Friday, December 28, 2012

when it's all said and done

For the first time since we met, fourteen years ago, Alexi had to work Christmas Eve and Christmas, reading Xrays, MRIs, and all manner of radiological studies for those in need of them at the hospital where he works. It didn’t snow. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I watched the forecast hawkishly for days, fielding repeated questions about the potential for a white Christmas. Aside from these unavoidable circumstances, the past week was everything we could have hoped for.

The official start to our holiday was last Friday, the winter solstice. School was only in session until noon, and then the two week break began. I had ambitions for those last few hours to myself: exercise, vacuuming; trips to the drugstore, pet store, post office. I got about half of it done. A friend of Cal’s came home with us for the afternoon. They played with Legos and waged Nerf gun wars while I made caramel corn to give out to neighbors, and addressed the last of the holiday cards. In the deep blue of nearing darkness, Cal’s friend went home, and the boys and I got on our way to Abbott’s hockey practice. We detoured to do the errands I didn’t get to that morning. We bought a few necessities at the drugstore as well as stamps, avoiding a worse line at the post office. We walked with our cards and the stamps toward the post office, and in the dim light we heard, then saw, a group of geese as they rose to the sky and assumed their formation. We stood watching them until they had flown out of sight. The three of us sat on a bench outside the post office as we prepared the cards for mailing. They seemed to thrill at the task. Could it be I’ve never let them stamp anything?

Christmas Eve, I sat vigil at bedsides, first the younger, then the older, until the breathing had deepened and steadied, and any overheard rustling or activitiy on the part of the parents would be woven into dreams. As we filled stockings and figured out the wording of a note from Santa and the disguising of the handwriting, I fretted about how tired I was likely to be the next day. The kitchen lights of the neighbor across the street were still on as I switched off our bathroom light and padded, barefoot, to bed. It’s the same every year.

Christmas morning, we took turns addressing adult necessities - coffee, pictures and video for posterity - and sitting on the floor, an audience for what was being shared. I wonder how their memories will record our Christmases? My own from childhood are snapshots. The pink satin bow with the fabric rose wrapped around a package of mine one year, re-used on one of my gifts every year thereafter. The holly candy, the peanut patties my mom always made. The handmade dolls and stuffed animals from my grandmother Louise. My Santa mug.

After breakfast - Custard-Filled Corn Bread and bacon and Christmas pears and steamed milk with maple syrup - Alexi packed up for work. On his way out the door the phone rang; he exchanged greetings with my sister, then left. I listened to her describe the snow they received and their Christmas Eve service and the sleeping in they were able to do that morning, and it distracted me, eased me into the reality of his departure.

The boys and I stayed in our pyjamas. As the day wore on, I watched the Christmas procession of neighbors out walking in groups of two and four and five, sometimes with a pet, with their usual bearing of contentment and satiety. I prepared an elaborate meal that I would not have taken the time to make had guests or Alexi been present. The boys came and went like hummingbirds, seeking my company, showing me things, finding food, then disappearing again, just as quickly as they came. One of Abbott’s packages contained an itunes gift certificate; his first. We listened to songs and explored Pandora as I chopped and stirred and sauteed, and he thought about what he might want to buy. The gift card was burning a hole in his pocket. I told him about how I used to listen to Casey Kasem host American Top 40 every Saturday afternoon. Abbott reluctantly opened his gifts throughout the course of the day, stretching them out until the end; he hated to see it come to a close. Cal opened his immediately, relishing it all instantly, fully. When Alexi got home, we sat together and ate, as we had that morning, and were thankful.

I haven’t been in a rush to put away the holiday like I usually am. I’ve paused. Many of the gifts still lay piled under the tree in an orderly fashion, replicating their prior wrapped positions. Treats from our stockings neatly line the kitchen counters. The Christmas linens are still in use. We’ve had a good string of days.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

it was enough

(Alexi's childhood home in Nova Scotia)

In the dusky light as I drove the boys to school, I passed a biker with a colorful strand of old fashioned, large-bulbed Christmas lights wrapped around his crossbar. I wondered how he got them to light up without being plugged in – batteries? Mostly, I was glad for the unexpected cheer. On my way home, I noticed a tiny patch of snow on the hood of a passing car; someone else’s remnant of the snow we didn’t get in our neighborhood. For a while, I followed a pickup truck pulling a trailer that carried his and hers jet skis labeled ‘T-bone’ and ‘Misty'. Snow closure signs were propped at the ready at the top, middle and bottom of hills.

Back at home, as I thought about these sightings a memory from my college days surfaced. One ordinary spring evening, like so many others, I was out walking in the West Village of Manhattan, where I lived, with my roommate Lucinda and her boyfriend, Chris. I don’t remember our purpose. The night air was warm and it felt good to be out. We passed a gorgeous restaurant with its windows flung open wide, and there was a perfect little patio adjacent to it, completely full of diners. The tables were lit with tea lights, and the twinkly music was punctuated by the low murmurs of conversation and laughter and the quiet clanking of utensils. The scent of garlic wafted out to us on the sidewalk. Chris remarked about the pleasure that must come with being able to eat at a place like that on a Tuesday night, but it was enough just to pause and take it all in.

Back at home this evening, we're daydreaming about snow, and cooking memories into existence. Brussels sprouts are the perfect thing to eat when you’re hoping for colder weather, or dreaming about upcoming holidays, or anytime they’re available and looking good.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic
From How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Good Brussels sprouts should feel firm and have tight, shiny-edged leaves. The flavor is best when they’re around an inch in diameter or smaller. I love this method of preparation; the combination of sautéing and roasting creates a tender interior and a crisp exterior, maximizing the flavor of the vegetable.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
5 cloves garlic, peeled
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Heat the oven to 450F. Put the oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, arrange the sprouts in one layer, cut side down. Toss in the garlic, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cook, undisturbed, until the sprouts begin to brown, about 3 minutes, then transfer to the oven. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the sprouts are quite brown and tender, about 30 minutes.

Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Drizzle with the balsamic vinegar, stir, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Friday, December 14, 2012

something like reverence

One evening earlier this week, I parked in a three minute load/unload only zone outside the emergency room of the hospital where Alexi works, waiting for him to emerge. A woman approached the car, waving. Through the raindrop-splattered window and the dim light of the distant streetlight I peered out. I recognized the shadowy face, the silhouette as a friend from my book club whom I hadn’t seen in a while, whose husband is a physician at this hospital also. I waved back, smiled, and rolled down the window. I realized the elegant woman was not who I thought she was, and saw she was tearful, distraught, on the verge of hysterics. She apologized for disturbing me, and asked if I had a US $20 bill I would exchange for a Canadian $20 bill. She told me her dad was in the emergency room, having suffered a heart attack; she needed to take a cab somewhere, but the driver wouldn’t take Canadian money. I swallowed my surprise, glanced at my boys in the back seat, and told her, truthfully, that I had no American money on me to trade her. I tried to brainstorm where she might be able to get help, suggesting she try the hotel next door. She said she'd already tried there. As I started to call Alexi to ask for his input, she abruptly headed back toward the hospital. Before I had time to reflect about what had just happened, and wonder more about what her story was, the kids, from the back seat, gave voice to my surfacing questions.

Yesterday noon, on the way home from an exercise class, I stopped in at a neighborhood grocery store. As I got in line to pay for my cartload of provisions, I became distracted by the sweets and holiday offerings, filling my cart further with ‘stocking stuffers.' When it was finally my turn to check out, I was mortified to realize I’d inadvertently gotten in the “10 items – Give or Take” line with my overflowing basket. My nose started to drip, as it does when I’m embarrassed or worried. I started to move to the back of another line when the cashier stopped me, insisting I stay. He pointed out that the sign says ‘give or take.’ He said they had other people who could help cashier if they got too busy, and gave me a tissue. After he had bagged up what I bought he offered to have someone help me to my car.

This morning, after meeting a friend for coffee and catching up about her Hanukah and her terminally ill mother, my Christmas plans, and various parenting issues, I drove home and heard the horrific news of the children and others shot today in Connecticut. I thought of nothing else the rest of the day. I picked up my boys from school with something like reverence. We stopped for burgers and fries on the way to Abbott’s hockey practice, and I let them watch Elf in the car, as Friday is usually our movie night. They laughed until they cried at the at times spoofy story of redemption.

We do the best we can to navigate the conscious and unconscious happenings that fill our days, and hope for the best. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

for all it is

I’m embracing December for all it is. The busyness, the darkness, the light. I remind myself of the steps of long division to help with homework; I make meatballs and spaghetti for a family with a newborn. I celebrate the advances in civil rights in our state, poetically enacted on the first day of Hanukah.There is an ease to the month this year, a grace, I don’t usually experience. I don’t know how to account for it other than with gratitude.

I've never wanted to be a ballerina; never took a single dance class. I grew up enthralled by Nadia Comăneci and Mary Lou Retton. So gymnastics it was for me, until I discovered volleyball in junior high – far easier for someone of my height. Sunday we went to the Nutcracker. There was clearly a whole cohort of ballerinas in the making in the audience, rapt, wide eyed in tulle and chiffon. The music infiltrated my consciousness like a living being, and I thought about the way the music and the story have traveled through the past hundred years.

Saturday morning, Abbott took a test; the independent middle school equivalent of the SAT. It included an essay question, which was to describe something that surprised you, and to say whether or not you liked being surprised. Abbott wrote about scoring a goal in a hockey game a couple of years ago, under a circumstance and at a time when he didn’t think he could do it. There are plenty of other surprises I might have expected he’d write about – that the albino rats in his science class fed an omnivorous diet grew more rapidly than those fed a vegetarian diet, as measured by tail length and weight. Or maybe about the hummingbird that’s taken to hovering around our dining room window. Or the thrilling ending to Under Wildwood. I aim to follow his lead; I’m looking to surprise myself.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

she had a Manhattan

I haven’t taken many pictures lately, and I kind of regret it. The urge comes and goes. This time of year, I spend a large portion of my weekday hours driving the kids to and from school, hockey, piano; the light is gone by late afternoon. The days appear monotonous as I contemplate photographing them, when in fact they’re full of energy and stimulation, more subtly and intricately so than their counterpart warmer months. 

All afternoon, while Alexi and the boys were at hockey practice, I worked at my computer from a stool at our snack bar. I tried to keep the cats off my lap so I could concentrate, not wanting to go to our office where I could close the door but where there is only a view of the street. It was a pleasure sitting quietly, alone, watching the light fade. I had the transient thought that, in ten years, when a solitary afternoon like this one becomes more of the norm, it might no longer be so pleasurable. 

I ate a pre-made, previously frozen meal of Palak Paneer for dinner. In between bites and typing out paragraphs, I exchanged text messages with my sister. Her husband had a late meeting, so she stopped at a restaurant, alone, on her way home from work, as New Yorkers are prone to do. Her meal was a definite step up from mine: a salad of two kinds of lettuce with yams and walnuts, Nantucket bay scallops, and a Maker's Mark Manhattan. In one message, she described how someone old enough to be our grandfather had just hit on her. In another, she said someone else had just sent her a drink, so she was heading home. “Who knew that restaurant was such a frisky place?" I finished my meal up with a couple of sugar cookies.

I baked my first batch of holiday cookies yesterday, and as I did so I promised myself I would keep the baking down to a dull roar. December can start to feel like being on vacation in the sense of out-of-the-ordinary eating and drinking for a month straight. At the end of a vacation I’m always glad to come back to my own kitchen and eating habits; this December I want to 'stay home' in that regard. 

With this recipe, you get the great shapes that are the major appeal of sugar cookies, but with the addition of a fantastic citrus and spice flavor, and your home smells like Christmas after you bake them.

Orange and Five-Spice Sugar Cookies
adapted from the Seattle Times 2005 Holiday Cookie supplement

Chinese five-spice is a blend of star anise, fennel, clove, coriander, and cinnamon that has a warm, spicy flavor.

I wasn’t able to find orange oil anywhere. I ordered it online here.

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons orange juice
Optional: 1 teaspoon orange oil
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
parchment paper
white sparkling decorator sugar

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, five-spice and cinnamon.

Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add the egg, orange juice, orange oil if using, and vanilla. Beat just until blended. Slowly add the dry ingredients, beating until well blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally.

Divide the dough in half, wrap, and chill at least 1 hour.

Roll out the dough between sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap to about ¼ inch thickness. Place the rolled dough on a baking sheet and chill 15 minutes in the freezer.

Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment.

To cut shapes from the dough, remove the top sheet of plastic and invert dough-side down on a lightly floured kitchen counter. Remove the second sheet of plastic and cut out shapes as desired. Transfer the cut shapes to the parchment-lined sheet. Sprinkle the tops with decorator sugar. Gather the scraps, and roll and freeze them as described above before cutting again.

Bake in the center of the oven for 10-12 minutes, or until the edges are golden. Let the cookies cool on their baking sheets a few minutes before transferring to racks to finish cooling.

Yield: about 4 dozen cookies

Saturday, December 1, 2012

like genies in bottles

I woke up this morning with a boy on either side of me. One had his chilly feet on my bare thighs; he leaned against a Winnie-the-Pooh as big as he is, wedged between himself and Alexi. The wind raged all night, no doubt working itself into dreams, leading the boys to our bed.

The three of them left for hockey practice before it was light. I worked at my computer. Some time later, while refilling my coffee, I saw a rainbow through the kitchen window, to the west.

We have a box of Christmas books we keep in an attic space in our garage, alongside the boxes of other holiday paraphernalia: ornaments, knick knacks, stockings and decorations. Our tangible objects that store experiences like genies in bottles: the nativity set from our trip to Peru; the life-saver Santa with the Styrofoam head made by my second grade self. The boxes labeled ‘Christmas’ are stowed behind our tent, sleeping bags, tarps, ski boots, tackle boxes, and fishing rods, so getting them down is always a production. Earlier this week, I asked Alexi to retrieve the books; heroically, he did. Last night, after reading Christmas in the Barn, a poetic account of the Christmas story, to Cal, I answered a multitude of questions about how a baby could be born outside a hospital; what they used for diapers; why Mary and Joseph were traveling to pay taxes.

This past week, the home of one of my cousins burned to the ground, and they lost everything. Furniture, dishes, computer, clothing, toys, linens, camera, books, photos, toothbrushes, stuffed animals. By some miracle, they weren't home when it happened. I had a grim conversation with my sister about it this morning, and after we hung up I remembered a question Jon Nelson once asked: what I would choose to take, if I had to flee my home suddenly, and could only bring what I could carry? I still don’t have a good answer.

Our countertops are full of ripening pears and leafy satsumas. Outside, seagulls are air surfing. Inside, it smells like toasted hazelnuts, and the boys are making music together.

Happy December.

Rocket Muffins
slightly adapted from Macrina Bakery & Café Cookbook by Leslie Mackie

I am typically not a muffin person; I usually find them too sugary and bread-y. I’d rather have a scone or a cookie if I want a sweet. These are perfect – incredibly delicious, hearty, and wholesome; barely sweet, except for the jam. You can make them without the jam topping – just serve it on the side.

¾ cup hazelnuts
¾ cup all-purpose unbleached flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour (I use white whole wheat)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 ½ teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups rolled oats
3 medium carrots, grated
1 medium ripe banana, mashed or pureed
2 eggs
½ cup canola oil
½ cup molasses
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup raspberry preserves (or other favorite preserves)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Brush the insides of a 12 capacity muffin tin with canola oil, or lightly coat with cooking spray.

Place the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool, then remove as much of the loose skins as possible by rubbing the nuts between the palms of your hands. Chop the nuts medium-fine and set them aside. Increase the oven temperature to 375F.

Sift the flours, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Add the oats, chopped hazelnuts, and grated carrots. Toss with your hands until the ingredients are combined.

In a separate medium bowl, combine the banana, eggs, canola oil, molasses, and buttermilk. Mix fully with a whisk. Add mixture to the bowl of dry ingredients and stir just until the batter comes together, taking care not to overmix. It will be very thick.

Scoop the batter into the oiled muffin tins, filling them to the top. Bake on the center rack of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the tops are deep brown. Let cool for 10 minutes, then dent each muffin with a spoon and top with a dollop of raspberry preserves. Slide a fork down the side of each muffin and gently lift it from the pan.

Yield: 12 muffins