Happy New Year!

A large, rollicking party, loud with noisemakers and awash in champagne, like something Nick and Nora Charles would attend?  Or a quiet evening by the fire, watching Ryan Seacrest and trying not to miss Dick Clark (but at the same time wishing Dick Clark would just let it go, when his infirm self shows up at the end of the show) and having a glass of dry sherry at midnight?  Hard to say.  New Year’s Eve is tricky.  If you go out there are always expectations of romance and revelations, both of which seldom appear.  And those expectations often seem to turn New Year’s Eve into a disappointment.  Then sometimes you just get together with a couple of friends, some spaghetti, and some champagne and you end up dancing til three o’clock in the morning.  So yes, I think New Year’s Eve is tricky.  For me the key is minimal expectations so that I’m sure I won’t be disappointed, but I also leave room to be pleasantly surprised.

Usually we have fondue for a late dinner.  But this year, with semi-adult children coming and going, and not being sure who will be here when, I’ve opted out of the cheese-fest.  Leftover fondue is never a good thing.  So this year we are going with the aforementioned spaghetti, along with meatballs, sausages, and garlic bread.  And the alcohol may or may not flow–we’ll just see how the evening goes.

When the children were little, I would make a two layer cake for dessert.  Then I would cut up a few 3 x 5 cards into four pieces, and write a fortune on each piece.  Fortunes don’t need to be elaborate:  “the tooth fairy will visit before the summer’s end” or “you will meet a new friend who will become dear to you” or “great luck, happiness, and wealth will soon be yours” (may as well think big).  You get the idea. Wrap each fortune in foil, and then punch a hole in the foil-covered card.  Tie a piece of curling ribbon to each fortune, leaving the ends about eighteen inches long, then curling the ends.  Put the first layer of the cake on a plate, level the top, and frost the sides and top.  Lay the fortunes on top, with the ribbons sticking out, draping down over the sides of the first layer. Place the second layer on top, sandwiching the fortunes between the two layers, and frost the sides and top of the top layer.  Now you have a cake with colorful, curly ribbons sticking out.  Take turns gently pulling out fortunes and reading them aloud.

We’d also do M&M fortune telling (apparently I’m big on fortune-telling).  Take a handful of M&Ms and reveal your future.  Red: self-confidence;  blue: wealth;  orange: love;  yellow: geekiness (can be cancelled out if you also have red and blue);  green: wishes (make a wish for each green one you have);  brown: health.  It’s kind of fun, very easy, suitable for all ages.

Now of course New Year’s Eve tends to be somewhat alco-centric, and I’ve been seeing a lot of hangover cures online.  You do know there are no hangover cures, right?  Time is the only thing that really cures a hangover, and prevention is the only way to buffer the after-effects of your debauchery.  No, I’m not saying you have to have a dry New Year’s.  Rather, there are a few things I have found, through some rather unscientific experimentation, that help you to survive the next day, because there’s nothing worse than that feeling of being afraid you might die of your hangover, and also of being afraid you won’t.  First of all, water is the biggest key.  Before you even start to party, have a bottle or two of water.  Start out hydrated and it won’t be so hard to keep hydrated (the hangover headache is mostly due to dehydration).  Eat.  Regularly. If you are going somewhere where a proper meal is not on offer, have a peanut butter sandwich before you go. At bedtime have a snack and another bottle (maybe two) of water.  A couple of spoonfuls of honey at bedtime is, for some reason, very helpful.  And then Advil.  I take four, but you should probably stick to the recommendations on the bottle as I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.  So the bedtime regime is a snack, water, honey, Advil, more water, then bed.

I’m not even going to remind you not to drink and drive because you are not an idiot and wouldn’t do anything that dumb.

So it might not be a New Year’s Eve Nick and Nora would relish, but we’ve had a stressful year and the idea of some quiet revelry is very appealing.  Next year will be better than this one–good riddance to 2011, hello 2012!

Happy New Year!

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Family, Feasting, and a Merry Christmas!

We have our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve.  Usually prime rib, but due to austerity measures this year, we are having bangers and mash (which we all love but rarely eat, for obvious reasons). On Christmas Day, we graze. There are mince tarts, jam tarts, and maid of honour tarts (yes, these get spelled the English way).  Christmas cookies, Christmas toffee, Christmas cake  (I feel like Elf and his four main food groups: “Candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup”).  Sausage rolls, lox and cream cheese with bagels, bourbon balls, peppermint bark, mini quiches, and a box of chocolates.  Later, we add rolls, cold sliced turkey and sliced roast beef, and condiments and crudites into the mix.  It is a food extravaganza that goes on all day Christmas Day.  And because we do have this embarrassment of riches, I don’t have to cook on the 26th, either.  Which is quite a treat, really, since I have been cooking like a fiend for the week (and longer, for the things that can be frozen) leading up to the 25th.

Springerle cookies (at right) are a new addition this year–we’ll see how they turn out.  The sausage rolls (at far left in the picture above) are a perennial favorite. The tarts are on the tiered plate above, and Christmas sugar cookies (below right)  are made in a double batch, frozen, and then slowly doled out and quickly iced, otherwise we would scarf them down in a day or two.

Bourbon balls (below) are probably my favorite Christmas goodie.  Even when I was a little child I loved them.  They are very bourbony, so I’m not sure this says anything good about me.  The Christmas cake is a fruitcake draped with almond paste, then iced with royal icing (hey! this is what Kate and William’s wedding cake was–just one more way in which my life parallels that of the royal family…).

The mini quiches, peppermint bark, box of See’s, and Cadbury fingers are all gifts or purchased (once a year treats, and I can’t do everything), and they nestle up nicely to the homemade English toffee (at left).

Now, I’ve not given you recipes, but these are all easy to find, run-of-the-mill Christmas treats.  I know Christmas isn’t just about food, like I know that Christmas isn’t just about presents.  But certainly you can’t deny the huge role both play in the celebration.  Christmas is, of course, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but it is also a time to celebrate family and tradition, which I think is just as significant to most people as the religious reasons for the holiday.  So have a very Merry Christmas, and enjoy your families and your feast.

Quick, Easy Dinner for Pre-Christmas Week

What with those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call, I know you’re busy. Me too.  So I thought that a quick and easy Crock Pot dinner might be helpful.  This is mostly from the Food Network cookbook Making It Easy. It said to use brisket, but I used a  3 lb. boneless chuck steak and it worked just fine (plus I’m never quite sure what a brisket actually is…).  This took about 20 minutes to get into the Crock Pot, and then it cooked all day.  So there I was wrapping (not rapping–that would be a different sort of day), listening to Andy Williams croon that It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, basically getting lots of stuff done, and all the while, dinner simmered away, smelling delicious.

Southwestern Pulled Beef Sandwiches  serves 6

3 lbs. beef brisket (boneless chuck steak just fine)

Salt and pepper

2 Tbl. vegetable oil

5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1 yellow onion, halved and sliced thinly

1 Tbl. chili powder

2 tsp. ground coriander

2 tsp. cumin

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 cups water

3 Tbl. molasses

1 14 oz. can whole or chopped tomatoes, with their juices

2 whole canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce

soft sandwich rolls

Season the beef generously with salt and pepper to taste. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add the oil and heat until almost smoking.  Add the meat and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides, about 10 minutes total.  Place meat in slow cooker.  Lower heat, and to the same skillet add garlic, onion, chili powder, coriander, and cumin to the drippings and heat until fragrant, about a minute. Add vinegar and boil until almost gone, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon.  Stir in the water and molasses and pour the mixture over the meat.  Crush the tomatoes, whether whole or chopped, through your fingers into the slow cooker.  Add the chipotles and the juice from the tomatoes.  Cover the cooker, cook on LOW for 8 hours (or, alternatively, you could cook on HIGH for one hour, then on LOW for 5-6 hours, which is what I did–however the timing works for you).  To serve, leave the meat in the slow cooker and use two forks to pull it apart into shreds.  Stir the meat evenly into the sauce, taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.  Pile saucy meat onto sandwich buns and serve (quite delicious to first spread the cut side of the buns with butter, sprinkle with a little garlic powder, and broil til lightly toasted, then fill with the meat).  Muy tasty. Now off you go, go finish your wrapping (not rapping).

There’s a Brand New Baby in Our House…

The baby in question

Yes, we have a new addition to the family.  She’s not really a  baby, and she doesn’t really look like any of the relatives, but she is definitely family.  Growing up, we always had a dog, and now my family and I have had dogs for almost 25 years.  This past summer our dear old dog died.  Very sad, very wrenching, so I don’t want to talk about it–it’s just too hard.

Anyway, we decided we were ready for a new dog.  She’s not a replacement, she’s just the new dog in our lives–we’ve never not had at least one, and you miss having a dog!  All the dogs and cats we’ve ever had have found us–they were strays or pets that other people didn’t want anymore.  We kept waiting for a dog to find us, but that didn’t seem to be happening, so I went to the Solano County Animal Shelter in Fairfield to choose a new pet.  If you’ve ever been to an animal shelter, you’ll understand how hard that was to do.  But we knew we wanted to get a shelter dog, so needs must.  I went on a Wednesday, and she came home on Thursday.

It has been amazing how quickly she’s made herself at home.  They say that shelter dogs are grateful, that they “know.”  I am here to say it is absolutely true.  She’s loving and calm and sweet and funny.  We got her a cozy bed she loves to curl up in, and today we discovered she loves to run really fast.  She’s been a bit shy, but now she’s letting her hair down, and she’s a lot of fun.  She’s like our family Christmas gift.  (Now, for heaven’s sake, what with Christmas coming up soon, don’t surprise anyone with the gift of a dog if there is any possibility, however remote, that that person won’t be 110% delighted!!)

Going to the shelter, and seeing all those abandoned dogs (and there are cats, too, suffering the same plight as the dogs, but I didn’t even go into the cat section)–well, it makes me so mad!  Here is a handy quiz (with answers!) to help decide whether or not to get a dog:

Should I Get a Dog?

Are you worried that the dog will scratch your hardwood floors?  (Yes, the dog will scratch your hardwood floors.  Don’t get a dog.)

Are you worried that the dog will mess up your yard, or make yellow spots on your lawn?  (Yes, the dog will mess up your yard and make yellow spots on the lawn.  Don’t get a dog.)

Does it bother you when the dog comes in the house and is rambunctious because he is excited to see you? (He will be excited, he may knock things over with his tail, but it’s because he loves you, and you’ve left him alone too much. Dogs are pack animals.  They need to be with you–you are their top dog.  If you can’t spend a lot of time with him, don’t get a dog.)

Do you hate it when you or your guests get dog hair on their clothes?  (You will get dog hair on your clothes.  Your guests will get dog hair on their clothes.  Don’t get a dog.)

Do you think it’s okay to “try out” a dog, because you can give him to somebody else if it doesn’t work out?  (It’s not okay.  Unless it is a true issue of safety, make it work.  If you’re not sure for any reason, don’t get a dog.)

Do you plan to leave the dog outside for a week or so when you go away, since the dog loves it outside, and that way it’s easier for you?  (That poor animal will bark day and night out of boredom and loneliness, and your neighbors will complain and they will hate you and your dog.  Don’t get a dog.)

Home at last

However.  If all these possible problems truthfully wouldn’t bother you, if you feel you have passed the test, that you’ve thought about all the particulars and the eventualities, and that you are willing to care for and love this dog for the rest of his days on earth, well then, okay.  You can get a dog.  I hope you’ll go the shelter to get one that someone else got rid of.  Because don’t forget:  shelter dogs are grateful–they know.

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