Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

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Several things happened since my last blog post.  It got colder in Ohio, I’ve discovered that I have not outgrown my dependency on caffeine to be creative, the Super Bowl had the more-sexist-than-usual commercials, Charles Dickens‘ 200th birthday was a pretty big deal, and Starkitten demonstrated that she can write all her capital letters.

And since I’m currently caffeinated (so that I can try to churn another 3,000 words of creative prose in a few hours after posting this), I apologize if my post is too meandering.

The Super Bowl

I admit I do have a seething contempt for the New England Patriots and I hate the New York Giants as a matter of principle (but I also don’t let it get in the way of my personal relationships, so long as they are not playing the Saints).  But, even if I dislike the teams playing, I still watch the Super Bowl.  It’s one of the Great American holidays, right up there with Thanksgiving Day and Buy-Me-Expensive-Things (and maybe celebrate the birth of a God) Day.  I watch because the commercials are supposed to be entertaining and the halftime shows are always either extremely awesome or so terrible that it’s fun.  I think that’s why most Americans watch the Super Bowl, actually.

There were some hilarious commercials, but there were also a few political ones.  What really galled me were the growing number of sexist Super Bowl commercials.

Speed-dating babies?  Hyper-sexualized “naked” M&Ms (as if the Green M&M wasn’t enough)?  Those were sickening, certainly.  But they were nothing compared to the many women-as-nothing-but-sex-objects commercials.

There were the naked models (I have no earthly idea what a naked woman has to do with selling web space) and the cars-as-sexy-women–and that its okay to sexually harass a woman if she is beautiful–and the implication that a woman’s love is only physical in nature and can only be bought with overpriced flowers and perpetuating the social expectation that teenage girls have eating disorders.  These flowers, by the way, are grown in countries where the workers (usually women) develop diseases from pesticide exposure (including miscarriages), get raped by their superiors, and are fired, attacked, or even killed if they complain or try to organize a labor union.  This doesn’t just happen in South America, but also in Kenya (and maybe other countries).  I suppose here I’ll throw in my two cents about how much I hate cut flowers, and not just because they are a sign that the relationship is meant to wither and die.  If you want to get your significant other something for Valentine’s Day, don’t buy cut flowers.

But the sexism of the Super Bowl commercials this year was more insulting than usual.  Do the advertisers forget that women watch the Super Bowl, too?  Do they forget that women buy cars, trade on the stock market, manage websites, and, you know, do all sorts intelligent things?  I promise you, O Mighty Advertisers, the gray stuff between our ears does function.

I really loved the analysis of the commercials given on Jezebel.  The author’s conclusion says best all the things that are wrong with these commercials:

What’s striking about these ads isn’t their offensiveness, necessarily — let’s be honest, we’ve all seen worse. Especially in the case of Teleflora and Fiat, it’s their misguidedness, their commitment to appealing to a bro aesthetic even when studies make clear that this aesthetic dominates neither Super Bowl viewership nor purchasing. Leaving sexism aside, these ads were lazy, and they were boring, and they were outdated. Advertisers need to wake up and recognize that women are watching the game, and we don’t want more commercials about yogurt. We just want to be treated like who we are, which is actual people with actual brains who sometimes buy shit. While they’re at it, maybe advertisers should treat men like this too.

And that’s not even going into all the commercials celebrating only one kind of masculinity: that of barbaric, hulking, violent rage.  Do people realize that children see this stuff and it gets into their heads that this kind of behavior is okay (or that girls should all be straight women who marry this kind of man)?

I can only hope that enough buzz on the web about this kind of nonsense will eventually permeate the powers that be in the advertising industry and they’ll start making more intelligent ads.  And they can.

For instance, the Baby Darth Vader commercial appealed to the nerd in me.  But my absolute favorite was the Fat Dog commercial with the Tatooine cantina attache at the end (which references the Baby Darth Vader)–it won me with a great blend of self-improvement, cuddly dogginess, and geekdom.  You can’t go wrong there.

Charles Dickens Celebrates His 200th…  Only He’s Too Dead to Care

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

Charles Dickens - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

So why do we celebrate Charles Dickens?  Because he is one of those authors whose work is timeless.  Because he wrote on social conditions and the great Human Condition without being sanctimonious or pedantic.  And he is celebrated.  Pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of him or is at least familiar with his characters: Pip, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, and others.  Pop culture references them all the time.

The web has also been abuzz with commemorations of Dickens’ birthday.  There was a Google doodle in his honor.  The royal family in the United Kingdom made a formal celebration of his contributions to the literary world and social thought.

I suppose, as so many have said, the attraction to Dickens today is that, despite progress we humans have made in terms of social and political reform and technology, things haven’t really changed.  Most people can identify with Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” for instance.  Or have a skeptical view of the legal system such as Dickens portrayed in “Bleak House.”

Dickens was also a powerful advocate for education.  He believed that with literacy and education, people would be able to rise out of poverty and society would be all the better for it.  He was, however, not perfect.  By the tone of his writings, he was apparently intolerant of other ethnicites.  The classic example is Fagin, the Jew from “Oliver Twist.”  A lesser known fact is that he did change his attitude when called out on it, at least for the anti-Semitism.  Because of this, not everyone is a fan of his works.

But Dickens, like the Super Bowl, has a way of bringing people together.  Except on an intellectual level as opposed to an athletic/raw entertainment level.

Soaking up the Increasing Sun

The days have been chilly lately, but they were still sunny.  In the mornings, I’d pull up the blinds of the east-facing windows and open the inner front door, which also faces east.  I did this because I hate mornings, but something about the sunlight making everything feel warmer and brighter really did help my spirits.

And my Chihuahua seemed to appreciate it: he sunned himself like a cat all morning, each morning.  He became so spoiled that when we had our first gloomy day (yesterday, because it was going to snow that evening), he followed me around and kept scratching at my legs and trying to draw me to the windows.  I tried explaining to him that there was no warm sun that day, but he persisted.  When I opened the blinds for him, he glared at me like I ate the sun or something, and then snorted and walked away to hide in his bed.

The sunny mornings (and afternoons) were inspiring.  And not just for me.  The girls, who usually sit for maybe 15 minutes at a time to do something educational, would sit for an hour with me.  I worked with Sunfilly on learning to color in the lines.  Starkitten learned to write her capital letters and (I should have taken a picture of it) decorated a sheet of paper and wrote “I LOVE YOU” (I spelled it for her and the letters were jumbled together, but it was cute).  We then mailed it to her grandparents in Texas.

I think Dickens would have been proud.

Butter Rolls Recipe

Because it’s been cold, I’ve been trying to save on the gas bill by baking.  Baking serves two purposes: it makes food and it makes the house warm so the heater doesn’t have to kick on.  And electricity is much cheaper than natural gas here (I never used natural gas in the South, so I have no clue if the same relationship is true there).  I’ve baked enchiladas, fish, and breads.

I finally tried my hand at a rolls recipe that my little brother has been perfecting since before Starkitten was born.  He found it in one of our mother’s old cookbooks and tweaked the recipe over the years.  It’s simple, it’s buttery, and is just the kind if recipe Paula Deen would plagiarize (I am not implying that she has).  Here’s another interesting tidbit:  when we had that infernal (pun intended) heat wave in Texas this summer, he would cover the dough and let it sit in the sun outside to rise.  Those rolls, by the way, were the best he ever made.

Some tips to making yeast breads properly:

The yeast as it bubbles up. This is about as much as you'll want it to bubble before adding it to the dough. If it gets any more frothy, you've wasted your yeast.

  1. Don’t let the yeast sit too long in the prep bowl.  If it bubbles up too much before you mix it in with the bread, the yeast will have used up all its energy beforehand and won’t rise in the bread at all.  The bread will turn out hard and flat.
  2. Don’t let the bread over-rise.  It will loose some flavor.
  3. Yeast needs warmth to grow.  So if you’re in a cold house, turn on the oven before baking and make the kitchen warm and, preferably, set the bowl by a sunny window. Also, some ovens have a yeast-rise setting; if yours does, take advantage of it.

    The dough after it's been properly kneaded

  4. Knead thoroughly.  The kneading actually kick-starts the little yeast organisms by mixing them around and getting them access to new food so that they keep reproducing, which makes the dough grow.  Kneading also makes sure everything is mixed well and the bread will look and taste better.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4cup of warm water
  • 1 package of yeast
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter

Here are before and after photos of the rolls when set for their second rise, so that you get an idea of how much they will grow.

Directions

  1. Mix the yeast, sugar, and water in a large mixing bowl.  Add in shortening, salt, and two cups of the flour.  Mix until it’s smooth and you can see the little bubbles forming inside the dough.  Remember to scrape the side of the bowl frequently.
  2. Put in another cup of flour.  You must do the mixing and kneading by hand, as the dough will be too thick for the average mixing machine to handle.  Add more flour once it’s all mixed if it’s still a little gooey, 1/2 cup at a time; the idea is to put enough flour in that the dough no longer sticks to your hands.
  3. Cover the dough and let stand 40 minutes.
  4. Grease a glass pan or something similar.  Take off pieces of the dough and roll them into sphere of roughly half the size you want the rolls to be.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it onto the rolls.
  5. When finished, cover and let rise again for another 40 minutes.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and brush it onto the rolls again.
  6. Preheat oven to 375 ˚F.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

If you want to go all-out with the artery clogging, slice these babies open and stuff them with more butter when you eat them.  You can use this same recipe to make homemade hamburger buns; just make larger sized rolls.

These rolls also go great in the morning with some jelly and a cup of coffee.

The rolls fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter. Yummy!

Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

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Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

Light in the Tunnel

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I’ve been in a dark place the past couple of weeks.

It’s been the kind of stressful that killed every ounce of creativity in me.  At first, I didn’t want to even bring up to the blogging world that I’ve been stressed out, since it’s a depressing topic, but parenting isn’t always pretty (and neither is life), and since I’d said I was blogging about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting (yep, it can feel kind of like a Western film), I might as well be fair about it.

It’s difficult being a good parent when you’re preoccupied with something that’s incredibly stressful.  It’s even more difficult when you’re a stay-at-home parent, and so getting away from work (i.e. taking care of the children) is next to impossible.

A snow-covered world as seen from my back window.

I really miss that about working.  I could leave work and come home to the kids, or leave the kids by going to work.  If one of those was a stressful environment, the other offered respite.   And if both were driving me crazy, I was at least making money and so could afford to occasionally take off for a weekend with friends.

So all I could do was try to keep distracted: playing with the kids, reading something lighthearted, or watching comedies with my family.  Anything that didn’t give me time to myself to think, lest my stress affect me physically.  Of course, it didn’t help that this is the dark time of the year, and apparently I am sensitive to the day length.

At one point, I began to feel hopeless, and so I took time to read excerpts of The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard.  While he is the father of existentialist philosophy (questioning all religion and morality until you come to the conclusion that life is absolutely ridiculous), he basically says, “What the hell.  Take a leap of faith and believe in God.”  (Or, in my case, gods.)  It helped, if for no other reason than reminded me that nothing (not even horrible situations) lasts forever.  It gave me hope.

One night, Sunfilly kept having nightmares, and so I had Starkitten sleep with my husband on our bed and I joined Sunfilly on Starkitten’s twin bed.  Once I finally calmed her down and snuggled her back to sleep, I lay there, admiring how peaceful and angelic she looked.  Her sweet little face–even the way her lips move like she’s sucking an imaginary thumb–reminded me to be strong for her sister and her.

It also helped that, during these past couple weeks, we’d been surprised by small gifts from various friends.  Each one made my eyes well up from gratitude.  Each box was like a small piece of sunlight breaking through a cavern.  It was a cosmic reminder:  We are not alone in this dark path.

And so I found strength.

The Snowstorm

A pair of beautiful swans in the local pond.

A winter storm blew through here last week, bringing biting winds and 5 inches of snowfall.  Right before the storm, I spotted a pair of swans in a nearby pond.  I ran out to take some pictures of them, and then ran back inside just in time to gaze at big, fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky.

At one point, we had a couple days that were so cold we were excited if the highs hit the twenties.  The wind chill was in the negative teens.  I threw on my house slippers and a winter coat and ran out to check the mail (the mailbox is about a football field’s distance away from the house).  By the time I darted back inside the house, my nose, fingers, and feet were so cold they burned.  And so I learned the meaning of the phrase “biting cold.”  And also why people wear scarves.

A bunch of rabbit tracks.

After the storm passed, I made sure to take a few moments to appreciate the beauty of winter (instead of cursing it).  The local pond had frozen to a thickness that supported the weight of an average sized adult.  A couple people were trying to ice fish.  They did not have any luck, and joked that it was because we brought Texas “winter weather” to Ohio (in other words, it’s been too warm for winter fishing and too cold for normal fishing).  The pond was also covered with a thick layer of snow, which was a surreal sight.

Rabbit tracks around the trunk of an oak tree. There are bits of chewed-up acorn.

We took a stroll in a nearby forest and spotted rabbit tracks in the snow.  It looked like they were hopping from tree to tree, either looking for a burrow in which to hide or acorns to dig up (we did spot a few chewed-up acorns on top of the snow).

Here is the pond when it was frozen and covered with snow. For a point of reference, below is the same view of the pond during late summer (I took this photo in mid-September, when we first moved to Ohio).

Taco Seasoning

I love cooking with mixed beans. After I open the bags of various beans to make a batch, I pour the remaining beans into a large jar to make decorative layers like this. I'll mix them together when it's time to cook them.

When a person is depressed, comfort food does a lot for reviving one’s spirits.  Because I grew up with a lot of Mexican food (my father is Mexican and my mother learned to cook for my father), beans are actually one of my comfort foods (which is ironic, considering that beans give me uncomfortable gas).  And since we are eating a mostly vegetarian diet, beans became an easy main dish to prepare.

Beans store easily in the freezer.

I love cooking beans, because you can toss them in a large pot and cook them all day.  Whatever you don’t eat immediately you can divide into 3- or 4-cup portions and freeze neatly to save for later.  They are easy to thaw and can be used in a wide range of dishes (or as a side by themselves).  They are also incredibly inexpensive (cooking your own beans is four times cheaper than buying them canned).

I tended to make bean tacos.  I also made tacos with some leftover Christmas turkey that I’d frozen.  And, for variety, I tried using some Yves Meatless Ground in lieu of ground beef, and it made for some fantastic tacos (it’s also half the price of a pound of ground beef here in Ohio and much lower in its fat count).

I’ve been using the same taco seasoning I gleaned from my Buelita (a diminutive form of the Spanish word“abuela,” for my paternal grandmother).  Learning recipes from her was an experience unto itself.  She did not use measuring tools.  Increments were in palmfuls, or enough to coat two fingers or the food in the frying pan, or a just couple shakes of the bottle.  She just knew how much to put into a dish and relied on smell to get it right.  And I learned how to cook Mexican food from her.

Chicken tacos

NOTE:  I should point out that “Mexican cuisine” is a broad term.  It’s like saying “Indian cuisine” or “Chinese cuisine” or even “American cuisine.”  Mexican food varies between regions and ethnic groups.  Parts of my father’s family came from Veracruz and other parts had lived in Texas from the time when it was still a Spanish territory, and his side of the family is more Spaniard in ethnicity (we come from a line of disinherited nobility) than it is Mayan or any other indigenous tribe (although some indigenous Mexicans are in our family tree all the same).  So I have no clue how to correctly characterize the kind of Mexican food I grew up with (or if it’s just “Tex-Mex”), except to use “Mexican food” in the generic sense.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I bothered trying to measure out the spices that I used to make taco seasoning to help a friend learn to make something more authentic.  I’ve used this blend on a variety of taco “meats” (as mentioned above), and my family loves it.  You can always tweak the proportions, depending upon what flavors you want to enhance or subdue.

Ingredients

Yves Meatless Ground (above) and mixed beans (below) being prepared for tacos.

  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (chipotle power, ancho powder, or any other chile works just as well–increase the amount if you want spicier food, decrease or omit if you want something milder)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Directions

  1. Mix the spices together and sprinkle over chicken, beef, beans, or whatever you’re using for taco filling.
  2. It tastes best if you sautee some onions first and add them to the filling, along with some chopped fresh cilantro.

One of the presents I received was The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas, which is apparently written for people who are transitioning into vegetarianism.  I’ll be trying out a few recipes, so I intend to post a review of that book shortly.

You can use the same blend for taco filling to make chalupas.

Tales from a Winter Trail

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The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

Christmas Leftovers

Jump to Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

Jump to Madras Hot Curry Powder

The week of Yule and Christmas ran by very quickly.  I was busy–as most people were–with cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking and enjoying time with family–and I had so many ideas of things to share with you on this blog.

And then today happened.

Snow Cat

Image by clickclique via Flickr

I was sitting down with a cup of coffee, watching after-breakfast Sesame Street with the kids as I groggily shifted into gear to complete all the chores on my to-do list, when I noticed the rain turning into some of that scary fluffy white stuff: snow.

“Oh lawks,” I groaned.

I had a list of errands that I planned to run tomorrow, but if it’s snowing, I didn’t want to be out in it.  I checked the weather forecast, and it said that it was going to be snowing off and on for the next few days.  And, like anyone who learned to drive in the South, the thought of driving in the snow scares the crap out of me.

I called my mother, who learned to drive in Chicago.  She helped me prepare for this frightening task:  “The ground isn’t frozen yet?…  Then you don’t have to worry about ice in the road until it gets colder.  Just keep a good distance between you and the other vehicles.  If you hit ice, turn your wheels in the direction of the spin.  Don’t brake on ice.  Before you hit your brakes, let the vehicle slow down first.”

So the kids and I put on our winter coats and headed out the door to run our errands.  Fortunately, the snow turned to rain and the drive into the nearest city (a good 40 minutes of driving on a sunny day) was uneventful, although longer than usual, because I drove slower.  This annoyed the Yankees greatly.

The challenge came when I had several places to drive to and it started snowing again.  We came out unscathed, but the snow started falling hard and even the Yankees were driving slowly.

Taken in Megeve, France

Image by Joss Dude via Wikipedia

I kept telling myself, “Breathebreathebreathe.  Drive like a granny.  Is that a polar bear?  Keep several car lengths between you and the next vehicle.  Slow down before braking.  Ice is everywhere and it’s out to kill you.  Don’t punch the accelerator like the Texan-in-the-big-behemoth-truck stereotype–there is no time to squish puny cars.  Drive slowly.  Remember to breathe.  Omigod what is all that white stuff and why does it hate me?!

It was hard to not think of C.S. Lewis‘ classic villain, the White Witch.  She was making all this happen and she knew I have a weakness for sweets.

I soon realized it was well past lunchtime (in a trip that would normally have been done hours ago), and so stopped between errands to pick up lunch for the kids.  No sweets allowed, lest they have been bribes from the White Witch.  But while sitting down at our table, Sunfilly demanded to take off her coat by herself, and in a rage at her stuck zipper, pulled at her coat before I could turn to help her, and broke her zipper.  I think the White Witch knew I was onto her.

I had to add one more stop to my trip:  a store to buy a new coat.

That extra trip to the store turned into going to three different stores, as I couldn’t find a coat that fit either girl at the first two.  All this while driving through crazy scary fluffy white stuff falling from the heavens.

One of the stores I wound up going to was the dreaded Wal-Mart.  Even though they didn’t have any toddler-sized winter coats in stock, I did what any good Southerner would do when the apocalypse dust is falling from the sky and bought a bunch of non-perishables.  I mean, after all, it looks like the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl again, and last time that happened, 49 of the 50 states suffered from the white apocalypse dust (remember Snowmageddon?).

So what should have been a two- or three-hour venture turned into a six-hour venture.  In the snow.  It was dinnertime when we arrived home.  And I needed another pot of coffee.

And did I add the kids didn’t nap?  Oi!

English: Small trees after heavy snowing.

Image by Emr via Wikipedia

There was silver lining.  In the sea of white that was now the farmlands I passed on the way home, there were many ponds, which have not yet frozen over.  In one of them swam a pair of swans.  I was in awe of their beauty, and even more impressed at how large they were.  I realized I never would have seen them had I stayed at home and hated snowy roads.

And I gained confidence in driving in the snow.  You see, by the time I got home, I realized I was driving confidently.  I wasn’t terrified anymore.

That being said, it was leftovers for dinner tonight.  And, as I had plans to write about so many other things that went on over Yule and Christmas, I felt that I could save it for next time, as my first time driving with my kids in the snow was a fairly frightening event for me.  (I had driven in Dallas snowstorms a couple times, when I was supposed to go to work.  I wound up calling in.  That is how much snow on the road terrifies me.)

But, as we all know, dealing with leftover turkey requires a bit of creativity, and so I figured I’d share tonight’s culinary creation.

Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

In short, we cooked a huge bird for Christmas dinner and I was running out of ideas for traditional ways to prepare leftovers.  And I was going through some serious curry cravings.

Here it is, while the curry paste is melting.

The ingredients I used were:

  • 3 cups of diced or shredded leftover turkey meat
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup turkey drippings
  • 1 can of carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons curry paste

And for the couscous, which I served as a side, I used:

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons Madras hot curry powder
  • 1 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 can chickpeas

Quite simply, I diced/shredded (I really did a combination, depending on how cooperative the meat was) leftover turkey into 1-inch cubes and sauteéd it with some onions and olive oil in a large pan.  I’d saved the drippings from when I initially cooked the bird on Christmas, and so I added a cup of refrigerated drippings to the mixture, along with a drained can of carrots.

Contrary to how it may sound, turkey drippings aren’t that greasy, and it adds a nice flavor to the bird.  The drippings gel when refrigerated, and the gel is heterogeneous, with the fat forming a white layer at the top.  If you want, you can scrape that part off before using it.

Then I added a substantial amount of curry paste and stirred thoroughly.  (You can usually buy some form of curry paste at most grocery stores, usually in the Asian food section.  If you want to make your own, I recommend this recipe for Thai curry paste.  It’s rather spicy, so when I cook for the kids, I usually halve what the recipe calls for on chillies and excluded the shrimp paste/mountain sauce ingredient and it still came out great.)

Then it’s just a matter of cooking until everything is warmed up and mixed well.

This is everything but the actual couscous, waiting to boil.

For the couscous, when boiling 1 cup of water, I added 1-1/2 teaspoon of Madras hot curry powder, 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and a drained can of chickpeas.  When the water was boiling and the chickpeas were cooked, I added 1 cup of couscous, mixed thoroughly, and let it sit (as you’d usually prepare couscous).

Madras Hot Curry Powder

To make the curry powder, you need:

  • 8 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne (or less, depending on how much heat you can handle)
  • 1 Mason jar

Directions

  1. In a dry skillet over very low heat, place the coriander, cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds gently, shaking the pan occasionally, until they begin to pop.
  2. When about half the seeds have popped, add everything else.  Continue to heat and stir gently until the mixture is hot.  Be careful not to burn it, though.
  3. Pour the mixture into a dry blender.  Grind into a fine powder.  You may need to pause, remove the blender from the machine, and shake it up to keep from clumping in the blades.  (If you have a lot of patience and want to do it the old-fashioned way, you could break out the mortar and pestle.)
  4. Wait until the mixture cools off, and then you can store it into an empty jar.

That’s all there is to it.

The end result was oh-so-delicious.

And at the end of the day, the snow turned to wind and rain.  So I scared myself onto the road for naught.  But at the end of it all, I had a story to tell, about driving through the snow for the first time and seeing swans for the first time.

I guess the snow isn’t all that evil.

English: Swans in the snow

I wonder what they taste like. - Image by Michael Preston via Wikipedia

Yuletide Meanderings… and COOKIES!

Jump to Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Tomorrow is Yule.

Usually I’m super-prepared for it.  By this time, I’ll usually have a Yule log decorated, lots of goodies made, a duck or goose or turkey brining (and another one or a ham thawing for the subsequent Christmas festivities), and one round of presents wrapped for the kids.  The house is usually decorated with greens and reds and candles everywhere and, if I could find them while living in the big city, boughs of holly and evergreens and pine cones.  And, because Yule is a time of renewal, I usually do a mega-cleaning of the house, moving counter-clockwise through the house; it seems to bring in positive energies and sweep out the bad ones.

This year, it seems to have snuck up on me.

Apparently it’s one of the side-effects of parenting.  Time seems to fly way too quickly.

Yule

A Yule feast - Image by Jupiter Firelyte via Flickr

Reflections on Yule

For those who may not be familiar with the holiday, Yule is one of many ways nature-oriented faiths celebrate the winter solstice.  It’s Germanic in origin, but neopagan adaptations of the holiday include some Scandinavian and Celtic practices.  Specifics on how they celebrate Yule varies depending on the pagan tradition the practitioners follow.

But pretty much all neopagans treat it as the rebirth of the sun.  It’s the shortest day of the year, and so every day afterwards is a little brighter.  And because our ancestors, lacking the technological amenities we take for granted, struggled through long, harsh winters, they put aside their hostilities and got together to share their food and wealth and celebrate the coming spring.  If you could make it to Yule, you had a good chance of making it to spring.  It’s a time of hope, of goodwill–just toss in baby Jesus and it sounds a lot like Christmas, huh?

It’s a reminder that even the deepest, darkest, scariest things in life are not permanent.  Eventually the sun will shine through and will shine brighter, no matter what personal problems in life you’re facing.

In my family, we acknowledge the science behind the winter solstice, but it doesn’t diminish the spirituality behind it.  You can revere nature and still understand how it works.  Perhaps it’s also because we love outdoorsy hobbies that we find peace in connecting with the seasons and cycles of the world around us, but I personally find something deeply inspirational in knowing that, in all the randomness and chaos of the universe, life flourished here on Earth, focused around our rather average (by astronomical standards) yellow star and the influence of it and our moon on the stability of the days and seasons.  The solstices and equinoxes, which give a sense of predictability to our world, are not standard for other planets in the universe.  It was a rare chance that life evolved on Earth, because we had all the right conditions (distance from a medium-sized star, a moon with a stabilizing effect on the Earth’s axis and rotation, the fact that the axis is positioned the way it is, and so on) and that alone is something to be grateful for.

No matter what your religious or spiritual views, I think that taking time to reflect on the importance of the sun in our lives, considering how easy it is to inundate oneself in work and stressful events and mind-numbing technology, is key to a healthier outlook on life.

manhattan solstice 3

Winter Solstice in Manhattan - Image by Dave Kliman via Flickr

If you’re interested, you can read a more thorough description of the history of Yule here (Wikipedia) and here (About.com).  The celebration of Yule has been getting more recognition in the media within the past few years.  Mainstream parenting magazines, like this partial article from Kiwi Magazine, and even some newspapers and the US and Canada, like the Montreal Gazette in this article, cover how some neopagan communities observe Yule today.  Also, there is a beautiful and captivating children’s book that explores the winter solstice from the perspectives of both ancient religions and modern science called The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson.  In my opinion, it does a great job of illustrating the way that ancient peoples viewed winter and how some of these cultural practices have been applied to modern-day Christmas traditions without being disparaging to any worldview.  It reflects the sentiments I have expressed above.

Before we had the kids, my husband and I would watch the sun set on Yule.  There is something inexplicably beautiful about it, knowing that it’s the shortest day of the year.  Last year, the night of Yule was also a lunar eclipse, and so our family festivities were particularly exciting.

This year, I’m hoping we can brave the cold weather and watch the sunset over a local lake.  It will be an otherwise simple Yule, with a few baked goodies and brightly-colored foods like sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to honor the birth of the sun.

I like to make gingersnaps for Yule and Christmas because the flavor tastes bright and cheerful (in fact, the tradition started sometime in high school when I baked gingersnaps and sugar cookies for my friends as Christmas gifts).  They are popular this time of year, and I suspect that the flavor is part of the reason (aside from the health benefits of ginger that likely prompted our forebears to cook with ginger during winter).

Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Gingersnaps are fairly simple to make.  They require a lot of sifting, so if you don’t mind the dust (flour can get in the air and make you sneeze), it’s a great project for this time of year.

When following the recipe, I highly recommend having the egg already cracked and waiting in a cup or bowl, along with the sugar and molasses.  When you’re mixing the dough, you’ll have to pour them in gradually, and it saves some time to have them ready in advance.  You’ll also need at least two mixing bowls to carry this out.  As for sifting, if you don’t have a fancy sifter, a large strainer will serve the same purpose just fine.

Starkitten helps by mixing the cinnamon sugar.

Cinnamon Sugar Coating

To make the cinnamon sugar you’ll need for the coating, you need:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Simply mix the ingredients together very well.  If you’re baking with small children, mixing the cinnamon sugar is a simple task that they can accomplish while you work on the cookie dough.

The Cookies

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses

Directions

This is what it should look like if you use a beater to mix the dough. This was my first time trying it this way and, honestly, it's so much easier than mixing by hand--which had been a turn-off for me in the past.

  1. Preheat oven to 350 ˚F.
  2. Sift the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Stir the mixture to blend evenly.  Then sift and stir again, two more times.  (It’s best to sift from one mixing bowl into another.)
  3. Place the shortening into an empty mixing bowl and beat until creamy.
  4. Gradually beat in white sugar.  Then gradually beat in the egg and molasses.
  5. Sift 1/2 of the flour into the shortening mixture, and stir to blend it thoroughly.
  6. Sift in the remaining flour mixture and beat (or stir) until a soft dough forms.
  7. Pinch off small amounts of dough and roll into 1-inch balls.
  8. Roll each ball in cinnamon sugar and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
  9. Bake about 10 minutes,  The tops should be rounded and slightly cracked.
  10. When they first come out of the oven, they will tend to fall apart if you try to move them.  You’ll want to wait a minute or two before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Then place them on wire racks to cool completely.

Starkitten helps by coating the cookie dough balls with cinnamon sugar. This was her favorite task and she took great pride in making sure they were evenly coated.

Since Starkitten wanted to help me, I gave her the task of rolling the cookie balls in the cinnamon sugar.  It was a great experience for her, as it gave her a sense of accomplishment, knowing that those were her cookies, and overall a great bonding experience for both of us.

They don’t taste too sweet, which is great if you have members of your family who, like my husband, don’t care for sweets but still want a holiday treat.  They go great with a hot cup of tea or just a glass of milk.

This recipe made just over two dozen cookies.  And it wasn’t enough to sate my family’s cookie appetite.

The end product. As you can tell by the half-empty plate, they don't last long.

Mommysaurus

Comforting Chicken Soup Starts with a Good Broth

Jump to Homemade Chicken Broth

During cold La Niña episodes the normal patter...

La Niña phenomenon - by NOAA via Wikipedia

I learned that Ohio has been experiencing what is called an “Indian Summer” as a result of La Niña phenomenon, which has unusually occurred two years in a row.  An Indian summer usually occurs in autumn or early winter, when there has been some snow or frost, and then it’s followed by a period of unseasonably warm weather, followed by more cold weather.

In the South, we called that “normal weather.”

And the dramatic fluctuations in temperature, coupled with the wetness of “winter,” would typically lead to people getting sick (actually, the weather change itself doesn’t make people sick, but it can trigger their allergies and force them to stay indoors in drier air and around other germy sick people, and this makes it easier to get sick).

But here in Ohio, you can feel the temperature extremes more.  When it’s warm, it’s perfect weather for hiking and playing outside.  Then suddenly it’s cold and wet, and we get runny noses and have no desire to go outside, unless there is some of that strange, fluffy white stuff falling from the sky (which people call “snow”) to play in.

Because my kids are both under 6 (the age that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends is the minimum for taking over-the-counter cold medicine), it’s important to me to do everything possible to make sure they don’t get sick in the first place.

Common cold

The Rhinovirus, one of the viruses that causes the common cold, looks much like a snowflake. - Image by Robin S via Wikipedia

One of the best ways to combat the common cold and the flu is chicken soup.  This is one old wives’ tale that hasn’t been debunked.  In fact, doctors have found that it does in fact help to fight some respiratory illness.

Homemade Chicken Broth

There are many recipes for chicken soup out there (here’s a simple one), but they all pretty much require pre-made chicken broth.  I personally believe that if you’re going to make homemade chicken soup, you should use homemade chicken broth.

For a few years now, I’ve been using a recipe I adapted from Tapas Deck by José Andrés (it was a gift from a dear friend who spent a year in Spain).  It’s an amazing recipe and is very easy to follow.  All I’ve ever added is ginger.

Also, I try to use organic chicken whenever possible (and living near the Amish in Ohio, I’ve found I can also buy Amish chickens at some local grocery stores, and their chickens taste fantastic and are pretty much organic as well)–it tastes richer, was raised humanely, and wasn’t fed antibiotics (which may actually impair your body’s ability to fight certain infections later) or other harmful chemicals, like arsenic, which young chickens contain more of (and I know from having worked in the poultry industry that commercial chickens are about 4 months old when butchered–and a home-grown 4-month-old chicken still looks like a baby chick!–because they are also pumped full of growth hormones and other chemicals).

The ingredients for chicken broth have just been put on the stove to cook.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken, rinsed
  • 3 carrots, peeled
  • 2 onions, peeled and halved
  • 1 leek, well washed and outer leaves removed
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (if you don’t have fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon of dry thyme will do the trick)
  • 10 sprigs fresh parsley (if you don’t have fresh parsley, 1/4 cup of dry parsley will do the same thing)
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger root
  • salt to taste (I recommend kosher salt for better flavor)

Directions

  1. Pour 4 quarts of water in a stockpot (or any very large pot) and add all the ingredients except the salt.
  2. Bring to a boil.  As the stock comes to a boil, foam will form on the surface.  Scoop this off immediately, so that your stock will end up as clear and clean as possible.
  3. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.  You don’t want to overcook it, or the chicken will fall apart and you’ll have a lot of tiny bones to pick out of loose meat pieces.
  4. Add salt to taste and remove from the heat.
  5. Strain the stock.
  6. You can store it in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.  I prefer to store whatever I don’t use immediately in the freezer, separating it into 4-cup increments.

You don’t have to worry about discarding the leftover chicken meat.  I like to debone the chicken and use the meat in tacos or in the subsequent soup I prepare, but you can do many other things with the boiled meat.

English: Chicken soup and toast Български: Пил...

Image by Biso via Wikipedia

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

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