Red Beans and Rice

Maybe this post is only minimally about a recipe – but in searching for a last bean dish of the year (before making black-eyed peas for New Year’s and coming full circle), I realized that in spite of all the red in the kitchen this season (pomegranates, pears, persimmons, and peppers), I hadn’t thought of cooking red beans.

Mark Bittman’s recipe for “Red Beans and Rice” calls for coconut milk and hot spices (an appropriate taste of Thailand added to our holiday). I’ll start the kidney beans – then cook onion, pepper, and celery in olive oil until softened, and add thyme, bay leaves, allspice (or chili powder to taste), and two cups chopped tomatoes. When the tomatoes break up,  add to the bean mixture, and cook until the beans are very tender.

Add a cup and a half of long-grained white rice (we bought Thai rice) and three cups canned coconut milk to the beans, turn heat to low and cook till the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed.

Ah beans: flexible, resilient, dependable, interesting, desirable.

Beans have been one of the many joys of this year’s experience with “Her spirits rose….” I’m tempted to ask my readers about going forth. I do think about that a lot – but maybe I need to go beyond thinking to a plan.

The schedule mattered to me this year – but maybe I needn’t keep so closely to that? Maybe if the blog continues, it could be once a week – day uncertain, longer or shorter. Maybe trusting myself enough to allow a little randomness – perhaps not so frequent or sometimes more frequent when called for.

I have loved the discipline and the routine, loved the exchanges around writing with the wordsmith (generous with her time and expertise) and my husband (always good-natured about his “first reader” task). Thank you both.

And I’ve loved “having” to think about illustrating each week – making new or using my archive – often working fast and always with pleasure.

It was fun to make a cast of characters from the important people in my life. From the young writer to the mother of my young friend, I have shamelessly appropriated your quirks and stories to share. Thank you.

I have appreciated hearing from readers, in comments and in extra emails – even in lovely, paper letters – about what this effort has meant in your lives. Those missives did much to support this year’s output. Thank you all.

My relationship to food and cooking has grown and sustained me also. Now it seems obvious that if one is concerned with the art of daily life – food looms large.

Back to the red beans. A reader in London told me in an email that in cultures where rice is the most important staple (like his native Japan) beans are for special occasions. He writes: “especially the red bean is for a festive occasion (white rice and red bean makes an auspicious combination).”

Sounds good!

Halcyon Days

Instead of halcyon days – the seven storm-free days – said to occur on either side of solstice, we had storm days alternating with days of peace. Windy, rainy days followed clear wintry days with calm sea, when welcome light lingered in the afternoon sky.

I begin to long to be outdoors beyond our morning walk on non-downpour days, but the garden isn’t inviting. I stand at the kitchen window and picture myself cutting back the slimed crocosmia, but manage only to quickly clean the overflowing birdbaths.

When we walk these winter mornings at Fort Worden, high tides often keep us off the beach. The other day we began to explore a narrow strip of sand, but waves crashed and stopped us around the first headland. Those days we re-route up the hill under shelter of big trees.

I’ve been wanting to talk about the poet Stanley Kunitz before the year ends. A few years ago, a friend sent me a wonderful book compiled by Genine Lentine with Kunitz, subtitled “A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden.” That’s right, a century – written, compiled in his 100th year. It’s about his two great loves: poetry and gardening. I had in mind these lines: “In the woods, one loses the sense of time. It’s quite a different experience from walking in the streets. The streets are human creations. In the woods what one finds are cosmic creations.” Houses, too, are human creations – and I’ve been much inside ours.

But then I found this, perhaps partial answer to my burning question these days about the blog. Kunitz writes: “When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise, or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”

In a holiday phone call with my brother I found myself telling him that I feel more like our mother all the time. I could never see why she was so cheerful in the years she lived here (though she was always an optimistic person), but she was so old, how could she be so light-hearted and happy about her ordinary day? I get it now, and Kunitz articulates it.

She was grateful. As our younger son would have said when he was little: “so me too.”

Figgy Pudding

Three years ago I heard an NPR piece about figgy pudding, Christmas pudding. Curious about the carol’s lyric “bring us some figgy pudding,” the host prepared the pudding with cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.      The link still works: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17356371)

The NPR piece included a little history – plum pudding might date back to Shakespeare’s time, and for sure it was around in the 1600s when the English Puritans banned it (along with Christmas). Beliefs held that “fruits, spices, and spirits inflamed passions.”

Listening, I kept seeing the cover of our old copy of “A Christmas Carol” – Tiny Tim on his father’s shoulders with what looks to be a figgy pudding tin in his hand.

So a day or so before Christmas that year, I bought a tin just like Tiny Tim’s – fluted with a lid, shiny silver – and made sure I had all the ingredients. The instructions recommended everyone take a turn with the stirring – that’s considered to bring good luck.

The Christmas pudding promised to cook for hours “filling the house with fragrance,” so I wanted to make it Christmas day. Beyond contributions to Christmas dinner we had no tradition of cooking special food on Christmas day, but I always loved (and missed when we moved), the Christmas Day offerings of friends. My painter friend made tiny cinnamon rolls in a wreath shape I will forever associate with little children and early Christmas mornings – a sleepy sugar buzz – pre-Christmas tension finally broken by Santa’s visit.

The first year of pudding preparation my enthusiastic invitation to share in the mixing wasn’t well received, my saying it was a tradition was met with: “Whose tradition?” I persevered and last year got a little help – who can resist simply stirring to bring good luck for the new year?

Dried figs are snipped and cooked with water. You add cognac or brandy, rum and raisins, and then set the alcohol afire (carefully). Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg are mixed with breadcrumbs, flour, and sugar, dried cherries and cranberries to make a thick batter.

The pudding pan, nestled in a big pot surrounded by boiling water, rattles gently as it cooks for two hours or so, and the fragrance of spices fills the house.

This year we will show our visitor from Thailand some Christmas traditions – cutting and frosting shaped cookies, stockings hung by the chimney (including a pink one for her), Christmas Eve dinner by the fire, gift opening in the morning, a walk in the woods, and a drive to Bainbridge for Christmas dinner (taking the figgy pudding along in the hot water).

The pudding really is delicious – cake-like, fruity, fragrant and still warm and cut in generous pieces (or it will fall apart). Someone will find the lucky token (wrapped in wax paper) tucked into the batter. By last year we got good at flaming the pudding for presentation – the trick is to warm the brandy – the pudding flames a festive blue and gold glow.

A renewed tradition – some figgy pudding to wish you a Merry Christmas!

Winter Solstice

Here in Washington, we will have eight hours and 25 minutes of daylight on the solstice tomorrow. Then we turn around and reach for the light. If the sun is out, it will really shine. Compared to Anchorage, where the sun barely clears the horizon or the house next door for a few hours, the quantity and quality of light should suffice. But when it’s dark here, it’s really dark.

The morning dark is easier – a stretched out time  (before we can walk by half past seven), time at my desk, writing cards – or blogs – Frances in my lap. But by 4 p.m. when darkness descends, my energy will flag.

In Anchorage the old house, city house, has streetlights and neighbors, and for years I sat at my workroom desk in the early morning and watched winter weather in a nearby streetlamp. Glittery snow or thick snow, snow driven into a swirl by the north wind, or falling straight and blanketing fences and roofs. Small, suspended particles of frost identified really cold air, even without a thermometer.

On our Alaska visit last week, I was so glad to see seedling spruce aglow with colored lights. The new (and beautiful) kitchen in the old house has many more windows, and at dinner I could watch snow slant through the streetlight. Perfect snow fell all one day and into the night, and the temperature read 3° the morning we left.

Here dark, not cold or snow, most defines our season, and the decorations and lights of all the winter holidays help combat it. The dark also sets off those efforts. (Like in the wordsmith’s comment – her tale of lamplit Christmas cards – the shining and glow happen best in a setting of darkness.)

This year book group meets on the solstice, and I’m making wassail to take. My herbal desk calendar calls wassail an “herbal mulled beer” (the word wassail comes from an Anglo-Saxon blessing that means “be in good health”), a hot beverage of ale, apples, and spices, taken to neighbors this time of year as a blessing of friendship.

Or a celebration of the Winter Solstice!

Seedling Spruce

Before leaving for a quick December trip to Alaska, my husband asked if it made any sense to go to Anchorage in December. And of course it makes no logical sense, but I said I wanted to see our older son and his wife and my friends in their holiday settings. For me the trip is part of what my old friend calls “learning gracefully to share families,” and part of adapting to change.

The trip reminds me of the way movies often have a Christmas scene or are set at Christmas. (And aren’t there some great ones? I’m eager for my niece to come home, so we can do our traditional viewing of “Love Actually.”) The holidays have great visuals – I even like the airports – the bustle and the greetings.

I will be thankful to be here making ready for the younger son and his sweet friend, but before that, it’s a privilege to see Christmas, and its trees, in favorite Alaska houses. A visit does what texts and videos and emails cannot (grandparents must really feel this way). I want to replace the last sighting with a current one and stir up all the memories – just briefly.

In 1993 I got to be part of a Limner Press series of Christmas books. They printed and hand bound a little letterpress book, setting the type by hand and making my illustrations into engravings for printing. In the book called “Seedling Spruce,” I told the story of a tiny spruce seedling that planted itself close to our front fence.

(Then only inches high it reminded me of the tiny Christmas trees my sister and I would bring indoors when we were little and living in the woods of British Columbia. We’d nail them precariously between two boards or stuff into a tin can – and they were ours.)

One year, thinking the spruce was too big for where it was, I proposed cutting it to be the indoor tree. My young friend was aghast. She wouldn’t come to see it cut, and I feared she wouldn’t decorate our tree – a task she accomplished with expertise for many years (from the time she was three and stood on a stool to hang the star). I left the spruce in place.

Now, in a changed tradition, I help her decorate her tree. She and her family put lights on – but wait till I am there to festoon the tree with ornaments. Her cat will sit with that cat-beneath-a-tree anticipation while we work. When I visit, my painter friend will have a tiny tree with lights in a window box outside her living room – and I’ll be glad to sit there and have tea.

When we left Alaska, the spruce had become a good-sized tree, but still easy to reach around and string with colored lights. I don’t know about those lights now or a Christmas tree in our old house – but there is a new kitchen – and a new dog named Cora.

I am grateful to go – it feels like a holiday tradition!