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November 2007

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THE LIVING HOUSE

            I have been accused (accused, hmmmm, sounds so harsh) ok, it’s been suggested that I do not handle change well. Truth be told, I normally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into change. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with end results, case in point, THE INTERNET, but that’s a whole ‘nother story, it’s just that I cringe at the process of changing. Although I can be impulsive, spontaneous, and rather fickle, I put a lot of effort into fine tuning and tweaking my decisions, and once I do, I settle into them and see little reason to go through the process again.

 

            Perhaps the only place in my life where this does not hold true is in decorating. I view houses as living, breathing, organic entities that must continuously evolve or face extinction. Let’s face it. We’ve all been in prehistoric houses, often our grandparents. (Hmmm, must remember I’m a grandmother when I say things like that!) They decorated their houses 30 years ago, and other than removing the protective plastic sofa cover, they’ve changed little. Repainting means finding a shade that most closely resembles the color already on the walls, and their new furniture must fit into the dimples already created in the carpet from previous furniture. Over the years they’ve added their children’s graduation pictures to the walls, and the shelf above the couch holds a growing collection of souvenirs from their road trips, but nothing significant changes, ever.

 

            I, on the other hand, am ALWAYS in the throes of decorating. You know how some people feel about a new car smell, to the point of buying “new car” potpourri when the original smell has worn off? Well, that’s how I feel about the smell of fresh paint or recently sawed wood. It’s intoxicating! Once that freshly decorated smell goes away, I get the wanderlust for a new project! And it’s not decorating for the sake of decorating. Oh NO, far from it! It’s more like listening to your house and responding to its needs. A couch says, “I’m tired of looking at the fireplace. Let me look out the window for awhile.” A wall screams for a splash of color. And the laundry room is pleading with you to restore order by installing cubbies. In my opinion, you would be heartless to ignore their needs.

 

            I realize it takes practice to learn how to speak “house”. Just like new parents need to learn to interpret their infant’s nonverbal cues, so must a homeowner learn to listen to their house. So, grab a cup of coffee, herbal tea, or favorite libation and take a “day trip” through your house. Visit each room and sit in a variety of locations. It’s amazing how different a room looks from different vantages. Start a home journal. I like to use an 8” x 11” sketch book that you can write, draw and paste in. Record your ideas and possible changes. You can use the journal to collect photos and ideas when looking through magazines or surfing the net. Then use the journal to record your changes, including pictures and info for future reference. One of the biggest secrets to decorating is learning to separate the screams from the whimpers. Just like parents know the difference between their child’s whine for a superfluous unfulfilled desire and the scream of pain, our house’s needs vary in intensity. Don’t get overwhelmed by everything you want to do. Prioritize and realize that decorating is an ongoing process, and to the chagrin of everyone I’ve ever lived with, never complete!

 

            Obviously, budgets are a large factor when planning any change; however, many alterations are relatively inexpensive or free and produce dramatic results. Rearranging your living room to create an intimate “chat corner” costs nothing more than a few sore muscles. Bringing color into a room through freshly painted walls or a new wall hanging can be worked into most budgets. Just remember, there’s no way you would be happy wearing the same outfit day in and day out, neither does your house. Change, gulp, is good, at least where your house is concerned. Consult it frequently and listen when it speaks!  

 

I use sketch books for the house and garden. Over the years they’ve gotten banged around and often abused…case in point, one fall I needed to get a shipment of plants in the ground before a trip, so I was out working in the garden, in a steady drizzle, with my trusty sketch book haphazardly wrapped in plastic while providing the blueprint for planting. Not only do journals become a great resource of collected info and plans, but a wonderful diary of the life of your house and garden.

 

THANKSGIVING

            In a couple of days it will be Thanksgiving, and I must admit, I know exactly how the Pilgrims felt. They invited their new Native American friends over for dinner, and they were astonished when they stayed for three days! Talk about a challenge! Those early American hostesses needed to figure out how to turn leftovers into savory meals that would nourish and sate a houseful of noisy guests for what was perhaps the first 3 day weekend! As I prepare for my out-of-town children to descend, I check and recheck the pantry and fridge to make sure I have enough on hand to keep their tummies full and their taste buds delighted. Unlike the Pilgrims, I have the luxury of fore planning our meals and sleeping arrangements, but I can visualize our creative foremothers, scratching their heads under their starched bonnets, and coming up with yet another way of serving the Thanksgiving bird! (Which, btw, history tells us was pheasant, not turkey!) 

 

            When thinking about this year’s Thanksgiving story, many delightful tales come to mind. There was the year my brother and his wife bought a turkey that was so huge it wouldn’t fit in a roaster, and they placed it directly on the lowest rack of the oven. (Instead of cleaning the oven afterward, they threw it out! They really did need a new oven, this just hastened the process!) Or the year my daughter brought home 2 college dinner guests. One was from India and one from Korea. Neither had celebrated an American Thanksgiving, and after literally loosening their belts and reaching comatose levels of gluttony, they whole-heartedly concurred that America was truly a wondrous place! Or the Thanksgiving when I threw up every 10 minutes (a terrible case of morning sickness) and was fearful that the smell of roasting turkey would forever be nauseating to me! (Fortunately, I got over that!)

 

            Finally, I decided to share a story that has nothing to do directly with Thanksgiving, but it is in fact, all about giving thanks. My mother grew up on a farm in a tiny town in Texas. My maternal grandmother, Bushia, had 13 children. Before she passed away she had buried four of her own children; her first born died of heart problems when she was just three days old, a ten month old son died of pneumonia just as he was learning to take his first steps, a son was killed in the Korean War, and her oldest son died of a heart aneurysm. I can’t even begin to imagine taking care of so many people while spending a total of TEN YEARS PREGNANT! But most significantly, I can’t imagine living in a time and place where common childhood illnesses were life threatening. (My fraternal great-grandparents lost all five of their children in one episode of influenza before leaving Poland and starting all over in America!)

 

            But on to my story! One day my cousin and I were visiting Bushia. We were sitting around the kitchen table comparing notes, and I suppose, complaining…a lot. (In our defense, I wish to point out, at the time neither of us were married, and we were bemoaning our boyfriends, not husbands and children, so I gotta think Bushia’s reaction was probably fueled by years of listening to her own daughters complain, and we were simply the recipients of the proverbial “final straw” syndrome!) She was busy fussing in the kitchen, coming in and out of the room, and not directly involved in our conversation. We were shocked and aghast when on one of her “pass-throughs” she stopped, slammed her hand on the table, and said, “You women have it so easy today. When I was a young woman I didn’t have dishwashers or washing machines. I couldn’t go to the grocery store to buy dinner, and there wasn’t a t.v. to watch if I got bored. I didn’t worry about how much attention my husband was showing me, I was too busy! So was he. A good day was a day that everyone got fed and no one died. Stop whining and start being grateful for what you have.”

 

            With those words she went about her business…even in old age she was always busy making her house a home and providing for the comfort of others. And she was happy…or maybe a better word was content. My cousin and I continued to sit around the table talking, rather shame-faced, both making a silent pact to NEVER vent around Bushia again! But in my heart, I knew she was right. Not that our lives today are perfect and without worries. We have concerns today that my grandmother never had to contend with, but the most valuable lesson I learned that day was that happiness is not something given to you by other people or things; it’s something within you that permeates everything you do. Everyday you can choose to focus on the things you don’t have or be grateful for the things that you do.

 

            So this Thanksgiving, and every night before going to sleep, take a moment to ponder your day. In the simplest of terms, if you can say “Everyone was fed today and no one died” it WAS a good day, worthy of praise, and a reason for Thanksgiving!   

 

 

We do not need to go through life with blinders on, refusing to see the problems, but when we hold those as our focal point, we’re apt to miss the joy around us. 

 

SWEATER FLAMBE

            Without pondering it, quickly think of 3 memorable days in your life. Chances are you’ll list the day you graduated from high school or college, got married, had your first child, got your first substantial promotion or some other equally pleasant, but innately ordinary event. Life is full of satisfying experiences, thank goodness, but they are seldom the type of stories that enthrall an audience and have them leaning forward in their seats, anxiously awaiting the outcome. When hearing these stories we politely listen, give well timed agreeable nods, and secretly prepare grocery lists or review tomorrow’s agenda. Thank God we are programmed with the ability to multitask! (Hmmm, okay, not all of us are proficient multitaskers, but at least most of us can go to our happy place and resurface at the finale of a mind-numbing story!) Let’s face it…it’s the goofs, the blunders, the mishaps, the screw-ups, the mix-ups, the gaffes, the errors, and the mistakes that make for the best stories and most repeatable tales.

 

Case in point…Like most women, before getting married I went out on my fair share of dates. Most of them were nice, some of them were boring, BUT, it’s the awful dates that I’ve recounted over the years. Take my date with the Congressional Page, aka, persistent frat boy determined to woo me. We were having a run-of-the-mill date at a lovely restaurant, followed by drinks at a bar frequented by state politicians. He was in the middle of laying out his 15 year plan to become a state senator. I was thinking about the guy in my Anthro class that started growing a beard. Slightly catatonic I took a drink of my Bloody Mary. (FYI…if you decide not to utilize the straws inserted in your libation, remove then before guzzling your drink, if not, you’re apt to wind up with a straw up your nose.) Yep, when I set my drink down, one of the straws remained in my nose. True story! Now, here’s an etiquette question that Emily Post was probably never asked…what do you do with a straw that you’ve removed from your nose? Do you put it back in your drink? Perhaps drop it on the floor? Call the waitress over and ask her to clear the table? As it was, I nonchalantly laid it on the table between us, and neither one of us mentioned the incident. Periodically, I’d notice him looking down at the straw. I think he was assessing my ability to function as a state senator’s wife. Well, I didn’t marry the boy, but he didn’t become a state senator either! Humiliated myself, maybe, but came away with a great story! (BTW…he did ask me out again…go figure!) (And BTW…I didn’t go out with him again…guess the incident was just too mortifying…or more to the point, he was monumentally boring!)  

 

            Then there was the time I was putting on a lovely Christmas dinner for a group of friends. The atmosphere was enchanting! The lights were off and the table was totally illuminated by a myriad of candles. Soft instrumental Christmas music played in the background. The conversation was peppered with laughter and good cheer. And, in all due modesty…(right!)…the food was superb! Halfway through dinner I reached across the table to pass a condiment. As I went to sit down a unified gasp arouse from my dining companions. “Oh my God, Kim. Your sleeve’s on fire!” Sure enough, when reaching across the table, I also reached across a candle that decided to test my sweater’s flammability tolerance. It failed! (Note to self: Next time I’m around open flames wear kids’ pajamas!) Well, without much effort I was able to extinguish the flames. Actually, all it really did was quite efficiently remove those nasty sweater boogers that collect on the surface of knits, although I can’t suggest this method as the preferred technique for defuzzing a sweater!  But to the point…I can almost guarantee you that no one remembers what I made for dinner that night, but EVERYONE at dinner remembers the Sweater Flambe, and I often get good naturedly teased about it.

 

About now you may well be asking yourself, “Uh, is there a point to this story?” And the answer is indubitably YES! Life is about taking chances and not all of them will turn out the way you planned. Your path will be littered with mishaps, but in the long run, it doesn’t matter as long as you get a good story out of it! Heck, most of the history books are filled with “Oops!” So, don’t be afraid to try new things, and when faced with embarrassing or seemingly unbearable situations (like the day I started a new job working in the stock room of a dress shop, slipped, fell backwards into an open box, and wound up with my skirt around my waist as my fellow employees tried to pull me out or the time I roomed with a woman who actually believed she was the reincarnation of Mary Magdalene, prior to meeting Jesus) remember that it is the goofs and blunders, trials and tribulation, that with time, and an occasional sprinkling of embellishments, become great stories to remember and share!

 

FYI…just in case you’re wondering…for dinner that night I served my mother’s recipe for Beef Bourguignonne. It is a little labor intense but well worth the effort when you want to make a lasting impression on dinner guests…maybe not as lasting as igniting yourself, but it will certainly delight and impress your company!

 

BEEF BOURGUIGNONNE

My mom stumbled upon this recipe many years ago and used it for “special occasions”. I’ve yet to see her make it without someone asking her for the recipe!

 

Ingredients

4 tablespoons butter

4 pounds round or chuck, cut in 2-inch cubes

1/4 cup Cognac

1 cup chopped onion (1 large)

2 cloves of garlic, mashed

1 teaspoon salt

1 bottle Burgundy

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 can (10-1/2 oz) condensed beef broth

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon leaf thyme

2 sprigs parsley

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 pound mushrooms, sliced

24 small white pearl onions, peeled

4 tablespoons flour

4 tablespoons soft butter or margarine

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

 

Directions

Brown beef well on all sides in 4 tablespoons butter. Add only enough beef to kettle to cover bottom or beef might stew and not brown.

 

Remove browned pieces before adding more beef. When beef is browned, pour off any fat. Return beef to kettle. Heat Cognac in small saucepan; ignite carefully; pour over beef. When flames have died, add onion, garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, wine, tomato paste and 1/2 cup of beef broth.

 

Bring to boiling; lower heat; cover and simmer 2 to 2-1/2 hours or until beef is tender.

 

Heat 3 tablespoons butter or margarine in skillet; sauté mushrooms quickly until just tender; remove; reserve. Add small white pearl onions to fat remaining in skillet; brown well. Add remaining beef broth; bring to boil, cover, lower heat; simmer about 10 minutes or until onions are tender. Blend flour and 4 tablespoons butter or margarine to form smooth paste. (This is the thickening for the bourguignonne, called beurre manie.)

 

Add beurre manie bit by bit to hot liquid until it has reached desired thickness. Stir in lemon rind. Return beef to kettle; add onions and mushrooms. Heat until bubbly; sprinkle with parsley. Serve with small boiled potatoes, buttered noodles or rice.

 

(May be oven cooked in large, covered casserole. Cook at 350 degrees for 2 to 2-1/2 hours or until tender. Remove from oven; thicken liquid over direct heat.)

 

CHICKEN SOUP

            I happen to be one of those people who like to cook. (Sure beats the alternatives like cleaning or the four letter word ironing…okay, I know ironing has 7 letters, but the root word is only 4 letters, but I digress.) Anyway, I’m not talking gourmet cooking, but rather those savory comfort foods that can soothe and console, calm and placate, not to mention gratify the palate. These are the soups and stews, breads and desserts, veggies and meats whose aromas’ fill the house with a sense of anticipation and promise. There’s nothing like coming home from school to the smell of tonight’s dinner simmering on the stove. It is always my practice to make twice as much as I think I need to allow for “a small taste”, a last minute dinner invitation, or leftovers for lunch.

 

            One day my grown son came over and looked over at the stove. A kettle of chicken soup was cooking. He fished out a steamy carrot, popped it in his mouth, and after doing what appeared to be a war dance as he hopped around the room fanning his scalding mouth, commented that I ALWAYS have a pot of chicken soup going. Truth be told, it’s an hyperbole to say I ALWAYS have a pot of chicken soup going, but I do often enough for it to be a seemingly ubiquitous feature of my kitchen.

 

            You might well ask, “Why the fixation with chicken soup?” Well, chicken soup is relatively easy to make, it’s nutritious, fairly inexpensive and often considered a good remedy for colds and flus…something to do with the mucous membranes, I think…BUT my main reason for making chicken soup is the fact that, oh, probably a third of the recipes I make call for cooked chicken or chicken broth. Starting a pot of soup around noon, when I have the time, allows me choices as the day progresses. If my schedule gets crazy, a few noodles and a piece of bread can turn the soup into a meal. If time permits, I am prepared to make casseroles, cacciatore, enchiladas, or unique “throw together” meals at the last minute.

 

            Want your house to smell “homey”? Nothing, and I’m a bit of a connoisseur on household scents…to be discussed at a later date…says “home” like the smell of chicken soup. (Hmmmm…note to self…send Yankee Candle the suggestion to include chicken soup scent in their lineup…could be called “Chicken Comfort” or “Positively Poultry”). Anyway…chicken soup IS synonymous with home and comfort…globally. All cultures seem to have their own version. Throw a matzo ball in the middle, and you have a Jewish classic. Curry and apples enhance India’s Mulligatawny. The Greek Lemon/Egg Soup is called Avgolemono and has a wonderfully surprising tartness. It is one of my personal challenges, as this list grows to unfeasibly gargantuan proportions, to try more chicken soup recipes.

 

            So, if you haven’t already, discover the joys of chicken soup. If you don’t see yourself as a “bona fide cook” you will be delighted to find how easy it is to make. It won’t be long before your family associates it with home and comfort and you’ll find it to be a welcomed friend in your kitchen.

 

 

KIM’S CHICKEN SOUP

 

This is my own recipe that evolved over the years. The longer the soup cooks the more flavorful the veggies and chicken become. Flavors will intensify the longer you cook so reduce bouillon cubes if you plan to let it simmer all day.

 

Ingredients

3 pound bag boneless/skinless chicken tenderloins*

1 gallon water

2 cups chopped celery(approximately 5 large stalks)

2 cups chopped carrots(approximately 6 large carrots)**

1 large onion, chopped

6-8 chicken bouillon cubes

4 bay leaves

2 t. dried basil

2 t. dried parsley

1/4 t. pepper

 

Directions

Place chicken tenderloins and water in a large stock pot. Heat to boiling, skimming until all foam is gone. Add veggies and seasoning. Bring to boil then reduce to simmer. Cook 2 – 4 hours. Remove chicken and chop into bite sized pieces. Return to soup. Remove bay leaves and serve with noodles.

 

*Can use fresh, whole chicken. If you do, use 4 pounds to account for bone weight and skin chicken to reduce fat.

**I often add more carrots since I can lose many to “tastes” and because everyone in my family loves the cooked carrots.

 

To me a stock pot is essential in every kitchen. Although I have several different sizes, I usually make most of my soups, stews and chilies in a 12 quart pot. Make sure you get a high quality pot that can simmer all day…or in the case of my chili recipe…over night.