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Posts Tagged ‘Italian food’

Photo by Susie Nelson

Photo by Susie Nelson

Like art, writing is such a personal expression of one’s self. All who choose to dive into the waters approach the murky depths differently. My voice, for instance, in written form would be as individual as my fingerprint. I find it fascinating we are all provided with the same twenty-four letters and collectively find such unique ways of putting them together. You might have gathered, if you’ve read my previous blogs, I love words and don’t use them sparingly, and I love books. Books to me are the perfect gift, as they provide an open door to new adventures and a pleasant refuge from what can sometimes be a stressful life.

Art comes in so many forms. I find a certain artistic nature to the Olympics, for example. The graceful swirls remaining on the ice from the funny_anti_valentines_dayfigure skaters blades, the fluid free fall of the ski jumpers descent from the heavens. All perfectly choreographed like a dance. Sometimes I wonder where our gifts come from. Are we handed an initiation package on the way down the chute? Check here if you’d like to be, say, a musician? Some people may have no artistic talent whatsoever, but can add a staggering number of figures without ever touching a calculator, or another create an impressive meatloaf given but a loaf of stale bread and a squirrel carcass. These too are gifts.

Often I’ll stroll through an art museum and find myself looking at a painting with questioning appreciation only to find someone standing next to me oohing and aahing about the color or composition. One set of eyes might view a Jackson Pollock painting as a tangled mass of stringy paint, while someone else see depth, richness and boldness of color. Beauty, indeed, is in the eye of the beholder.

People choose mates according to individual tastes as well. There are men who prefer well endowed women. Some males favor generously cut partners, while others might prefer a willowy body type with a nice set of legs, or fancy a turned up nose. Redheads, a passion for some, might be low on the list for someone who loves blondes, or a feisty brunette. Women, on the other hand, may want a manly man who works with his hands, with some girls leaning in the direction of a more sensitive male, or a guy who fills her day with laughter.  Ahhhh, it’s Valentine’s Day once again. Hearts are waiting to be given and broken, expectations are running high, romance is in the air.

I met Rick on line. I know, I know. At the time I was working sixty hours a week and not particularly looking for a long-term permanent companion. I’d tried on many suits up until that point, and found not one of them to be an exact fit. Being single in mid-life I found to be surprisingly exhilarating. My children were grown and out of the house by the time I’d blown out the candles on my fortieth birthday cake, my son in the Army, my daughter in college. Once I got over weeping in my empty nest, I found a world of interesting people and adventures awaiting me to begin the second phase of my life.

At the time I created the profile where Rick found me, number 267 on his list of likely matches, I had no interest other than curiosity in who would show up to say hello. In truth I created it with a friend who was seriously looking for a mate as sort of lark over a second glass of wine. Not being heavily invested in the outcome, I was honest about myself avoiding dialogues like,  “I like long walks on the beach, puppies, and sunsets” (in truth, I like all three). Amazingly, despite the honesty, my in box began to fill up. Really? It was such an interesting experience looking back. Sort of like shopping on Amazon for men. You put in your search criteria and voila, somebody popped up. I found it most amazing. Being busy already, Rick and I circled each other for some time before actually deciding to meet  face to face.  As an aside here, this is not something I did willy nilly. Along with the fun side of on-line dating is the darker side including on-line predators or worse. I picked and chose carefully who I met and never met anyone in other than a very public venue with others knowing exactly where I was going and who I was going to meet. In the end I made connections with some interesting men with whom I shared many great times and formed excellent friendships.

Rick, however, changed all that and I find myself here nearly thirteen years later surprised at how quickly the time has passed. The interesting thing about life is from one day to the next you never know where the path might lead you.

I’ve been proposed to a time or two. The first was the romantic version, on one knee, small velvet box, a bouquet of roses, and a big wedding to plan. The second was at a Halloween party while I was on a date with someone else, making it a special experience for all three parties. There was a man in between, a mormon widower with six young children, and then my third husband who proposed over a large pepperoni pizza. Not the stuff movies are made of. My last proposal came on a Saturday morning after breakfast and basically was “if you’re not doing anything next Saturday, would you like to get married”? Really? I responded saying “As Saturday is generally laundry day, I was planning on working on achieving whiter whites on that day, but let me get back to you”. In the end he did far better than that and once again I said, I do. The minister gave me the group rate.

I’m sure there are prospective grooms out there armed with roses, candy, cards, hot air balloons, sky writers, billboards and god knows what ready to pledge their love. It’s always a sort of bittersweet holiday if you happen to be in between relationships or in one not working well. I hope everyone makes it a special day for someone.

Penne Pasta with Spinach Artichoke Sauce

3 cups uncooked penne pasta
2 10 oz. pkgs. creamed spinach
6 slices prosciutto
1 14 oz. can water packed artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded, divided
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup Romano cheese
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place prosciutto on cookie sheet covered with tin foil sprayed with cooking spray. Bake 10 mins. until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Crumble. Cook creamed spinach according to package directions. Set aside.

Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water. Return pasta to pan. Stir in cooked spinach, 1/2 of the
crumbled prosciutto, 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, Parmesan, Romano, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add reserved pasta water as needed to thin. Pour into prepared baking dish.

Top with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake for 20 mins. or until bubbly. Turn oven to broil and brown. Top each serving with remaining prosciutto.

Serves 4.

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2I’m working on writing my list of New Year’s Resolutions. I have a short list including those I might actually attempt to keep, and a long list of those I would love to fulfill but my chances of doing so are right up there with becoming an aerialist for Barnum and Bailey. I write them anyhow. Having something to attain to is important when embarking on a clean calendar year. Attacking the calendar before the pages are scribbled with activities enjoyed or appointments made or missed, holidays come and gone, and birthdays celebrated. Another year, squeezed through the tube.

I’ve decided to move publishing a book right up there to the short list. It’s been on the long list for years but I feel this year I am ready to take it out, dust it off, and really throw some energy in that direction. Also, I want to travel more. Not necessarily on a plane, as I’m not fully convinced about air travel lately. A train trip might be enjoyable, or perhaps a cruise. Oh, not so fast on a cruise. People seem to go missing on cruises, the ships stop functioning, catch on fire, or become stranded in foreign ports with no toilets. Possibly I’ll rent a horse. I’ve always considered them reliable. Well, there was that one who took me on a mad dash across the desert in Las Vegas or Blackie an Arab steed with an aversion to water who laid down in midstream giving me an unexpected pre-Saturday bath. Maybe I’ll just stay home. Home is good. However, if you allow your pool to grow stagnant for too long, algae will begin to grow and you’ll attract frogs. As I have attracted more than my fair share of frogs over my lifetime, I intend to keep the water fresh in my pool and allow room for new growth. Don’t have any idea what I’m talking about? Can’t say as I blame you. I’m not sure I’m perfectly clear where I’m going myself. I’m sure by the end of this writing I’ll ease you in the direction of what the point is I’m trying to make. If not, I’ll add it to my list. Be concise, resolution number 121.

My drawing pad is sitting on the table. It’s been a while since I faced a blank page head on armed with my No. 2 pencil. Two pages are nearly filled with sketches and I’m working on a third. Logically one would finish one completely before starting a fresh page, but no one has ever accused me of being such a being so I do it my way and in the end it all comes out in the wash. In my drawers I have three “almost stories”. They have been in transition to a complete body of work since my children were in elementary school. This could be either the worst form of procrastination or avoiding the possibility of actually having to submit my manuscripts and join the legion of other writers papering their bathroom walls with rejection letters. The jury is still out on this.

After spending the holidays with my mother in the Bay Area, I am convinced there is a whole book waiting to emerge centered around my family. Probably we would be the only ones slapping down the $6.95 for the paperback, but I’m sure it might provide a laugh, even a tear or two in the reading. Strange attracts strange it would seem as I research my family history. Interesting to uncover who wed who and whom these unions begat. Most interesting to do your own genealogy. It is amazing what crawls out from beneath the family rock pile. It turns out we’re related to Joseph Smith who founded the Latter Day Saints. Who knew? We rise from German, English, Scottish, Welch and Flemish ancestors poking out of the branches. The women in our group tend to be long-lived. More recently, two great-grandmothers and one grandmother nearly achieved the century mark. Even in the earlier generations, for their time, the women seemed to have enjoyed longevity. Perhaps we have some Ecuadorian blood running through our veins, like the people in Vilcabamba who seem to have uncovered the fountain of youth, some living to be one hundred and forty according to their birth records. One hundred and forty. Can you imagine? I’m hardly wet behind the years in their world.

At any rate, I am looking forward to exploring the next 356 days of 2014. There will probably be an increase in work coming my way, or I would like to think this to be true. The money pit keeps exacting its pound of flesh and I don’t have a lot to spare. I have been honing my graphics skills in anticipation of having to flex those muscles again. As with any business in the technology sector, use it or lose it would hold true of logo building or graphics software as well. My other half said computer manufacturers are leaning towards phasing out laptops in favor of tablets and hand-held devices. Fortunately they’re keeping the more cumbersome laptops around for graphic designers because I cannot picturing myself creating an ad campaign or media on a smart phone. These are not new eyes. I’m just sayin.

Ideally my plan for 2014 is to live fully and in the moment. As long as there are new things to learn, new people to meet, and new places to explore life certainly is never dull. I do believe I’ll scratch taking an expedition to Antarctica on a Russian ship right off my short list, however. Although making a helipad in below zero weather might prove interesting, in the end it just didn’t look like that much fun.

I wasn’t sure if peas in pasta was going to work for me, but I had some leftover and so I tossed them in. Yum.

Creamy Grass and Hay Fettucine

12 oz. spinach fettucine
12 oz. regular fettucine
3 Tbsp. EV olive oil
8 oz. sliced button mushrooms
1/2 Tbsp. minced garlic
4 oz. Coppa ham, sliced in thin strips
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
2 cups cream
3/4 cup peas (frozen or canned)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Shredded Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Heat oil in large skillet over med-high heat. Add mushrooms and garlic and saute for 10 mins. stirring frequently.

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Add ham and sliced tomatoes to skillet. Continue cooking about 5-7 mins. until tomatoes are slightly wilted.

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Whisk in cream, peas, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Bring to low boil. Whisk in grated Parmesan and continue cooking until smooth and bubbly.

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Toss pastas together in large serving bowl with 1 Tbsp. olive oil. Add sauce and mix well. Serve with shredded cheese.

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1Yesterday was a very Susie kind of day. At one point Rick threatened to lock me in the closet until the clock struck midnight and the madness had passed.

It began quietly enough. I slept in. After hitting the on button the coffee maker I piled on enough clothes to keep me from freezing to death while fetching the paper and trudged up the hill. This snow, it appears, is not planning on going anywhere any time soon.  This presents several problems for us. First, we didn’t realize we should have taken the car to the top of the driveway and parked it on the street prior to the storm. What can I say? Obviously we’re novices when it comes to having a steep driveway in a hard freeze, which occurred last night, and will again for tonight and tomorrow night. Oh-oh. Now, we bought water and flashlights, thought of candles and batteries. We did not, however, think to purchase a snow shovel or any salt to throw on the driveway. Doomed are we. Quite possibly by the time the spring thaw arrives I’ll weigh 88 pounds and be living with Rip Van Winkle.

Not bad enough we are confined to barracks, but Murphy began to toy with me. My plan for dinner was to make this delicious pasta sauce, which I put together earlier in the day without a hitch. I went downstairs to vacuum. We have two in the house, one up and one down. The ironing board was up because I am sewing for Christmas. Plugging in the vacuum I must have overloaded the circuit (Really? Two plugs in one outlet and it overloads, that can’t be good. The money pit deepens.) At any rate this meant retracing my steps, putting on my warm outer garments and back into the garage, which I did. Locating the tripped switch I flipped it back on and went back downstairs. Deciding against plugging it in in the same room, I went into the bedroom and plugged it in an empty plug in that wall. Sneaky. Unfortunately, the space heater was running for the cat. I know, I know. Once again the lights went out. Boo looked up as if to say, “I hope you’re planning on taking care of that”. Insert expletive here. Ach.

Rick settled in to watch the 49er’s, a Sunday tradition. Twenty minutes before the game was to start the cable went out. Perfect. It came back on thankfully minutes before the first play or Rick would have been inconsolable.

Saturday we had no mail delivery because several tree limbs above the mailboxes drooped down making it impossible to access the door to the mailbox. I decided to spend a few minutes removing the offending limbs while Rick watched his beloved football. I mentioned I was going out in passing, but he was busy giving the coaches a lesson on how to properly move the ball up field, so I closed the door, grabbed the clippers and back up the hill I went. The limbs, when giggled, loosened every bit of snow on the higher branches. By the time I’d cut down two large limbs I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy after an unfortunate flour incident. Sigh. Someone went by and honked and laughed. It’s always nice to have an audience when you’re making an ass of yourself.

Freezing, I headed to the house only to find the door locked. I’ve been talking about hiding a key somewhere on the property, but naturally procrastinated until it now became an issue. I knocked. Nothing. I knocked again, loudly. It wasn’t getting any warmer since I was wet from head to toe. Hello? The TV announcers were yelling above the screaming crowds and looking in the window Rick was not in his seat. Swell. Finally, Rick came back from the loo and let me in asking me what I was doing outside. Never mind.

Inside, and beginning to feel my joints thaw, I put the pasta water on to boil. It takes longer at this elevation it seems. From the pantry I retrieved a large box of thin spaghetti I was planning to use with my yummy sauce. Walking towards the kitchen with nothing in my way to impede my progress, I somehow managed to squeeze the box in such a way it sprung open strewing spaghetti all over the floor. What didn’t land on the floor cascaded over the banister littering my freshly vacuumed stairs. I’m sorry, I am not vacuuming again! Rick looked over his shoulder and shook his head. That again.

Loading the nearly full dishwasher with my dinner prep items, Rick announced over the TV, “Oh, I ran the dishwasher so the dishes are clean”. Really?  Were clean would be more accurate. Never mind.

Afraid to touch anything, but getting hungry, I prepared my garlic bread and turned on the broiler. Popping my bread in the oven, my mother called and quickly I became involved searching the Internet for a nightgown for my aunt. Interrupting my searching and the cat’s nap (another of her nine lives was sacrificed in the making of this garlic bread), both smoke alarms simultaneously began screeching. By the time I opened the oven door the bodies were ready for the urns. Good news though, I found a petite medium nightie for my aunt in pink. Somehow we managed to forage together enough food for this meal. I loved this pasta sauce, thick and meaty. Yum.

Photos by Susie Nelson

Meaty Pasta Sauce with Thin Spaghetti

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. Italian sausage links, hot
1 1/4 lbs. ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 16 oz. cans petite diced tomatoes
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
2 6 oz. cans tomato paste
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. basil
1/2 tsp. fennel seed
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1/2 cup reserved pasta water
1 pkg. thin spaghetti
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Grated Parmesan cheese

Remove the sausage casings and slice into 1/2″ slices. Heat olive oil in large, deep skillet over med. heat. Add sausage and brown on all sides (10 mins.). Drain on paper towels.

Add ground beef, onion, and minced garlic to same skillet. Cook until meat is browned. Add next thirteen ingredients. Bring to boil. Cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for two hours.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup water. Add reserved water to pasta sauce and mix well. Toss pasta with olive oil. Place in pasta bowls and ladle sauce over top. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

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finalA friend of mine and I were discussing future goals, etc. during a phone call last week. Basically what we wanted to do when we grow up, a subject I’ve been pondering most of my adult life. She posed the question, “if you could began at A again, what direction would you follow as far as a career”?  Hmmm.  Certainly my original plan was not to find myself seated at a typewriter or keyboard all day banging out executive missives or punching telex keys. Early on, I wanted to be a nurse.  I was nine at the time I’d decided on that lofty goal. By the time I was nine and a quarter, it was a veterinarian and in my teens an Egyptologist.

Looking at it in the rear view mirror I believe I would like to have pursued a writing career in one form or another. Words hold a real fascination for me, and books truly my passion. Among my possessions, my well-loved volumes of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, my original Winnie the Pooh series, and “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, Why am I Always in the Pits”, by the eternally funny Erma Bombeck would be considered among my most treasured. Books transport me into other worlds created and unleashed by the minds ofbats their writers. Within the typed pages I can abandon my easy chair and cooling cup of coffee to fly among the clouds with Peter Pan or experience life in pre-revolution Paris in Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities”. For a few dollars or a library card a reader can leave behind the bills stacked on the counter, the dinner dishes yet unwashed, and the failing brakes in the old car  to stroll with Jay Gatsby in the lush gardens of his home in the exclusive community of West Egg, New York or explore the Missouri caves with Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.

According to my research there are debatably only seven plot lines available for aspiring novelists:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

That being said, it’s hard to believe new twists on these seven themes keep appearing on best seller lists year after year.  I know with my romance novelists of choice, Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts, though different in style, write to plot lines running pretty much in the same vein.  Beautiful rich girl, meets extraordinarily buff and virile rich man.  Coy rebuffs ensue, with beautiful rich girl finally falling into bed with virile man who also as it happens loves her child from a former marriage, dogs, cats, cooking, cleaning the house, and fluffy bunnies.  In the end, the couple weds under an arbor of handpicked orchids from a little known island off Fiji and happily row into the sunset.  In spite of the repetitious nature of these novels, I find myself sitting on a Sunday afternoon, rain drizzling down the window, engrossed in the familiar story lines unable to put my book down long enough to fold the load of waiting laundry.

Often I will literally saturate myself with a novelist, in the end having absorbed every word available in print. In high school I shared the angst of Steinbeck’s rich but world weary characters. “Tell me about the rabbits, George”. I was ravenous for Erle Stanley Gardner while 3944692pregnant a few years later (along with triple grilled cheese sandwiches and In ‘n Out burgers). Stephen King caught my fancy soon after Erle, along with John Grisham, Ernest Hemingway, Michener, Irving Wallace and a who’s who list of other authors riding the wave of my journey for more reading material.  What an amazing contribution to the world as an author, to see people spending their hard-earned money and valuable time to immerse themselves in words you have penned.  Words that will continue to remain in the minds of people existing long after you have returned to the dust from whence you came.  It must be a heady feeling.

How many little princesses have been lulled to sleep by the Velveteen Rabbit?  Pooh and his gang of furry neer do wells have tirelessly taken guests on adventures in the 100 Aker Wood since A.A. Milne first brought the chubby bear and friends to life back in 1926. Robinson Crusoe still befriends Friday after all these years and Dracula is unalive and well and coming to a living room near you time and time again for a quick blood donation. Frankenstein’s monster pooh-and-frends-winnie-the-pooh-33183461-1024-768has been resurrected continuously on the big screen from the original with Boris Karloff to the comedic Young Frankenstein which still makes me laugh out loud. From H. G. Wells’ Time Machine to Avatar our stories are only as limited by our imagination.

Jane Austen invited us into the lives of the English landed gentry of the period, as well as defining women’s place in society and the limitations of being born female during that time in history. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights allowed us almost to almost feel the damp cold filtering through our rough woolen jackets and sense the eerie sadness of the heavy fog draping across the shadowy English moors. Such gifted story tellers were they, their books can be read with the same eagerness today as by readers in their time.

Without words Rapunzel’s long hair would never have guided the prince, Cinderella would never have caught her fella, and Captain Ahab never obsessively pursued his whale. It is our written word which differentiates us from our animal cousins, and leaves a legacy for those to follow as clearly as Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs in their wake in the woods.

This is my version of the popular dish.  It’s a nice break from the norm and always a hit.

Cheesy Baked Spaghetti

16 oz. spaghetti, halved
5 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/3 cup green bell pepper, chopped
8 mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. ground chuck
1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage, bulk
2 24 oz. jars tomato and basil spaghetti sauce
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
16 oz. cottage cheese
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
1 1/2 Tbsp. parsley flakes
4 cups mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook spaghetti in large pot of boiling salted water according to package directions. Melt butter and pour in bottom of large bowl. Add cooked spaghetti and toss to coat. Set aside.

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Heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, green pepper, and mushrooms. Cook for 10 mins. Add garlic and cook for 1 min.

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Add beef and sausage to onion mixture. Cook until meat is no longer pink. Drain on paper towels.

IMG_5089Return to pan and add sauce to meat. Add garlic salt, onion powder, salt and pepper to pan. Stir to mix.

In small bowl mix together cottage cheese, eggs, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and parsley flakes.

IMG_5090Spray lasagna pan or 9 x 13″ casserole with cooking spray. Layer as follows:

1/2 cooked spaghetti
1/2 cottage cheese mixture
1/2 meat mixture
1/2 mozzarella cheese

Repeat layers ending with mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle 1/4 cup Parmesan over top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Cook for 50 mins. covered.

IMG_5094Remove tin foil and continue cooking 15 mins. or until cheese is bubbly and golden brown. Cool for 5 mins. before serving.

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Photo by Susie Nelson

Photo by Susie Nelson

Love is in the air.  Hearts of all shapes can be found on every store aisle, next to the Christmas decorations no doubt as they seem to preview holidays earlier and earlier in the retail business. Hopeful prospective grooms, with velvet ring boxes tucked in sweaty breast pockets, are practicing their speeches before bending on one knee to declare their everlasting devotion. Colorful florist’s trucks are gearing up to deliver smiles to ladies in offices and homes all over the nation.  It’s countdown to Valentine’s Day.

st-Valentine_14-757234Valentine’s Day, for some, can be a frightening proposition.   If not intrinsically romantic by nature, the prospect of choosing the appropriate way to express their love can be as daunting as an afternoon stroll through a mine field.  Personally, I prefer a spontaneous thoughtful gesture any time of the year more than one expected on a particular day, but any day is a good day to be reminded you are cherished by the object of your affection.   Over the years, having taken the plunge more times than the Olympic diving team, I have received my share of bouquets, candy hearts, romantic dinners and on one occasion even a trip to Hawaii, a personal favorite.

susie

Me, young and brunette standing on the hotel deck in Hawaii

Hawaii is on my mind this week for several reasons. First because I always think of it around February 14th and secondly because I tuned in to watch The Descendents with George Clooney over the weekend. Shot on location in Oahu, a great movie by the way, it is one I will revisit another time or two not only for the story line and excellent acting, but to immerse myself in the glorious scenery.  I have held a ticket with Hawaii listed as my destination four times during my years on this planet.  My first trip, perhaps the most memorable so far, was in my early twenties.

Married three years to the father of my children, an opportunity for a five-day Valentine getaway to Oahu for an outlay of a mere $200.00 unexpectedly fell in our laps. A jilted gentlemen in my husband’s office had paid for non-refundable tickets as a surprise for his fiance and was soundly dumped before he had licked the envelope on her card. The romance package included round trip airfare, hotel accommodations and dinner at a fine restaurant on Valentine’s Day.  A young working couple with two toddlers, there was little extra in our bank those days beyond what was needed to cover immediate expenses, day care, groceries, and mounting school loans. Even if we could manage the trip, there were those sticky extras like eating, transportation on the island, tips and something vacation appropriate to wear.  Sigh.

After hearing about our dilemma, my parents threw their hat in the ring and offered to take our two rambunctious offspring during our absence, as well as adding $100 to our empty pot to spend while there.  At the time $100 went considerably further than today where a picture of Ben Franklin from the mint might net you a newspaper, a bag of Doritos and possibly a jar of cheese dip.  Young, all we needed were bathing suits, suntan lotion, a couple of pairs of shorts, tee shirts and something to wear to our complementary Valentine’s Day dinner. Making some minimum purchases, we tucked our items in one of the two suitcases borrowed from friends, reserving the second for our Farberware grill, a wedding present we hadn’t broken in yet, and Hawaii 009various cooking implements, lest the need arise.  Also thrown in was a huge bag of corn on the cob given in exchange for our picking up some pukka shell necklaces for a neighbor and his family and a jar of peanut butter.

After a five-hour trip in the center seats of the center aisle in coach, or steerage as I prefer to call it, we stepped out of the cooled airplane into bright sunlight and a warm blast of tropical air.  At the bottom of the stairs (back then you exited on the Tarmac – I know, old, old, old) a golden skinned greeter was slipping gorgeous home_04flower leis around descending passengers necks while another  snapped their pictures. Once in our bus, our driver explained pictures would be offered for sale later at the hotel. Nothing is free, not even in paradise.  Looking at the beautiful Hawaiians, I couldn’t help but note it seemed God had spent extra time on these people. Easy to smile, their gleaming white teeth appeared even more vivid when displayed against the backdrop of rich cocoa skin kissed by the sun, and lush, coarse manes of raven hair.

A brief tour was included on the ride to the hotel. Pearl Harbor was pointed to on our right, and the Dole Pineapple factory to our left. At the end of the long string of hotels directly on Waikiki beach, we were dropped at our hotel located one street over in the opposite direction. Although not on the beach, our fifth floor room provided a panoramic view of the coastline beyond the hotels and Diamond Head.  A wisp of a breeze helped to temper the humidity carrying with it a hint of Hawaiian music from somewhere on the street below.  Arriving on a Saturday, our night of free dining was scheduled for Wednesday, Valentine’s Day itself.  Until then we were left to forage for ourselves.  It didn’t take us long to discover the best places for happy hour situated along the boulevard. Free pu pu’s for the price of a tall tropical drink bedecked with orchids and fresh fruit became our entrance fee to the beautiful hotel bars where we watched the sun drizzle into the ocean and talked about our adventures of the day.

Valentine’s dinner was on top of a bank building overlooking the water.  To begin huge iced bowls of shrimp were served, followed by a main course of mahi mahi perfectly cooked resting on a bed of seasoned rice.  Dessert was a pineapple sorbet sailboat with thin chocolate crisp sails.  Absolutely lovely.

On our last night, and on our last dollar we grilled hot dogs and corn on our Farberware grill on our hotel deck washed down by a cold beer or two from our picnic cooler.  It was the perfect end to a fabulous week.  Hope your Valentine’s Day is special.  If you like lamb this is the ticket, and the potatoes, oh my.

Crockpot Lamb Shanks Osso Bucco

2 lamb shanks
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups dry white wine
2 carrots, julienned
1 zucchini, julienned
1 yellow squash, julienned
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 14 1/2 oz. cans diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup water
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. basil
2 tsp. Italian seasoning

Mix together flour, 1/4 tsp. black pepper and 1/2 tsp. salt. Dredge lamb chops in flour mixture.

In large skillet heat olive oil over med.-high heat. Add lamb chops to skillet and brown on all sides. Remove shanks from skillet and place on bottom of 6 qt. slow cooker sprayed with cooking spray. Add wine to same skillet and scrape bottom to gather brown bits. Pour over shanks.

Place carrots, squash, and onions on top of shanks.

Mix together tomatoes, water, bay leaf, pepper, kosher salt, basil, and Italian seasoning. Pour over meat and vegetables.

Cook on low for 8 hrs.

Broasted Yukon Gold Potatoes

6 small Yukon gold potatoes, halved
1 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. rosemary
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place halved potatoes in resealable plastic bag or bowl with tight lid. Add remaining ingredients. Toss to coat well.

Cover cookie sheet with tin foil. Spray well with canola cooking spray. Place potatoes on foil cut side down. Bake for 30-35 mins. until cut side is nicely browned and potatoes are fork tender. Place in a bowl lined with paper towels to drain. Salt and pepper to taste.

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Photo by Susie Nelson

Photo by Susie Nelson

Fennel, at least in part, in on the menu today.  The first time I came across a recipe listing a “fennel bulb” as one of the ingredients I was completely clueless.  Not wanting to appear stupid, but apparently living up to the description in spite of that fact, I scoured the vegetable section looking for something which had I tripped over a barrel of, I would not have recognized. This, as you can imagine, made the search a wee teeny bit more frustrating. Finally, after nearly celebrating another birthday trying to locate the elusive bulb, I asked an employee stocking the shelves who directed me to a group of odd looking bulbs with one green bushy end sprouting something looking quite like dill.  Fennel, who knew? As indicated in my recipe book, I bought two.  Once home, I placed them on my cutting board.  After circling for a period of time the realization set in that now I had located the pungent produce I didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

Not sure whether you ate the greens or discarded them, or how to approach chopping the bulb, I headed for the Internet.  What a new world the Internet has opened up when it comes to research.  As yet, I truly haven’t found a topic I’ve queried where I wasn’t rewarded with some sort of answer in return.  It’s magical.  Sure enough, after a brief search I was pleased to note I was not the only fennel challenged cook on the planet. Videos were available aplenty for me to choose from. Yea.

Locating the video I wanted, I set my laptop on the counter. After returning volleys with my other half who, fully aware of my track record when it comes to spilling, cautioned me not to do so to our new toy before we had made the first payment  Managing to avoid such a disaster, I dissected my first fennel bulb with help from the chef on the screen.   Drunk with power at my accomplishment, I wondered what to conquer next?  Perhaps I would swim in the unknown waters of the unfathomable jicama or explore the spiky depths of the kiwano melon? The possibilities seemed endless.

Fennel, often compared to anise due to its similar licorice flavor, for me was an acquired taste as were many foods.  I didn’t barrel screaming into this world with a palate willing to accept every new taste as delicious.  Most children do not.   However, over the years through trial and error many things have moved from the ” Eeuuw” side of my list to the “Mmmm”  because my palate matured or evolved as I went along.  At one time the mere word avocado made me gag and now it is among my favorite foods, and mushrooms in my meal at the age of twelve would have had me running screaming from the room.

My children were introduced, as was I, to all kinds of interesting and new flavors during their formative years.  It was never my rule they be forced to eat them, but it was my rule that they at least give them a try.  As a result, both my children as do I, eat most anything prepared well that arrives on our plates, a trait which has its obvious upside and downside. Each generation approaches feeding their offspring differently I would suppose.  I have one grandchild who only ate hot dogs and peas for a year.  I don’t notice any apparent side effects in the child, other than she is a typical pre-teen with all the drama and hormonal imbalance those two words put together conjure up.

Hailing from Nova Scotia where seafood is as common as sweat in a malaria ward, moving to Southern California when I was nine not only was a complete turnabout climate-wise for me, but also culturally.  Mexican food was non-existent in restaurants in Halifax at the time. Tortillas were a mystery to me and highly seasoned dishes the rarity not the norm.  On thinking back, I don’t believe I had ever encountered an egg roll or chow mein before I crossed the California border either. Consequently, all the new flavors and tastes took a bit of getting used to on my part, but being a well-rounded billboard for what a good eater should embody (ach, my puns) I threw myself into my new environment with great enthusiasm.  Mexican food to this day remains at the top of my list for making my taste buds happy.

As the new year begins afresh it brings my thoughts to how easily we drift into routines, especially as the years fall behind us.  Recipes that are old favorites seem comforting and we color less outside of the lines in our cooking, at least many do.  It is fun to sample something new, even if it turns out not to be to your liking.  As I used to say to my children “you certainly won’t know what it tastes like if it never enters your mouth”.

On that note I have decided to explore from time to time something new and fresh and pass it one to you and see what you think.  This will be my one for this month.  If you try it you must let me know what you think.  The aromas released in the kitchen from the lovely blend of spices is well worth the effort and I’ve included Susie’s guide to preparing the fennel for your viewing pleasure.

Preparing the fennel:

9

Choose a good looking bulb (we live in a small town and this was the only one so not pristine as I would like) with no brown leaves and crisp foliage. In this case I sliced off the brown portions of the leaves before chopping to make do.

Cut the bulb off and save the foliage to use in soups or sauces.

5

Cut diagonally on the sides of the bulb to cut any excess sprouts off.

4

Cut a slice off the bottom of the bulb and discard.

7

Slice in half lengthwise and you are ready to chop.

Your certificate will be mailed to you. 🙂

Three Martini Penne Pasta in a Vodka Fennel Sauce with Olive Tepanade

1 lb. penne rigate pasta
2 Tbsp. EVOO
4 slices bacon, chopped
2 cooked Hot Italian sausages, sliced and halved
1 bulb fennel, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 28 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes
1 10 1/2 oz. Italian stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp. dried basil
Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, shredded

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta liquid.

Meanwhile heat EV olive oil in pan. Add chopped bacon and cook until crisp.

Add fennel, onion, bay leaves, garlic, crushed pepper, and fennel seeds to pan. Season with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook until onions and fennel are softened 8-10 mins.

Stir in tomato paste. Add tomato sauce and canned tomatoes with juice to pan. Add sliced sausages, vermouth, basil and Italian seasoning. Allow to simmer for 15-20 mins.

Add the pasta and reserved 1/2 cup pasta water to sauce. Mix well. Serve with grated cheese and tapenade.

Olive Tapenade

2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups whole, pitted kalamata olives
1 Tbsp. capers
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
4 Tbsp. olive oil

Pulse all ingredients in food processor until finely chopped. Refrigerate for 1 hr. to let flavors set. Serve on top of pasta. Yum

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Photo by Susie Nelson

Well, here I am again at 3:28 a.m. precisely. Seems to be the witching hour for me of late.  This time it was my internal processes waking me up with a message from the spicy, garlic laden chili I consumed for dinner, reminding me that they’ve warned me about such doings before and cannot be responsible for the results.  A little swig of pink liquid from the plastic bottle seems to have calmed things down a bit.

Photos by Susie Nelson

According to the news coverage I was the only human not in a store on Friday.  Instead I opted to put up Christmas decorations (thought I’d share some pics) and graze contentedly on the leftovers calling to me from the refrigerator shelves.  I pulled together my signature day after Thanksgiving sandwich for breakfast, light mayonnaise on rich grain bread, turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce (jellied for this purpose), with a dash of salt and pepper. Often I eat leftovers for breakfast, and might be spotted downing a meatball or a piece of cold pizza before 8:00 a.m. My other half covers his eyes in horror when I do such a thing, but for me foods don’t have to be eaten at a specific time of the day, but rather when the mood strikes you.

Thanksgiving itself passed quietly for the two of us. Even though we were short in numbers, the phone kept me busy in between preparing vegetables and getting Tom T. ready for his last big performance.  The old boy didn’t miss a cue and in end made such a tender and meaty showing that I was moved to applaud.  Pods of family groups, all separated this year, checked in from various locations and I fielded a number of culinary questions from those hosting the meal for the first time. Having been in the trenches myself many times over the years, I know from whence I speak.

My son and his wife order their dinner from a local restaurant as did my mother and her guests.  I’m very “old school” to his thinking, for insisting on going through all the work to produce the whole meal particularly with no guests on the horizon.  I am an old dog, I would suppose, but it’s all about the mouth-watering smells emanating from the kitchen during the day. Despite the small contingency expected at the table, I made all the fixin’s including glazed carrots, creamed onions, and fresh brussel sprouts.  Once again I pulled out the coffee and made red-eye gravy which is becoming a habit around here it’s so good.

On a humorous note we had a peach pie in the freezer we purchased several months ago as a school fund-raiser for one of the kids. This seemed a perfect idea for dessert.  At a tidy price of $25.00, part going to the school, I felt it should remove itself from the freezer and pop in the oven on its own but it refused to budge when I brought the subject up.  According to the directions it was made from all fresh ingredients. 105 minutes was the designated cooking time plus 6 hours of rest once removed from the oven before enjoying.  Can do.  Once baked and plump and crusty, I left it on the rack to cool and went about the rest of my day.

Hmmmmm.

After allowing the dust to the settle on the first round of carnage we actually decided to continue watching our feet disappear from below our midsections by adding a piece of pie to the damage.  Cutting into it we got a surprise.  The $25.00 must have been the going price for crusts. Apparently we had not checked the appropriate box to pay for filling, because as you can see, we didn’t get any.  What we got was a gaping hole with a mostly empty cavity looking more like the turkey in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation than a piece of pastry. Interesting.  Not to be done out of our bit of sweet we slapped some whipped cream on the crust and carried on.

Today I will be in the kitchen most of the day as I’m preparing for a visit to my mothers for a few days.  My other half refers to this as “relocation” rather than “vacation”, because I simply move my culinary duties from my kitchen to hers, but I don’t mind. It is nice to be able to spoil her now and again and we spend time talking and chopping so that makes it more special.

In our absence friends are coming to “house sit” and enjoy the glorious weather mother nature is providing for the week and keep an eye on the furrier of the residents not going with us as well as the house itself.  It’s a win/win for both of us as we don’t have to pay a pet sitter and they don’t have to get a hotel room so yea for us.

Mouse, our adopted cat, as I’ve explained in previous posts would, if human, I believe be described as schizophrenic. Of the many cats I’ve had she has the most capricious of moods, is the most voracious of hunters, and communicates more often than any other of her ilk.  Preferring her own company, she will cuddle up next to you if snacks are on the horizon but this on her terms only and time wasted trying to get her to do your bidding will leave you in the end frustrated or just plain looking ridiculous.

Yesterday the church ladies stopped by for their weekly visit and saving of souls.  They are lovely women, so I stood with my wooden spoon and apron and shared a moment.  During the discussion Mouse the cat’s name came up as they knew of our history and that she had “adopted” us nearly two years ago.  The older of the two ladies, well retired and living in a mobile home park asked if I was looking for a home for Mouse.  What!  Oh, it was a tempting moment, fraught with the devil’s hand in it.  Packed and in the car in five minutes no questions asked.  But no, I could not face myself in the morning for doing it to either party so the Mousemeat as we call her shall remain in the folds of our small family as we have come to an understanding.

The following recipe is my first stab at this soup and it was wonderful.  It is a bit of preparation but well worth the effort.

Italian Wedding Soup

12 cups chicken stock
2 large chicken breasts
2 bunches green onions, chopped (white and green parts)
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1 bay leaves
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 bag baby spinach, chopped
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg, beaten
Parmesan for garnish

Meatballs

1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground chuck
1 small onion, grated
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/3 cup parsley flakes
1 egg, beaten

In large bowl mix all meatball ingredients together until well blended. Use fingertips rather than squeezing with hand to prevent over mixing. Make into 1″ meatballs and set aside.

Soup

Heat butter and oil in large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic and saute for 8 mins. until vegetables are tender. Season with salt and pepper.

Add broth and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add chicken breasts and reduce to simmer. Cook about 15-20 mins. then remove and shred chicken with forks. Return to broth.

Add spinach and parsley and continue cooking for 35-40 mins. Mix egg with 1 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese. Drizzle slowly into soup stirring with a fork to make thin strands.

Add meatballs to soup. Cook for 20 mins. longer.

Ladle into large soup bowls and garnish with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 8-10.

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Photo by Susie Nelson

Well my after birthday week has been brimming with surprises, some good, some not so much.  Saturday was a mixed bag of catastrophes and unwanted news.  My daughter called to say my son-in-law had suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital.  Definitely not good news as he’s an insulin reliant diabetic.  Being the town crier for our family I alerted the interested parties as to the goings on and held down the fort here to see where this bend in the road was going to take us.  After stabilizing him, it was determined that he had a blockage that would require one, possibly two stents to be inserted.  This is not unfamiliar territory for me as I’ve had three nail-biting experiences with my other half resulting in three stents showing up on his x-rays these days.  The good news is these procedures are considered somewhat commonplace and certainly far less invasive than solutions taken in the past.

Swallowing that unwanted pill, I busied myself around the house to keep my mind occupied. Rick was outside in the garage closing up for night and raking in our rather rakish cat.  Gathering the cat in his arms and pushing the garage door opener the cat, believing the world was closing in on her, flew out of his arms and under the closing door causing it to once again go back up.  Turning to chase the cat he slipped in a puddle of water and I ran out to find him floundering on his back like a turtle unable to right itself.  This only humorous because of the fact there were no broken bones or hospital personnel involved in the incident. Good news as well for my son-in-law who had two stents inserted Sunday and is going home today.  Reset alarm button and move forward.

The dust seeming to have settled slightly after another tornado touching down in my life , we went ahead and kept our appointment with the realtor to go house hunting yesterday.  For me this whole experience has taken on a sort of “Holy Grail” kind of feel.  Is there really a house for us, or is it simply going to continue to remain elusive like my sanity?

After yesterday I further whittled down the problems we are experiencing finding a house that suits us.  Number one, we are definitely struggling with having a thirst for champagne and finding only beer in the fridge.  Also my other half and I have decidedly different tastes, so while I am wandering around mouthing “this is it” behind the realtor’s back, he miming and pointing to reasons why it is not.  Lastly, when we do find a house within our pocketbook’s dimensions it is in need of a lot of out-of-pocket expenditure to make it livable.  Sigh.

The first house on the agenda yesterday was in a beautiful gated community on a lake in Nevada County.  I liked it.  It was clean, small (sort of baby bear perfect), with a pretty yard and clean decks.  It needed eaves around the roof and some exterior work, but all in all and nice home.  A drawback was the master bedroom which was the only dark room in the house, but I’m so desperate at this point that I’ll poke a huge hole in the roof if necessary to allow added light.

Second on our list was a much larger house high on a hill with two long, steep flights of steps taking you up to the front door.  Oxygen masks and pick axes were provided on the lower deck.  Trying to imagine scaling these steps in inclement weather with an armload of groceries did not paint the ideal picture for me.  There was a garage down below but it had no access to the house itself.  Inside what must have been a gorgeous house when new was what remained after the devastation.  Obvious signs of rug rats remained with colorful plastic toys, most broken, decorating the yard, and child oriented wall paper in what was left in two of what once were bedrooms.  All doors had been removed from closets and crayon reminders of children past were evident everywhere.  The realtor for the seller said she had received a low ball offer from a buyer but was hoping she could get more.  Really? I’m amazed she got any offer whatsoever.  Run, do not look back, save yourself.

The third house in the same development was occupied and a short sale situation.  I hate that because the owners are usually not leaving their properties voluntarily and to them prospective buyers are about as welcome as a Hatfield to a McCoy.  The realtor on the sellers side was present but spent little time with us, rather stood on the porch texting on his cell phone.  On entering the house we understood why he chose to remain outside.  Good Lord.  A pleasant young woman standing in the kitchen (the only clean room in the house we were to find) was being guarded by a low to the ground sentry in the form of a black and tan dachshund.  After sniffing us and finding us acceptable to enter his territory, he devoted his attention to a stuffed skunk he was carrying around performing acts on the poor glass eyed creature most probably considered illegal in at least 38 states.  Embarrassed, the owner said the stuffed animal was the pint-sized Romeo’s girlfriend, apparently the canine equivalent of a blow up doll.

Three bedrooms toward the back were all equally piled with laundry, both clean and dirty.  Wads of wet towels lined the bathroom floors and the door wouldn’t shut. In all, trash and general chaos reigned supreme reminiscent of debris remaining in the path of a violent storm. In the fourth bedroom, we opened the door to be greeted by a pleasant breeze wafting in via a huge jagged hole in the window, and, giving new meaning to the term “deep pile carpet”, numerous deposits from the wee sentry dotted what once was probably a neutral colored carpet.

To carry on with theme of recent storm devastation, the backyard had a downed tree strewn half way across its width as well as a large palm tree rooted directly in the center of the yard.  Amazingly, the realtor suggested with a perfectly straight face this would be the perfect setting for those summer luau’s.

Soooooo, the quest continues.  So close, yet so far away.  While gone I allowed these absolutely sumptuous lamb shanks to simmer in my crockpot all day.  You have to try these.  Just yummy.

Lastly, on the political front the election is finely settled for good or for bad depending on your perspective, and, is it me or has Donald Trump been sniffing too much hair spray?  He needs to take a breath thus necessitating firmly closing his lips. I’m just saying.

Savory Italian Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks

2 large lamb shanks
2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper
1 large yellow onion, quartered
8 green beans, trimmed and halved
1 zucchini, sliced thin
10 mushrooms, sliced thin
2 large carrots, julienned
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup prepared au jus
1 tsp. beef bouillon crystals
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup hot water
1 cup red wine
1 15 1/2 oz. can petite diced tomatoes with juice
1 Tbsp. stone ground mustard
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. parsley flakes

In large skillet heat olive oil until shimmering. Liberally salt and pepper shanks and brown on all sides.

Spray 6 quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Place browned shanks in bottom of pan. Place vegetables on top.

Mix all remaining ingredients together in large mixing bowl and pour over top of meat and vegetables.

Cook on low for 8-9 hours. Serve over fluffy mashed potatoes or with rice.

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Photo by Susie Nelson

Is it just me or has Halloween, or at least as I once knew it, become a watered down and not particularly scary version of its former self? All Hallowed Eve used to raise the hair on small children’s forearms with bone chilling stories of ghosts, goblins, and things that go bump in the night.  In Halifax bonfires blazed at the ends of cul-de-sacs, pumpkins winked in kitchen windows, and, as day gave way to night, the streets came alive with all manner of witches, cowboys, fairies, and the lot.  Spiders dangled from gossamer webs spun across doorsteps and our plastic pumpkins and burlap bags were filled with ribbon tied bags of homemade cookies and caramel apples, many of which were consumed before they made their way home.  Often we were invited to come in out of the cold to bob for apples or to enjoy a tummy warming cup of hot mulled cider flavored with cinnamon sticks.  It was a magic time, where our unfettered minds conjured up the unimaginable in each shadowed bush or moonlit backyard. Fear spurred bands of merrymakers to quicken their pace past darkened alley ways and unlit paths promising to offer a myriad of hiding places for ghoulish creatures of the night waiting to devour the overly curious in the blink of an evil eye.  It was glorious.

Last year we had only a smattering of trick or treaters, despite my attempt to draw them in with flameless candles flickering in Halloween luminaries, decorated pumpkins, and ghostly noises hovering in the entryway.  I miss seeing the excited faces and squeals when an adult opens the door dressed as a big pink bunny or an angel with diaphanous wings (that would be me) to deposit a handful of goodies in their bags.  Particularly the more diminutive of the group, as they are the ones whose imaginations are the freshest and most willing to believe even the unbelievable.  I must admit I’m far less enthusiastic about the older kids who show up dressed as hobos displaying actual beard stubble instead of boot black on their faces holding a Raley’s bag and asking for a beer or or a spare cigarette. There comes a time to pass the baton to those coming up behind you.

I have come to accept that one lone protester dressed as Raggedy Ann carrying a sign saying “Bring Back the Real Halloween” is not going to change much, so I hold the caramel apples and popcorn balls in the storage locker of my mind and move forward.

Yesterday I watched a program where the discussion centered around Canadian (must she be Canadian??) self-published writer, Pamela McColl.  It seems she has published a new version of the iconic poem celebrating the true joy of the holiday season “the night before Christmas” in which she has Santa kicking his pipe habit for good and becoming a non-smoker.  Really?  According to her statement Santa has shooed the monkey off his back and there’s no looking back.  There’s an old Southern expression of which I’m very fond, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke”.  Words to live by.

What’s next?  How about putting Mr. and Mrs. Claus on a diet?  One has to admit they’re rather a corpulent couple.  Perhaps hot chocolate seas with marshmallow boats need to be replaced by pomegranate juice smoothies and non-fat yogurt?  Once Santa achieves his desired weight loss we could rewrite the picture books to show Santa at the gym in a workout suit, having left Mrs. Claus still struggling to give up the cookies, for a younger, slimmer version in a tankini sucking down a Red Rain energy shot.  How about having him arrested for exploiting little people, or animal cruelty for not having Rudolph’s nose attended to by an ear, nose and throat man?

Some things, in my mind at least, are too precious to rethink, too dear to be retouched.  There are so few years to cherish the joy of watching your little ones wake up to find that the jolly old North Pole elf has left presents to open under the tree.  As a child being tucked in on the night before Christmas and listening as I drifted off for the sound of sleigh bells on the roof and the clatter of hooves was such a wonderful time. Why muck that up too!  I wonder if an adult elf carrying a sign would carry any weight?? If I thought so, I believe I’d just do it.

In a world where tradition has faded quietly into the history books and the new and shiny more revered, I still need to hold on to the things I find dear and comforting and for me it’s children knocking on the door begging for treats on Halloween, the intoxicating smell of turkey wafting from the kitchen on Thanksgiving, and a fat and jolly Santa Claus with his overstuffed bag full of toys squeezing down the chimney with his pipe tucked in his back pocket.

It’s been been almost two years since I’ve smoked, and though cigarette smoke has lost its allure, I still enjoy the smell of a pipe from time to time.  Perhaps it reminds me of growing up with my paternal grandfather. He would come home at night, put on his red velvet smoking jacket, clean his pipe and fill it with fragrant tobacco from a leather pouch. Once settled in his chair by the hearth,  with a fire crackling and hot chocolate in a china cup, I would sit by his feet to hear a story from his day.  I can remember the smells, sounds, and tastes of those evenings and the sweet smell of tobacco as it rose in puffs from the ball of his pipe.

Perhaps we need to lighten up a bit and enjoy life more.  I’m sure that because the old gentlemen in red indulges in a cookie or two or a draw on his pipe does not mean that reading Twas the Night Before Christmas will contribute significantly to rearing a generation rife with pipe smoking adults knocking off their local bakeries for a fix of sugar cookies.

Zuppe Cavolfiore (Cauliflower Soup)

2 small heads of cauliflower, washed and separated into florets
1/2 lb. hot bulk Italian sausage
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 carrots, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 slices of. of pancetta, chopped
2 Tbsp. of olive oil
1 Tbsp. of butter
2 14 1/2 oz. cans of diced tomatoes
1/4 cup of tomato paste
1/2 tsp of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 tsp. dried basil
2 quarts of chicken broth
1 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly cut parsley
1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb. ditalini pasta

In skillet crumble and brown Italian sausage until fully cooked.  Drain and set aside.In large stockpot or Dutch oven sauté the onions, carrots, garlic and pancetta, in oive oil and butter for 10 mins.  Add the cauliflower florets, cooked Italian sausage, tomatoes, tomato paste, nutmeg, red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning, basil and broth.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hr.  Add parsley flakes and season with salt and pepper (note pancetta is salty by nature so taste as you go).

Cook pasta according to pkg. directions. Place the pasta in a bowl and top with soup. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.  Serves 6-8.

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Photo by Susie Nelson

It is 2 a.m. and after easily an hour of flip flopping and counting backwards from 200 by 3, which usually works by the way, I found myself not only wide awake but sitting at my keyboard.  Sometimes it’s garlic, but tonight a particularly bad dream was the culprit. Let me say first while following that train of thought, I am a prolific dreamer. If the ones I remember are half of those I have, I must dream from the time I close my eyes at night until they open again in the morning.  Lately, not surprisingly many seem to center around moving, but here and there in the night my subconscious insists on throwing in what I refer to as “the bear dream” for good measure.  Doing some research on the subject out of curiosity, in the world of psychologists and psychiatrists dreams are generally considered your subconscious mind trying to work out a problem or dilemma faced in your waking world while you sleep.  Interesting.  That being said, it would seem on some level I have issues with the bear.

Jung feels animals represent different aspects of the personality symbolic of untamed emotional parts of a person’s psyche. Thus, the key element in interpreting what emotional part of you is being expressed in a bear dream is to focus on what the bear means to you and how your bear dreams make you feel.  To discover the meaning I first have to establish what bears represent to me personally?  Um, big teeth, bigger claws, a taste for humans and I do not mean as a choice of companions. I don’t know.  One article I read said I have mother issues.  What, don’t we all?

While pondering the complexities of my inner mind, it got me thinking of conscious dealings I’ve had with the beasts through the years. Surely Jung’s versions are of a symbolic nature rather than actual. In the realm of reality, looking back, at least three times I had actual or too close for comfort contact with bears.

My first encounter with the beast would have been in my sophomore year of high school.  It was to be the only time we ever went camping as a family and Yosemite was the chosen venue.  As I recall, it was a glorious week in the great outdoors.  My stepbrother and I roughed it under the stars in sleeping bags on cots while our parents enjoyed the comfort of a real bed of sorts in a rented trailer close by.  On the second night I was shaken awake by my stepbrother, two years my junior.  Eyes focusing, I could see him frantically gesturing towards a large brown bear (Well, are there any small ones?) losing a noisy fight with a locked trash can close by.  Grabbing our sleeping bags, we slunk to the trailer, and knocked on the door. No answer forthcoming, the only other option was to climb in the car, which we did without discussion.  It was mid-summer and sticky hot outside even at the late hour, but the windows remained shut. Losing his battle with the now dented trash bin, the hirsute bad boy pointed his snout in the air and, apparently smelling young meat in the area, turned in our direction.  Oh-oh.  I can see those curious brown eyes examining us like we were a couple of salmon swimming upstream.  Lumbering across the campsite he stopped just outside the car window. From our vantage point we could see the patterns in his fur and almost smell his undoubtedly fishy breath.  My bowels got looser than a prison snitch’s tongue. After what seemed a lifetime, but probably only a brief inspection, he seemed to decide the task of prying us out of our metal container too much trouble for a midnight snack.  Losing interest, he uttered several derisive grunts and wandered off towards the woods. That was the last real sleep I got until we returned home the following weekend.

The next time would have been when my children were small. Their dad and I took them on a cross-country odyssey lasting nearly a year in our old Ford station wagon.  During our time on the road we explored most of the states and dabbled in the eastern Canadian provinces as well.  At one point, we slept outside a zoo somewhere in Ontario. Lulled to sleep by muffled roars and growls coming from the cages inside the fence, it wasn’t long before our young charges were nudging us to sleep inside the car.  Seems there’s a pattern developing here.  Surviving the night, we washed off at a rest stop and stopped for steaming plates of fresh blueberry pancakes smothered in real Canadian maple syrup at a charming country inn. Too gorged to sit in the car, we explored the beautiful gardens surrounding the inn.  Far to the rear of the property we were surprised to discover a live bear pacing agitatedly in a relatively small cage.  If bears can look sad, this one did.  A handwritten sign reading “Do Not Feed the Wildlife” hung on one corner.  I had the overwhelming urge to free this poor creature, though thinking back had I done so I more likely would have been breakfast than ordering it.

The last encounter, or near encounter, I had with a bear was most likely a grizzly and once again it was on Canadian soil. In 1999 we had a family reunion in one of the more perfect settings Canada has to offer, Jasper, Alberta.  Our lodge sat on a ridge overlooking a river popular with the local raft guides.  Each family pod had their own cabin equipped with full kitchens and a fireplace.  There were 22 of us in total, 6 being children, and each night we would meet for cocktails at 5:00 and then convene to the “cabin of the night” for a meal prepared by whoever was staying there.  It was so much fun, meals ranged from Beef Wellington to delicate stuffed whole salmon.  Bears are a fact of life in the area, along with a wide variety of wildlife.  Cars would stop on the road to allow mountain goats to pass, or a small herd of elk.  Several bears were sighted off the road provoking flash bulbs to blink in each of our cars, and signs advising tourists as to what to do if approached by one on a trail were posted everywhere you went.

One morning I took my mother and her younger sister for a nature walk.  Being the youngest member of the trio I felt responsible for the other two ladies.  Instructed by the men in our group with regard to bear safety we took a stick and headed down a trail abutting the river bank.  Soon we came across piles of fresh scat and the hair on the back of my neck began to prickle.  A ruffing sound came from up ahead and rustling in the bushes.  All thoughts of standing my ground, lifting my arms, and looking big flew out the window, and I dragged the two older ladies back along the trail behind me as though flying two kites on a mountainside.  It took two hours and a nice glass of chardonnay to get my heart to return to a normal beat.  Perhaps the bear is a sign, but whatever it is I would like to downsize to, say a bunny, or a kitten for a change of pace.

This recipe is so easy and versatile.  It’s a great way to use leftover noodles and tastes as though you devoted some time to it. Often with recipes I end up with extra farfalle or egg noodles. I freeze them and pull them out when it’s time to enjoy this yummy side dish.

Simply Delicious Fried Noodles

2 cups cooked Farfalle or egg noodles
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided

Either cook pasta according to package directions if not using leftovers, or use leftover noodles.

In large skillet heat butter and olive oil over med. heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 mins. Add noodles to skillet. Cook until light golden brown, about 8 mins. stirring frequently (some noodles will be a bit crispy on edges). Sprinkle with parsley, red pepper flakes (optional) and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Stir until cheese is melted. Remove from heat. Serve immediately with remainder of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

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