I Hate Taking Down Christmas

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As soon as I touch this, the remaining needles are gonna hit the floor. Help me Hellboy!

It was about 6:00 last night when I realized that–ugh–garbage and recycling pickup was the next morning, which meant I needed to buckle down and get our once-beautiful Christmas tree out to the curb. This was made easier by the fact that our tree had completely dried out and only weighed about five pounds, but still: I hate taking down Christmas.

Preparing for Christmas is magical–getting out the decorations! Picking the tree! Lovingly reminiscing over ornaments! Your family members join in, because we’re making beautiful memories we’ll cherish forever!

Putting Christmas away is drag. Why do we keep some of these hideous ornaments? Can I get rid of them without anyone noticing? Why did I put so many lights on the tree? Is there any way to take them off without taking out half the branches (answer: science is working on it)? As I grimly wound hundreds of tiny lights and stuffed them back into their boxes, a traitorous, non-Christmassy though invaded my head: what if we didn’t do a Christmas tree next year?

What has happened to me? Along with my brother, I’m the most Christmassy jerk I know! But trees are expensive. And messy. And wasteful. And I hate doing the lights. But I won’t let anyone else do the lights. And our house is small. And WARM (hence the extra-crispy needles all over the house).

Every year about this time, I have a very special fantasy. Close your eyes, Mom! Just kidding. I think about artificial Christmas trees: beautiful, non-shedding, pre-lit Christmas trees that are perfectly shaped and can hold those super-heavy ornaments that came from god-knows-where. But then I sigh and realize I don’t have the space to store one–that’s why I keep our artificial garlands up all year long (also: I’m a Christmassy jerk, see above).

I know that I have a year to regain my Christmas spirit. Sid loves doing the tree (and is getting pretty good at helping with the lights). Sarah is only two–I certainly can’t deprive her of these precious Christmas traditions (I can’t, right?!?). But today, I still have a whole house of ho-ho-ho to stuff under the beds. Maybe some holiday music would help . . .

 

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Happy New Year & Zero Waste Jar Gifts

jar gifts lentil soup zero waste

Filling my Curry Lentil Soup jar gifts with my trusty canning funnel!

Happy New Year everyone! Wow, I did even less blogging than usual over the holidays, partly because of GeekCraft Expo Seattle and working with The Doubleclicks, but also because my computer went down, and then when it was functional again, Portland had a snowstorm (and wicked icy roads) that prevented me from getting it for about a week. Plus, I’m crazy.

I also didn’t want to blog about the things I was actually making this year–I’m keeping that as a surprise until the Epiphany, which is when my friends and I usually exchange gifts. However! I did want to share the jar gifts I made last year. If you, like me, are a little behind in your gift giving and want something easy, zero waste (or close to it), and cool to give your friends–or you’re making a game plan for next year–pull up a chair!

Jar gifts are great: not only do they look cool and handmade, but they’re useful and quite economical. They’re perfect for the holidays, hostess gifts, teacher appreciation day, etc.

jar gifts zero waste

Supplies to Make Zero Waste Jar Gifts:

  • Jars. This is probably a no-brainer. You can save glass jars throughout the year, pick them up at thrift stores, or buy a box of them at the grocery store. The grocery store option will include some plastic packaging, but in a pinch, they’re convenient.
  • A canning funnel. This is an essential piece for creating jar gifts, and the best way to get pretty layers–it’s like a regular funnel with a much wider neck, so pouring things like beans or marshmallows neatly is easy.
  • Reusable produce bags or containers for shopping. I got almost all of my supplies from the bulk bins at my local WinCo. Not only was this incredibly cheap, but I had nothing to throw away afterward–especially nice around the holidays.
  • Scraps of fabric for decoration. I used pinking shears and cut squares of decorative fabric to cover the lids.
  • Card stock and twine. I printed up recipes for those items that needed it–soup mixes. etc.

Jar Gift Recipes:

These are all the recipes I used last year, ranked in order of “would I make them again.”

  1. Curried Lentil Soup: Winner, winner, chicken dinner! I loved this recipe and will keep it in the rotation. Not only was it very pretty in the jar, but the recipient doesn’t need to add much to make it (onion and garlic, perhaps broth), it can be vegan, and the soup itself is delicious and easy to make. Yummy!
  2. Sriracha Salt: This looked fancy and was useful. It only takes the second spot because it takes a couple days to dry before you can pack it up.
  3. Cowboy Cookie Mix: Everyone gets cookies around the holidays, but what about after Christmas and New Year’s? Now your friends can have something to tide them over. This was visually appealing and tasty, but the resulting cookie dough was a little dry.
  4. Classic Cocoa: This was very pretty and very tasty, but I wouldn’t make it again. Why? Because to use it, the recipient actually needs to dump it out, mix it up, and then put it back in the jar–silly and needlessly messy. I didn’t really think this one through.
  5. Almond Joy Energy Balls: I took this recipe and made it into a jar mix, layering the ingredients. I was, frankly, searching for something Paleo for some of my friends, but if I made this again, I would just make the balls and pack them in jar.
Jar Gift Lentil Soup Zero Waste

The winner: Curry Lentil Soup–so cute, and tasty!

The method is simple: line up all your jars, and have all of your ingredients, measuring cups and spoons, and canning funnel ready. To get the most attractive layers possible, I like to pour in each ingredient and then tap the jar on the counter to level it.

Cocoa Jar Gift Zero Waste

Layered cocoa is cute, but a loser for the giftee, I realized too late.

There are tons of jar mix recipes out there, and it’s also pretty simple to take a regular recipe and jar-ify it. My rule of thumb is to make sure your giftee doesn’t have to go out and buy a lot of things to actually make the gift, like meat. If the recipe needs extra stuff, it’s better if they’re pantry staples like butter or eggs. The recipe itself should be simple, too–you don’t usually want to give two hours of active cooking to someone, unless you know that’s how they like to spend their time.

Have you ever gotten a jar gift for Christmas or a hostess gift? Did you ever use it?

Thanksgiving Menu 2016

thanksgivingWhew! Do you like how I’ve posted more in the past few days than the past few months? It’s all been leading up to this: my Thanksgiving 2016 menu!

These are all tried-and-true, crowd-pleasing recipes that aren’t terribly difficult and are so worth it. Anyway, I’m pleased to have them all in one place so I can refer to this post next year!

Elisabeth’s Thanksgiving 2016 Menu

Alton Brown’s Classic Brined and Roasted Turkey – This is simple yet delicious! Includes a recipe for gravy. It does require a 5-gallon drink cooler (the kind you dump on your coach after the winning game). If you don’t want to buy one, check your local party rental shop, you can probably rent one for less than $10.

The Pioneer Woman’s Parker House Rolls – These rolls are buttery and amazing. I don’t shape the dough for Parker House Rolls, however–I shape them into two-ounce balls.

Fresh Herb Stuffing – This stuffing is delicious and has countless variations!

Mashed Potatoes – I actually don’t use a recipe (I boil about 1/2 lb of potatoes per person in salted water, rice them, and add cream, butter, and salt and pepper to taste), but this one is great!

Green Bean Casserole – The classic! My brother’s favorite.

Green Beans with Filberts, Fennel & Orange – Yes, I’m having two green bean dishes. However, this one is so wildly different from the casserole, I don’t think anyone will notice.

Cranberry Jelly – The ridged kind from the can–aw yeah!

Great Pumpkin Pie – Fortunately, I don’t have to make pie this year (my Mom is making her delicious pie), but when I make pumpkin pie, I use Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from The Pie and Pastry Bible. It has a layer of ground gingersnaps and pecans at the bottom, and it is soooooo good.

I hope you enjoy my picks!

Fresh Herb Stuffing With Artisan Bread

Episode # 12440

I didn’t have a picture so I included one of General Hospital‘s Quartermaine family, who always have comically horrible Thanksgivings. The pizza will arrive shortly.

Like most of you, I love stuffing at Thanksgiving–it’s all the more special because now that I think of it, Thanksgiving is the only time I eat stuffing (note to self: make stuffing more often). This simple-yet-delicious Fresh Herb Stuffing recipe originally appeared in the Oregonian, probably in 2005 or 2006. Googling does me no good, so I’m glad my Mom and I saved it!

After years of more complicated recipes, I was surprised by how much I liked this one. The fresh herbs really make it delicious, and it complements, rather than competes with, your other dishes. However, there are several jazzier variations included below!

Fresh Herb Stuffing

Makes 8 servings

You Need:

1 1-lb. loaf firm-textured artisan white or sourdough bread (Note: if you live in Portland, Grand Central’s Piccolo Como is perfect)
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (divided)
1 yellow onion, diced 1/4 inch
2 stalks celery, diced 1/4 inch
1/2 cup packed finely chopped fresh parsley
2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons chopped fresh savory or marjoram
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chicken stock
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Tear the bread, including crusts, into small bite-size pieces, about the size of walnut halves. Place them on an ungreased baking sheet in a single layer and toast in the oven for 15 to 18 minutes, turning once, until crisp but not browned. You will have about 10 cups. Set aside to cool.

Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to grease a wide 10- to 12-cup baking dish. Melt 1/2 cup of butter (1 stick) in a sauté pan over medium heat. When it foams, add the onion and celery and cook for 8 minutes until vegetables have softened. Scrape all the butter and vegetables into a large mixing bowl and let cool for 10 minutes.

Add the toasted bread to the mixing bowl, along with the parsley, sage, thyme, savory or marjoram, salt and pepper. Toss to combine all the ingredients and coat the bread with the melted butter. Pour in 2 cups of the stock (it should be cool) and stir. Beat the 2 eggs into the remaining 1 cup stock and stir into the stuffing just enough to blend without over-mixing. Spoon the stuffing into the baking dish without packing it down. Dot it with the remaining tablespoon of butter and cover the baking dish with aluminum foil. Refrigerate overnight or until ready to bake.

To bake, place the covered stuffing into an oven set at anywhere between 350 to 425 degrees; bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until stuffing crowns in the center and the top browns, 30 to 45 minutes more.

Sausage variation: Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add 8 ounces pork sausage and cook, stirring to break it up, just until it changes color but does not brown. Strain out the sausage and reserve, leaving the fats (no more than 1/4 cup) in the pan. Add only 1/4 cup more butter to the hot pan to cook the onions and celery. Reduce the salt to 3/4 teaspoon. Mix the reserved sausage into the stuffing with the herbs.

Mushroom variation: Roughly chop 1 pound cleaned fresh mushrooms, such as cremini, white button or portobello, and cook with the onions and celery until softened.

Chestnut variation: Roughly chop 1 cup fresh roasted and shelled, or canned, but unsweetened chestnuts. Mix them into the stuffing with the herbs.

Oyster variation: Drain 1 pint fresh, shucked oysters. Measure the liquor from the oysters and use it to replace an equal amount of the chicken stock for the stuffing. Gently mix the whole oysters into the stuffing with the herbs.

Bacon variation: Slice 4 ounces bacon strips into 1/2-inch pieces. Cook in a skillet over medium-low heat until all the fat is rendered but the bacon is not browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve, leaving the fat in the pan. Add only 1/4 cup of the butter to the hot pan to cook the onions and celery. Reduce the salt to 3/4 teaspoon. If desired, mix the reserved bacon into the stuffing with the herbs.

Apple variation: Peel, core and cut 4 apples, such as Gala, Rome or Granny Smith, into 1/2-inch dice. Cook them with the onions and celery until softened.

Are you all set for Thanksgiving? I’ll be posting this year’s menu shortly!

Ranger Cookies: Crispy Crunchy Yummy

ranger cookiesRanger cookies! Part sturdy oatmeal cookie, part crispy macaroon, with an extra-special crunch and a rich, almost caramel-like flavor, these cookies were in heavy rotation when I was growing up, courtesy of my Great-Grandma Ethyle Potter’s recipe, which was handed down to my mother.

In fact, these were so common when I was growing up, that I didn’t realize until now that I never see them anywhere, and a quick Google search brings up recipes that are similar, but not quite right. My mother believes this particular Ranger cookie recipe was invented by a cereal company–since it calls for Wheaties in particular, I believe it. The original recipe calls for 1 cup shortening; I’ve revised it to half butter, half shortening.

Listen, chocolate chip cookies are delicious, but you can’t live on them alone. Like any self-respecting cookie, these are excellent with a cold glass of milk.

Ranger Cookies

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen

You Need:

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 cups rolled oats
2 cups Wheaties
1 cup nut meats or coconut (note: I have only ever had these with coconut)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, cream shortening, butter, and sugars. Add the eggs, beating well, and then the rest of the ingredients.

Using a small scoop or tablespoon, drop cookies onto greased cookie sheets. Bake for 10 minutes.

Have you heard of Ranger cookies? Do you have any secret family recipes to share? Post below!

Circle of Chicken: Sid’s Soup

white bean chili

Sid’s Soup with corn muffin accompaniment!

Longtime readers will remember my Circle of Chicken posts–you start by making a perfect roast chicken and then use the leftovers to create hash, soup, broth, etc. I love the Circle of Chicken because you can make so many recipes from one $5 chicken (if you shop the sales), and I love having homemade broth on hand. Now I’m sharing one of my family’s favorite recipes: Sid’s Soup, named after my son (who loves it so).

Our good friend Amy made it for a party, and once I noticed Sid scarfing it down, I asked for the recipe. I was directed to Sunday Soup by Betty Rosbottom, but quickly realized that this soup was heavily adapted from a recipe for Spicy Pork Chili with Cumin Polenta. “Adapted” as in Amy’s soup didn’t have pork or polenta.

After some texting back and forth, I got the real deal, which is posted below. It’s incredibly flavorful and zesty–each bite wakes up your tongue, since it has a very mild edge of heat from the pepper and tartness from the lime juice. Swap out the chicken broth for vegetable broth to make it vegan!

Sid’s Soup

Serves 6

You Need:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 cup diced carrots
1 serrano pepper, seeds and membranes removed, minced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 1/2 cups dry white beans, soaked overnight and simmered until tender, or two 15-oz cans
1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons lime juice
4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper

Heat the vegetable oil over medium heat and add the onions, carrots, and chili powder. Stir occasionally and cook until slightly browned, 5-10 minutes. Add the serrano peppers and garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute. Then add the beans, tomatoes lime juice, and chicken broth. Bring to a boil and the reduce heat. Simmer for at least one hour with the lid partially open.

Taste the soup and add salt and pepper as needed. Stir in the cilantro and serve (preferably with corn muffins).

Big thanks to Amy Baker for sharing her recipe! Now that it’s getting chilly (at least in Oregon), who out there is making soup? What kind?

Sarah’s Second Birthday Party

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Sarah’s Elephant Cake (tutorial from My Cake School linked below).

Sarah turns two today, but we celebrated her birthday this past weekend by inviting 40 of her closest friends over. I know that sounds extravagant for a kid’s birthday party, but one, we often have even more over for brunch (does that sound smug?), and two, at this age, the party is more for everyone else (all of our friends with kids). When she’s older, I’ll cut it down to her actual friends. Maybe.

The party was actually pretty simple to set up: I basically made a birthday cake and what I call TFAW food. When I worked for Things From Another World (the world’s finest online and brick-and-mortar comic book shop), I catered all of our signings. I started out with superhero-themed quinoa salads and fancy canapes. After being overloaded with leftovers (no one wants to eat quinoa at an Avengers signing), I ended up making simple food everyone likes–dips, fruit, veggies, and cheese–with a firm plan for anything left over.

This menu is simple, relatively inexpensive, and perfect for almost any casual gathering. The birthday cake is a bonus! If you’re not throwing a birthday party or just don’t want to make an elaborate cake, I suggest cupcakes or (even easier) brownies.

Sarah’s Second Birthday Menu

  • Elephant Cake: This tutorial was great, and not too difficult
  • Nathan Fillion’s Seven-Layer Bean Dip of the Gods: This is seriously delicious–I spread it in a 10″ x 15″ glass Pyrex dish, so it’s easy for people to dip through all the layers
  • Salsa and Tortilla Chips
  • Veggie Platter with Spinach Dip: My mother’s specialty
  • Fruit: I went with grapes and watermelon)
  • Cheese Platter with Crackers: Since this was a kid’s party, I kept it simple: a wedge of Brie, dilled havarti, some sharp cheddar, and string cheese

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures because my phone died the morning of the party. We served lemonade, Arnold Palmers, flavored seltzer, and sparkling wine.

But as important as planning a menu is, it’s even more important to have an exit strategy for the leftovers. Here’s what I’ll be doing:

  • Cake: Gone, suckers!
  • Seven-layer dip: I made ersatz migas for breakfast the other morning with some tortilla chips thrown in. I’ll be adding taco meat and making burritos with the rest.
  • Veggies: The cut veggies have been going into my husband’s lunch, and Sarah and I have been snacking on the dip. Fortunately we didn’t have a lot left over–if there were more, I would have made “Free” French Vegetable soup.
  • Fruit: Lunches, breakfast
  • Cheese platter: If you know me at all, you know I have no problem taking care of extra cheese. The slices have been very convenient for sandwiches!

Do you have any go-to party food? Post below!