Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

Steaming along Toward the Holidays

I’m sure anyone can easily analyze me to bits for it, but my message today is simple. I made a wreath and I hung it up on the front door to send the message to you, one and all. It’s a holiday message that I think is worth decorating for, regardless of which is your own particular holiday or what the specific date on which it falls.photoThe medium for my message may be a little offbeat. Not everybody puts up a holiday wreath made under a hint of Steampunk influence, but that was my angle at the moment, mostly because I really like all the typical mad-scientist found-object quirky-mechanical fantasy junk that fills the Steampunk world. And I made a wreath because it was fun to do.photo montageAnd I did it all to say, in my own funny-yet-utterly-serious little way, that holidays of a great multitude of kinds please me. More than that, I wanted to say that I wish such sweet happiness to all of you who more properly ‘own’ these holidays. And today, what with the 25th of December being the biggest holiday I grew up knowing in my modest corner of the universe, I think it’s exactly the right time to wish all of you as much joy, contentment, hope and peace as you can possibly contain. Well, more–so there will be plenty to spill out onto all the others around you.

Foodie Tuesday: Season’s Eatings

Up on the roof there arose such a clatter! Nothing like a good dawn thunderstorm to ring in Christmas Day. No, really. Great rain falling here is an excellent present, and the drum rolls and fireworks that introduced it just made its entrance the grander. It’s not exactly the fabled White Christmas for which so many yearn, but I’ll take a good Texas rainstorm as a true gift all the same. Somehow it makes the need for cozy nesting seem all the more apropos and real in a place where I’ve yet to fully adapt to the concept of a two-week-long winter season. So, Merry Christmas to me.

photoIt also heightens and enhances the glow of our seasonal lights–the few white sparklers on the front porch, the reflection off the shiny little red Texas star ornaments I hung from the dining room light fixture, and the candles glowing warmly at table, as well as the flickering fire in the living room fireplace. Whether it’s for Christmas or it’s my gentile substitute for a menorah, or it’s simply a sign of the inner warmth to be cultivated when all of the world’s holidays converge at this time of year, the beauty and comfort and symbolism of both candlelight and firelight is a gift too.

photoThen again, a White Christmas really is an extraordinary thing in Texas–northern or not–and at about 1:45 pm local time our lovely rain actually turned into an even more lovely snowfall. First the smattering of sleet that intermixed with the raindrops began to look ever so slightly whiter, and gradually it transformed into genuine flakes falling, even sticking, on the trees, the roof, the yard, the path. Quite a pretty sight, and one that will continue to water the thirsty ground but also look grand in the meantime.

photoSo I can greet you all with a completely sincere sense of winter, Christmastime, and the holidays in general and wish you the same glorious warmth and sweetness my husband and I are enjoying here, hunkered down in our cozy home with my dear mother and father in law [who road-tripped down here from Seattle for the occasion], and sending thoughts of love and peace and hope and joy to all of our family and friends around the globe. Some of the Norwegian contingent (my youngest sister and her husband and daughter) are with the Washingtonian bunch, celebrating the holidays in the cool and rainy Northwest, while the rest of the Norwegians are back in Scandinavia, some nephews and their families in the Oslo area and the youngest nephew having a quick break with the family but back to the recording studio in Stockholm with his band shortly after the holidays, if I remember right. Loved ones all around the world, whether related by blood or marriage or by the strong bonds of friendship and collegiality and camaraderie are all held especially tightly in our hearts at this time of year, adding to the warmth and glow of the candlelit house battened down cheerily against the light crisp cold of the snow.

photoIn my typical fashion, I celebrated the day by sleeping late, and we all snagged Christmas breakfast in bits and bobs–coffee here, toast there, cereal for another, and so forth–while sitting around the kitchen table chattering about everything and nothing. The later meals in the day are more significant times to set the table a tiny bit more formally, but we’re not much for standing on ceremony in our clan on either side, so the food is unfussy so that we can enjoy the company rather than slaving over the cookery. Lunch was pot roast, made a while ago and frozen and then simply heated in the oven, with roasted potatoes and carrots and some buttery green beans, accompanied with Pinotage for the red wine drinkers and hard apple cider for the others, and for dessert, glasses of eggnog and pieces of my homemade fudge with lots of mixed nuts (previously soaked walnuts, homemade candied/spiced almonds, and salted pecans and macadamia nuts) chopped in it so rampantly as to make it fall apart. Not very decorative, but not too bad to eat all the same. Simplicity trumps presentation nearly every time in my kitchen.photo

Supper will be even less glamorous and perhaps equally quirky for holiday feasting by the popular standards, yet equally edible. We’re having homemade macaroni and cheese with champagne. I think that pairing pretty much says it all for how I operate as a hostess and as an eater, and the tolerance with which family and friends treat me when they spend time in my company. And that, of course, is the acme of celebrating, to my taste: surround yourself with the best and dearest of people who will love you no matter what you do or don’t do, and sit back with them and enjoy it. I wish each and every one of you the same privilege and pleasure, whether you’re celebrating any holidays yourself or not, and to all the world, I send my hopes for peace and comfort and hope for all the days ahead.photo

The Red and the Green

photoI can’t help but think of the holidays as an equal-opportunity treasury of over-the-top delights for those who want to dig in and enjoy them. Seems evident to me that no matter what the origins–religious, practical, philosophical, historical, cynically greedy or purely spiritual–many holidays ultimately become part of the cultures from whose centers they spring. From there it’s a small progression for the holidays to gradually suffuse and/or be avidly imitated by hordes of people who had no previous connection to said origins. Thus we have masses of westerners rejoicing in the marvels of the Chinese New Year, loads of gentiles gathering around feasts of latkes and brisket and rugelach, and a secular Christmas celebrated by tens of thousands of people who’ve never set foot in a church.photoHappy holidays, y’all. I don’t doubt that there are some holidays, just like many other elements of the belief systems they represent, that are sacrosanct and oughtn’t to be co-opted by even the most well-meaning people, but if it’s done with a good heart and not with offensive intentions, there’s something childlike in the desire to share in everyone’s celebrations that still cheers my heart.photoI’m not even remotely related to those who go all-in to the degree of decorating every square millimeter of their homes and gardens, cooking and baking for weeks on end and stuffing the freezer to bursting, throwing extravagant parties for dozens of my closest friends, and sending out massive missives full of hilarious and heartwarming news about my astounding accomplishments from the last year and poetic best wishes for your own holiday celebrations and year to come. My version is oh so very much humbler, as of course it ought to be.photoI’m quite happy to embrace the good in any holiday that comes my way, though, so there are a few essentials on which I’ve focused my attention. Yes, there are a small number of sparkly white lights lining our front porch roof and touches of the requisite scarlet and Kelly green here and there. The holiday greeting cards that others have thoughtfully sent to us are hung on a broad gold ribbon between the living and dining rooms so as to broadcast their goodwill around the house. I’ve stocked the larder with a few favorite treats for all of us (Mr. Spousal Person, his parents and me), not least of all the requisite quantities of chocolate. Not that that item is limited to holidays, admittedly.

The best present I can give myself in celebrating any holiday whatsoever is, naturally, to surround myself with the love and joy of good company, whether eating chocolate or not. So I am sending out my best wishes to all of you lovely people for peace and happiness, good food, glimmering decorations, swell parties, and lots of love and joy throughout the celebration of all the holidays. And throughout a Happy New Year.photo

I Mean It. Don’t be a Meanie!

Ebenezer Scrooge was far from alone. And the holidays are certainly not the only time when Scrooge and his ilk get wound up. Still, big events and celebrations are and always have been pretty predictable catalysts and triggers for bad moods and attitudes of any sort. If we aren’t happy, we’re remarkably good at being as far opposite to it as we can figure out how to make ourselves. High horses are not so high that people don’t try to climb aboard them mighty often. High dudgeons are terribly popular dwellings with the general citizenry, who move into them and dig in our heels as though to that manor born.

Add to this our natural gifts for finding clouds obliterating every one of our silver linings, and t’s not much of a stretch to think that many of us are in a cynical competition to see who can be the snarliest, gnarliest meanie in existence. We’re always looking for the way to shoehorn yet more nasty junk and grim excuses for hideous horripilation into the darkest corners of ourselves and the universe. And when one looks for something hard enough, one almost always finds it. We may be a crotchety breed but we’re still good at some things. The latest news reports are always brimming over with greed and violence and hate. We make the news and we eat it up, too. More’s the pity.

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Captain Crankypants, the Crabbiest Creature in Creation

Why even mention it? Because we have choices. And now, in the shadow of the latest awful tales of murder and depravity and betrayal and any sort of human ugliness you can (or maybe can’t) imagine, it’s holiday time once again. Christmas, yes, and Hanukkah, Ramadan, the New Year (westerners and the Chinese, for example, celebrating it in full gear), Kwanzaa, Tet, a birthday or two zillion. So many opportunities for blow-ups and melt-downs and general cussedness. And we don’t have to succumb to any of them. We can be better than that.

And we should. We should, most of all, when it’s time for all that holiday innocence-wisdom-love-light-and-warmth, stuff that can both exacerbate and offset darker things, choose to enhance it rather than the opposite. The greatest possible gift we can give to others and ourselves for any celebration is to be agents of innocence, wisdom, love, light and warmth instead of any passing urge to give in to crass or cranky behavior. Hugs and kisses are the order of the day. Make peace; be nice–it’s a holiday. Give in to it!

Fanfare

My friends, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, between that and the coming of the New Year this is certainly a time of year in the western world when the presence of Christmas and New Year advertisements and discussions and preparations are ubiquitous to the degree that many of us still get drawn into the whole element of assessing our lives and our places in both the temporal and our inner worlds. It’s not a bad practice to do a bit of examination and evaluation from time to time anyhow, I think. Regardless of beliefs and philosophies, hopes and dreams, politics and projects, we can all benefit from a bit of gentle thinking-through about what matters to us. Somehow, for me that makes the end of a calendar year a cleansing time and a happy one in which I can look forward to a grand and hopeful entrance into the year just ahead.

With that in mind, I wish all of you great happiness in this time. I hope that you can find all the friendship, healing, comfort, peace and joy you desire, now and in the year ahead. And if you do celebrate Christmas, I wish you a truly happy one. If it’s Hanukkah for you, L’Chaim! If you’re preparing to celebrate any other holy days or holidays or are simply going forward full steam ahead with life, I send you my most heartfelt wishes for these delights to fill you now and in the year to come.

digital imageRinging Twelve

As the midday bells are sounding,

Morning light sharpens to blue,

Quiet moments find their grounding;

Thought needs no more things to do

To resolve all unsolved queries,

Weary, troubled, trying times–

Now thoughts rise to higher aeries

In the bell tower, where chimes

Ring new peace, and calm awaken,

Where new joy can sweep away

All the old thoughts, now forsaken,

At the bright noon of the day.

photo + textFanfare

With trumpets blazing bright as stars

The grand procession moves apace

To urge us from a darker place

Into the light no shadow mars

Nor chill cuts in; no drop of gloom

Can enter when this day springs forth

And blossoms cross the secret north

And leave no sorrow any room—

Let each take up the pageant’s pace

To follow at the trumpets’ call

And sing their joy to one and all

In this extremity of spacedigital image collage