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May Your House and Hearth Be Blessed

At the start of a new year we all like to make a fresh start and ensure that we are on the best footing for our new adventures. There are traditions for housewarmings, offering blessings for those in new homes making a new life. It seems to me that doing the same thing for a new year is a good idea, so I thought I would list out some of those traditions for you, based on the sentiments. Many of these stem from the two sides of my heritage (the Scots and the Scandinavians), who gave gifts in the dead of winter to share good spirits and reinforce the community.

housewarming basket

GOOD HEALTH – Olive oil represents health and well being, and is a wonderful blessing for the kitchen. Spices also symbolize diversity and excitement in life. A potted plant (especially herbs) symbolize life and energy.

PROSPERITY, ABUNDANCE – Bread symbolizes sustenance and usually goes with the blessing “so your house will never know hunger”. Salt has meant luxury throughout time and can be given with the blessing “that your life will always be full of flavour”.

LOVE, STABILITY –  Coins symbolize good fortune; it is said to be important to include a coin in a wallet given as a gift and also with the gift of a knife, so as to ensure your friendship is not cut by the blade.

GOOD CHEER, SWEETNESS & LIGHT – Wine and spirits symbolize good cheer in many cultures which tends to go with joy and prosperity as well. Honey symbolizes the sweetness in life well and a connection with nature. A candle represents the light of life and warmth, especially in dark times.

There are also items that help us keep away the negative things, like bad luck or evil spirits. A broom is a good gift to sweep out any bad omens as well as keeping a house clean.

Homemade items are always a welcome gift, not even requiring wrapping. Sharing your own food (and culinary talents) is a beautiful symbol of friendship and community. Fostering those relationships always brings good things, to the recipient and the giver. If you’re stuck for a recipe, try my Banana Bran Muffins.

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Winds of change

sunrise - this one was taken at Parksville

Okay, so the holiday season is officially over. The New Year has begun. There are no more excuses for lolly-gagging around; we should be moving along with things. Why can’t I get myself in gear? Why can’t I break the bonds holding me back?

I think I am having problems because Mother Nature can’t seem to decide what season it is, and as a result I can’t get clear on what it is I should be doing!! I thought I would be cooking stews and soups and maybe taking up knitting or at least finishing a good long book, but instead I feel like I need to be pulling out my seed trays already and tuning up my scooter. My morning walks with the dogs are slogs through the gumbo mud in the orchard, tripping over already-pruned branches… I am supposed to be doing that in March! Instead of clean dog toes through the door, I have 8 mucky feet to wash and wipe every morning. I feel like Madge with her Palmolive, only I am standing on my front porch in rubber boots and a sweatsuit. If I could come in and think of having my breakfast on the deck because it is warming up, then all that work would not be for nothing. Weeks of this when I am still thinking of hot porridge and scrambled egg sandwiches is crazy.

I used to live in Calgary, where they have warm winds that blow through the region in winter called “Chinooks”. They have proven that these winds also blow in confusion and sometimes depression for some people. I don’t know if I was one of those, but I do know my body expects to be exposed to the traditional four Canadian seasons, in the usual order. I like the foods and clothing and habits of each season in turn, not swirling together like some kind of tornado in my front yard! Perhaps that is why in Calgary the food scene has developed so eclectically and the fashions allow all kinds of variations. It’s a sort of Cowtown evolution that allows people to survive in environmental chaos.

Since I can’t change the weather, and I can’t make spring veggies materialize in my kitchen, I thought perhaps a dose of something from the freezer might at least keep the global warming demons at bay… so we will be enjoying some light-hearted trifle with angel food cake, Greek yogurt and pear and peach compote tonight, after a bit of chicken with Meyer lemon salsa (thankfully fresh cilantro is still available). Maybe I’ll even open a bottle of Rosé to close the deal.

What is winter food like where you live? Are you having wacky weather this year? I would love to hear comments and suggestions on how to overcome the whirling winds of change.

Okay, here we go!

Well, it’s a new year. Here we are in the midst of being back at work and thinking about the resolutions, the plans, the things we wanted to improve for the future. If you are like me, you still have the Christmas tree up (I like to leave it up till Epiphany, when I close out the festive eating and drinking – watch for the Twelfth Night torte recipe!) I like to ease into things, so I am trying to remember to tackle my resolutions and new projects in small, manageable pieces. It’s sort of like approaching a buffet, I think – I like to sample lots of different flavours and get the most from the experience. I also enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a task, and if you have lots of little tasks, then you have lots of accomplishments (instead of the daunting nature of a huge project viewed all at once).

One of the things I like to keep on the resolution radar is cooking everyday meals at home. I know that may sound a bit silly, but I am fortunate enough to have married a chef, so he thinks about getting meals made all the time. He also gets hungry faster than I do, so if I want to cook on a Tuesday night I have to get myself organized so that dinner isn’t the casual affair I might tolerate after a glass of wine and a bit of chatting over how best to adapt or customize a recipe. Last night I tried a straight-forward idea from my newly-arrived Bon Appetit magazine: Skillet-Baked Eggs & Spinach. In deference to them, I include their link for the recipe here. NOTE: I modified the chile aspect by using an assortment of dried Mexican chiles we have in our larder, along with a healthy pinch of smoked paprika. (In Kelowna, Turkish chili powder is not something you find readily.) It went very nicely with a glass of Okanagan rosé – perhaps a bit of indulgence on the Tuesday after the holiday season, but it was worth celebrating. After all, I had managed to organize an interesting meal and get it cooked in time for us to enjoy it and still be ready to depart for our movie night out. I could have cooked an old stand-by, like tuna casserole, but there is the rub: I am plagued by the desire to consistently try new ingredients and combinations when I eat. Hence my recurring New Year’s urge to keep one foot in the kitchen and the other in the specialty aisle of the grocery store.

I don’t think I am a food snob. Does it make me elitist if I don’t want to eat tomatoes in winter that taste like kitchen sponges that merely wiped tomato juice off the cutting board? I would rather look for some other tangy ingredient if the red billiard balls in my freezer (read frozen garden tomatoes) won’t suffice in a recipe. In the summer I know I will recover from this hiatus when we eat tomatoes at every meal. I like the thrill of finding a traditional winter dish that wraps me up like a cozy scarf on a cold day and makes me want to open a bottle of ponderous red wine from the cellar. That dish might involve local root veggies, or it might involve a stew recipe from a country halfway around the world.

I think everything has its place, even comfort food. Tuna casserole was always my favourite dish as a child, and when nostalgia strikes I like to re-create my Mom’s dinner that included jellied carrot salad as an accompaniment. I love a fancy dessert, but I also adore Mom’s lemon pudding cake, especially those late-night spoonfuls snuck from the bowl late at night (I always volunteered to take all the empty tea mugs back to the kitchen on nights when it sat on the counter :)). The taste of that stuff is as powerful a memory in my mind as my first taste of Spanish flan in Barcelona or Cape Brandy Pudding atop Table Mountain in Cape Town. Perhaps I have catalogued my food memories as unique accomplishments too, so that each one is a victory in itself. Or maybe that just confirms my status as a gourmand…

 

Table Mountain is known for her flat top and for the "cloth" of clouds that sometimes lays over it. Just the setting for a city of food lovers!

 

If you are looking to cut back on calories, or switch your diet to avoid gluten or dairy or meat or other substance, then I think it is even more important that taste become a priority. As far as I am concerned, food of any kind is meant to be enjoyed, not endured. A squeeze of lemon or a dash of herb or spice or a splash of oil or vinegar can make all the difference in the world. This philosophy could be applied to traditional favourites too. The Sunday roast might be sacrosanct, but who says you can’t put a bit of Dijon in those mashed potatoes? (If you have any secrets or tips you want to share, please leave a comment! One can never have too many options in the kitchen.)

 

So, in essence, the moral of this post is “One meal at a time”. There is always the potential for the next dish you eat or drink you sip to be something so sublime as to stop your world and create a memory. Wouldn’t that improve a hard day at the office?

Bistro at the top of Table Mountain - where they serve an awesome Cape Brandy Pudding!

Making the most of your New Year’s luck

Did you know there are a plethora of traditions surrounding the idea of maximizing one’s good fortune for the coming year? For those of you looking for last-minute boosts, or anyone starting the New Year and checking up, here are some tips for you (of course I make no guarantees, but it couldn’t hurt, right?)

  • I live in wine country, so this tradition from Spain sounds like a good place to start – consume one grape at each strike of the midnight clock(Spanish grape growers started this tradition to rid themselves of a glut of fruit in the last century, and it stuck). This is a lo-cal tradition, at least 🙂 They say to take heed at the taste of  each grape, as it signifies the tone of each month.
  • Moms will love this one – the more leafy greens you eat at New Year’s, the more likely you are to have lots of money in the coming year (the green colour symbolizing money, of course). This also applies to legumes (peas, beans) – they swell when cooked, signifying a growing fortune.
  • Did you know we don’t just eat ham at New Year’s to give the turkeys a rest? Pigs signify prosperity in many cultures, due to their habits of rooting forward on steady legs, and also due to their rich fat content. By the way, if ham is not your thing, any pork dish will do. Even pigs made of marzipan are considered lucky in Austria!
  • Fish has been a popular “feasting food” since the Middle Ages (before refrigeration), as it could be easily preserved and cooked later. Baccala, or bacalao (dried salt cod) is popular in Italy and Spain from Christmas through New Year.
  • Cakes of various kinds are popular in most cultures (surprised?) Often a token was hidden in the cake and the person receiving it would be the lucky one in the group. (See my recipe for “Twelfth Night Torte”, a French tradition for Epiphany)
  • if you don’t want to eat too much but want to participate, how about passing along the food? A Scottish tradition for Hogmanay is to be a “first-footer” – the first person through the door of a friend’s house in the New Year, bearing gifts. You are to bring coal – to warm their house – or salt – to flavour their food – or sweets – to enrich their lives.

For those of you who want to hedge your bets, here are the things to AVOID for New Years’…

  • lobster – it crawls backwards, thus signifying a lack of progress in the New Year
  • chickens – they scratch backwards, and so could cause regret or focus on the past
  • birds of flight – they could signify your luck flying away (was this why we chose the turkey as a popular holiday bird??)

And, for those wanting to start the year on the right foot, not over-indulging, take heart! You can tell your dining companions you are leaving food on the plate to symbolize food in the pantry all year (and perhaps a healthier waistline, too).

Whatever you eat at New Years’, however you ring in 2012, may you be with loved ones with a smile on your face.

Cheers!

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