Morning and Evening

Digital illustration: Happy New Year

Year In, Year Out

The year begins with ice and fire at dawn

As January draws the curtain high,

Revealing what is written on the sky

To turn our vision forward and move on—

Into the year ahead, awake, renewed,

To see what can be done, what holds the key

That everything required of you and me

Will help fulfill the prophecy we viewed—

Move us with hope and joy through dark and light,

Through time that tests us as it passes by

Until we see another evening sky

Leading the way to that December night—

When once again we’ll come to gather here

And mark the changing to another year.

Digital illustration: Happy New Year Again

The Changing of the Guard

As December draws toward its end and a new calendar year lies just over the horizon and out of sight, there is always a sense of anticipation. It’s a many-layered thing, too, this look forward, carrying my constant consternation at all of the possibly awful unknowns like some sort of a scratchy underlayment to the innocent eagerness to discover great and wonderful things ahead. My own small history has taught me that both will hold true to one degree or another in 2015, just as they have for every day, season, year, and chapter in my life, little speck that it is in the equally fearful and fantastic unseeable future of the whole of existence. Knowing that these things will come to be regardless of any worry or wondering on my part never stops me from either of those things.Graphite drawing + text: Change of Heart

The one very best aspect of all of this is that I find every modification does move me to grow and change. I, along with the days, seasons, years, and chapters of my storyline, can be made better by their passage if I choose to keep my mind and heart engaged. Newness ahead can mean new life ahead. Today is a day when the beautiful potential of the best kinds of change should shine most brightly on the horizon of anyone who longs for it.

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!

I Made a Wreath

I did make a wreath, really–well, two. And as usual, they got a little more complicated and veered from the original plans all along the way, and the wreaths sort of made themselves, with a little elbow grease from me. That does seem to be my modus operandi most of the time, doesn’t it. I like to think of myself as an artist and the chief inventor in my colorful little universe, but when I’m being honest with myself, it’s more like I’m the cheap labor. Once the particular puzzles announce themselves to me, I may be able to offer the valuable skill of problem solving to make them possible (or as nearly so as I can), along with the effort required to bring them into existence, but in truth I’m often as surprised by the end product as anybody.P&IThat’s not entirely what I meant to say in this little post, of course. What I intended was to say that my time among you makes me think wreath-making a particularly purposeful thing to do, regardless of its utility or lack thereof as an object. Because to me, they represent all of the good and cheerful things contained in holidays and celebrations, and bring fine and flexible attractions to the decoration of home and garden. But further, and more significant in this difference to me, a wreath is a way to publicly express personal happiness through a small creative act. I make no claim that this is deep stuff. It’s a small pleasure and a minor artistic outlet, a rather insignificant creation even among the doings of a humbly insignificant artist. But as a token of well-being, contentment and hope, and no less, a mark of my understanding that I am privileged to feel all of those and know that I do so in large part thanks to the fine company I keep, this is enough cheering reason for me to make such playful little artworks, and even make artworks about making the artworks. Odd, I know, but in that alone, well suited to represent me too.digital illustrationI confess, silly as it is, it kind of leaves me wreathed in smiles just thinking about it.

Lean

graphite drawingAs I lean into the new year (or slouch, depending upon your perspective), I am past the holiday’s excesses just enough to recollect my determination to become leaner. In body, perhaps a bit–though fitter would be a better term for my desire there–but mainly in attitude. I am reminded by the delightful yet unnecessary overabundance in my life that I could and should aim for a slightly more streamlined existence.

I am no Spartan by any means, and have no particular desire or sense of need to become monkishly ascetic. But I know that when luxury is the norm I am less appreciative of it and run the risk of simply being misled, if not sickened, by it. So as is often the case at the start of a new year I will indulge in paring down rather than piling on my acquisitions, my Stuff, my lifestyle. I will focus as best I can on getting the most out of what I do have, telling myself less that I ‘need’ something that I don’t have, and sharing what I can with friends who are less over-indulged and better yet, the have-nots around me.

It may not improve my posture, but it will surely improve my attitude. I look forward to putting my shoulder to the wheel and leaning in to it for a bit.

Vulture Culture

Bird-watching is easy in countryside where there’s a lot of flat land, a lot of sky and plenty of clumps of brush or trees here and there for roosting and cover. Our recent expedition to Texas Hill Country was a great occasion for it, especially since the fences, power poles and trees that line freeways are both the perfect lookout points and display pedestals for local hawks and grackles and doves. Most distinctively regional among those winged wonders catching my eye as we drove down and back were the marvelous black vultures.

I love watching them, from the graceful, majestic soaring swoops and loops they draw across the broad planes of the sky to their awkward huddling in flocks on the massive transformer towers, to those rare and delightful closeups where I can get a better look at their funny mix of magnificent feathered eagle-like bodies with those wrinkly, wizened looking little heads and their bold hooked beaks. The sudden whuff-whuff as a large bird, unseen above my head on its light-pole perch, dove over me in a low arc to switch poles was like being fanned by the wing of a passing angel the other day. Clearly my intrusion on its territory wasn’t so distressing to the buzzard either, as he opted to land on the next post over and then sat surveying our party placidly even when my husband and I came and stood directly below to gaze on the magnificent creature. He felt exceedingly well fitted for the place, letting the cold drafts ruffle his feathers just a little as he sat gazing out at Canyon Lake under the lowering skies of the first of the year.

I call that a very good Texas omen.digital painting from a photo

Stratospheric Eventualities

Calm and measureless heights of azure Texas sky

Rise streaked with silent foaming white,

The broad hot blue patterned with these delicate

Ambling clouds that stretch to cover great distance at

A leisurely, attenuated speed, always slipping noiselessly

Across branch-tops, over the brazen sun, and into

The realms of seeming outer space, asleep

Though it should be at lazy midday
digital painting from a photoSuddenly this easy traffic is crossed

By a soaring, circling pair of

Dark metallic wings, the steely black of one

Great vulture passing through to catch

The updrafts and to cycle down, surveying

His kingdom plat by plat—he’s joined, soon enough,

By would-be kings, the other buzzard princes of

The wide blue air, who comb the same

Field of clouds with their own

Gunmetal-dark brace of wings
digital painting from a photoAnd after a time, these too are scattered abroad at the dash

Of two, then three, sharp triangles of louder, faster, sterner steel,

As fighter jets flash by in succession,

Pull together into a tight

Formation from their first sharp linear slash, and make

A single force with which they will unzip

The sometime quiet of that great wide skydigital painting from a 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