in Jars by Philadelphia native Marisa McClellan and set about making her Rhubarb-Vanilla Jam with Earl Grey.

I love this new preserving book because it focuses on small-batch canning. I do not have a 40-acre farm nor do I need to put up dozens of jars to weather a lean winter on the prairie. I am often frustrated wtih recipes that call for pounds upon pounds of fruit. Marisa’s recipes tend to make 4-5 pints which is perfect for a modern gal.

{I LOVE rhubarb. And as Molly Wizenberg of Orangette and the Spilled Milk Podcast will tell you – it is fun to learn to tame the “wild rhubarb stallion”. It’s a tart, intimidating vegetable for some. }

The Rhubarb-Vanilla jam receipe was easy, fairly quick, and an interesting twist on the conventional jam. I do recommend peeling the rhubarb as it is just easier to chop into small pieces that way. The earl grey tea really does add a little something unqiue to the flavor composition of the jam. I topped my greek yogurt this morning with the bit I had left in the pan after filling my jars (I actually got 4 jars just as Marisa denotes in the recipe!). If you attempt this recipe, trust yourself. You’re going to want to cook the jam a bit longer than 4 minutes because it will appear to be very drippy when you implement the “sheet test”, but take heart! the jam firms up very nicely as it cools in the jars. I wouldn’t go much longer than 6 minutes or you might end up with a brick of jam.

I LOVE this Mauviel copper preserving pan. It has enough surface area to allow the water to evaporate quickly. It’s definitely an investment, though.

As my jars were cooling I attacked two items on my “to do” list that have been bugging me for months. This is primarily because I like to keep my “to do” list prominently displayed as a digital “sticky note” on my iMac where it is often added to and not subtracted from.

  1. Clean out a particular kitchen cabinet that has been home to an ancient ice cream maker, two coffee grinders, and other doo-dads that are useless in 2012. Now I am able to store the pannini press, the electric tea kettle, food processor, coffee machine and other things to free up valuable counter space!
  2. Get rid of any number of the dozens of vases, collected over the years, that are cluttering the shelves of our back porch. Now my mom can see what she has on hand when we bring flowers into the house AND the shelves can be utilized for other storage needs, too!

It was wodnerful to go to sleep feeling utterly content, productive, and ready to greet another day.

Fresh

This week was the first for deliveries from Lancaster Farm Fresh, the CSA I signed up for this year. I am about to embark on a whole new life come this Thursday and I needed a kick in the pants to inspire my food choices. Often, when I go to the grocery store, I feel overwhelmed. There is so much variety and choice and my brain shuts down. What do I buy? What do I make? Can’t I just eat ice cream forever? I tend to end up overbuying and overspending with much of what I purchased going to waste.

I’ve been contemplating joining a CSA for several years now as my neighbor is a site host (pick-up/drop off point for the food) and you can’t get more convenient that walking up the street. A CSA share is expensive but I felt it couldn’t be any more damaging to my wallet than Whole Foods. So I gathered up my nerve and signed up for a share of fruit and eggs and a half share of veggies. The total cost ran me about $700 for 25 deliveries of vegetables, 22 deliveries of fruit, and 12 deliveries of eggs. Everything is local (from about 25 family farms in Lancaster County, PA) and organic and will supplement what I am growing myself in my own modest garden.

 

 

Look at all that green! It’s hard to tell from this photograph, but you’re looking at white Easter Egg radishes, Red French Breakfast radishes, Red scallions, spinach, green leaf lettuce, and bok choy. When I first peeked into the box, I felt a bit overwhelmed – “What am I going to do with all of this!?” Then I remembered that I had quite a few resources hiding in my bookshelf. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables and Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets among them. I admit to being a cookbook collector. I buy them because they are pretty or because I adore Jamie Oliver or because I want to be the kind of person that eats quinoa 5 days a week. I rarely take the time to crack them open and learn what they have to offer.

I bought Chez Panisse Vegetables because I wanted a sort of bible about preparing a wide variety of produce. I mean, what exactly are radishes good for besides a salad garnish. I love Alice Waters’ simple style – her well-written and timeless recipes feature food that is clean and delicious. There are no fancy herbs and spices to hunt for because she relies on the flavors inherent in each ingredient. She also does a wonderful job of teaching you the basics. Trust me, you’re not going to figure out how to prepare that artichoke on your own. The illustrations in her books are also lovely. Local Flavors was an impulse purchase via Amazon after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as many of Deborah Madison’s recipes were Kingsolver favorites. Madison tells beautiful stories about our nation’s farmers’ markets, what we stand to gain from them, and what we risk if we lose them. It’s the perfect companion for the timid farmers’ market shopper as she gives great tips on how to navigate the stalls and purchase just what you need. She advocates for grabbing radishes by the bunch, adding a pinch of salt, and taking a big bite. And so I did. I stood at my counter, chopped off the green tops, ran them under some cool water, spilled some salt into my hand, dipped and bit. Marvelous! Crunchy, sweet and spicy all at once. I devoured three more before adding them to the salad I was preparing with the scallions, spinach, and lettuce.

Tonight, per Madison’s advice, I wilted two heads of spinach in a frying pan with nothing but the water that clung to the leaves after washing and a bit of coarse grey sea salt. They wilted into a soft, dark green puddle that I garnished with lemon and served under a turkey burger for dinner. See? It really is that easy to prepare fresh, tasty food quickly. Now I’m down to two heads of spinach, the Easter Egg radishes and bok choy. I’m thinking the bok choy will go into homemade miso soup tomorrow with carrots and tofu.

As of this Thursday, I will be having surgery to place a laparascopic gastric band (a form of bariatric surgery that does not involve rerouting the intestines). It is a decision that was difficult and two-years in the making. At 27, I just can’t stand to attempt Weight Watchers again or take another diet pill or obssess about the latest fad diet. I’ve been overweight all of my life and this procedure offers me the best tool for success. So does learning a new way of cooking and eating. Giving up processed foods can be scary as it means giving up convenience. Joining a CSA is a challenge – a challenge to try new things, to incorporate more fresh and nutritious foods into my life every day (not just a few times per week), to become more familiar with what I put into my body. Being a more self-aware person is just another step in becoming more conscious of the world I live in and how my own choices affect other individuals and communities. When I support a CSA, I support myself and my own committment to wellness and entire web of people I am now connected to.

 

Reverb 10 for December 26 – SOUL FOOD

December 26 – Soul food. What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?

I have a hard time remembering what I had for breakfast on a given day, let alone what I ate throughout an entire year! Technically, this year could be considered rather disappointing in terms of what I ate given that I didn’t really try anything new or spectacular, I didn’t sample any cuisine in a foreign country, and I certainly didn’t attempt to cook my way through anything like Julia Child’s life work.

Bread cooling from the oven.

I did learn to bake my own bread and continued to make my own jam. These experiences were particularly significant because making things from scratch allows me to connect with food on a level that transcends basic preparation or tearing through a package. Since I’ve tended towards always having a rather unhealthy relationship with food, gathering the ingredients (I pick my own fruit) and then creating something from those separate ingredients makes me feel that I really am nourishing myself as opposed to just feeding myself. I’m amazed at how a gelatinous mound of dough can transform into a crispy, chewy slice of bread after a little bit of time in the oven. When I know where my food comes from, when I participate in the harvest, when I create meals from foods created by nature, there’s a comfort I get that doesn’t come from preservatives or carbohydrates or sugars, it’s the the comfort of knowing that I’ve given myself exactly what I needed, no guilt added.

Rhubarb pocket pie!

Reverb 10 for December 9 – PARTY

December 9 – Party. What social gathering rocked your socks off in 2010? Describe the people, music, food, drink, clothes, shenanigans.

Pick just one? Hmmm, that’s a challenge.

Somewhere along the line in 2009, I decided that I wanted to host a potluck for all of the friends I had made in my accelerated, second-degree nursing program. I love entertaining because it combines several of my favorite things: cooking, good food, and wonderful company. I can always block out the stress of actually having to plan for gatherings because I know everyone is bound to have a good time. Our group, it goes without saying, has instant chemistry despite our diversity. I am a native Philadelphian, but most of my nursing friends are from all over the country and as far away as Alaska. We are a mix of ages and backgrounds, having all gone to college for something other than nursing in the past. Before I knew it, I had a popular event on my hand with requests for repeats.

Since then, I have hosted two more potluck dinners and they are always the highlight of any season for me. I am continually impressed by the dishes that my friends prepare – they put such thought and effort into their selections! We have had risottos, homemade sushi, vegan cupcakes, hearty salads, traditional family recipes, and creative concoctions thought up in the spur of the moment.Sometimes we talk about nursing and laugh about funny situations we’ve found ourselves in at the hospital but, more often, we learn about who each person is outside of school. People bring their significant others and the circle opens a bit to include a few more. We play games like Apples to Apples or Catch Phrase that usually end up causing silly arguments that dissolve into giggles. At the end of the night, everyone goes home warm and full and happy, sustained for another few months before we do it all again.

Next time? I’m thinking brunch! Who doesn’t love a mimosa?

Reverb 10 for December 6 – MAKE

December 6 – Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?

This year, I began knitting things for each of my friends’ birthdays. On their birthday, everyone receives a heart-felt card and the choice of mittens, a scarf, or hat. Everyone gets to choose the color(s) they prefer as well. I use natural fibers that feel good against the skin and between my fingers as I knit – wool, silk, cotton, bamboo, merino, alpaca, mohair. I choose patterns that I think the recipient will enjoy wearing. I choose cables or lace or other little adornments that illustrate my skill and creativity. I am thrilled with how these gifts have been received – especially when someone sends me a text message to say “Hey, I’m wearing the ___ you gave me!”

Wood Hollow Mittens for Ellen

Throughout the year I also made strawberry jam from berries I picked in June at a local orchard. I learned to make bread that fills the house with an inviting aroma. I learned to sew my first skirt – something I am proud of even though I kind of dislike the finished product. I made my own holiday cards to mail to friends and family.

Recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day

For 2011 – I am determined to make my first quilt. I am determined to become a better gardener. I am determined to work more with my hands and less with my wallet.