Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas in the Country

Many years ago on a snowy day on the Canadian prairie, I was watching fat, fluffy snowflakes fall from the sky with my kids.  The Christmas tree was lit up and the house was festive and cozy with all the holiday trimmings while the outside world was a swirl of white.  The kids were excited...the anticipation of Christmas was hanging heavy in the air and the snow seemed to seal the deal.  Suddenly one of them asked me, "Mommy, did it feel like Christmas when you lived in Oregon and didn't have snow?"

"Of course," I replied right away, because I remembered it always feeling like Christmas to me when I was young.

They couldn't imagine how it that could be true.  "How?  How did it feel like Christmas if there wasn't any snow?"

"Well," I began, "we didn't have snow, but we had lots of greenery, like the kinds they sing about in Christmas carols...holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreens.  And everyone has a real Christmas tree that they cut down fresh.  Everything smells delicious...all pine-y and sweet, with spicy woodsmoke mingling in the air because lots of people have woodstoves.  And then there is the's all silvery and soft, and it hangs on the trees and clings to the mountains and makes dark days turn dreamy."

I don't know if they were even listening anymore, but I was visiting with The Ghost of Christmas Past the holidays of my youth.  We went caroling in the country. Somehow it worked there.  We had tried it in Canada, but it was too cold.  Our jaws were so frozen we could barely form the words, and people didn't want to open their doors to a group of bundled up strangers on their front porch.  But in the Oregon countryside, the weather was a little wet but not very cold.  People were actually excited to see a group of teens outside their door, and they would listen to us sing and then give us Christmas cookies before we left. 

The boys shot mistletoe out of the trees with guns, and one of my greatest longings was to be kissed under the mistletoe (which, to date, has never happened!).

We collected holly heavy with red berries and all the greens we could carry...for free!  And trees were cheap and perfect and real.

One Christmas I read the book, "Christy," and forever and ever, I picture Christmas high in the mountains where trees grow thick, creeks run deep, and cabins are built against the shelter of rocky ledges.  Where I lived on the mountain, it wasn't quite so wild, but from my bedroom window on a clear day I could see the snow-capped peaks of the five tallest mountains in the Cascade range, and on a rainy day my home would be shrouded with a misty fog that obscured even the fruit trees in front of our house.

During my 20 years in Canada, I got used to a white Christmas as well as "Christmastime in the city."  The peachy glow of street lamps reflecting off snowflakes on a snowy night was actually bright enough to wake me, giving me the coziest feeling as I would lie under the warmth of my comforter and watch through the window the falling flakes.  There is nothing like skating outdoors on a frozen lake, the perimeter strung with lights and tinny Christmas music playing over the loudspeakers.  Street hockey and sledding are sooo much fun...even as adults (and good exercise too!).  Then there were the parties...In the city, everyone dresses to the nines.  The venue, whether a home, a hotel banquet room or a golf and country club, would always be stylishly decorated, and the food was divine.  I bought all of us new Christmas outfits every year for the Christmas Banquet, and we always dressed up on Christmas Eve too.  Christmases were elegant and beautiful.

When I first moved back to Oregon it wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be to go back to my childhood holidays of greenery and simple things.  I was okay without the snow, but I really missed the parties.  Country parties are "come as you are," in blue jeans and Christmas sweaters.  No more elegant dinners, just potluck-style appetizers and fingerfoods.  No more dressing up on Christmas Eve for the girls.  No more street hockey for the boys.

But slowly, the Christmasy feeling has returned.  I love tromping through the forest to collect holly and fir boughs.  I've instituted a ladies Christmas event where we all dress up and year by year has become a more beautiful event.  And it all but takes my breath away when I behold the beauty of the mountain mist clinging to the trees and hiding the hilltops.

Whether I'm in the city or the country, the sights, sounds and scents of the holiday fill my senses.  It doesn't matter where I am...

It is Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Broken Traditions

Every family has their holiday traditions...most families have a few...and one of ours is how we, as a family, decorate.  Every year we get a real tree.  Even when we lived in Canada where artificial trees are the norm, I insisted that ours be a fragrant, real tree.  Of course, there are no Christmas tree farms in Edmonton, so we had to buy our tree out of the grocery store parking lot.  Now that we are living in Oregon, we make the trek to one of the many local tree farms in our area and select ours right out of the field, which is cut, shaken and baled that very moment and brought home sticky with sap that fills the car and house with its heady, evergreen fragrance.  The guys carry the tree into the house and help get the tree into the stand, and then they're done with holiday prep for the rest of the season!  The girls and I then take over.  My youngest daughter Kate pulls out all the boxes from storage and lines them up for me, ready to be unpacked of all their treasures.  Then she gets out the Dicken's Village.  Then she takes the little mauve mini tree and pink mini lights and goes upstairs to her room to decorate her pink room for Christmas, and she's done for the season.  Then I turn on the Christmas music and begin the solo job of putting the lights on.  People think this is the worst part of decorating a tree, but I want to do it because I'm very particular about spreading the lights just so over the branches so the tree is lit from within and without.  A great way to do this is to use icicle lights.  I've decorated a lot of trees over the own tree and our church trees every Christmas for the past 25 years...and in a different theme each year! (That's between 50 and 75 trees, because some years I've done 3 or even 4!)  I've decorated artificial and real, and I know the quirks and benefits of each.  I've also learned a few tricks...and one of the best tricks is icicle lights.  I remember when they first came out and how pretty they looked hanging from the eaves of almost every house on the block.  I bought some with the intent we'd hang them too, but my husband, who HATES hanging lights, never got around to it.  The next year when I pulled out the lights to decorate the tree, I picked up the string of unused icicle lights and I had a "lightbulb" moment...why not use them on the tree?  All those little strings that dangle off the main string could be tucked into the inner branches while the main string could circle around the tree, thus giving me the dimensional lighting I was looking for in half the time and tangle!  My mom was doubtful.  She envisioned icicle lights hanging straight down the outside of my tree and thought it would look odd.  When I was finished (in half the time!), I had her take a look and she was awed.  Years later, she called me one night and said, "Guess what?  I'm watching the home channel and they're doing a demo of hanging icicle lights on the tree!  You were ahead of your time!"  Yes, I guess I was!  I think I've had three ideas like that in my whole life...ideas where if I had capitalized on them I could have either made some money or had a small moment of fame.  But I guess I'm only smart enough to think up the idea, not market it, so that's not really very smart, is it? (Hooray for Pinterest, which gives us a steady stream of creativity when we're lacking it!  There is no longer any excuse for an ugly Christmas tree...or wedding!)  After the lights are on, my other daughter joins me and we decorate together, standing back with a critical eye to adjust until we are satisfied with the finished result.  Then we turn on the fire and turn off the room lights, and sit by the glow of Christmas light and firelight, sipping hot chocolate or coffee and eggnog, listening to music, and enjoying the true start of the season.

But this year things are a little different.

My daughter Kate is in Bosnia. (That's in Europe, used to be Yugoslavia, for those of you who need a geography and history refresher.)  This is the first time in our family's history that one member is missing for the holidays.

So, the tradition of Kate pulling the boxes out of storage was broken.  I pulled them out myself.  The tradition of Kate taking out the Dickens Village was broken.  I didn't even bother setting it up.  The tradition of a mauve mini tree with pink lights in a pink room was broken.  The mauve tree sat forlornly in the storage room, leaning to the left against the wall, and the pink room is now a boyish blue, black and brown.

I wasn't really just felt odd.  I missed her, but not mournfully so.  I thought about how she was going to celebrate Christmas so far from home, and I was excited thinking about how we would Skype while she opened the presents I had bought way back in August and stuffed into her stocking.  It was important to me to send her gifts inside her stocking, as stockings are one of our family's most treasured traditions.  I wrapped the filled stocking in brown paper, marked it "Christmas," and packed it in her suitcase.  We would have Christmas together, it would just be different.

I went back into the storage room and lifted out the little pink tree.  I set it right in the family room and decorated it in mauve, ivory and gold.  Now I see Kate's Christmas Tree every day and think of her in her cozy bedroom in Bosnia, tucked in bed under the slanted eaves of her European home while the snow falls on the mountain she lives on overlooking the beautiful city of Sarajevo.  This is just the beginning of broken traditions, I suppose.  The kids are growing up and are at various stages of nesting.  I don't know what next year will be like...or the year after that.  But one thing I do know, and that is this:  Traditions aren't about doing the same thing over and over again.  Traditions are consistent actions that convey a sense of family love and loyalty.  Although the actions themselves may change over the years, the love and loyalty remain.  I believe traditions aren't really broken, they're just reinvented.  And those traditions I intend to keep!

Kate's Christmas Tree

Kate in her snowy backyard in Sarajevo

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Note to Self

I am a major list-maker and note-taker.  I LOVE lists and notes and keep both meticulously.  They drive me, motivate me, organize me, please me, and soothe me.  But then there is the quintessial note...the Mother of All Notes...the "note to self" composed by me for my future self and then read by me from my past self.


This Christmas I was contemplating how to decorate for the season.  Every year I choose a different color scheme and theme.  Last year was an elegant fruit and floral theme in copper, gold, purple and ivory.  The tree before that was red and blue, and before that it was silver, white and gold.  One year I chose a peacock blue that didn't match my family room at all, so I went as far as taking down the curtains and hanging the blue ones from my bedroom and removing every single item that was cranberry-colored in the room (which was a lot in that particular room) and replacing lamps, books, throw pillows, tablecloth, and knick-knacks with blue items.  The result was felt like a new house!  But I never did that again because putting everything back after the holiday was quite the chore (no anticipation or creative juices to drive me!).  This year I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do.  We were planning to get our tree on Sunday, so in preparation I went into the storage room under the stairs where I keep all my Christmas decorations and supplies, thinking I'd take a look around to get a little inspiration.  And there I found it...the Note to Self.  It was tucked into the Christmas card holder that I have hanging on the wall of the storage room, in plain sight and easy to grab without having to move a single box.  It said, "Christmas 2012."  Excitedly, I opened it, thinking, "Oh, yeah!  I remember putting this here!"  The note said, "Christmas 2012 - Red and White Theme," with a detailed list of what decorations to use and which bins they were located in. 

It all came back to me.  Then I turned to the pile of bins and boxes in the storage room, and lo and behold, the bins were all in order for decorating according to the red and white theme...there was the bin of lights, then the bin of ornaments, then the bin of decorations.  Wow, I was quite impressed with myself!  I didn't have to haul out half the storage room to see what I wanted to use, like I have in the past.  One, two, three, four...the bins came out in orderly fashion.  Then, surprise #3, I opened the lid to the ornament bin and, voila!, there were the white snowflakes, white boa, and white sparkly icicles and in the next bin were the red glitter stars, red balls, red sparkle trees and red swirly ornaments.  Oh, this was too easy!  I felt like someone had done me a huge favor...I actually felt grateful!  I said right out loud to Anna, "This is so cool!  I'm getting a note from Me, which is exactly what I need right now!  I guess I know myself pretty well!"  She didn't just roll her eyes at me, she actually said, "Mom, you are so weird."  "I know, I know...and I love it!" I exclaimed enthusiastically.  The magic of a note to self is that it meets your needs exactly, because you wrote it!  There is no interpretation needed, no hidden meaning, no misunderstanding...just perfect directions, explanations, thoughts, and processes!  I think what I enjoyed the very most about decorating my tree this year wasn't the pretty red-and-white candy cane theme or even sitting by the glow of the tree admiring it when it was finished.  It was that wonderful note to self...communication from my former self to my present self, just when I needed it most!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Decorating for Thanksgiving On A Dime In No Time

When you spend a lot of time cooking a huge dinner, often the last thing you feel like doing is decorating.  Yet it really is true that we "eat with our eyes first."  There is something powerfully enticing about a table set and ready...waiting to be surrounded by people and loaded with food!  I have been in many discussions over the years about whether to have plastic and paper or silver and china, and even though it's tons of work I prefer the china.  BUT....if you choose plastic and paper, trust me, you can still make your table beckon everyone to come, and it doesn't have to cost you a dime.

This year's Thanksgiving was at first going to be quite a large group, then it shrunk to only 10.  I haven't had a group that small since....hmmm, maybe 30 years?  So to comfort myself, I decided treat the table to a sumptuous setting, using my best decor and dishes that I only have under a dozen.  I would set my china plates on gold chargers and use freshly pressed cloth napkins and crystal goblets.  But then plans got rearranged, and we are actually going to my brother's house.  He has a big, beautiful home but no supplies.  With our group having grown to 18, he didn't even have enough silverware for that many, nor plates, glasses or coffee cups.  Soooo, I yielded to paper plates and plastic cups!  And I didn't even whine.  I was actually thrilled that our families could be together, along with an assortment of other unrelated loved ones, and if that meant paper plates, then so be it.

BUT...I will still have a pretty table!

And here is how I will decorate...for free!

1.  Bring the outdoors in - Enlist the kids to be hunter/gatherers.  Send them outside on an adventure, which keeps them busy and out of the kitchen plus gives them some fresh air and exercise.  Or, if you're the one who needs a break from the kitchen (or the relatives!), grab a jacket and a bag and go yourself!  Gather beautiful leaves in as many colors as you can find.  Pick up lichen-covered branches, twigs, acorns, pinecones, berries and interesting grasses.  Use fruit from your own fruit bowl---apples, oranges, grapes.  If you have time, run to the grocery store and pick up a couple mini can get a few for a dollar.  Clip the last of the hydrangeas, usually a beautiful burgundy this time of year, and some green laurel branches, if you have those plants in your yard.

This is nothing more than a pedestal cake plate
loaded with apples, pears, berries and leaves

It's kind of hard to see, but I have a wooden pumpkin bowl
and I simply take an inexpensive floral arrangement
purchased from the grocery store and place it in a glass
vase and then set the vase inside the pumpkin bowl.
(There is a better picture further down.)

Leaves, fresh fruit and fall flowers

2.  Dig out your candles - If you can light it, use it!  The more sparkle and glow on your table, the more festive it will look.  Also, candlelight hides sharp angles and imperfections!

This was a plain glass votive holder and I simply glued leaves
to the sides, which washed off easily when fall was over

I placed a little pumpkin on my candlestick
instead of a candle and then put the leaf
votives around the larger pieces.

3.  Find a tablecloth, runner or even a square of fabric - Fabric dresses a table likes clothes dress a person.  If you don't have a nice tablecloth or one large enough for your expanded table, use a piece of fabric for the center of the table and place your arrangement there on top of it for the centerpiece.

If you look at all the previous pictures, you'll see all different
kinds of fabric.  This one is a pale green silk runner.  Above
I have a gold square of fabric trimmed with burgundy that I
turn sideways to form a diamond across the middle of the table.
Also, you'll see a dark green tablecloth and black placemats
lined up end to end to form a long runner.

4.  Mix and match - So you don't have enough of the same plates and glasses?  That's okay, just mix them artfully.  Scatter them around the table equally...a white plate, a blue plate, a white plate, a blue plate / stemmed glass, short glass, stemmed glass, short glass, so that even though everything might not be the same, there is still a pattern.  If you're using paper plates, dress them up with pretty fall paper napkins!

Here are our paper plates!  See, they don't look too bad, do they?

This is not my table, but it shows how pretty your table
can look even if your dishes don't match

5.  Make name tags - Nothing says "welcome" like a little tag with your name on it!  Name tags convey the message that each guest was thought of and expected.  It also helps tremendously when all the food is hot and ready and it's time to sit down.

No fancy chargers to place beneath your plates?
Use an oversize leaf!

Pinned Image
This is right off Pinterest, but I think it's pretty cute!

6.  Set a kids' table - I know I really loved to sit with my cousins and siblings rather than the boring (and watchful) adults.  This will also give you more nice dishes to use on your main table.

I thought this was a great idea!  Everything is disposable,
but it's still bright and festive...and fun for kids!
I also think it would be super easy just to cover the table
with butcher paper and let the kids color right on the table!

7.  Make a buffet table - If you set up a buffet area for all the food, you can keep your table clutter free and also leave room for the centerpiece.  If you have an extra table or counter (or even another piece of furniture) not being used, set up a dessert buffet.  Display all your pretty pies and cakes and cookies on cake plates, platters, and tiered stands for easy dramatic effect (and to build anticipation of good things yet to come!).

Appetizer buffet

Dessert buffet
 Happy Thanksgiving!  Enjoy the blessing of family, friends, fabulous food, and festive feasting!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let's Get Cookin'!

The day before Thanksgiving and the house is full of delicious aromas!  Here is our family's Thanksgiving Dinner menu:

Roast Turkey with Champagne Gravy
Mashed Potatoes
Country Stuffing with Apples, Sausage and Pecans
Orange-Ginger Cranberry Sauce
Bourbon-Glazed Sweet Potatoes
Green Beans Almondine
Sweet Corn with Bacon and Onion
DJ’s Green Bean Casserole
Autumn Salad with Granny Smith Vinaigrette
Deviled Eggs
Homemade Rolls

Pumpkin Pie with Spiced Whipped Cream
Apple Pie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Maple Cream Puffs
Lemon Bars
Caramel Corn
Sugar-and-Spice Nuts
Sparkling Cider
Stumptown Coffee with Cream or Eggnog
Hot Mulled Cider
We don't have a lot of women in the family.  Growing up, it was mostly women, so there were many hands to cook and do dishes.  When I married and entered the Wells Family, it was a 50/50 split.  But now it falls mainly to me, with my mom being a good help.  I'm trying to get my daughters more into the holiday spirit, but it's actually my son who loves to cook.  This year he said to me, "I'm going to cook with you on Thanksgiving Day."  I think those may have been the most exciting words of the season to me!  And, he's already planning our Christmas Dinner menu!  Justin works at The Painted Lady, the finest restaurant in all of Oregon and winner of a multitude of awards.  In the whole world there are only 18 restaurants that have a Zagat score of 29, and The Painted Lady is one of them.  So, when Justin tells me he has a good idea for our holiday menu, I listen!!
Turkey is turkey...or is it?  To brine or not brine, that is the question.  I've brined and I've wrapped and I've basted and I've roasted.  Every time my turkey turns out delicious, so I've decided to go with what is easier, which is roasting and basting...this year with a champagne stock.  I take out my big naked bird and put him in the kitchen sink for a bath like a baby.  Then I take him out and pat him dry.  Then I rub lotion...I mean butter...all over his pink skin.  I actually separate the skin from the meat and slide my hand into the space to rub butter and herbs beneath the skin, which moistens the meat and gives the skin extra crispiness.  Then I stuff him and stick him in the oven.  I still stuff my bird, even though all the magazines and cook books say not to.  I make a lot more stuffing than will fit in the turkey, and the rest of the stuffing is baked, so that batch has a beautiful texture and visual appeal.  The stuffing from the turkey is mushy and bland-colored but full of flavor.  So when the turkey is done, I take the stuffing out and mix it with my baked stuffing so I get great flavor and great texture.  My family isn't really into stuffing.  Jeff and Justin like it, but the other kids don't.  I, on the other hand, LOVE it.  It is my favorite element of the whole meal (and pumpkin pie is my favorite dessert...with those two dishes, I am pretty content).  Because no one loves stuffing like I do, I figure I can do with it whatever I like.  This year I am making a tri-bread stuffing...cornbread, multigrain bread and white bread.  I break up the bread into chunks and let it sit overnight to get stale.  Then the next day I slowly toast it in the oven until it is dry and light as air.  Then tomorrow I will mix in sauteed onion and celery, crumbled sausage, finely diced apple and chopped toasted pecans, and a good sprinkling of fresh and dried herbs--parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme---and salt and pepper and fennel.  Then the whole mixture is dampened with rich turkey stock and butter and then baked to moist but crispy perfection.  I could eat it every day!
The side dishes are pretty important to me, because I'm not a real meat lover.  When I was a kid, I hated gravy and I hated my food to touch.  Now that I'm old, I love my turkey, potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce to mix together with a touch of rich gravy.  Mmmmm.  Potatoes are the one dish I don't mess with, because two of my kids are potato purists.  I've prepared the make-ahead recipe with cream cheese and sour cream and I like it, but my kids think I've ruined them, so I'm back to good ole russet potatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed with butter and milk.  I'm also the only one who likes sweet potatoes, so again, I get to do what I want.  This year I'm making mine with a bourbon glaze.  Now, I had to go to the liquor store to buy the bourbon.  I felt so evil coming out of that store with my little brown bag without a label.  Funny thing, though, is that I had Anna with me.  When I bought my little tiny bottle of bourbon, the cashier carded us both.  I thought it was just protocol and I wasn't flattered.  Anna didn't have her ID with her, so the cashier said she couldn't sell us the alcohol.  I said, "Really?  Well, Anna, why don't you go back to the car."  The cashier said she needed both our IDs.  I'm thinking, "There is no way I pass for under 21."  I'm not that naive!  I pulled out my driver's license and said, "This is my daughter."  Then the cashier did a double-take.  "No!  I never would have guessed that.  This is your daughter?!"  Well, then, I can sell it to you.  But when friends come in, if even one friend is underage I can't sell it to any of them.  So, then I was a little pleased that she thought I was Anna's friend and not her mother!  So back to the sweet potatoes, they have just 1/3 of a cup of bourbon in the glaze, as well as espresso and maple syrup.  I think they sound delicious and I can't wait to try them.
The vegetables are necessary, and I do eat them, although I know none of my kids do.  My mom is making green beans because she found beautiful, fresh beans.  But she is also doing (gulp)...Green Bean Casserole.  Just the other day I saw a Campbell's soup ad in a magazine and the dish they featured was the "classic" green bean know, the one with the cream of mushroom soup and crispy onions on top?  I said right out loud, "Oh, gross!" because, of all the dishes in the world, that one brings back the worst childhood memories!!  I hated that dish!  But my mom would always make me take some.  I'd pick the crispy onions off the top and eat them, and then push around the beans in the slimy, soupy sauce, hoping my mom would think I'd eaten enough of it.  I haven't eaten that casserole since I left home 25 years ago!  But this year my brother actually requested it!  And my mother was glad!  Oh, well.  I'm grown up now...she can't make me take even one little bite!  Besides the fresh green beans and the infamous casserole, I'm making corn for all the Wellses.  They love their corn.  To me, it's not a vegetable; it's one more carb that competes with my love for carby stuffing, so out it goes.  But because it's everyone's holiday, I'll make it for them.  I have a friend who makes hers a little differently, and I thought it sounded like a welcome change.  I'm using super-sweet frozen niblets and then adding butter, crumbled bacon, sauteed onion and a splash of whipping cream.  (I think I might even put a little on my plate!)
Salad is another item that I think my family wouldn't miss if I didn't make it, but I love a really good salad stuffed full of goodies, so it's always on the menu.  This year I'm using mixed greens with a little arugula, spinach and romaine and then tossing in pomegranate seeds, roasted pumpkin seeds, diced apple, green onion, feta cheese and toasted hazelnuts and then drizzling on a homemade Granny-Smith apple vinaigrette.  My mom will bring another childhood staple (this one I did like), which is Ruby Salad (actually Emerald Salad, but that one is green....this one is red, so we call it Ruby Salad).  It's a classic 60's Jell-O dish of red jello, cool whip and cream cheese.  I never eat Jell-O any more, but like the corn, I'll probably put one tiny spoonful on my plate.
Then there is the relish tray.  Pickles have never tickled me much, whether sweet or dill, and I really dislike green olives.  But I love black olives.  Still to this day I'm tempted to put one on each finger and eat them off my hands!  And then there are marvelous deviled eggs.  I only like my mom's recipe.  She doesn't put pickles in them and her secret ingredient is a dash of horseradish.  Gives them just a faint finish of zip.  Sooo good!
Finally, I'll bake some homemade rolls.  Again, I rarely eat a roll with dinner...too many carbs and too filling when I want to be full of I usually just buy rolls.  But this year I thought I'd get a little adventurous and make my own.  My sister sent me her favorite recipe and I rolled out some pretty nice looking little buns....half whole-wheat and half white.  I just might have one of those this year too!
Here are pictures of dinner preparations:
My game plan...Menu, recipes, grocery list, prep schedule
and Big Day order of events.  My mom and my sister and I
sat down together over coffee and via Skype to plan our
holidays together.  So fun!
Dry bread ready for dressing

Dinner rolls ready to rise

Processing the apple for the vinaigrette
When dinner is done, we'll do dishes in 10-minutes shifts and everyone will take a turn.  Then we'll put on some grubby clothes and head outside for a mean game of football to burn off a few calories.  After getting thoroughly wet and dirty, it's back inside for dessert!
Every year is pumpkin and apple pie.  I make my own pumpkin pie from scratch, starting with roasting the pumpkin.  Many years ago, my dear sister-in-law made the pumpkin pie for the Wells family each year and no one liked it.  She roasted the pumpkin and went to all the work of a homemade pie and then no one ate it.  One year---and I'm not sure why---I made a pie too (Libby's canned pumpkin), and everyone ate mine but not hers.  So then her feelings were hurt and she refused to make another one.  That's when I found out she was buying her pumpkin at the grocery store...just a regular carving pumpkin.  I enlightened her that she must use a pie pumpkin, not a carving pumpkin, for her pies.  Pie pumpkins are fleshy and rich, carving pumpkins are watery, stringy and tasteless.  It's hard to find good pumpkins in Alberta because it is a frozen wasteland in the winter, so that's why I had always fallen back on dependable Libby's canned pumpkin.  But one day my sister-in-law was visiting a friend in Ontario and there was a pumpkin patch.  She bought two pumpkins and carried them home to Alberta on the plane in her carry-on and made excellent pies for our Thanksgiving Dinner...and won rave reviews from all!  She was happy (and so were we!).  Here in Oregon, pie pumpkins are abundant and delicious, so I buy a few every fall right from the pumpkin patch!  When Jeff and I went to the Hood River Apple Festival a few weeks ago, we picked a big bucket of apples for pie.  I love my pie with lots of spices.  No bland, sugary apples for me!  I like lots of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg and even clove.  And always real pastry for the pie crust, with a wonderful flake and sugar-crunch top. 
After the traditional and mandatory pumpkin and apple pies, I like to switch it up.  This year I decided on maple cream puffs.  I found a recipe for maple custard, which I will fold into freshly whipped cream and then fill my little puffs.  My mom is bringing lemon bars and homemade caramel corn, which everyone loves.  It's addicting...I actually have a hard time stopping myself from consuming too much!
Then to wash everything down, we'll sip Martinelli's sparkling cider with dinner and then make a good pot of Stumptown coffee with a splash of eggnog or hot spiced cider with our dessert.  The rest of the night is board games.  Everyone plays, and it's a great way to end the day.  The football game was on TV all morning and early afternoon while dinner was being prepared, so the guys are "good sports" and turn off the TV and join the family for the rest of the day, and everyone is happy!
Here are pictures of dessert preparations:
pumpkins in the oven, ready to roast

After 1 hour, I cut them in quarters to continue roasting
(easier to cut through the hard squash after it's softened a bit)

Roasted pumpkin meat

Pureed pumpkin meat, draining

Pie crust rolled out, making leaf cut-outs to decorate the pies

pumpkin pies

Apple pie
Cream Puff pastry

Cream puffs ready to be filled

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Feast Fit for the Family!

Ah, we go!

This is the week of Thanksgiving, a week full of cooking and baking in a warm, fragrant kitchen, culminating in the traditional feast we call Thanksgiving Dinner, at a table full of family and friends.

I love to cook, I love to decorate, and I love large gatherings, so for me the holidays are sheer delight.  I'm really not sure what I love more---the delicious anticipation of planning and preparation or the actual event itself.

Definitely my Thanksgiving traditions have morphed over the years, changing with the seasons and stations of life.  When I was a child, grandparents were never really part of our holidays.  We never went "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house."  We moved a lot while I was growing up and our family dynamics changed a few times, so that meant our holiday gatherings changed too.  Different locations, different people, but always constant was our little family unit and lots of really great food, a masterful mix of classic dishes and something new, flavorful and unique.

When I married, I entered a family whose traditional gathering was exactly the same every year...same location, same people, same menu.  Because I lived in my husband's hometown and not my own, his family traditions became mine, so my own children were born and raised like my husband had been...same location, same people, same menu.  Except my nomadic background slowly infiltrated the sacred sameness.  I introduced new dishes and new ways of preparing old dishes.  I suggested moving dinner out to my sister-in-law's log cabin at the lake.  I invited other people to join us.  I wasn't doing it to be defiant or push my way, it just sort of naturally evolved from who I am.  And I'm happy to say my husband's traditions worked their way into me as well.  Doing things the same way every year brought a sense of stability and security to my soul that I had not known growing up.  It was then I decided that the best aspect of tradition wasn't which tradition you kept but that you kept tradition...your traditions, even when they evolved over the years to fit the times and seasons of life.  And now, in yet a different season, our family has forged new traditions that we have now kept for the last five years...and I love these traditions every bit as much as I loved my childhood roaming holidays and my young married years of sameness.  I love them because they center around food and family and friends, and all those "F's" spell fellowship to me...nourishing body, soul and spirit.

So join me these next few days as I prepare a feast fit for a family!  I'll post recipes and how-to's for those of you who like to cook, and I'll post decorating ideas for those of you who like to decorate.  And I'll blog about the richness of family and friends who gather at my table for those of you who simply like to read about the joys of others because it reminds you to enjoy and appreciate the special people and traditions in your own life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ode to the Twinkie

Okay, I'm jumping on the bandwagon!  I mean, how can I ignore the demise of the Twinkie, the darling of the `70s lunchbox?  Those golden, round, plump little cakes...

Honestly, there are no tears shed from my eyes!  I can't say I'm even the least bit sad that Hostess is being laid to rest.  I'm actually a bit hostile towards Hostess.  I blame it for the scourge of my golden, round, plump little thighs!

You see, as I've mentioned before, my mother was of the era of "wonder products" like Wonder Bread (ever wonder how it got its name?), Cool Whip, Blue Bonnet margarine, Campbell's soup, Oscar Mayer weiners and bologna, Jell-O, Kraft Singles processed cheese, and the infamous Twinkie, Ho-Ho, Ding-Dong and Hostess Fruit Pie.  Yes, she witnessed the birth of hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and preservatives.  How exciting for the modern homemaker of the 50s and 60s to have bread sit in the cupboard for a week without going stale!  How convenient to open a can of soup, add a can of water, heat it up and call it dinner!  How lovely to scoop up a spoonful of too-white fluff and plop it onto pumpkin pie!?  And how effortless to tuck a Twinkie in a kid's lunchbox for a sweet snack that showed just how much they were loved!

Yep, that was me...raised on all those delicious, nutritious food mutations.  Every lunch, every day, for years I ate a processed cheese and bologna sandwich on white bread, a bag of chips, a banana and a Twinkie (or Ho-Ho, Ding-Dong or Zinger, the coconut-raspberry flavor) washed down with a thermos of Kool-Aid.  It makes me cringe just to think of it!

When my mom says she's baffled by my love for healthy cooking and eating, when my husband has to sneak a Hershey almond bar every time he picks up a gallon of milk at the store, and when my kids mock me for telling them sauteed asparagus taste like candy, it's just because I am making up for all the damage those Ding-Dongs have done.

So Hostess Twinkie, I say good-bye.  I wish you would have left a whole lot sooner. (And if it's really true what they say about Twinkies never decomposing in a landfill, the people who love you still can take comfort knowing that good-bye doesn't mean forever!)

Monday, November 12, 2012


I love woodstoves.  They make me think of cozy cabins in the woods, quilts, rocking chairs, country living.  They're pretty popular in Oregon...wood is plentiful and the weather is just chilly enough that you can actually heat your home with one.

Last night we went to some friends' house.  They live up on the mountain where I once lived when I was young, so just driving there makes me feel nostalgic.  We parked the car and ran through the rain and the mud in the dark towards the house.  The door opened and we blew in with the wind...into the welcoming warmth of the dry heat of The Woodstove.  Like a cat coming in from the cold, each guest would enter, shake off his wet coat, and make his or her way to the woodstove...stretching out cold hands and turning backs to absorb the heat all the way to the bone.  We pulled up our chairs around the hearth and huddled there...then one by one, off came the sweaters, back moved the chairs, and finally, we opened the windows and let the fire burn down a bit.  Then an hour later, on went the sweaters, closer moved the chairs, and the window was closed and another log tossed on.  I carried the warmth of the woodstove with me all the way home.  As we drove through the rain and the fog of the night, I reminisced to Jeff about the woodstove we had when I was young and how I would love to have one again.

When I was 13, our family fell apart.  My mom moved, my sister and my brother...2000 miles across the U.S. all the way back to the home of our birth, which was Oregon, where we had family to offer support and comfort.  We moved into a little house way out in the country, on the very mountain I was driving down.  It was my aunt and uncle's house, and they lovingly squeezed us in.  They took one bedroom, my mom took the other, and all five kids bunked together on the back porch, which had been hastily boarded up to become an impromtu back bedroom.  Just four months after living together like that, my uncle got a new job out of state, so they moved out and generously let us stay in the house.  So my mom kept her room, my brother got the back porch bedroom to himself, and my sister and I shared my aunt and uncle's old room.  With virtually no money, we had to make do.  Part of making do was keeping the heating bill down, and that happened by never turning the heat on, just burning wood in the woodstove.  That was fun!  I had always wanted to be Laura Ingalls and live in pioneer days, and now I almost got to!  Yeah, it was fun...until winter came.  We had never lived in the country.  None of us had ever swung an ax.  I learned phrases like, "seasoned or wet," "split kindling," "a cord of wood," "pitchy," and "chimney fire."  I learned that garter snakes loved to nest in the wood.  I learned that even a light brush against the stove caused a very quick burn.  I learned that complaining over having to split kindling only got you in trouble and you'd have to split more.  And my mom learned that chopping firewood took muscle, and that crying when chopping firewood made your muscles weak.  So she stopped crying and she got mad, and, boy, she could chop a lot better!

One day---it must have been before my aunt and uncle had moved because we were all together and I was still in ignorant bliss about what it meant to heat the house with a woodstove---my uncle interrupted our quiet afternoon by bursting into the house yelling, "Chimney fire!"  My aunt jumped up and grabbed my little cousin and hollered at the rest of us to get out of the house, NOW!  So we ran into the front yard and stood shivering while we watched my uncle climb on the roof and do something with the chimney.  When all was clear and we began to relax, my aunt looked at one of my cousins, standing in the yard with her Bible wrapped in her arms against her chest.  "Ohhh," all the adults crooned, "Look what she saved when she ran outside."  Lots of hugs and praise for my cousin, who beamed angelically.  I remember thinking rather sullenly, "She just grabbed that on purpose because she knew she'd get a lot of attention."  I didn't even know I was supposed to grab something to "save" on my way out...I just ran when my aunt yelled to run!

I guess heating by woodstove was hardest on my mom, although I didn't realize it then.  I only felt sorry for myself, of course, as any young teenager would.  She was the one who had to "stoke" the stove before bed so it would hopefully burn through the night (another new word I learned!).  And she's the one who had to get up early in the morning to poke it back to life so the house would be warm for us wimpy kids.  Of course, I certainly didn't think I was wimpy.  And I certainly had no desire left in me to be Laura Ingalls!  Every night when we went to bed, we had to close our bedroom doors so all the heat would stay in the main house, making it quicker to heat in the morning.  By the time we woke up, there was frost on our window and our breath hung in puffs over our faces as we lay in bed.  I'm not kidding or exaggerating.  It is the absolute truth!  Finally, when we could delay no longer, my sister and I would say, "1, 2, 3!!" and jump out of bed, grab our clothes (which we learned to lay out the night before), and then run straight to the woodstove and throw our clothes on top of it to warm them up while we, shivering, warmed ourselves.  Then my mom would stoke the stove for the day and we'd all leave for school and work, only to come home to a cold house and a dying fire that had to be fed to life again.

Okay, so it was a lot of fun to cook pancakes on the woodstove when the electricity went out.  And it was convenient to boil the tea kettle on the top.  And it was nice to keep simmering pot pourri heated to scent the house.  But other than that, it was nothing but a vicious cycle of chop wood, burn wood, get warm, get cold all winter long.

So last night on the way home while I was recounting these stories to Jeff I suddenly said, "I don't want a woodstove...ever."

And Jeff said nothing, because he never intended to have one in the first place!
I'll just keep my gas ashes, no burns,
no chimney fires, and no chopping wood!

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Last Leaf

I love fall in Oregon.  It is long and lingering---a full three-month display of scenery so vivid and rich it almost takes your breath away.

When I lived in Canada I loved fall too.  But an Alberta autumn is a quick burst of bright then a glorious gasp for life as it succumbs to the deathgrip of winter.  I remember feeling almost sorry for the bare branches exposed to the bitter winter wind that stripped them of their leaves, and I would wish for snow to come and cover the hard, brown ground and twiggy trees with a soft blanket of white fluff.

Here, our trees are in various stages of undress.  Some trees are completely naked while others are half-dressed, clinging to a see-through negligee of lacy leaves.  Still others are at their peak, flashy in their bright yellow and vivid orange costumes.  And we even have the determinedly green tree with no sign of giving in to the inevitable change of season.

There is nothing like the riot of fall color...showy shades of yellow, orange, red, crimson and even purple that overlap and layer each other in a palette that painters and photographers have tried to reproduce for ages.  But there are hidden treasures behind all that show...treasures that aren't revealed until the gorgeous exterior is stripped away, exposing nature's shy and quiet beauty that is often missed and greatly unappreciated.  (There's a message you see it?  Another hidden treasure!)

The first treasure I noticed was just outside my door.  I walked outside yesterday morning, facing the tree in front of our house, newly stripped of its leaves, and saw a bird's nest high in the branches.  I never knew there was a bird's nest there.  All summer a mama bird had nested and raised her young under the protective coverage of thick green leaves.  Now her babies were grown and her home abandoned as she flew south for retirement.  (And yet another hidden message!)

Then two treasures I think are truly beautiful in the dead of winter have just this week shown themselves...lichen and mistletoe.  The intricacy of lichen fascinates me.  In the winter, instead of flowers I make arrangements of bare branches covered in nubby lichen in shades of pale to deep green.  And related to lichen (which is really a combination of algae and fungi!), is mistletoe.  Since it rarely snows in Oregon, I am happy that we have evergreen trees, holly, ivy and mistletoe to make it feel like Christmas.  Mistletoe is actually not good for trees, as it feeds off them (lichen does not).  It grows profusely here in oak trees.  You can see mistletoe once all the oak leaves fall.  It looks like pom-poms on the branches.  The method for harvesting mistletoe?  Shooting it out of the tree with a shotgun.  Honestly!  My son and some friends actually spent a few days "harvesting" mistletoe, which they then bundled with red ribbon and sold so people could kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas!  Besides the cost of bullets and cheap red ribbon, it was a pure-profit endeavor...and a lot of fun! (Don't all boys like to shoot things out of trees?  And shooting mistletoe is a good sucks the life out the tree and it's not a bird or a squirrel!)


Of course, once the leaves fall, apples and berries are very easy to see and therefore pick.  Because we rarely get frost this early, the apples are still good for the eating!

And here was a surprise!  Jeff and I went for a walk today, and I had planned to take pictures of the lichen, mistletoe and apples, but, lo and behold, this is what we found in the fescue around the golf course...

Golf balls hidden all summer long by the thick green grasses, now exposed and ours for the taking!  Jeff's pockets were loaded with over 30 balls...we even had to leave some behind!  So you see, there really is treasure after the last leaf falls!

Now go find yours!