Home for the Holidays

Christmas just never feels like Christmas until I go home. The entire house is decorated and being surrounded by family is what Christmas is truly about. In my childhood, the tree came out the day after Thanksgiving and was filled with decorations that spanned as many years as I have been alive, and even before. My mother has always collected ornaments from her travels; something I have carried on in my own life and that has enriched my own small collection of Christmas tree trinkets. I remember cradling the tiny, brightly-colored silken animals from her trips to Mexico and the minature China dolls with their exquisitely painted faces hanging from the branches of the tree. Handmade ornaments from my stepbrother and I, only 6 months apart in age, chronicle our years in the same classes together. The doughy hand prints - my hands so small that my adult palm now covers the stretched out fingers of the print, scribblings of "i love you" on construction paper shaped like tops and circles complete with glitter and sequins, painted wooden cutouts, and strings of colored lights adorn the tree that stands like a sentinal over the carefully chosen gifts underneath the tree.

When I think of Christmas at home, there is always warmth and comfort in my heart. The time spent there is steeped heavily in tradition, from the day I come home on my stepdad's birthday (the 22nd), to the dinner we eat on Christmas eve (homemade chicken noodle and crab soup, served up at Grandpa's house) and Christmas Day (prime rib with creamy horseradish sauce), and the order we tromp down the stairs in our nightgowns (youngest to oldest) and bed-head hair-dos to start out Christmas morning, everything is choreographed from at least twenty-nine years of repetition.

There are also things that "have" to be done every year while I'm home - from the drive through Crestview to view the amazing Christmas lights (this little subdivision actually has a stipulation in their neighborhood contract that if you live in the neighborhood, you must decorate your house with Christmas lights!); the requisite wine tasting troup with the whole family loaded into the "hot tamale" suburban (the last suburban, passed on now to my stepbrother, was called the "green booger" believe it or not, and both get a Christmas wreath strapped to the front grill this time of year); and even the white elephant gift exchange with my cousins (where you actually got the chance to get ahold of your very own jar of great aunt Shirley's leftover 1950s talcum powder - boy did that get passed around as many times as were allowed before it settled on its new owner!)...all of them filled with with laughter (the kind that comes all the way up from your belly) and raucous good cheer.

Backyard Christmas moonrise, at home.

I have my own traditions now too - I like to spend at least one weekend in December baking, and this year was no exception. LB and I also like to get a second-hand puzzle and put it together while listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Alabama (another long-standing family tradition - all of my brothers and sisters know every word to the 1982 Alabama Christmas CD and are not the least bit embarrassed to belt it out at the top of our lungs ever Christmas) crone on in the background about white Christmases, candles in the window and halls decked out with boughs of greenery. This year, we didn't have much time for decorating, but we have watched a few Christmas movies, drank some spiked eggnog together, and sang "Thistlehair the Christmas Bear" on the long journey home.

Their have been adjustments in these traditions of course. We now tromp down the stairs and immediately grab big mugs of strong coffee to get us through Christmas morning (though, as always, no one is allowed to take a shower beforehand and we still have votes on whose bedhead beats out everyone else's). Dinners now go through several bottles of wine and all of us bring dishes along to share. Many of the ornaments that used to hang on the branches of the tree now stay in boxes because there are far too many for the space available on the tree. As new members have joined the family, they too have become part of our traditions, taking their place at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning and contributing new ideas to enrich the holiday spirit (my soon-to-be sister-in-law is extremely crafty and this year we all recieved Christmas CDs and all-natural bloody mary mix to imbibe on Christmas morning!).

While new traditions are both exciting and refreshing, the old ones are the ones that put my heart at ease and let me know that I am truly home, and to me, these traditions, shared with the people I love, are the true meaning of Christmas. While they will continue to change in the years to come as brothers and sisters, and even myself, will have in-laws to visit, houses will change, and distance may prevent some of us from making our way home, I will always hold on to the memories - and many of them will be carried on in my own house and to my children when I am no longer able to come home. And there will always be a candle in the window at my house, and at all of my siblings houses, just as my parents have always lit in our bedroom windows since we were children - beckoning us home for the holidays.

My wish for you this Christmas is to be able to enjoy your own traditions - or to make new ones that you'll carry on with you in the years to come. Enjoy your families and enjoy your friends -both new and old, traditional or otherwise. And remember what the holidays really mean to you - whether based in religion, in tradition, or something else entirely. Regardless of if Christmas is a holiday you celebrate or not, know that you have people in the world who care about you, no matter where you are and whatever your beliefs, and that are thinking of you, and loving you, this time of year. And have a wonderful, wonderful holiday season - for a new year, full of new adventure and the promise of possiblity, is just around the corner.


These are some of the cookies that I baked this year for friends and family - one of the recipes that I liked the best (and LB raved about), and that I wanted to share with you. They are spicy and rich, bringing you home with the comfortable flavor of buttery shortbread, and tantalizing your tastebuds with the unexpected flavors of cardamom and cloves...not so unlike the homey traditions of the holidays that grow and change as the years go by. These are perfect for a day of holiday baking - mixing up the dough is simple and you can let them rest in the fridge while you make your other batches of goodies. The hardest part is rolling them into the "logs" and getting the proper shape - something I have most certainly not mastered (the prettiest ones actually went into a tin for friends and were given away before I remembered to take a picture for this post!).

Chai Shortbread Cookies, makes 2 doz.
adapted from Cooking Light

1 1/2
cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp of ground cloves
Dash of freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup powdered sugar
10 tbsp butter, softened
tbsp ice water (+ 1 tsp in my hands)

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 5 ingredients (through pepper), stirring well with a whisk. Place sugar and butter in a medium bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating at low speed just until combined (mixture will appear crumbly). Sprinkle dough with 1 tablespoon ice water; toss with a fork. Divide dough in half. Shape dough into 2 (~6-inch-long) logs; I rolled them out on wax paper and then used it to help me shape them. Wrap each log in plastic wrap. Chill 1 hour or until very firm.

Preheat oven to 375°. Unwrap dough logs. Carefully cut each log into 18 slices using a serrated knife (you can coat it with a little oil if you want to). Place dough circles 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 375° for 10 minutes. Cool on pans 5 minutes. Remove cookies from pans; cool completely on wire racks.


Evolution of a househusband

Some women are lucky enough to have their very own househusband. The rest of us can only dream of coming home to a clean house, the kids taken care of, dinner being cooked...ahhh....of course, the notion of having a househusband is, I’m sure, not the same as the reality, but perhaps you can still get the picture?

Working seven days a week this fall at the winery meant that I had very little time in between my two jobs to catch up on things, eat, cook or do housework. Consequently, as you might imagine, the household duties needed a bit of a makeover. LB, the only one home after our lab jobs ended for the day at 5 PM, realized that he suddenly had to take over my duties in addition to his own. Thus, all at once he became title-holder of that most wondrous and underappreciated occupation: the house-spouse, or in this case, my househusband. I’ve documented his evolution from *mere* husband to super househusband here, dear readers, for your enjoyment and contemplation...

As I have always been the one to cook dinner and shop for groceries, my absence from home on both evenings and weekends meant that it was now necessary for him to do most, if not all, of the cooking. Not only that, but we actually had to plan out our meals for the week ahead of time because there was only a 15 minute period of time where I was home in the evenings, in order to change clothes before going from one job to the next. So, not only was he doing the cooking, but he had to cook the food the night before we were going to eat it...

At first, he complained.

He hates grocery shopping (can you even imagine?!), and in the beginning, I would spend the Saturday mornings I did have planning out menus for the week while he would whip up pancakes or some other weekend breakfast, and I would do the grocery shopping before I headed off to work. I didn’t mind this so much as I love grocery shopping – which is why it was always my duty to begin with. But, as Crush progressed, I didn’t always have time to make it to the grocery store before work, and that became his job too. LB has always liked to cook, but he complained that he didn’t know what to cook (especially if I required it was...gasp...healthy!), and was daunted by the prospect of planning out so many meals, so he would ask me to leave him recipes.

At first.

And so, suddenly having the responsibility of making dinner, night after night, day after day, even when he was tired and had his own work stuff to do, poor LB was utterly exhausted. So much so that I would find him asleep on the couch when I got home. So much so that he failed to notice the state of the house in between. While he has always been the vacuum cleaner guy (two enormously hairy, hundred pound mutts requires frequent vacuuming), many of the rest of the house cleaning duties were ones I took care of most of the time. Like sweeping up the dog bunnies (like dust bunnies, but made of dog hair – ew, gross), cleaning the bathroom, wiping off the kitchen counters and keeping the stove clean of all the burned-on goo under the burners, doing the laundry...etc. etc. etc. Most of it had sat for weeks waiting for me to do it. But of course, I was too busy. So it piled up.

And up.

And up.

Then, one day as he puttered around the house on the weekend, he noticed all the dog hair in the corners of the rooms, that there were coffee grinds all over the counter near the coffee maker, and that he had been missing many of his favorite pairs of boxers... and somehow it all sunk in... he realized that he not only had cooking responsibilities, but household cleaning responsibilities too.

One day, not long after that, I came home from work and the laundry had been done (well, the stuff in the hamper anyhow, but I’m not complaining). The kitchen was cleaned up (aside from that one thing always left on the counter or the stove, and well, the burner goo will just have to live there under the burners until it grows legs and walks away, but again, I'm not complaining) and there was even a meal made for the next night already in the refrigerator.

I just about died of shock right there. In fact, maybe I did and this is Heaven? LB transformed into a househusband in what seemed like an overnight dream come true, and he is still going strong – making me delicious meals while I am away at night, cleaning up after himself and even keeping the house looking reasonably clean. I’m so proud. And you know what, he even stopped requesting recipes and has started branching out to make up his own. Wow...my only concern now is that he may not let me back into the kitchen when all this is over...

This is a “guest recipe,” created by LB and written down, by him, for you.

Farro and Vegetable Salad, serves 4
as devised by Househusband LB

1.5 cups farro
1 zucchini, halved and sliced
1/2 to ¾ onion, sliced
¼ cup pine nuts
1 red pepper, sliced
½ ball of fresh mozzarella
oregano to taste
basil to taste
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil (see recipe)

1. Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan, then add farro. Simmer until the farro is tender, but still chewy.

2. Meanwhile, toast pine nuts in a dry skillet on the stove.

3. Sauté onion over medium heat in a skillet in 1 tbsp. olive oil. Be sure to use a little extra olive oil because we are going to add more vegetables to the mix and we are going to dump all of this in with the farro later on.

4. Depending on how soft you like your zucchini and peppers, add them to the onion sauté so that all of your vegetables will be at your desired texture at the same time (in our house, Michelle thinks the onions have to be well cooked, so we usually start with them). Here, I added the peppers next and tried to cook them down to so that they just become soft, but are not yet mushy. Then, I added the zucchini so as to cook it through, but that it still had a bit of crispness and firmness left (I think this helps give the dish a bit more texture).

5. Add seasonings to the veggies. I used oregano and basil because I wanted this dish to have a bit of an Italian feel. I guess my Italian grandmother used to use a lot of basil and oregano, because my dad put it in everything, and I’ve followed suite. So, whether it is true Italian or not, it is to me.

6. Oops, you didn’t burn the pine nuts did you?

7. Drain the farro well so that there is not residual water.

8. Add the drained farro and toasted pine nuts to the veggies and toss. If there is not enough olive oil, you may want to add a splash more. The idea is to provide a nice coating to the salad without having it drenched in oil.

9. Mix in the mozzarella chunks briefly and remove from heat. The residual heat will melt them slightly but leave the nice big chunks of cheese so that there are some special surprise bites!


HotM 10: Quick and Easy

Hello blog friends! Sorry I haven't been around lately - I caught a nasty, nasty cold virus the day after Thanksgiving and then in the middle of trying to get over it, jetted off to the East Coast to visit LB's family and just returned last Thursday. I'm still struggling with the dregs of this dumb cold (yuck! it's been almost three weeks!), and LB and I are getting ready to leave again soon to visit my family for Christmas, but I'm hoping that this entry for HotM10: Quick and Easy to the lovely Ilva is on time (or that she will forgive my near tardiness?).

Since I am preparing for a scientific conference the beginning of January and attempting to finish my presentation before I leave (on Thursday!), I won't wax poetic and ramble on here today and will leave you with only the recipe and my comments on it. This is a tasty little dish...a bit tropical and cool for the winter days, but perhaps since I have a move to Hawaii on the brain, it seemed appropriate. It's also a nice change from all the heavier foods that are so prevalent this time of year. And of course, it's both low-calorie and low fat - so it's also heart healthy!

Chicken breasts with fruit salsa, serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
cooking spray, plus 1 tsp. olive oil
1 cup low sodium, fat-free chicken broth

2 cups frozen mango cubes, partially thawed and chopped
2 cups frozen pitted sour cherries, partially thawed and chopped
4 green onions, sliced thinly, mostly the white parts with some green
1 small jalapeno, finely chopped
3 tbsp. coarsly chopped fresh cilantro, with more for garnish
juice from one liime
pinch of salt

Trim the chicken and pat it dry, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika on both sides. Coat the pan with cooking spray, then add the olive oil and heat on medium. Brown the chicken on both sides, then add 1/2 cup chicken broth and cook on medium for about 4 minutes. Turn and cook until the chicken is done, but still tender and moist, about 8-12 minutes. Add remaining broth as necessary. While chicken is cooking, mix all of the salsa ingredients together. Top the chicken with the salsa, garnish with cilantro and serve.

*Note: If you're not serving this right away, don't mix the cherries in with the salsa until you're ready - they bleed onto the bright goldeny mango and it looks much prettier right after it's mixed. Any extra frozen mango or cherries make a lovely addition to a morning smoothie with yogurt and honey or soy milk the next morning!