Thursday, November 28, 2013

Are You a Thanksgiving Hostess?

Nothing makes me feel more adult than hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our home.  I mean, kids in their 20's don't typically have the family over for turkey day.  You go to mom's house....or your aunt Susie's.  The family just doesn't usually congregate at the home of the youngest relative for Thanksgiving . 

And can you blame them?

When I was 21, I was eating Toaster Strudel for breakfast every morning and whipping up some Noodle-Roni for dinner each evening.  I was vegetarian.  My cookware consisted of hand-me-downs from my mom and a few discarded pieces I collected from old roommates.  I had exactly four matching dinner plates and a 14-inch TV.  Is that the kind of place you want to spend Thanksgiving?

I didn't think so. 

Naturally we all congregate at the comfortable home of our more "seasoned" relatives.  We seek out those that have comfortable seating in their living room, sufficient silverware for a large crowd, and cooking skills that have expanded beyond things that originate in a box or a can.  On Thanksgiving we want someone who has mastered the fine art of being a hostess...someone that knows that there is more to appetizers than a bag of Cheetos, and who has room in their  home to seat more than four guests around the dining table. 

Now that I have achieved the rank of Thanksgiving Hostess,  I'm feeling a little less than young.  Not old exactly, but mature.  Seasoned.  Experienced.  I've come to the other side. 

For those of you at home that might be wondering if this is your time....if you are of sufficient age and maturity to host the granddaddy of all feasts in your home, I have prepared a simple checklist.  Take a look and see if you are up for the task. 

You Might be Old Enough to Host Thanksgiving If....
  1. You understand that an oversized bird doesn't defrost overnight.
  2. You have inherited your grandma's fine china.  Or silver.  Or both.
  3. You can legally prepare and drink a decent Thanksgiving cocktail.
  4. You are no longer qualified to sit at the kids table.
  5. You can spell all the names of your relatives and assign them a seat at your table that will make everyone happy while avoiding unnecessary political debate or inappropriate family planning interrogations.
  6. You own a CrockPot and a tablecloth.
  7. You can make a pumpkin pie.  Apple is ideal, but pumpkin is a good start.
  8. You can assemble a menu plan on Pinterest.
  9. You've come to the understanding that Chinese take-out isn't considered a traditional Thanksgiving meal in most corners of America. 
  10. You are confident enough to serve your friends and family burnt potatoes and/or canned cranberries if things start to fall apart in the kitchen.
If you find that you are old enough to host your own Thanksgiving feast, don't despair.  It's not all juggling pots in the kitchen and a day-long dishwashing extravaganza.  You'll also get first dibs on leftovers, control over the seating chart and ultimate authority on delegating out the dishes that you don't want to make yourself! 

See?  Being hostess does have its advantages.  Even if you serve Cheetos as a side dish, your gracious guests will politely eat them. 

And probably make a mental note to take a turn hosting Thanksgiving next year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Oops I Did it Again

I ran into the trifecta of goodness this weekend at Farmer's Market.  Three forces combined and I was powerless in their presence.  I found organic apples, offered in bulk, at an amazing discount (about $.50/pound, to be exact).  Naturally I came home with 15 pounds of apples.  I mean, when can you get ANYTHING organic for that kind of money?? 

Pretty much never.  So I had to do it. 

(Click here for further detail about my inability to resist bulk temptation at Farmers Market.) 

Full disclosure, these apples were "seconds" so they had a bit of character, a few bruises, and maybe a resident worm or two.  But I had my eye on a big batch of Apple Butter, so a few blemishes didn't scare me. 

I have loved Apple Butter for years, and my affection only grew when I realized how easy it is to make.  I am now going to share with you my super-secret family recipe.  Are you ready?  Here it is:

1.  Apples
2.  Cinnamon
3.  Ground Cloves

Ta Da!!  Seriously.  That's it. 

Why have you never made your own Apple Butter?? 

You can find lots of recipes with added sugar, sweeteners or other unnecessary garbage.  All you really need are some good apples and a little bit of spice.  (If you're a stickler for details, this translates to about 2 teaspoons of cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of cloves for 10-ish pounds of apples.) 

I've always made my Apple Butter in the crock pot.  Just peel/slice the apples, fill your crock pot to the brim and heat on high for two hours.  Stir in the spices and simmer down on low for an additional 4-6 hours.  End of story.  Really!  I'm not lying.  It's that simple. 

I also made a batch on the stove this time, which was even quicker.  I had Red Delicious apples, which are pretty soft to begin with.  They cooked down on the stove in about an hour.  I used my hand blender to mix in the spices and break up the chunks, simmered down for about 30 more minutes and called it good. 

I almost hate to share this trivia with you because some of you just may receive homemade Apple Butter as your Christmas gift.  So for you, let me say...I did have to go through the canning process too.  It added at least another 30 minutes to my labor of love project.  Woe is me.  I worked myself to the bone on this....

So I supported my local farmer, bought organic, got a bargain, made it myself and stocked my pantry. 

That's joy in a jar right there. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Silent Night

We had an unusual occurrence in our house this weekend. Hubby and I actually spent the night alone, in our own home, with no kids. I think this is the first time that has happened for at least five years. We've left the kids to go out of town before, but never spent a night alone in our own least not that I can remember.  But we've been changing diapers and dealing with 6am wakeup calls for five years it's possible my memory is not 100% accurate. 

Parents of older kids that go to sleep-overs or away to summer camp probably don't appreciate the novelty of being alone in your own home.  Maybe they dread the quiet that comes with kids flung far and wide, under the care of other responsible adults.  But you fellow parents of preschoolers and toddlers will feel me here....we enjoyed every last second of silence.  It was only about 15 hours of quiet, but who's counting? 

Here's what I did while we were home alone:

1.  I talked on the phone.  Nobody was interrupting me, or pulling hair to grab my attention away from the phone conversation.  There was no background noise at all.  I just talked and listened. Imagine that.

2.  I cooked dinner.  There we no kids to "help" me, or sibling disputes to referee in between scrubbing vegetables or setting the table.  I could take my time and enjoy the process. 

3.  We ate dinner.  Everyone ate without complaint or negotiating how much they had to eat to get a treat for dessert.  Nobody spilled their milk, spit out their food, or tossed silverware across the table. 

4.  We went to a concert featuring the Vanguard University Guitar Ensemble.  Great music.  We both sat through the entire concert without fidgeting, asking to use the restroom three times, or falling asleep. 

5.  I "slept in" until 7am.  The toddler of the house has an internal alarm that normally goes off between 5:30-6am.  Waking up naturally, without a little person demanding breakfast or a diaper change was divine. 

Here's what I didn't do during our brief parental hiatus:

1.  Change a diaper

2.  Say the words "No" or "Stop" 15 times in a five minute period.

3.  Pack up a diaper bag or prep snacks before we left the house.

4.  Listen to Laurie Berkner or any other music geared for the 0-5 set.

5.  Play Cootie, Candy Land, or Princess Bingo.

Truth be told, I did scroll through the photos on my phone once just to remind myself how cute and loveable my kids really are.  But beyond that, we just enjoyed the silence and basked in the awesomeness that is uninterrupted adult-only time.

In between conversations about the kids, that is.

Editors Note:  I was going to insert a cute photo of crickets here, to reinforce my theme of quiet.  You know, "So silent we heard crickets chirping?"  Well, it turns out that crickets are kind of ugly.  (Trust me.  Do a Google search for cricket images if you insist.)  So you'll just have to make up your own mental image this time.  Sorry for the inconvenience. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Little Joy for the Vets

When Veterans Day rolls around every year, it's something of an occasion in our household.  We happen to have our very own combat Vet living right here under our roof.  He's usually pretty humble about it all.  But when those patriotic holidays roll around, he whips out the VFW cap and the chest-puffing speeches about how he provided the "Blanket of freedom under which we sleep."  It's cute.  The kids roll their eyes (teenager) or look at him clearly confused by the entire scene (little people). 

Every year we try to acknowledge our Veteran on "his" day.  We've made red, white and blue cakes or attended school assemblies to honor Vets.  We take advantage of free meals for Veterans at Applebee's or other fine dining establishments.  Sometimes I order him a pizza and don't make him eat his vegetables.  This year we went to the parade, waved our mini-flags and watched the salutes fly back and forth between our Veteran and the various others that rode by in the parade. 

It's all a little cliché, really.  Kind of like having a decorated evergreen tree in your living room to celebrate the birth of Christ, a parade or patriotic themed dessert seems a little silly when you're trying to recognize the service of a Veteran.  How is any of that meaningful or appropriate for acknowledging the service of someone who went to war for you?  War, people.  It's like the stuff we watch on TV, only for real.  With real guns.  They were there. 

I suppose we are only human.  We do the best we can.  We clap and throw parties and say, "Thank you for your service" when we see a Veteran on the street.  Sometimes it is corny.  Sometimes it might be a tad inadequate or imperfect.  But we try.  At least once a year, we do our due diligence, dust off our patriotic spirit and put on a good show. 

The reality is that Veterans carry their experience with them every day of the year, not just Veterans Day.  Not just Memorial Day or the 4th of July. 

Every.  Day. 

The lost limb, the trick knee, PTSD, nightmares, headaches, ringing ears, physical scars, insomnia, and the images in their head they would give anything to forget....are there 365 days a year.  Everyone's story is a little different but I guarantee you, every Veteran has one.  They all have a story, and chances are (unfortunately) you'll never get to hear it because that's how Vets roll.

Oh wait.  It's getting a little heavy in here.  What happened to finding the joy? 

Here's the deal.  I know we are all thankful, we all appreciate our Veterans, and if you're like me, you're thanking your lucky stars every day that someone else signed up so YOU didn't have to. 

I can't speak for everyone, but most Veterans I know don't want you to put them on a pedestal and call them a hero.  They don't need big speeches about dedication and sacrifice, or public recognition in front of large crowds.  What they do want is to know that America remembers and appreciates the fact that they went to the frontlines when we stayed home.  They want you to respect their service without drawing unnecessary attention to their personal experience which is often an awkward mix of pride and pain. 

Just like the card you send your mom on Mother's's never really enough.  But we still trek to the Hallmark store or order a bouquet of flowers every year.  Because it's the right thing to do. 

So even though that $5 American flag shirt seems a little cheesy, pull it out and wear it.  Even if it feels awkward to salute a 90 year old guy who looks like he probably doesn't remember much about the war, go ahead and do it.  Go to the parade.  Eat pancakes at the community breakfast at your local fire station.  Wave your little flag.  Put red, white, and blue bows on your dog.  Whatever floats your boat. 

Our local Asphalt Cowboys shoot holes in straw cowboy hats and hand them out to kids along the parade route on Veteran's day.  What does any of this really have to do with honoring Veterans?! 

I have no idea. 

But it's fun.  It makes kids and moms and Veterans smile.  And in the grand scheme of things, sharing a little joy is really not a bad way to say "Thank you."

Our very happy homecoming.  June, 2004.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ten Pounds of Walnuts

I've never been a really big fan of walnuts.  In fact, I spent most of my life as an anti-fan.  A non-lover.  I didn't particularly care for walnuts.  I would tolerate them in baked goods if there wasn't a plain option.  But if I had to rank nuts of the world in order from best to worst, walnuts would have landed toward the bottom of the list, down there with Brazil nuts. Blah. 

Things changed dramatically last fall when my generous co-worker brought me some walnuts fresh off her tree.  Oh boy.  Let me tell you, there IS a difference between fresh walnuts and the junk they sell in sealed plastic bags at the grocery store.  As is the case with nearly every other food product know to man, fresh is better.  Way better.  There is something about the crunch and flavor and texture that is so different in a fresh walnut. They actually taste good!  Truly.  If you have never eaten fresh walnuts (and by fresh, I mean ones that are in the shell and came off the tree this season), do yourself a favor.  Go get some. 

I got a little carried away at the Farmer's Market last weekend when I saw a friendly gentleman selling walnuts.  I've seen walnuts at the market before, but they were processed, salted, roasted, or candied and sold in sealed plastic bags.  Still good, still pretty fresh and relatively local, but not the same as getting the whole nut right off the tree.  This guy was selling walnuts.  Plain ol' walnuts, still in the shell, grown a few short miles from my front door. (It literally would have been a shorter drive for me to go to his orchard than to go to the market to buy the silly walnuts....sigh.)  You could scoop up your desired quantity and buy them by the pound, or take advantage of the 10-pound bags he had conveniently put together for suckers like me. 

I say suckers because, as my husband wisely pointed out, "You know they sell those things without the shell, right?" 

Yes, I know.  You can buy walnuts shelled, but they are more expensive.  And probably not as fun.  And if you buy the shelled kind, you wouldn't have mounds of walnut shells to sprinkle in your garden to keep the snails away. (Bonus!!  Free, eco-friendly pest control!)  And when you go to bake something with walnuts, you would just open the container and scoop out some nuts.  I mean, there is no magic or romance in THAT!  It's much more fun to sit on the couch for an hour to shell enough walnuts to put in your muffins.  Right??

OK.  Maybe not.  Convenience is not really the draw of the 10-pound bag of walnuts.  It's just that they taste better.  And there is something that feels rustic and old fashioned about putting in the labor, cracking the nuts yourself and trying to get those beautiful halves to come out in as few pieces as possible.  As an added bonus, the whole process is so intriguing to my kids, they have decided that they actually like walnuts now too!  That's a serious mommy win right there.  For real.

Needless to say, we have been in walnut production mode for the past week.  I've been madly Googling walnut recipes in between shelling sessions.  I have learned that walnuts can keep for up to a year in the shell if stored in a cool place (back of the fridge or in the freezer), which is good to know.  So, if I lose steam on this walnut idea I can always stash some in the fridge for later use. 

My first walnut experiment was with Cinnamon Candied Walnuts.  I like sweet/cinnamon walnuts but I'm not into the thick, sugary coated stuff.  This recipe was great.  It adds a little sweetness and spice to the nuts without being sticky or overpowering.  I found the 400 degree temperature to be a little high as my nuts were smelling toasty after about 5 minutes.  I would recommend turning down the heat to about 350, and stirring every 5 minutes to make sure you don't burn the nuts. 

I was feeling pretty good about my first attempt at candied walnuts, and decided to try a different flavor combination, Candied Balsamic Rosemary Walnuts.  It sounded a little different, and well, it was different alright.  Unfortunately this experiment got thumbs down from the whole family.  The walnuts ended up tasting a little bitter, and the flavor just wasn't quite right.  I generally love rosemary and balsamic, but this combo just missed the mark for our family taste testers.  If you have the urge to try some, please stop by.  We've got a lot of leftovers to share! 

After the rosemary fiasco, I decided to go a different direction and looked at some baked goods that I could spice up with walnuts.  I used my tried-and-true recipe for Baked Oatmeal and tossed some walnuts and dried apples into the mix.  These come out like a super-dense oatmeal muffin, and are the perfect, quick breakfast for busy mornings.

If you're keeping score at home, we are one week into our 10-pound Walnut Experiment and we've had one new recipe success, one new recipe failure, and we've burned through about 3-4 pounds of walnuts just eating them out of the shell, sprinkling on salads or adding to assorted baked goods. 

Six pounds to go.  What's your favorite walnut recipe??  Please share so my entire family doesn't end up with walnut gifts for Christmas. 

They all thank you in advance.