21 December, 2017

Stumped for a Last Minute Gift?

I can count the days from now until Christmas on one hand, a fact  I find both exciting and terrifying.  Every year it seems like I get a last minute invitation or surprise visit and I'm left scrambling for a gift.

The trend, at least among my friends, is all about downsizing, getting rid of junk, and only wanting gifts that can be worn out or used up--not one more thing to put on a shelf or in a closet. Books are always good, but sometimes it's hard to choose if you don't know the person well.

To that end, I offer you my favorite, DIY, comestible gift. It's quick, it's easy, and paired with a box of crackers and a nice bottle of wine, it's the perfect offering. I like to pack it in Christmas-y ramekins.

Cheddar Ale Spread

 6 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (1 1/2 lbs)
3 oz cream cheese, softened
4 Tbsp butter, softened
3/4 cup ale or beer (not light, you want a robust flavour)
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper

1Beat cheddar, cream cheese and butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer - or in food processor - until smooth. Gradually beat in ale, mustard and crushed red pepper.
2Pack into stone crock(s) and cover tightly.
3Keeps well for several weeks.

22 November, 2017

Aloneness is not all bad.

Being alone at the holidays is not something anyone would activity wish for, but it's not all bad. Actually, there are some perks.

Tomorrow morning, millions of women will get  up at, if not before, the crack of dawn to put the turkey in to roast.  Between then and dinner, they will rush around the kitchen making side dishes, baking rolls, and decorating pies—hour after hour of hot, sweaty, often messy, work. 
Me, I'll be sleeping in.  My boned, half turkey breast is already swimming in its hard cider brine.  The leek, mushroom and herb stuffing will take a grand total of ten minutes to prep and cook. Tomorrow, I will quickly flatten the turkey into a roulade, add the stuffing, and put it in the oven to roast for a grand total of 90 minutes start to table.   A savory artichoke bread pudding will join it for part of that time.  Six minutes for the asparagus and I'm done.  Time away from reading latest  Rhys Bowen mystery: less than 30 minutes.  I call that a win.

What else does the "average" mother/wife/hostess have to do?  Clean, decorate, get dressed, get the kids ready... The list varies from house to house, but it's always long, exhausting and, frequently, underappreciated.

Let's go through the list backwards in my house.  No kids, and my Golden Retriever  is happy to curl up and  sleep.  And he never whines about not wanting to watch White Christmas or kiss Aunt Mildred. Get dressed?  Don't make me laugh.  I can stay in my jammies all day if I choose.  Who's going to comment? Certainly not the dog.

I will set the table with china and the good silverware, maybe even light the candles, but that's my choice, not a necessity. Cleaning? The dust isn't going to get any worse if I put it off a few more days and, again, Murphy the lapdog isn't complaining.

Yes, family reunions are wonderful—arguments aside—but being alone doesn't have to be depressing.  It can be a time to enjoy a nice meal, a glass of wine, a good book or movie, and the opportunity to be thankful for all the other blessings in one's life.  

Oh, I forgot the last good thing: everything fits in the dishwasher at once with room to spare.

14 October, 2017

A time to Pack, a Time to Unpack

It's that time of the year again, the time when I pick up the dog toys from the yard, cover the raised garden beds, put away the porch furniture, empty the refrigerator, and close up the house for the winter.  It's a bittersweet time.

I'm lucky enough to own a summer home in Vermont, in a sleepy little town with one small IGA, two restaurants (only  open 4 days a week), a diner and a Dollar General. No MacDonalds, no Starbucks, no Walmart. The speed limit through town is 25 mph and everyone obeys it--and stops for pedestrians whether in a crosswalk or not. And at night, the only sound you hear is peeping frogs.

This is where I come to write. I write for hours on end.  And my friends come up for a couple of days or a week to write. It's the perfect retreat: quiet, serene, no distractions.  I have internet, but no cable TV.  I can take long walks, but there are no malls or movie theatres for distraction. Just quiet and long hours to plot, write and revise.

Next week, I'll drive back to Connecticut, back to traffic jams, honking horns, and incessant phone calls from solicitors and people offering me yet another credit card I don't need.  I'll go back to cooking for the church soup kitchen, volunteering, and attending innumerable meetings.  And, inevitably, my writing hours will evaporate. On the plus side, I'll no longer have to drive 60 minutes to Home  Depot, and fresh fish, smoked salmon, and sushi will once again be part of my life. And the library will be open 7 days a week, not three. But my writing will suffer.  Every year I promise myself  I'll make more time for "winter"words. I'll still write every day.  I'll commit to my daily hour of  exercising my craft every morning, but all too soon other commitments and obligations will demand my time and the long summer hours of writing will dwindle to that single early morning hour.

I'm sad to be going, but I know that come next May, I'll be back, ready to tackle another manuscript and renew my creative spirit in the peace and quiet of this wonderful, sleepy town.

29 May, 2017

Nature one, Human Zero

I'm a real softie when it comes to animals--well, except spiders and wasps, those I kill without a second thought.

I never thought being an animal lover was a problem until I bought a summer house in Vermont.  And now, I can't use my front door.

Over the winter, while the house was shut up tight, a robin moved in, building a nest in the front porch rafters.  I returned two weeks ago to find the nest and one very perturbed Mama Robin.  A couple of days later I discovered a smashed, bright blue egg shell on the porch and assumed some predator (racoon?) had enjoyed a midnight snack.  But Mama continued to flap frantically at me every time I opened the door or, worse, walked by.

Sure enough, three days later I spotted two tiny beaks poking out over the top of the nest.

Soft heart in overdrive, worry set in.  With Mama flying away every time I appeared, even at the front window, would the nestlings die?  Freeze at night when the Vermont temps drop into the 40s? Could I bear to have them die?

No, I couldn't.  I promptly named them--Simon and Schuster--and shut the door.  For now, it remains closed, the mud room off limits, and both the dog and I use only the back door in my office--the one down a set of stairs and clear the other side of the house--while Mama Robin happily feed her babies worms and other disgusting tidbits I can't (and don't wish to) identify.

Any one have any idea who long it takes baby robins to leave the nest?  I'd really like to use my front door again before I leave for the winter.

05 April, 2017

Is there a support group for my addiction?

What did we do before Post-Its? Is there a Post-Its Anonymous I can join?

Like many (most?) writers I always carry a small note book in my purse to jot down those priceless ideas that pop into my mind at inopportune moments. When I'm home, however, I tend to use pads of sticky notes—probably because they take up less room than having a notebook in every room of the house.

This has led to a rather unfortunate decorating style, or lack thereof. Sticky notes adorn the table next to the couch, the wall next to the commode (don't ask), and the bed stand, not to mention the refrigerator.

At one point, I even tried color-coding the notes: blue for plot, green for dialog, yellow for description, etc. I gave that up when I ran out of blue Post-its and grabbed whatever colour was at hand leading to a total breakdown of my system. Since then I've managed to control my OCD and use whatever colour is nearest. So proud of myself.

Some people are more organized and can actually develop an entire plot using Post-Its. I can only imagine the chaos if I tried that. (Example below is NOT mine!) But I do use small ones to mark passages in books I want to reread/save.

I love my Post-Its.  I love buying them in different sizes and shapes. I love using them even if it takes me forever to sort and transcribe them.  I just plain love them.

Now if I could just afford to buy stock in 3M, I'd be rich, too.

28 March, 2017

Must Haves for Writers

Some "must haves" for aspiring writers are obvious—a computer or pen and pad, a good dictionary, a Chicago Style Guide—but I'm thinking more of personality traits.

I've been writing seriously for about eight years now. I've finished two mysteries (the first being totally useless) and I'm working on two others. So far, I've received a large number of rejections and not a single agent has jumped at the opportunity to sign me up. No surprise there, but it does highlight a special writer need: perseverance.

The dictionary defines perseverance as "steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success."

Sounds about right. Writing is hard work and it takes time, both to complete the writing (and never ending editing) and to find an editor or publisher. Louis L'Amour received 200 rejections before a publisher took a chance on him. It took J.R.R. Tolkien 12 years to write Lord of the Rings. And just remember how long it took JK Rowlings to get published.

Sure it would be nice to be an overnight wonder, a first-time-out-of-the-box NY Times bestseller, but that isn't reality for most of us.

So here's my daily mantra: Don't let the bastards get you down. 

Now get back to your keyboard!

04 January, 2017

New Year Goals

Everyone is familiar with New Year's resolutions -- and how quickly they get broken or forgotten -- so this year instead of resolutions I've made goals, goals with no set timetable, just something to achieve.

One of those goals is to simplify and declutter my life, starting with my office and computer.  Between them, my hard drive and filing cabinet have over 4,000 untested recipes.  A staggering number, but one I hope to whittle down by both cooking and simply admitting that "I'm never going to make that!"

So my goal for 2017 is to try at least 2 or 3 new recipes each week, to toss the bad ones, and share the good ones.

I started the year with a tomato soup which was pretty ghastly, so that recipe went straight into the trash.  My second "taste thrill," as new recipes are know in our family, was a cheddar chive scone.  Delicious and easy.

I hope you'll check back here occasionally and try out some of my successes.  And maybe have a good laugh at my failures.

Cheddar-Chive Scones
2 cups     unbleached all-purpose flour  
1 tsp    salt  
1 Tbsp   baking powder (make sure it isn't expired!)  
2 tsp    sugar  
4 Tbsp   cold butter, cut into small dice  
1 cup    coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese  
1/2 cup    snipped fresh chives  
1 cup
heavy or whipping cream, divided  

1 Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with Silpat mat.
2 Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar. Work the butter into the flour until the mixture is crumbly, but with some of the butter remaining in larger pieces.
3 Mix in the cheese and chives until evenly distributed.
4 Add ¾ cup of the cream and stir just to combine. Do not overwork as that will make the scones tough.  Squeeze a small amount of dough together; if it's crumbly and won't hang together, or if there are crumbs remaining in the bottom of the bowl, add additional cream until the dough comes together. Transfer the shaggy dough to a well-floured work surface.
5 Pat the dough into a smooth 7" disk about 3/4" thick. Transfer the disk to the prepared baking sheet. Use a knife or bench knife to cut the disk into 8 wedges, spreading the wedges apart a bit on the pan.
6 Brush the scones with a little cream, if desired.  The cream helps the scones to brown.
7 Bake the scones for 22 to 24 minutes, until they're golden brown. Remove from the oven, and cool on the pan. Serve warm, or at room temperature.
Makes 8 large scones

Make ahead Tips
Make scones up to the point they're on the baking sheet, cut and ready to bake; don't brush them with cream. Freeze, then remove from the sheet, and wrap each one individually in plastic wrap and store in an airtight plastic bag. When you're ready to bake, remove however many you want to bake from the freezer, place on a baking sheet, brush with cream, and bake in a preheated 425°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.
Baked scones may also be wrapped in a damp paper towel and reheated in a microwave for 1 minute at 50% power.