Halloween

I am really enjoying the build-up to Halloween this year.  My son, who has chosen to be a ghoulish vampire, is parading in his costume at school today, followed by a party at my husband’s firm that will include candy, magicians, and dinner.   He’ll squeeze in an ice skating birthday party tonight as well.  Tomorrow he will have friends over to make caramel and chocolate dipped apples, eat pizza, carve pumpkins and watch “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”  Sunday he will don his costume again and for the first time go trick or treating in our new neighborhood.  Also a first – we’ll be handing out candy after 23 years of apartment living with no candy hand-out obligations.

First, a confession.  I am allowing my son to have some friends over to make caramel apples because I love caramel apples.  Several years ago my friend Cindy and I made a bunch, first letting the caramel set and then dipping them into melted dark chocolate, followed by a coating of pecan bits.  Oh, pure heaven!  I am quite partial to using Granny Smith apples.  The tart bite is a nice counterpoint to the ultra rich exterior.  However, I will be purchasing some red apples as well, since most kids tend to prefer them. 

I have also purchased Halloween sprinkles, fall-themed sprinkles, and sliced almonds for the apple exteriors.  I’m not sure how much fun the kids will have, but my mouth is already watering in anticipation of this once-a-year treat.  I’m also counting on my son scoring a ton of candy at the party given by my husband’s workplace.  Last year the count was 120.  With the stash he raked in at Halloween (a rainy night, to boot) it was well over 200 pieces of candy.  I am confident he’ll do just as well this year.

The bottom line is this – Halloween is about channeling your inner child (much like Christmas), having fun with your kids, and eating a whole lot of junk.  What a blessed holiday indeed.

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Pumpkin Walnut Bread

I adore all things made with pumpkin.  I stumbled across this recipe and tried it.  It made the moistest, most delicious pumpkin bread.  If you keep the bread in the pan it is baked in, cover it with wax paper and then double wrap it with foil, it will stay moist for an entire week. 

Pumpkin Walnut Bread
Adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking as published in Gourmet

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
1 cup (9 ounces) canned pumpkin puree (NOT the pre-seasoned pumpkin pie filling)
1/2 cup neutral-flavor vegetable oil (such as canola)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1 cup (4 ounces) chopped toasted walnuts (toast in the oven or in a small pan on the stove)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a loaf pan  with melted butter. Use a large bowl to whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger and salt. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs and water. Blend in the sugar until well incorporated, then add the pumpkin puree, vegetable oil and vanilla extract. Blend these wet ingredients together well.

Add the pumpkin mixture to the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Stir in the walnuts until they are evenly distributed. Use a spatula to scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and level the top.

This is a thick loaf, so bake for 55 to 65 minutes, until the bread is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely on a cooling rack.  The best technique for serving is to use a serrated knife to saw through the bread, cutting 1/2-inch thick slices

Enjoy!

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The Blind Side

I saw “The Blind Side” on cable this weekend.   I was humbled.  After all, what kind of faith, other than “blind” faith,” does it take to bring a stranger into your home and give them the emotional and material nourishment they need to reach their potential?  I was surprised to read that Sandra Bullock turned down the role three times because she did not want to portray Leanne Tuohy, a devout Christian woman.  I’m sure Ms. Tuohy herself would say (as she did in the movie) that it was part of her Christian duty to help Michael Oher.  I, on the other hand, think she and her family possess an even greater gift.  In one split second, on a freezing cold and rainy November night, she decided to take Michael home with her.  She knew he needed a place to sleep, and she gave him one.  What she didn’t count on was changing her own life permanently. 

How many chances do we get to change a life?  Do they occur every second, every minute, every hour, every day?  Are they visible to us, or do we have to seek them out?  I think each one of us is capable of transformation – spiritual and physical.  Not all of us can take a stranger into our home and give them permanent shelter.  However, that does not mean that we can’t make a difference to someone.  I am a huge advocate of hands-on volunteering.  Clean up your neighborhood, volunteer at your child’s school, feed a hungry person, donate a toy to a child who has never held one.  You may question whether changing one life is worth the effort.  I can assure you, you’ll never change just one life – you’ll change your own as well.

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Out of Control – The Invasion of the Stinkbugs

Okay folks.   This morning my husband cranked open the window in the kitchen only to witness 21 (yes, 21, he counted them) stinkbugs land within one minute on the screen.  On Saturday, as I left the house, the front door, entry step, and double garage doors were covered with stinkbugs.  It was like a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” only this time it was stinkbugs.  It was a grossly disturbing site.  They are taking over!

Now, mind you, there is more than one variety of stinkbug.  Most of us are familiar with the “traditional” muddy brown colored version.  We are now personally experiencing an invasion of the red and black version.  They are narrower in body type, but just as disgusting and consistent in their behavior as their less vibrant cousins.  My husband, Kurt, takes every opportunity possible to kill them.  He will go outside equipped with a handful of Bounty (and only Bounty) paper towels and just annihilate as many as possible.  I know this makes him feel better, but I doubt it is making a dent in the worldwide stinkbug population.  My son, a chip off the old block, has also become quite skilled in stinkbug extermination.  (I’m a wee bit proud of his bravery.)  But, as we all know, there is no antidote for stinkbugs.  (Some websites claim to have sprays to eradicate them, but I am skeptical.)  One article I read said that they are attracted to the leaves of tomato plants.  So much for pots of tomatoes on my new deck.  It took me 48 years to get my first house, and now I can’t plant a damn tomato plant because of these buggers.  I am beyond angry.  Our only salvation is that a cold front will move in soon (who would have thought that I’d wish for cold weather) and that they will go into hibernation.

I would like to point out that the home front is just one area where these ruthless creatures roam.  My husband has now been identified as a P.S.B.K. (Professional Stink Bug Killer).  This is, in fact, a certification of the highest order — much higher than obtaining a Ph.D., for example, or a medical degree.   Although Kurt possesses that ever-so-endearing juris doctorate degree, it is indeed his P.S.B.K. certification that is most valued in the workplace.  Random shouts of panic from co-workers (male and female alike) automatically elicit a call to action as he enters the battlefield of offices, cubicles, computers and whatnot to fend off the mighty beasts.  Tears of gratefulness and hearty handshakes are proffered.  Humbleness ensues.  This is a man whose mission is to singlehandedly eradicate an entire species.  I hope he succeeds.

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Town & Country

Town & Country is one of my favorite magazines.  It captures the lifestyle of high society, cataloguing their exploits and accomplishments and their vacations and homes.  Most importantly, it showcases the types of luxury goods that these individuals are in the habit of purchasing.  However, one thing that they have and that you can have too, if you want it, is access to some of the funniest and quirkiest names on the planet.  Not an issue goes by where I haven’t chuckled out loud at these so-called “normal” monikers. 

Here are some examples from the current issue:

Zach Bogue

Starlite Randall (who just happens to be Marisa Berenson’s daughter)

Tripler Pell

Tawfik Hammoud

Topsy Taylor (how about Topsy Turvy, while we’re at it!)

Mandana Rivka Dayani

Other society names that I adore:

Tinsley Mortimer

Zani Gugelmann

Ferebee Bishop Taube

Muffie Potter Aston

Byrdie Bell

Celerie Kemble and her husband, Boykin Curry – their son’s name is Ravenel, and he’s known as Rascal, and their daughter’s name is Zinnia

Bronson van Wyck

Coralie Charriol Paul

Now folks, there are plenty more fun names out there, and I try not to pick on ethnic names (most of the time), which may sound funny to us but are not unusual in the person’s own country.  I enjoy a unique name, which is why my husband and I did not go with a popular name for our son.  However, some names do rise to the level of laughable and absurd.  Please send me your submissions of real names that you find hilarious.  Let’s laugh together.

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David Tanis – Brilliance in the Kitchen

I first was introduced to David Tanis through an article in the November 2005 issue of Saveur.  He is chef part of the year at Chez Panisse in Berekely, California.  He spends the other half of the year in Paris. 

In the article he prepared several dishes using ingredients culled from his visits to various outdoor markets around Paris.  I decided to try his gratin of Swiss chard. 

Up to this point I had never eaten chard – or perhaps I had and didn’t know it.  I am quite content eating all manner of greens, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.  First, a visit to the supermarket to purchase the Swiss chard.  Without getting too technical, there are several varieties available – a red, a white, and a green.  I purchased the white variety – dark green large leaves with a large white stalk running down the middle.  Chef Tanis explained that in order to maximize this vegetable’s potential one had to treat it as two separate entities.  The stalks, cut into batons and parboiled, are one part of the equation.  The leaves, chiffonaded and sauteed, are the second part of the equation.  I proceeded with these tasks, taking care to following his directions exactly as written.  Next was the bechamel sauce.  Bechamel is a lovely white sauce created by making a roux and adding milk and a generous helping of nutmeg.  Having a soft spot for French sauces, I was more than happy to whisk this mixture into submission for the suggested 15 minutes.  A generous grating of Parmesan cheese and 35 minutes later my husband and I experienced what can only be described as vegetable nirvana.  At first there was complete silence, followed by smiles and then the laughter one experiences when ticked pink with a new discovery.  We were smitten.  We were in love.  Gratin of Swiss chard was our new baby. 

Since I am such a decent person, I will share with you my version of this “can’t get enough of it” dish.  (Note:  Be prepared to devote a fair share of time prepping this dish.  Nothing is difficult, however.)

3 large bunches Swiss chard

3-4 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

2 c. Milk

1 stick Butter (plus extra for greasing gratin dish)

1/4 c. Flour

Nutmeg

Extra virgin olive oil

Red pepper flakes

Salt

Pepper

Grease 9″ or similar sized gratin dish with butter.  Set aside.

Take each large leaf of Swiss chard and cut leaves from stalks.  Reserve stalks.  Cut stalks into 3″ batons (sticks).  Set aside.  Take 3 or 4 leaves and lay them on top of each other.  Roll them up tightly and take a serated knife and cut them into thin slices.  This will create a chiffonade (ribbon) of Swiss chard.  You will need a large bowl to hold all of the Swiss chard leaves once you are done cutting them.

In a small saucepan bring some salted water to a boil.  Place the stalks (batons) of the Swiss chard in the boiling water and cook for 5-6 minutes.  Drain and set aside. 

In a large saute pan add some red pepper flakes (1/4. t. at most), salt and pepper.  Drizzle in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  Heat pan over medium high heat.  When the oil starts to sizzle, take some tongs and add the leaves of the Swiss chard.  As they start to cook down, add some more leaves until all of the leaves have been added.  Cook leaves, turning to coat each batch with the extra virgin olive oil mixture.  Place cooked mixture in a colander and let drain.

In a medium saucepan melt one stick of butter.  To this add the flour and whisk for 3 minutes over medium heat.  Add the milk slowly, whisking constantly.  Continuing whisking mixture for about 15 minutes, adding lots of nutmeg (at least 1 teaspoon) and a pinch of salt.  The mixture will start to thicken.  After about 15 minutes the mixture should be thick and smooth.  Remove from heat.

Layer Swiss chard leaves in bottom of buttered gratin dish.  Lay stalks on top of leaves.  Cover with bechamel sauce.  Grate Parmesan cheese and sprinkle generously on top of bechamel sauce.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 35 minutes, until top becomes nicely browned.

The sad part of this entire production is that Swiss chard, like its cousins in the “greens family”, cooks down to almost nothing.  So, while you might think that a recipe like this should yield many servings, it does not.  I would say that this will serve 4-6 as a side dish, with no leftovers.  However, two hungry adults could easily polish off the entire dish in one sitting.  To share or not to share – it’s hard to feel generous after taking your first bite.  I leave the decision to you.

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Cozy

Yesterday brought us our first taste of raw, damp, fall weather.  People were wearing jackets, and there was a collective mental sigh because everyone knew that summer was over.  A precursor to the winter ahead, the weather was more a barometer of mood than atmospheric fluxuations. 

Jackets were donned, long sleeves made their debut, and thoughts ran to simmering soups and stews.  Ah, but there was one thing missing.  Arriving home to a house that felt cold, even though the thermostat read 68 degrees, I couldn’t shake that feeling that I needed to get warm.  After taking a long hot shower and settling into a nice pair of pajamas, I realized the answer was just the flick of a switch away.  Turn on the fireplace!  Yes, the warm glow of our new gas fireplace crackling against the dark shadows cast by an ever growing early sundown.  Within ten minutes the place was cozy, the temperature had gone up one degree, and we were all esconced in an embrace of coziness.  In a few more weeks we’ll up the ante and add some hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream and preview some seasonally appropriate movies.  

I encourage you to take the opportunity to turn a raw, damp day into a day of cuddling, snuggling and bonding with your family.  You’ll be glad you did.

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