Welcome to December, Readers!

Did you survive the Thanksgiving aftermath? Are all of the leftovers consumed and done with? How’s that holiday shopping coming along?

More important…who is coming over to wrap all of the presents for me, because I absolutely dread that chore. I’m down with putting up the tree, baking holiday sweets, hanging garlands from various mantles in the house, but wrapping gifts? Not my favorite. Not even close.

When Mama was alive, she took pity on me and helped me wrap most of the holiday stash. I was so spoiled. She would arrive at my doorstep, we’d send the Minxes off to the movies or some other winter activity, we’d pour some wine, crank the Christmas music and then get crackin’.

I didn’t mind wrapping so much then, because my mother’s company made everything more festive and fun. She adored everything about Christmas and was an absolute expert and wrapping beautiful gifts. She could even handle those ribbons with the wire in them that always gave me fits. We’d end up in hysterics because my packages always looked like an addled, 3-toed sloth wrapped them and hers were a work of art.

Oh, I miss her.

It’s only my second Christmas without her and I just…miss her.

If it’s possible, the holidays seem even more lonesome this year than the year before. How can that be? Is it true or is it just a trick of the mind? Now that I think on it, last holiday season was tinged heavily with rotten, too. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all sad, it just is.

It’s different in ways I cannot expect and grief is a sneaky little shithead. I got all weepy in the grocery store last week when I spied one of those big mesh bags of un-cracked nuts in the produce section. We always had a nutcracker and a bowl of those nuts on the holiday table growing up, even though I never really could be bothered to consume them. Who cries over nuts they never really ate? Some maudlin lady in her late 40’s and too much time on her hands, that’s who.

Actually, I don’t have that much time on my hands lately, because there have been some significant changes around here.

As many of you know, we lost a family member last week.

Our rescue cat, Aria, was definitely an old Grand Dame (about 16 years old, we believe) and her health had been declining enough in recent months that we knew it was coming, but you’re never really ready for those things, are you?

It was awful having to break the news to the girls, and there were boatloads of tears. Miss D. took it particularly hard, because she loved Miss Kitty best. The feeling was mutual. If you have ever lived with cats, you know that you don’t really ever own a cat. A cat allows you to exist with it, and if you are very, very lucky there’s one certain human that is allowed a certain kinship with it, and in our household, that person was D.

It will be a while until Miss D. gets that sparkle back in her eyes. Losing a pet is hard, period.

I’m trying to give her space and breathing room and time to sit with the heavy. The Mother Hen part of me wants to alleviate her sadness as soon as possible, but the realist in me feels like it’s important that she let herself feel what she needs to, at her own speed.

Even Mozzy’s having to adjust to not having Aria around, although I think he’s okay with getting his bed back.

 

A few days after saying goodbye to Aria, a new distraction arrived. A teeny, needy, fluffy purr-machine of a distraction.

 

                                                       ~Meet our new foster kitten, Gus.

 

GusGus (as we are already calling him) will be with us for the holidays, as he’s barely a pound soaking wet and needs some extra medical attention before he can find his forever home. We’re happy to give him a soft and safe place to land for a while, and watching the rough-and-tumble antics of a kitten is good for the wounded soul.

And no, we’re not keeping him! Quit thinking that! Y’all will turn me into a crazy cat lady, and I am only semi-crazy. I’m going to keep convincing myself of this. On repeat.

 

As far as the rest of life (the non-animal related side) goes, we’ll be trucking along with all of the common holiday hubbub. There will be baking projects, and party attendance and school exams and lazy school-holiday mornings.

There might also be some lazy school-holiday dinners, at least for me and the girls, because my husband’s December work schedule is almost as whackout-nuts as his November work schedule. That’s sort of what happens to people who work in a hospital setting this time of year. Particularly in our neck of the woods. During the winter holidays, people come to the Rocky Mountains in droves. They swoop in and hit the ski slopes with abandon and crash on said slopes and someone’s got to look at the scans of those broken bones, eh?

S’okay. We’re used to it. We’ll breathe in January.

Until then, we’ll get quick and simple meals on the table and this one is good at ANY hour of the day, which I love. Wake up late? No problem, make this. Need lunch but don’t want to make a trip to the overcrowded market? Rummage through the refrigerator and pantry and make this. Sick of fatty, rich holiday food? Make this. Got a work-battered husband lurching in at 11 at night? Make him this.

This dish is a take on Shakshuka (shock-shoo-kuh), which is super fun to say so do it three times fast. It’s also called “Eggs in Purgatory,” because it involves gently simmering eggs and vegetables in a slightly spicy, bright red tomato sauce. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious. I like to make it feel a little extra special by throwing in some Mediterranean goodies like tangy feta cheese, juicy artichoke hearts and hearty black olives. The best part is piling the whole affair onto buttery, rustic slabs of ciabatta bread or dunking warm, pillowy pita through the sauce. Do not even think of low-carbing it on this dish, folks!! The slathering and the dunking of gluten is a necessity.

Is it peasant food? Kind of, but only in the best possible way. It’s sure prettier than most peasant dishes, by a mile.

 

                                                                                     ~Quite a stunner, am I right?

 

I like to plop a big skillet of it into the middle of the table and let people tear bread and slop around communally. It’s more festive that way. But feel free to do as you wish. You can serve it on separate plates if you like things more civilized. You can cut this recipe in half or double it, depending on how many people you’ve got loafing around. If you’re not into spice, skip the harissa and use smoked paprika instead–it will still be delicious. No feta in the house? Scatter Parmesan or mozzarella on it. No artichokes? Throw in leftover broccoli or some mushrooms. This dish is forgiving as all get out, it’s healthy and it’s quick.

Kind of a holiday gift to you.

 

Mediterranean Eggs: Shakshuka-Style

serves 2 generously, 4 modestly

 

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup finely minced sweet onion

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons harissa (or you can substitute 1 tablespoon smoked paprika for less heat)

2-3 minced garlic cloves

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes with juices or tomato puree (like Pom)

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

dash of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

1/4 cup diced roasted red peppers

1/4 cup sliced artichoke hearts

1/4 cup sliced kalamata olives or black olives

1/3 cup crumbled Feta cheese

4 large eggs

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Warm pita bread or toasted ciabatta bread, for serving

 

Heat the oil in a medium skillet or flying pan on medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and harissa; cook for one minute. Add the garlic and stir for about a minute. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes (if using); reduce heat to low and cook until thickened, about 20 minutes.

Stir in the red peppers, artichoke hearts, olives and feta.

Using the back of a spoonn make 4 indentations in the tomato sauce. Crack an egg into each indentation. Cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes more, until  the whites are just set. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with bread for dunking.

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All of the childhood Thanksgivings that I can remember (all of them, from the first time I have a memory of Thanksgiving, which is no small amount of time) began the same way: with five sheets of typewritten instructions, on onion-skin paper, tucked carefully away in a red, weathered copy of The Betty Crocker Complete Cookbook. Mama would take the cookbook down from a kitchen shelf and gingerly, carefully smooth out the sheets of paper with her fingers, studying. The papers were once pristine, I imagine, but by the time I was old enough to reach the counter to get a look at them, they were weathered, yellow around the edges, decorated with splatters of various colors and sizes.

Those instructions were lovingly typed by my grandmother, Henrietta, weeks before my mother cooked her first Thanksgiving meal as a married woman. When my mother got married, she couldn’t cook; the best she could do was make a salad, so you can imagine how daunting it must have felt to Mama, staring down her first turkey. Mama followed those instructions to the letter, year after year. Even by the time I was in college, and my mother had made dozens and dozens of Thanksgiving meals, she always began with those papers, stowed away for safekeeping in that red battered cookbook. I don’t think she needed those papers in a technical sense, but there they still were. By then I think they were more sentimental than useful, but that made them no less important.

Every year, I’d read over them again and laugh, because they were SO detailed, so precise that they hinged on comical. Clearly, my mother was out of her element that year–and probably for a few years afterward, for that matter. They also were peppered with my grandmother’s Southern vernacular and written in such a conversational style that her voice burst out of the pages as you read. I could hear her drawl, the funny little way she snipped her consonants. When we cooked with those instructions, she was resurrected. She really was in that kitchen with us. I could feel her, and feel her love.

“Now, Cissy [my grandmother’s nickname for my mother], remember to pat the turkey dry before you season it with the butter and the spices. You can’t go slathering a wet turkey–all of the goodness will slide right off, and what use is that?”

“Don’t forget to take the bag of giblets out of the cavity of the turkey. Your aunt Sarah forgot one year and it filled the kitchen with the grandest stink you could ever imagine. You also need the giblets to make any kind of decent gravy, so pay mind.”

“The cranberry relish tastes so much better if you make it several days ahead of time. It will keep in the refrigerator and actually get better. I always like to add a thimbleful or two of Grand Marnier to the relish but don’t tell Mammy about that if she’s at dinner. She won’t notice a lick.”

“Allow 3-4 creamed pearl onions per person, on average, unless Larry Jones is at the table. He has been known to ingest double or even triple that amount so plan accordingly. That man does fancy his creamed pearl onions.”

“When the turkey comes out of the oven, cover it and let it rest. Make sure you put it on a safe counter to rest until you serve it. One year Aunt Mary’s cat got into the cooked turkey–remember? Lord, what a pickle.” [Kitch’s note: the cat was discovered noshing before it had done too much damage; my grandmother and Aunt Mary whisked the cat off the counter, cut off the offending patch, and served the turkey fully carved on a tray that year].

 

                                                                           ^This cat is different but still getting a scolding

 

 

Mama and I would spend days in the kitchen, laughing and musing about Thanksgivings past, family quirks, chopping and stirring bubbling pots as we worked through the pages of Gramma Rhetta’s holiday missive. By the time we got to the last page, we were bone-tired from cooking, washing, reminiscing and laughing, but we wouldn’t have changed a thing.

That’s the good stuff, right there.

What only looks like 5 pages of onion-skin paper is not just paper. It is so, so much more.

It’s love. It’s family. It’s holiday togetherness. It’s the ties that bind and the people who’ve made you who you are.

It’s home.

It’s everything.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving, Readers. May it be full of people you love and warm food in your bellies. Much love to you and yours.

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Mushroom Bolognese

November 15, 2017

 

 

Since adopting the semi-quasi-ovo-lacto-charlatan-vegetarian eating plan in September, I’ve been getting lots of emails and questions from you readers, which is awesome on many levels. I mean, reason #1 is obviously that I love you, and love hearing from you. I also love to hear myself talk, which ties in nicely with reason #1. It’s also interesting to find that many of you are, like me, realizing that maybe relying so much on animals for protein in our diets isn’t the most efficient or planet-friendly way to operate. Or cost effective, for that matter. It’s funny…I certainly was aware on some level how much of our grocery bill was going to organic, grass-fed, locally sourced (if possible) animal protein, but I didn’t really get it until I saw the drop in our grocery bill. Even if you buy the eggs from happy, wandering, pasture-fed chickens and the imported cheese, it’s a dang steal compared to the buffalo steaks and the lamb chops. A steal.

One question I’ve been getting frequently is, “Is it harder to get meals on the table?” The answer to that question is yes, but not for the reasons you’d think. Most people think it’s harder because my kids won’t eat the vegetarian fare I’m dishing up, and they’d be partially right, but my kids could shovel down eggs and toast for every meal without complaint. Truth is, my children didn’t eat half of the “regular” meals I make because they are carbotarians, and finicky ones at that. Feeding them hasn’t changed. My husband and I are the problem, but it’s not a big problem. I’m just committed to finding new recipes and not trying to go all “death by black beans,” on our asses, which does take time and effort. I don’t imagine this will be an issue forever. I’ll find new favorite recipes to rely on.

The most common question I’m getting is, “Have you lost weight?” It’s a natural question. Any time you shake up your diet, that’s kind of the question at hand. My answer is: I don’t think so? I don’t know for sure, because I don’t keep a bathroom scale around. I’ve learned that a scale is not a good thing for me to have, so I don’t. I didn’t really expect to lose weight, because I didn’t do a significant “overhaul” of the way I eat. I’m still eating lots of fun things like carbohydrates and cheese, so it’s not like I’ve taken drastic dietary measures. Plus, Menopause! What a pain in the arse, that menopause. It would take a lot more than cutting my animal protein intake to shed significant poundage. Rotten fact. But. I feel good. I am for sure sleeping much better, which is a weirdo side effect I didn’t anticipate. I also think my skin looks better. My jeans still fit, so I’m not complaining one speck. The only thing fatter thing in this scenario is my wallet, so I’m taking it. And so far, sticking with it.

One of the most surprising recipes I’ve tried so far on this eating plan is this one, for mushroom bolognese sauce. It doesn’t sound impressive, really, and like most dishes featuring mushrooms, it’s not stunningly beautiful (then again, is regular bolognese sauce?).

It is damn delicious, though, and both my husband and I couldn’t get enough of it. We put it on pasta, we spooned it on top of baked potatoes and polenta, we tossed it with baked spaghetti squash (when we were feeling particularly virtuous). I even added it to my morning veggie and grain bowls, which made them doubly luscious. I made three batches of this in a row, and I don’t see myself slowing down. I like it every bit as much as I do regular, meat-based spaghetti sauce.

I will say that I think it’s imperative to use a variety of mushrooms in this sauce. Using strictly button mushrooms won’t give you the depth of flavor you want from a bolognese. I used a combination of button, cremini and portobello mushrooms and was quite happy.

One word of caution: if you don’t want to texture to turn funky, be sure to hand-chop the mushrooms instead of putting them in the food processor. The food processor blade chops them too finely (you want a rough dice/chop). The processor sort of mashes everything together and the texture’s all wrong. Take the extra time and effort to chop them yourself; if you do that, you won’t miss the meat. I mean it! I was dubious too but I truly didn’t miss the meat here.

Chopping aside, this is easy enough to earn a spot on your regular meal rotation, but delicious enough for a special meal. You might just scarf the entire pan in 2 days and have to make another batch. Ahem.

Worth it.

Mushroom Bolognese

slightly adapted from Gimme Some Oven

serves 6

 

2 tablespoons butter (you can use olive oil but butter gives it a little extra somethin’)

1 small white onion, chopped

1 carrot, diced

2 celery ribs, diced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 pound assorted fresh mushrooms, cleaned and diced (I used a mixture of button, cremini and portobello)

2/3 cup dry red wine

1 2/3 cup vegetable or chicken stock

1 tablespoon soy sauce (use tamari sauce if you want this vegetarian)

1 (15-oz) can tomato sauce

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

kosher salt and black pepper

1 pound of your favorite pasta, cooked (I’d urge you to use imported, if you can)

1/2 cup fresh parsley or basil, chopped

freshly grated Parmesan, for serving (be generous!)

 

In a large saute pan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook for about 8 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened. Add the garlic and the tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the mushrooms and cook for another 5-10 minutes or until the mushrooms are browned.

Pour in the wine and give the vegetable mixture a good stir, scraping up any bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Simmer for about 5 minutes or until the wine is reduced by half.

Add in the stock, tomato sauce, bay leaf, Italian seasoning and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer sauce, uncovered, for 10-20 minutes or until it is reduced and thick like a meat sauce. Stir in crushed red pepper and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Add the pasta straight into the pot with the sauce and toss to coat. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and a generous amount of grated Parmesan.

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