Wednesday, December 24, 2008

When Winter Trees Begin to Fall

While typing an email to a friend via facebook earlier today, an unexpected message from our housemate, Amy, flashed on the screen.

"A tree branch fell through the guest bedroom window. Please call me when you get this message."

It wasn't exactly the Christmas present I expected, to say the least. I immediately called Amy, who gave me the complete picture, including a couple of actual pictures that she posted on facebook so I could assess the damage from my current location in Phoenix (isn't technology great sometimes?). Broken glass shards on the floor, butt end of a douglas fir branch with the diameter of horse hoof resting on the sill, poking through the blinds a good four inches or so - yep, a branch had indeed fallen through. The recent snowfall, it seems, was too much for this branch to bear, and the weight of this heavy load had sent it crashing down.

But look on the bright side: no one was hurt, and with Amy home to hear the crash and feel the house rattle, the situation was under control in a mere two hours or so. With the help of lovely neighbors and friends who came to the rescue, the glass was swept up, the branch cleared away with the help of a chainsaw (hey, I can't say it didn't have it coming, cheeky branch! the nerve!), and the broken window was even removed and replaced with insulating foam to protect the guest room from the elements. Michael and I are incredibly grateful for such support and hard work.

And in the end, this is no great tragedy. We'll order a new window when we get back home, and in the meantime, the guest room will simply be out of commission. Sorry, potential sleepover pals! We can still make room for you if you need a bed.

Speaking of which, it's time I head for bed myself. By the time I post this, it will be Christmas day in Arizona. So merry Christmas to all, and safe slumbers, free from falling trees!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas

In about three hours or so, we'll be leaving Las Vegas, and I have yet to set foot inside a casino. I must be just about the only person to visit Vegas who can honestly say that. The truth is, casinos have never really interested me, although it would be something to see the spectacle that is the Strip. There will be other times for that, but the main purpose of this brief trip was to visit Michael's brother, Ryan, and his fiancee and future step-son, so we mainly stayed close to home.

Not that staying home can't produce the unexpected - I was standing in the middle of a Barnes & Noble yesterday, taking care of some last minute Christmas shopping for our southwestern relations, when I heard a voice exclaim, "Ruth Haggard?!" OK, so my name used to be Ruth Hagglund, not Haggard, but this was close enough to make me look up and take notice. I found myself staring across a display at a woman who, I realized after a second or two of sheer blankness, was a former high school classmate of mine.

"Kelly?" I said, thanking God that I remembered her name. I have been thrown for a loop several times in the past when meeting people from an earlier stage in my life unexpectedly. It's a little embarrassing.

"Yeah!" was the response. And I got to hear the brief synopsis of what had transpired in her life since high school, as well as a few other people who had been with me from kindergarten through graduation. None were part of my little circle of friends (I wasn't one of the popular people, but in a small town, you still know everyone), but it was still exciting to hear what they are up to, and, from the sound of it, to know that they are doing well. This is the first news I've heard of just about any of my classmates in years, and to think it would happen in a bookstore in northwest Las Vegas!

Besides catching up with old schoolmates, yesterday also introduced me to two wonders of the modern world: Guitar Hero and Lee's Discount Liquors. After an initial struggle getting used to the game, I now rock the bass as a Guitar Hero goddess, alongside Michael or Ryan on the guitar. Michael is now convinced we need our own Guitar Hero game at home, and while I can't say I don't like the idea, I'm not eager to spend the money quite yet.

One thing that cannot be brought home, however, is Lee's Discount Liquors. I laughed when Michael told me the name of this "Costco of Beers", as he put it. Red Neck, much? But this is Vegas, and Nevada has possibly the loosest liquor laws in the nation, although I'm not sure that they can beat the drive-thru daiquiri stands of Louisiana.

Red neck name or not, Lee's is pretty cool if you're into any kind of semi-obscure alcohols; they sell everything, and are certainly not limited to beer, which takes up only a small portion of the massive store. But beer is why we went, so that Michael and I could exclaim over the many Belgians, wheat beers, and other imports both familiar and unknown. We took home a variety to try: the one and only quadrupel ale in the store, a Belgian trippel, a six pack of Flying Dog's In Heat Wheat, which Michael was ecstatic to find, apple lambic, and blueberry oat beer (yeah, that's right - blueberry oat beer; I'd never heard of such a thing, either).

Of course, we did not drink all these beers last night! We saved the In Heat Wheat for later. We drank the Belgians, discovering that the La Chouffe Trippel was an IPA and intensely hoppy, not something Michael or I have really developed a taste for. The Urthel Samaranth Quadrium, my first quadrupel, was so rich and heady (this beer is 11% alcohol!), that I couldn't stay awake for long after finishing my glass. As for the blueberry oat beer, Ryan loved it, but I had a couple of sips and am still not sure what to think of such an odd mix of flavors.

So in the end, I did get to experience one Vegas institution, although I'm not sure that tasting "specialty" beers at home is a very Vegas thing to do. It actually sounds more like a Seattle thing, where, in truth, we could probably find all of these beers at a shop such as Bottleworks. But Bottleworks wouldn't sell about fifty varieties of vodka and cognac for $1400.00 per bottle alongside the beer, and therein lies the real Vegas difference.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Off Into the Sunset

It is a strange thing to be driving in a snow storm one night, then spend the following morning driving down a clear freeway with the air conditioner on. On Saturday night, as the snow that had begun early that morning continued to fall, my brother, Sam, drove Michael and I to the Portland Airport to catch our flight to Phoenix. Sam, dad, Michael and I piled into Sam's two-door Toyota Echo, and neither Michael nor I felt we were off to a great start when Sam began skidding left and right as we made our way slowly down the hill.

"I have to let up on the breaks in order to steer the car," Sam explained. Ah. I feel so much better now.

Thankfully, getting down from the hill seemed to be the worst of it. Sam got us to the airport in a mere two and a half hours (only about an hour longer than usual), and never once resorted to putting chains on the Echo. He is a braver soul than I, but perhaps the fact that I trusted his driving is indicative of my own bravery (or foolishness, I'm not sure which). Although, as Sam himself stated, he trusts his driving without chains in the snow more than most people's driving with chains, and I think he has a point.

We were fortunate, too, to catch the last flight to leave the Portland Airport that night. After about a half hour delay to de-ice and prepare the plane, we were on our way, leaving the snow flurries far behind. Driving in the car on our way to Michael's dad's church in Scottsdale this morning, it was disorienting to be surrounded by vast stretches of dry, mud-brown earth dotted with endless adobe houses. My skin, already uncomfortably dry from the severe winter weather we've been having in the Northwest, felt even more parched.

Our stay in Arizona was brief, however, and this afternoon we were on the road again, driving Michael's dad's old Rav4 to Las Vegas, the home of Michael's brother, Ryan. As we drove, the desert landscape changed from sagebrush and saguaros to Joshua trees, looking for all the world like the spindly, spiky flora of a Dr. Seuss tale. I half expected to see some desert relation to the Sneeches peer out from behind a branch.

As we drew nearer to the Nevada border, the sun painted the wispy clouds to the west in glorious, glowing oranges and pinks. The dull brown of the daytime landscape disappeared in the sunset, so different from the whites and greys that were all that had been visible on the road to us only 24 hours before. And I count myself incredibly lucky to have been able to experience both.

Snow Day, Take 2

"Keep your feet up!"

I pointed my toes skyward as I sped down the hill, then WHAM! For a second I was airborne, and scarcely had I touched back down when I found myself in the air for one last split second before landing and spinning backwards into fresh snow.Oh yeah, this was a snow day.

Michael and I made it to my parents' place in Oregon Friday night, having driven down from Seattle. Most of the trip was a breeze, with little or no snow on the roads, but about ten miles out for our destination, the scenery changed. Michael fishtailed the car for the first time that day just as my mom called to check on our status.

"We'll put chains on before we drive up the hill," I told her. About a half hour later we received another phone call, just as our car struggled to make the ascent up the narrow snow-covered dead-end road that leads to my parents' home, literally at the top of an actual hill, behind the tiny town of Sheridan, Oregon.

"How's it going?" my dad asked.

"Not too well, to be honest," I could feel my teeth clench as the wheels of our Pontiac Vibe spun, thankful that I wasn't the one driving.

"We'll be down," my dad replied.

As it turns out, we had lost one of the chains, and despite Michael backtracking a full mile - twice - to look for it, the chain was nowhere to be found.

"Don't worry," said dad. "It's like when they find the bodies on Everest after the snow melt. It'll turn up then." Thank, dad. What a lovely thought.

With the help of the tractor winch, and then from my Uncle Dan in his four-wheel drive pick-up equipped with chains, we were towed easily up the remaining mile. My family's home had indeed been transformed into a winter wonderland, with snow weighing down the branches of the fir trees and illuminating the lacy shapes of the bare oaks. On Saturday morning, there was only one thing that could be done - inner tubing!

Being as they live on the top of a hill, there is no truly flat land on my parents' property, and one of the steepest hills is behind the house, overlooking the valley below. Here we created the ultimate inner tube run, complete with two jumps, and Michael wanted me as the guinea pig.

Fun as it may be to slide down the snow into unknown consequences, it's possibly more fun to watch your dad and brother fly of their inner tubes after the final jump, doing a full three barrel rolls in the snow. The end of the run skirted dangerously close to a couple of rather large wild rose bushes, and since the land never actually flattened out, each tuber tended to go a little father than the one before. Lucy, our dog, was unable to contain her excitement at this point, and would pounce the moment someone landed, covering faces with desperate licks and wiggling as if her life depended on it.

Still, I think the most unexpected gymnastic feat of the morning was when I lost my bearings after the second jump and did a BACK FLIP before landing slightly dazed, and unharmed, in the snow. No kidding, I saw my feet pass over my head, and before I knew it I was lying on my back, gasping a little in shock.

"That was awesome!" Michael laughed from his viewpoint by the first jump.

Yeah, that was pretty awesome. So awesome, in fact, that it was the last trip I made down the inner tube run that day. Sometimes, it's best to quite while you're ahead.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow Day!

The phone rang around 9:20 this morning, jarring me from my peaceful slumber.

"I'm on Boren," Michael voice came over the receiver. "This is horrible! James is closed. How should I get to the freeway?"

"Wait - it really snowed last night!?" I was a little incredulous.

"Yeah, this idea to take Boren was a bad idea. Oh, it looks like I can take Cherry."

I cringed inwardly, thinking of Michael driving down the dangerously steep hill on Cherry Street to get to the freeway entrance. The truth was, I really hadn't expected this. Walking home for the bus stop at 1:40am, what little snow there had been in Lake City had mostly melted, and the U District where I had just been was completely snow free. Unlike the previous few days, the temperature was now a solid couple of degrees above freezing.

But when I peered out the bathroom window this morning, a white world greeted me. Being as I was scheduled to work the late shift from noon to eight at work today, I called to see if the office was even open. Keith answered the phone, "We're open, but stay home if you need to. They said only to drive in if you feel comfortable."

Thankfully, Michael made it home safely. But he didn't recommend my going anywhere, and frankly, I knew there wouldn't be much to keep me busy at work today if I did make the effort. It looks like this would b e a snow day, after all!

Still, a snow day sounds much more glamorous than it actually is. There will be no sledding for me, no steaming mugs of hot chocolate waiting when I return from the cold. Instead, I will be cleaning out the refrigerator, vacuuming, doing laundry, packing for our trip tomorrow, and wrapping presents. Snow day, indeed!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Way the Marshmallow Melts

Thing I Learned Last Night: Yes, marshmallows can be too old for rice krispie treats. If you are in doubt, just throw them away. Should you decide to chance it, your first clue that the spongy sweets are, in fact, beyond hope, would be that that, rather than melting, the marshmallows first begin to turn a toasty brown, despite the low heat of the burner. At that point, cut your losses; it is only going to get worse.

Fortunately, after making this crucial discovery, our dreams of green rice crispies studded with cinnamon candies were not shattered. With a couple of bags of new marchmallows that beautifully transformed into a snow white cream, we were back in business.

The rice krispie wreaths are something of an annual tradition. Every year, members of our loosely named "young adults group" at church come over to help decorate more than hundred cookies that I bake in advace (this year, gingerbread was the cookie of the day), and maybe make a few other varieties while we're at it, which usually means rice krispie wreaths. When Amy came home that night, she was relieved to see that the green rice krispie wreaths, unappetizing as they may sound, did not look look as bad in practice as in her imagination.

The cookies were a hit at church this morning, too. It's not out of sheer madness that we make so many, but rather so that we can share them for the weekly fellowship hour following the service. And despite the snow that descended on Seattle last night, all cookies, candies, and zucchini bread made it to their final destination this morning. The kids' Christmas pageant may have been postponed due to inclement weather, but the nothing could stop the cookies from fulfilling their destiny.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Ongoing Saga of Dishwasher DIY

When it comes to home improvement, Michael and I are pretty firmly in the DIY camp. OK, so more accurately we're really in the DID (Do It Dad) camp, which, considering my dad is a professional builder, is not hard to understand. But sometimes we manage to go it on our own. Or at least we try. Hence, we did not want to pay an additional $100 for someone to install our new dishwasher. How hard could that be, anyway?

Good question. And I still don't know the answer. Oh, the dishwasher is up and running, all right. And, no, we don't need to go catch it. Although we do, apparently, need a pan to catch drips from the leak that unexpectedly reappeared yesterday.

But let's go back to the beginning.

The dishwasher arrived, a fully formed box with a slick black metal face, on the cusp of a very busy weekend.

"Don't try to install it on your own," I had told Michael. "We can work on it together on Saturday."

After sleeping in following a late Friday night, we found ourselves with a severe time shortage on Saturday morning. This was compounded by the fact that the dishwasher did not, in fact, come with all parts needed for installation. Specifically, we needed a 3/8" elbow with exterior threads. No problem; we'd have time to stop by Ace to get one on Sunday. In the meantime, I attached the dishwasher handle and Michael cut a piece of wood to raise the floor under the new dishwasher an extra inch. Progress had been made.

Sunday found us huddled over the plumbing fixtures at our local Ace Hardware, perplexed as to which size elbow we actually needed. Sure, it was 3/8" where it attached to the dishwasher, but what about the hot water pipe? What size was that?

"Well, let's get a couple of sizes, then we can just return what we don't need," I suggested. Michael agreed, and picked out two options.

Neither option was the right one.

Back at Ace (after all, we needed to take the dog for a walk, was it really such a big deal to head back to the store?), Michael picked out the correct fixture. Soon, we were back at home, ready to roll the dishwasher into place.

OK, that was easy enough. With the dishwasher in place, we reached underneath to fish for the drain pipe and wiring. Where was it? And why was it so hard to reach under the thing, anyway? How did they expect humans over the age of six to be able to reach an arm under there?

Take two. We rolled the dishwasher back out. "Let's tie some string to the pipe and the wires so that we can pull them out that way after we move the dishwasher," I said brightly. And this would have been a bright idea, too, had the string not been too slippery for my double knot, and we lost the wiring behind the motor once again.

Take three. Out came the dishwasher. This time, Michael had the even brighter idea to tuck the wires under the cardboard we had laid down to protect the floor. Success!

At this point, it was time for me to head out for Julfest, but despite a few stressful moments, I was feeling confident again. Maybe I would even come home to a working dishwasher!

Ah, such innocence. When I came home, little had changed. The stacks of dirty dishes and dusty tools that were slowly taking over all available counter space had not budged. Michael pointed out a new spanner in the works: the existing copper hot water pipe could not be bent to attach to the dishwasher. We were at a stalemate until we could determine what to do next. And, of course, the dishwasher would need to be rolled out once more.

Late that night, I brought my dad up to speed about the situation over the phone.

"You can bend the pipe," he told me matter-of-factly.

"With vice grips?" I asked, a little incredulous. "I can't bend this pipe, period, Dad. I mean, I can move it up and down, but it doesn't bend."

"Not with vice grips!" he admonished. "That could cause a leak. You can definitely bend it by hand."

A that point, with Michael at work, I wasn't about to test my dad's assertion by pulling out the dishwasher on my own. The whole situation made me tired. I went to bed and tried not to dwell on it.

Over a quick phone call while at work the next day, Michael explained that he'd discussed the matter further with dad, and wound up buying a special, flexible dishwasher hose instead. Dad, he said, understood.

But come Monday night, the dishwasher was still not installed, although it did get some more exercise as we rolled it back and forth multiple times. Tuesday night, work began again, not made any easier by the fact that the longer the process took, the shorter our tempers grew.

But finally, after the leaks were seemingly fixed, and all attachments firmly attached, we loaded up the washer, pushed the button marked, "heavy duty" (after all, those dishes had been sitting out for days), and marvelled at the pretty blue glow of the LED as the dishwasher almost silently came to life.

"No leaks!" I proclaimed to Michael the next day. "And the dishes are sparkling!"

Gleefully, I reorganized the cleaning supplies and put them away under the sink. Only to have Michael, an hour later, inform me that my celebration was premature. Out came the cleaning supplies from under the sink, and down went Michael, towel and wrench in hand.

Now, tonight, the second load is currently in operation. And the leak, cross our fingers, appears to have abated. Of course, I now have to finish this post and go upstairs and actually test this theory. Let's hope the Ongoing Saga of Dishwasher DIY will finally come to a happy conclusion.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gud Jul!

While many were out last Sunday fulfilling Christmas shopping duties, my friend Kristina invited me to join her and her husband for a traditional Swedish Julfest service at Seattle's First Covenant Church. Never having been to a Julfest celebration despite a strong strain of Swedish running through my blood, I jumped at the chance.

It turns out that 2008 is the 50th anniversary of the Julfest at First Covenant. From the balcony of the traditional pastel and gold painted sanctuary, I could see bright spots of red amid the congregation, as many came dressed in one of Sweden's most popular traditional colors (and if anyone has wondered why I love red in home decor so much, now you know it's in my blood). For this special occasion a choir of beautiful young Swedes had even traveled nearly halfway across the globe to join the celebration. Their clear voices filled the church with the lilting music of Swedish Christmas carols.

A cross between a concert, church service, and Santa Lucia celebration, the service was filled with music, sung almost entirely in Swedish, along with lessons read from a Swedish Bible. My tongue stumbled over the words of my ancestors as I attempted to recite the Lord's Prayer and join in on the congregational hymns. Thankfully, translations were provided in the bulletin, and a few of the words, with their similarities to German, didn't appear completely unfamiliar. Also thankfully, the homily and announcements were in English.

The children's choir sang about pepparkakor as three little girls dressed as the titular gingerbread cookies, danced in a circle. Another of the children's songs told of the mysterious, tiny Tomte who come at night to eat the Christmas leftovers, as the smallest of the boys made his way throughout the congregation in a long grey beard and red cap, carrying his lantern.

The highlight was, of course, the Santa Lucia procession. With only candlelight to show the way, the Lucia bride serenely made her way to the front of the altar, her crown of five lighted candles tied firmly in place with a wide chinstrap. One by one, the Lucia attendants made their way to join her, also dressed in red-sashed white robes, but without the crown of candles. Finally the star boys came to the front, although the pressure of standing still was apparently too much for one of them, who soon abandoned his post and ran down the aisle as the young women sweetly sang "Santa Lucia" to an enraptured audience.

Once the service ended, the crowd of hundreds squeezed into the tiny narthex, packing around tables offering Christmas cookies and buttered bread or rye krisp with cheese. I grabbed a rye krisp on my way out, reminded of the late dinners of rye crackers and cheese my family sometimes has around Christmastime. It's good to see these traditions live on, and to feel, maybe just a little, what my great-great grandparents may have felt themselves each year at Julfest.

Monday, December 8, 2008

And the Winner Is...

I'm sure you've all been eagerly anticipating the follow-up to my chili experimentation. The suspense is killing you, no doubt. So, please excuse me as I momentarily brush modesty aside to toot my own horn and say... I did it! Jerk chicken chili was the surprise winner, capturing the title of Tastiest Chili for the Fifth Annual Shimoji Chili Cook-Off, ousting the former champion (who had won for at a least a couple years running, and still won Saturday's Hottest Chili prize). I am now the proud owner of a beautiful poppy red Le Creuset stockpot, the prize for the winning chili. Thanks, Tony and Heather!

Fourteen chilis made it to the competition (plus a fifteenth that missed the voting), and they were really all quite good; I honestly did not expect to win (although - is this bad? - I ended up voting for my own chili, too, but only because at the end of the day it really was my favorite one).

So, without further ado, here is my recipe:

Ruth Ann's Jerk Chicken Chili
(yeah, I'm not bragging or anything)

for the jerk seasoning paste:
1 T allspice berries
1/2 t grated nutmeg
6 large cloves garlic, chopped
2" piece chopped ginger
4 large green onions, thinly sliced
2 habanero peppers, minced
2 T brown sugar
2 t dried thyme or 1 T fresh thyme
salt to taste

for the chili:
approx. 3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, excess fat removed
cooking oil as needed
1 medium/large onion, diced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 T minced or grated ginger
2 28 oz cans chopped tomatoes (I used San Marzano from Italy - believe it or not, this can make a difference)
1/4 packed brown sugar
~1 C chicken broth
1/4-1/2 C dark rum
3 or 4 14 oz cans black beans
1 14 oz can coconut milk
generous pinch nutmeg
salt to taste

To make the jerk seasoning paste, crush the allspice berries with the nutmeg in a large mortar and pestle. Add the chopped garlic, ginger, green onions, habanero peppers, brown sugar, thyme, and salt one at a time, mashing the paste with the pestle after each addition. You will probably have at least a couple of table spoons of leftover paste after following this recipe.*

Mix the chicken with two to three tablespoons of the jerk paste overnight in a larger covered bowl.

To make the chili, saute the shopped onions, garlic, and ginger on low heat for about 15 minutes until soft. Add two to three tablespoons of the jerk paste and saute for another five or ten minutes. Add the cans of crushed tomatoes, brown sugar, and a half cup of chicken broth and simmer gently for about an hour, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes have completely broken down. You may choose to add more chicken broth and cook the sauce down further if you like.

Meanwhile, saute the marinated chicken thighs until barely cooked through, then remove them to a platter. Deglaze the pan with the rum and a quarter cup of chicken broth, and simmer until reduced by half. Pour the reduced liquid into the tomato sauce, being sure to scrape in the browned chicken bits from the pan. Add the black beans to the pot with the sauce and continue to simmer.

When cool enough to handle, tear the chicken into chunks. Add it to the tomato and bean mixture along with the can of coconut milk. Simmer until somewhat thickened and heated all the way through. Add salt to taste. Add up to a quarter cup more rum to add depth of flavor, and a good pinch of nutmeg.

*For people who like their chili hot, give them an extra spoonful of paste. Habaneros may be small, but they are HOT. Be very careful when cutting them or touching the inner part of the pepper. In general, it's best to handle them as little as possible, and DO NOT touch any part of your face before washing your hands thoroughly. This paste, on its own, is very hot, but this recipe will make only a moderately spicy chili, nothing that would be too hot for most.

Note: When I made this chili, I made no measurements, so the only measurements listed that are absolutely accurate are the canned items, since they were already measured for me. As always, you should adjust things to your own taste and available ingredients.

Also, chili tastes best when made a day or two ahead of time. It will also thicken over time, so don't worry if it seems a little bit thin when you first make it.

Finally, while this recipe is one that I (to the best of my knowledge) uniquely created, I did get the ingredient list for the jerk seasoning paste from an online website. Unfortunately, I don't recall where I found it, I did alter it slightly, and the mortar and pestle is also my own way of doing it - but I highly recommend a mortar and pestle for this task!

Celebrating Monday

The past weekend was a whirlwind of events - I'll get more into it later - and now, late Monday night, I feel that the weekend has finally come to a close. Each year at Europe Through the Back Door the individual departments have their own small Christmas parties, and the Tour Department is no exception.

Tonight, the eight of us headed out to Arnie's on the Edmonds waterfront, sticking pretty close to home this year. (A couple of years ago we drove through a windstorm to get to Palisades in Magnolia, during which Tara and I saw a stop sign uprooted and blown across Aurora Avenue, and Lisa and Heidi got locked out of Lisa's house where they had stopped before heading to the restaurant, leading them to break down her front door. Comparatively, tonight's event was pretty mundane.)

After three and a half hours of food, wine, conversation, and exchanging gifts, I'm still finding it a bit hard to wind down.Of course, coming home to a spectacularly dirty kitchen is something of a wake-up call. But for the moment I'd rather think the about the laughter (and even a few tears, although thankfully not for any tragic reasons) and bask in the afterglow of what was, perhaps, just a little bit too much to eat - good thing I don't do this every night!

Tomorrow it will be back to the daily grind, but at least Keith got Tara some new 80s music in the gift exchange, and I'm sure the addition to our work soundtrack will keep us going strong.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Night at the Nutcracker

If there is a Seattle Christmas tradition that is more beloved than the Pacific Northwest Ballet's annual production of the Nutcracker, I'm not sure what it might be. Sure, some may look forward to the lighting of the tree at Westlake following Thanksgiving, but that is a more casual affair, while the Nutcracker is a true "event". And there are those who go to the Nutcracker almost every year, perhaps to see their children or friends' children join the company on stage in a real professional production, or because of the enduring charm of the Maurice Sendak-disigned sets, the fairy-tale costumes, or Tchaikovsky's inspiring music (although Tchaikovsky himself would take issue with that last one - he felt that the Nutcracker was possibly his worst composition, and was terribly disappointed by it).

Years ago, Michael and I saw PNB's Nutcracker for the first time. We had splurged on second tier box seats, and I was almost as excited as one of the six-year-old girls who flock to the Christmas ballet dressed in their best holiday party dresses and clutching a favorite doll or stuffed animal. And it truly was magical; the Christmas tree grew to the size of a monster, snowflakes drifted down from above as snowflake ballerinas danced below, and dolphins jumped through the waves as Clara and the prince sailed off to his exotic kingdom where we would all be feted by dancers ranging from peacocks to a playful, typically Sendakian monster.

This year was our first back, as we joined a group of more than 40 people from our church in the upper balcony. Sure, the view wasn't as good, but the magic was still there. To be sure, a couple of the teenage boys who had come looked less than thrilled at the prospect, but hopefully even they enjoyed it, just a little bit.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas Time Is Here

Tonight I came home to find two packages waiting for me. Ah, Christmas! Never mind the fact that I had been expecting these packages and had even ordered them for myself (not so much in the spirit of giving, I know), I still felt a little like a kid on Christmas morning.

This boost of holiday cheer was doubtless due in part to the fact that the contents of the packages were undeniably Christmas-themed. From the Crate & Barrel outlet I received a myriad of Scandinavian straw ornaments, and Amazon had sent several Christmas CDs, including soundtracks to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Handel's Messiah. There was one other goody, but since that will be a Christmas surprise for my husband, I'll not mention it on the off chance he actually reads this post.

As a kid, like many of my generation, December was the month when I could look forward to weekly, sometimes nightly, Christmas "specials" on the TV. I'd eagerly anticipate the annual viewing of Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and others. Rudolph was a particular favorite, and even as an adult the clumsy stop-motion animation and lo-fi sound quality hold an irresistable charm. I particularly empathized with the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. "I'll take you home, spotted elephant!" I'd silently plead. Who wouldn't love an elephant with polka dots?

As I got older I appreciated the melancholy and simple beauty of A Charlie Brown Christmas more and more, and the sound track is well-loved for good reason. And as often as we listen to some of these songs at my job this time of year, Vince Guaraldi's music always puts a smile on my face. Listening to the original version tonight was the perfect accompaniment while I busied myself in the kitchen.

It's good to know that after all these years, Christmas can still bring out the kid in us.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No Spilling the Beans

I can tell that December has rolled around when two things happen: strings of blinking lights appear around my cubicle just as poinsettias pop up on our desks, and at back at home I become preoccupied with chili.

This preoccupation is not, in fact, due to the fact that I am especially fond of chili. In fact, this is one of the only times of year I make it. Our friends Satoshi and Heather, however, began the tradition of a holiday chili cook-off several years ago, and each year there are those who try to outdo each other with the meatiest, spiciest, or just plain most unusual chili they can concoct. This year I've found myself getting more in the spirit of the event, and even determined to create a unique chili completely of my own making.

In the past, I admit to succumbing to the dull idea of following a recipe, generally one that included no tomatoes and no red meat, as I don't generally eat red meat, and I tend to prefer white beans and creamy sauces over the kidney beans and tomato sauce found in more familiar versions. The lack of red meat has really been a detriment to my winning any of the prizes, however. Last year, for example, the winning recipe featured generous use of bacon grease.

This year, all bets are off. Oh, I don't expect to win. I'm still steering clear of the red meat. But I have come up with something a little more, let's say, exciting. "What's that?" you ask. "Do tell!" Oh no, you're not getting it out of me that easily. This is a competition! My recipe must remain top secret. But I promise, if it goes well, I'll publish it here on Rutabagastories.

Tonight I began work on my creation, and stage one of the chili is now complete. Stage two will commence tomorrow evening, following which Michael and I will test the results at dinner. Finally, stage three will take place this Saturday, when I make any final adjustments deemed necessary. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My First Crush

Sunday night we splurged for one last $30 three course dinner with Dine Around Seattle. My choice was Crush, the darling of Capitol Hill's dining elite. Why not go somewhere with a standard menu beyond our reach? At Crush, the entrees are typically over $30, so getting a three course meal for that price felt like a bargain. One of Michael's co-workers, John, who is of the foodie-inclined, joined us. It's always more fun sharing an elegant meal with someone else whom you know will appreciate it.

Crush sets a mood right from the start - the decor is stark white and sparse, but without feeling cold. We took our seats in swoopy, snow white molded chairs and perused the menu. First up, a cocktail, although this was in addition, of course, to our $30 dinner. I've lately come to feel that when dining at a high end restaurant, a cocktail provides better value than wine. There's such a high mark-up on wine, and yet all the restaurant has to do is pull the cork. With the recent trend for finely crafted cocktails, however, it's not uncommon for even a somewhat average place to infuse their own spirits and experiment with novel flavor combinations. Chances are I would never make the "Perfect Pair", featuring house infused vodka and Oregon's Clear Creek pear brandy among other ingredients, at home, but I can easily find bottles of wine I enjoy for under $10 at Trader Joe's.

We sipped our drinks slowly and nibbled on the bread that arrived artfully arranged on individual trays. The first course arrived on stunning white dishes. I had ordered the leek and celery root soup, and found a small pool of creamy leek soup set before me, pretty as a picture, topped with a dollop of celery root puree, some perfectly places snippets of chive and miniature croutons, and a few precise drizzles of what I mistakenly believed was olive oil. To my surprise - and delight - it turned out to be an incredibly vibrant lemon reduction. The combination of the bright lemon with the rich leek soup and the clean tasting celery root was amazing. Michael enjoyed succulent pork belly, probably his favorite dish of the night.

The scallop with chowder vegetables made a rich, satisfying second course. I still think that the most perfect scallops I have tasted were at the Wild Rose in Bandon, Oregon, but this would be a close second.

While John and I both enjoyed the scallop dish, Michael was a little disappointed in his trofie pasta with braised short ribs. The meat, as one would hope, was meltingly tender, he told me, and the pasta was good, it just lacked the fuller flavors that he had expected.

The waitstaff at Crush is quick to discreetly remove your dishes once you have finished, leaving you with a splarkling clean table over which to converse as you await the next course. Enjoying the leisurely pace of the meal, I hadn't even noticed that our desserts were late in coming, when we were brought a complimentary tray of three housemade chocolates along with an apology for the delay. Thoughtful gestures like these helped put our experience above the ordinary.

Dessert was a decadent homemade marshmallow topped with a chocolate sorbet of sorts (I'm really not sure what to call it) served alongside a choclate cookie with a cup of rich European style hot chocolate for dunking. John chose the somewhat less decadent cranberry bread pudding. As a final surprise, we were brought two quartets of tiny treats with the check, including chocolate candied almonds, pomegranate marshmallows, miniature shortbread squares, and poppy seed madeleines.

As we left the restaurant and headed to the car, I was surprised to learn that we had spent more than two hours enjoying our meal. I also felt pleasantly full even though none of the courses had seemed large. Perhaps this is one benefit to a leisurely meal; since it takes time for your brain to register that you are, in fact, full, eating at a slower pace is a good guard against overeating, in addition to providing a more pleasureable experience.

Our meal at Crush was definitely worth the $30 (plus drink, tax, and tip) price tag, although I still don't think I would go there and pay full price. I'm just not interested in spending that much on food, and even the Dine Around Seattle dinners are a real splurge for us. I do get a little irritated when I read articles online about what a great deal Dine Around is because, yes, it can be a good deal, comparatively, but for many people this is still completely out of reach and a purely frivolous way to spend good money. And, as cool as Crush's chic white decor may be, the somewhat more casual feel of a place like Restaurant Zoe is more my style for a big night out. But for one night, it felt good to experience the incredible attention to detail - from the specially designed plates for each course, to the beautiful and surprising food, to the gracious service that made me feel immediately welcome - and savor a great meal at Crush.