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Those New Year’s black-eyed peas. December 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. In scenic PA, where our friend Ben and I now live, a dinner of roast pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Eve is supposed to bring good luck throughout the new year. But in our native South, eating black-eyed peas and greens is the secret to ensuring good luck in the coming year.

There’s just one problem: We both hate black-eyed peas, and as for cooked greens, spinach is about the beginning and end as far as we’re concerned. (We do love kale and mustard greens, but raw in salads, not cooked. And we’re not counting lightly sauteed arugula or cabbage, which we both love. Neither would be considered traditional in our native Nashville.) OFB still talks about being forced to eat a tablespoon of black-eyed peas every New Year’s Eve, and as for me, my Mama was lucky to force even one pea down my throat.

My brother reminded me of my famous black-eyed pea aversion earlier this week, and it made me stop and think. OFB and I love beans. And black-eyed peas are actually beans. So why don’t we love them? In my case, it may have been texture sensitivity: the black-eyed peas at my household were always cooked until they were slippery-mushy, the texture I loathe most. In OFB’s case, an aversion to ham and lack of any flavoring in his mama’s black-eyed peas except ham may have been the culprit. Clearly, it was time for reevaluation.

A dish with the colorful name of Hoppin’ John is the classic way to serve black-eyed peas. The peas are cooked with ham or fatback and a lot of crushed red pepper (let’s hope that’s where the hoppin’ part of Hoppin’ John comes from) , then served over rice or grits, or rice is added to the peas during the cooking process. Being a vegetarian, this method was definitely out as far as I was concerned, and besides, it didn’t sound too flavorful. Not to mention that OFB would hate it.

Time for some serious research: Heading over to my good friend Google, I searched for vegetarian Hoppin’ John recipes. And there were plenty, some classified as vegetarian, some as vegan (though they were actually all vegan—no meat or dairy products). But none of them was really a Hoppin’ John. Some cooked the black-eyed peas in barbecue sauce, some served them up with tomato sauce, some cooked them with a passel of veggies, including tomatoes, bell peppers, and celery, many dumped in pseudo-meats, from pseudo-sausage to pseudo-bacon, one added a bottle of dark beer and some liquid smoke, another stuffed them into collard rolls. These recipes all looked pretty good (except for the pseudo-meat, yuck), but they certainly weren’t Hoppin’ John.

Hmmm. It looked like my problem was that I was limiting my concept of black-eyed peas to Hoppin’ John. Perhaps it was time to regroup, to step back, to think about black-eyed peas separately from the famous dish. Back to Google I went to search for black-eyed pea recipes. Meanwhile, I’d made an intriguing discovery: besides dried and canned black-eyed peas, some of the Hoppin’ John recipes had called for frozen black-eyed peas. Well, I thought, perhaps the texture of frozen black-eyed peas would be more beanlike and less slippery-mushy than canned or cooked-up from dried beans. I was now on a mission from God.

Again, Google didn’t disappoint. My favorite of the recipes that turned up in this batch was a black-eyed pea/potato taco. But no, I just wanted a recipe for black-eyed peas and rice. Rushing to the grocery yesterday before the snowstorm that’s battering us today, I found something even better than frozen black-eyed peas: fresh black-eyed peas! I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there they were in 11-ounce plastic clamshell packs. I snapped one up. By dab, by grab, I was going to make Ben and myself something we could actually eat for New Year’s Eve, even if I had to invent it from thin air!

Thinking things through, this is what I came up with. I’ll simmer the black-eyed peas in veggie stock until they’re tender, adding a splash of Tabasco Chipotle Sauce or Pickapeppa to give them a little heat, and some Trocomare or Herbamare for saltiness and additional flavor. Once they’re almost done, I’ll brown some butter in a saucepan and saute some sweet onions with thyme, oregano, and basil. Meanwhile, I’ll cook basmati rice in our rice cooker. (And long before any of this, I’ll have put sweet potatoes in the oven to bake along with a dish of cored apples in cider with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and raisins for dessert.) And yes, I’ll cook some spinach and serve it up with balsamic vinegar and salt as a side dish.  Finally, I’ll make a really hearty, crunchy winter salad.

Just before serving, I’ll stir the sauteed onions and butter into the black-eyed peas, then top the peas with shredded cheese and stir it in. (Checking the fridge, I see that I have shredded sharp white Cheddar, shredded Asiago, shredded Parmesan, and shredded 5-cheese Italian. I suspect I’d have chosen shredded mozzarella if I’d had any, but I think I’ll use the shredded Italian, which will have mozzarella as well as Asiago, Parmesan, and Romano. Guess I’d better see what the fifth cheese is!) Then I’ll spoon the thick pea mixture over the rice, top it with sliced scallions (green onions) or fresh cilantro, and voila! Black-Eyed Peas a la Silence.

Will they be any good? Er, who knows, but if not, there’ll be more rice and the baked sweet potatoes, spinach, and baked apples to fill the gap. And tradition holds that just by tasting them, we’ll have brought ourselves good luck for the coming year!

I’ll admit while I’m at it that another concept I found intriguing was a black-eyed pea salad. If I were making one, I’d cook the peas until tender but still holding their shape, then let them cool. Meanwhile, I’d tear some Romaine lettuce into bite-size pieces (or, gulp, open a bag of prepared Romaine) and pour them into a big salad bowl. Then I’d chop up tomatoes, yellow bell pepper, cucumber, sweet onion, and scallions (green onion) in a big bowl, add the cooled black-eyed peas, pour extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on top, sprinkle oregano, thyme, and basil on lavishly, along with plenty of salt (we like RealSalt) or Trocomare, stir all well to blend thoroughly, pour it over the bed of Romaine, and serve. Knowing me, I’d probably sprinkle shredded Parmesan over the finished salad before serving. Yum!

What are your New Year’s traditions? Please share them with us. And a very happy, blessed, and lucky new year to you and yours!

           ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

A great regional cookbook. December 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. On our way home from North Carolina, our friend Ben and I made the ritual late-lunch stop at Mrs. Rowe’s, a locally famous restaurant outside Staunton, Virginia. One reason we enjoy stopping there (besides the homestyle cooking) is that next door is a shop that sells pottery, wooden ware, artwork, books, crafts, soaps, and many other delightful things, all made in Virginia. There’s also an excellent assortment of regional foods, from smoked hams, seafood dips, and peanuts to grits, jellies, honey, and handmade candy. And this trip, there was a simply wonderful regional cookbook that—to OFB’s despair—ended up coming home to join the legions already bursting from our kitchen bookshelves.

Why did I feel that I just had to have yet another cookbook, you ask? (Or, at least, OFB asked.) Well, The Best of Virginia Farms Cookbook & Tour Book by CiCi Williamson isn’t just any cookbook. It contains recipes from family farms, local B&Bs, and great plantations, including the homes of Washington, Jefferson, and Lee. Not to mention historic recipes from one of my very favorite places, Colonial Williamsburg.

But the recipes, though authentic and delightful, aren’t the only reason I wanted this book. Every page is packed with little-known information about the ingredients used in the recipes (did you know that turkey farming, as opposed to turkey hunting, originated in Virginia?), tips, interviews with Virginia farmers and chefs, and “tours” of great places to visit such as the Museum of American Frontier Culture and the historic home of the Lees, Stratford Hall. There’s even an “interview” with Thomas Jefferson. If you live in or near Virginia or simply enjoy passing through the beautiful and historic state, as we do, you’ll find a wealth of places to visit, eat, and stay, all with contact information (including websites).

Getting back to those recipes, if you’re expecting grits and biscuits, think again. From Hope & Glory Pate, Steeles Tavern Manor Country Inn’s Lemon-Turkey Cutlets, Hungarian-Style Emu Goulash, and Georgetown Bison Fajitas to Martha Washington Inn’s She-Crab Soup, President John Tyler’s “Tyler Pudding” (actually a coconut pie), Shields Tavern Syllabubs, Wayside Inn Wine-and-Cheese Soup, and Hotel Roanoke Peanut Soup, the vast diversity of indigenous Virginia produce is on display.

Just to tempt you, here are two simple recipes featuring two of my favorite foods, lima beans and cornbread:

          Lima Bean Hummus

Unlike traditional chickpea hummus, this lima bean hummus is a beautiful pale green. 

2 cups fresh lima beans or one 10-ounce package frozen lima beans

1 large clove garlic, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup well-stirred tahini

5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

dash cayenne pepper

ground black pepper to taste

chopped fresh parsley, chives, or green onions (scallions) for garnish

Cook lima beans as package directs. (If cooking fresh lima beans, cook until thoroughly soft.) Drain, save cooking water, and allow to cool. In a food processor, combine all ingredients except garnish and reserved cooking water and puree. Add 1 to 4 tablespoons reserved cooking liquid to make an easily spreadable mixture. Refrigerate. Hummus will thicken upon refrigeration. Bring to room temperature before serving and top with your garnish of choice. Serve with warm pita bread wedges, a thinly sliced crusty baguette, or crackers. Makes about 2 cups.

           Custard-Filled Cornbread

“As this amazing cornbread cooks, a creamy, barely set custard makes a layer of filling in the middle—no crumbling allowed!”

2 eggs

3 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups milk

1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 cup flour

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup heavy cream or whipping cream

Butter an 8-inch square baking dish and place it in the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and let dish get hot while mixing batter. Beat eggs with butter until well blended. Add sugar, salt, milk, and vinegar; beat well. Sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda. Add to egg mixture. Mix just until batter is smooth. Pour into heated dish, then pour cream into center of batter. Do not stir. Place dish in oven and bake 45 to 55 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve warm. Makes 9 servings.

Intrigued? Order your own copy from Menasha Ridge Press (www.menasharidge.com) for $19.95. Your money will be well spent: Not only will you get a fantastic cookbook and guide to Virginia’s best tourist sites, but “A portion of proceeds from book sales is channeled through the Publishing Partners to develop and promote agriculture education, agriculture tourism, and state products.” I love a cookbook that’s as much fun to read as it is to use. How about you?

            ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Only in America. December 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, our friend Ben and I made the long, the very long, drive back from Greensboro, North Carolina to Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. On our road trips, OFB is the designated driver and I’m the designated observer, keeping an eye out for anything that might be interesting or entertaining that I can share with Ben to help him stay awake, engaged, and alert during the endless hours of the trip.

This trip, I struck gold before we’d even gotten out of Greensboro. I observed a large purple building prominently situated on a slope. It looked like a car wash with a very large building attached, and that, as it turned out, was exactly what it was. The huge sign over the building proclaimed:

            Gentlemen’s Club and Exotic Car Wash

Now, there was a classic example of American ingenuity at work! OFB and I didn’t think the sign was referring to exotic cars. Instead, here was a place where you could get your car washed and never have to worry about being bored while it was going through the wash, rinse, dry, and polish cycles!

Of course, I couldn’t resist thinking about what other businesses could be combined with exotic dancers to the benefit of customers. I quickly decided that a perfect combination would include one of the endless tattoo parlors we passed, since the exotic dancers would hopefully distract the patrons from the pain of the tattooing. Eureka! Another inventive goldmine just waiting to be turned into a money-making reality. 

Alas, it appears that someone else had gotten there first. About a hundred miles down the road, there it was:

          Tattoos & Body Piercings Gold & Silver Men’s Club

Drat! Back to the drawing board. Exotic barbecue and men’s club? Exotic sushi and men’s club? Exotic sports bar and men’s club? (Whoa, that one’s too obvious. It must already be in existence somewhere.) Exotic golf club and men’s club?! (Yo, Tiger! Here’s your new career.)

Mercy on us. Here in PA, they tend to go for fireworks instead of strip clubs, I mean, exotic men’s clubs. I’m not sure what that says about the Keystone State. But maybe they’re missing an opportunity, too: Hot Dogs and Fireworks! Pretzels, Sauerkraut, Firecrackers! Ox Roast and Fireworks!  

Oh, well. OFB and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to think about all the inventive combinations we clever Americans could come up with. It made the homeward trip go much faster. And boy, were we happy to get home!

          ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

African violet seeds?! December 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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African violets. They’re plants people seem to love to hate, and our friend Ben doesn’t understand why. Even Tasha Tudor, whose gentle children’s book illustrations have enchanted generations, had nothing but harsh words for African violets: “They’re loathesome. It’s their velvet look.”

Well! Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood beg to differ. We love their velvet rosettes of round leaves, and their cheerful flowers that sparkle in a way that reminds us of daylily blooms—the petals of both seem sprinkled with diamond dust. As with all flowers, except for peonies and roses, we only love the single blooms; doubles disgust us, overfat and overstuffed, losing the individuality that separates, say, a tulip from a rose. (Mind you, we love single-flowered roses and peonies, too.) Please keep your double-flowered hollyhocks and clematis and amaryllis and African violets and daylilies and daffodils to yourself, or better still, compost them. Ugh!!!

Getting back to African violets, we find them generous and undemanding houseplants. Like orchids, they bloom for months at a time, asking for surprisingly little in return. We grow ours on a shelf under the skylight in our sunny kitchen, water them when dry, occasionally think to add liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive (a natural mix of vitamins and plant hormones) to their water, and otherwise just sit back and enjoy the show. Ours have never needed repotting or any special care whatever, have never come down with pests or diseases, have never given us any bother beyond picking off the occasional dead leaf or flower spray. What more could you ask of any plant? (Well, two things: scent and edible fruit. But few actual houseplants provide either, though many do that flourish in our greenhouse.)

Anyway, two of our African violets, a pink-flowered and a blue-flowered, had been in bloom for some months. Eventually, African violet blooms turn from crystalline to papery and their stems dry, the signal to pull them off. But as our friend Ben was performing this chore, I saw something I’ve never encountered before: One flower stem on the pink-flowered African violet had set seed pods! Our friend Ben has encountered seed pods on many of our greenhouse plants: orchids, clivias, aloes, agaves, pelargoniums, amaryllis, the works. And it never fails to thrill me to think that our plants are providing us with the means to make more. (Though there’s always the possibility that they’ve become so desperate from my sporadic watering that they figure it’s now or never.) But I have never, ever, seen African violet seedpods before.

Shouting for Silence, I proudly showed off our latest offspring-to-be. And, after a suitable pause for oohing and aahing, we rushed to the computer to find out more about African violet seeds and what you were supposed to do with them.

Urk. Searching on our good friend Google for “African violet seeds,” we discovered that you can buy a packet of 50 from Park Seed for $3.50. Oh. Guess this wasn’t the earth-shaking phenomenon we thought it was. But hey, these were our African violet seeds. We still wanted to grow them out and see what we ended up with. But how?

Continuing our online search, we were directed to www.grownotes.com, which provided thorough directions. Search “Planting African Violet Seeds” and you’ll find their excellent post. To summarize, they emphasize that African violet seeds are minute, and suggest a very fine-milled planting medium to accomodate them. The best container for growing the seedlings is shallow, with a clear cover, like a clamshell takeout container or one of the ones you can get at an olive bar or salad bar in a grocery. (Our friend Ben thinks one of those clear plastic egg cartons might be an even better option.) They suggest punching holes in the bottom for drainage, making sure your container is big enough for the developing plants (10 x 12 inches minimum for 25 seeds), and using a layer of potting medium about 2 inches deep.

All sites our friend Ben and Silence found recommend moistening the seed-starting medium, potting soil, peat, coir, crushed perlite, peat/perlite or whatever medium you plan to plant in and draining it so it’s damp but not wet throughout. Just before sowing the seed, spray the top of the medium with a mister, then sow the tiny seeds on top of the medium (which is to say, don’t cover them, though I would suggest patting the top of the soil very lightly to ensure good seed/soil contact).

There are some quite elaborate directions to make sure your seeds don’t all end up clumped together, though you can always lift and separate them once they’ve germinated (in as little as 9 or as long as 60 days). This is another reason our friend Ben thinks the egg cartons would be a good idea: You could take a little seed “dust” on your fingertip—moistened, if necessary—and press it into each egg cup, making sure you had good separation for at least some of the plants, and thinning as needed once they came up.

What next? Close the clear top on your seedling “greenhouse,” or, if you don’t have a clear plastic top, cover your container with plastic wrap and set it 10 inches under fluorescent lights for 12-14 hours a day. Mist the top of the soil as needed when it starts to dry out, but be careful not to overwater, since the container is covered and condensation can quickly overwhelm the tiny seedlings or cause seeds to rot.

Once the seedlings have germinated, separate them and pot them on as you would any seedlings to give them room to grow. You can find special “African violet soil” in bags in every grocery and anywhere else where houseplants are sold. Your goal is to ultimately get them into 4-inch plastic pots. Once there, there are all sorts of esoteric “rules” for proper watering, feeding, etc.etc. all over the internet. But again, ours are quite simple: We do water from the top, but water the soil, not the leaves, and only when it’s dry to the touch. We give our plants bright but indirect light. We give them some organic nutrients in their water when we remember. Otherwise, it’s up to them. And, in the immortal words of Mister Spock, they “live long and prosper.”

Our friend Ben is eager to see what will happen with our first-ever African violet seed pods. But there’s one little problem: According to www.grownotes.com, it takes 4 to 6 months for an African violet seed pod to mature, and even then, there’s no guarantee that the seeds will be fertile. I guess I’ll be checking in with an update sometime in June!

Meanwhile, if you have experience raising African violets from seed, we’d love to hear from you!

The ghosts of Christmas past. December 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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One of our Christmas traditions here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, is watching as many versions of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” as possible.

Our friend Ben also thinks a good deal about Santa Claus, after having had a run-in with him as a child. (Search for “I believe in Santa Claus: A true story by our friend Ben” for the story.) Just yesterday, I read in our local paper that a nearby township had defused a potential furor over setting up a creche by adding “secular” symbols like Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman to the display. I guess the reporter forgot that Santa Claus began life as a great saint, Saint Nicholas, who was anything but “secular.”

Anyway, our friend Ben was wondering what I’d ask Santa Claus for if he appeared, genie-like, and granted me one wish. Our friend Ben loves Christmas. My answer came to mind immediately. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” I’d like to be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Not to be shown my past failings, but to have a chance to see again the Christmases I’d loved:

* Reading “A Christmas Carol” aloud every year with my beloved mama and siblings, and howling with laughter over Stave One, where Scrooge is so horrible.

* Acting out “A Christmas Carol” with my siblings with our troll dolls. Mine was always Scrooge.

* Hanging the stocking I’d received as a two-month-old on the mantel of the fireplace in my bedroom every Christmas, with a roaring fire in the fireplace. Trying to stay awake, but always, even in college, waking to find the stocking mysteriously filled. (Our friend Ben is by no means the brightest bulb on the string. It took a couple of decades to think through to the fact that Mama always got up between 4 and 5 a.m., and no matter how long our friend Ben may have lain awake, I was sure to be asleep by then.)

* Welcoming my beloved grandparents for the holiday, Grandaddy bearing quail—that most delicious of birds—as a special treat, and super-hot sausage made by a neighbor that was better than any I’ve ever eaten since.

* Gandaddy ceremoniously mixing up our Simms family eggnog, so thick and creamy you had to eat it with a spoon, so heavy on the bourbon we kids only got as much as would go in our silver baby cups. The eggnog was always carried in procession to our frigid porch to chill overnight, then just as ceremoniously brought back in and stirred just before serving.

* The yummy, many-layered Linzer torte and heavenly chocolate petits fours my father’s mother gave us every year. We only got these treats once a year, and never got enough of them. Even now, I long for them at Christmas, and wish someone were still sending them here.

* Mama’s delicious Christmas-only treats: homemade fudge, penuche (brown sugar fudge), bourbon balls, rum pie, pecan pie, rahad lakhoum (a special treat for my father, but we loved it, too), chocolate yummy rummies (a rich cross between a mousse and a pudding).

* Fruit from all the relatives: oranges and grapefruit from Aunt Ethel, glaceed apricots from Aunt Bernice, dates and nuts from Uncle Millard, pears and pineapple from Aunt Betty. Yum!!!

* Watching Mama make the iconic fruitcakes, with what seemed to the youthful Ben to be an endless number of steps and an inconceivable number of fantastic ingredients, all for a result I considered inedible. But the process was magic.

* The arrival of the flaming plum pudding and hard sauce at the end of Christmas dinner. Like fruitcake, plum pudding struck our friend Ben as inedible, but the sugary, bourbon-laced hard sauce was quite another matter.

* Decorating the house. We had three trees, each decorated differently: a very formal gold-and-silver tree in the living room, a red-themed tree in the dining room, and a wonderful tree with every kind of ornament, including the many we kids had made, in our keeping room. Decorating the trees, and then sitting around them with fires blazing in each room, was fantastic. And decorating all the mantels and chandeliers was fantastic, too, expecially since we used the magnolia, boxwood, nandina (heavenly bamboo) berry sprays, holly, cones, and pine from our own property.

* Hanging out with Grandma and Grandaddy, my heroes.

* Hearing Santa land on the roof on my seventh Christmas. (Again, check out my post “I believe in Santa Claus” for the story.)

* Singing carols and sledding down the hill in the backyard of my childhood home with my beloved cocker-springer spaniel cross, Hapilus, my very first dog. (Hapilus, no fool, would wait ’til I’d dragged the sled back up the hill, then jump on it and fly down by himself, knowing that I’d have to drag it back up again. He loved it.)

* Eating snow cream, a concoction my mother made  from fresh snow, milk, sugar, and vanilla.

* All the glorious Christmas dinners with our antique china, crystal, and silver. The food was fantastic, and we only got to use that table setting at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was very magical, especially with all the silver and brass candlesticks blazing and a fire beside the Christmas tree.

* Waiting up to watch Midnight Mass broadcast from the Vatican.

And, of course:

* Opening our presents on Christmas morning. They were always amazing!

These seem like more riches than anyone deserves. Scaling back, our friend Ben would ask Santa for a chance to see my mama, my grandparents, and my dog Hapilus celebrating Christmas again. But then, I suppose I see them all, waking and sleeping, every Christmas of my life. It’s one reason I love Christmas so.

If you could ask Santa for one gift, what would it be?

Our Christmas gift to you. December 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders have decided to make a Christmas tradition of offering the most wonderful Christmas gift we know to our readers, as we did last year, the first year of PRA’s existence. This gift is a letter, a wish, a Christmas card, a prayer.

It was originally written in 1513 by a monk, Fra Giovanni, to his patron. We have seldom seen so much profound truth compressed into so few lines. Please join us in reading Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer. You may decide to make it a tradition in your household as well, a tradition that originated not with us, but with the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Tasha Tudor. Her reverence for this prayer may have been one of the sparks that fired her delightful and extraordinary life. What will it do in your life? Read it, read it aloud, and see…

             Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present instant. Take peace.

The Gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Our hope for each one of you is that, on this glorious Christmas day and every day, “the day breaks and the shadows flee away.” Take Joy!

             Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders

When Spellcheck fails. December 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Headline in the news section on yesterday’s MSNBC website:

“Pope justifies beautification of Pius XII”

We fear it’s probably a little too late for that.

First snow for Shiloh. December 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s Christmas Eve, a time for anticipation and rejoicing, but this will be a bittersweet Christmas for me and our friend Ben. Today, we’re leaving to spend Christmas with family in North Carolina, and that’s sweet. But to do so, we had to board our Shiloh, and that’s bitter.

Many of you will know our beloved black German shepherd puppy, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special, and if you do, you’ll know how “special” she is to us. Not yet a year old, this is her first winter, and our big East Coast snowstorm was her first real snow.

How she loved it! “Dashing through the snow” might have been written for her. Every time we took her outside, she’d race around in the widest arc she could, making snow circles everywhere. On the way back indoors, rather than walking or running, with every step she’d bound into the air, then land, compressing the snow beneath her paws as if she couldn’t believe what she was experiencing. And once inside, she’d lick the snow off any available object, from her paws to our boots, with delight.

And now, far from celebrating her first Christmas with us, she’ll be spending it in a kennel. We’re boarding her with our vet, and we know the staff there loves her and will take her out for walks and spoil her. We sent her favorite toys with her, and have plenty of new toys and treats waiting for her on her return, when we’ll celebrate our own private Christmas. But still.

We’re driving down, and Shiloh would have had no problem with the trip—she’s such a good traveller, lying quietly in the back seat however long a trip takes, seemingly content just to be with us. (And there’d have been plenty of bathroom and water breaks for her, since I insist on stopping at every single rest stop, much to OFB’s despair.)

But we’re staying with the esteemed patriarch of the Hays family, quite robust at 89 but not especially up to a 95-pound bundle of raucous enthusiasm, and then there’s his adored little dachshund, Maggie. Shiloh has an unfortunate tendency to bark at a stunningly deafening level in the presence of other dogs, apparently just to let them know that she’s there and wants to play. I’m sure neither Maggie nor Mr. Hays—nor anybody else, for that matter, including us—could endure that noise in closed quarters. Ouch!!!

So, for the safety and security (not to mention peace and comfort) of our hosts, Shiloh has been exiled for the holidays. Hopefully, by next Christmas, she’ll have settled down enough to come along. (We’ll be working on that in the new year, trust us. She’s so smart and already knows so many words and commands. She just needs a little time to grow up—our much-loved golden retriever, Molly, was a puppy until she hit 1 1/2, and we expect Shiloh, who’ll ultimately be even bigger, to take longer—and consistent training.) Meanwhile, we’re sure of one thing: Being reunited with her will be the best Christmas present ever!

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Cream of tomato soup: home edition. December 23, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. When I was a child, my favorite soup was—you guessed it—cream of tomato soup, the kind that came in a can. I still consider cream of tomato soup a favorite cold-weather comfort food, so when I saw some cans of a local PA brand, Hanover’s, on sale at the little grocery near us, I was inspired to buy a couple.

Turns out, the Hanover’s cream of tomato soup was surprisingly good, rich and smooth with no off-flavors and a simple ingredients list boasting no high-fructose corn syrup or other nasties. And few things are simpler than opening a can of soup, adding milk, butter, and salt, and sitting down with a hot bowl of creamy soup, a hot roll or crusty baguette—or another comfort-food fave, hot popcorn—and a sliced apple. Aaaahhhh!!!

Needless to say, next time I went to the store, I rushed to the soup aisle to stock up. Guess what? No Hanover’s soup. I checked every other brand in the store, and they all had high-fructose corn syrup, flour, and other ingredients that would make them taste just like Campbell’s, which I find has a tinny off-flavor, the reason I’d never eaten cream of tomato soup as an adult. Oh, no, just when it looked like I’d reclaimed my lost love!

Over the next few weeks, I went to a couple of other groceries in the area, in addition to rechecking the original store. No luck. No Hanover’s, and every other brand had the same ingredients as Campbell’s.

Give up? No way, with victory within reach. Heading to my good friend Google, I checked out recipes for homemade cream of tomato soup. I found recipes, all right—recipes that used fresh tomatoes, clove-studded onions, and a slew of other ingredients that had never appeared in the cream of tomato soup I knew and loved, the soup I wanted to reproduce. Not that I’m passing judgment on all these recipes, they might be delicious. They simply weren’t what I was looking for. (I also found a bunch of recipes for cold cream of tomato soup. Yikes.) I was on my own.

Trying to recall what had been in the Hanover’s soup, I thought I remembered that the tomato base was tomato paste. That made sense to me, since the rich depth and sweetness of tomato paste would hold its own in a milk-based soup. I got right to work. Here’s what I came up with:

             Cream of Tomato Soup

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

3 cups whole milk

1 cup half-and-half 

1/4-1/2 stick butter, to taste

salt (we like RealSalt) and Herbamare or Trocomare, to taste

Heat milk and half-and-half until warmed through; do not allow to boil. Add tomato paste, stirring and mashing with a spoon until thoroughly incorporated into the milk base. Keep heat low, never allowing the soup to rise above a simmer. Add salt and Herbamare or Trocomare, stirring gently to blend. (You could substitute white pepper for the Herbamare or Trocamare, if you’d prefer, or add it as well.) Add butter, sliced. When the butter has melted, stir to blend and serve the soup piping hot, never, never allowing it to boil and serving the second it’s ready, so it has no chance to cool. Serves two.

Why did I use a cup of half-and-half in this instead of all milk, you ask? Simple: Most canned soups use adulterants, such as cornstarch or flour, to thicken their soups so they’re “creamy,” but I think this mars both the flavor and texture. However, I still wanted a creamy soup, and the half-and-half gave the finished soup a creamy, silken texture. You could absolutely use all whole milk instead, or try the soup with 1/2 or 1/4 cup of half-and-half  and 3 1/2 or 3 3/4 cups whole milk and see if it was sufficiently creamy for you. (I plan to experiment with cutting down the proportion of half-and-half next time I make it to see how little I can get away with and still have a lusciously creamy soup.)

Anyway, I was delighted with the flavor and creaminess of my cream of tomato soup. And it was no more trouble to make than canned soup. If you’re a cream of tomato soup fan, try it! I think you’ll like it.

           ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

A party for the financially pressed. December 22, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

Silence Dogood here. Now I’ve really seen it all: the party to end all parties.

I’ve never gotten the point of those so-called “parties” where people try to sell things, like Tupperware or jewelry, to their “guests.” But they must be popular, since so many people host them.

I thought this was the most bizarre party idea on earth until I read about Botox parties a few years back. I have to assume that people still use Botox, but that it’s now more in the category of getting your teeth cleaned or something. But back in the day, when Botox was shiny and new, there was apparently a craze for throwing “Botox parties” with a doctor in attendance, who’d oblige the guests with injections of botulism toxin to remove their wrinkles. Being needle-averse, extremely averse to being injected with a potentially paralyzing toxin, and by God’s grace, unwrinkled, this concept struck me as the weirdest idea for a party I’d ever heard of. Ouch. Some party!

But this morning, an article in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, made me change my mind. It was about a new trend in party-giving brought on by our recessionary times.

Potlucks, you’re thinking? Low-key get-togethers involving cards, knitting, watching DVDs, birdwatching, maybe a walk in the park or attending a free concert? Hardly. “Guests get paid at these parties,” the headline proclaimed. Uh-oh. Exactly what kind of party are we talking about here?!! And if something untoward’s going on, why is the article about it in the finance section of the paper?

Turns out, these parties are indeed about buying and selling, but this time, the guests do the selling and an appraiser does the buying. Here’s what the article has to say about the latest “home-entertaining trend”: “…gold parties, where guests come bearing unwanted gold, sterling silver and platinum, usually jewelry, to be evaluated by an appraiser. If the pieces are found to be of value, the jeweler writes a check…”

We’ve written here before about one sign of economic hard times being the endless full-page ads in our paper for jewelry stores and travelling appraisers, who often set up in hotels, advertising their services: “Bring in your old jewelry! Highest prices paid!” But the concept of a “party” takes the sad and permanent pawning of family treasures and sentimental keepsakes to a whole new level.

What’s fueling the hysteria is a truism of hard times: When the economy takes a downturn and people lose faith in paper money and scrap-metal coinage, real assets like precious metals rise in value. Gold has hit an all-time high at $1,100 an ounce (that’s for pure, 24-carat gold), and silver has reached a 10-year high at $18 an ounce (for sterling), according to the article. People are rushing to unload their valuables so they can pay off their mortgages and credit cards.

According to the article, the party’s host or hostess serves guests wine and cheese while an appraiser goes over their goods in an alcove or other place discreetly removed from the “party” itself. (I hope this was true of the Botox parties as well.) In return, the person throwing the party receives “10 percent of the night’s total, plus 3 percent from future parties booked by any guests that night.”

That was a bit eye-opening, but paled by comparison to a quote from one of the guests at the party the journalist attended: “Usually with these types of parties, you leave $200 to $300 poorer.” What?!! Please don’t tell me that people are spending $300 on Tupperware! (The guest went on to compare this to a gold party, where guests could come home hundreds or even thousands of dollars richer.)

Returning to the gold party, and to these “give us your gold” buyers in general, there’s something anyone considering parting with antiques and coins should consider: The appraisers are buying for melt, and are paying accordingly. You’ll get better prices going to specialists who will value your antique jewelry or gold and silver coins for their collector value. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that at least your family heirlooms will be sold to other people who can appreciate them, not melted down like scrap for their metal value.

Unfortunately, hard times do often call for hard measures. But it seems that there’s always someone prepared to profit from the silver (or, in this case, gold) lining to those proverbial clouds. Just don’t invite me to the party, please. And keep your Botox to yourself.

          ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

Note: You can read the article in its entirety at www.themorningcall.com.

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