Thursday, December 29, 2011

The best December holiday meal ever

Holiday meals can be a challenge when both vegetarians and carnivores gather around the festive table.  We want everyone to feel nourished, and a meal centering on a ham or a cut of beef isn't necessarily going to do that.

On Thanksgiving, we have turkey, sure, but the vegetarians get a vegan field roast and all the veggies they can eat.

The Christmas meal is usually more of a wild card.

This year, inspired by a grits bar at a family wedding in Birmingham, Alabama, I decided that our holiday meal would feature a polenta bar.  The base:  savory polenta, a recipe from my friend Joan Cooney.  The toppings:  Mediterranean chicken, garlicky greens, roasted carrots and parsnips with lemon and nutmeg, and eggplant stew, a recipe devised by our unofficially adopted fourth daughter Meg Furniss Weisberg.  To start things off, a salad of shaved  Brussels sprouts.  To finish, forgotten cookies and peppermint bark.

It was the best December holiday meal ever.

The recipes:

Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Fresh Walnuts and Pecorino
Gourmet | October 2005
Adapted from Jonathan Waxman

1 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts (preferably on the stalk), any discolored leaves discarded and stems left intact 1 cup walnuts (3 1/2 oz), lightly toasted 2 tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Romano, or to taste 1/4 cup olive oil 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice Special equipment: an adjustable-blade slicer

Holding each Brussels sprout by stem end, cut into very thin slices using slicer.
Toss in a bowl to separate layers.
2 of 2
Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Fresh Walnuts and Pecorino (continued)
Lightly crush walnuts with your hands and add to Brussels sprouts along with cheese, oil, and lemon juice, then toss to combine.
Season with pepper. 

From our friend Joan Cooney
2 T olive oil
3/4 c finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 qt chicken or vegetable stock
1 c coarse ground cornmeal
3 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 oz grated parmesan
In a large, oven-safe saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the red onion and salt and sweat until the onions begin to turn translucent, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and saute for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure the garlic does not burn.  
Turn the heat up to high, add the stock, bring to a boil.  Gradually add the cornmeal while continuing whisking.  Once you have added all the cornmeal, cover the pot and place it in the oven.  Cook 35 to 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent lumps.  Once the mixture is creamy, remove from the oven and add the butter, salt, and pepper.  Once they are incorporated, add the parmesan.

Mediterranean Chicken

Bon Appétit  | March 2004

yield: Makes 8 servings


  • 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 8 skinless boneless chicken breast halves (about 2 1/2 pounds
  • 1 1/2 pounds assorted wild mushrooms (such as oyster, crimini, and stemmed shiitake), sliced
  • 1 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 2/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 3 plum tomatoes, seeded, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallot
  • 1 tablespoon drained capers
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) chilled butter
  • 1 cup teardrop tomatoes (red and yellow
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • Caper berries, halved (optional)


Preheat oven to 200°F. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in large skillet over high heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Working in 2 batches, add chicken to skillet. Cook until brown and just cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to ovenproof plate and place in oven to keep warm. Discard oil from skillet.
Add 3 tablespoons oil to same skillet over high heat. Add mushrooms; sauté until wilted and beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add broth; boil until almost all liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Add olives, plum tomatoes, garlic, shallot, and capers. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced by half, about 7 minutes. Add butter; stir until melted. Mix in teardrop tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon mushroom mixture over chicken. Sprinkle parsley and pine nuts over. Garnish with caper berries, if desired, and serve.
Market tip: Capers are flower buds from the caper bush, and caper berries are the fruit. They are about the size of an olive, and are usually pickled and sold in jars. They can be found at Italian markets, specialty foods stores, and some supermarkets. 

Roast Carrots and Parsnips with Lemon and Nutmeg
From Yankee magazine, date unknown
1-1/2 lbs parsnips
1-1/2 lbs carrots
3 T butter
Shredded zest of 2 lemons (about 1-1/2 T)
1/2 tsp salt
Several scrapings of fresh nutmeg
1 T lemon juice, or to taste

Peel the parsnips and carrots and cut them into chunks about 2-1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch around.  Don't worry about the pointy ends; they just get a little crisper.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Put the butter on a large cookie sheet with sides and put it in the oven long enough to melt.  Put the vegetables on the sheet and roll them around until all are coated with butter, then sprinkle on the lemon zest, salt, and nutmeg.
Roast the vegetables, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until they are well-browned, about 45 minutes.  Turn them into a large bowl, stir in the lemon juice, then taste and adjust the seasonings.

Meg's Eggplant Stew for Polenta
From our unofficially adopted fourth daughter, Meg Furniss-Weisberg
2 eggplants
Olive oil
Garlic, chopped
Hot pepper flakes
2 large cans chopped tomatoes (28 to 35 oz), preferably Muir Glen fire-roasted
Cube eggplants and toss in oil.  Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven for 30-45 minutes.  While the eggplants are roasting, saute garlic and hot pepper flakes in olive oil.  Add 2 large cans chopped tomatoes.  When the eggplant is done, add to the tomatoes, adjust the seasonings, and serve over polenta.

Garlicky Greens
I bunch kale
Chopped garlic
Olive oil
Wash the kale and remove the stems.  Cut kale leaves crosswise into strips. Heat olive oil and saute garlic in it.  Add kale, a few pieces at a time, tossing to coat with the oil and garlic.  As kale cooks down, add more leaves.  When all the kale is in the pan and has been tossed with the oil, add about half a cup of water to the pan, turn down the heat, and cook 5 minutes

Forgotten Cookies
From our friend Diana Rafferty
Makes 3-4 dozen

2 eggs
3/4 c sugar
6 oz chocolate chips
1 c chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350
Separate eggs and beat the whites with a pinch of salt. Add sugar gradually.  Beat until stiff.  Fold in chocolate chips and pecans.  Stir well.  Drop by teaspoons onto foil-covered cookie sheet. Place in preheated oven.  TURN OVEN OFF.  Leave cookies in oven overnight.  Do not open oven until morning. 

Peppermint Bark
From Martha Stewart Living, date unknown
Makes 2-1/4 lbs bark

2 lbs white chocolate
12 candy canes
1/2 tsp natural peppermint flavoring (i.e., not dyed green)

Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water.  Place candy canes in a plastic bag, and with a blunt weapon of your choice,  crush into 1/4 inch pieces. Stir candy canes and peppermint flavoring into melted chocolate.  Remove from heat and pour onto an 11 x 17 inch baking pan lined with parchment paper.  Chill until firm.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I started it and I'm gonna finish it!

What was I thinking?
In early December I started work on a comforter cover for the bedroom I share with Joe Rubin.  I bought the fabric when I was still wearing sandals, and at the end of November, it was still sitting on my work table.  I didn't want to go another long winter with the same old dingy comforter cover I'd made several years before.
It was time to start.
It took forever.  Yards and yards of fabric, and the more I sewed them together the heavier it got.
But I HAD to finish it.  I don't think I could bear to  start the new year with a big, starting-to-be-disliked project still hanging over my head and taking up valuable real estate on my work table.
You know how hard it is to pick up unfinished project once you've become sick of it.
Besides, I needed to clear off my work table to make it a holiday gift wrapping station.


Ahem, notice the attention to detail

It's even reversible!

Now it's available for all to enjoy

And at last, my work table has taken over its holiday role as gift wrap central
Happy Holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Today in the Garden: Looking Harder

I had occasion today to run the business end of a rake over the crunchily frozen ground of my yard, and as I worked, I saw that, despite the approach of winter leaching a lot of the life out of  my plants, there's still some color, and life, and even some surprises, back there.  I just have to look harder to see them. 

Like the ice crystals.

Here it is December, very late fall though not quite winter.  It's the latest I've ever done my raking.  The freaky Halloween snowstorm this year knocked the fall yard chores off schedule.  I'm raking so late this year, in fact, that the ground crunched under my feet, and when I looked down, I saw it was covered with these ice crystals:  

Ice crystals
When I saw those crystals, I envisioned this same tiny tableau, recreated in fiber, with silk for the leaves, embroidery for the tiny tufts of moss on the lower right, and beads for the crystals.

There are still more surprises back here.  Look at Lonicera Sempervirens Blanche Sandman, for example, still blooming after all this cold:

This lovely honeysuckle has won my heart time and again.  Here it is in its glory:

In that full-flowered role, it became the model for Honeysuckle Eve, a quilt I concocted for a competition titled A Touch of Magic.

So it did my heart good today to see Lonicera Sempervirens Blanche Sandman still blooming, despite December.  I almost cut off the tiny bloom and put it in a tiny vase with some lamium White Nancy and called it today's bouquet. 

It's also good to see the other growing things that aren't daunted by the cold.  This hellebore, for example, looks leathery-lush.  It likes the cold weather.  That's why some people call it Lenten Rose or even Christmas Rose:
This hellebore will make my day this spring because it will be one of the first things to bloom.  Meanwhile, its leaves stay richly green all winter. 

This is how the hellebores will look in the spring.  These leathery flowers are long-lasting as a floating centerpiece in a glass bowl.

And look at the rich mahogany color of these epimedium sulphureum, draped like a wintery scarf around the base of a mountain laurel.

How about the vivid purple of this ajuga Burgundy Glow?!  Don't you love plants that keep on giving you color even when the temperatures get down into the 20s?

Like the epimedium, this ivy also takes on a rich mahogany cast.

In other pre-winter garden news, this year we bought a thermostatic heater for the birdbath, which will make it available to the birds all winter long.
Ladies, does this thermostatic birdbath heater remind you of anything?
Like the honeysuckle, this birdbath has also been an inspiration for me .  One of my upcoming projects is to reproduce this image in fabric, with three-dimensional leaves knitted in metallic golds and bronzes.  It's going to be called Offering because I think it looks like an offering plate full of coins:

Well, I'm sorry winter is coming.  But I'm glad that, until it's covered with snow, my tiny yard can still yield up surprises.  I just have to look harder to see them.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Shhh! I'm TRYING to Knit in Here!

"Shh!  I'm TRYING to knit in here!"  Shamelessly paraphrased from the actor Divine, playing Edna Turnblad in the John Waters film, Hairspray.

If I had half a brain, I would have seen this coming over a month ago, or even in late October:  the possibility that I might eventually need to knit a holiday present or two. 

But a month ago, I was finishing up an afghan which I had wanted to give my youngest daughter Lucia as a gift for her September 11 birthday.  As it is, I didn't finish it until November.  So even if I had anticipated the need for holiday knitting, I wouldn't have been able to act on that thought.

 When I finally finished sewing the afghan together and gave it to Lucia, I turned my attention to another long-overdue task:  making a new comforter cover for the bed I share with Joe Rubin.

I bought the fabric months ago, for Pete's sake:  softly weathered-looking denim.  I'm going to piece a reversible comforter by combining this blue denim fabric with blue and yellow fabrics from my stash.

I'm going to combine this denim with some fabrics from my stash to make a new comforter cover for the master bedroom.

Any one of these would look great with that denim

I'm basically making two big, long panels and sewing them together into a big bag, 82 inches wide and 87 inches long.  It's like a big pillowcase, with a buttoned top and covered cording around the edges.

So I chose fabrics from my stash and sewed big strips of them together. 

This is one strip that will run down the middle of the new comforter.  On each side of this strip, I'll sew a strip of denim, created by cutting a 58-inch wide length of denim in half lengthwise.

This strip will run down the middle of the other side of the comforter, and it too will have a long strip of denim sewn to each side
What's it like to cut down the length of  a piece of fabric 58 inches wide and yards and yards long?
What's half of 58 again?
Finally I got the denim cut in half and the pieced strips sewn down the center of each side:

So this is one side of the new comforter cover

And this is the other side.

And this is an example of the welting (covered cording) I'll make to go around 3 edges of the cover.  The 4th edge will have buttons on one side and buttonholes on the other.
All of which is a long way of saying, no, I wasn't paying any attention to the idea that anybody might request a hand-knitted holiday gift.  In addition to working on the comforter cover, I was also putting the finishing touches on my newest piece, Two Ways of Looking at Seaside Goldenrod:

And I also spent a pleasant afternoon last week putting together this little piece:

I call it Newspaper Riddle.  It's for a show called Read/Red, a project of the Connecticut Fiber Arts Collective, which will hang at the Southbury, CT library in February 2012.
So, no, I wasn't thinking of knitting holiday gifts, but then someone requested a knitted item for her November birthday.  And I wasn't able to give it to her for her birthday because I was still finishing Lucia's afghan and had only been able to start the November birthday present.  Now it's December, and that knitted item has morphed from a November birthday gift to a December holiday gift.  And as long as I was making that one, I might as well make one or two others.

 And now, even though the comforter cover isn't finished, I've shifted gears into holiday knitting mode.  But shhhh!  Because some of them are secrets.

I can show you this one because the intended recipient already knows about it.  It's a scarf, for my daughter Julia, 29.  The yarn is Ritratto by Stacey Charles.
I'm knitting as fast as I can.