Thanksgiving Comes Full Circle

Gentle Reader: This has been a premature Christmas. Traditionally, decorations begin in this house on the first Sunday in Advent. Certainly NEVER before Thanksgiving. But this year is unusual since my home will be featured in today’s Holiday Home Walk—a fundraising event sponsored by the local Symphony League.

A year in the planning and 7+ weeks in the execution, today is the day and everything is set and staged to its glory. There is a light dusting of first snow on the ground. As I walked around the house dawn was breaking, I stopped to turn on the Christmas music. The first carol was Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel . . . Oh My!

How powerfully the gift of grace overcomes when we least expect it. All together in a swirl it is both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Tomato Sandwich Social

There are tomatoes and then there are Tomatoes. In this part of the country and especially the sandy river-bottoms along the Missouri River, we grow some of the best. Yes, we have the boring greenhouse-grown and hydroponic offerings in the grocery stores—which I avoid unless it’s between November and June. There is a big difference between the luscious, sun-ripened, garden tomatoes and ones from which the stuff runs out in a pool of seeds and mysterious liquid. Ish!

When you can get over-the-moon flavor and moistness that is similar to a juicy beef tenderloin, then it’s time to eat until you can’t eat any more. Rest up a bit and eat some more . . . or in my case, have a party.

Yes, a party. I’m talking about my first Tomato Sandwich Social. The timing was perfect: I had a free day and the tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market were, indeed, over the moon. I set out all the component parts and let everyone make their own sandwich just the way they like them.

Footnotes on the buffet: Yes, those are radishes set in a bed of coarse sea salt. They made great visual appeal and no work involved. The bacon was done on the outdoor grill in a cast iron pan to keep the house from smelling like Perkins. 

Party Recipe: send emails to all my friends, create a Facebook event, gather up all the fixin’s people usually like and then just start answering the door. Friends without email or FB simply missed out because the turn-around time was so short. The goal was to make a simple party to prepare and host. I think people enjoy themselves more when they know you did not kill yourself getting it together. Besides, there is nothing like messy food to put guests at ease—provided the host is also at ease and enjoying the fun.

Desert? Marshmallows from the gourmet section of TJ Max. They were a hit and a conversation piece. Score!

My “Fiddler” Moment

Gentle Reader: I was just about to toss the last two fading, pistachio-green, spider mums plucked from wedding bouquets when I recalled the entire wedding panorama as a whirlwind of activity and vignettes of poignant moments. While I have many mementos to recapture those moments, these mums rewound time– past that week –back to her going off to college, recovering from a brain tumor, getting her driver’s license, school projects, brownie scouts, tricycles, first steps, and a first tooth.

She was married in that same prairie place where I discovered her first tooth, where I carried her through my pregnancy while taking care of the trees and the land. Now she and her husband plant a Wedding Tree and take care of that North Dakota land . . . and their marriage.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Elegant and Ridiculously Simple

Gentle Readers: I’ve taken on mastering the art of making grilled cheese sandwiches. While the one in the picture is actually a grilled ham and cheese, I really prefer the plain ol’ plain old. The juxtaposition between the savory, melting cheese and the crunchy bread is to die for.

I kick it up a notch by using a hunk of French bread split in half. Butter the cut side and fry in olive oil. Grill it? Absolutely! Note: the outside of the loaf now becomes the inside of the sandwich. Don’t worry about the rounded surface. As soon as the bread starts to brown I put on a good layer of sliced Gruyere cheese (Yes, I’ve tried a gazillion other kinds of cheese and it’s Gruyere hands down). I like to put a lid on it for a bit to help melt the cheese but I have also tried pressing it with a bacon press and the difference is not that noticeable. Besides, when I get to this point I can’t wait to eat—forget any unnecessary steps. 

This is the best comfort food – fast! A glass of zin –or any luscious red– is perfect with it.

Pretty Darn Good Stuffed Banana Peppers (and Acorn Squash)

Gentle Reader: While my maiden voyage into Stuffed Banana Peppers turned out well, I think it was due in part to the straight and gentle taper of the beauties I bought at the Farmer’s Market. I think that I would not have done as well with some of the wiry and twisted samples I’ve seen since.

I cut the peppers in half, cleaned out the seeds and stuffed them loosely with a mixture of ground beef (in western North Dakota that can only mean Angus), chopped onion, grated white cheddar cheese, KS&FGP (kosher salt and fresh ground pepper), and a pinch of garlic powder. I say stuff loosely because if the mixture is packed too tight, it does not cook completelty through before the outside is overdone and the stuffing tends to be hard as a rock. Baked at 350 for about 45 minutes. I also basted them with their own juices once while cooking and before serving. If you are keeping any as leftovers, be sure to save those precious juices.

I feasted on these and sent a couple next door to Joan Alice where they were a hit as well.   The banana peppers were tangy and sweet–less acidic than red bell peppers and I would say have a brighter flavor. I’ll make this again and again. It was rich, satisfying and definately a comfort food. When I say something is “lick the dish good,” I do mean lick the dish and there are many a picture to prove it.

As a side note, I also use a similar mixture (minus the cheese) in my Stuffed Acorn Squash: Cut an acorn squash in half from stem to blossom end, scoop out and discard the strings and seeds, brush the squash with olive oil, sprinkle with KS&FGP. I like to bake these face down for about 15 minutes before stuffing and finishing off in the oven at 350 degrees.—usually an hour total time. Why not add the cheese? I guess because the squash is already so rich, the stuffing needs to be less rich as a counter-point to offset all the natural sugars.

My Father’s Hands

© Bonnie Staiger, Published:  Parkinson Foundation Report, Summer 2003

Strong and rough
Fixing cars
Planting trees
Building a cabin

“Hold my hand, Daddy
The curb is high
And I’m afraid of falling.”

Printer’s ink
Under his nails
Never quite clean . . .
No matter the occasion

“Hold my hand, Dad
The world is rough
And I’m afraid of falling.”

Kind and gentle
Showing the way
Caressing my cheek . . .
Never mind his calluses and nicks

“Hold my hand, Bonnie Rae
Getting old is tough
And I’m afraid of falling.”

Shaking and palsied
Wet from drops of drool
Showing the signs of
A lifetime of work . . . now resting

“Hold his hand, God
The way is smooth at last
And no more falling.”

Weather Report: Finding Kathy

Gentle Reader: Last week’s sad news has turned partly sunny. Feeling the need to take my own words to heart, I reaffirmed the challenge to find Kathy, my next door neighbor and childhood friend from age 6. I had tried to find her 5 years ago and failed. But with more advanced internet White Pages and a fifteen-year-old phone number, I found her.

We spent a good 25 minutes on the phone getting caught up on our headlines from the past 15 years and a few classmates and family. Her recent headline: just 3 weeks ago she donated one of her kidneys to her husband, Bill. Guess that eliminates any doubt in my mind whether they were still together.

Kathy wanted to know if I was still writing poetry and to let me know that she is not able to part with the blue lace brush-roller bag I gave her (probably in junior high). Our mothers were also very close. They had tea every afternoon–alternating kitchens. Every Friday they went grocery shopping together–followed by tea, of course. Meanwhile in the summertime, Kathy and I were swimming at Hillside Pool. Yes, every afternoon. Mornings too.