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Anticipation, and cooking. December 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Christmas Eve, which always seems so far away and rushing towards us simultaneously, is finally here. The stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, and the entire fireplace is so elaborately decorated that poor Santa would break his neck if he tried to step out of the chimney.

The nearby tree is ablaze with lights and ornaments from three centuries, from heavy mercury-glass 19th-century German kugels to beaded Christmas trees made at summer camp by the beloved children of dear friends. Every one carries delightful memories. Because we like to layer the ornaments from the trunk to the branch tips, we feel that we could look at the tree for hours and never take it all in.

We have given or mailed all our carefully-selected presents. So every glittery package and bow spilling out around the tree and surrounding the fireplace is now for one of us (or our pets). The sight of so much bounty is enough to awaken the anticipation of the child in all of us. (Our black German shepherd, Shiloh, immediately recognized her present, a new soft Frisbee-style disc. But for once she demonstrated restraint and didn’t go after it. Maybe she was as overwhelmed by all the packages as the rest of us.)

Now all is quiet (except for carols playing in the background) and all is bright (thanks to the Christmas-tree lights). The intoxicating fragrance of frankincense fills the air. There’s really nothing left to do but anticipate a viewing of one of many versions of “A Christmas Carol”… and cook.

Cook! Oh, yum, the joys of Christmas cooking. I’ve already made my Ultimate Cranberry Sauce and two pans of my Amazing Cranberry Dressing (you can find the recipes by searching our search bar at upper right; they’re both so easy and delicious). I have Belgian endive, dried cranberries, pecans, feta, and blue cheese on hand to make Stuffed Endive Boats as an appetizer; it’s our favorite, delicious but not too filling, an important consideration. But what else will I make for Christmas Day?

Well, in our case, there are some givens, the we-always-make-these traditions that must be upheld at all costs. I’ll make a corn pudding, green beans, mashed potatoes (OFB always insists on these), roasted mushrooms and sweet potato slices (seasoned with olive oil, Trocamare, lemon pepper, and Italian herbs—dried oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary—yum!!!), and a big, rich, crunchy salad to go with the dressing and cranberry sauce. But what else?

Well, I’m definitely going to bake bread today—lots of bread. An orange-cinnamon loaf for our holiday breakfasts. Whole wheat-sour cream rolls for Christmas dinner. A bran-rich loaf just because it’s good for us and the recipe looked promising. And maybe some oatmeal-buttermilk loaves to give our neighbors as Christmas gifts.

Then there’s the question of dessert. I could make my Mama’s famous Chocolate Yummy-Rummies, incredibly rich chocolate-rum mousselike concoctions topped with pecans and whipped cream. Or our friend Ben’s Simms Family Eggnog, a decadent, bourbon-rich dream of a dessert that’s so thick you have to eat it with a spoon.

Then again, I could make a simple fruit crisp or baked apples and save the richer fare for later in the holiday season, when we’re not confronting a major feast and a rich dessert. Or, hmmm, it looks like some of those packages under the tree contain homemade Christmas cookies, so maybe I’ll put out plates with cheese, dried fruit, and cookies for dessert, with glasses of our favorite Sandeman’s Tawny Port.

But it’s Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. What to make for tonight that will be delicious but won’t spoil our anticipation for tomorrow? Well, something rich but simple. Creamy pasta (shells in a sauce of sour cream, butter, Trocomare or salt and lemon pepper, with the sauce cooked to the point where it coats the shells thickly and there’s none left over), broccoli, curried carrots, and salad.

We have dear friends of German descent whose major feast is tonight, Christmas Eve, where they serve rouladen (an elaborate roast beef dish) and all the traditional German trimmings. But for us, Christmas Eve is the time to rest from the rush of getting everything done and the celebration of Christmas Day. It’s a lovely, low-key day. We let the anticipation of the season continue to build, but for now, we keep it at arm’s length. It will be here in all its glory soon enough.

What are your Christmas Eve traditions?

           ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

The holly and the ivy. December 13, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.”

So begins the beloved English carol, commemorating the plants that have decorated churches there at Christmastide since the Fifteenth Century. But there is an older version, “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly,” which contains the line “Ivy hath berries black as any sloe.”

Ivy hath berries?! This was news to our friend Ben, at least, until yesterday. The previous owners of Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, were enthusiastic but undiscriminating gardeners. If it was cheap or free, it would spread enthusiastically, and it required little to no maintenance, they planted it. As a result, we have a luxurious stand of English ivy covering many of our trees and the ground beneath.

Given the aggressive spread of the ivy and our ongoing attempts to keep it off the walls of the house (it even appears to be winning the battle with that other invasive groundcover, pachysandra, another legacy of the previous owners, and is making strong inroads on yet another of their favorites, vinca, aka periwinkle), it never occurred to our friend Ben that berries were necessary to its survival. It seemed to be doing just fine on its own.

Then, yesterday, our friend Ben was heading out to get the mail when I saw that a lot of pieces of ivy had fallen onto the lawn. Whether this was due to the strong winds we’d been having or to the actions of squirrels or birds, I can’t say, but my eye was drawn to one piece of blown-down ivy because, at its tip, were numerous clusters of berries.

Berries? Ivy berries?!! Grabbing the branch, I brought it back indoors with the day’s mail so I could examine it in the comparative warmth of the house. There were seven clusters of berries, each containing 13 to 15 berries. They were small—ranging from the size of a peppercorn to roughly twice that size—and green. Over the top of each berry was a brown, five-pointed disk (or cap, if you can’t reconcile the concepts of “five-pointed” and “disk”) with a central prickle.

These berries certainly weren’t “black as any sloe,” but that’s probably because they had been knocked down before they’d had a chance to ripen. I wanted to find out more about them, and especially about how old an ivy plant had to be before it bloomed and set fruit, so I wandered over to my good friend Google and asked for help.

If you do the same, searching for “English ivy berries,” one site that will come up is the King County, Washington, Noxious Weeds site. That’s because English ivy (Hedera helix) has become an invasive weed throughout the Pacific Northwest, displacing native plants and taking over woodlands. Given how bold it is in our yard, we’re hardly surprised. I quote: “Mature form of growth has shiny, unlobed leaves that grow in dense, whorl-like clusters and produce umbrella-like groups of small yellow-green flowers in the fall, followed by dark purple-black berries in the late winter or early spring.” (I guess that’s why ours are still green.) The site also provides photos of the plant, flowers, and mature fruit.

I suppose you could call the ivy foliage on my branch unlobed—it resembles large, dark-green aspen or birch leaves—but it was definitely not in “dense, whorl-like clusters;” rather, it was still spaced evenly along the branch. Just FYI.

But our friend Ben still wanted to know how old an ivy vine had to be to produce berries. This proved a bit more challenging, but I finally found a site that said that a plant had to be at least ten years old to flower and produce berries. In which case, ours should have been flowering and producing berries for a decade at least. Amazing that I never saw them before!

Anyway, the takeaway is this: English ivy makes a great container plant, but don’t plant it in the ground where it can spread and take over the world. And if you happen to be considering bringing holly and ivy indoors as part of your Christmas decor, please remember that both holly and ivy berries (and foliage, for that matter) are toxic. Best to use them in a wreath that will hang on an outdoor wall or door rather than risk poisoning kids or pets. They’ll stay fresh longer outdoors, too.

Ten things you should know about poinsettias. December 7, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Seems like everybody was out and about Saturday seeing the Christmas-season sights, and our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were no exceptions. We dragged ourselves over to our friends Carolyn and Gary’s at an unreasonably early hour to join Carolyn and our friends Rudy and Rob on an expedition. But it was worth getting up and about a bit early to see the interesting and unusual exhibits on display!

Our first stop was at Red Men’s Hall in Green Lane, PA (if this reminds anybody else of Red Green, what can we say), where the Goschenhoppen Historians were presenting their Christmas Market and display. Their focus was on late-19th and early 20th century Pennsylvania Dutch (aka Deitsch, the local dialect for German) Christmas traditions. We went to this show and sale for the first time last year and now it’s a definite tradition for us as well. Wouldn’t miss it!

From the fabulous winter arrangements of fresh greens, berries, and dried hydrangeas and ornamental grasses enticing you up the stairs of the old building to the toy train display (Rob was riveted), the ca. 1908 Granny’s Christmas kitchen exhibit (Silence and Carolyn were getting pointers about what the Penna. Dutch set out for Santa back in the day—an attractively composed plate with animal-themed gingerbread cookies, hickory nuts, dried apple slices, aka schnitz, a fresh apple, and some brilliantly colored, elaborately molded clear rock sugar candies, the predecessors of the lollipop.)  There were an assortment of amazing wreaths and traditional trees, including a sassafras tree whose bare branches were wrapped in cotton wool (the predecessor of the cotton ball), then ornamented. 

There was also an enticing variety of Christmas and locally crafted items for sale, from vintage ornaments and toy trains to redware, old cigar boxes and tins, butter molds, Moravian paper stars, and wonderful Christmas cards capturing the highlights of the exhibits (we succumbed to these, as well as the handmade dog and cat treats and a delightful handmade felt kitty toy for the cats’ Christmas stocking).

Carolyn wandered up to the third floor to see the Goschenhoppen Historians’ museum display, but Rudy had headed off to the bake sale, and we quickly joined him. An amazing number of authentic homemade Penna. Dutch treats were available, from lemon sponge pie (we all bought one) to snickerdoodles, apie cakes, gingerbread horses, Amish vanilla pie, honey cakes, pfeffernusse, hickory nut star cookies, and zillions of others, as well as home-canned chow-chow, pickles, corn relish, and many more. The Goschenhoppen Historians continue their display and show through today, Sunday 12/7, and trust us, it’s well worth a trip if you live within range. Best of all, it’s free!

Then we were off and running to the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA, for their Christmas show and craft sale. Thanks to our friend Sarah, the Director of the Center, we’ve been attending this delightful show for years, and it never disappoints. That’s because the best traditional craftsmen and women in the area offer their heritage, one-of-a-kind crafts for sale there, from beautiful handmade and hand-decorated wooden boxes to quilts, redware and other handmade pottery, tin Christmas ornaments, hooked rugs, fraktur, and scherenschnitte. (Uh, say what? Fraktur is a traditional Penna. Dutch folk art of quaint hand-painted art—think of stylized birds, tulips, and hex signs—and scherenschnitte, also a regional specialty, is an unbelievably intricate craft of hand-cutting paper to make extraordinary pictures.)

The Center’s Christmas display was captivating, with an array of 19th-century toys (including our favorite, old handmade marbles). Our friend Ben succumbed to temptation and purchased an extraordinary scherenschnitte artwork of a tree in winter, its bare boughs laden with birds, for Silence’s Christmas present, and was lucky enough to have the artist, who was doing an on-site demonstration, inscribe it for her. Rob bought a lovely scherenschnitte Tree of Life by another gifted artist for his sister.

Lucky for any of you within driving distance, the show and sale continue through December 31st. There are other excellent displays as well, such as an exhibit of contemporary fraktur, and they have a truly wonderful gift shop in addition to the special show sale. Check it out on their website, www.mhep.org. It, too, is free.

Okay, about those poinsettias. Our third stop was at Glick’s Greenhouse in Oley, PA, which hosts an annual themed poinsettia show that’s simply amazing. As with the Goschenhoppen Historians’ show, last year was OFB and Silence’s first exposure to the Glick’s extravaganza, and oh lord, now we wouldn’t miss it for anything.

This year’s theme was Route 66, and Glick’s displayed, as they do every year, a massive selection of entries for their best wreath competition, all with hubcap bases. Our favorite—which, for once, actually won first prize—had applied cutout license-plate “petals” from vintage license plates  from many states along Route 66 to create a sunflower of sorts. (Hmmm, maybe they were intending to portray a poinsettia, Glick’s signature plant.) As Silence was admiring it, the guy next to her groaned loudly and said that he was a license-plate collector, and to see old license plates abused in this way was more than he could bear. Since we feel that way about cut-up books, we could relate!

Glick’s poinsettia extravaganza is not only free, they offer a variety of free live music, free popcorn and soda, and free hotdogs with Glick’s own homemade relish, homemade sauerkraut, and ketchup and mustard to ravenous customers like Rudy and Rob. And this year, besides the hubcap wreaths, they had a shiny red antique truck with its bed full of poinsettias, as well as plenty of other Route 66-themed displays. (Our friend Ben and Silence want that truck.)

And the plants and their prices can’t be beat. You can buy about bazillion kinds of poinsettias in all sizes and price ranges, healthy budded Christmas cacti for practically nothing, beautiful mini-cyclamen in bloom in a wide range of colors, and so on. Our friend Ben and Silence were desperate for a new “orange” poinsettia (really an extraordinary dayglo orange-scarlet), but were told that—shock surprise!—they’d sold out first thing that morning. Instead, we bought—as we had the previous year—a stunning, huge, elaborate and ultra-fresh wreath for our house for just $18. We can tell you from last year that this wreath stayed fresh ’til March, and doubtless would have continued until May had Silence not insisted that we part company.

We may have reluctantly parted with last year’s wreath, but the gorgeous poinsettia we bought from Glick’s last year is even now thriving in our mudroom, and that’s what inspired our friend Ben to write this post. Urban legends abound about poinsettias. It’s time to set the record straight. But first, let me note that Glick’s poinsettia extravaganza continues tomorrow, Monday December 8th. If you can’t make it Monday, you can check out their excellent plants and prices even after the show has closed. Find their hours and directions at www.glicksgreenhouse.com.

Okay, finally, here’s that list of ten things you should know about poinsettias:

1. Poinsettias aren’t poisonous. This is an urban legend that’s been around since 1919. Here’s the truth: Like other euphorbias (the botanical name of poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima), the milky latex sap of poinsettias can be quite irritating to bare skin, and can cause an allergic rash in sensitive individuals if they come in direct contact with the sap. And eeewwww, who’d want to eat one, anyway. But we’ve seen our wicked indoor cats eat many a poinsettia leaf and not only survive to tell the tale but come back for more while we frantically tried to figure out how to save our plants from the living shredders.

2. Poinsettia flowers are leaves. ‘Fraid so. The poinsettia flowers are those little yellow clusters in the middle of the showy colored leaves, or bracts. But the good news is that (orchids being an exception), the colorful bracts last much longer than flowers, so you can enjoy your poinsettias into spring, as long as you give them some light and remember to water them.

3. Poinsettias aren’t cold-climate plants. Poinsettias have come to be associated with Christmas, snowy weather, and the North Pole, but the truth is, they’re native to Mexico and south to Guatemala and Nicaragua, where they’re perennial shrubs or small trees. They bloom for us at Christmas because our winter is their summer bloom time.

4. Poinsettias aren’t spelled as they’re pronounced. In the U.S. at least, most of us say “poinsetta.” But however you pronounce them, when you spell them, don’t forget that final “i”: poinsettia.

5. Poinsettias are political. Well, maybe they haven’t chosen a political party, but they get their name from the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the colorful plants to the United States way back in 1828.

6. Poinsettias are not blue, gold, or covered with glitter. At least, not in their natural state. Thanks to plant breeders like Paul Ecke, you can find poinsettias in many colors and forms. We’ve even seen some with variegated leaves. But those blue, gold, and glittery “blossoms” have been created with spray-paint. We think it’s an atrocity to do this to a live plant. Save the fakey colors for the artificial poinsettias, please. Like Jill Masterson in “Goldfinger,” live poinsettias need to breathe.

7. Poinsettias make lousy cut flowers. That’s why you never see them offered as cut flowers. The milky sap doesn’t do a lot for the water in an arrangement, and the “flowers” don’t last. Keep them on the plant, where they’ll provide fresh, cheerful color for months. 

8. Americans still prefer their poinsettias red. At Glick’s, in addition to the fabulous glowing orange-scarlet poinsettia and the variegated cultivars, we saw poinsettias that were pink, white, pink-and-white variegated, deep velvet maroon, maroon with pink and white spots, and many others. But surveys show that 74% of Americans still buy plain old red poinsettias. Why? Well, maybe they cost less than fancier varieties. But we think it’s because the red ones are gorgeous, and the clear red “flowers” against the emerald green of the leaves says Christmas like none of the newer types can.  

9. Poinsettia care is easy as 1-2-3. It’s easy to keep your poinsettias looking glorious for months on end (assuming, ahem, you can keep your cats from shredding them) if you remember the three simple secrets of poinsettia care: First, don’t keep them in a dark place. Poinsettias like bright morning light. When the sun heats up in the afternoon, they prefer indirect light. Second, don’t cook or freeze them. Poinsettias prefer moderate temperatures—no hotter than about 70 degrees F. and no colder than 50 degrees F. And third, don’t let them sit in water. Poinsettias like moist soil, not soggy soil and wet feet. Make sure you let the water drain away before returning them to their cachepots or displays. But don’t let them dry out, either. Evenly moist soil is your goal.

10. Yes, you can keep your poinsettias from year to year. This is more complicated than it sounds, however, which is why most people treat them as long-blooming annuals and buy new ones each Christmas.  To rebloom your plants, pot them up in spring in roomy pots and set them out in a lightly sunny to partially shaded site. (Some people plant them in their garden beds for the growing season and dig them up each fall, but we don’t think the transplant shock is worth it. Ours do fine in pots on our shady deck.)  Give them some liquid seasweed and/or other organic fertilizers, and keep them watered but not overwatered (see #9). That’s all there is to it until  about 2 months before you want them to come into bloom. At that point, bring them inside. then, every night, put them in a cool closet or other absolutely dark place for 12 hours every night. To initiate bract color (“bloom”), a poinsettia must have uninterrupted darkness. Even someone briefly opening the door to let in a sliver of light will disrupt the cycle. But of course the plants will die if kept in a closet or other dark place for two months, so you must bring them back into the light each day, then return them to darkness every night. Not only is this more work than most people are willing to go through for a relatively inexpensive plant, but the plant will never again look as good as it did that first year you bought it. Still, enthusiastic indoor gardeners like yours truly can’t resist the challenge, especially for an unusually attractive variety.

That’s it for our friend Ben! What intriguing poinsettia facts do you know that I’ve overlooked? Let us hear from you!