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!

Summer Harvest & Preservation Chronicles: Tomatoes

Remember those tasty Pompeii tomatoes that I’ve featured in a couple of recipes? Well, now they are starting to ripen in bulk, so instead of just a pizza to use a tomato or two, it is time to start stocking up for the winter! Here are some of these nice sauce tomatoes, just picked from the garden:

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Not only do they look great, but they also smell delicious already!

These tomatoes are going to be used to make some sauce that will be frozen in small containers. It’s great on its own for pasta or in dishes like chicken parmesan. It speeds up recipes a lot, like canned sauce from the grocery store would, but it’s really a big step up!

First you need to prepare the tomatoes for cooking. Start out by peeling them; you have several options for this. If you have lots of tomatoes, you might want to use hot+cold water to loosen the skins (more on that in a later post). There weren’t a whole lot of tomatoes this time, so the tomato peeler came in handy. What a useful tool! You can also use a knife, which you will need to cut the tomatoes up. Cut them in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and then cut them up into smaller pieces that are roughly the same size. Then just throw them in a pan with a little butter, a beef bouillon cube and basil, rosemary, and sage. If you have fresh herbs, definitely use them!

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Now just leave them to cook, stirring occasionally. It’s pretty hard to mess this part up. A lot of juice will cook out of the tomatoes, so that you will have the pieces in a very thin sauce, then it will cook down further, so that the sauce is thicker and the tomato pieces are very soft and starting to break down.

To make the sauce extra healthy, add some heavy cream. You can add as much or as little as you want. It will end up being a creamy pink color, like this (unless you don’t want as much cream, but why wouldn’t you?).

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This sauce is a staple of my diet. It’s quick and easy when the garden is producing, and easy to freeze to heat up later or make from canned tomatoes. It’s good on its own over pasta or used in recipes that call for tomato sauce. I even dipped some out of the pan to eat as tomato soup with a pimento cheese sandwich!

Go get some tomatoes and try it out. With a sauce that’s this fast, easy, and delicious, you may never buy another can again!

Quick, Easy, Delicious, Healthy

It’s always a dilemma when you realize it’s gotten pretty late and you haven’t started any supper yet. Do you slave away in the kitchen and not eat until ten o’clock? Or do you break down and order a pizza and tell yourself that it must not be that bad, because cheese has calcium, and tomatoes are good for you, right?!?

Now that struggle is over. I have fallen in love with Ree Drummond’s Chicken Florentine Pasta. The Pioneer Woman really masters quick and easy with this dish, and it just tastes healthy in the best way possible!

ImageEven though the picture is a little blurry (oops!), you can still see the lovely colors- the bright green spinach and bright red tomatoes taste really fresh and remind me of the old rules about eating colorful foods.

I confess that I tweaked the recipe a bit this time by adding a little bit of red pepper flakes. I love spicy food, and that little bit of heat really rounds the dish out for me. If you don’t like hot food, don’t worry, the recipe is delicious as it is! I love that this pasta is so good for tweaking; one time in the past I didn’t have any chicken, so I put in mushrooms instead. It is a nice light meal either way, but especially with the mushrooms substituted. Meatless, it is almost like a hot pasta salad; you could even use it as a side dish!

This pasta is also good left over. There is some in my refrigerator right now – I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

Pizza Night!

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When pizza is homemade, it isn’t even unhealthy!

Think about how thirsty you get when you have a delicious greasy take-out pizza- that’s from the mountains of salt they use. Not a problem with this pizza! The high-quality ingredients have plenty of flavor and therefore don’t need all that extra salt.

The great thing about homemade pizza is that you can throw anything you’ve got on it, and it will probably be delicious. This is my favorite.

Make up a pizza crust (or two, or more) and bake it for a few minutes, then bring it back out to put on the toppings. This helps to keep the crust from getting soggy. You will still have a delicious pizza without this step, but it will be messy!

I bake my crust on a pizza stone in the oven. The traditional way of getting the crust off of the paddle and into the oven and back is to put corn meal on the paddle before you put the crust down. Maybe there is a secret that I have not discovered, but I find this to be difficult and messy. I put a piece of parchment paper under the crust, and pull paper, crust and all onto the pizza stone and then back onto the paddle. You can just bake the pizza on top of the parchment paper. This is very easy, no mess, and helps keep the crust from getting stretched when you put it in. It will also keep any runover from the pizza sauce out of your oven. I’m always looking for a way to make less of a mess.

If you have fresh tomatoes to use in the sauce, that is ideal, but this time of year I can’t imagine who would have them, so get canned ones. Our home canned tomatoes are running low, so we bought some. You can get canned Pompeii tomatoes, which are better for sauces than regular ones.

For my toppings, I put caramelized onions, which make anything better, basil, roasted red peppers, and mushrooms. Then on top add your sliced fresh mozzarella and bake it! When you bring it out grate on some parmigiano reggiano. It is expensive, but so worth it!

Chances are, you will have more pizza sauce and mozzarella than you will need if you are only making one pizza. Put the sauce in a plastic container and put it with the mozzarella in a freezer bag. You can store it in the refrigerator or even in the freezer, and pull them out another time, giving you a good head start on a meal. If you are planning on having your next pizza in the next day or two, you can even make up enough dough for two crusts and put one in the refrigerator. You will just have to assemble your pizza when you get ready to eat.

Always look for the little shortcuts that make life easier. A little preparation ahead of time saves a lot later!