Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!: Simple Table Decor and a Last Minute Recipe for a Turkey Glaze and Sauce

We celebrated Thanksgiving a day early this year because my oldest decided at the last minute to spend the actual holiday out of town with his girlfriend and her family. That left Wednesday as the only night we'd be all together. It was so nice having our big meal on Wednesday evening that we're thinking about making it our new holiday tradition; we've spent today relaxing and playing games. It feels to me much more like an extra long weekend, since we don't lose Thursday to all-day food prep, eating too much, and cleaning up. I simplified the menu a bit because Wednesday's busier and I hadn't even baked pies or anything. But I also benefitted from having two of the kids already home from college and work to help out yesterday, so it wasn't too bad getting everything together.

My daughter decorated the table, using Japanese maple leaves she'd pressed and an odd assortment of ornaments and candles from family childhoods, like the Thanksgiving candles my husband has used as long as he can remember and the funny little clay pots all three kids made for their kindergarten Thanksgiving feasts.
We had a turkey breast rather than a whole turkey again this year; I finally realized that since no one in our family especially likes dark meat, it was silly to wrestle with gizzards and trying to get the dark meat cooked adequately without drying out the white meat when we could just buy and cook (much more quickly) the part we all like best. Doh!

 For a couple of years, I bought breasts from Costco that came packaged with a really delicious glaze. Costco stopped carrying that brand and I was feeling sad about the glaze again last night when it suddenly occurred to me to just look up a recipe for a similar one. Doh! again.  I found a recipe that seemed promising here, but I was missing some of the ingredients. The recipe that follows is my improvised version. I also added extra liquid to the leftovers to make a sauce that could substitute for gravy (I have one kid who eats gluten-free, which makes things like gravy challenging.) Anyway, it was so good, I actually wrote it down at the urging of the whole family so I'll be able to recreate it again.

This picture shows leftovers, because I forgot to take a picture last night. And there's no sauce poured over anything because it was so popular we finished it all last night (and I noticed someone even seemed to have licked the last of it out of the pitcher).

Orange-Chutney Glaze for Roasted Turkey Breast

• 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 6 ounces orange juice concentrate (about 3/4 cup – I used about 1/3 cup because that was all I had)

• 2 tablespoons Major Grey Chutney
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar

• 1 tablespoon soy sauce

• 1 teaspoon ground ginger or 2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger

• Pan juices and/or chicken broth and/or sherry or wine

Combine all ingredients except the pan juices/broth in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer 10-15 minutes until reduced and thickened. Baste turkey with glaze several times over the last 20 minutes of cooking. (I draped foil over it loosely.)

Just before serving, stir in enough defatted pan juices/broth/wine to make a sauce of your preferred thickness to use in place of gravy.  (I kept it fairly thick still.)

This would also be tasty on pork I think. I'm going to try it the next time I make a pork roast. For that matter, I think it would be good as a glaze for roasted veggies, like green beans. Hmm - time for some taste-testing experiments.

Oh, one more thing: you can make a really excellent gluten-free pie crust for pumpkin pie by combining 1 cup finely chopped pecans (freeze them first to make it easier to grind them), 2 T of sugar, and 2 T butter. It tends to caramelize faster than regular crust, so bake for the minimum time and keep an eye on the pies.

And last but not least, thanks to all of you who read my blog and make such nice comments. I'm grateful for everyone who has stuck with me through a long blog-hiatus. And I also thank everyone whose blogs I follow; I feel so lucky to be part of a creative, and generous community that stretches around the world.

Happy Feasting!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Exploring: Chatham Village

 Twenty-one years ago, shortly after moving to Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania (a Pittsburgh suburb), I was wandering around my neighborhood with my one-year-old son in a backpack when I met another mom with her young son in a backpack. We shared a nice long walk that afternoon -- and have been walking together ever since. Mary Lou and I have covered a lot of ground, both literal and figurative, in the intervening years. Monday through Thursday evenings most weeks, we log five brisk miles over hilly terrain, usually close to home. On Saturdays, we frequently hit an estate sale somewhere not too far away and walk the surrounding neighborhood afterward.

But our Sunday morning walks these days are my favorites. A few years ago, we decided to walk every street and alleyway in our town. It took nearly a year of Sundays to finish Mt. Lebanon - and then we branched out into surrounding communities. In the years since, we've covered a good many neighborhoods all around Pittsburgh, and I've learned more about my city from our hikes than I'd learned in the fifteen years plus before that. We especially enjoy cemetaries, the steep hillside neighborhoods where steps often replace sidewalks, and the quirky older communities with interesting architecture and mature landscaping.

Today we visited Chatham Village, a planned community in the Mt. Washington section of Pittsburgh that's on the National Historic Register. It was developed in the 1930s in the model of the "Garden City" movement launched in England. It's as lovely and well-planned today as it was then. You can read more about it here and here.
 The community consists mostly of townhouses grouped in clusters around common greens with curving sidewalks, giving it the feeling of a college campus, I think. And each cluster has a lovely "folly" like the one shown above to house communal garden implements.
 The homes have lovely details - red brick, slate roofs, copper gutters and downspouts, limestone around the windows, and crests above the entry ways. And each cluster of townhomes is a little bit different.

 Around the perimeter is a large park of virgin forest (dating back to colonial times and before) with paths that curve and wind along the hillside. We saw plenty of wildlife today, including a large buck with an impressive rack.
 This is the updated playground, seen through the mist that hung over the hills this morning.
 And I arrived home to find that a squirrel has made a nest in the planter atop my rain barrel. And all day since I've been hearing him storing his acorns inside the rain barrel (which fortunately has a screen to keep debris out of the water).
I think he and his buddies are using my squirrel bench as a buffet table. But that does seem appropriate. And maybe there's a picture book in here...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Route 19 Writers: A Blog for Writers, Readers and Anyone Who Loves Kidlit

I know it seems crazy, since I haven't exactly posted regularly (okay, hardly at all) this past year, but I'm also writing now for another blog. The Route 19 Writers are a motley crew of mostly children's book writers who live along Route 19 South in the Pittsburgh, PA area. I've known most of them for years and am in awe of them as both writers and all-around-great people.

We take turns posting (at least three times a week), usually on a different theme each month. For this first month, we chose the theme "Novels" - but we allow lots of leeway in what to write about. You can see my first post on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and other  motivational writing "tools" here.

It even has the super easy directions for making this charming button chair (get it? Butt-in-Chair? That's the main tool you need to get your novel done.)

Of course, there's lots of other great stuff to find there too. A report on the great Katherine Patterson and her recent talk in Pittsburgh, a piece on finding your voice, a fabulous tutorial on twisting folktales to turn them into novels, new picture book stories, or tall tales, and even an interesting and funny discussion on figuring out what teens like to read (complete with very, very tasty recipe for Cornflake Chicken - yum.) I hope you'll check the blog out! Here!

Next month's topic is Giving and Receiving. I'm still noodling what I'll write about when it's my turn - but I'm already promising some kind of a nice giveaway. (Let me know if there's something you'd like me to write about.)

Oh, the new picture of the frog in my header is one I took this summer of one of the residents of my family's newish pond. I'll leave you with some images of flora and fauna around the pond this summer. (Can you tell I'm already feeling nostalgic for warm weather? Even though I really do love fall too.)

 This deer visited daily to clean up all the fallen apples from the tree that's the base for my tree house. She was very considerate and didn't eat any of my landscaping plants.

 The fish - mostly just the 12-for-a-dollar feeder goldfish - were prolific breeders this summer. It was so exciting! We rescued a few babies (which seemed to be a popular menu item for the adult fish and the frogs) and a number of them grew quite large by the end of the summer.

A view of the whole pond and new deck (before I did a lot of the planting around the pond). 

So great to be back blogging! I didn't realize how much I missed it until I started up again. Thanks for your patience with me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Frances!

Karen MacPherson's syndicated Children's Corner column this week alerted me to an important occasion: the 50th birthday of Frances, star of the classic picture book series by Russell Hoban. (I strongly recommend reading Karen's column - always good and this one is chock full of interesting facts about Frances and how she came to be. Also, if you haven't read the Frances books, it's time to get to the library. Or better yet, go buy them.)

I first met Frances, the strong-willed, persnickety, song-writing, problem-solving badger, when I was a strong-willed, persnickety child myself. Although song-writing and problem-solving weren't my strengths so much, it's still small wonder that I identified with the young badger. The challenges Frances faces are universal ones of early childhood, and she confronts them with a quirky intelligence and creativity that I found both inspiring and reassuring. 

To celebrate this important event, I broke out some homemade bread and jam and my copy of Bread and Jam for Frances, my favoritest Frances book of all. Everything was delicious, and the dog enjoyed our read-aloud very much.

Possibly what she liked best was that I shared my bread and jam with her.

Anyway, I noticed something while I was reading the book: one spread seemed kind of familiar to me. And then I realized why.

The lower image is a spread in my Mimi book that I must have unconsciously modeled on the Frances one shown above. How funny!

By the way, notice how my copy of Bread and Jam for Frances is in black and white with blue washes? At the time the book was printed (1964 - this was a book club copy I got through school), color printing was still both expensive and tedious. Illustrators had to meticulously make color separations by hand, with separate transparencies created for each color used. These were done in shades of gray and took real skill. That's why the old books often had only one or two colors. I feel very fortunate to be able to do my illustrations with full color and any media!

Over the years, the Frances books have been re-released with color. The top image shows two different era versions of the cover of A Birthday for Frances. And here's a comparison of an inside spread.
It's probably just nostalgia, but I like the older one better. (I do like the new color one too - just not quite as much.)

Another interesting thing to note is how much more text-heavy the older picture books were than ones published today.  A friend who attended a children's writing conference last weekend said the editor who spoke recommended no more than 50 words for a picture book text. I wonder if the push for shorter and shorter texts for pretty much all picture books has contributed to the decline in their sales; as the New York Times noted recently, many parents are pushing their kids to listen to chapter books at earlier and earlier ages. Maybe they would feel less need to do so if they had meaty complex picture books like these old ones available.

Here's a brief excerpt of a scene between Frances and her mother to give you a feeling for the quality of the writing and for Frances' personality. Mother is getting things together for Frances's sister's birthday, and Frances is working through her jealousy by pretending to prepare a party for an imaginary pal:
"Who is Alice?" asked Mother.
     "Alice is somebody that no one can see," said Frances. "And that is why she does not have a birthday. So I am singing Happy Thursday to her."
     "Today is Friday," said Mother.
     "It is Thursday for Alice," said Frances. "Alice will not have h-r-n-d, and she will not have g-k-l-s. But we are singing together."
     "What are h-r-n-d and g-k-l-s?" asked Mother.
     "Cake and candy. I thought you could spell," said Frances.
By the way, in case I've convinced you to rush out and buy copies of all the Frances books (and I hope I have), you need to be aware that in honor of Frances' birthday, HarperCollins has released abridged versions of the Frances books in an "I Can Read" format for beginning readers. I haven't seen them yet, and it's encouraging that Hoban and his daughter worked together on the reformat. But I'm sure I'll never love them the way I love the originals - and I definitely recommend reading them first.

Last but not least: food. You can find my recipe for the homemade bread I nibbled today in an earlier post here. And, in case like Frances, you have learned to like some other more adventurous foods as well, here is a recipe for soup that I think goes especially well with the bread. I got the recipe from a neighbor, who got it from a cookbook - but I don't know which cookbook and the neighbor has long since moved away. I think it was called Chippewa Soup. I also may not have the recipe quite right. Somehow I never actually wrote it down; I just kind of remember it - plus I've undoubtedly changed it over the years because I am as much a revision addict for recipes as I am for the written word.

Tomato Vegetable Soup
aka Chippewa Soup
aka The Best Soup You'll Ever Eat on a Chilly Autumn Night

Olive oil
2-3 yellow onions, finely chopped
3-4 ribs celery, finely chopped
2-3 carrots, shredded
2-3 cloves garlic (Note: if you are lazy or pressed for time, most supermarkets carry all the veggies pre-chopped/shredded and sometimes it is just worth the extra expense)
Curry powder to taste -- I use 1 T mild curry powder when making it for people who don’t like spicy stuff (aka children), 2-3 for the more adventurous eaters (aka certain adults)
1 tsp cumin
Ground black pepper
1 26-oz can Campbell’s tomato soup, plus water to reconstitute it
2 11-oz cans Campbell’s Green Pea soup - but NO water. (Yes, it is really gross looking right out of the can. Try not to think about it.)
1 cup milk or cream (more if you prefer a thinner soup)
1 ham hock (optional)
Chopped ham (optional)
Dollop of low fat sour cream (optional)

In a large stock pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onions, celery, garlic and carrots and sauté until the onions are translucent and the celery and carrots are softened. Mix in seasonings and cook, stirring, for a minute or two to combine flavors well. Add soups and water (it is really tricky to get the pea soup stirred in well - but worth the trouble because coming across a big lump of the concentrate when you're eating your soup is an unpleasant surprise, in my book). Add ham hock, if using. Try not to examine it too closely as this may also gross you out. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer on low heat at least one hour (more is better). Stir occasionally to prevent soup from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Shortly before serving, stir in milk or cream (and chopped ham if desired) and heat through.

This is quite good served on a doily with a tiny vase of violets, along with a crisp green salad and Swedish Sour Rye bread. If you are careful, you can take bites of each and make everything come out even.

And if you did not get this literary allusion, I am going to admonish you even more strongly to go check Bread and Jam for Frances out of the library.