SIMPLY ELEVATED

Restaurant Night at Home – Stacked Salad & Clafoutis for Dessert

Whether you have a special occasion to celebrate, want to make a special dinner, planning a romantic date night or just treating yourself to a special evening alone, there’s no reason you can’t make simple ingredients into something beautiful and delicious.

You’ve probably seen it before, but it’s easy to forget that you can present simple ingredients in a fun and impressive way. The only special equipment or tool you’ll need is a ring mold with a circumference of 3 to 4 inches, depending on how large or small you want to make your individual servings, with a 2 inch side edge.

If you don’t have metal ring molds, you can make ring molds, with a piece of cardboard – cut 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches long and 2 inches wide. The 1/2 inch portion is to overlap and tape into a ring. Cover the cardboard ring with foil or plastic wrap. (Make a ring for each serving.)

Place each ring on a plate or wide open bowl the size of a luncheon (salad plate -see first image below.) Fill each ring mold beginning with the heaviest or most dense of items you have to form a strong foundation. Carefully select and build each layer inside the ring until you reach the top. Use the back of a spoon and press down gently on the top layer to push the layers closer together. Cover the filled ring mold with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator until ready to serve (at least 30 minutes).

Bottom layer should be the heaviest and firmest ingredient. In my stack I’ve used farro.
Make the colors of each layer different and bright. Next layer shrimp salad, chopped grape or cherry tomatoes and cucumbers with fresh basil; avocado and sprinkle the top with grated boiled eggs.
Garnished with sunflower micro greens, edible flowers and watercress leaves.

Serve with a filet of fish, steak or chicken and you have a restaurant style dinner.

When ready to serve the salad, gently remove the ring mold and while being careful not to add too much liquid (the wetter the ingredients the harder it is to hold the ingredients into a stack), top with grated boiled egg, micro greens or fresh chopped herbs and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar or a little lime or lemon juice.

To an umami flavor, I roasted grape (or cherry) tomatoes with a little olive oil in the oven at 400 degrees F for approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Cool and then place into a small food processor or blender to puree with a little olive oil until smooth enough to pass through a squeeze bottle or pastry (zip) bag and drizzle to garnish the plate. I also used watercress leaves, but any small leafy greens or spring mix will work and an edible flower (optional).

The ingredients for the stack can be a multitude of variations. The shrimp salad could be replaced with blue crab in a delicate vinaigrette. A sushi version, with sticky sushi rice, snow crab salad, avocado, edamame and any of your other favorite sushi ingredients might be. It could be a combination of BBQ like ingredients, like potato salad, coleslaw, etc. Chicken salad, topped with other veggie stack options. Cobb salad ingredients stacked. The only so called “rule” is to place the heavier layer on the bottom and consider color and delicacy as the layers are stacked. No special cooking skills required! Have fun and impress someone or yourself tonight with your own stacked salad!

*****BONUS IDEA – CLAFOUTIS FOR DESSERT*****

Clafoutis is an easy light dessert that you don’t see on menus. It’s a combination similar to a dutch baby pancake (light) and custard with fruit. My clafoutis was made using the recipe from the link below, and in lieu of pears I had fresh raspberries and added orange zest and a teaspoon of orange liqueur . It’s important to not add too much fruit. Traditionally it is made with black cherries that you can find in season during the summer months and you can add a little kirsch (cherry liqueur) if you have some. The full recipe can be prepared and placed in the baking dish and set aside. Preheat the oven and set the baking time – place the pan in the oven to bake while you eat dinner. It’ll will be freshly baked and ready to serve right on time. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve! https://nationalpost.com/life/food/cook-this-daniel-roses-pear-clafouti-from-ina-gartens-cook-like-a-pro

Per Google definition: Clafoutis, sometimes spelled clafouti in Anglophone countries, is a baked French dessert of fruit, traditionally black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm, sometimes with cream.

With limited space in restaurants these days, why not create your own cafe’ style dinner at come. All you need now is a little candlelight and some relaxing music.

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Summer Squash Picnic Pizza 🌼 and Veggie Chips

It’s that time of year when neighborhood gardens that were planted a couple of months ago, have begun to bear fruit. One day this week when I opened my mail box, I found two medium zucchini and two medium yellow summer squash left by one of my neighbors. If you’ve ever grown summer squash, you know it’s harvest is abundant and it can be hard to find new ways to cook it.

My first idea was to create some thin roasted chips for a healthy snack. So I pulled out my mandolin and started slicing. I searched around on Pinterest for different methods of making chips and hoped to achieve a delicate thin crispy chip, with a slight crunch similar to a thin potato chip.

Summer squash contains a lot of moisture that must come out in order to get a crispy texture. As instructed (in the link below) the slices of squash were laid between two layers of paper towel and pressed until most of the moisture came out. (My tip: make several single layers of sliced squash between paper towels and let them sit overnight up to 24 hours). The recipe in the link below involved olive oil, salt and a lot of time in the oven. The end result was delicious, with that potato chip slight oiliness, but its 90 degrees in the South right now and the heat of a gas oven going for hours isn’t a highly desirable method. So after leaving the remaining slices between the layers of paper towel for 24 hours, I gently pulled them up (they stick to the paper towel) and returned them loosely to their original spot. I then put one layer (with paper towel on top and as well) in the microwave and used 30 second intervals (about 6 or 7 times – combined total of 3 to 4 minutes) checking after the first 4 intervals. The chips were not only crisp but retained more of their color along the edges.

https://www.tablefortwoblog.com/zucchini-chips/ (recipe followed.)

Within hours or the following day, they may be a little soggy again – you can stack the chips loosely on the baking sheet and return them to the oven to crisp up at the same temperature, checking over time, or the back to the microwave.

Picnic🌼Pizza

After about 4 rounds of chip making I still had a bowl of uncooked thinly sliced squash and was ready to find something else to do with it. Once again, I searched through Pinterest for recipes using summer squash and noticed several pizza recipes. I had invited some gal pals to meet at a local park for a little picnic and decided to make mini picnic pizzas inspired by the recipe at this link. https://thismessisours.com/summer-squash-and-ricotta-galette/

Using one tube of thin refrigerated pizza crust, stretch the dough over a piece of clear plastic wrap or waxed paper to prevent sticking to the counter. The dough is rectangle shaped, so I decided that rather than one large pizza, I wanted to make individual pizzas. The dough could be cut into four rectangles, but I wanted round pizzas. Using a saucer and a pizza cutter (or knife)- cut three free formed circles about 1/2 inch away from the edge of the plate. The dough can be further stretched once cut if necessary. As you can see above, the circles are far from perfect.

Following the recipe from the link above, I combined the ricotta, parmesan, shredded mozzarella, fresh thyme, rosemary and peppers. I did not add any salt and found the cheeses had sufficient salt without adding any more. After tasting the baked pizza, I think the addition of fresh lemon zest to the cheese mixture would have brightened the flavors a little more. Using a small offset spatula, spread a couple of tablespoons of the cheese and herb mixture in the center of the dough leaving the edges clear.

Roll up the edges of the dough, top the center cheese spread with a handful of the thinly sliced squash, and a drizzle of the garlic infused olive oil from the recipe. Brush the edges of the dough with the olive oil and sprinkle grated parmesan over the crust edges and squash. Sprinkle with some of the thyme leaves.

The scraps of dough were rolled into long logs and then tied in a knot. Brushed with garlic infused olive oil, sprinkled with a little garlic powder and grated parmesan.

The recipe’s recommended bake time is 35 to 45 minutes. The smaller pizzas baked a little faster. If making the smaller version like I did, I would recommend setting the first bake for 25 minutes (result shown below). Remove the pizza from the oven and sprinkle with pine nuts. I also added a small amount of shaved parmesan. Return to the oven and bake another 10 minutes.

First bake, with addition of pine nuts and shaved parmesan.

For picnic packaging, loosely wrap each hot pizza in aluminum foil. Place a large cloth napkin or tea towel beneath the stacked foil wrapped pizza’s and tie the opposite corners together. This holds in the heat for quite a while for transport. I used a mini sealed box with a spray of water to transport the violas that were used to garnish the pizza at the picnic.

Garnished with violas just before serving.

After two months of staying home due to COVID-19, I met with a couple of my gal pals for a “social distancing” picnic at a quiet park. We each took a corner of the picnic tablecloth, nibbled on our food and enjoyed a couple of hours of company and conversation.

As the summer heat draws nearer, pack a picnic basket, find a shady tree and enjoy the company of friends for an afternoon and pray you’ll never take for granted the simple pleasure of sharing time with the people in your life. Bring along a picnic pizza and crispy chips!

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Meatball Biscuits

A few weeks ago I made Molly Yeh’s version of these meatball stuffed buns for my brother. My only adjustments to her recipe was substituting ground pork for ground turkey and then adding a finely chopped adobe pepper (for the can) to the meatball mixture to give a little kick of flavor and using provolone slices instead of mozzarella. My brother went banana’s over them. So when I made them a second time, I decided to change up the flavors a little, using the flavors of ginger, garlic and hoisin sauce. These could easily make a great kid’s hand held meatball sandwich for Memorial Day Weekend,

Adapted from :https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/meatball-stuffed-biscuits-8058902

Turkey Meatballs: (makes approximately 18 to 20)

1 lb of ground turkey

1/2 cup of dried breadcrumbs

1 tsp of grated fresh ginger

1 grated clove of garlic

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes

1 egg

2 tbsp. hoisin sauce

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and preheat over 350 degrees F.

Gently mix and combine all ingredients in a medium to bowl until well combined. Try not to over work or meatballs will be tough. Wet hands and using a 1 tbsp. scoop (or by hand) roll into balls and place on foil lined baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake for a total of 30 minutes, turning the meatballs over at half way point. When cooked remove and allow meatballs to cool to room temperature. They can also be made ahead and refrigerated.

While you can make your own favorite meatballs recipe, any meatball will actually do. You could even take a short cut by purchasing pre-made meatballs. Italian or breakfast sausage are also options (formed and pre-cooked into a meatball).

Preheat the over 350 degrees (F)

2 -9″round pans or 1- 9″ X 9″ square pan (spray lightly with cooking spray)

Two 8 count packs of refrigerated Grand biscuits (any kind you choose)

1/4 cup of hoisin sauce

16 slices of either provolone or mozzarella cheese

Cilantro or Italian flat parley leaves

Water

Remove the biscuits from the can. Taking one biscuit at a time, flatten and stretch out creating a one inch boarder around the meatball. Brush with hoisin sauce (careful not to put too much or the biscuit may get too wet.) Cut a slice of cheese into four and stack 2 pieces over the hoisin sauce. Add the meatball to the center and pull and pinch the sides of the biscuit over the meatball sealing it. Place each meatball stuffed biscuit with the sealed side down into the pan.

If desired, dip your finger in a little water and touch the top of each roll. Place a fresh cut cilantro or flat parsley leaf on the top of each and gently press into the dough. (I made the mistake twice of placing the herb on top of the bun after the 30 minute bake and it didn’t stick to the bun and dried as you’ll see from the finished version. The better method is to press them into the dough in the beginning. This of course is optional.

Place into the pre-heated oven and back for 30 minutes.

Add your parsley or cilantro leaf with a little brush of water before baking.

Topping:

4 tbsp butter melted

1 whole garlic clove, peeled and smashed

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Everything Bagel seasoning (or toasted sesame seeds)

Mauldon Salt (flaky) or kosher salt

While the biscuits are baking, place the butter and peeled, smashed garlic clove into a small pot. Heat until the butter is melted and stir the garlic around in the warmed butter to gently release some of its flavor.

Brush the partially baked biscuits with the garlic infused melted butter. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese, salt flakes and everything bagel seasoning (or toasted sesame seeds). Return to the oven and bake for 10 minutes.

An inside view of the completed stuffed biscuit. When serving, serve with a side of slightly warmed hoisin sauce for dipping or topping. Below I cut one open and spooned a small amount of sauce inside. Served fresh is best, but I’ve been advised they rewarm well if placed back in the oven or toaster oven for about 10 to 15 minutes.

SIMPLY ELEVATED

A Sweet Treat Memory, with a Cherry On Top

Over the years there are some ingredients or recipes that immediately bring back memories of a friend or family member. I’m sure we all have them. While looking through the remaining items in my refrigerator, I focused on leftover items wanting to challenge myself to use and not waste the partially filled containers and jars of various ingredients.

I wanted to make a little something sweet for my brother. He lives alone and I found out he was eating sandwiches or opening a can of vegetables for his meals during the stay home order. I just couldn’t let that go on, so I’ve been cooking and then bringing filled containers with prepared meals for his week. I usually make something sweet, like a homemade cookie or chocolate dipped strawberries, but this week I decided to let the items in the refrigerator direct me in this week’s small sweet bite.

Tucked in the back on the top shelf, I found a partially filled jar of Amarena cherries and a half filled jar of black cherry preserves. The cherries brought back a memory from several years ago, to a co-worker named Abbey. Abbey and her husband Murph had recently relocated to the New Orleans area from their home town in Boston. Knowing they were away from family, when the holidays rolled around I invited them to an annual Christmas tree trimming party I hosted. When they arrived Abbey presented me with a hat box filled with mini cheesecakes, each topped with a bright red cherry (from a can of cherry pie filling). The crust was made with graham crackers and the filling from cream cheese, sugar and sour cream; but it was that rich, bright red cherry on top that made these little bites both elegant and festive.

I knew I didn’t have any graham crackers, but I did have some chocolate biscuits (as the English call them). We all know cherries and chocolate are bosom buddies. I knew I had a bar of cream cheese and as I searched for the remaining ingredients, I imagined the black cherry preserves swirled in the batter and knew immediately what I would make.

Mini Chocolate 🍒 Cheesecakes

Makes approximately 16

20 chocolate biscuit (cookies) – other options are chocolate or traditional graham crackers or any other type of wafer cookie ( 1 cup of crumbs)

1/4 cup of butter (4 tbsp. melted)

1 8 oz bar of cream cheese (at room temperature)

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

2 teaspoons of cherry preserves or jam

1 teaspoon of lemon zest (optional- but adds brightness)

Amarena cherries or cherry pie filling

Mini cupcake paper liners

Preheat over 350 degrees F

Break biscuits into pieces and pulse in a food processor until fine crumbs form. (You can also place in closed zip bag and crush with hands or a wooden spoon.) Add the melted butter until well combined.

Line a mini cup cake tray with paper liners. Using a tablespoon measure fill each cup with about 1/2 tablespoon of the crumb mixture and press each to pack down into the paper cup.

In a medium bowl cream together the cream cheese and egg with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add vanilla extract until evenly combined. With a spatula fold in 2 teaspoons of preserves or jam. Test taste the filling for sweetness. I had honey nearby in case the filling needed to be sweetened, but the preserves provided all of the sweetness I wanted and so I did not add any of the honey. Fill each cup to the top with the filling. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the filling has only a slight jiggle.

Let cool for 10 minutes and then using a small offset spatula or butter knife gently lift each cup from the pan and place on a cooling rack. Allow to completely cool. Place on a plate or tray and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight. Just prior to serving top each with a cherry and it’s syrup.

Note: If you don’t have or like cherries, there are so many other options. Blackberry or fig preserves or jam is an option, even orange marmalade or lemon curd. Most preserves have chunks of fruit in the jar that you call use to garnish the top.

Take a peek in your own refrigerator or pantry and see if there’s an ingredient that captures a memory for you and recreate it!

SIMPLY ELEVATED

A Neighborly BBQ Side

I was in my early twenties, a newlywed and getting settled into our first home. We had just moved into a newly constructed neighborhood, so everyone around us was unpacking and settling in as well. We had bought the house on the corner of the street and the couple that resided in the neighboring house to the right eventually became good friends. At least once a month (or more) they invited us over and while the guys grilled chicken and sausages, I watched my eventual friend Judi prepare this shell salad.

The pasta and eggs had just been boiled, drained and the eggs peeled. The next stage of preparation I found really interesting. She grated everything (no chopping) on a box grater! When it was finally finished and we ate it (still warm) I enjoyed it so much that each time I visited I tried to remember her ingredients, because it wasn’t a written down recipe, it was just measured by eye.

Searching for partial packages of items to use up in the pantry, I found a half box of small shell pasta and it brought me back to those memories of backyard barbecues with Judi and her delicious shell pasta. You’re seen most of these ingredients in my other leftover recipes and its kind of interesting how many ways these same basic ingredients can be transformed in such a variety of ways.

The Ingredients:

2 cups cooked small shell pasta, 1 or 2 hard boiled eggs, 1 carrot, 1 stalk of celery (leaves for garnish), 1/2 of a small onion, one lemon (the zest and 1/2 juice), Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

Using the large holes on a hand held grater held directly over the bowl of pasta, grate the boiled egg(s), celery, carrot, and onion. TIP: When you get to the end of the egg, flatten your hand against the last bit against the grater to avoid cutting your fingertips).

Add the seasoning…. remember there was no measuring involved – so I drizzled a little of the Worcester Sauce, soy sauce, and then added about 1/4 cup of mayo, the zest of a lemon and then the juice from 1/2 of the lemon, salt and pepper to taste. If you notice, many of these same ingredients are used to make a traditional potato salad. (You may choose to add some relish or chopped pickles for example). Mix it all together and taste to determine if you want more of an ingredient. Remember if it is a little flat – salt picks it up. It was very “Judi” to just mix and taste until she got it just right.

My favorite way to eat this salad was when the eggs and pasta were still warm. However, just like potato salad (that I also love warm) it’s just as good cold from the refrigerator or at room temperature and a great BBQ, picnic item or side with a sandwich.

My friend Judi has been with the angels in heaven for some time now, and when I saw that bowl of freshly boiled shell pasta I thought it was time to share her neighborly BBQ side dish with you! If you give it a try, say a little prayer for Judi and thank her!

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Mom’s Egg 🥚 & Rice 🍚

When I was growing up , I remember whenever there was leftover rice in the refrigerator, rather than throwing it away Mom would make what she called “Egg & Rice”. She simply re-warmed the rice with a little butter, in a skillet and once the graduals were heated and somewhat separated into a single layer, she would then scramble an egg (or two depending on the amount of rice she had) and stir the egg through the rice until it was evenly coated. I would squirt some ketchup over it and I was a happy kid.

Mom’s Egg 🥚 & Rice 🍚: 1 cup leftover cooked rice, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of butter, salt and pepper. (Ketchup or hot sauce, Sriracha or one of your favorite sauce toppings)

Years later, I remember sitting along the side of a hibachi grill in a sushi-hibachi restaurant and watching the teppanyaki chef throw a huge block of butter onto the sizzling grill followed by a bowl of cooked rice and wondered if my Mom realized she had been making a basic fried rice all of those years. As a family we had never eaten Chinese or Japanese cuisine until my brother and I were grown adults, so I doubted she realized the connection.

With the knowledge of how to create the base of fried rice, there are other leftovers that can add flavor and color to the basic recipe. This is a healthier version filled with vegetables and herbs that I think of as a brunch or lunch dish.

Simply🍃🌱 🌿elevated: 1 cup of fresh spinach chopped; 1/4 cup of mini, grape or cherry tomatoes chopped; chopped fresh herbs (from the garden I have dill, the green of a spring onion, and thyme). Add about a tbsp. of olive oil to the empty skillet and saute’ until the spinach is wilted. Return the egg and rice to the pan folding the veggies into the rice until evenly distributed. Add salt and pepper to taste, chopped fresh herbs on top if desired and serve with a favorite sauce (ketchup, Sriracha, hot sauce, etc.) Prep and cook time – 15 minutes.

My usual “extras” of chopped spinach, mini or chopped cherry or grape tomatoes, and fresh herbs made this basic “egg & rice” fresh and more flavorful.

Begin with a couple of tablespoons of butter in a non-stick skillet, add the rice and gently stir until the graduals of rice are warmed through and separated with less clumps making a single layer. Add a well scrambled egg, again stirring until the rice is coated and the egg is cooked. Move to a bowl.

Drizzle some olive oil into the empty skillet and add the chopped spinach, tomatoes and herbs and occasionally stir with a spatula until the spinach is wilted. Return the egg and rice to the pan and mix or toss to evenly distribute the veggies throughout the rice. Top with fresh cut herbs (optional) and it’s ready to serve.

Serve with your favorite hot sauce, Sriracha, soy sauce or a little ketchup. (I grew up putting ketchup on my scrambled eggs.) Ketchup after all is just condensed tomatoes and “a Southern thing”. This is a delicate version, but once again anything goes, small pieces of steamed or roasted broccoli, shredded carrots, and even proteins like leftover chicken or shrimp. I hope this idea inspires you to create ways to transform your leftover rice into a fun healthy meal for you and your family.

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Oven Roasted Veggie filled Portobellos

How do you take a humble portobello mushroom cap and turn it into a main course? The portobello mushroom when roasted or grilled has a meaty texture that is filling and a great vehicle for topping with a variety of ingredients.

Several years ago I found this recipe in a cookbook of small plates for entertaining and it was so tasty, that I’ve returned to it many times. While this recipe includes bacon, for a totally meatless version a vegan bacon or sausage could be substituted or left out all together.

I didn’t take step by step photos as I prepared the dish, but remembered to snap a photo of the prepared dish. The instructions are simple and the end result simply yummy!

What you’ll need:

2 large portobello mushrooms

Butter -flavored spray

2 slices of bacon, diced

2 cups chopped fresh spinach leaves

3 tablespoons basil pesto

2 tbsp. dry bread crumbs

3/4 cup grated parmesan or Italian cheese blend

2 tbsp. toasted pine nuts (hazel nuts or walnuts is another option)

1/4 cup prepared marinara sauce (fresh or jarred)

Preheat the oven 375 degrees F (190 C)

Start with the 2 large portobello mushroom caps. Remove the stems, chop into 1/2 inch chunks and set aside. Scrape the gills out with the edge of a spoon and discard (the gills sometimes give a bitter flavor).

Spray each cap with the butter-flavored spray and place stem side down on a baking dish. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes.

While the mushrooms are roasting, in a 10 inch or larger skillet cook the bacon until crispy. Add the chopped mushroom stems and cook about 5 minutes. If the bacon fat is more than about 2 tablespoons you may want to drain some of it from the pan.

Add and stir in the chopped spinach leaves and pesto, cooking until the spinach is softened. Remove from the heat.

Stir in the bread crumbs and 1/2 of the cheese until well mixed. Spoon stuffing into the mushroom caps. Top each with the rest of the cheese and nuts. Return to the oven and bake 10 to 15 minutes until heated through and golden.

Warm the marinara sauce and swirl a couple of tablespoons on a serving dish (I used a wide bowl). Place the mushroom on top of the sauce and top with the remaining sauce.

As I prepared the mushrooms I considered other ingredients that could be swapped out; sun dried tomato pesto; roasted tomatoes; roasted peppers, caramelized onions; jalapeños or other peppers for a little heat; Swiss chard or kale in place of the spinach; they could also be a vehicle for a pizza – topping with sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni or crumbled sausage. The options as always are endless and open to your own available ingredients and creativity and enjoy!

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Pasta Verde X Dos

Looking for ways to use items that are wilting away in the refrigerator? I found asparagus that I wanted to use in a different way. So I cut them into thirds and blanched them in boiling water for a few minutes until tender, then moved the pieces to a bowl of ice water with a slotted spoon or spider. This stops the cooking and “shocks” the vegetable, saving that pretty verde (green) color. With the heat turned off I then tossed a cup of frozen peas into the same hot water for just a minute to take the chill out before scooping them out and placing them into the bowl of ice water.

Back to the fridge I found a small amount of spinach left in a bag, grabbed a lemon and a bottle of white wine. Light extra virgin olive oil, and a trip outside to the herb garden I cut some spring onions, chives, and mint that all went into my blender. (Cilantro would have been good to brighten the flavor). I whizzed it up adding oil and wine until it resembled a sauce and then added the zest and juice of a lemon (tip: always zest the lemon before cutting it). I then added 1/3 cup of grated parmesan cheese (which is salty so taste before seasoning). Add salt and ground black pepper to taste. If you like heat you could add garlic or jalapeños, but I thought asparagus and peas were such fresh and gentle veggies, I didn’t want to over power them. Be creative and use what you have (celery may have added a nice flavor, parsley might be the only herb you have so use that). Just think green. I bet some green grapes would have added a little sweetness.

I then cooked a half box of tiny shell pasta, imagining the sauce gathering inside their little cups. When the shells were al dente I warmed my verde mixture and using a little pasta water tossed the pasta and sauce together. This wasn’t a formal recipe, just playing around with what I had. All I could think of is all of the great green vegetables I was getting in one bite. I then drizzled the top with a little olive oil and to finish it off, I would have shaved some parmesan over the top if I had a block, but I only had some pre-shredded – so I topped it with that.

Ravioli with Pesto Cream Sauce

What to do with a 10 oz bag of store bought ravioli? Well you need a sauce, but don’t have any in the pantry and don’t have time to make one from scratch. To make this Pesto cream sauce you will need:

A jar of homemade or store bought pesto

1/2 cup heavy cream or half and half

2 tablespoons butter

Garlic and onion powder

salt and pepper to taste

fresh basil (optional)

shaved or grated parmesan (optional)

This dinner took literally less than 15 minutes to prepare. I spotted a jar of pesto I made with basil from my garden in the refrigerator and a carton of heavy cream. I did not measure the amounts I used, so I just had to guess based the pictures what the approximate amounts were.

Begin with preparing the ravioli according to the package instructions. My chicken and roasted garlic version only took 4 minutes to cook once the salted boiling water was rolling so you can either make the sauce first and then prepare the pasta or cook both at the same time. Having all of the ingredients on the counter ready to go will help you work faster.

While the ravioli was cooking, I placed a 10 inch non-stick skillet over medium heat and added about 1/4 cup of pesto followed by about 1/2 cup of heavy cream. (I actually just poured until the cream created a layer the width of the skillet.) I sprinkled a little onion and garlic powder (probably about 1/2 teaspoon of each), added salt and black pepper as I stirred and tasted. Pesto has a lot of flavor so you get a big bang from the one ingredient. I then added the butter and stirred everything together. It’s very yellow at first, and as you stir you can see the creamy white color.

The pasta now ready, scoop the ravioli from the boiling pot of water with a slotted spoon and put directly into the sauce. When all of the pasta is transferred to the sauce, gently toss until the pasta is coated. It’s ready to serve with the options of sprinkling with chopped fresh basil (or other herbs), a little shaved or grated parmesan and a toasted crusty bread like a baguette or garlic bread sticks.

Another option would be to use a store bought jar of sun dried tomato pesto in place of the basil pesto, to create something similar to a vodka sauce. You can make your own homemade pesto with a variety of herbs, any kind of nuts that you have, grated parmesan and olive oil. There are an abundance of recipes available on Pinterest or any cooking magazine website. When you’re low on ingredients and short on time, grab what you’ve got and make it work!

SIMPLY ELEVATED

White Velvet Soup

Many years ago a family member introduced me to a creamy potato soup made from simple ingredients. It was a delicious soup that different family members made their own special version of. My version was a favorite of my daughter’s (making it kid friendly) filled with a variety of vegetables masquerading as soupy mashed potatoes. A comfort food made with very little, inexpensive, satisfying, filling and tasty.

4 to 6 potatoes (I used golden but any potato will do) peeled

2 medium to large carrots (peeled)

2 to 3 stalks of celery

1 small to medium onion (peeled and cut into chunks)

2 cloves of garlic (peeled)

1 15 oz. can of evaporated milk (or 2% or full fat milk)

4 to 6 tablespoons of butter (have a stick available)

Salt

pepper

1/4 cup sour cream (optional)

parmesan or cheddar cheese

3 strips of bacon (or Hormel real bacon bits)

Scallions, Spring onions or chives

Peel and cut the potatoes and carrots. Cut into similar sized chunks. Wash and chop the celery and onion also into similar sized chunks as the potato and carrot. Peel the garlic and leave whole. Place all into a pot and cover with water (as you would to boil for mashed potatoes). Bring water to a boil and cook until the potatoes and carrots are tender in the center. Be careful not to over cook or the final result will be gooey.

While the potatoes are boiling (about 15 minutes), if you’d like to garnish the soup with fresh bacon, use a microwave safe dish and place a double layer of paper towels on top. Line with 3 slices of bacon (I cut mine in half to shorten their length), top with double layer of paper towels, bacon and finish with a double layer of paper towel. Place in the microwave. Start with 2 minutes and check the crispiness of the bacon. Add 30 second intervals until the bacon is crispy and can be easy crumbled. Set aside.

Remove the vegetables from the boiling water with a slotted spoon (or spider if you have one like the one in the picture) and place the mixture of vegetables into a food processor or blender. Depending on the size of your food processor, you may have to make the sour in batches and pour into a pot or bowl to rewarm with finished. Do not overfill and be very careful when working with hot items in appliances. Add some of the evaporated (or other) milk and a couple of tablespoons butter. Pulse to puree the vegetables. I personally prefer a consistency similar to soupy mashed potatoes and use more milk to loosen the mixture; but some of the other family members add some of the boiling liquid from the pot to thin the soup further. Sour cream may be added to the mixture at this point if desired (optional).

Serve in a soup bowl and top with desired garnishes, a dollop of sour cream, sliced or grated cheese of your choice, crumbled bacon and chopped green onions or chives. When my daughter was little, she just wanted cheese.

OPTIONAL : POTATO SOUP WITH SWEET POTATO

Several years ago I found a marbled potato recipe for Thanksgiving where mashed potatoes flavored with sour was swirled with a whipped, buttered cardamon sweet potato. I often tell a story about how my Mom told me she didn’t think she was going to like them. Then the week after having eaten the marbled potatoes, she ran out and bought cardamon to put in everything!

I had one large sweet potato and decided to experiment, creating the whipped sweet potato to either place into the center of the golden potato soup or make the sweet potato the star,

1 large or two small/medium sweet potatoes (peeled and cubed)

1/2 teaspoon cardamon

4 to 6 tablespoons of butter

I recently watched a demonstration on a Martha Stewart site where potatoes were actually “steamed” instead of boiled. The result was a less soggy potato (for mashed potatoes). I decided to use this method for the sweet potato.

To prepare, fill the bottom of deep sauce pan with about an inch of water; the put a steamer basket over the water and layer the chunks of potato evenly into the basket. Bring the water to a slight simmer and cover the pot. Depending on the size of your potato pieces it may take 5 to 15 minutes. Steam until a fork goes into the potato center easily.

With a pot holder or dish cloth lift the streamer with potatoes and place on a plate or bowl on the side. Pour out the water from the pot. Return potatoes to the pot, add cardamon and butter. Whip with a hand mixer until smooth. (As an option, milk can be added to make this mixture smooth like the golden potato soup if you want to swirl some of the sweet potato with that soup).

Above left: I used a small scoop to create of ball of the sweet potato and placed it in the middle of the golden potato soup. Right: I placed three scoops of the whipped sweet potato and poured a small amount of the golden potato soup around the outside. I topped each sweet potato round with a crispy piece of bacon, garnished with chopped green onion and shaved parmesan.

I was a single Mom for most of my daughter’s life and didn’t make a lot o money back then. I know what it’s like to try to stretch a buck, and still present something comforting, filling and satisfying for dinner. I hope this idea will work in your home.

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Veggie Salad and Fruity Breakfast

My own version of the German salad.

Here are two healthy, quick, no cooking required, meals. Last September I had a wonderful opportunity to travel to a small town in southern Germany that was less than an hour away from both France and Switzerland. During my time there I learned about this lovely salad that I call “the German salad”.

This salad is a perfect example of how to “Simply Elevate” items that are a combination of fresh, frozen and canned vegetables. The technique is to chop or slice everything that creates the bottom layer to a similar size. Basically any combination of ingredients you have will work. The first salad I had at a restaurant in a Castle we toured in Germany, contained smashed boiled and butter potato, shredded carrot, finely julienned zucchini, diced beets and radishes; while the version in Switzerland had corn, shredded cheese, red pepper, shredded carrots and cucumbers.

Each version was then topped with mixed greens tossed in a light vinaigrette. When the first salad arrived, it looked like a simple mixed green salad, but as the top layer was pushed away you found all of the lovely colorful surprises just beneath.

When I returned home, I planned a wine club meeting for my friends and recreated some of the cuisine influences I experienced in this little corner of Europe, which included this German salad.

A fun way to serve this would be to create a large platter of prepared vegetables and let everyone choose which items they want for their bottom layer. Then prepare a separate bowl with the tossed greens. to serve on top. My platter above included radishes sliced on a mandolin, diced fresh sugar snap peas, diced red (orange or yellow) bell peppers, shredded carrots (can be purchased in the produce section), diced fresh zucchini, diced English cucumbers (Persian or a regular cucumber are fine), and canned corn that was drained.

Other options: frozen corn, frozen peas, canned diced beets, boiled and buttered smashed potatoes, diced fresh mushrooms, drained jarred artichoke hearts, hearts of palm – whatever you have can work. The more color the prettier it will be.

For the vinaigrette I simply drizzled a little of good olive oil and a little white balsamic vinegar over the greens and toss. You can use rice wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar – just use whatever you have. This salad is very refreshing and very filling due to all of the raw vegetables.

FRUITY NO COOK BREAKFAST

An easy, healthy and “Simply elevated” bowl of yogurt is as simple as using a wide single serving bowl, placing 1/4 cup of yogurt, sprinkle the top with cinnamon to add flavor (said to lower blood sugar) ; or swirl in a tablespoon of your favorite jam or preserves; sprinkle with a store bought or homemade granola, chopped nuts or toasted coconut; then slice up fruit (banana, a mandarin oranges, cherries, peach, pear, apple; add some berries and if you have it, snip some fresh mint into little strips to sprinkle over the top. I even prepared a version of this while I was in Germany using local fruits.

My France yogurt bowl -homemade berry preserves, museli, figs, mirabelles, banana & fresh mint.
Home: Greek yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon, toasted oat granola, strawberry,
blueberry, banana & fresh mint.

Be creative, have fun and enjoy! Until next time….Bon Appétit !

SIMPLY ELEVATED

Springtime Soup: “Simply Elevated”

Carrot and fresh pea soup with chive blossom.

Basic every day ingredients elevated – its the genesis of my new category “Simply Elevated“. I hope to inspire and encourage methods for using ingredients that may not appear to be much in their original form, but can be elevated into a delicious and beautiful meal. Let’s dig into to our refrigerators, freezers, pantries and herb gardens to present something everyone will look forward to eating.

I created this soup last year for my annual Mothers Tea and realized it would be the perfect example during this difficult time, of how a few ordinary ingredients can be transformed into something tasty, filling and nutritious.

Let me begin with the herb garden. If you don’t have one you can easily purchase fresh herbs at the grocery in those little plastic packs, but consider planting some in a large planter or in a small area of your back yard. The benefit of growing your own yields fresh flavors to add to your dishes nearly every day, and eventually if you gently fertilize ,you will see lovely flowers bloom from their stems that are edible and add a lovely touch to your dishes. I’ve had the most luck with an area that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Herbs are inexpensive to grow (I start mine from small plants purchased at the grocery or hardware store) and give them a dose of Miracle Grow right after putting them in the grown. Spring (April and May) are the months they thrive the most. Some will last year round while others can’t make it through the very hot (parsley and cilantro) or very cold (basil) seasons.

The herbs I use most frequently are thyme, basil, chives (that make beautiful lavender flowers) and parsley, but I also have dill, oregano, rosemary, sage and cilantro. Cilantro and parsley require frequent trimming to avoid seeding, and they don’t like the heat. I use sweet mint with fruit, drinks and some savory dishes, but I would recommend planting mint in a completely separate container. It tends to take over in the garden. This year I’ve added some edible flowers (violas, pansies, marigolds) and Spring onions that also bloom a white version of the chive blossom.

🍃Carrot, Pea and Mint Soup🍃

6 to 8 servings
FOR THE CARROT PORTION:
2 pounds orange carrots (farm fresh for the best flavor if available )
1 or 2 small to medium purple carrots (if unable to find an orange will do)
4 tablespoons of butter
1/2 cup of vegetable stock or water *
1/2 teaspoon of salt
pinch of white pepper
FOR THE MINT-PEA PORTION:
2 – 12 oz packages of frozen sweet peas (reserve 1/2 of whole peas on the side for garnish
6 mint leaves (additional mint for garnish)
1/2 to 1 cup vegetable stock or water*
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon lemon zest & juice
Note: * If chicken stock is used the pure flavor of the vegetables will be altered.

Peel all carrots with a vegetable peeler and then slice into 1/4 inch disks. Place in a medium to large skillet with butter and liquid (*vegetable stock or water), salt and pepper. (If you do not have white pepper -black pepper is acceptable.) Simmer on medium heat covered until carrots are tender when pierced with a fork. Carefully transfer to a blender and puree until smooth. (Note that hot liquid in a blender can splash and burn you. Make sure to cover the top with a dish towel or allow mixture to slightly cool prior to blending). Add small quantifies of liquid until desired consistency is achieved. In order to create the two side by side or swirl affect, it will have to be the consistency of loose mashed potatoes or the line will not hold. It cannot be watery.

Frozen peas (remove 1/2 cup of whole peas and set aside to thaw to room temperature). Cook frozen peas in microwave according to package instructions. Transfer to a clean blender and add 1/2 cup of liquid (*vegetable stock or water)and mint leaves. Puree, again to desired consistency adding small quantities of liquid – with same note indicated above. Salt and pepper to taste, lemon zest and juice. I then put the pureed soup in a squeeze bottle to control the pour into the other side of the bowl when serving to create the separations of carrot and pea.

Both can be made one to two days in advance, refrigerated in an air tight container. Gently reheat prior to serving.

Garnish: Create thin slices of purple carrot with a vegetable peeler, from stem to end tip. Gently curl and place in ice water until ready to serve. Garnish soup with raw carrot slice, several whole peas, a mint leaf, and chive blossom or other edible flower if available.

Bon Appétit! Let me know what you think if you give it a try.

EASTER, HOLIDAY

Springtime Sunday Brunch Tarts

This is the first Easter Sunday that I didn’t have my family gathered around my table due to the “social distancing” world we are currently living in, but that didn’t stop me from preparing a meal and doing a little curbside delivery to my brother and a couple of my neighbors. I purchased a small two pound ham, made a pot of smothered corn from fresh cobs, and decided to do a little refrigerator and freezer dive to make something with items I already had on hand.

Crab 🦀 Pie

I remembered I had a pound of lump blue crabmeat in the freezer and found some mini pie shells I had purchased and forgotten to use. I started a small roux (from equal parts flour and olive oil) in a non-stick skillet and allowed it to become a mahogany brown before adding chopped onion, celery, red peppers and garlic. After those ingredients cooked, I added about 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp. of black pepper and small sprinkling of red pepper flakes – stirring to combine before adding about 1 cup of boxed seafood stock. The consistency should be saucy, but not watery before folding in 1/2 lb. of crabmeat and 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese until evenly incorporated. The end result should be similar to the consistency of mashed potatoes. Place the tin lined pie shells (or a full size pie crust prepared in a pie plate) onto a Silpat lined sheet pan (this will prevent the mini or single pie plate from sliding around). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill each shell with the crabmeat mixture, level each off and then bake for 30 to 40 minutes when the pie crust edges (including the bottom of the crust -take a peek) are also golden. SO that was quick and easy and delicious!

Spring Veggie🥕🌶 Tart

As I returned to my refrigerator to survey it’s contents, a container of pencil thin asparagus that I originally planned to oven roast caught my attention. I remembered seeing different versions of tarts made with asparagus on Pinterest and searched the freezer for some puffed pastry. Spring also calls from carrots, and the many versions of ways to cook carrots that I’ve seen on various cooking shows passed through my mind. So I decided to put both ideas together. Here’s what you’ll need.

  • 9″ x 13″ sheet pan (half sheet)
  • parchment paper
  • 1 Sheet puffed pastry (place in refrigerator overnight)
  • flour for dusting counter
  • 4 to 5 slender carrots (peeled, ends cut off and sliced down the middle).
  • 2 tbsp each olive oil and butter (in to a skillet)
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp chili oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 8-12 pencil thin fresh asparagus
  • 5 oz. container of shaved parmesan cheese (or shave a block with a vegetable peeler) – or shredded Italian blend cheese or other melty cheese like or Gruyère or white cheddar
  • fresh chives, fresh thyme
  • two eggs
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

The photos above show the steps for preparing the carrot side of the tart. Select the thinner shaped carrots, peel, cut ends off and slice lengthwise. Add olive oil and butter to a non-stick skillet and when melted add carrots (sliced side down). Place another skillet on top of the carrots to prevent curling. They need to be straight for the tart. Cook for about 5 minutes until slightly blistered or browned on medium heat. (Carefully remove the top skillet using a dish cloth (it will be hot with steamy condensation on the bottom) then turn each carrot over. Add honey, chili oil, salt and pepper. Cover (I don’t have a lid that fits the skillet that I used, so I improvised using a piece of foil and splatter screen to hold it down) and cook until centers of carrots are fork tender- about 5-7 minutes. Drain the liquids from the carrots on a rack and set aside.

Sprinkle flour on surface of counter and roll out puffed pastry sheet 2 inches wider and longer than sheet pan about 11″ x 15″.

On to the puffed pastry. Line the half sheet pan with parchment paper. Dust the countertop with flour and roll out the puffed pastry one inch wider than all sides of the pan sheet half sheet pan (about 11″ x 15″) so that when placed inside the sheet pan the pastry goes up the sides (needed to hold egg mixture in). Dock (pierce) the surface of the pastry with a fork. This stops the pastry from puffing in the center. Place the tray of pastry in the freezer for 5 minutes to re-chill and pre-heat the oven to 400-425 degrees (depends on your oven. )

Meanwhile, measure 3/4 cup heavy cream, add two eggs, chopped chives and thyme.

Sprinkle the pastry with a handful of cheese; line the asparagus on one side and the carrots on the other; pour the milk and egg mixture evenly over the vegetables and then sprinkle another handful of cheese over the top. Bake from 30 to 40 minutes (depends on oven) until edges and bottom crust is golden brown for a crispy – not soggy crust.

When the tart first comes out of the oven it will puffed up, but it will sink as it cools. The tart is delicious warm, but also works at room temperature. Whether for brunch, lunch with a salad or a side dish, both of these tarts are simply delicious and easily to please.

SMALL TALK

Home Time Opportunities…

For the most part, I’m a bit of a homebody and love to piddle around my house with little projects, but the recent restrictions imposed that involve closings (school) or limited access to many places we often visit on a regular basis can be unsettling to our routine and begin to affect the moods of everyone. We don’t like our freedoms to be taken away from us, even when it’s for our own good. In difficult times, we are challenged to find new ways to be productive and continue to develop and occupy our minds with healthy thoughts and processes. I like to think that as these old routines are suspended, an opportunity has opened to form new and improved routines.

Our world is going through a uniquely challenging and uncertain time, where less socializing is encouraged for the safety of ourselves, our loved ones and all of our communities, Spring is coaxing us to shed our sweaters and hibernation period to venture out into the warmer sunny days as relief from the many cold, gray, gloomy days we have already invested “indoors”.

While this time may seem unreasonable, stressful and unpredictable – and it is all of those things, I’d rather be safe than sorry. So I choose to see this period of time as an opportunity.

Let’s think about some of the things we often say we never have time for….

The weekdays now have longer daylight hours. Are the kids’ after school activities being suspended for several weeks? – Sounds like a great opportunity to invest in quality time as a family or couple, strengthen our relationships and ease the stresses associated with the ongoing reports of this coronavirus. Below are some ideas to inspire you….

1.) Prepare a home cooked meal together as a couple or family giving each child a job and gather “together” around the dinner table with discussion activities; Say grace and pray together – teach your children to care and pray for the safety and well being of their loved ones and others in the world. Help them engage in a positive way with what is happening and help them feel there is something they can contribute to making things better.

Take advantage of the warm sunny weather and get some fresh air by cooking on the grill and enjoying meals on the back patio or a blanket for a back yard picnic. Afterwards, play a game of crochet, badminton or take turns jumping on the trampoline as a family. Look around the house and see what you have to create activities as a family to free the minds of worry and relieve boredom as so often is the challenges with children.

2.) Create flash cards with questions or topics of conversation that expand knowledge and discussion; (turn off the TV, phones and Ipads and limit the time spent on these items); couples can learn more about each other with topic questions and you can easily create topics for children that make the discussion fun, such as – If you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be and why?; What skill would you like to learn that you haven’t yet? (Skating, bowling, painting, play the guitar, etc) – you may learn something about your child that you didn’t know; questions that teach about the solar system, or other countries on the globe and so on. Just one each evening will do – and keeps everyones’ minds on positive thoughts and creative thinking. Some of the questions may be to test your kids on what they know about each of their parents with a game of two truths and a lie. The topics of discussion are endless.

3.) Is your child usually signing up to play on a softball and baseball team this time of year? Pick an evening to practice batting and catching the ball so they are ready to go when they can get back to the park to play.

4.) Other after dinner activities- play a round of UNO or a board game together; go for a family walk or bike ride in your neighborhood; plant a garden together, and together weed and water it in the evenings – watching it grow; find a Zumba class on YouTube and Zumba together for exercise; have one child each week read a book or a couple of chapters of a book to the rest of the family. Find creative healthy ways to spend time together laughing and playing to keep everyone’s spirits up.

Self care: Whether you are single and live alone….or notan opportunity to take better care of yourself.

As you know from my blog, I have a bookclub and love to read. I have a mentally stressful job that sometimes follows me to bed and the best way I have found to clear my mind and get a good night’s sleep, is to take a hot lavender scented bath and then settle into bed somewhere between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., nestled against a few fluffy pillows to sit me up and a pool of soft sheets and blankets surrounding me, while I read a few chapters of a good book. My mind shifts to the lives of the characters in the story and I’m freed of the worries of my work day until morning and enjoy a restful sleep.

When that alone doesn’t work, I play the Meditation Radio or Spa Radio stations on Pandora at a low volume on my phone on the bedside table and within minutes, I’m out. Lavender essential oils in defusers, roll on perfume bottles and linen sprays are also calming and help for soothing and sleep.

In mid-February I learned about this 30 day yoga series on YouTube – “Home – 30 day yoga with Adriene” and began starting my weekday mornings with an episode that is usually less than 30 minutes. It’s free and helps melt away stress and anxiety. Adriene is a gentle instructor with an unexpected new experience each day. It’s quite lovely, and if you are having trouble sleeping, this is also a great thing to do at the end of your day.

Lastly, another wonderful way to relax and decompress is to meditate. Deepak Chopra and Oprah have several 21 day meditations the are offered for free every couple of months. I have no doubt that they will be offering another one soon during this difficult time. You can sample some of the past meditations on Youtube. My favorite has always been the one focused on gratitude. https://chopracentermeditation.com/

Weekends at home….

What to do to fill your weekend? Well, Spring cleaning comes to mind! Here’s an opportunity to “tidy up”. Watch Marie Kondo’s series on Netflix for motivation and tackle one closet and bureau at a time. As each area is “tidied” up with items no longer loved removed and her special folding methods applied to beautifully organize the items in your bureau, you just feel so much better!

Then you can move on to your pantry – check out my “Lagniappe” category for other Weekend Projects. Other organization inspiration can be found on instagram @thehomeedit.

While the weather is beautifully mild, you will need time outdoors. Whether you have a patio or balcony for a few potted plants or a yard for a small flower bed, herb or vegetable garden, this is a great time to get planting before the heat is on. It’s time for pulling weeds (that are always the first to grow); and weed and feed turf builder time.

Then there’s always the garage and detailing the car…..ah how the list goes on, but just think how great it will feel for everything to be clean, organized and cleared of clutter!

It’s also an opportunity to try a new skill, such as becoming a better baker or cook, sewing, knitting, crocheting, painting, drawing, building something out of wood or learning a foreign language. There are multiple videos on YouTube that will teach you almost anything,

This is also an opportunity to go back to having actual phone conversations instead of text messages to visit with family and friends that we can’t spend as much time in person with. This is an opportunity to strengthen relationships, invest in self care and refresh our homes. Don’t miss the opportunity to press the restart button. As we all know, things happen for a reason. While I don’t want in any way to dismiss or ignore the hardships that are going on out there, with job uncertainty or loss, illness and death – when life is difficult I personally always try to see the opportunity that these changes may offer or bring. I hope you will too.

Let’s all pray for each other, be kind and compassionate; reach out to and check on those who live alone and the one thing we can be certain of, is that one day this experience will all be behind us and we can express gratitude for the opportunity to slow our roll and invest time and attention into the most important parts of our lives. God Bless Everyone! I appreciate you and I pray for all of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

SMALL TALK

A Family Built From Love…

Today I attended a bridal shower of the soon to be daughter-in-law of my friend of almost four decades. Her youngest is soon to be married, and while visiting with her daughter Alyson I told her about this journal entry I had written about her wedding in 2017. I searched for it not realizing I had never published it.

We are fast approaching the 2020 wedding season, and I decided now was the time to share this story of a growing family and love.

May 20th, 2017

Last night I attended the wedding ceremony and reception for the youngest daughter of my friend of nearly 35 years, who over time has become my sister from another mother.  She and her very loving husband have and always will be family.

The ceremony was brief, but lovely and surprisingly entertaining, since the minister continually called the bride “Ashley” throughout the service instead of her name -Alyson.  The guests shared restrained giggles and smiles in the warm humid breeze while keeping a protective eye on the bright but cloudy sky, threatening to rain at any moment as the bride and groom stood before an organic arch of green foliage and flowers along the edge of lush green golf course.

Alyson wore a nervous smile from ear to ear; simply beautiful in her knee length dress and netted veil cap reminiscent of the 1940’s, jittering with nervous energy that she relieved with multiple deep breaths and a little wiggle dance of her hips as the vows were being read. When the groom proclaimed his “I do” her expression changed suddenly to “surprise” and the nervousness reappeared as she realized it was her turn; but she quickly regained her composure. When the minister said, “Ashley” she immediately corrected him- stating that her name is Alyson. After all, if she was to make a vow, it was going to be in her true name! Safe to say they made it through, free of rain, and shared a kiss that always signifies the ceremony’s end.  The small intimate ceremony was free of stuffiness or pretentiousness, simply focused on the couple that couldn’t keep their eyes off of one another and filled with love.

As a long time friend of her parents, I’ve known that “family “ above anything else, has always been the most important thing to both of them.  So much so that they have woven a unique tapestry of members they call “family”.  To most their family network may seem odd or unconventional, but to them it’s just the people they love and I’m grateful at times that I am considered one of their members. Their generous hearts extend a hand out to help just about anyone that needs it. I’ve never witnessed their saying “I can’t”, or “no” to anyone. A passion or calling that they have wholeheartedly committed their time and attention to.

Over the years and most recently, some of their treasured family members are now deceased, slowly chipping away at the number of living members. It was comforting to witness a night devoted to commitment that would now further extend the size of their family.

My sister friend walked over and sat beside me for a while, to have a small bite of food and something to drink, when just minutes afterward, the song “Lady in Red” began to play.  I watched as her oldest daughter was being escorted to the dance floor by her husband and suddenly my sister friend quickly excused herself to dash into the crowd of guests.  Shortly afterwards, the dance floor was filled with dancers, and among them I spotted her dancing with husband. 

Throughout the night I observed her family, especially her two daughters and grown son with is girlfriend, and wondered if they (she and her husband) realized that their children had all found the one thing a parent can never give them. 

Later when she returned to sit next to me I told her, “Your son-in-law (to her oldest daughter) really loves your daughter.”  She looked out into the crowd and looked around like she didn’t understand, so I told her again. While sometimes as parents or simply human beings we may see flaws in one another, as an outsider looking in, I could see without a doubt by the way her son-in-law treats her oldest daughter and looks at her –having two small children running around beside them – that he truly loves and respects her. I’m not sure if my friend ever stopped and really looked at them in that way.

The same was obvious between her son and his girlfriend and as I said before during the ceremony of her youngest daughter and her groom.

While the group she calls family may currently be slightly smaller than what they are used to, I see the beginnings of a new generation forming. Those of us who were once “the young” will become “the old” and this new pairing of lives will weave and create the new tapestry of my sister friend and her husband’s ever changing evolved family, whose foundation is formed purely from the love they all share.

NOTE: THE PHOTOS IN THIS POST WERE TAKEN AT A DIFFERENT WEDDING OF A FAMILY FRIEND.

WINE CLUB

The Welcoming Member of My Wine Club…

The original Wine Club Wreath with corks from one of the couples in the original club.

When I first started my wine club, I wanted to create a welcoming wine wreath to hang on my front entrance door each night of our meetings. I was inspired by a wreath I saw on Pinterest, but I didn’t have corks, so I reached out to my friends and one couple gifted me a bag full, that I pared with artificial grapes and a grapevine wreath – some purple ribbon and our club wreath was formed.

My wreath was in need of something more. A small ceramic dish with a painting of a vineyard that I loved, inspired the small image that hangs in the center which was hand painted by one of my friends who is a very talented artist. I asked her to re-create the image on the little piece of balsa wood (very light weight) to hang inside the wreath. [She later painted a plaque with the year our club was established, that I display on the food table.]

The wreath has been just as much a member of our club as the actual “Sippers” . Over time as my themes were formed, I decided to add accents to the wreath that matched the night’s theme. Over time I’ve added winning corks from our parties – so the wreath now has an abundance of corks and looks full and lush.

MURDER MYSTERY NIGHT

MAGNIFYING GLASS AND INSPECTOR NOTEPAD

RIO DE JANEIRO CARNIVAL

****CHAMPAGNE BRUNCH **** SUPERBOWL WEEKEND ****HONORING OUR SAINTS WHO WERE ROBBED !!!!

POM POM, PENDANT, FOOTBALL, & REFEREE WHISTLE & PENALTY FLAG.

A HAUNTINGLY ELEGANT WINE PARTY

SPANISH MOSS, BLACK GLITTERED BRANCHES AND A CHAMPAGNE CORK SPIDER. [Halloween}

DERBY THEMED WINE PARTY

BOW TIE, SMALL HAT, GOLD HORSE AND RED ROSES.

ALPINE – ALSACE FONDUE FRIENDSGIVING

SUNFLOWERS AND COW BELLS.

As the themes form in the future, if there is something I can add to represent it, my little wreath will continue to be dressed up for the evening!

HOLIDAY, VALENTINES DAY

Romantic Gestures for the Day of Hearts

February is the month to celebrate love. When was the last time you swept your loved one off of their feet with a simple romantic gesture? I recently rewatched the cute romantic comedy “Hitch” where Will Smith’s character as “The Love Doctor” inspires his clients with uniquely designed romantic gestures, suited specifically to capture the attention of a woman they want so much to win the heart of.

In that same spirit, here are some ideas to inspire you where the currency starts with nothing but time and thought if that’s all you have. Have someone help you beautifully wrap a box of chocolates with a luxurious silk or velvet ribbon. If available select a special vintage brooch from your mother or grandmother’s jewelry box (or find one in a local antique shop) and pin it to the ribbon’s center for a bit of Victorian romance.

Place a delicate bracelet, pearl or heart shaped earrings into a satin or velvet draw string bag and then tuck the bag into a Victorian Hinged Heart Shape Christmas ornament. Another Victorian style romantic presentation- more unique and thoughtful than the typical jewelry box. To wrap, lay the ornament inside a red velvet or specially wrapped box on a fluffy cloud of delicate tissue wrapping paper and it looks just as elegant as a faberge egg. (Pretty boxes often with bows can be found at Homegoods stores, charm bracelets and the individual charms can be found at affordable prices at craft stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s.)

You still have time to order a Victorian ornament – here’s a source online that I found https://www.putti.ca/products/hinged-heart-treasure-box-ornament-pink

A bracelet filled with charms representing memories you share.

How do I love thee…. let me count the ways….. A priceless gesture of love is something that comes straight from the heart. Rather than stopping at the drug store on Valentine’s Day to sift through the last of the cards remaining, filled with someone else’s words, why not sit alone and write your own thoughts into a poem for the one you love; words you don’t say often enough or not at all, long over due. Whether hand written or printed out from a computer, sign your name at the end and find a beautiful frame to present it in. 

Okay, if you think you can’t possibly write a poem – stop at a library and search online for love poems. Find one that says what you feel and want to express to your loved one and again personalize it by signing and framing it. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/collections/145134/love-poems-5a2f223201f49?gclid=Cj0KCQiA4NTxBRDxARIsAHyp6gCINhlH1fc7PG9I2q8TmwoKIrIVfvzUKSfJsiKOXIWBXTjr7mmhx-saAmYNEALw_wcB

Some of the greatest love stories are based on hand written love letters discovered in the attic long after their authors are gone. Letter writing has become a dying art form and is totally unexpected. Never underestimate the power of what one can do for your relationship. Regardless of what your handwriting looks like, a hand written letter is personal, intimate and romantic. Whether mailed to the recipient or tucked inside a special place for the recipient to find, your words of love are recorded directly from your heart and hand to remember for years to come. A proclamation of love in one’s own handwriting to be read over and over again, is a truly romantic gesture.

Those of you who are fans of “Sex in the City” may recall the episode when Carrie discovers the numerous emails that her assistant moved to a folder containing the historic love letters of great men that her beloved “Big” had sent her everyday for weeks (captured from a book she had been reading long before their planned wedding) and then finally his own love letter that begged her forgiveness for his mistake. The truth is that there was no book of love letters in publication in reality and following the episode a small book was published when one could not be found. So there is at least one out there. What if you left a different love letter from the book each day for a week for your beloved and then ended on Valentine’s Day with one of your own?

How about a romantic concert at home while you sip on your favorite beverage with only candlelight and cozy blankets to cuddle up with on the couch? One very romantic concert that occurred years ago and was captured on DVD is Andrea Bocelli – Under the Desert Sky. He sings romantic love songs beneath the stars in Las Vegas. Diana Krall’s sultry cadence is another great candidate- Live from Paris. Either may inspire a little slow dancing around the living room. A variety of concerts can be found for streaming on Amazon.

Valentine’s Day is on a Friday night this year. The restaurants will be packed with couples, stressed out waiters, and long waits. Why not plan a romantic evening at home? Begin with a trip to the grocery store to pick up a couple of steaks, chicken or other protein that you can cook on the grill, a salad package with dressing and everything you need; and most grocery stores have chocolate dipped strawberries that can be served for dessert. Choose one of the favorite wines you both enjoy or that holds a memory of another romantic time you shared. An inexpensive bottle of bubble bath and votive candles. A bouquet of roses also would be nice, but if there are roses in your garden, snipping a bundle would work just as well.

So here’s the plan- try to get home before your partner. Surround a clean bathtub with lit candles, a small vase of roses and a poured glass of wine. Minutes before your partner’s arrival, fill the tub with warm water and lots of bubbles (if you hold your finger on the end of the faucet as the water flows it will froth the bubbles and they will rise and multiply). Once the tub is filled, drop a few rose petals on top of the bubbles. Lay a towel and your favorite nightie that she wears on a chair or bench. Hang a robe from the top of the door. Close the bathroom door and create a path of rose petals from where your partner enters the house to the bathroom door where the candlelit bubble bath awaits her. (By the way no one says you can’t join her – but since this is a surprise for her, wait to be invited.)

Invite your partner to take a hot bath to relax and unwind from the week, while you grill the steaks, prepare the salad and set the table. Either prepare a playlist of love songs you both enjoy or Pandora has a love songs station from Pop, to Country, or Jazz that can take care of the background music while you dine. (You may even play music from the artist that you will then watch in concert from the couch afterward in the previous section.)

The language of flowers can be considered floral poetry: “Floriography is the ‘language of flowers‘. Dating back to the Victorian times floriography was used as a means of coded communication through various flowers and floral arrangements, allowing people to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken. For centuries, this cryptic language has inspired the giving of flowers to convey emotion. Floriography originated in the courts of Constantinople in early 18th-century Turkey, spreading throughout Europe and Asia, eventually making its way to America in the mid-19th century.” (source: Traditional Home Magazine & All Florists in the UK)

The rose is a classic symbol of grace and elegance, and while most associated with Valentine’s day because the red rose stands for love and passion and the pink rose is often given as a token of admiration and appreciation, the rose may not be your partner’s favorite flower. My mother, my daughter and I are all partial to hydrangeas of all kinds regardless of what meaning Floriography has assigned the luscious ball of beauty – but if you want to make an appropriate choice according to the philosophy -Pink hydrangeas symbolize heartfelt emotion. Blue hydrangeas symbolize frigidity and apology. White hydrangeas symbolize boasting or bragging. Purple hydrangeas symbolize a desire to deeply understand someone.

The tulip is also readily available this time of year. A Turkish legend may be responsible for the red tulip’s symbolism. The story goes that a prince named Farhad was love struck by a maiden named Shirin. When Farhad learned that Shirin had been killed, he was so overcome with grief that he killed himself – riding his horse over the edge of a cliff. It’s said that a scarlet tulip sprang up from each droplet of his blood, giving the red tulip the meaning “perfect love.” Different colors of tulips also often carry their own significance. Red tulips are most strongly associated with true love, purple symbolizes royalty, white tulips are used to claim worthiness or to send a message of forgiveness. Yellow tulips symbolizing cheerful thoughts, pink tulips – a symbol of caring, attachment (not as strong as love, like the red) and good wishes. They would be appropriate for a friend or family member or someone you’ve just met and have grown to care about, but it may be too soon to express love for.  The colors typically have similar meaning with each variety, red – love; yellow-friendship; pink-admiration; white purity, forgiveness.

If you choose to consider the language of flowers in a mixed bouquet you present, make a little note about your selections on the card to explain the choices you made so that your partner realizes that your bouquet was personally designed with thought from the heart.

Maybe your partner has always wanted to go to Paris or Bora Bora or Africa , but it’s simply not in your budget. Create a night at home bringing that dream place to her. Let’s go with Paris for this example. Search images of Paris where she most wants to go, i.e. Paris cafe’s, Giverny Gardens. Engage the help of a friend or family member to help you transform a small corner in your home into an evening in Paris. A small round table, and two chairs with a white tablecloth – cafe’ style. Candlelight, white twinkle lights strung from above. Pandora has a French Cafe’ station to help you with the music. If you’re a cook, make a French bistro favorite or order from a French restaurant and bring it home. Buy a decadent chocolate dessert (Le Madeline’s Sacher torte is perfect or some other decadent chocolate favorite from a local bakery). You don’t have to do all of the work, let the resources out there help you with your plan.

If your partner loves chocolate – don’t forget the chocolates! Just know that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good chocolate. When I was a little girl, my Dad bought a Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates every year for my Mom. I’d patiently wait for her to pull the plastic wrap away and lift the lid. She the chocolates with nuts were her favorite, so she always let me have the solid milk chocolate messenger man in the middle of both layers of chocolate. All these years later – the box still has two layers and costs about $15 – I’ve seen it for $7.99 on sale this time of year – you can wrap it beautifully as indicated at the beginning.

While Valentine’s Day has become filled with expectations of flowers and heart shaped boxes of candy – an unexpected well thought out romantic gesture goes much further than a last minute stop at the store to grab the last of what’s left on Valentine’s Day. I hope these ideas will inspire you to form your own expression of love with a thoughtful, heartfelt gesture that you know will please your Valentine. As for those of you who receive these special gestures, you are very fortunate and very loved – make sure to express your appreciation for the effort that has been made in your honor. Your encouragement made lead to more romantic gestures.

  • A candlelight picnic by the fireplace on a cold winter’s night.
  • A drive to an open area for star gazing with a thermos of hot chocolate, bring warm cuddly blankets and spend some time in the quiet to just talk and be together.
  • A chocolate and wine pairing to do together or with friends (google search for ideas).https://explore.lindtusa.com/perfect_pairings/
  • An Alpine fondue for two – see my Alpine Alsace Friendsgiving post – a cheese fondue can be made from scratch or there are boxed versions in the cheese departments that simple require heating. (Whole Foods and other wine stores that also sell cheese)
  • If there is a favorite restaurant that you frequent, ask to speak to the chef or manager. Ask if the menu for Valentine’s day has been decided. Negotiate to have the special prepared for you and your partner the weekend before the holiday – with your chosen table. This avoids the crowds and while you may not be a celebrity that can pay to close down a restaurant for the night for just the two of you, making this special private arrangement will make someone feel very loved and appreciated.

However you plan to spend your Day of Hearts – here’s wishing everyone love!

BOOK CLUB

Social Writes Bookclub – This Present Darkness, by Frank E. Peretti

The Book Selection:

It’s the beginning of a new year and a new decade. We are reminded daily by the media of the dark forces that lurk throughout our world, and often feel helpless in what we can do to make a difference. A couple of decades back, an old (as in long time) friend gave me this christian fiction novel that had a strong impact on me and opened my eyes to the negative forces that provoke us daily and how the power of prayer may strengthen heaven’s angels to conquer and defeat those negative forces.

While this is a work of fiction, you cannot walk away from this book without re-accessing thoughts and feelings that make you feel unworthy, not strong or good enough, excluded, along with a long list of many other negative emotions, without realizing these negative thoughts are being used to draw us away from our belief system – our faith in good and our trust in what God wants for us.

A brief description of the book found on the “Good Reads” website, states “Ashton is just a typical small town. But when a skeptical reporter and a prayerful, hardworking pastor begin to investigate mysterious events, they suddenly find themselves caught up in a hideous New Age plot to enslave the townspeople, and eventually the entire human race. The physical world meets the spiritual realm as the battle rages between forces of good and evil.

This Present Darkness is a gripping story that brings keen insight into spiritual warfare and the necessity of prayer.”

If you don’t believe in guardian angels now, you should be filled with hope for them after reading this dramatic thriller of a book. It is a work of fiction and creativity that is well worth the read. It was originally published in 1986 and was Mr. Peretti’s first book. As a story about spiritual warfare; he does not place judgment on the characters or determine consequences for those who act out when possessed by a dark spirit. This book offers very interesting “food for thought” that when I first read it in 1998 gave me insight to how our insecurities (if thought of as a dark manipulation) can prevent us from growing in our faith and relationship with God. As a result of my reading experience, I personally fought those insecurities and grew determined to grow stronger in my own faith.

It should be noted that the book was written long before the internet, mobile phones and social media. One of my friends noted that if this book were rewritten today, the demons would have even more resources by which to reek their havoc and do.

When I saw this white angel with large wings, she reminded me of the tall illuminated angels described in the book that watched over the small church with it’s prayerful pastor.

The Meeting:

When I have anyone come to my house, I always want to make whatever we are doing memorable, even if it is just a bookclub meeting. How often do you see your friends in a given year? I fear my answer would be far less frequent without planning events that give my collection of friends an opportunity to get together on a regular basis. Relationships of all kind take time and commitment. Therefore, it’s important to me to make the time we spend together meaningful, memorable and enjoyable.

With the holidays in full swing, I needed to pick a book for our upcoming January meeting. I had read several fairly good books throughout 2019, but none stood out as one I wanted to share with my club. For some reason, I recalled “This Present Darkness” and the affect it had on me when I originally read it. It lifted my spirit and enforced the importance of prayer that I’ve practiced ever since. This would be a new and different genre than what we have become accustomed to, and hoped my friends would gain their own unexpected insight from it, whatever it might be.

Having the book selection made, but still in the busyness of the holidays, I awaited inspiration to present itself and raised my usual creativity radar – hoping to hone in on something that would give me a direction for a table setting and refreshments for the meeting. I’ve fallen into a habit of trying to create a meeting around the book we’re reading when possible, which is sometimes challenging and not obvious – but I like the challenge. Without a specific plan in mind, one little thing can create the spark I need to build upon.

My first find occurred while browsing through a small antique store. A pair of tall glowing white angels with wings spread wide brought to mind the angels described as watching over the little town of Ashton and its preacher. There were two, but I decided to only purchase one and I placed it in the center of the table with a small church ornament.

On another day, I stopped at a local gift show to browsed through the after Christmas stock, (everything had been marked down 50% to 60%). As I searched through the baskets of ornaments, a large ornament, a pair of golden angel wings, caught my attention. I walked over for a closer look as two employees of the shop worked to remove ornaments from a Christmas tree display and place each into a basket on a large table. I decided the double winged ornament was too large and I only saw one, but it made me think again of our book club selection.

Then I noticed a single golden wing in another basket that I picked it up for closer examination. I stood nearby and kept count as each wing was moved from the tree and placed in the basket. The young lady arranging the ornaments in the basket noticed my interest and asked how many I needed. She searched through the tree to help me meet the count I needed, as I finally decided they would be a wonderful, post Christmas gift to give each of my members that would also (hopefully) help them remember the message of this book each year as they placed it on their Christmas tree.

At another store I came across the cocktail napkin that read “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor in the morning the devil says ‘Oh crap, she up!” It made me laugh and I thought it was perfect to inject a little humor.

A glowing white angel watching over a small church.

As I reached the end of the book, I read how Tal handed Guilo the trumpet to sound their victory. It inspired me to search for this image of an angel blowing a trumpet (online) that I resized to fit exactly on the reverse side of the store tag that was tied with a gold cord to each golden angel wing. I used a glue stick to adhere each image and then used simple school glue to add large white pearl iridescent glitter as a boarder that for me, evoked the image of the bright light that streamed from the angels when they were glorified and strengthened by the remnants’ prayers.

I then tied a thin gold ribbon through the wire loop at the end of the wing and placed one at each place setting. I pulled out my Mom’s black and gold china to add the “darkness” to the table surrounded by golden halo chargers.

I decided I wanted small bags that the ornaments could be wrapped and carried away in, having in mind small bronze colored bags I’ve often seen at the Dollar Tree. With Christmas having just passed, both stores in my area looked like they had been wiped out of everything and only had lavender colored bags. I was disappointed and not sure what I would find or where, but continued my search.

I finally found a set of 8 whites bags with gold and pink foil dots and decided they would have to do. Since it wasn’t what I originally had it mind, I was a little disappointed. As I started glueing on the clip art of the trumpet blowing angels, I suddenly realized that the foil dots on the bags looked similar to the chunky glitter I had put on the tags I attached to the wings. HONESTLY, this happens all of the time! Oddly, things just come together. I truly do not consciously make things match this way – it just seems to happen.

The Menu

With the table now set, my thoughts moved on to refreshments. I decided this would be a great opportunity to toast in the New Year and New Decade with my gal pals, as well as the beginning of our 6th year of reading together. January is a month when we try to eat lighter and resolve to take better care of ourselves. I decided to make a light, healthy, but decadent stacked salad of farro with chopped toasted pecans, cajun boiled shrimp salad, asian cucumber salad, grape tomatoes, diced avocado, grated boiled egg topped with sunflower sprouts and an edible viola. Watercress drizzled with garlic olive oil and white balsamic vinegar framed the stack; the plate drizzled with a roasted tomato vinaigrette and chive oil.

The stacked salad bottom to top.
  • The bottom was farro prepared per the package and pecans toasted in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, cooled and chopped. 1/4 cup pressed into the bottom of a 3 1/2″ ring.
  • Next layer – Shrimp salad made with cajun spice boiled shrimp adapted from the recipe @ https://www.dinneratthezoo.com/shrimp-salad-recipe/
  • Next layer – Sesame cucumber salad that I added chopped red pepper to adapted from the recipe @ https://www.recipesinstant.com/2019/08/spiralized-sesame-cucumber-salad.html
  • Next – chopped grape or cherrie tomatoes sprinkled with a little kosher salt
  • Next – 1/2 of an avocado diced, tossed in a teaspoon of lemon juice and sprinkled with a pinch of kosher salt
  • Sprinkle the top with grated boiled egg, chopped chives, sunflower microgreens (or alfalfa sprouts, pea shoots) and an edible flower.

The plate was drizzled with a roasted tomato vinaigrette, watercress tossed in a drizzle of garlic infused extra version olive oil and white balsamic vinegar.

  • 1 cup of grape or cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • koscher salt
  • 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar

Preheat over 400 degrees. Drizzle about 1 tbsp. of olive oil on a sheet pan. Slice tomatoes in half and lay in a single layer over olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and roast in the oven for 30 minutes. Tomatoes should deflate and create a brownish coating beneath the tomatoes. Remove from the oven and cool. Place roasted tomatoes in a small food processor or blender. Drizzle the second tablespoon of olive oil over the surface of the sheet pan with browned tomato juices and a tablespoon of white balsamic vinegar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes and gently scrap the browned juices, oil and vinegar with a whisk – (as in deglazing a pot with fond- brown bits). Attempt to lift as much of the fond as possible as this equates to a lot of flavor. Pour the mixture into the food processor with the roasted tomatoes. Process until smooth. Add additional olive oil or vinegar as desired until the mixture resembles a slightly loose tomato paste. Pour vinaigrette into a squirt bottle to drizzle on the plate.

The Cocktail

A cocktail is required to make a toast, so next I was in search of a unique, ladylike cocktail when I found this recipe for a “Whispering Demon” and oddly, as I am writing this I realized the cocktail will be pink – more color coordination! As is my usual practice, I always try to do something a little different to a recipe to make it my own. After tasting it, the name warranted a little surprise of spice to reference the “demon”. I experimented by steeping pink peppercorns into my simple syrup and it added a gentle element of surprise that I was looking for.

A Hushed Whispering Demon

Servings: 1

Ingredients

1 oz. vodka
1 oz. pink peppercorn simple syrup
2 oz. Whispering Angel or other Rosé
2 oz. club soda

Directions: To make the simple syrup place 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Place pan on low heat (on the stove) until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and add 3 tablespoons of pink peppercorns. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain the syrup into a jar for storage until ready to use, and let the sugary peppercorns rest in the strainer for about 10 minutes. Move the peppercorns to an airtight container – leave uncovered to dry and cover for later.

Place coupe glasses in the freezer. Combine cold rosé, simple syrup, vodka, and club soda in the chilled coupe glass. Delicately swirl the glass to mix contents, and top with a little cluster of sugar coated pink peppercorns for garnish.

The Dessert

This book about spiritual warfare filled with demons and angels, called for an angelic finale. I made a chocolate angel food cake, filled with a mascarpone, whipped cream, freeze dried strawberries, chocolate shavings and raspberries.

The recipe for the basic chocolate angel food cake was taken from http://www.eatingwell.com/recipe/267156/chocolate-covered-strawberry-angel-food-cake/?utm_source=pinterest.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=eatingwell_eatingwell_9180211&utm_content=diabetes_verticalimage_&utm_term=ValentinesDayRecipes_201901

Once baked and cooled the cake was cut in half. I dug a little canal in the bottom half buy pulling some of the cake away. The filling, chocolate shavings and fresh raspberries were added and the top replaced. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

  • 8 ounces mascarpone room temperature
  • 8 ounces heavy cream whipped
  • 1/4 cup chocolate shavings
  • 1/4 cup freeze dried strawberries (pulsed in food processor to a powder) optional
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Whip the mascarpone and set aside. Whip the heavy cream with sugar. Gently fold 1/4 cup of mascarpone into the whipped cream and continue 1/4 cup at a time until well combined. Gently fold in chocolate shavings and strawberry powder.

This type of cake is a little dry and needs a syrupy sauce and fresh fruit. Slice strawberries macerated overnight in 1/4 cup of Chambord, 2 tablespoons of sugar and (optional) a sachet of 1 tablespoon of pink peppercorns). Before serving remove the sachet and add 1/2 cup of fresh raspberries. Pour a couple of large spoonfuls of fruit and their juices over each slice of cake. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings and curls.

Our meeting concluded and everyone left with their angel wings safely wrapped in their little bags. Until we meet again – on to the next book.

Select the bookclub category on the front blog page for previous book selections and meeting ideas:

HOME

S I P (Social Interactions and Parties) One Year Anniversary

I can hardly believe, that just a year ago, I sat at my dining room table literally trembling with fear as I learned as much as I could online about how to design a blog and then pushed myself to take the first steps.

I wanted a place to share all of my “social interaction” ideas, while simply enjoying time with family and friends. Another year of great wines, food, books, friends, tea, home design updates and thoughtful gestures, all recorded in the 67 posts of 2019. Thank you to all of you who follow me and to all of those in my life that share in making these events fun and memorable. Your support encourages me more than you know and I’m so grateful for each and every one of you. Here’s a quick look at 2019’s memories.

It’s a new year and a new decade. Come along for the journey to see what happens in 2020.

WINE CLUB

Baby it’s cold outside….Vini d’Italia Notte…..

Italian taqueria style invitation.

An evening of rich red Italian wines and food is never a bad thing. In fact it is exactly the kind of cozy candlelight evening and comfort foods needed on a cold winter’s night; and when paired with good friends, conversation and laughter is always a winning combination. For this cozy vini d’Italia (Italian wines) tasting, friends where asked to each bring a good Italian red and small bite.

The table setting – a small hole was punched in each place card to
insert a small leaf and berry from a tree in my yard that looks verify much like an olive
(see last photo below with bottles of wine.)

THE CHEESE COURSE

Baked Italian fontina, with garlic and herbs, served with toasted crusty bread and apple slices.
https://www.worldmarket.com/product/6-mini-cast-iron-skillet.do

Cold Friday evenings often remind me of those Friday night high school football games where I either sat shivering in the stands or jumped around on the field as a cheerleader. When the game was over, win or lose, a group of friends gathered at the local pizza parlor where the warm toasty pizza ovens and a crackling fireplace immediately embraced us upon opening the door and the chill of the night slowly eased away. As we settled into red vinyl booths, looking over the menus, those comforting aromas of pizza dough blistering in the oven while slowly melting delicious gooey cheese seduced our senses.

On this cold winter Saturday night, I wanted to create a similar environment for my guests with a delicious warming melted cheese course. I had recently watched a rerun of Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network and when I saw Ina re-create this restaurant version of melted Italian fontina cheese, seasoned with garlic and herbs I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. The small cast iron skillet with bubbling cheese beneath the broiler was just what I had in mind. I headed to the store in search of the small 6 inch cast iron skillets (that have since made many appearances at other parties). Each couple shared a skillet of the prepared herb fontina served with toasted crusty bread and apple slices for dipping and scooping.

THE ACTIVITY:

Two truths and a lie: This particular wine meeting was held in the first two years of our established group. Not all of the friends I invited knew one another. So I worked to create activities that would help us get to know one another, but also serve as entertainment and topics of conversation.

Along with the invitation, I asked each of my guests to write down two truths and a lie about themselves to bring to the party. Later in the evening, during the dessert course I asked each guest to read their list and the others were challenged to guess which was the lie. This activity resulted in informative truths for each of my guests to discover about each out and lots of laughter for the lies.

Another fun activity would be to create a trivial pursuit game about wines with the weekly “Wine Quiz” from Karen MacNeil’s “Winespeed” website.

You can subscribe @ https://winespeed.com/quiz/wine/

THE SMALL BITES:

As always my guests are asked to bring a small bite. this evening the offerings were Italian inspired and everything was delizioso!

DESSERT COURSE:

Trio of Italian desserts, tiramisu cookies, semifreddo
and Zabaglione with Amarena cherries 

https://www.marthastewart.com/313069/tiramisu-cookies

There were so many wonderful options for an Italian dessert that I decided to create a dessert sampler that would be shared by each couple. The trio included a tiramisu cookie, semifreddo and zabaglione with Amarena cherries. My guests enjoyed everything, but the stand out hit of the trio was the zabaglione with Amarena cherries.

Before there was Pinterest, I used to tear out the pages of cooking magazines with recipes I would like to use at some point and organize them in three ring binders. I had saved the zabaglione recipe from an issue of Food and Wine magazine years ago that I also found online and worked out perfectly. https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/vanilla-zabaglione-with-raspberries

The recipe used raspberries, but I had recently discovered Italian Amarena cherries (cherries in brandy) that are unbelievably delicious, and decided to use cherries in lieu of raspberries. It was the perfect choice, because my guests could not stop talking about how delicious the cherries were. I’ve since used them in cocktails and other desserts.

Amarena Fabbri Cherries typically come in a blue and white opaline jar that I purchased online (but they can also be found in specialty wine or food stores). The cherries were without a stem. Over time I found stemmed Amarena cherries for about $5 a jar at Trader Joes, and was advised they are stocked on a seasonal basis. Other options are Dark Morello Cherries (also purchased at Trader Joes), or Griottines from France. For this night – Italian Amarena was the appropriate choice.

The Amarena cherry (Italianamara) is a small bitter dark colored Italian cherry grown in Bologna and Modena, two cities of Italy. It is usually bottled in syrup and used as a decoration on rich chocolate desserts.
The Amarena is a variety of the Prunus cerasus developed by Gennaro Fabbri who was born in 1869 in Bologna, Italy. His wife, Rachele, took over an old general store in Portomaggiore, which was near to a wild black cherry orchard. She picked the cherries and then slowly cooked them and semi-candied them into copper pots. To thank his wife for the treat, he bought a ceramic jar from Riccardo Gatti, an artist from Faenza. The white and blue ceramic jar was then used to sell the syrup and started a small company.[1]
He started commercial production of cherry related products in 1905 under the Fabbri brand.[2] The Fabbri company is still family owned,[1] and produces a number of natural cherry pastries, syrups,[3] and beverages.

https://www.google.com/search?q=amarena+fabbri+cherries&source=univ&tbm=shop&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiZ3s24k9HiAhUGSK0KHTZBA4MQsxgILw&biw=1391&bih=609#spd=15092513403719375339
Scorecard created with a Word doc, backed with red gingham craft paper and a little clip art.
The wines of the evening and example of place cards.
The top two winners.
My guests were each received a bag of soft amaretti cookies as a favor.

The food was delicious and comforting, the wine rich and smooth and the company filled with good friends, lots of laughter and stimulating conversation. There’s no better way to make a cold winter’s night warmer.

New Year's Eve, SMALL TALK

As the New Year approaches -Resolve to be open to whatever comes into your life….tell the universe “Surprise me!”

What a ride this year has been!!! Here I am, (dressed for hiking -not a photo shoot) unexpectedly in the Swiss Alps – with the iPhone in hand that photographed the images of my more than 60 posts this year!

If you were to read the pages of my personal journal for 2019, you might think the entries you found there are a collection of fictional stories filled with faith, hope, love and optimism. My year was not fictional. My year was filled with surprising and remarkable moments shared with family and friends; new experiences and new beginnings I could never have imagined -served like colorful sprinkles throughout the year.

While my blog for the most part is about entertaining, my passions include decorating, cooking, reading, writing and traveling. What my followers may not know, is that my full-time day job is working as a mortgage loan underwriter. My role is stressful, requires a lot focus and concentration, knowledge of ever-changing guidelines, independent decision making and patience. While it is a rewarding field that enables many to realize the pride of home ownership, the majority of responsibility of what constitutes an approval, falls on the underwriter. Someone once said, an underwriter wears the combined hats of an accountant, an attorney and a psychologist all at once. So forty hours or more per week I’m required to work quickly, intensively focus and accurately.

The industry has had it’s ups and downs, and for most of my career I have been fortunate to simply coast through the rough spots without being part of cutbacks; but in November of 2018 I was part of a workforce reduction and found myself unemployed for the second time in a four year period. Yes, it hurt and yes I was a little worried about how long it would take to find another position, but financially prepared and with the help of current and previous work colleagues, my resume’ was being circulated and until the time was right I could only pray and trust that the Lord would take over the situation and use my resources to lead me to where He wanted me to be . During the wait rather than sulk, I tried to use the free time I was given to be productive in ways I usually lacked time for.

A passion is something you can do everyday for hours, forgetting to eat or noticing how much time has gone by. Writing and creating has always had that affect on me. As a young teenager I wanted to be a writer, spending hours alone in my bedroom writing poetry and short stories. As with most of us, life’s responsibilities forced me to abandon my passion for a “real job”. For years I’ve wanted to create, write and share what I’ve learned with others, and recently I realized that a blog would provide the perfect platform to do so. Both limited time and fear of how to create a blog were holding me back from this dream for a long time.

I have been hosting parties for several years, some in the distance past, while more recent efforts have helped me to gradually excel in my efforts with some surprising results. Creating a blog would provide an outlet to share my ideas and write my stories. In preparation, I had written articles to accompany my party pictures (that over time I’ve put more effort into) and saved them to eventually insert into posts of my “one day” blog.

My knowledge of technology is limited and I feared the unknown. I didn’t have a clue of how to begin such a venture. I reached out for help, but the time was never convenient. One morning I woke up and decided I had to face my fears and prove to myself I could accomplish this and doing it on my own would make it all the more rewarding.

With nothing but time to figure the process out and the internet as my teacher, I watched multiple YouTube videos of how to start a blog. The information was more about content than how to actually step by step design a blog site, but I finally found the courage to create a domain and my first blog webpage. A year later with over 60 published posts, it seems like an old routine that I’ve been practicing for decades and challenges me to continue to create content for my followers and joyful memories for those who share in the parties and events I plan.

While not perfect the first post was created.

I remember the feeling of pride and confidence when it finally materialized before my eyes. It took a couple of days – days I would not have had if I had not lost my job. I decided that the job loss was actually meant to give me time. Time to dedicate directly toward personal things in my life that I would usually not be able to, because of my limited time off from my job.

Grandchildren grow up too fast –
those younger years are so special.

Over the next five months my daughter, who lives in another State with her husband and my three grandchildren needed my help on two occasions while her husband had to go out of town for long periods of time for his job. I was free to visit just before Christmas for a week and be with both my daughter and youngest grandson for their birthdays. I then spent another the three weeks with them while her husband was away over the months I was unemployed. Having spent four weeks with them over a five month period in addition to they’re coming into town for a family wedding in March, I’ve enjoyed more time this year than I have in the past four years with my daughter’s family.

Over those months, other family members had brief health issues that I was able to step in and help them through, again time I would have fretted over due to limited paid time off while working. I also read several great books and I planned a lovely Seamstress themed Mother’s Tea and a fun Derby themed wine party for my friends.

While I was truly enjoying life (and a mini-retirement), the months were ticking away and finally in April I received a call to work as a contract employee for my previous employer. It wasn’t a full-time position, but a stepping stone that generated an income and a sign that business was improving. Two months later I was offered two full-time positions on the same day and started with my new employer in early July.

When I started my new job, I was so grateful to a past co-worker (the Lord using my resources from over 20 years ago) who recommended me for the position that’s benefits exceeded my expectations. It’s been a very hard acclimation, but only four months into the position, I’ve grown to feel like part of the current team.

As my contract resignation period came to an end, the week between positions contained a holiday – so I took that week off. I spent the week reorganizing and cleaning the house. During that process I found a blank poster board and had a stack of magazines to dispose of. As covered in my previous post “Creating a Vision Board”, I’ve kept a vision board for years and have done my best to imagine my life evolving into the pictures I had chosen. So much of those images have materialized at some point or another. I was drawn to look over the images on my current vision board – and focused in on the areas that have not yet manifested into my life.

My board is so filled with images, that I decided there were two areas that I very much wanted to manifest sooner rather than later, and that maybe I should create a new board focused solely on those two areas. One was to meet someone to share my life with and the other was to travel after having a decade long sabbatical from both.

It has always been my dream to go to Paris and search through culinary stores, flea markets and eat my way through all of the delicious cuisine while also soaking in the art, museums and culture. For various reasons, my last real vacation took place many years ago, but it was a beautiful tour of Rome, Florence and Venice. France and England were higher on my wish list, but I hoped to travel to many parts of Europe over time.

My updated -re-focused vision board 2019.

I briefly considered flying to Boston, the week I had off between jobs to see the Downton Abbey Exhibit, but it was the 4th of July week and I knew it would be pricey and crowded. But I did find an image of the Exhibit in one of my magazines that I glued to the board. As I flipped the pages of a travel magazine, I found individual black and white images of several European countries that I cut out and randomly glued to the board under the word “Travel”.

While making my benefits elections for my new job, I was advised to enter the date of Dec. 31, 2019 into the vacation calculator to determine what my accumulated time would be by the year’s end. I was then advised I needed to schedule the time off before the year ended. I discovered I had a little more than a week of time to use and a spontaneous idea was sparked!

A friend of mine was currently house sitting in England. She at some point was moving on to another sitting position at a house in Germany. I knew nothing about where or when, but I asked her if I could fly over and spend a week with her. Within days, I discovered another of our friends (from the wine club) was going to meet her and I scheduled a flight to arrive a day later than her arrival (based on the time I could get approved for time off.) The house was located in Southern Germany very near the borders of Switzerland and France. If you take a look at the images of countries I randomly glued to my new board, can you see any resemblance to what I just wrote -to the vision board above??? Seriously??? Front and center – Germany, Switzerland and France!

The lovely 300 hundred year old part time home we occupied during my visit in Germany.

I’m usually someone who plans months and weeks in advance, having a neatly prepared itinerary, and hours of research to create an informative understanding of where I’m going and what I’m going to do or see. With only an airline ticket and packed luggage in hand – spontaneity I’m not known for, a brave face and churning stomach, I boarded the plane for a 9 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany.

Traveling to a foreign country with a language I didn’t understand, alone was terrifying, but the unexpected kindnesses I experienced along the way got me through. A couple was seated across from me at the airport in Atlanta (our connection flight to Frankfurt). A polite smile was exchanged, but it didn’t take long to realize they were German. When the boarding process began, we both stood in the same area to wait our turn and I noticed they had a shopping bag from California. To open a little dialog I asked them where in California they were coming from. We chatted for a while with their limited English and then boarded the plane. I had told them I was very nervous and this was my first time flying to Germany. They told me most of the people spoke English and I shouldn’t be concerned. Later on the plane I noticed they were seated in the middle section of the plane just a couple of rows back from me.

At the end of the flight, I made my way through immigration and found my bags. From there I asked for help to get to the train the would bring me to my final destination. I had boarded the shuttle bus that I was directed to that would bring me to the train station and within seconds the German couple jumped on to the bus just before it was about to leave. My hand rose to my heart when I saw them. I was so happy to see them because I needed help with the whole train situation.

They stayed with me to assist with buying my round trip ticket. Afterwards there was an hour before the train would arrive, so we visited over coffee and tea at a Starbucks in the station and then they helped me to the gate where I needed to board the train which was further up than their gate. My gratitude for this lovely couple is beyond anything I can express, but they were not the only kind people I fell into the care of. At every point of concern of how I would manage to get further, someone would materialize from out of nowhere and help me carry my bags up steps, or direct me to the right area to find what I was looking for or had to go to. We even had other travelers from other countries give us Swiss Francs to put into a parking meter when we only had Euros. Each experience restored my belief that people of the world can be amazingly kind.

Even now it still feels like this last minute- spontaneous trip was all a dream. In fact the entire year has been a bit of a dream, all started with the loss of a job and followed by so many joyful gifts. When something shocking or unexpected happens in your life, it will be scary, it will be stressful, and you may not know how you’re going to work things out. Give your fears to God; lean in and be open; try to see it as an opportunity to discover something new in your life; rely on your resources; reach out to people who know the hard worker you are, reignite a talent you’ve been suppressing for years, and trust that your new beginning was meant to lift you higher and give you more.

In this New Year -resolve to be open to whatever is coming with love and gratitude. Tell the universe “I trust you! Surprise me!” It’s incredible what amazing blessings can enter into your life when you invite them in. Usually the year feels like it passes more quickly year after year, but this year my life was so full, I accomplished so much that makes my heart happy, that it felt like more time has passed than what actually did. It felt like it’s been two years rather than one. Maybe when you fill your life with everything you love and open up to new unexpected experiences – life is simply fuller.

My intention when I started my blog was to share ideas that would bring people together. Resolve in this new year to be kinder, to practice random acts of kindness and thoughtfulness; resolve to regularly gather with family and friends, resolve to try new things and share what you learn with others, to open yourself to what’s coming instead of fearing it! Cheers to new beginnings! Wishing all of my followers a very Happy and Fulfilling New Year!!!

Jesus Calling: December 21

My plan for your life is unfolding before you. Sometimes the road you are traveling seems blocked or it opens up so painfully slowly that you must hold yourself back. Then, when time is right, the way before you suddenly clears — through no effort of your own. What you have longed for and worked for I present to you freely, as pure gift. You feel awed by the ease with which I operate in the world, and you glimpse My Power and My Glory.
     Do not fear your weakness, for it is the stage on which My Power and Glory perform most brilliantly. As you persevere along the path I have prepared for you, depending on My strength to sustain you, expect to see miracles — and you will. Miracles are not always visible to the naked eye, but those who live by faith can see them clearly. Living by faith, rather than sight, enables you to see My Glory. 

Psalm 63:2
English Standard Version
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
    beholding your power and glory.


2 Corinthians 5:7
English Standard Version
for we walk by faith, not by sight.

John 11:40
English Standard Version
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?

CHRISTMAS

That’s a Wrap … Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas

Who says a gift card is boring? When I found this large 3 foot tall popcorn box filled with three kinds of popcorn I knew it would be the perfect prop for a movie gift card. Individual serving paper bags are attached and the gift card slipped inside, tied with a large bow and an old fashioned pop corn machine Christmas ornament. (As the stores continue to reduce the prices of Christmas ornaments and decorations consider picking up some that can be used to adorn your gifts this year and the next.)

An odd shaped gift still deserves to be pretty. Wrap your paper around its shape and extend the top about an inch higher above the packaging before folding over. Punch two side by side holes with a hole punch and thread the ribbon from the back and then fasten a looped bow in front. Add a pretty little dollar store ornament for a little fun and sparkle.

A cheerful little red feathered cardinal (2 per card at the dollar store) – “A Little Birdie told me you wanted this!”

Christmas can be a little melancholy for some. Here’s a way to cheer them up. An elegant gold box of chocolates tied with a cheerful red bow and pinned with a beautiful brooch. (Antique shops often have several designs in a glass case to choose from – or a new one may be available at a department store.) I wear my brooch on my sweater or coat and all day someone stops to tell me how pretty it is. What better way to lift someone’s spirits than to give them something that others will notice and compliment throughout their day?

Vanilla bean paste is quickly becoming a favorite of bakers. A gel like vanilla liquid filled with vanilla bean seeds amps up the flavor of baked goods without the high cost of vanilla beans.
Cardamon, Chinese Five Spice and Everything Bagel seasoning are some of my favorite spices.

For the person who loves to cook and or bake …. Spices are bought in large quantities and only a small amount (i.e. a teaspoon at a time) is used in each recipe. Years later the bottle can look like it has been hardly used. Replacing spices every year can be costly. Even someone who bakes and cooks as often as I do can discover a bottle that’s been in the pantry for far too long. As spices age they lose their freshness, fragrance and flavor. Baking ingredients like pure vanilla or almond extract or the ever growing popular jar of vanilla bean paste are pricey to restock. But there are spices in every price range for your budget. A fresh supply would be a great gift to cheffie. Cinnamon, paprika, white or black peppercorns, Sea or French gray salt are a few examples.

Another less costly idea is to purchase spices in packets. The spice in the jar can be emptied, retaining the bottle, washed and refilled with the fresh spice packet. Throw in a couple of unusual spices to experiment with like Zatar, Sumac, Cardamon, Chinese Five Spice or Ras El Hanout.

Not every cook has one of these – a garlic canister with little holes on the sides for air to flow through. I purchased this one a World Market Cost Plus. Some culinary stores have ceramic versions as well.

On to the love of travel. Is someone you know dreaming of a special bucket list vacation? Wrap a current guidebook and embellish the bow with a symbolic ornament might manifest that dream this year.

Place an order for a travel magazine subscription – wrap a current edition with the note inside and an interesting luggage tag as a gift card.

Dress up a plant for a friend or as a hostess gift. This orchid planter was purchased at Trader Joe’s. I also purchased a packet of green pine and evergreens and stuck them into and around the plants. I added a couple of pine cone shaped ornaments. While this version was fine, I wanted to do a little more. So I made a bow and tucked the small ornaments in its center.

Below: Giving a little piece of jewelry this year? While a velvet box is wonderful, consider presenting the item in a new unexpected way. This little bee pin is hiding along the branches. It may seem that only an orchid plant is the gift – until you zoom in. Earrings, bracelets or a delicate necklace could easily be hung from within an arrangement.

The reason for the season … a gift for yourself or someone you know who is going through a difficult time or simply wants to grow in faith… I’ve given so many copies of these books away that I’ve lost count. When someone is so broken that they can’t even find the strength to pray, Illuminata is filled with beautiful prayers for every kind of petition and Jesus Calling (that was a gift given to me several years ago) offers daily messages based on scripture that somehow seem to be exactly what you need to know to get through every day. The spine of mine is greatly worn from so many years of reading its pages.

When I’m at a loss for something to give that friend or family member, I will sometimes find something to give that involves spending time together. Below I purchased two of these knitting kits (one for me and one for my friend) with a card that explains my gift comes with time spent together. One year a friend and I decided to each buy a ticket to see the Beauty and the Beast musical as our gift. We went to dinner and the theater one evening together as our gifts to each other.

I bought one for you and one for me. I thought we could spend a few afternoons together knitting.

While these are only a short list of gift ideas, I hope they will inspire you to think about who you have to give a gift to and do what you can to make your gift meaningful. In our busyness, it’s easy to fall short no matter how hard we try. I struggle to find something for those I want to present with a gift, but have done so for so many years that my idea well is dry. In an ideal situation, we would start our list in January and each month look for something special for one person at a time. Unfortunately, we do well for some and not so well for others. I believe in attaching a gift receipt. We all work so hard for the money we earn, and I would rather someone return something that wasn’t the fabulous idea I thought it was and exchange it for something they would prefer. These ideas were meant to generate ideas for the last minute shopper or busy bee whose schedule is so packed with work, school and family or other roles, that they can’t spend hours in a mall.

May all your gifts come from the heart and your holiday be filled with blessed moments and memories. Blessings and happy wishes to all!

CHRISTMAS, HOLIDAY

Twelve Days of Christmas Cocktail Party

The house was ready for a party…tree branches from the neighbor’s trimmings on the chandelier.

Weekends during the month of December fly by so quickly packed with shopping and a variety holiday themed activities of every kind. While I love the festive beauty and nostalgic glow that Christmas decorations and music offer for entertaining, by the time December arrives I’m a little worn down from a year of hosting parties all year. I love holiday baking and cooking which both consume a lot of weekend time also. While the idea of hosting a Christmas party simmers in my mind each year, my energy level has fizzled to glowing embers and I just can’t get the fire started to put together another party.

My daughter, her husband and my grandchildren usually come home for Christmas week and my point of focus is on preparing for their arrival and reserving energy to dedicate to my grandchildren. As a full-time mortgage loan underwriter, my days are busy at work like most of you and weekends are precious time that must be wisely scheduled to accomplish everything that the holidays demand. One year however, my little family decided they would being staying home, so I decided to host a small cocktail party, but I needed it to be as stress free as possible.

Christmas parties can draw from many different themes, but short on time, I had to use what I had. As I dug through my boxes of Christmas treasures I found my Twelve Days of Christmas linen napkins I bought on clearance one year at Williams Sonoma. I pressed each on the ironing board and lined them across the table. They provided both a pop of Christmas colors and fun.

My neighbor had just purchased a fresh tree and trimmed some of the branches from it’s trunk. They were piled beside their trash can, so before they were picked up by the trash collectors I grabbed them and once again glanced around the house for a place to use them. The chandelier in the center of my living room caught my eye. I didn’t put up a Christmas tree this particular year since the kids weren’t coming home, so I needed to add a little spruce drama to the room. Using floral wire, I draped and tied the branches to the chandelier and then made a large bow that I attached to the bottom center.

Next for the refreshments. A cocktail party needs cocktails and a place to prepare and serve them. I surveyed my living area considering the best way to arrange the room for a cocktail party. I decided to have three stations around the room with drink options. A Moscow mule station with labeled bottles, ice, sparkling wine, garnishes and the recipe was created on top of my entertainment cabinet (above); a large punch bowl filled with eggnog set on top of a copper bowl filled with ice (a mixture of bottled eggnog from the liquor department combined with a jug of dairy department eggnog and a pint of rich vanilla ice cream swirled in) punch cups, a ladle and a couple of nutmeg pods with a small grater on the side to top off each cup were set up on my cocktail cart; and finally my mulled wine (a combination of red wine, brandy, grand mariner, ginger beer and mulling spices) simmered in a crock pot on the kitchen counter with a bowl of blood orange slices for garnish (below) for easy self serve access. Cocktail napkins were also provided at each location for a guest to hold around their glass.

Eggnog Station
Mulled Wine Station
Left to right: Mulled wine, Moscow Mule & Eggnog

I envisioned my guests walking around the room helping themselves to a drink and the food also placed in different areas around the room, allowing me to also enjoy the party and visit with my guests.

On the sofa table bacon wrapped pineapple and Chinese sweet chili sauce and
Fig balsamic goat cheese with cranberry pepper jelly in filo cups.

I cleared off every surface in the room and placed platters out to plan what I would serve and where I would place each item around the room. I chose items that could be made ahead and served at room temperature or in a warming vessel such as an electric fondue pot or crock pot.

On the breakfast table: White Velvet Soup and Bourbon Meatballs.
https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/white-velvet-soup-3157615?soc=itksocialsharedefault%7Cios%7Cp

On the breakfast table (above) a White Velvet Soup stayed warm with the help of a crock pot. A stack of small bowls and a tray arranged with the toppings and spoons were provided on the side; Bourbon meatballs to the right with small cocktail forks.

On the dining room table a spinach dip twisted bread tree , cheese plater and red velvet coconut buche noel.
https://www.tastynova.com/2018/10/christmas-tree-spinach-dip-breadsticks.html

On the dining room table, (above) a spinach dip twisted bread stick Christmas tree; (below) two trays with various cheeses, crackers, olives, pickled mushrooms, etc. and finally dessert – a red velvet roll cake with whipped cream cheese and coconut shavings to resemble a buche noel that I sliced later in the evening and served.

Red Velvet coconut buche noel.

With Christmas music in the background, this party required no formalities and allowed everyone to mingle and converse the night away while sipping and nibbling around the room. I hope these make ahead and self serve station ideas will inspire you if you’re considering hosting your own Christmas gathering this year and feel like you just don’t have the time. Store bought small bites and pastries would work just as easily with no cooking or baking required at all. Use what you have and just add a little sparkle to make a toast to the holidays!

CHRISTMAS, TRADITIONS & TEA

Our Christmas Cookie (Tradition)

Homemade cookies delivered to my neighbors last year.

As a young girl in a military family, we moved almost every year until I was in the 4th grade. We then lived for a few years each, in both northern and southern California before Dad finally retired from the service. Military families often live far away from family and miss out on the annual traditions or routines that usually form from being near them. We didn’t have Christmas Eve’s at Uncle so in so’s or alternated Christmas Day dinners at each of our grandparent’s houses. Christmas was usually just dinner for the four of us, Mom, Dad, my brother and I.

Having missed out on holiday traditions with other family members as a kid, it was important to me that my daughter have family traditions when she was growing up. I was inspired by my ex-husband’s large family, who routinely celebrated different holidays throughout the year their own unique way with a large family picnic for Easter and a Christmas Eve gathering every year that I made sure she attended.

In preparation for Christmas, three families that resided in homes all on the same street gathered in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day to pick a family member’s name from a bowl. On Christmas Eve there was a party at one of the three homes along with traditional food and a gift exchange. My food memory from those parties so many years later were Grammy’s shrimp balls, at the time made by a beloved Aunt nestled in a chrome insulated container that I couldn’t wait to see arrive and placed on the table.

Another tradition that took place for several years involved a group of family members that got together in early November and drove across Lake Pontchartrain to a Christmas tree farm. Each family would select their tree, pay for it and tag it. The Friday after Thanksgiving, everyone would make the journey back to the farm to cut the tree down, wrap it up and bring it home. The following Saturday night I would host a tree trimming party for friends and family. When I think back to the small townhouse living room I had back then and the number of people that would cram inside, I’m not sure how we did it, but everyone eagerly attended year after year.

These were the days long before computers, so with a few library books and a typewriter, I typed all of the lyrics to 36 Christmas carols. I cut out and taped some images and drew others to some of the pages. I then organized the pages so that after I made photocopies and folded them in half, they would form a little song book. The children would sit in front of their decorated tree and sing a few Christmas carols.

While I didn’t ask my guests to bring an ornament, I received some beautiful versions that have become treasured classics -handled with special care as they are hung on my tree all of these years later. Year after year, as I unpack them from their layers of bubble wrap or tissue, the memories of those parties come rushing back.

Both my daughter and granddaughter received a nutcracker ornament the first time I took them to see the Nutcracker Ballet. The boys, not as interested in the ballet, received their nutcrackers in their early years of tree decorating.

Whenever a party includes children it’s imperative to have an activity to keep them entertained, especially in a small home. Upstairs I had an open loft that didn’t have any specific purpose, but offered enough space to place two folding tables with chairs. For the first party I baked cookies formed into various Christmas themed shapes such as candy canes, bells, and trees. I then purchased a variety of sprinkles and colored sugars and cans of white frosting that I used food color to make green, red and yellow. The kids sat at the tables with their plastic knives and dipped into the cans of frosting to slather on their cookies and then sprinkle with various candy decorations having a ball! I would convince them to allow the cookies to dry, and then ask them to come downstairs to decorate the tree and sing Christmas carols. We then wrapped their cookies in cellophane bags for their journey home.

In the years that followed, I found a large Teddy Bear cookie cutter. I thought that something with a larger surface, maybe rolled out a little thicker, would be easier for the kids to handle. I could not have imagined not only how much they would love it at the time (as they left with bears loaded down with chocolate or vanilla icing and about a pound of various candies), but years later one of the mothers told me her daughter still remembers decorating those cookies and she’s now in her late 30’s.

While I haven’t hosted a tree trimming party for years, I do bake a variety of cookies to box and deliver to my neighbors.

Now I have grandchildren, but they live one State over and with jobs and school schedules I don’t see them as much as I would like. While they often come home for Christmas, it’s usually after the tree has been decorated, so starting with my first grandchild, I have baked those same Teddy Bear cookies and mailed them with tubes of icing and various sprinkles so she could decorate her cookies when she decorated the tree with my daughter and her husband. Now with three grandchildren, every year I’ve sent the cookies and the kids have followed the tradition of a night of cookie decorating. Last year I asked my granddaughter who was at the time just days from her 11th birthday, if I should keep making the Teddy Bear cookies and she immediately said “Yes! Nana, it’s a tradition!”

For the past two years, their little family has stopped by on the Saturday after Thanksgiving on their way home from visiting their grandparents in Alabama to decorate my tree. This year while Mom and Dad enjoyed a college football game, we played Christmas music and shared an evening of decorating my Christmas tree and then gathered around the table to decorate two new cookie shapes – a large Christmas Tree and the popular red truck with a Christmas Tree (that the boys decided to make blue.) Of course by the time we had finished the Christmas tree cookie, my littlest demanded it was time to eat his snowflake cookie. (I mean a little boy can only hold out for so long!)

Packed in those same cellophane bags, ready for the journey home, somehow all of these years later, I’ve managed to re-create a similar tradition with my grandchildren. Whether in their own home or here with me, I hope that like those other small children who once attended my tree trimming parties years ago, they will remember these moments as our “Christmas cookie tradition.”