Foodie Tuesday: Idola-tree

Photo: Maple Sugar CandyMy love for the maple tree may be a little too intense for polite company. I think it a fine and lovely specimen of arboreal beauty, an asset to the landscape worthy of great admiration and cultivation, to be sure. Its impressively dense, hard-hearted wood is a grand material for the builder, cabinetmaker, and other craftspeople who value its beauty and strength for the long-lived wonder of what can be built from it that lasts for many a generation. Maple trees provide not only shapely plants, much-needed shelter from all sorts of wind and sun and storms, and those delightful little propellers of seed that fill many an hour with wonder for the fortunate child who grows up under the spreading arms of such trees, but also, and this is the crux of today’s paean, they feed me and my fellow maple admirers: their sweet, delicious, delectable life’s-blood; their sap.

I am a sap for maple syrup. And sugar. And pretty nearly all things maple, except perhaps distinctly artificial maple flavors, because why on earth would I want the fake stuff when I’ve supped of the Real Deal? No namby-pamby Grade A syrup, either; I want the darkest, densest, most maple-y syrup I can get, and if I’m not actually eating something like the cute little maple sugar candy lobster pictured above (sigh!), I would just as soon that the sap I’m sipping is as richly maple flavored as it can be.

I had the privilege, tonight, of taking my dessert right in the midst of dinner, in the form of a maple-bourbon milkshake to go along with my seared albacore tuna and grilled salmon entrée. If you think that sounds like an odd pairing, I don’t blame you. But in my defense, I was faced with a fun-filled menu that required getting my sister to agree to splitting our two entrees to share what was already a tough narrowing-down to that number, and my spouse to share the milkshake so that I could still find room to devour all of these goodies in addition to the starter that said sibling and I had already divided, an equally incongruous but also fabulously yummy version of a Caprese salad comprising slices of the biggest, juiciest heirloom beefsteak tomato I have ever seen, lightly salted and peppered, layered with slivers of silky fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, and a small wading pool of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Sometimes it’s just too hard to choose one or two things out of the mass of delights on offer, so one is forced to be outrageously excessive in both the quantity and variety of items in which one indulges. Sometimes, I just lean in that direction by nature.

And sometimes, I rejoice that Nature has forced me to fall into a stupor of maple-induced reverie and reverence that says it’s okay to munch on a lobster-shaped hunk of pure sugar until just this side of comatose. Or to drink a wildly sweet, maple-magicked milkshake right along with a mismatched but far from misbegotten dinner. You can decide for yourselves whether this is a criminal level of self-indulgence. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here in the shade of a big old tree, thinking sweet thoughts while I spin its little propellers around to spread the goodness that is maple forestry just a bit further on this earth.Photo: Maple-Bourbon Milkshake

Foodie Tuesday: Advantageous [Gifted] Food

Starting the preparation of a meal with fabulous leftovers given to me by friends after I’ve dined at their place is truly one of the most cheering and hunger-encouraging ways to go to the task. Food that was delicious in itself, made more so by having been prepared for me by good friends, and now the excess of which has been gifted for yet another meal’s foundation, becomes an almost perfect centerpiece for another delicious and happy meal.

The gift that shaped such a duo of meals recently was grilled pork tenderloin. Our friends served it hot from their patio grill along with an assortment of glorious side dishes and the grand finale of homemade pie, all of this well-seasoned with beautiful, comforting, joyful good company. Fresh garden salad, baked potatoes, vegetable crisps, and that succulent, clean-flavored pork tenderloin. I didn’t even pretend to resist when I was offered some of the remaining roast to take home at the end of the day.Photo: Grilled Pork Tenderloin

My version of the meal went in a little different direction, any attempt to copy that event exactly being doomed from the start, but I knew I wanted to keep the simple excellence of that roast’s flavor as the centerpiece. It was made for such things. I already had a variant sort of loaded-baked-potato in my refrigerator, so I used the cheese, cream, and bacon filled mashed potatoes, deepened with smoked paprika, there as the stand-ins for the day. Not having had any success with growing greens, I thought store-bought ones might seem like a little bit of a come-down after the previous dinner’s, so I skipped salad. Peas, instead; peas barely cooked in a batch of brown mushrooms that had been marinated and cooked in Tamari, dry sherry, and butter and then cooked until hot enough to warm the peas without further time on the cooktop.Photo: Mushrooms and Peas

I made a compote of fresh pears with lime juice, maple syrup, and butter and seasoned them with a splash of homemade vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a healthy pinch of ground cardamom. I guess I must’ve been in mashing mode after the potatoes, so I just cooked the pears down until they, too, could be mashed, and I finished the pork the same way I’d finished the peas: got the pear sauce good and hot, laid the slices of pork loin on top of it, put the lid on the pan, and took it off the burner, letting the sauce steam the meat through to warm it once more. Dinner was delicious. Again. Now, isn’t that twice as nice?Photo: Pork Tenderloin Dinner

Foodie Tuesday: Figs and Fika

Despite the present day craze for all things piggy when it comes to meats, bacon inserted into every imaginable recipe—and some not even possible to get my brain wrapped around at all—and the undeniable fabulousness of a grand Black Forest classic, a clove-studded Virginia ham, a spiral-cut, home glazed ham, or the umami-loaded and thus much-lauded and wildly expensive jamón ibérico, what I grew up with at home, as I recall, was that differently seasoned and prepared, smooth textured, Danish ham (as my family knew it then, whether that characterization was entirely accurate or not), and I loved it. It’s on the sweet side, generally, and usually subtler than the more intensely flavored aforementioned hams. Truthfully, I love them all, as long as they’re not those tinny, watery, pallid objects of pseudo-meat that have been processed to the point of looking and tasting like cartoon food.

I also, as you well know, am fond to an obsessive degree of salty-and-sweet combination treats, and hams are very compatible with sweet foods, whether in the form of a glorious, uncomplicated afternoon bite of perfect prosciutto wrapped around a melon slice or as a bone-in beauty bathed in fruit compote for the spring table.

Danish ham isn’t my only foodly fanaticism derived from Scandinavian roots. Here’s another thing I’ve learned from that region to love when it comes to food: the Swedish tradition of fika. Not so different in origins, perhaps, from the Italian treat Tiramisu, wherein a tradition of stopping for coffee and a sweet was the perfect pick-me-up in an afternoon or way to meet with a friend for a bit of refreshment, and eventually the practice became the name of the treat itself—the Italian Tiramisu translating roughly as, yes, “pick-me-up” and the Swedish fika deriving, ostensibly, from a syllabic reversal of “kaffe” (coffee). Not that it matters hugely to me, but I do always love an excuse to sit down at the table not only for a full meal but for the more relaxed atmosphere of a break for, say, a bite and a drink, some appetizers and a cocktail, or tea and dessert.

For a recent casual evening with friends, I got the urge for a ham-and-sweetness starter that would be extremely quick and easy to fix but bring out the simple flavors of the ingredients pretty smartly. I think I did well enough with it, because between the five of us we polished off all but a couple of small corner pieces from a whole cookie sheet’s worth, along with the actual roast beef dinner and dessert; but you can be the judge, if you like. It couldn’t be simpler to make, so there’s no excuse not to join in the testing.

Four ingredients: puff pastry dough, ham, fig jam, and Parmesan cheese. One pan. One swift browning in the oven. Slice. Eat.

I wanted to make this with fresh figs, but couldn’t find any at the moment that were in nice enough shape, so I used a small jar of store-bought fig jam that worked quite nicely. Had I used fresh figs, I would have chopped them roughly and mixed them with some honey, maple syrup, or ginger syrup as the delicious glue for the hors-d’oeuvre topping, but jam had that binder handily built right in, so if you’re unable to find fresh fruit, jam is clearly a convenient and equally tasty alternative. I did buy one package of frozen, pre-made puff pastry dough (lazy me) and about a half pound of thinly sliced ham (I chose the deli’s maple glazed version on this occasion). I had shredded Parmesan cheese in the refrigerator. The process was easy-peasy.Photo: Ham & Cheese with Figs

Ham & Cheese Bites with Fig Jam

Set the oven to heat at 400°F. Lay out all of the puff pastry dough needed to cover it (with a single layer) on a large cookie sheet pan with edges. This could get sticky if you don’t contain the food! You should have a little dough left over: I had about an eighth of the dough remaining and set it aside.

Mix equal amounts of chopped sliced ham—mine, when the thin slices were cut into about 1/2 inch (1 cm) squares, amounted to around a cupful of loose ham pieces—and shredded cheese with gently heated and liquefied jam (the jam I used took between a quarter and a half cup to blend the ham and cheese. Glued together like this, the ham, cheese, and jam mixture was probably about a scant two cups’ worth of topping and was easily distributed and spread evenly by spoonfuls over the whole pastry base. I cut the remaining pastry dough into 1/2 inch by 1-1/2 inch rectangles and I twisted each once to make a little bow and stuck those around on top of the jammy mixture. The whole sticky delight went into the oven for perhaps 14 minutes or so, and once it was golden, was ready to be cut into small rectangles that could be easily handled for eating.

Then, of course, we ate them. Whenever I make them again, I will try pre-baking the puff pastry and simply adding the jam blend for a final, melting warm-up just before serving. Crispier results, I should think. But even with a slightly chewier texture…we ate them all.

Foodie Tuesday: The Great Truffle Kerfuffle

When the Sweet Tooth Siren calls, pay attention. A person could fade away and starve if candy isn’t handy when it’s required. So when I got that urge today, I knew that even though I wouldn’t get home until late-ish from the concert tonight, I had better think of some way to make some sweet happen. Fast.

I was thinking something truffle-like, because: chocolate. Also, because it’d be pretty easy if I didn’t get too complicated with it. So I jumped right on in.

What I did was this: I mixed about equal amounts of powdered cocoa and powdered peanuts and coconut oil (room temperature, solid) together into a thick paste. Then I added in a splash of almond extract, a dash of crunchy Maldon sea salt, and some dark maple syrup to taste, and this made a dense enough ‘dough’ to form into 1/2″ spheres. I rolled these heavily in flaked, toasted coconut. Most of this truffle mix went into the fridge for tomorrow and/or other, future candy emergencies. Some of it went pretty much straight into my mouth, conveniently enough.

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Trifling with truffles…

Because it was easy, and it tasted pretty darned good—not that it wouldn’t be equally tasty if I substituted the coconut with, say, sesame seeds or finely chopped nuts or minced preserved ginger, dried apricots or candied peel, or some additional chocolate, in dainty little chips. But no matter. What is essential is that I got my sugary fix in an appropriate hurry, and it pleased me.

And that, after all, is what was on order for the day.

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets, Treats & Healthy Eats

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What’s good for my heart might be as much a spiritual question as a nutritional one, even at table. Mmm, BBQ!

I am one of those silly people who don’t think the title’s terms are mutually exclusive. Call me a cockeyed optimist (because, well, I am), but it also happens to follow a certain logic if I tell you that not only do scientists and nutritionists and doctors sometimes concede that what was once thought the epitome of healthful behavior and ingestion is now believed to be quite the opposite, or that things we once considered horrendously dangerous and likely to contribute to the destruction-through-dining of the entire human race might not be quite so terrible after all. Not to mention the recognition that each person’s body type, genetic makeup, chemistry, environment and so forth all make him-her-me unique in the ways we suffer or benefit from our diets.

So I will refrain from posting—on Tuesdays or otherwise—ruminations on what is Always or Never good for anybody. Besides which, as you well know on visiting with me even twice on a Tuesday, even my own two-person family household has vastly different ideas and tastes and preferences when it comes to what we simply like or don’t like to eat and drink. Thankfully, we can work out those differences in many ways, so the reality of our widely divergent food loves has relatively little impact on our love of being together.

This is, among other things, a reason that it’s nice to have something to amuse each member of the party at table, and let each choose his or her own combination of dishes, drinks and delectables. I am well aware that having no children in the family may be seen as a dodge of the most difficult issues in this regard, because as a supposedly responsible adult one might be expected to see that every child present is getting reasonable nutrition at all times, and hopefully, also building practices and habits that will lead to her continued healthy living. But of course one can point to numerous folk who have in various ways had the ability to subvert the rules and live and thrive. And of course, I live with an adult who has managed to do so despite having been raised to eat ‘right’ yet arriving at adulthood with a general dislike of much of what is, was and perhaps ever shall be considered ‘right eating’: he doesn’t like very many vegetables at all, and could probably survive on pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers and fries, and those with little deviation from their simplest forms, especially preferred without annoying vegetable side dishes or icky sauces. While I enjoy nearly all of the foods he does like, I’ll also eat lots of other things gladly, including the veggies and sauces and many more things he would far rather not.

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Cucumber, all by itself, is refreshing; as a simple salad made with rice vinegar, honey, fresh dill and black pepper, it’s also delicious.

Does this in any way make him less intelligent or well-bred or good or admirable? It most certainly does not, any more than it confers sainthood upon me. It may be true that ‘the heart wants what it wants’, but baby, I’d say with ten times the conviction that the gut has powerful reign over our existence—stomach, tastebuds and brain in concert, that is. And I’ll bet you dollars to sugary, fat, wonderful donuts that this alone will not determine who among us lives well, survives long and dies contented. So I eat my vegetables, more often than not, alone even when eating at the same table as my beloved. He will order the same classic meat-and-potatoes food a bit more frequently than I will. We will both worry about our health and weight and shapes from time to time and each of us, occasionally, do some little thing or other to alter them, together or individually.

All I can say for certain is that I hope neither of us will ever lose interest in food and drink altogether or, especially, lose the ability to eat and sip much that we enjoy, because those tastes and those communal activities and shared experiences give us pleasure that is as beneficial to health and happiness as the nutrients themselves can ever begin to be. That makes Foodie Tuesday here a perfect day to celebrate a very special cook, hostess, family member and dear friend, whose birthday is upon us. Happy birthday, Mom Sparks! Your good cooking and your graciousness, both at table and all around, make you a Sweet Treat yourself—and helped to shape, unquestionably, the marvelous man with whom I am privileged to dine nearly every day, no matter what we choose to eat and drink.

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‘Green Banana’ Pudding: ripe bananas and avocado blended until smooth with fresh lime juice and zest, honey, butter (of *course* I’m not kidding), almond extract, and a pinch of salt. A few toasted coconut chips on top add just a hint of crunch. Banana-lime happiness in a spoon!

Foodie Tuesday: It Shouldn’t be Too Difficult

People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.photoHoliday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.photoMy love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.

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Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.

These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.

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Squash and apples make fine companions.

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Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.

If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.

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Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.

This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.

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Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.

And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!

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Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.

However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!

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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.