Christmas 2011: The Nativity

Our Nativity scene has a Scandinavian twist.

Kris’ grandma Charlene gave us this Nativity set last year.  Since I didn’t make it to Nebraska last wintertime, I saw it for the first time a few days ago.  We’ve got all the figures set up, with 2 special additions, Dala horses.  There’s Mary, Joesph, an angel, shepherd, and various farm animals; the Dala horses fit right in.

You may notice that the Baby Jesus is not in His crib.  I’ve hidden Baby Jesus until Christmas Day.  Traditionally in Latino households, Baby Jesus gets put in his crib when the family comes back from midnight mass.  The 3 Wise Men are also seemingly MIA.  They are across the room, next to the stereo.  Every few days I move them closer to the manger set, but they won’t show up until the Feast of the Ephiphany, 12 days after Christmas, January 6th.

Our Christmas Tree 2011

Right now, upon entering our house, a sweet, woodsy smell of evergreen gushes out as soon as the door opens.  We have set up our Christmas tree, and it is making itself at home, filling our living room with its pine fragrance, my favorite smell of Christmastime.  Evergreen is the smell of comfort and nostalgia.  I associate it with friends, family, Christmas lights, fires in the fireplace, hot cocoa, snuggling, and Christmas carols.  It’s coming home from midnight mass to a quiet and dark house, solely lit by the tiny lights of the Christmas tree and a whiff of pine.

When Kris and I got our first tree, it was a little 3 foot tree that we set up on top of our coffee table.  We didn’t have any ornaments at the time, but I found some golden ornament balls near the dumpster at our apartment building.  One of our neighbors must have changed their tree color scheme and left them out for someone else to use.  Lucky us!  We went out and bought one pretty ornament each, a tradition we continue to this day, and that year, 2008, we had a tree full of golden ornaments and two random ones.  The simplicity of tree decoration didn’t matter though because it still filled the apartment with its pine smell.

This year we have a 5 foot tree, a stout Noble Fir with sturdy branches.  Last night we decorated it to the sounds of Christmas music.

Around the tree are various ornaments.  What I love about Christmas ornaments are the memories and stories they remind me of.

Various star-shaped straw ornaments that were my decoration last year.

A few first year ornaments as wedding and First Christmas together gifts.

These stuffed ornaments were made by my mom over 30 years ago.  I grew up hanging these ornaments, and my mom kindly gave us half of her collection for our own tree.  (Look I’m saying hello through the golden ornaments!)

She also gave us these cute snowmen from her accumulated collection of ornaments.

We have crystal ornaments from my mother-in-law, Pat.

And ornaments from Michele, a woman I call my second mother; may she rest in peace.

We can’t forget this ornament.  

Kris wanted to throw it away, but I told him that my neighbor from when we moved into our first house in Livermore made me this when I was in elementary school.  It used to have a cotton-ball handmade bear attached to a green ornament ball.  But, during our first Christmas with our dog, Titania, she found that low-hanging ornament, and then I found the handmade bear and green ball ripped to pieces by the backdoor.  I will keep shell though because now it has 2 stories.

Instead of getting an ornament each, we bought an elegant angel tree topper.  She’s playing a glittered lute and has a gold and white dress that drapes over the tip of the tree.  Kris arranged the last Christmas lights to go inside her dress so she lights up when the lights are on.

It is starting to feel more like Christmas as we put more and more decorations up.

Avocado

Nature’s Green Butter: our avocado harvest

Our avocado crop increased 300% this year.  By that I mean that we went from 2 avocados last year to 6 avocados this year.  Our avocado tree is the spoiled baby of the backyard, and it is full of surprises.  When we moved into our home in May 2010, seeing an avocado tree, albeit stunted from years of neglect, was a delight.  Once you know what an avocado tree looks like, they are easy to spot.  First are the two-toned leaves, a dark green, glossy as a magazine page top coupled with a wallflower tan beige underneath.  Avocado trees always have an abundance of leaves making them fun to lie underneath and stare up into the Jackson Pollock chaos of it all.  These trees do not have bark but instead tout a green-yellow nakedness dotted with rough brown patches that the sun has “burnt.”

When we got married, Kris and I gave my mom an avocado tree, planting it, mistakenly, in late August 2009.  It did not survive the winter.  Having naked bark means they are very susceptible to too low of temperatures unless they are planted in a pot and brought inside for the winter.  My mom was very excited about that tree, and it broke her heart to see its once green branches turn black as if overtaken by frostbite.

She was the first to explore the backyard of our new house, and the first to discover an avocado tree hanging on for dear life behind a massive wall of thistles.  After we massacred the thistles, we discovered that the tree had two fragile fruits, hanging in its lower branches.  So, like Marlin in Finding Nemo left with one last egg in the movie’s opening scene, we took those fruits, ripened them and planned how we could save the avocado tree the following Spring.

This tree is the avocado tree that carries all hope.

And it has delivered 300%.

Six avocados this year.  A record!  Since avocados do not ripen on the tree, I picked them and wrapped them up in a brown paper bag, giving them about 2 weeks to soften and darken in color.

Here’s a close up.  I wish you could scratch and sniff the screen because it smelled earthy, sweet, and ripe.

After the fruit had ripened, we were left with a divisive dilemma.  Kris wanted to make something with them and found all sorts of recipes in an effort to get me to add them into something.  Avocado Pie.  Avocado Ice Cream (I admit this one tempted me).  Avocado Mousse.  (My husband has a sweet tooth).  My instinct told me that by cooking our first avocados in a recipe, the flavor would be lost with all the other ingredients.  Avocados are usually added for texture and for vegan creaminess factor.  I wouldn’t budge.  I wanted something where the avocado would be the star, not a texture agent.

So, we smashed up 1 avocado into pure essence.

And we anti-climatically used it to top some cheese and crackers.  The most flavorful cheese and crackers I have ever eaten.  I swear, I was eating nature’s green butter.

Photo: Trinidad State Beach Harbor

 

Two more photos from Trinidad State Beach.  Check out this photo or this photo or this photo for more from this fabulous California State Beach which I loved visiting.  There were relatively few people there when we visited due to the overcast day.  The town of Trinidad is small, less than 500 permanent residents, with a handful of trinket shops along its one stoplight main road.  The best part of visiting this town were the tidepools and the views of the California coast, meandering its way along the water.  It also has a quick uphill trail the leads to spectacular views of the harbor, coast, and beach.  Trinidad State Beach is a jewel on the California coastline.

Mushroom Cognac Pinwheels (make ahead!)

For an easy holiday appetizer that looks elegant, try these winter-inspired pinwheels.  They have meaty portobello mushrooms sauteed with thyme and sage, the two most earthy spices.  Thyme and sage are what I imagine a forest must taste like, wild and fresh.  The cognac was a little improvisation.  With 5 bottles of red wine staring at me and not a single bottle of white to impart flavor on the mushrooms, I was stuck between using gin or cognac for the mushrooms.

My husband looooves cognac and got me to try it once, but never again.  In its pure form, cognac has dragon-like fumes that make you light headed when you get within 4 inches of the glass.  When you taste it, the fumes burn down your throat and clear up your sinuses as if it were a hot pepper.    Still, cognac was a better choice than gin and I knew the alcohol would cook off.  Since I’m an avid cookbook reader, I know that cognac is highly flammable, so I took extra precaution, ok, obsessive precaution when I added it to the mushroom filling; I took the entire pan off the stove, poured the cognac in while holding the pan over the sink, then returned it safely to the stovetop.  I didn’t even want to leave the mixture unattended to go put back the cognac because I was afraid it might light on fire.  If you don’t want to go the adventurous route, hopefully you have white wine you can use, if not chicken broth or the ever-friendly H2o, water.

P.S. I will never hear the end of “remember that one time you cooked with cognac…”

Click here for the printable.

Mushroom Cognac Pinwheels
Makes 15-20 large pinwheels or 30-40 small pinwheels (see note)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 portobello mushroom caps, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
5-6 fresh sage leaves finely minced, or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/3 cup cognac or dry white wine or water
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated smoked fontina, gruyere, or swiss cheese
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
1/4 cup of water in a small cup for binding the dough together or 1 egg lightly beaten
1.  In a large saute pan over medium high heat, heat the olive oil, then add the diced onion and saute about 3 minutes until the onions are translucent.
2.  Add the diced mushrooms, salt, thyme, and sage to the saute pan.  Cook another 2-3 minutes.
3.  Take saute pan off of heat and away from flames and add in cognac.  Use caution as cognac is highly flammable.  Cook another 5 minutes or so until the mushrooms are soft and have absorbed all of the cognac.  Add the butter, allow it to melt, then mix with a spoon.  turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool slightly.
4.  On a clean working surface, roll out the puff pastry dough.  Use a sprinkle of flour if the dough has become sticky.
5.  Starting at the bottom (the side of the dough closest to you), sprinkle the puff pastry with the grated fontina cheese.  Make sure to cover every part of the dough EXCEPT the top inch of the side furthest from you.  Add the cognac-mushrooms and spread on top of the cheese in the same manner.  Brush the top inch with water or egg to help bind the dough when you roll it up.
6.  Starting with the side closest to you, roll up the puff pastry like a jelly roll.  It should roll up around itself at least two times.  Use water and your fingers to bind the of dough at the top.  You will have one long piece.
7. Place on a baking dish and refrigerate overnight ( or up to 2 days).
8.  When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Cut the log into 1/3 inch slices and arrange on a baking sheet, leaving space between the pinwheels.  Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.
Note: for smaller pinwheels, cut the puff pastry dough in half before topping with the filling and make two smaller logs to cut up.

Garlic and Butter Pull-Apart Dinner Rolls (make ahead!)

Thanksgiving is tomorrow,  and I have been strangely absent.  My mom is hosting, and I am in charge of making dinner rolls, an appetizer, and 2 vegetable dishes for our 12 person Thanksgiving dinner.  So far I’ve got the rolls and the appetizer prepped and ready for baking.  Tomorrow I’ll get the roasted vegetable dishes done.

This is my first time making homemade dinner rolls from scratch, with yeast.  While I have baking issues when it comes to desserts, I have quite a handle on yeast doughs.  Usually it’s the other way around for people, they are intimidated using yeast, maybe for the time commitment (I can understand that), but making desserts is a piece of cake (pun intentional).

The greatest part about working with yeast is it allows you to multi-task.  Once the ingredients are put together and the dough kneaded and shaped, you can fuhgit about it for 45 minutes.  That’s an episode of “Glee.”  Or, the responsible route, it’s enough time to prep an appetizer for Thanksgiving.

I don’t have final pictures yet since the rolls haven’t technically been served.  But after taste-testing the dough, I’m pretty sure they will be a hit.  They are buttery with a touch of sweetness from the sugar and random kicks of garlic from the minced cloves.  If you don’t like garlic, try chopping up some fresh rosemary, or add chives.  This dinner roll recipe is a blank canvas.  I will update about what my family thought of the dinner rolls.  Let’s hope I don’t burn them.

Click here for the printable recipe.

Garlic and Butter Pull-Apart Dinner Rolls

Makes 15-16 rolls

1 cup fat-free half and half
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 6 chunks
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) rapid rise yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon minced garlic (4-5 cloves)
1.  In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter in the half and half.  As soon as the butter is melted, turn off the heat.
2.  In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, yeast, sugar, and salt.
3.  Mix one third of the half and half/butter combo into the dry ingredients, and use a spoon to combine; you should have small, pea-size chunks.  Add the next 2 thirds in the same manner, a little at a time.
4.  Add the egg, 2 egg yolks, and garlic to the dough and mix to combine.  At this point, your hands may make the combining easier.
5.  On a clean work surface, knead the dough about 5 minutes.  Place the dough in a clean mixing bowl and cover with a dark kitchen towel.  Let it rise in a warm place for 45-55 minutes.
6.  After the dough has doubled in size from rising, spray a 13 x 9 inch baking dish (preferably glass) with cooking spray.
7. Divide the dough into fourths.  working with one fourth at a time, roll it into a log shape about 6 inches long.  Cut the dough in half, then cut each half in half again so you end up with 4 pieces.  Roll one piece at a time into a ball and arrange in the baking dish in rows or randomly.  Repeat this step with the remaining dough.
8.  Cover the baking dish again and set the rolls in a warm place to rise for another 45 minutes.  (Optional let the rolls rise for 30 minutes, then place then in the refrigerator for the next day.  If making the rolls ahead of time, set them on a kitchen counter for about 20 minutes before baking them.)
9.  Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.  Bake 20-25 minutes, until the rolls are puffy and golden brown.  Serve immediately with extra melted butter brushed on top if desired.
This recipe was adapted from The Weekend Baker by Abigail Johnson Dodge.

Monday’s Photo: Sea Anemone from tide pools at Trinidad State Beach

This is a third photo from Trinidad State Beach in Humbolt county, the first one being this starfish and the second this lighthouse.  What a surprise to drive up to this state beach, walk out to a few clusters of rocks and then ecstatically gasp over the multitude of sea anemones and starfish.  Tidepools have always fascinated me.  They are eco-systems whose existence depends on cycles of feast and famine, the high tide that brings water and a low tide that often takes it away, unless a rock support system helps trap in a pool.  Anemones remind me of 3 ideas.  One, to always have a rock for support.  Two, during a state of abundance open up to the flow.  Three, when the ebb is temporarily absent, hold on tight to your rock and keep faith that the tide will come.

Coconut curry soup with roasted salmon

Coconut Curry Soup with Roasted Salmon

Oh the weather outside is frightful (OK, not so much in California), and the chill in the air (mainly because we don’t have the best insulation in California houses) means it’s time to cook warm soups to help warm the body.  When cooking for two, soup is an effective way to make lunches for the week.  A pot of soup equals 6-7 meals, all that’s needed is really good Tupperware to make sure it doesn’t spill while commuting.

Another reason to love soup is it’s incredible capacity to use up leftover or past their prime vegetables.  Soups are endlessly adaptable given what’s in the fridge or taste preferences.  The soups I make are quick, between 20 and 40 minutes to prepare.  This soup is Thai inspired.  It looks like a sunset with its  pinkish-orange color from the mix of coconut milk and chicken broth.  Instead of adding in the salmon to cook in the soup (a possible variation), I roasted the salmon separate in order for the soup base to maintain its unique Thai curry-coconut flavor.  This method allows the soup and the salmon to remain two distinct but complementing flavors.

Here are the ingredients:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 small onions, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
1 poblano pepper, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste, such as Thai Kitchen
1 14-ounce box low-sodium chicken broth
1 13 or 14-ounce can low-fat coconut milk
3 small potatoes, peeled, and diced
1 pound fresh salmon sprinkled with salt pepper, and 1 teaspoon olive oil
fresh lime wedges and chopped fresh parsley (not pictured)
In addition to the parsley I forgot to photograph 3 small peeled and diced potatoes.
First saute the aromatics (onions, poblano pepper, celery, and garlic) in 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
Instead of a classic Latin sofrito where I’d usually add tomato paste or sauce, I used Thai Red Chili Paste, a fun ingredient to have on hand for easy Thai flavor without the fuss of finding and figuring out ways to use items I’m not familiar with.
Then add the liquids, chicken broth and coconut milk.  The color of the soup will look like a sunset, pinkish-orange.
Also add the diced potatoes.  Bring the soup up to a boil, then lower the heat to allow the soup to simmer for 20 minutes or so, enough time to roast up some fresh salmon.
Whenever I’m cooking for two, I prefer to use the toaster oven for small baking needs since it’s a manageable size and doesn’t need more than a minute or two to preheat.  I lined a mini baking sheet with tin foil for very easy clean up, and sprinkled salt, pepper, and a little olive oil on top of the fish.  Salmon’s a fish with more oil than others, so it doesn’t need a lot.  Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes, until the edges are crisp and the fish is flaky and pink.  Don’t you love those close up sizzling bubbles?
To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, top with chunks of roasted salmon and chopped fresh parsley.  Squeeze half of a lime on top of each bowl for added flavor.  Add a bowl of fresh salad and you’ve got yourself one tasty soup and salad combo.
Buen Provecho!

Welcome to Your New Grain Staple: Quinoa

It is the “Mother of Grains,” or so the Incans would have us believe, but after taking a closer look at the nutritional and taste benefits of  quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), I am in full agreement.  Eating quinoa is like winning the nutritional lottery as far as grains are concerned.  I have decided that I love it so much it will now replace brown rice as my go-to grain.  Here are 5 reasons why you should eat quinoa instead of brown rice.

1.  Taste.  Quinoa has a rich nutty flavor to it that makes it taste more substantial and filling than brown rice.  It also has  little more fiber, so the scientific data even shows that quinoa is more filling.

2.  Time.  Quinoa takes 12-15 minutes to rinse and then cook up in water on the stove top; brown rice takes 50+ minutes, not to mention a hefty amount of spices and salt to make it have flavor.  When I come home after a long day, the last thing I want to do is wait for rice to cook.

3. Versatility.  Don’t just limit quinoa to a side grain dish, that would be a disservice.  Quinoa can add substance to soups, be a breakfast porridge, or even be the main ingredient in sweet baked goods.  Quinoa has no gluten, so it is excellent for gluten-free diets.

4. Quinoa is a symbol for endurance.  The crop thrives (was domesticated) in one of the harshest climates on earth, the highlands of the Andes mountains.  It can grow in altitudes over 9,800 feet above sea level where wind and fluctuating temperatures can damage other crops like corn and potatoes.  The Incas used quinoa to protect these other staples in their farming terraces.  Additionally, the Incas had the most extensive road network in Pre-Colombian South America.  The runners who used to send messages along these roads most likely relied on quinoa for nourishment.

5. It packs a much larger nutritional punch than brown rice.  Consider these numbers that I gathered from the nutritional label of a box of quinoa and a bag of brown rice.  Additionally, quinoa has thiamin, niacin, and folate, but I ran out of room in my table to show it.  I also don’t exactly know what these nutrients do for out bodies.  Let’s face it, quinoa outperformed long grain brown rice in every single category.

Long Grain Brown Rice Quinoa
Serving size ¼ cup dry 1/3 cup dry
Calories 170 160
Total Fat 1.5 grams 2.5 grams
Potassium 0 grams 320 mg (9% DV)
Carbohydrates 35 grams 30 grams
Fiber 2 grams 3 grams
Protein 4 grams 6 grams
Iron 4% (DV) 20% (DV)
Phosphorous 0 20% (DV)


 

Monday’s Photo: Oranges from the Backyard

It’s amazing what a little water, some insecticide, and pruning can do for a tree.  These fresh oranges are from a tree that a year ago I didn’t even want to walk by for fear of being attacked by insect residue.

This poor orange tree looked haggard when we moved into our place in May 2010.  First, it was clothed in webs from spider mites.  The webs took over the tree, making it look like a net had been placed around it.  Very Gross.  Second, whiteflies or aphids (not sure which, most likely both) excreted a sticky substance on the back of the leaves and dirt and dust in the air collected on the stickiness, making the leaves appear not green but black and white.  Third, it was brimming with soooo many oranges, many which were long past their prime.

When we tried to eat these “fruits,” we spit them out because they were more cardboard than orange.  A trip to my local family-owned nursery helped me figure out a tactical plan to save the tree from infestation.

First we sprayed an insecticide, an All Seasons Spray Oil that connected to our hose.  I don’t know why I said we, Kris did this, while I shut the sliding glass back door and stayed clear.  Then Kris pruned off some of the lower branches which had withered fruit on them.  Immediately (this is not an exaggeration) the tree looked taller, healthier.  The leaves were green again!

Then I started watering it once every 2-3 weeks, a deep soak.  Whenever I remembered.

Now when we use these oranges they are sweet and juicy.  From time to time when we cut one open it is dry and a light yellow color instead of a brilliant orange, so we just head back outside and grab another one with our fruit picker.  The ratio of juicy fruit to dry fruit used to be 1 juicy fruit for every 4-5 dry ones, now that is pleasantly reversed.

I can garden!!

P.S. I used this fresh orange juice in this recipe.