Holidays in full swing

Looks as if a crafty Christmas extravaganza blew up Chez Bluestalking, as I prepare to greet the holidays with a gusto that frankly surprises me. I’d given myself permission to skip it this year, in favor of pared-down, basic decor. Maybe a wreath on the door, I said. A poinsettia plant if I’m feeling fancy. I’ve been working loads of hours and I honestly wasn’t feeling it.

Once I decided to buy the tree, things just snowballed of their own accord.

Home Depot will deliver live trees at no additional charge! This is a Fraser fir.

There’s something about a Christmas tree that commands drama. You can’t leave it standing naked, and since I gave most of my holiday decorations to my daughter last year I was basically starting from scratch. A lot of stuff came from resale shops; I extended a couple of work lunches and ran out in the evenings. Before I knew it the place was filled and festive. It wound up a whole lot more expensive than a wreath on the door – which I already owned, by the way. That, and a tall, skinny fake tree I wound up sticking my office.

I blame Pinterest for what came next, the obsession with dehydrating fruit and hanging it in garlands around my apartment. It’s pretty and feels like an accomplishment. My evenings were a lot more varied working on that. It’s nothing I’ve done before and I’m happy with how it looks. If it lasts more than one season I’ll be doubly pleased.

In addition to gluing it to candles, I made ornaments and the aforementioned garland:

So pretty and festive.
Dried pears, oranges, and limes strung with cranberries make lovely rustic ornaments.

Every year it’s been getting harder and harder coordinating with my kids for our traditional meal. They all have partners now, plus my divorced status forces them to make time for each parent, as well. Last year I did appetizers and desserts instead of a proper meal. When I mentioned making lasagna from scratch this year my two sons were pretty enthusiastic.

When I make lasagna, I make my own red sauce. And when I make red sauce, I put in a crazy amount of garlic and wine and simmer it all day. I haven’t made it since I’ve been divorced, which is seven years now – wow, time’s been flying. I have the basic recipe memorized but I never make it the same way twice. It’s not an exact science, it’s a matter of splashing out the money for quality ingredients and devoting the better part of a day to chopping and sauteeing, simmering and pouring it in containers.

The resulting smell is pure heaven, not to mention the taste. Once you’ve had homemade red sauce, that jarred stuff tastes like absolute garbage.

Basic, traditional focaccia bread topped with rosemary.

Baking focaccia bread, however, does require precision; yeast breads rely on a specific ratio of warm water and sugar to produce the gas that creates those wonderful bubbles. The taste relies on salt, rosemary (in this case), and lots of olive oil. Loads of it, in the dough itself and over every inch of the top. Olive oil makes a soft crust and delectable taste. They say it’s a healthy fat, and I certainly hope so considering the amount I’ve consumed these past two weeks.

I baked two focaccia breads before I was happy with the result. Focaccia makes glorious toast; the first test loaf has all but disappeared. The other two I’ve thrown in the freezer, and I’ll probably make more before Christmas. There will be six of us and, at this rate, I’ll be sending bread home with the kids.

I hope they take lots of pictures, because this may become the stuff of Christmas legend. It’s dangerous cooking this much in a given year, lest they begin to expect it. How thoroughly and unusually domestic of me, from stringing cranberries and dried fruit to making real food. If I do it once a decade, it proves I’m still capable of it. It’s good to flex that culinary muscle every now and then. It feels like a personal challenge putting in the effort to prove I am still capable of creating extraordinarily delicious food.

I guess I’m set for the next decade, if the pattern holds.

Meat sauce, ready to meet the fridge.

In the midst of all the holiday prep, I’ve been working on my Best Reads of 2022 list. I think I have it decided, though in the course of creating it I bolted off on several tangents.

I participated in a few online book group reads this year, speaking of things I haven’t done in ages. I already mentioned To the Lighthouse in my last post, and the experience, though rushed, re-ignited my obsession with all things Woolf. The group finished it in just over the two weeks allotted (our moderator bumped things out after a few of us expressed a problem keeping up) and I’d like to go back through everyone’s summaries to tie it all up in my head.

Then the Booker Prize – another interest re-kindled. I re-visited that as I was toting up numbers and examining reading patterns.

For next year’s reading, I’ve purchased a bespoke, dedicated reading journal. It’s incredibly organized, with built-in pages for listing books read, books bought, books I’m lusting to buy, brief reviews, and even an adorable blank bookshelf where I can color in the volumes and write the titles as I finish. Pricey as hell, but if it keeps me better organized it’s worth it to me.

It’s a short work week – this week and next, actually. Over the course of the next few days I’ll be juggling the planning of tasty cocktails, wrapping the last of the gifts, baking, and writing my end of the reading year posts. I’m not taking extra time off for the holidays. My hours are flexible, plus we get banker’s holidays. Between Christmas and New Year’s I’ll get it done.

In the meantime, I’m hoping your holidays aren’t fraught with negative things. Mine aren’t without their share, but at least this year my coping mechanism of going over and above is working pretty well.

Take care of yourselves, friends. I’ll be back to talk books soon.


la cuisine du weekend: baking, roasting, and dehydrating

Aside from work and things book-related, I actually have a few other interests. In winter, especially, indoor diversions keep me from going stir-crazy as I continue to respect the wildly-contagious Omicron variant, hoping with spring comes better understanding what to expect from 2022.

Double-vaxxed and boosted, I’m still not messing around.

This marks two weekends in a row my interest in cooking has reared its head. If you follow me on Instagram (and if not, why not), you may recall the rather impressive array of gourmet cookery that went on in the tiny lockdown kitchen I had at my former apartment. An inability to concentrate kept me from enjoying books; I needed something to keep me from screaming, apart from binging ridiculous TV and engaging in ill-advised, socially-distant dating I’m still struggling to forget.

Apparently extreme domesticity was a fairly effective antidote to compulsively watching the CNN body count. While I am capable of cooking well, I’ve never managed to sustain it. Binges like that in 2020 aren’t uncommon for me. I’m also not great at following recipes, in part because buying loads of specialty spices and cookware is cost-prohibitive; if I’m going to blow large wads of cash, this isn’t generally where I’d start, though I did order a mandolin slicer today. And some mason jars.

Okay, fine.

The last time I followed a very complicated recipe was Christmas 2020, when I made that outrageous English Christmas cake – essentially a boozy fruitcake. All told, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ingredients cost upwards of $ 40. I didn’t keep track, to be honest. The thing weighed at least five pounds (I “fed” it peach brandy ever day, adding to the weight), and hung around so long I became heartily sick of it and had to chuck it. Had that been a normal year, I’d have forced pieces on friends and family. If I make it again, I’ll either cut the recipe in half or have a better distribution plan. Or both, actually. That was a whole lot of cake and very calorie-dense.

Because I have the metabolism of a sloth, I cannot keep large quantities of rich food lingering in the kitchen. When I have these weekend cooking binges I try to limit the size of each dish to allow me to eat one portion over the weekend, then store the rest in containers for meals during the week. On weekdays, my calories are much more restrictive than on weekends, another challenge when it comes to making the right amount of food. I came upon the term “small plates” while searching cookbooks today. If not exactly Spanish tapas, the concept is the same. It consists of small quantities of very tasty food, which is exactly my goal – small dishes, as well as versatility in using leftovers and/or safely storing for a period of time.

This book’s on my shortlist to buy, exactly the sort of menu I’m shooting for:

This was the second weekend running that I made the same small-loaf crusty bread recipe. Last weekend it didn’t rise enough. Though it came out tasting well, it was a bit dense. I let it rise in a warmer place this time, throwing in fresh-ground Italian herbs. It was cooked through, but lacked the same crispy crust. I baked it with a pan of water on the lower rack, as suggested in the recipe, but I’ve read several places a dutch oven is the best way to achieve optimal crust and uniform baking. I expect I’ll cave and buy one, seeing how much I do like having fresh bread on weekends. Dutch ovens are also great for stews and roasts.

Not quite a fail – isn’t it pretty?

Thanks to an over-zealous Instacart shopper, my last grocery delivery brought too many clementine oranges, sweet peppers, and gala apples. My lovely convection oven/air fryer/toaster oven also has both dehydration and rotisserie capability I’ve never used. The clementines were the first fruit I dehydrated. They’re good as a snack as they are, in other recipes, and as a garnish. I made an orange cake, using some of the grated clementine peel and juice, and still have loads more of the fruit.

It came out delicious, even better the second day after it had been sealed overnight. I ate some of it, slicing the rest, wrapping it well, and throwing it into the freezer for a future treat. As for the other clementines, those I don’t put aside for consumption as is – some of the fruit is a bit soft, not yet spoiled but on the way – I will either dehydrate or make into a marmalade. I’ve done that before, making a very simple recipe that doesn’t require pectin. It’s wonderful used in muffin batter or just spreading on bread. It’s a nice extra sweet topping to have on hand and stays fresh for weeks in the fridge.

Thought I’d overbaked it, but overnight it improved a lot

The sweet peppers are so versatile I wasn’t concerned how I’d use them all. I’ve had 8 oz in the dehydrator at least twelve hours now, which seems ridiculous, but it takes a very long time at low heat. Once they’ve dried they can be crumbled into soups or stews as a flavoring agent, in eggs or other savory dishes, or eaten as is. I’m going to put them in canning jars to seal tightly while I mull over how to use them.

The other 8 oz from the same bag I roasted with mushrooms in the oven, in an olive oil, herb, and parmesan cheese marinade. The intent was originally blending it into a soup, but then I opened the cabinet door and saw pasta. I don’t eat it often anymore, which is weird because I was married to an Italian for 25 years and used to consume pasta in various forms all the time. I roughly blended the pepper mix and tossed it on the noodles. It was so, so good.

Some of the Italian herb bread became homemade croutons, for salad. Those were tossed in pretty much the same marinade as the peppers and mushrooms, added with fresh, chopped parsley. I have at least two more meals’ worth of pasta, plus plenty of salad to go with it.

Peppers chopped in half with sliced mushrooms, roasted half an hour in the oven, thrown in the blender.

My company gives us MLK Day off, so spending all of Saturday and Sunday in the kitchen still leaves me time to clean my apartment, plus spend time reading my third book of 2022. I didn’t go into the weekend intending to make this much food. It just kind of happened. Looking back, it’s satisfying having created all these tasty things.

January and February always feel eternal. The older I get, the more I despise the cold and wonder why on earth I’m still living in the Chicago metro area, when my job leaves me free to move anywhere in the country. Cooking helps the winter months pass quicker, leaving enough time to plan vacation when it warms up, work on my reading list, and dream of warmth.

Plus, my apartment smells heavenly.

What’s on the menu for next weekend? I have a few ideas, including plans for some of that rice I bought just ahead of the state of Illinois declaring shelter-in-place back in 2020. Gives me something to look forward to, which is no small thing at all.