Candlemas

Candlemas falls in that cluster of holidays at the beginning of February, considered archaic by some but delightful by others. The most famous one of these in the US is, of course, Groundhog Day, when we look to cute, chubby, prophetic rodents to find out how much longer our winter will last. Groundhog Day originates from a similar German holiday, when badgers were consulted about this issue. When German immigrants came to the United States, badgers were scarce, but the native groundhog, it was discovered, was equally capable. This tradition coincided with  the British holiday of Candlemas, which also had weather prognostication associated with it. An old rhyme reads:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Candlemas comines elements of the Roman and Celtic festivals of Lupercalia and Imbolc, which celebrate the winter’s turn toward spring and the coming fertility of the earth, with the Christian festivals of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin. There are elements of purification involved in all of these festivals, which is symbolized by fire, be it in the form of bonfires, torches, or, of course, candles.

I love traditional old celebrations like Candlemas, and I see no reason not to celebrate them! Just because you don’t have an elaborate gathering planned with a long guest list and a carefully constructed menu doesn’t mean it’s not worth making your own party, even if you are all by yourself, or just have a couple of other people present.

The obvious necessity for Candlemas is candles. I think you should always have some candles around, because they make any occasion more festive. You can always keep them in a drawer when you’re not using them if you want to keep them out of the way. Antique stores are a great place to find candleholders. You can usually find some nice, inexpensive options in brass, silver, or silver plate. If you’re into collecting you can learn how to tell silver from silver plate or about different styles and design periods, or if you’re approaching it more casually, just pick some that you find beautiful. I like getting pairs for balance, but if you find single candlesticks that you love, don’t worry about it; you can always group them in clusters instead. Think about getting varying heights to add some depth to the arrangement. They don’t have to match!

I didn’t stress myself out over the food, either. I cooked some pre-made spinach and ricotta ravioli from Earth Fare and heated up some tomato sauce (you can make your own and store it in jars in the refrigerator, or buy it) and poured over it, then topped it with a little freshly grated parmesan. It was delicious, and took very little effort!

There you have it: an instant celebration, that involved little more than cooking some pasta and pulling some candles out of the drawer. Even with the minimal effort, I think the effect was marvelous. This serves as a reminder to me, and hopefully to you as well, that we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of life’s little pleasures just because we don’t have time to make them into something grand.

Happy Candlemas, and may the coming spring bring many wonderful things your way!

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A Lucky Find

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I love farmers’ markets. There’s just something about heading out early on a Saturday (ok, midmorning on a Saturday) to walk around and look at all of the produce and products available in the different stalls. I think the trip is really half the fun!

There are many reasons to support your local farmers’ market. For one thing, just think of the convenience – it’s nearby, and you have experts on hand to help you with any questions you might have. After all, who could possibly tell you more about available produce than the very people who grow it? The stalls are run by individual farmers or farming families, and they are all happy to help you select items, tell you how to prepare fruits and veggies that you may be unfamiliar with, or suggest food pairings.

Take this rope of hot peppers, for instance. It caught my eye at the farmers market with the gorgeous red color and shiny skins of the dried peppers. Just looking at it lying on a table, I didn’t really know what to do with it, but fortunately there was a farmer on hand to help me out! She showed me that there is loop at one end so that you can hang the peppers up in your kitchen, then you just pull the peppers off from the bottom as you need them. Not only do the peppers look beautiful hanging in a garland in your kitchen, but she said they also bring good luck to the kitchen where they hang.

So far, these peppers have been great in tomato sauce for pasta and pizza and for flavoring beans. I can’t wait to see what other uses I can come up with for them!

Pretty, delicious, and lucky? This peppers were a deal that I couldn’t refuse!

Soup Art

Coffee art has become ubiquitous in the foamy tops of cappuccinos, lattes, and other milky coffee treats in cafes everywhere, but did you know soup art was a thing, too? With efforts to plate food that is a treat for the eyes as well as the palate, it’s not exactly a shocker, but it is still a pleasant surprise when you get some food that is beautiful to look at as well as tasty to eat.

I was at Terranova’s in Huntsville, Alabama recently, when I came across some pretty soup of this kind. Now, usually I don’t bother with any sort of appetizer, soup, or salad at Terranova’s, considering their pasta bowls are big enough to take a bath in and filled to the top (a good place to get two meals out of one, for those ladies and gents who are like me and always looking for an opportunity for leftovers). However, sometimes there are specials that are just too scrummy to pass up, one of which is their seasonal butternut squash soup. Obviously, when I saw it posted on the special board walking in, I had to indulge.

Now, I make my own butternut squash soup at home, and I have to say that it is pretty delicious. I also must admit that about as far as I get with a garnish for it is a little pile of grated parmesan in the middle of the bowl. The saltiness of the cheese is a good contrast with the rich sweetness of the soup, and I most always find good quality cheese appetizing.

Terranova topped their soup with a balsamic glaze, however, which complements the rich, sweet taste of the soup, and the dark color looks gorgeous against the buttery yellow of the squash soup. A glaze like this is simple to make: just reduce some balsamic vinegar on the stove until it thickens; this will also intensify the flavor of the vinegar. Less known fact? It is also good for drawing patterns in the hands of a cook with some artistic talent – it looks like I have a new skill to start practicing!

Easy Lunch: Sweet Potato & Salad

What to do when you don’t want a sandwich for lunch, but you don’t want to put in any more effort than that? You need something hot and that doesn’t require a lot of time actively preparing. What could be easier to make than a baked potato? 

For a little more flavor and even more nutritious goodness, I like to have a baked sweet potato. Stick it with a fork, wrap it in aluminum foil, and put it in the oven until it’s squishy. Don’t worry- you would have to leave it in the oven an awfully long time before it would burn! It takes a while – mine was in the oven for an hour and a half – but you can go about your business and it’ll cook itself.

I like to top mine with butter, cinnamon and ground ginger. A lot of people like to use butter and brown sugar, but given the option I generally go the savory route.

There are lots of things that pair wonderfully with sweet potatoes, especially of the green variety. Green beans, macaroni and cheese, and a sweet potato forms the ultimate triumverate in my book, but since we’re keeping things easy today, how about a nice salad?

Confession time: I’ve never been a huge fan of the raw-vegetables-and-ranch style salad. Vegetables are for cooking and ranch is for party platters. Give me a good old vinegarette any day! I also love to use fruits on salads instead of the vegetables. 

The good news is that you can’t really go wrong here. Just look into your fridge and see what’s there! I had apples and avocados, so that’s what I’m having. Bonus points for the avocado: it’s replacing the cheese that would have been here in its place otherwise.

Salads with fruit are even better with nuts, so I’m adding some walnuts as well. 

And there you have it! Easy, delicious, and healthy. In addition to that, if you left off the butter, this could easily be both vegan and gluten free, which I can’t often say about my food, due to my love affair with bread and cheese.

Apple Cheese Sandwich

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Let’s face it – for most of us, sandwiches are a part of life. However much we may dream about sitting down every day to a delicious, beautiful, and decadent yet healthy meal prepared by our own personal chef, chances are it’s not in the cards.

Now that I’ve gotten the bad news out of the way, let’s move on to the good news. Sandwiches don’t have to be boring! It’s time to break out of that deli-turkey-and-swiss rut and embrace the joys of creative sandwiching. As a child, the definitive sandwich was probably peanut butter and jelly on Bunny Bread; maybe you got crafty like Mr. Rogers taught you and made faces out of banana slices and raisins on peanut butter. Maybe that doesn’t sound so great now, but the key is to channel that same sandwich excitement that you had then and bring it to the lunch table now.

For this sandwich, I started off with the old staple (for me, at least) of a cheese sandwich. This has sort of become my new PB&J recently: fast, easy, and tasty with some good potato chips. I decided it could use a little something different, though. My solution not only lightens it up a little, but updates the humble cheese sandwich for fall.

I started off my new sandwich adventure with some great, flavorful bread. The cranberry walnut wheat bread that I used gave a nice blend of sweet and tart and some good nutty depth. I got my bread at Earth Fare, but whatever bakery or grocery store with a bakery that is near you should have options that will work. I switched out the usual mayonnaise and mustard for some honey mustard sauce, which is nothing but a mixture of mayonnaise, mustard, and honey.

The extra sharp cheddar that is the basis of the sandwich stays the same, but I added slices of apple to it. It gives it a satisfying crunch, refreshing juiciness, and a nice blend of sweet and tart. I used honeycrisp apples for mine, but you can substitute any you would like. I suggest a variety that has plenty of flavor somewhere between sweet and tart, but if you are a devotee of the golden delicious or granny smith apple, go ahead and give it a shot!

So there you have it: an absolutely delicious sandwich that is no trouble at all to make, but will liven up your lunch in no time! If you want a little more to eat, pair this sandwich with some butternut squash soup for a rich autumn feast.

Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

Back in the day, my grandmother was the grand hostess of Thanksgiving. She cooked a huge meal attended by all seven of her children, her many grandchildren, and later even great-grandchildren. Though her daughters helped, the majority of the work was done by Granny. When I got a bit older, I started frying the ham out on the enclosed porch; it was really a tiny drop in the ocean of everything there was to be done, but it made me feel like an important part of the event to help out even in that small way.

The group that gathered for Thanksgiving was large enough that it filled three tables. The dining room had the most formal place settings, and was the unofficial men’s room, filled in with the oldest daughters and wives. The second table was in the kitchen, where the daughters and oldest granddaughters sat. The children’s table was a card table out on the enclosed porch off of the kitchen. Out there we sat in some old ladder back chairs, which had an unfortunate tendency to flip over backward if you tried to sit back in the chair and lean against the backrest.

My first associations with Thanksgiving will probably always include those tippy ladder back chairs (which still show up occasionally if we have a big Thanksgiving crowd) and sitting at that old oak table, backed up against the house plants on the window sill. We are making a new set of Thanksgiving memories, however, with Thanksgiving dinner in a new location. My mother, the only family member who has thus far managed to replicate Granny’s rolls, is the obvious heir to the throne of Thanksgiving hostess, and we do our best to make it continue to be a special time for our family every year.

We’re a smaller group than we used to be, and we sit at different tables and eat off of different plates, but at the heart of it, we enjoy the same things about Thanksgiving that we always did: the reunion with family members that we don’t see as often as we’d like, the traditional foods that make Thanksgiving dinner so happy and comforting (turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potatoes – and of course rolls and pecan pie!), and even some little family heirlooms that remind us of all of those wonderful Thanksgivings at Granny’s house.

As much as I’d like to travel back in time for another Thanksgiving at Granny’s, I know that we can’t turn back time, and we have to make the best of what we have. I am thankful for the Thanksgivings I was able to share with my family in that dear old house, and that I am able to share them with my family now in my own home.

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Microwave Stuffed Potato

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When you need something quick to eat, but don’t want a sandwich, leftovers, or takeout, a baked potato can be the perfect solution. You can cook one quickly in the microwave, then add whatever toppings you like to change it up.

Just wash your potato, preferably with a plastic scrubber to make sure you get the dirt off, then poke it with a fork. This keeps the potato from exploding in the microwave. (It is also a good way to take out your pent-up aggression or stress from the day). Wrap it in a paper towel and put it in the microwave. The cook time will vary based on you microwave and the size of the potato. I usually start at about three minutes and add from there if I need to. You can test it by giving it a squeeze to see if it is squishy yet. When it is, wrap it in a piece of aluminum foil. This will keep it hot and keep cooking it until you are ready to eat it.

Next comes the fun part: toppings! My go-tos are butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese, sea salt, pepper, and bacon. This time, I used lower cholesterol butter (butter mixed with canola spread) and Greek yogurt instead of the regular butter and sour cream. I also switched out barbecue for the bacon. We had some left over in the freezer from a butt roast we got from a fundraiser. As long as it’s for charity, right? Besides, it is Tennessee, and we are known for our barbecue, after all. It’s the right thing to do!

I put a little Frank’s RedHot Kickin’ BBQ Sauce on the meat. If you haven’t tried it before, Frank’s Hot Sauce is delicious, and they make varieties for buffalo wings and barbecue that I really like.

If you’d rather enjoy bacon on your stuffed potato, the easiest way to cook it is in the oven with a piece of aluminum foil between it and the sheet, dish, or pan you’re using. That way, your clean up is as simple as dropping the aluminum foil in the trash – no need to battle with bacon grease!

I’ll go ahead and throw this out there: stuffed potatoes are not healthy by nature. However, there are things you can do to make it healthier (or perhaps less unhealthy). For example, I substituted Greek yogurt for the sour cream that is so common. It gives a nice tanginess and moistens the potato, as does the sour cream it replaces. The good news is that the Greek yogurt is healthy, so you can use as much as you want, and not feel bad about the butter and cheese. You can of course leave the meat off, which takes out a lot of the unhealthy parts – it also makes it vegetarian. I actually do that a lot when I make a baked potato. Not only is it better for you, it’s often less trouble! I usually cut way back on the toppings if I’m just having a potato as a side, but when it’s a la carte, it’s delicious to go all out!