Monday, December 31, 2012

Weekend Goodies

Zach surprised me this Friday with a dinner date night. Actually, he surprised himself, too, since he had forgotten that he had found a babysitter until she e-mailed him that day to confirm. I had already assembled the pizza and rosemary focaccia for dinner, so I held off on baking it until the babysitter was on her way. The kids got pizza and a movie night with our good friends, Mary and Gabe, and I got to eat without cutting up other people's food. It was a win all around.

We go out on a lot of dates, actually. With my dad living here too, we are pretty much free to go once the kids are all in bed, which is usually between 8:00-8:30 for the older ones, earlier for the littles. Usually we end up having half price Happy Hour appetizers somewhere. Dinner dates, though, are rare.

With five little kids, we don't often go out to eat as a family, at least not for full meals. Don't get me wrong, the kids are actually pretty well behaved at restaurants, but it's not cheap to feed the hordes when we dine out. Consequently, I find myself often thinking, "I'd like to try that place. Maybe the next time we get a dinner date." Then, when that magic day comes, I get in a panic and my mind draws a complete blank. Luckily, this time, Zach remembered that I had wanted to try a cafe that a Facebook friend had recently opened, Betty's Cafe and Pies in Eagan.


I am a big, fat wimp about trying new things in restaurants. I'm cheap and like to know what I'm getting for my money, so although there is a part of me that is always vowing to try something different next time, I usually end up with my standards. French Silk is my default pie. I loved their French Silk. It actually tasted like chocolate instead of chocolate-flavoured sugar, a sin many french silks fall victim to.

Anyway, with a partial loaf of Rosemary Olive Oil Bread and a partial loaf of Rosemary Foccacia leftover the following day, I decided to make a batch of croutons.


Usually, I can take or leave croutons. The one exception was the croutons at a restaurant I volunteered at in my youth, St Martin's Table in Minneapolis. I believe the restaurant is now closed, but I still have fond memories of it. After my final layoff from my brief career in IT, I had hit a crisis period in my life. I knew I didn't want to go back to another software job, but I had no idea what I did want to do. It was a cold, harsh winter, both literally and spiritually. Rather than sitting around in my pajamas feeling sorry for myself, I decided to fill the void with acts of service.

 St Martin's was a non-profit restaurant staffed mostly by volunteers, with a small core staff of some of the kindest, most gentle people I knew. They served fresh baked bread, homemade soups, salads and sandwiches, hot tea, coffee and some lovely desserts. It reminded me of a hobbit-hole, with its simple, natural decor and hearty portions of simple, wholesome food. I worked several times a week as a volunteer waitress, with tips going to a different hunger related charity every month. It was the bright spot in my otherwise bleak winter. Consequently, salad has become something of a comfort food to me. This time of year, that is a very good thing.

I didn't add any herbs to this batch because the bread itself was herbed, but I did add garlic. I don't know what I like more about this recipe, the croutons themselves or the little, buttery crumbs on the bottom of the pan. Both are delicious. Only half of them made it into the salad. The kids (with, maybe, a little help from their mother) ate the rest as a snack.

Friday, December 28, 2012

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...

Candles lit from the Peace Light
Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Yes. It is still Christmas through Epiphany. I love celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, but over the years it's become an increasingly simplified celebration. My mom was always good at the big, over-the-top celebrations. I think it's a gift she has. She has an eye for the beautiful and we always looked forward to her perfectly wrapped presents, the house decked, as it were, with boughs of holly and the dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies, candies and treats. Those count among some of my best memories. She jokingly called herself The Queen of Christmas, and she was. She made it a special, magical time for us and she seemed to find a lot of joy in the process. When we had our own family, I tried that once and quickly realized that I was going to have to blaze my own trail. I am not the heir to that throne.
By knowing my limits, keeping things simple and mostly avoiding celebrating Christmas until Advent is actually over, the Twelve Days of Christmas are a joyful time, not just for the kids, but for me as well. The one thing I can't hack beyond Christmas Day, though, is Christmas eating. Enough is as good as a feast, as Mary Poppins once said. After a few days of constant eating, my body is ready to slow things down and get back to basics.

In a pretty glass to make it celebratory
 Zach grew up with a dad who was very much a fan of health food and a food he has a particular, and somewhat odd, sense of nostaliga for is carrot juice. I can't manage straight carrot juice myself. It's just not, well, fruity enough for me. Add an apple, though, and I'm good. Carrots are good, cheap food (we get a mega bag at Costco for maybe $5 or $6) and they juice up quickly. Since the only way to keep fruit for any length of time in this house is to buy it in quantities that would suffice to feed the monkey house at Como Zoo, by Fridays of most weeks I usually have a few thises and thats in need of using up. Friday is my juicing day. Basically, I juice some carrots and then toss in anything else that needs to be used up. This week it is, apples, oranges, clementines, ginger and grapefruit.

A gallon pitcher that will be full when I am done
I juice the carrots and anything else that might have useful pulp first and set it aside. From this batch I saved the carrot, apple and ginger pulp. You have to add a little extra liquid, but it makes a very tasty carrot bread. Or carrot apple ginger bread, as the case may be. If you put the juice in a pretty glass and put a little butter on the bread, it works for a celebratory Christmas breakfast.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Settling in for Winter

Winter is finally here! Well, winter weather has been here for a month, but I refuse to acknowledge winter's existance until it is really, truly winter according to the calendar. This is Minnesota. If you let the weather make those kinds of decisions for you, you'll lose out on a good chunk of spring and fall. I used to hate winter, so much so that I packed my bags in my early 20s and moved out West to find the sun, only to discover after a few Los Angeles winters that it is exhausting to have nothing but sunshine. I like weather. I like to have an excuse to sit in my pajamas by a warm fire with a cup of cocoa and do needlework.

I love bread baking and soup making. I've been making this Rosemary Olive Oil Bread a lot this fall and winter. It makes four loaves at a time and I always end up thinking that there will be some leftover to freeze, but it's so good that it never lasts that long. I'm lucky if there is some for lunch the next day. It's been a while since I baked bread regularly. The past two winters I was pregnant and tired, but I seem to have gotten my feet under me after three babies in a row, so there will be more bread this year.

My grain mill might even find its way out of the pantry. It was a hand-me-down from my father-in-law, his spare grain mill. We were just sitting there in his cabin in Arkansas talking about how much I wanted to try milling my own grains someday and he went to his cupboard and got me one. That is why I love him.  

Rosemary Olive Oil Bread
Even in winter, though, it's nice to have signs of life. I bought this at the store thinking it was just cut, fresh rosemary, and it turned out to be a live plant. I'm going to repot it and see if it grows. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but it's worth a try. 
Which reminds me of another sign of life in the Bleak Midwinter. The arrival of the first seed catalogs. Is it funny that seed catalogs always remind me of winter? Probably not.



Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Feast of St Stephen!

Today is the feast day of St Stephen, the first martyr of the church (stoned to death) and patron saint of both myself and my father, Steve. It's kind of a tough thing, finding a way to celebrate our feast day after eating our weekly allotment of calories in the matter of a few hours just the day before. I'm not even kidding you, we have gone through three dozen eggs and two pounds of butter in the past two days. The last thing I am in the mood for is more dessert. In the past we have sometimes done brunch, but alas, I am nearly out of eggs and it just wouldn't feel celebratory dragging five Christmased up kids to a restaurant. Still, we wanted to make it special and it is, after all, still the 12 days of Christmas.

Dad came up with a plan. He and a friend of ours went to visit our friends at the Queen of Peace Friary and brought home the Bethlehem Peace Light.


The Bethlehem Peace Light is lit from the grotto in Bethlehem where Jesus was born and carried in a blast-proof miners lamp, first to Europe, then to North America, with a message of peace. It travels to various churches and from there, people can bring it to their homes. The Franciscan Brothers of Peace have it available in their chapel along with an oil lantern to transport it (which you have to bring back to the friary).

Dad bought an entire case of 6 day candles to put in our lantern at home. We're going to see if we can keep the flame burning until next year. It was a lovely, simple way of celebrating our feast day. Much nicer than Dad's original suggestion of making rock candy. :)