29 December 2014

Fresh starts

Today the Olympic Mountains were covered in blankets of fresh snow, and when the sun came up they glowed hot pink.  That was the sight I enjoyed, coffee in hand, from my living room window this morning.  With a cold, clear blue sky in Seattle today, it was impossible to picture the many days of gray and rain that await us this winter (or remember the ones that complicated last week).

It has turned cold tonight.  Got our covers on the spigots outside.  The water fountain is indoors for the season. Nobody runs the trash out to the can without a coat anymore.  It's the time of your when you come in from outside and you suddenly think how fortunate you are to have a warm home and a furnace that works. 

Our household is in "reset" mode after hosting our family Christmas festivities last week.  Byron headed back to the office today.  I'm trying to keep a stuffy nose from turning into something worse (and have acquire a nifty new humidifier to counteract the forced air heat).  Wyatt finally agreed to compost the gingerbread house.  And we actually forgot to turn on the Christmas tree lights for the first time tonight.  Today we planned a short getaway for New Years.  And Wyatt's birthday arrives in eight short days.

In a similar effort to begin the "reset" for our bodies following the delicious Solstice-Christmas Splurges, I cleaned out the fridge, dumped all the remaining candies and sweets into the garbage (in a moment of strength), and Wyatt and I headed to the store to load up on fresh veggies and fruit for eating and juicing.

Tomorrow I think we're going to fortify our holiday wind down with some endorphin-releasing, anxiety-decreasing fennel in our morning juice.  Our annual winter juicing regimen will commence to welcome the cold December sunshine with one of our favorite combinations:

Apple-Fennel-Celery Juice

2 stalks celery
1/2 large fennel bulb (fronds and root removed)
4 medium apples
ice cubes, optional

Using a juicer, juice all ingredients into a container.  Transfer the juice to a blender and blend with a few ice cubes to make it frothy. 

Serves at least two.

21 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Dark

Here it is, the Winter Solstice.  I thought I'd have something terribly insightful to say about it.  Maybe that reflecting and paying attention over the past Seven Days of Solstice has changed me in ways I can't begin to explain . . . but that's not really the case.

It's been a busy week.  Lots of preparations, fun, time with people I adore, eating, laughing, catching up and also creating.  Creating a ginger bread house, a better home office space for myself, and foods to eat and share . . . Thinking and planning or "writing it down in my mind" as Wyatt would say, about what is to come after the holidays are behind us.

I envision more outdoor winter play.  Language classes and ice skating.  Maybe a new women's group to participate in for me.  I remain on the lookout for just the right book.

The Seven Days of Solstice have not transformed me.  But I feel as though I'm beginning a new habit of taking more pauses.  Trying to look around and notice, be still, savor, and make the choice that is rejuvenating rather than depleting.

Perhaps, if you've been reading along, these Days have given you something to think about too.  I hope so.

In this pursuit, it's my view that the process is often improved by munching.  We eat a lot of popped corn in this house -- several times a week, really.  Mostly with salt and brewer's yeast on top.  Sometimes with smoked paprika and sumac.  Other times it's Parmesan and dried herb-garlic rub sprinkled over top -- but I digress. . .

This week I decided to come up with a solstice-version of popcorn -- and here it is.  When made correctly, there should be more dark chocolate showing than white popcorn, making it -- obviously -- Winter Solstice Popcorn.

So . . . Here's to thinking and munching and enjoying the darkness!

Winter Solstice Popcorn

4 cups popped corn
3 Tablespoons dry peanut butter powder (optional)
8-12 ounces melted dark chocolate (or semi-sweet chocolate chips)
flaky sea salt

Pop the corn in an air popper or the microwave -- you want plain popcorn to start with.  While it's warm, lay it out on a parchment-covered tray.
Sprinkle it with the peanut butter powder.
Drizzle generously with melted chocolate so that not much white popcorn is visible (obviously the other side is still white but don't worry about that)
Sprinkle with sea salt.
Let the chocolate set up.
Break apart and enjoy.  Keep it in an airtight container (if you have any left).

Photo:  My first batch of Winter Solstice Popcorn, obviously not made correctly since more light than dark is showing, my kitchen in north Ballard, Seattle, Washington.

20 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Light

I'm grateful to count among my friends so many individuals who make a positive difference in the world every day by the work they do and the people they are.  Tonight I am reminded that there is light in the company of good people -- and I am better for having spent time with a dozen of them. 

We ate more than our fill of deviled eggs, bubbly drinks, fondue made with all the good stuff, and sweet potato pie with bourbon -- we managed to consume a few vegetables and a wonderful salad with apples and pecans as well . . . so perhaps it wasn't total gluttony.  In any case, we celebrated the solstice (a day early) by conjuring some light and laughter with friends (nearly half of whom were age four or younger).

Tomorrow winter arrives.

19 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Feeling

Wishing you all the happiness this season offers -- from both expected and unexpected places. Here's my list of what made me feel happy and lucky and loved today:

Julkaka from Larson's Bakery
A stunning maple tree strung with thousands of white lights
My child sleeping with a yellow cat
Bargains at Value Village (A snowsuit for $2.99...Dr. Seuss for $1.99)
An entire peppermint brownie
A plaid bow tie
A shiny black cat with a festive red kerchief 
My red wool skirt
The small, warm hand of a 3-year-old boy in mine
Finding a holiday card in the stack of mail
Explaining pac man to my three year old
A white cyclamen
Being taught by a stranger to say hello and goodbye in Dutch 
A soft warm bed

18 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Warmth

Winter is almost here.  It brings with it not only the cold, wet, and dark time of year but also a dramatic increase in the consumption of hot beverages by all who live in our house.  Most winter evenings aren't complete for me without a mug of steaming tea.

Often grandpa comes upstairs for his nightly "hello" just about the time we finish dinner.  That's Wyatt's cue to ask him, "Grandpa, would you like a Swiss Miss?" and if he agrees we make him a hot chocolate and he joins us for hot drinks as we talk about the day.  Given the rut the weather gets into around here, we make an effort to not get into one ourselves with the hot drinks.  Some nights it's decaf or Pero with a bit of milk, others it is Market Spice herbal tea or Earl Gray with lemon. Occasionally it's a hot toddy.  Wyatt likes hot cocoa, of course.  But he's also a big fan of "kid tea," (which is Blackberry Zinger tea with some honey), a vanilla steamed milk, or a kid's version of a hot toddy sipped through a cinnamon stick (lemon, honey, hot water). This time of year, we seem to have cider on the stove more often too.

For special occasions I make a delicious mulled wine, but I've been wanting to create a similar drink that is non-alcoholic and more drinkable whenever we like -- something not as sweet as cider, too.

So here's my new version of mulled cider that is less sweet and a little spicy and fragrant.  I think children and adults will both ask for refills.  To you and yours this Solstice!

Solstice Mulled Cider
makes about a quart

2 cups apple cider or unfiltered apple juice
2 cups black current juice*
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
2-1/4" slices fresh ginger, peeled
a slice of orange

Gently simmer all these ingredients together for at least 30 minutes (longer is fine although it will begin to reduce).  Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool to a temperature cooler than you want to drink (or room temp if you have the time). Taste and if you've used black current juice (not syrup) adjust the sweetness with a bit of sugar.  Then heat again, stirring occasionally, to dissolve the sugar.  When it's the drinking temperature you like, serve.

*You can use black current syrup instead, if that's all you can find, but be sure to dilute it with quite a bit of water to make a juice.  It will make the cider much sweeter, too, so don't add sugar.

Optional Ballard-style add ins:  Add a few golden raisins and blanched almonds and a thin 1/2 slice of orange in the mug before you fill it with the cider.

Photo: The supermoon from our driveway on March 19, 2011,  Seattle, Washington.

17 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Still

I wanted to write about stillness tonight.  But in all honesty I did not experience much of it today. Wednesdays are never still.  I work at co-op preschool with Wyatt in the morning, then a few errands, and usually an afternoon full of mundane but important stuff.  Occasionally, a play date with a mom whom I like -- and her kid.  Today was no different. 

About 3 p.m. today, my friend and I watched (and tried to ignore) two children running laps around the big table on my deck happily screaming potty words at the top of their lungs.  We were "getting the wiggles out" as we call it around here.  My poor neighbors.

You see, a little friend and her mom had stopped by to help us do some decorating on the gingerbread house we started yesterday.  I have never made such a house before.  Not sure when we will do it again, either.  But all I can say is that the excitement around this "craft of food" as Wyatt calls it, is astonishing. So is the mess. There are so many (like hundreds) holiday sprinkles and silver dragees rolling around on the kitchen floor right now I wonder how long it will be until one of us bites it. (Hopefully it won't be grandpa.)

And then about an hour ago, Byron and Wyatt tucked themselves into bed.  I started the dishwasher and then turned off all the lights except the twinkling Christmas tree and the candle-lit Solstice Tree. And I stood there. Still.

For the first time today I listened to my own breathing, took notice of whether my feet were warm or cold, remembered to take my hair out of its ponytail, and noticed that Annie Lennox was singing "Silent Night" on the stereo.   And then I came here to write.

I don't mean to sound as if I'm complaining about the cacophony that is my life.  Actually I like exactly what I have.  It's not a quiet life.  Not a typical path.  Not always clear where I'm headed or how I'll get there.  But, after five years on this unique journey, I feel lucky every day to have the opportunity to work as a curator, parent, student, volunteer, adviser, friend, mother, and partner -- still. 

 Photo: A single candle in the Mission Santa Rosa de Todos Santos, Todos Santos, Baja Sur, Mexico.

16 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Rekindle

I've only read two books in the past three years.  There it is.  My sheepish confession.  I have been a reader my whole life but for the past about seven years . . . since law school.  I can't really blame that experience for my failure at personal reading -- although maybe it did have something to do with killing the joy of words on a page for me.

I miss being a pleasure reader a lot.  Most of my good friends are avid readers and so I have sought out their stories and recommendations, which somehow also makes me feel more badly about my own inability to do what they enjoy so much.  I've quit subscribing to The New Yorker and have pretty much only bought cookbooks for the past five years.  The novels I do buy, I get to page 17 and put them down never to return.

Local book shops are still some of my favorite places, but despite the money and time I spend in these fine establishments -- Third Place, The Secret Garden, and Phinney Books --  the inner desire to read just isn't there.

Well, until this summer.  Those two books that I confessed to -- I've read them both since August.  I'm hoping this means I'm (book)worming my way back . . .  

I suppose part of my hope is based not only on the fact that I'm reading again, but that I'm becoming desperate to read again.  Since Thanksgiving when I picked up my latest book, I've carried it everywhere.  Stealing a quick read of a page or two whenever I can.  Last night, I turned off my headlamp at 1:06 a.m., having just turned the last page of Three Junes by Julia Glass. Glass won the National Book Award for it, and I can completely see why. The careful and researched writing, the developed-just-enough characters, and the interwoven story of family (both those we are born into and those we choose) resonated deeply with me.  One of the narrators in particular kept me turning page after page.  Plus, there's much writing about great food . . .

Which leads me to the other book I finished:  Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr.  This book, which I finished in the summer, is written by the great-nephew of M.F.K. Fisher and weaves a tale (based on some pretty seemingly thorough research of personal papers) around the lives and ideas of M.F.K., Julia and Paul Child, James Beard, and other food luminaries from the day.  The book centers on their interactions in the winter of 1970 in Provence, where the group convened during the holidays.  I was sad to finish it.  The story so clearly reveals the passions of these friends -- for connection and food and sharing it with those they love -- it inspired me to work harder at collecting my own friends around our table as often as possible.

Now I just need another good book to dive into -- and fast before I lose momentum!

15 December 2014

Solstice 2014: Perspective

I think I have finally made peace with the darkest days of our Northwest winter.  I'm finding more value in this time of year, which can offer a bit of down time and a chance to reset.

That said, it feels like every December I have less and less tolerance for The Holiday Season.  While I love the opportunity to see special people and enjoy certain foods, I loathe the extra expenses, the pressure to send cards, and the idea that I'm going to acquire more stuff, which I don't need.  On the other hand, I am intrigued by the notion of finding light in what seems dark.  And so I persist in trying to look at this time of year with new eyes.

Often we have celebrated the Winter Solstice with dinners and small rituals that let us mark the end of the lengthening nights.  While the long days of summer light may be what we yearn for most, the current darkness we enjoy offers the important chance to restore ourselves and to reset our journey's course. 

As a gardener, the darkest time of the year is the only true garden rest that I (or the soil that) will take.  Anyone who gardens knows the importance of this pause.  Nothing is growing right now.  I may have plants surviving, still edible, hanging on, waiting for spring.  But nothing is growing.  The light is too weak, the days are too short.  In my vegetable garden, the soil is mostly covered.  As for me, I am no longer required to remain vigilant about what needs to be harvested or planted or watered.  I'm on vacation.

As a cook, the dark days bring a new opportunity for creativity.  It's a shift from freshly harvested to stored foods -- squash, root vegetables, beans, lentils, potatoes and leeks.  I get to consider how to cook things like Jerusalem artichokes and turnips instead of dealing with green beans coming out my ears and fruit flies that never die.  The seasonal urgency of use/eat/preserve-it-or-lose-it is over.

And in the life of my mind, I notice that my desire returns this time of year to become more still.  To read, think, write,  listen, and learn more than I do the rest of the year.  I sometimes become inspired to begin a new endeavor.  I think ahead.  Anticipate.

And there you have it -- this darkness is really about anticipation for me.

So here I am, finding myself actually enjoying these weeks of long nights -- and creating something new out of it for myself: The Seven Nights of Solstice.  I hope to be in this space regularly during our next seven spins on our axis.  My goal is to describe for you -- but mostly for myself -- the things I find most worth noticing and taking in fully in these days and nights leading up to the Solstice.

Photos: The illuminated path (top) and lighted canoes on the lake (bottom) at the 2014 Green Lake Pathway of Lights, Seattle, Washington.