31 December 2009

Farewell to a Good Year

The new year is only hours away, and I am feeling a bit melancholy about seeing 2009 go.

This year brought me new challenges and adventures, and only a few bittersweet endings.  I took on a new challenge as an adjunct law professor; I put in new raised beds at the p-patch, put in a patio vegetable garden, and preserved lots of fruits and vegetables for the first time; I completed my judicial clerkship; finished the living room remodel and started on the bedrooms; stopped being 39; started running; started a blog, started doing crosswords; and stopped drinking too much coffee.  Oh, and I actually won something (this never happens).

In 2009, I also found a way to focus on the important in life, not just the urgent.  We petitioned the State Department for an immigrant visa for Byron's dad -- the plan being for him to emmigrate from Canada to the U.S. for his remaining years.  We nursed a lost kitten back to health and found her a wonderful home in San Francisco with Jill, Mark, and Sadie (and tried not to miss her too much). We shared important milestones with my sister, Becky, who bought her first house and completed a half marathon.  And I more frequently got to walk around the lake on Wednesdays with my friend Lisa.  We camped, ate well, and shared time with friends -- sometimes even on weeknights!

It was a lovely year.  Here's hoping 2010 is too.

30 December 2009

Birthday Pizza at Delancey

Our good friends (and family) Jill and Mark recently visited from the Bay Area to celebrate Jill's birthday in Seattle.  As part of the festivities, we dined at Molly Wizenberg's and Brandon Pettit's new restaurant, Delancey.  Their restaurant has received a lot of positive local and national attention, and we think it is well deserved.



The crispy yet chewy, slightly salty, super thin, charred and bubbly crust makes for a delicious pizza no matter what topping you choose -- we really liked the Brooklyn, sausage, and chantrelle pizzas.  Oh, and definitely order the buratta to start and share with the table -- this creamy mozzerella with drizzled olive oil is unlike any first course you'll find elsewhere.  And although you might be tempted to skip dessert, don't.  The menu always seems to feature something fruity -- baked or fresh -- and we are in favor of whatever it is.  This trip, the pear crisp with Chantilly cream hit the spot -- and the size was just right for everyone at the table (nine of us) to have a bite or two.



We found the atmosphere warm and cozy and liked the restaurant's simple furnishings and fixtures.  The wait staff was friendly and helpful, and we greatly appreciated the 800° pizza oven, which made the whole restaurant nice and warm on the evening we visited -- a particularly chilly, 30-degree night.




A Murder In My Yard

The other morning there was a murder in my front yard -- a murder of crows that is.  It was early, just as the sun was coming up, and the birds were actually so loud that Oggy wouldn't leave the house.  Truth be told, the sound was a tad unnerving.  I had to reassure myself that a house is much more sturdy than say, a phone booth, should angry birds decide to attack.



The dark crows silhouetted against the morning winter sky were really beautiful.  But within five minutes, all the commotion and noise had flown away.

My pictures don't capture the quantity of birds in all the surrounding trees, so you'll just have to believe me when I tell you there were hundreds.  And that's no exaggeration.


20 December 2009

Sick and Tired Soup

Antibiotics and cough syrup have been my life for the past few days.  Being one who doesn't get ill very often, I had forgotten the misery of the whole "sore throat­­­-aches-cough-can't sleep-stuffy nose-pulled muscles from coughing" experience.  Being sick is awful.  But considering I've rallied enough to complain about it here, I must be on the mend.

Luckily, I haven't been lonely with Oggy as my napping buddy.



Tonight, I'm making myself vegetarian chicken noodle soup to speed the healing. It's yummy enough that you might want to give it a try even if you're not fighting the sniffles.



Vegetarian Chicken Noodle Soup with Homemade Noodles
My version is quite noodle heavy, but you could add more broth to make the soup more like the traditional version with more broth than noodles.  Suit yourself.

The soup:
2 quarts of water
3 Tbs. vegetarian broth powder or three vegetarian bouillon cubes
1 tsp. dried dill weed
freshly ground pepper, to taste
salt, to taste
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into half-inch pieces (sometimes I use more)
1 1/2 cups soy chicken, diced (I use Fri Chik or Quorn Chicken cutlets)

While all of the above ingredients simmer together in a large soup pot, make the noodles. (You can substitute store bought egg noodle nests for the homemade noodles, but it won't be as good.)

The noodles:
1 1/2 cups white unbleached flour
1/3 cup vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
2 Tbs. ice water (you'll need more in a dry climate)

Mix the flour, salt, and shortening together as for pastry, blending the shortening into the flour with a pastry tool or your hands until it is well combined and has the texture of a fine, crumbly topping.  Stir in the egg and water just until everything is moistened.   Divide the dough into two parts.  Roll one part as thin as possible on a lightly floured counter surface.  Cut the dough into 1-inch strips with a pairing knife. Some will be longer than others.



Gently pull the noodles off the counter and drop them into the simmering broth.  Repeat with the second piece of dough.  Cover the soup and let it gently simmer for about 10 minutes before serving.

10 December 2009

Not Just Cookies



Baking is as much a part of the holidays in my house as getting a tree.  Along with my grandmother's coffee cake, when I was a kid, it wasn't Christmas without almond crescents, Chinese noodle cookies, and jam thumbprints.

But baking is hard work, let's be honest.  And baking a large variety of cookies, well, that can be more than anyone wants to take on this time of year.  Luckily, because I'm part of an exclusive cookie society that meets every December, I have more cookies than I need -- and dear friends that I treasure.

I can't recall what I did to merit inclusion in this special group of women, but for 12+ years now, I've been baking holiday cookies the first weekend in December with five amazing women -- Cathy, Chelle, Janna, LaRene, and Patti.  Each year, the six of us converge on one of our houses, bring at least two batches of cookie dough, and do all our baking, together.  You can imagine how many cookies we produce.

We roll and cut, bake (and burn), sprinkle, melt, drizzle and ice our way through the day.  We shuffle sheets of cookies in and out of the oven for about 7 hours straight.  And when they are all cooled and decorated, we fill our empty tins with enormous quantities of cookies, the likes of which you could never find in a store.



Last Sunday was Cookie Day 2009.  By the end, we had cornmeal lime cookies with citrus glaze; chocolate-cherry-pistacio biscotti; double-ginger gingerbread; chocolate chip shortbread; cinnamon diamonds; Mexican diamonds with sherry, anise, and cinnamon sugar dipped in spicy chocolate; sugar cookies iced with orange glaze; almond crescents; red wine crescents; spice cookies; chocolate spiders, and cherry shortbread dipped in dark chocolate.  And this was a light year (I'm not kidding about that).






Chocolate spiders, one of my annual contributions to Cookie Day, have appeared at Christmas in my house as long as I can remember.

Chocolate Spider Cookies (aka Chinese Noodle Cookies)

1 bag butterscotch chips
1 bag semi sweet chocolate chips
approximately 2 bags of Chinese noodles (3 if they are small bags)

In a large, heavy bottomed sauce pan, melt the chips together over low heat.  Be patient, you want them to melt smoothly and not burn and dry out.  When completely melted, stir to blend.  Then dump in the Chinese noodles a few at a time, folding them into the melted mixture to completely coat them.  Some will break as you fold them in and that's just fine.  Add enough noodles so that all of the melted mixture is used up. 

Keeping the pan on the stove over very low heat, drop spoonfuls of the coated noodle mixture (I use two spoons) onto a cookie sheet covered with waxed paper or parchment.  Let them harden in a cool place (the garage is a good spot).  Serve when hard.  They can be stored in a sealed container for several days, if they last that long.  Refrigerate to keep them fresh longer.

Makes at least 50 cookies.



Cookie Day traditions run deeper than recipes.  For one, there is the warm Velveeta bean dip.  (A girl could eat her weight in this stuff!)  Then, there's the Taco Time delivery part-way through the day -- to keep up our strength, of course.  We also have a funny little gift exchange where each of us brings five of something to share with the others.  For example, this year my haul included a jar of olive tapenade from California, Christmas napkins, recipe cards, a dishtowel, and holiday socks. 

Most wonderful of all is the catching up.  We learn how children and parents are doing, look at pictures from recent travels, talk about new jobs and adventures, and tell funny stories.  Significantly, we have baked with each other through both the good and bad times in our lives, supporting and celebrating each other nomatter what the year has brought.

While I always enjoy the cookies and the banter and, yes, the dip, I remain most grateful every year for the friendship and humor of the five interesting and capable women with whom I bake.

09 December 2009

The Cold Little Hummingbird

This morning it was 18 degrees outside the kitchen window.  We've been bringing the hummingbird feeder indoors at night to prevent it from freezing (again).  So this morning, when I put it out, I wondered how our little hummingbird family was making do in the cold and whether they would know to look for the feeder again today.

A little while later, perched near my window, I saw the male Anna's Hummingbird.  He had found the feeder and was sitting in the sunshine taking a break from eating to pose for some pictures, which I agreeably took.

Presumably to stay warm, he fluffed himself into an almost spherical shape -- and in the process, I snapped a shot of his irredescent red head and chest.  He's such a beautiful, glitzy little bird.  Hard to believe all that detail fits onto a bird only the size of my thumb.



Here are some shots of a few of my other morning visitors as well.

A flicker (having a bad hair day), sparrows, and juncos on the suet feeder. 

07 December 2009

Pretty Cold

It was 25 degrees outside when I got up this morning. That's cold for here.  Tomorrow, it's supposed to get down to 17 degrees.

The weather has definitely turned my perennial beds crispy, but those ice crystals are beautiful in their own way.  I snapped a few pictures.





06 December 2009

My Grandmother's Coffee Cake
















It's that time of year when all the women in my family dig out Marguerite's coffee cake recipe.  Strictly speaking, there's nothing remarkable about this recipe.  That is, unless you consider the holiday traditions associated with it.  Then it falls into a category all its own!

My earliest memories of this cake are of my mother making it in our little house in the woods in Western North Carolina.  I think I was seven.  She'd have this assembly line going with two in the oven, two more in the mixer, and two cooling on racks.  I honestly don't know how many she made -- dozens, for sure.  All I know is that we would have quarts of sour cream in the refrigerator for weeks. For Christmas, every teacher at the school where my dad worked got one, and so did a few of our luckiest friends.

Along with the Christmas coffee cake tradition, there was the delivery tradition.  While not more impressive than the cake, it was certainly more memorable.  Like Santa, we usually delivered on Christmas eve.  First, we situated each cake on a pretty Christmas paper plate, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and stuck a peel-the-back bow to top.  Then we'd load them in the car, balanced on our laps and wedged between my sister and me in the back seat.  Only then would dad drive all four of us around town (very carefully), house to house, in our Plymouth Duster.

When we'd arrive some place, we'd quietly organize ourselves on the porch -- my sister and I in front, mom and dad behind -- ring the bell, and when the door opened we'd sing a verse of "We wish you a Merry Christmas" before relinquishing the coffee cake to its new home.  Luckily we only did one verse:  we could never remember the other words -- something about figgy pudding -- and, well, dad couldn't carry a tune.

This tradition continued despite our many moves over the years -- North Carolina, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Oregon (although I think we put the brakes on singing at some point).  Once my sister and I left home I can't be sure my parents continued the deliveries.  But I know my dad's secretary would often get one of Marguerite's cakes at the holidays each year.  Hopefully, he didn't sing.

Every year, I still make this cake and sometimes even give it away.  I know my sister does too.  For sure, one of us always makes one to eat on Christmas morning.

My grandmother probably had no idea what kind of tradition she was starting for the women in our family when she passed this recipe along. When I bake it, she is never far from my thoughts because I use the recipe she gave me, typed on her manual typewriter.  I also think of my mom and her seasonal coffee cake factory when I see her handwritten note at the bottom.
 
I've made slight changes to it over the years but it is delicious exactly the way it appears.  Feel free to use it to start a tradition of your own.

 My changes:
  • I always use unsalted butter instead of margarine.
  • I often use a mixture of walnuts and pecans in the topping.

    05 December 2009

    Lights

    We've crossed a line -- we put lights on the house last weekend. 

    Don't worry, it's nothing like Candy Cane Lane or Olympic Manor.  We certainly haven't had any traffic jams out front.

    You're wondering what possessed us to do such a thing? This year, our little yellow house is 97 years old.  Plus, we've been its proud owners for five years now.  With these milestones in mind, we thought it only fitting that we deck its eaves with lights to celebrate -- and, not incidentally, to brighten up the darkest time of the year. 

    So, we dug out the old colored Christmas lights from Byron's childhood, replaced the bulbs with clear ones, and strung them up.  We technologized (is that word?) the whole operation with a dusk-detecting smart extension cord that turns the lights on and off all by itself.  Amazing.

    Aside from the fact that it's about as bright as midday in the front yard when the lights are on and god knows how much electricity we are using, we like the effect.  




    Happy birthday, little yellow house!

    03 December 2009

    For the Birds

    Although winter has come and my perennial beds are now asleep, there is no quietness in my yard.  The birds are everywhere.  Their flits and darts create a layer of constant movement above the brown, crisp stillness of my dormant garden.

    I regularly see flickers and nuthatches, chickadees, sparrows, juncos, and seemingly hundreds of nondescript (although humorously named) bush tits, to name a few.  All are hungry now that the seeds and berries on my plants are nearly gone.  To keep everyone around, we've begun supplementing with sunflower seed, suet, and nectar.  As you might expect, we're quite popular in avian circles.

    I'm making nectar again this morning for the noisy and persistent pair of Anna's hummingbirds living somewhere in the yard.  They drained an entire feeder of nectar in the last 10 days.  Chatter aside, they are both really beautiful and inquisitive.  I especially love seeing the male's flash of hot pink when he sits and looks in the window.  Quite tricky to photograph, however.



    If you want to help out the hummingbird population in the Northwest (Anna's don't migrate), whip up a batch.

    Hummingbird Nectar

    Ratio 1 part sugar to 4 parts water

    Boil the water in a medium saucepan, then add the sugar.  Simmer until sugar dissolves.  Remove from the heat and let cool completely before filling the feeder. 

    Tips:
    • Don't add food coloring, honey (it ferments), or artificial sweetener, which has no nutritional value.
    • Clean your feeder regularly.  The National Audubon Society recommends cleaning by rinsing with one part white vinegar to four parts water.  If the feeder has grunge inside, add a few grains of dry rice to the vinegar solution to help scrib it clean.  Follow the vinegar wash by rinsing three times with clear, warm water before filling with the nectar.

    Another way we feed the birds is to provide suet/seed mixtures.  Making your own is easier than you think.  Last winter, I made suet based ornaments for the trees in the yard.  Although it's a bit messy (or maybe because it's a bit messy) it's a fun activity to do with children.  Here's the how tos:

    Birdseed-Suet Ornaments
    1 cup peanut butter (birds prefer chunky)
    3 cups suet (ask the meat department at your local grocery store for it)
    2-3 cups mixed birdseed (black sunflower seeds, cracked seeds, and millet are good choices in the Northwest)
    1 cup of roughly chopped fresh cranberries
    1 cup cornmeal 
    Several lengths of natural twine, tied in a loop with a knot at the joined end.

    In a large bowl and using your hands, mix together the peanut butter and suet.  You can microwave both a bit to make it softer and easier to mush together, but don't completely melt them.  Then mix in your seed and cornmeal.

    Shape the mixture into egg-shaped balls, placing the twine down the center (with the knot on the bottom and loop above).  Let the balls harden in a cool place (outside is good but watch out for little creatures who eat them before you can hang them up -- see below).