A Gift for You

It’s so 21st century – to send a link as a gift, but that’s how I felt when a friend sent this to me. Do look when you have a quiet moment, and follow the photo narrative (by Edinburgh photographer Chris Scott) to the very end. What a lovely, lovely idea in support of art and books and libraries, executed with amazing intricacy and skill – such excellence and so anonymously!

For you:


I wish you a holiday filled with joys large and small!

‘Tis the Season – Pomegranate Season!

It’s a short season, but pomegranates are part of the magic of the holidays with plump red flesh bursting with juice surrounding each tiny seed. The seeds are festively packaged inside a leathery skin, shaped like a Christmas ornament!

Pierce the outer skin in quarters – one at time – then peel and separate the delicious (rich with potassium) seeds from the inedible, pithy white part.

Mark Bittman suggests doing it under water – or inside a plastic bag to keep from spraying red where it isn’t wanted. Or just be careful, and lean away from your party duds when preparing a pomegranate.

In salad, or just by the mouthful, enjoy!

Virginia Woolf – a Gift

While being transported to and from snow-filled Anchorage, in an improbable silver tube 35,000 feet above the earth, I had one of those ‘what would VW think?’ moments – my ears full of Mozart and mind full of London and Sussex. One of the highlights of a wintry trip to Anchorage a week ago was the three-hour flight each way. Really – because of Alexandra Harris’s book “Virginia Woolf.”

In her foreword, Harris calls her book “a first port of call for those new to Woolf” – “an enticement to read more.” The book really works for that purpose – it is a captivating introduction to this so-special person. For someone who knows Woolf well, it’s a reminder of the pleasures – the everyday, treasures that fill Woolf’s novels, diaries, essays, and letters – and of the complicated people and relationships that animated Bloomsbury.

Harris’s book felt like a 200-page tour of those years when I read so much of VW’s life and work. The narrative is chronological and lively, Harris pauses to discuss a book in just enough detail to make you want to read or re-read. It captures what have always been my favorite things about Woolf – her belief in the solace of work, the necessity of work, and her curiosity about everyday details.

It’s a slim, beautiful book also – honoring bookmaking with thick paper, a ribbon place marker, and the perfect number of photos of all the important people and places.

I hope it’s under lots of Christmas trees.

Royals Revisited

Back in the spring when wedding fever was upon us, the mother of my young friend sent me a link to a pattern for a set of knitted royals (we share a fondness for things English). The pattern included everyone from the wedding principals to the Queen’s corgis.

I ordered the pattern, not because I can knit, but because I couldn’t resist the drawings of those little figures. I gave it to my clever friend – thinking at some point she’d adapt the notion, little knitted figures, to her own purposes.

Flash forward to my birthday a few weeks ago – and olé! She’d made Kate and Will! But it wasn’t till I really looked at the pair when drawing them, that I fully appreciated her added detail – Kate’s gown has lace sleeves like the real dress and little beads here and there give her glitter. A blue jewel on the backside of her hand stands in for the famous ring. Prince William has a cross on his sash, goodly sized knitted ears, and a happy smile!

They lift my spirits!

Beans and Beer

Mark Bittman’s green-covered “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” was a gift last Christmas. His yellow-covered “How to Cook Everything” book is so familiar that I neglected the new one until recently.

In the lead up to Thanksgiving, I made black beans for dinner one night and froze some, thinking ahead to a weekend meal after the feast night and a dinner out on Friday night. Looking for a way to use the beans, I found myself wandering the wonderland of Bittman’s “Legume” section – 100 pages of bean magic!

The section is organized according to cooking method – because, as Bittman says, legumes are “largely interchangeable.” Even if calling for white or black or pinto, he will list the other beans you might use in each recipe. These pages are full of terrific sounding recipes – I love “hearty do-ahead dishes” that are “perfect for entertaining,” but I would be a curious beginner with beans cooked in “fritters, dumplings, croquettes, and cakes.”

I was looking for black bean enchiladas or chile, but “Beer-Glazed Black Beans” caught my eye. Bittman says “it’s amazing how much flavor you get from adding a cup (or a bottle) of beer to black beans” and lists variations involving tomatoes, chiles, tamarind, Asian style, or – the one I used – Thai-Style Chile Paste.

A break in the weather on the holiday Saturday led to an afternoon of splitting firewood, rebuilding the wattle fence around a garden and dressing it with compost and straw. Then the already prepared beans meant dinner came together quickly.

The recipe calls for an onion sautéed in two tablespoons of olive oil, and a tablespoon of minced garlic added after onions are soft. A minute later add three cups of cooked (or canned) black beans, a tablespoon of chili powder, a tablespoon of honey, salt and freshly ground pepper. Oh, and a cup of beer (leaving just enough in the bottle for a start with the chips and salsa)!

Cook till the liquid is reduced and thickened, it took about 15 minutes. Our Thai friend added a “dollop” (a new word to her) of the Thai-style chili paste along with the beans. And cut up some hotter peppers for herself. With rice, cornbread, and a salad, the beans made a warming meal.

Thanks Mark Bittman!

Wrapped Up Books

December when the children were little – before any interesting mail, or cookies or any of the color of the holiday – could loom long in Alaska. At some point we’d get out the Christmas books and begin to read, but we mostly kept the anticipatory fever damped down.

Now with an emptier house – and much darkness, though less cold outside – I can declare the whole month a time for red and green, warm lights, and festive food. I try for cheerful music, scents of cinnamon or rosemary, and appreciate the small, the best things that make up the holiday.

My mother, who loved Christmas, had simple gift-giving rules – we each got some one thing (usually clothing), a treat (Katydids or turtles for me), and a book.

We weren’t far off that with our children – sometimes to their disgust. A particularly egregious year when friends got Nintendos, they got flannnel-covered down comforters (I think I am still not forgiven), also books, always books.

When our sons were in their adventuring years, we weren’t always together for Christmas. Our older son spent two seasons in Antarctica – their summer, our winter – working at McMurdo Station. The little boxes I packed up for him were really for me – reaching out to say we miss you, sending a new red plaid flannel shirt (a Christmas favorite for me to give, who knows how received) and photos of his dog Bill. And books.

In those days before reading devices, I’d patrol the aisles of Anchorage’s fine used bookstore and select a stack I thought might engage. I had a captive audience, and the only reject I remember was the first book of Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy, “Kristen Lavransdatter.” In spite of the Nobel Prize for Literature, rejected because of an unfortunate bodice-ripping cover. I still think that son might like it.

One day while I stood in the bookstore’s fiction section, a stranger remarked, “You have a lot of books!” I told him about my son in Antarctica, that I was trying to think of books to send him, but was nearing the end of known-to-me sure things. The stranger plucked a book off the shelf and handed me “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa – unknown to me and perfect. I packed up the Scandinavian woman and the Sicilian nobleman and sent them to Antarctica.

It’s truly satisfying, because not easy, to arrive at an “ah ha this will be loved” moment. Although so many people don’t read paper ones anymore, I still love to give books – they smell good, they’re easy to wrap. During the year I try to pay attention to reviews – thinking who might like what – some years I get way ahead. And others not.

I wish I had things wrapped and tucked away now. But the first step is priming the idea pump – thinking about books!

Magic Beans

Not magic in the way of Jack and the Beanstalk but versatile, pleasing, dependable – real life magic. Magic as comfort.

Part of the complexity of a big holiday comes not just from the Big Meal event – but also from the gathering and cooking for the other nights and days. We need to eat in the lead-up days, and no matter the evening feast on Thursday, visitors arriving on Wednesday need a welcoming dinner and lunch the next day.

The weekend before, I cooked beans, white and black. With some of the white beans I made ahead a delicious Deborah recipe “Basque Pumpkin with White Bean Soup” (a festive orange color, flavored by stock from the pumpkin peelings and seeds).

Since I loved that eggplant gratin, I noticed a “White Bean and Celery Root Gratin, Tuscan Style” in Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” That seemed to meet a lot of needs – remind us of Italy but also be seasonal and local.

Celeriac with its gnarly weirdness is a vegetable I approach with a little reluctance – not nearly so beautiful as an eggplant, but so much more likely to grow here. They’re a winter mainstay, as they must be in Italy.

The outer skin looks challenging but trims off easily (Deborah says to scrub it well and use in stock for its delicious flavor). For the gratin, cut the remaining white root into one-inch cubes.

In a pan with plenty of room, sauté the celery root in three tablespoons of olive oil until it begins to brown. (This recipe double easily and then fills a big gratin dish.) Add one chopped onion, salt and pepper. Cook until the onion and celery root are soft.

Add two garlic cloves, chopped, three cups of cooked beans. If it seems too dry, you can add some reserved bean liquid. Flavor with fresh rosemary or sage (another reason this is perfect for winter Washington – plenty of both).

Top with a half cup of breadcrumbs mixed with a little olive oil or Parmesan cheese. Pour into a gratin dish rubbed with oil and bake at 400° for about an hour – till the gratin is bubbling and topping browned.

I put it together before we drove to the ferry to pick people up – and once home, the gratin was soon fragrant and ready for dinner by the fire, bubbling and browned in its bright red dish.

Seasonal Energy

When our younger son was two and his brother seven, we remodeled the kitchen in the Anchorage house. We took out the wall between living room and kitchen, uncovered the fir sub-floor, and switched the sink to a new spot.

It was part do-it-yourself and part (the better part) the work of an excellent carpenter named Jake, then in his 70s and retired from his longtime work of building houses. (His age seemed ancient then, reasonable now of course).

One day when Jake went home for lunch (he lived four doors down and he would pull out his pocket watch and leave exactly at 12 and five), our younger son, having watched the work all morning, applied himself to a task. With a hammer, he carefully tapped out the vials (the liquid-filled glass where the bubble resides), in Jake’s three-foot level. We’d been doing things with hammers for days – helping seemed natural to an industrious two-year old. (No, I don’t remember what I was doing – making lunch maybe.)

After lunch when I explained I was off to buy a new level, and apologized, Jake made it clear that the two-year old carpenter wasn’t the problem. He said, “You try to do too much.”  Multi-tasking. He didn’t use the modern phrase but that’s what he meant. I’m not sure how a stay-at-home parent can be anything but a multi-tasker – it seems to be the job description.

That day yielded one of the many lessons I learned from Jake – lessons about building things, gardening, and putting up pickles, but also about life. This time of year I hear Jake’s voice about trying to do too much.

And this aftermath week, busy already with hints of the next holiday, I’ve been thinking about where the energy for it comes from – and it does – sometimes simply from sleep, regular, deep, restorative sleep. Easier said than done, but not being exhausted is a great aide to being creative and imaginative – and cheerful. But desire and enthusiasm, and wanting to please, also provide fuel. And busy activity helps navigate the uncheerful weather and dark.

It’s December, and I wish you energy and good cheer as you multi-task through the bustle of the season now nigh!

About Looking

A toddler with a high wattage smile spent Thanksgiving with us, her joy in exploring this new world was infectious. Attentive parents, adult friends, and a smart older sister meant someone was always available to explain her surroundings. Interactions in short sentences followed her progress around the house: “the cat eats that food,” “magnets stick to the fridge” “yes, that lid fits the pan.”

When the toddler saw something that registered, a person whose name she just learned and could pronounce, a wooden bowl full of dried beans – she turned, with that big smile, to her attending person to explain or confirm. Her encounter with the Saint Francis statue was particularly fun – who is this small stationary fellow just my size? Everything here was new – or a variation on things she knows – couches and stairs, books and chairs – Paddington’s removable clothes.

Is it a stretch to say that getting out the beginning of Christmas from storage shares just a little with the toddler’s delight in visual variety? When I put it all away last winter I wondered, will I really be glad to do this again? Enthusiastic even? Answers: yes and yes.

Observing little things became a theme here this fall – and this month is rich – from pine siskins (I counted fifteen on the rim of the bird bath, chittering the sounds of the winter forest) to all the December ways of red.

Starting with Paddington’s boots and hat – askew after the party weekend!