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Love through Food

Of all the days in the year, Valentine’s Day is the day that has been set aside to show those dear to you that you care about them, that they are important to you. Sometimes this show of affection is outright. Other times it is hidden.

Valentines of Old

I remember one year when I was in elementary school, our teacher had set up a post office in our classroom. It was festively encased in pink and white crepe paper. Inside were post boxes for everyone in the class. Prior to the day, students carefully made valentines at home or chose them in a store. When the day finally arrived, we each went to the post office to “mail” our cards. At the end of the day, we celebrated with a party where we could go to the post office to pick up our mail. It was all so exciting for the young me.

Cooking to Show Love

Today that excitement remains but has grown into a more refined essence. This holiday arrives in the midst of cold February. It seems many are feeling the winter blues, yet here comes this day, inserting itself into the busy schedule that life brings. Today gives us the opportunity to look outward to those around us whom we hold dear. We share kindness, say we love someone, and stop what we are doing to celebrate others.

When the trees and landscapes are at their starkest, we brighten with colorful bouquets of flowers. We also receive, for this day is reciprocal. If we love, it is likely we are loved. In addition to giving, let yourself bask in the love showered on you. Just as we want to affirm, let yourself be affirmed.

Sweet Celebration

Not surprisingly, I tend to cook for my loved ones on this day. Let’s start at the end. Dessert. It has to be something special. Not necessarily time consuming, just something that says, “you are the most important to me,” and “I love you”.

Because food always seems to appear in celebrations, we give chocolate. Today we indulge with chocolate mousse. Not just ordinary mousse, but the kind where I separate eggs, whip whites, add espresso, melt rich dark chocolate, and fold whipped cream into the mix. It’s that sort of mousse.

We bake decadent chocolate cake, offer chocolate-dipped ruby strawberries, serve cocoa dusted chocolate truffles. Or we lean towards a red theme, whether a gooey cranberry dessert or the always classic red velvet cake. Those who want to dine in make special meals, those who don’t go out to favorite restaurants. We write our thoughts on poignant cards, forgetting ourselves to think of our loved ones.

The Main Course

Because the temperature is dropping below the floor, the substance of our meal has to be piping hot, such as a meaty stew. Leafy greens with slivers of roasted red peppers (of course, on this day it has to be red!) tossed in a red wine vinaigrette make up the salad course. A pungent cheese and seedy crackers accompany. Lit candles and early Jazz tunes in the background complete the festivity.

We love and are loved. In and of itself, this is a gift. Know this every day of the year. Especially today on this Valentine’s Day, let us collectively pause, look to those around us, and say “thank you for being in my life.”

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Savoring our sweet hygge

The snap and pop of a fire in the hearth, the twinkle of lights on the mantle, a steaming mug of cocoa, Wynton Marsalis playing a jazz version of “Winter Wonderland,” candles burning; these are the sights and sounds of hygge in December in the north. Cinnamon, cardamom, pine, nutmeg, apple, ginger, bread baking; these are the aromas that linger.

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A Scandinavian Christmas

In our house Nordic traditions include round after round of tender lefse coming off the grill, savory Swedish meatballs with lingonberries providing a sweet counter, a delicately carved rosewood crèche on the side table, the rich scent of Yulekake and cardamom buns baking in the oven, gingersnaps cooling on the counter. Smoked salmon, Jarlsburg cheese, and pâté made of goat cheese and dill served on thin crisps of rye bread. Glasses of eggnog or hot buttered rum are raised in toast.

Tis the season to be cozy and warm, to create hygge in our homes and lifestyle. Hygge is the Scandinavian (particularly Danish) way of simplifying to create a cozy sense of well being. Choosing the essential and eliminating the unnecessary. Sometimes the build up of to-do lists, parties, and the tasks that we take on to make the season that much more special actually detract from its beauty.

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Charming simplicity

The seasonal starkness has a beauty all its own. As I sit writing in the dusky dawn gazing out at the grey outdoor light and then at the flickering amber candle, I cannot help but think of my ancestors who hailed from above the Arctic Circle. Did they love this diminished daylight as much as I do? Cloudy skies the color of Tahitian pearls. Our ornament-laden Christmas tree virtually glows in this milky light.

What is it about the wintry north, where absence has a reverse effect of heightening our appreciation of what we do have? This is nature’s version of hygge. When the sun emerges on those crystalline December mornings, the crunch of snow beneath our steps is louder, the song of the ruby cardinal on a far off branch is music we dance to, the diamond-like sparkle of frost takes our breath away. I’ve often thought necessity inspires creativity. The need for warmth became the beautiful and intricate Norwegian sweater, where the more involved the Fair Isle design, the more layers of yarn used, resulting in an almost opulent but necessary coziness.

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Subtraction becomes resplendent multiplication. Friendships seem to matter more. We linger longer over coffee and conversation. Friends gather and sip from hot cups of soup. We roast and bake and share with others. The gratefulness on the faces of needy neighbors when presented with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven warms our souls more than any down jacket could.

Treasured tradition

The dark cold months focus our priorities. It seems that in the lush green of other seasons we venture into the unknown. We try new activities, taste new foods, travel to new places, establish new goals, or start new habits. But at the holidays, we treasure the tried, the true, the traditions that we hold dear. For me this means remembering the Christ Child’s birth, singing favorite carols, preparing time-honored foods, hearing the crackle of Ponderosa Pine logs burning in the fireplace, smelling the heady aroma of roasting meats, listening to Handel’s Messiah, or hearing the ringing sound of handbell choirs.

Music runs along the season as a common thread. Christmas tunes play everywhere. When walking down Main Street or in the grocery aisle, we are constantly serenaded. We are cheered. I find myself flitting from inspirational John Rutter choral pieces to the nostalgic Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, then on to the husky voice of Louis Armstrong or the peaceful sound of Laurance Jube playing his guitar.

Embracing the season 

Apart from the other times of the year, the cold winter tranquility stirs passion and a strong sense of fearlessness in our souls. We venture out into the brisk nights bundled up in our coats and boots, the biting winds and looming darkness unable to dampen our spirits. Then after a long, full day, we nestle into the warmth of our homes to soak in the sounds, smells, and beautiful sights that define the serenity of the season.

Winter, December, waiting, Christmas, laughter, darkness, stockings on the mantle, Advent candles, baby Jesus, cold, joy, warm sweaters, ice skating, Christmas concerts, red velvet, snow, white fur, Kransekake, light, bells, icicles, kindness, gingerbread houses, shearling slippers, cedar and holly garland. So many indispensable words, these words of the season.

This year I have whittled and parsed all the while clarifying. The essence of my own Christmas season becomes a marriage of the most unsuspecting companions. The pairings of cold and family leads to memories created. Elimination of the unnecessary makes for times all the more treasured thanks to their poignant simplicity. This is my holiday hygge.

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Celebrate with a Thankful Heart

Tradition

It seems that everyone has stories to tell about their Thanksgiving traditions. The preparation for this meal usually involves several days. Turkeys are bought days ahead. They fill our refrigerators as they thaw. The aromas begin to fill our homes: cranberry sauce cooking on the stove, pies baking in the oven. These are the reminiscent smells that welcome family as they gather.

The actual day of Thanksgiving arises early as the final rubs and fillings are applied to the big bird before we slide it into the oven to roast. If you are like most cooks, you breathe a sigh of relief once this step is done. The day is still early, and the house is quiet. It is the perfect time to sit for a minute and sip some coffee.

Next up, think about the side dishes, the hors d’oeuvres, and last but certainly not least, the desserts. Vegetables need scrubbing, potatoes need peeling, green beans need trimming. Time to start mixing up the dinner rolls. We must always include favorite foods. Is your pie of choice pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Do you eat marshmallows on your sweet potatoes?

Our culinary traditions bring us together as friends and families, but also together as a country. This is the time we remember to give thanks. We give thanks for loved ones, food, warm houses, freedom, friendships. We also think about and give in record amounts to those who do not have loved ones, who are going hungry this November, and who lack a warm house to call their own. This is a time for thankfulness, and out of this full heart comes generosity.

Our Past

The tradition of a harvest festival grew up with our country, starting in the early 1600s. This celebration took many forms in fits and starts before it finally settled in to what it is today. George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving on September 25, 1789. This was sporadically observed for a number of years following his declaration.

The idea of a designated Thanksgiving Day, however, was championed by a most unlikely suspect. Sarah Josepha Hale, a poor young widow who then rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of its time, Godey’s Lady Book, talked about this idea for many years, presenting it to multiple presidents. Finally Abraham Lincoln listened and declared in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 that the last Thursday of November should be set aside. It wasn’t until 1941, thanks to President Roosevelt, that Congress officially established that day as a national holiday.

New Twists

In our home, Thanksgiving tends to be tradition with a twist. While the basic food items such as turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, etc, are present at the Thanksgiving table, their form and what dish they show up in is constantly changing. One year cranberries are in the stuffing, the next year they appear in the beverage, the next, in a dessert. Likewise with apples or pecans.

Our turkey may appear green thanks to the herb paste stuffed under the skin or have copper sheen due to being glazed with sweet mix of pomegranate molasses and orange juice. Sometimes we roast it upside down, other times on high heat. Some years we stuff it with apples, onions, lemon, garlic, and sage leaves, other times with cornbread sausage stuffing. Every year is an opportunity to try new versions of the trusty old ingredients.

Trio of cranberry sauces: cranberry pear, cranberry jalapeño, and cranberry fig.

This year the cranberries are going to have some added kick, sauteed with shallots and jalapeno peppers. A second sweet variation will include Bosc pears, quince paste, and ginger root. A butternut squash will be pan-roasted with sage leaves, tossed with fresh mozzarella cheese, and then drizzled all over with pistachio pesto. Our stuffing will be gluten-free by using a base of wild rice.

Roasted butternut squash with fresh mozzarella, sage, and pistachio pesto.

With so much change, does anything stay the same? Yes, the tender, fresh from the oven dinner rolls. These never change. They must show up every year. They are so pristinely baked that a goodly number of them never make it to the dinner table.

Find your own recipe for melding tradition with change. We are a blessed people, so this Thanksgiving, both give and give thanks.