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Happy St Nicholas Day

st nicholas Happy Gourmand

In many European countries The Feast of St Nicholas is the start to the holiday season. Do you know, the real St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century, a particularly generous man who was especially devoted to children? His popularity increased to such a point that by the 12th century, he had become a Patron Saint in most European countries and a church holiday was created in his honour, one that became known for gift-giving and charity. The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was apparently started because St. Nicholas helped out three young ladies whose father had squandered the family fortune after the death of his wife. This prevented the girls from having dowries and being able to marry. St. Nicholas wanted to help them anonymously, as was his custom, and so he rode his white horse to the nobleman’s house and dropped gold coins down the chimney, where they were caught in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry.

Were you aware that mistletoe has been a symbol of winter celebrations since Druid times, before the time of Christ? It was said that ancient Romans would lay down their weapons if they encountered an enemy under a branch of mistletoe. The Celtics believed it had magical powers and could ward off evil spirits, and the Scandinavians included it as a symbol for their goddess of love. It is thought that this link is the beginning of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. This act is said to give those lucky kissers good fortune in the coming year. (I am proud to be from such sociable roots!)

Here’s another one for you… poinsettias are another giving gesture for the season. Legend says a small Mexican boy heading to the nativity scene in his town realized he had no gift for the baby Jesus. So, he gathered green branches that were by the side of the road. The other children teased him but once the branches were laid in the cradle, red, star-shaped flowers appeared on the end of each branch.

There’s more! Candy canes were invented alongside Christmas trees, but there is a bit of a twist to this story (full pun intended here). Cookies and candies were used to decorate the first Christmas trees, Apparently it was a choirmaster at a cathedral in Cologne who suggested twisting the plain sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook. This not only made them easier to hang on the tree, but it also provided a treat for children. It became a custom to hand candy canes out to children at church ceremonies across Europe, to help keep them quiet. And I really can’t resist – I have to tell you that there is another ironic twist to this piece of history: it was another man of the church who automated the process of making candy canes – Catholic priest, Gregory Keller.

I am sure you see the running theme here…that the season seems always to be about sharing with others. Whether you share your wealth, your generosity of spirit or the fruits of your labour, the result is all the same: we are all better for it. So, in case the aforementioned ideas don’t do enough for you, here is my bit of sharing for this week – one of my favourite recipes for Christmas, Shortbread Cookies.  My brother and I used to both help my Mom make and decorate these cookies; great discussions sometimes went into the decorating details. My Mom placed the completed cookies in the oven like they were works created by Michelangelo.

If you don’t have someone to help make these cookies, give some away to friends or colleagues – they are a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melt in your mouth. Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you. If you feel you have overindulged leading up to the holidays and can’t eat them all, then feel free to share!

BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD

1 cup Butter

½ cup Brown sugar, firmly packed

½ teaspoon Vanilla extract

2-1/4 cups Flour

½ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 325F.

Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, saving ¼ cup or so for the rolling.

Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over. Roll out to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn; thicker cookies will be even more “melt in your mouth”.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (If you have a silicone baking sheet you can still use that on the pan.) Decorate cookies and bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden. Store in a sealed cookie jar.

 

NOTE: If shortbread is not your thing, check out my blog’s recipe archives for other ideas.

An Afternoon with Santa’s Reindeer

Santas reindeer

I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in Calgary with one of my dearest girlfriends, in honour of my 50th birthday. One of the activities on our radar was to attend the Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market, and it did not disappoint. After all, shopping and sampling goodies amidst children singing holiday tunes is lovely, but how can you beat a sneak peek at Santa’s reindeer?

If you’re like me and you love the hustle and bustle of artisan markets, then Spruce Meadows is a delicious blend of funky, kitschy, homespun and intriguing. There are vendors big and small, with all manner of gift and decor items. Every food vendor offers samples, and the concessions have such delicacies as Hungarian goulash and gluwein, in addition to good old hot dogs and mini donuts. Outside the buildings are toasty warm fire pits where you can snuggle and enjoy your treats, and inside the pavilions are seating areas near performing stages. You’ll need a bit of sustenance to manage the whole fair!

There is something here for everyone, so I encourage you to stroll the aisles and check out what strikes your fancy. The vendors in the stables are particularly charming in their stalls, and that of course, is where you’ll find the reindeer, too. You can even get a posed picture for a fee.

I found some perfect Christmas goodies, and so I’d like to offer a few suggestions from my list of favourites, just to get you started:

In Reindeer Alley (right after the guests of honour)-

  • pet stuff – I loved the funny signs and toys at DOG GONE HEALTHY in Reindeer Alley, but in all fairness there are a number of vendors selling all manner of dog and cat paraphernalia

    Dog Christmas tree

    Dog Gone presents for, and from, the dog!

  • home decor and entertaining accessories – BURGUNDY OAK BARREL DECOR has stylish, well-made wine barrel platters and other accents.

In the Riding Hall-

  • KOOTANA GALLERY – featuring some lovely chimes, crystals and beautiful jewellery that is all about spirit animals, symbols and the energy in stones. You’ll feel good just checking it out!
  • AFRICAN BUTTERFLY hair accessories – these masterful works of art are the best for putting up long hair, whether it’s thick or thin. I bought one years ago and was happy to see Daniel again and get Christmas presents.
  • KATTINAT Swedish dishcloths – ingenious and fun! Look for the colourful designs on these organic cotton cloths that wipe up like nobody’s business! (there were 2 booths carrying these cloths; same price at either one)
  • western style gifts – COWBOY CHRISTMAS has some lovely accessories and fun gift ideas, and the art at RON CHURCH FINE ART & DESIGN is stunning.
  • COZY COTTAGE INTERIORS  brought much of their store inventory to showcase. Great country-style kitsch.

In the Gallery on the Green and outside

  • REAL TREAT cookies – I know, you’ve tasted lots of cookies, what’s the big deal? Try the smoked pecan ones, or the salted caramel shortbread and you’ll get it.

    A "Giggler" puppet!

    A “Giggler” puppet!

  • GIVE A LITTLE GIGGLE puppets – These wonderful people were only at the market for one weekend but check their website to see where else they are, or buy online. A great gift for little or big kids.
  • garden gizmos galore – CREATIVE IRONWORKS has beautiful garden sculptures and furniture; SPRUCE IT UP GARDEN has accents and greens, and RED BARN MERCANTILE has lots of fun Christmas accents and decorations
  • home decor – LITTLE MONKEY METAL WORKS has a striking display of silhouette metal art.

In the Equi-Plex (this is also where the main food concession is – think Hungarian Goulash – as well as many of the performances)

  • BIG BLUE MOMA jewellery and textiles – if you want something handmade and unique, the collection here will do the trick for sure. Jewellery, cushions and table linens all made in Canada with materials made by hard-working entrepreneurs in Ghana. They are one of the delightful booths featuring international wares – be sure to wander this aisle and check out all the unique items.

    Ghanaian fare by Big Blue Moma

    Ghanaian fare by Big Blue Moma

  • TORILL’S TABLE – delectable Norwegian waffles, made from a mix – try a sample!
  • KRUSE’S BAKERY – has stollen, and some delicious-looking cookies. Save some time and enjoy someone else’s baking!

There are 2 more weekends left to enjoy this market in Calgary’s south end. Easy access is available through public transit, and there is a parking shuttle too. You can save $2 per ticket if you buy online through their website. Plan on spending about half the day if you want a good look around; my list is only the tip of the iceberg. If you are there after dark, you’ll get the added benefit of all the lights!

If you’re not in the holiday spirit yet, this is sure to do the trick. Thanks to Spruce Meadows and all their volunteers for putting on such a professional and welcoming holiday event.

Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market

Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market by night

Spruce Meadows Christmas market

lots of room to browse and enjoy at the Spruce Meadows Christmas Market

The Secret to a Happy Christmas Dinner

happy Christmas dinnerChristmas is my favourite time of year, and Christmas dinner seems to epitomize the festive season: the food and drink and best of all, the company. Just think – at what other time of year can you argue about whether the dressing should be traditional or adventurous, or agonize over which tablecloth would look nicer, and which serving pieces to put out to make sure Aunt So-and-so sees the gift you never otherwise use! (Okay, maybe in the closest families that happens every Sunday, but it seems most of the other days of the year we are far too busy to spend that much time on dinner.) On that point I agree with the Chef – be grateful you have those people you care about enough to argue with, and toast their good health before you dive into that sumptuous dinner.

As far as the menu goes, I have always been one who liked to “upset the apple cart” so to speak, by trying to suggest some new (or old) twist on the Christmas dinner. I wanted to try goose after having read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. I always wondered what Brussels sprouts tasted like and figured they couldn’t really be as bad as my Dad said. And who wouldn’t marvel at the idea of marshmallows at the dinner table, all toasted over a dish of sweet potatoes! Then there was the stuffing. This was a topic that was hotly discussed by my parents, as my Mom read more cooking magazines and my Dad pined for the “good old days” when celery and sage were all it needed. (Years later, he would be the one saying why hadn’t we added walnuts or used cornbread earlier!)  But if you ask me what I remember about Christmas dinner, it is not the specific menu items but rather that warm and fuzzy feeling that came once the plates were empty.

I for one don’t think it was merely the tryptophan that made me groggy and light-headed at Christmas; it was more that sense of euphoria that comes over you when you immerse yourself in the spirit of Christmas. If you truly believe in the essence of Christmas then as you let it into your heart and take active part in the festivities and the giving, you cannot help but feel better yourself. Children know this intuitively, and it is only as our hearts harden if we don’t practice such things that we lose sight of the true meaning of this holiday. Christmas is not for children, but for the child that lies within us all, hoping for a chance to believe in something pure and good, and listening for that magic signal which says that something exists.

Grinch carving the roast beast

So if you need a dose of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “The Polar Express” before Christmas dinner to get you in full gear, go right ahead. When you sit down to dinner, cherish the meal, and those around you, and of course the cook who made it possible. It is important to take Christmas to heart, for if you do it right, it just might stay with you until next year. Wouldn’t that make the world a wonderful place?

As Tiny Tim said so long ago, “God Bless us every one.” Merry Christmas from our table to yours. Tiny Tim Bless Us Everyone

Let’s Talk Turkey

This is a guest post by my husband, Chef Martin Laprise. Martin offers many of these tips at his festive season dinner parties and they are always met with lots of grateful thanks and visions of light bulbs over the head. I hope they offer you some assistance in enjoying the holidays as much as possible and not stressing out 🙂

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Cooking a holiday feast is always a lot of pressure for the cook. There are lots of dishes to prepare for this dinner, and everyone expects it all to arrive at the table hot and beautiful. I have news for you – this takes practice, and just like the girls on the covers of magazines are retouched, so are the turkeys! So set yourself up for success with these few pointers:

  • Brining your turkey adds moisture, so if you are worried about a dry bird, use this technique before you cook (usually overnight for a turkey). There are lots of great recipes on the internet for brines – choose the one you like. NOTE: basting your turkey will NOT make it more moist. I don’t care what Gramma told you. Once the meat starts to cook, no moisture will go in. This is not my opinion, it’s a scientific fact.
  • If you want a beautiful turkey to present on your table, start out with it covered in foil paper. You can always make it darker at the end of the cooking with a blow torch (like the magazine people do), but if it gets too dark, you’re stuck. Also, during the cooking time rotate the turkey at least 3 times (make sure it completes a whole circle) – even if you are using a convection oven. This will help it to cook evenly.
  • To make a stress free gravy, buy an extra turkey leg and make the gravy with that while your turkey finishes cooking. Brown the leg really well, make a stock, thicken with flour and voila! Awesome gravy that didn’t have to happen at the last minute.
  • If you want a stuffing recipe, you can check out the one I put up on my website for Thanksgiving turkey – it works great at Christmas too.

If you would like more cooking tips from a handsome Okanagan chef, book me for a dinner in your home. I will come to your house with the ingredients and cook everything from scratch. You can watch and ask as many questions as you like 🙂 Feel free to send me an email to arrange a booking. To see more of what I do, check out my website at www.thechefinstead.ca

Epiphany – not just while brushing!

Have you ever heard someone say they “had an epiphany” while brushing their teeth? Well, Wikipedia lists the secular meaning of an epiphany as “the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something… (when someone) has new information or experience, often insignificant by itself, that illuminates a deeper foundational frame of reference”. My Mom calls them “a-ha moments”.

Arthur Fry, the inventer of the post-it note, with one on his forehead. He came up with the idea for marking the pages in his hymnal using a glue he made that didn’t stick well!

Well, Epiphany is also a holiday, one that occurs on January 6, and celebrates traditionally the baptism of Jesus Christ and/or the coming of the Magi. There are different interpretations of the dates of all the pieces of Christ’s history, but the common thread is that this day celebrated recognizing Christ as the Son of God. It was as big as Christmas, at one time. This is where the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from – January 6 is the “Twelfth Night”. In some Christian cultures, such as South America, this season was extended for 40 days, to Candlemas (February 2 – tune in to a later column to see the nifty history on that).

Of course, since this was a celebration, there was a feast and activities. Epiphany marked the end of the Christmas celebrations – the yule log would burn on the fire until this night, when the ashes would then be kept til next Christmas to rekindle the good spirit of the season. The Christmas tree and wreath were kept up until Epiphany and any dried or candied fruit that might decorate either one would be eaten as part of the feast (remember, fruit was hard to come by in winter, and so was a treasured gift and would not be wasted.) People would go singing door to door, and they or sometimes the priests would bless the house after a sip of wassail punch, and mark it with the year’s date in chalk. Shakespeare even wrote a play for this time, in which many elements are reversed, as was common during this bit of celebrating (this tradition seems to go back to pagan rituals, which celebrated Epiphany as the end of the season that started at All Hallow’s Eve, when the world turned upside down.) And in many cultures there would be a “king cake”, baked with a bean or pea in the filling. The person receiving the bean in their piece would be crowned king or queen for the evening.

I was not aware of any of the ceremony that was Epiphany until I spent time in France, and I must admit I was charmed and awed by this wonderful way of closing out the Christmas season. Whether you are religious or not, it helps to have the focus on moving forward and hoping for a better tomorrow, don’t you think? I felt it helped me understand more about the big picture.

We will be celebrating Twelfth Night at Rabbit Hollow with my traditional French recipe for the Galette des Rois or Twelfth Night Torte, which is in the Recipe Archives. I will enjoy a last look at the Christmas tree before it comes down, and reflect on the good things to come in 2012. I wish you and yours a happy start to this new year.

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