We started celebrating Valentine's Day a little early. Actually my husband does not believe in made-up (aka Hallmark) holidays so he's not big on Valentine's Day — despite the fact that he's given me many lovely presents over the years.
We started the day Saturday with our usual group of friends for Saturday morning coffee. Then I went off to spend the morning with my textile group while he talked with his college-bound nephew about his potential options. We met up again to go to the gym for a brief workout.
And then we went off to our city's original shopping mall which is smaller than is common and was emphatically local until recently. Now it's being redesigned and relaunched with brand names like Kate Spade, Sur la Table and Madewell. What that means is there are a number of empty storefronts at one end of the older mall space. So they set up half a dozen pop up shops for the weekend, including Pleasant Living whose east side shop I still miss.
We bought a set of 1920-30s Sheffield nickel silver flatware for six.The knife handles are celluloid, I believe. It has four serving pieces and two kinds of soup spoons, demitasse and dessert spoons. I know. This is totally against the trend of downsizing and casual entertaining. Two things I think about but am not good at. Also picked up a beautiful Chinese ceramic garden stool, decorated in soft blues on gray.
Hit the grocery store to pick up everything I wanted to make a couple of the recipes in this week's New York Times food section. We started with Mark Bittman's Champagne cocktails, Hook's Tilson blue cheese and my favorite cranberry and hazelnut Raincoast Crisps while sitting in front of fire, candles lit and the two of us getting slowly lit as we worked on the NYT Sunday crossword.
Dinner (above) was David Tanis' concoction of Seared Sea Scallops with Ginger-Lime butter, sweet potatoes and greens. He used baby bok choy but I subbed a quick saute of arugula. He baked his potatoes and I roasted mine. A superb meal and one to make again.
So we'll be spending Valentine's Day sleeping in and doing what ever we usually do on Sundays . . .
The storm that has just started was downgraded. But I don't really know what that means. The original forecast said 1 to 6 inches of snow, rain, freezing rain and sleet. Also wind and thunder. Well it is mid-morning and so dark it looks like about 4:30 in the afternoon. It's snowing heavily, much more than these photos indicate.
The one below was snapped about 15 minutes after the one above. You can see how quickly the snow is sticking to the shrubs and branches. And it just thundered. We used to get snow with thunder quite often when I was growing up in the snowbelt, south of Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY. One of my favorite weather moments. Oh, joy! Just thundered again. And the plow went by.
Mark made a fabulous beef stew yesterday with lots of leftovers and I just took rice pudding with ginger out of the oven. We're set. Frankly, my garden is barely covered with snow and needs more insulation, so I am OK with a bit of winter returning again.
Martha Stewart's Apple Crostata is one of my go-to desserts for fall and winer. In a moment of sugary madness I made the crostada and these roasted pears for recent winter party. The crostata is nice because the dough makes enough for two, so I just keep it in the freezer and thus can quickly pull this particular dessert together as long as there are apples in the house. You can find the recipe here.
There is only one thing to remember when you are making this dessert, bake it on a pan with sides to catch any drips. And put a cylinder of rolled up tin foil around the edge to hold it in place till it hardens during baking. The first minutes in a warm oven make the sides want to collapse so you need to figure out a way to keep that from happening. It's too pretty and too delicious a dessert to let that little problem stop you from making it.
In my family an assortment of homemade cookies was the traditional dessert for Christmas. My sister Meg's birthday is December 25 so she rarely celebrated with a birthday cake. I remember one year my mom did make her a cake and it felt unnatural to be eating cake instead of cookies on Christmas.
Once I moved away from home after college, I started a new tradition when I began to make Linzer Torte for Christmas Eve, which was father's birthday. It was spicy and wintry and yet still not a cake. Then I made a dozen plum puddings for quite a few years. They were a labor of love but I don't have enough friends who like this dessert as much as I do so it fell out of my repertoire.
But winter always seems like the time of year for fancy desserts. I make these roasted pears with candied hazelnuts and a nutty Frangelico sauce every few years because it's fairly easy, tastes good and is very dramatic visually. The recipe came from the November 1997 issue of Gourmet Magazine as the finishing touch on "A Pacific Northwest Thanksgiving."
Though it would be a lovely ending to a holiday dinner, it would work with any winter meal or just invite a few neighbors over for dessert and coffee and wow 'em with this.
. . .
WITH HAZELNUT SYRUP & CANDIED HAZELNUTS
1 cup water
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup hazelnuts
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 firm-ripe Bosc pears (about 2 1/4 pounds total, one pear per person), stems intact
3 tablespoons hazelnut-flavored liqueur like Frangelico
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small heavy saucepan simmer water with 1 cup sugar, stirring until sugar is dissolved. (Syrup may be made up to this point 2 days ahead and cooled completely before being chilled, covered.)
Preheat oven to 350° F and lightly butter a shallow baking pan.
Coarsely chop hazelnuts. Stir nuts into syrup and simmer 1 minute. With a slotted spoon transfer nuts to baking pan, arranging in one layer, and reserve syrup. Cut butter into pieces. Bake nuts in middle of oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Immediately add butter to nuts, tossing to coat and separate, and with a spatula transfer nuts to a plate to cool Nuts will crisp as they cool. (Nuts may be candied 2 days ahead and kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Reserved syrup may be kept, covered and chilled, 2 days.)
Lightly butter a shallow ovenproof kettle or casserole dish (about 12 by 2 1/2 inches). With a sharp knife trim a very thin slice from bottom of each pear to enable pears to stand upright. Dip and roll each pear in reserved syrup to coat completely. Transfer pears as coated to kettle, standing them upright, and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Add liqueur, lemon juice, and vanilla to remaining reserved syrup and pour down side of kettle or casserole.
Roast pears, uncovered, in middle of oven until undersides are tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes.
Arrange pears on a serving platter. Spoon syrup around pears and sprinkle with candied nuts. Serve pears warm or at room temperature.
Note: I think the hardest part of this recipe is figuring out if the pears are ripe enough when they are still firm. The photo shows my version of the dessert so you can see what a pretty presentation it makes.
When I was growing up, holiday meals always took place at tables set with beautiful china. My mom, the grandmothers, the aunts — no matter who hosted the family dinner it was served on great dishes. As I've said many times before, those experiences turned me into a dish junkie. Today I have my grandmother's gold-bordered service, which I just used at Thanksgiving, as well as a set of antique dinner plates with a wide red band dripping with gold curliques. They are my usual go-to choices for December dinner parties.
Last December, when we hosted friends for dinner, I made Afro-Brazillian fish stew and it needed to be served in bowls. That necessitated re-thinking everything because my big soup bowls are blue and white. But I think I managed to create a holiday feel without going all red and green, which I try to avoid everywhere but in my red room.
I used little plexiglass napkin holders, that are actually vases, with a sprig of evergreens for a Christmassy touch and silky plaid napkins for a bit of glam. The placemats are some kind of straw which also has a bit of a sheen.
Our wooden Italian putti is in the corner shedding a little candlelight. More candles are on the table along with a big bowl of dried pomegranates, pomanders and assorted ornaments.
I won't be able to recreate this setting again this December because Mark never liked those napkins: too thin and too slippery according to him. So this fall they were relegated to my bin of supplies for textile projects. They definitely have a lot of potential in that area!
I have antique red dinner plates for twelve and a set of gorgeous green and gold plates with flowery centers, also for twelve. I have two different kinds of contemporary white dinnerware in the kitchen cupboard. And stacks of wood-fired stoneware plates in the so-called pantry. Of course, there are also piles of placemats and napkins to mix and match with all the dishes. I am a dish junkie from all those years of holiday dinners around beautifully set tables. Having items to create your own beautiful table was a sign that you were a grown-up — at least to me.
Earlier this week I thought about all those possible options for the Thanksgiving table. When it came right down to it, however, there was really only one choice: my grandmother's china. She and my grandfather were married in 1906 so these dishes have seen a lot of family dinners. I am the third generation to enjoy this heirloom china and the stemware that goes with it.
Though it looks pretty fancy, I put a plastic cloth underneath the black linen one and a decorative runner down the center of the table. That means I can set down warm dishes and we can drip and spill to our heart's content without destroying the wood underneath. If you look closely you can see little slips of yellow paper in all the serving dishes. They're to remind me of what I planned to put where and also so I can give guests a task in the the kitchen if they want to help.
I wrote out the menu on this lovely menu card, the last one of a package I bought so many years ago I can no longer remember when or where I got them. But they are fun to use when I feel very la de da. Now I just have to make salad and get the turkey and dressing in the oven and then I can sit by the fire until the guests arrive.
Hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving filled with your favorite people and favorite food!
At the end of last week we were sitting in the teahouse with the doors and windows open, reading and drinking coffee. We enjoyed our first margaritas of the season — along with chips and two kinds of salsa — lounging on the deck and enjoying the view.
As of yesterday (Tuesday), it was so wintry I spent the afternoon making beef stew. About 4 p.m., I went out into the garden armed with black plastic plant pots, bamboo stakes, old sheets, clothespins and bricks. Starting last night and going through the rest of the week overnight temps are predicted to be dipping just below or just above freezing, so I covered Martagon lilies, Erythoniums and woodland peonies. All are well up and budded out. I think they would survive but I don't want to learn the hard way that they won't. This kind of weather is pretty typical for April in Wisconsin, yet I always find myself surprised when it happens.
When I came back indoors after spending an hour working in the cold and wind and bits of swirling snow, we opened a bottle of wine and sat in front of the fire before dinner. Looks like my week will be spent alternating between covering/uncovering plants and sitting by the fire.
I have long been an admirer of MIddleton artist, Rumi O'Brien. I first discovered her work in a Monroe Street shop probably close to thirty years ago. That's when I bought the tiny fabric lady in the front of this display box. She has a pin on the back so you can wear her like a piece of jewelry but I hang her on the Christmas tree.
Over the years I've added more fabric creations, small origami figures, framed watercolors and even a chair that Rumi upholstered and turned into a fantasy piece of furniture.
A few years ago Rumi gave me, and my sister-in-law Sara, a box of her cookie creations. We were equally charmed and amazed at all the creative energy Rumi put into making and decorating something as "common" as cookies.
Though we each had a boxful of these tasty creations, neither of us could bring ourselves to take a bite out of anything so beautiful.
I brought mine out periodically to admire them. But I could not imagine any other way to enjoy them without eating them.
This Christmas Sara came up with the perfect solution. She made holes in the cookies and threaded them with ribbon, turning them into Christmas ornaments. Then she found the right size tree to display them on, put her creation together — and presented it to me.
I knew right where to put it: In the red room with all the toys that come out of hiding for the holidays!
Rumi's Facebook page will give you a sense of the depth, the richness and whimsy of her work no matter the materials. The page also contains links to the work of her father, a well-known Japanese illustrator.