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Monthly Archives: November 2013

THE WOUND IS THE PLACE WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS YOU -RUMI

(Last December, you may recall, was a rough one in the news and for many people personally.  A good friend asked me to find this piece I wrote on my blog about surviving the holidays, as she thought it would be helpful for a friend of hers.  As we sweep into the heart of the holiday season, the squabbles are ramping up about this that and the other things; it’s a certainty that many of the public news squabbles will be served up on Thursday at family dinner tables along with the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. It’s also a certainty than many people loathe this time of year but have to put on a brave face. I hope it helps the friend who reads it; I hope it may help anyone else who is dreading the holidays.)

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Christmas is when we gather up everything good in our life, all the warmth and the light and all the good memories, and draw it close and enjoy it as much as we are able to. We gather up our children, make food, light the lights, sing the songs. We come as close as possible for as long as possible. – Garrison Keillor, Now it is Christmas Again

It is now Christmas Eve in Australia and Europe. Some of you are beginning the last of the preparations for Christmas. So many of you are struggling at this time of year when we’re all *supposed* to be happy. I read your journals and I see illness, conflicts, unemployment, family problems, grief over deeply personal things that you’re powerless to fix. In addition, most people are still reeling in some way from the seemingly nonstop tragedies, large and small, that have hit us all recently.

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight. – Garrison Keillor

I wish I had something magical to say that would make this Christmas joyful, or at least pleasant, for you all. This is the best I can do:

We had a perfect Christmas… We went for a long walk on the beach and then watched The Godfather II and ate hot-fudge sundaes. – Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions

I used to long for “perfect” Christmases because the Christmases I grew up with were anything but secure and stable. I never knew if something bad was going to happen that would make it sad, or make me feel guilty, or embarrassed, and so I had this fantasy about what I thought the perfect Christmas would be. I pictured a happy family enjoying Christmas carols around a perfectly decorated Christmas tree. I wanted singing and music, and I wanted snow falling and carolers at the door. I wanted a huge table set with linens and crystal and china, a lovely and bountiful dinner, and for us to spend Christmas night together enjoying looking at our presents and finally dropping off to sleep, knowing that all would be right with the world in the morning.

That didn’t happen.

We can build up our expectations for the perfect holiday, but if others don’t buy into our vision of Christmas it will all come crashing down around us, like the woman in this article from the New York Times. 

MODERN LOVE
A Holiday Built on Presence, Not Presents
By Carolyn S. Briggs
Published: December 20, 2012
My three vegetarian, activist, urban, multi-degreed, agnostic, adult children have rejected Christmas as a consumerist sham of a holiday, one in which they will not be participating. Oh, they’ll take the day off and drink organic wine, but they won’t be buying presents, putting up a tree, baking cookies, lighting candles or decking any halls. There will be no taking of a family picture for their card and no sending of that card or any other.

For me, Christmas is one of those fleeting but essential “aah” moments of generosity, family bonding and extravagance of spirit that psychologists tell us matter because they give us the opportunity to transcend, appreciate and feel outside of time. I don’t know about you, but I need that at least once a year.

When my parents were divorcing the winter that I was 15, there was no Christmas tree at our house. We waited for Christmas to come, and it wouldn’t, so finally my little brother and I pooled our paper-route and baby-sitting money, tucked the dollars and coins inside our mittens, and walked across town to buy our own tree. We carried it several blocks home, dodging ice and snowdrifts. When we arrived, we decorated the crooked tree on our own. The house was cold, but when we plugged in the lights, my siblings and I were filled with relief. Everything would be all right.

That year my father came home on Christmas Eve bearing unwrapped presents from the minimart where he worked: radios and alarm clocks and electric curlers. He left us sitting in front of the television with our pile of gifts, price tags still attached, and went to find my mother in the bedroom, where she had been for hours.

I remember feeling hopeful they would come out together in the morning and fix pancakes the way they always did on Christmas. It seemed possible and, for one blazing moment, probable.

Last Christmas, I relented to family pressure and agreed that my children and their partners did not have to come to us in Iowa. Instead, we would all get hotel rooms in New Orleans. I reserved a suite so we would have a living room for our holiday activities. A family friend would be in the area, too, so I invited him to join us for Christmas Eve. We were excited about the food and music, the atmosphere of a truly beautiful and one-of-a-kind city, and the mild weather.

There would be no homecoming, no wrapped gifts and no grandchildren to fill with Santa dreams. My grown children were childless by choice and vowed to remain that way. Desperate for a smattering of tradition, I ordered red (for the girls) and green (for the boys) Christmas stockings from Pottery Barn, and had everyone’s name stitched in lovely script across the white band at the top.

I e-mailed everyone promising a Christmas Eve surprise. Once we assembled, I would instruct each to write a message of love, appreciation, memory, prayer (O.K., not likely with this crowd) or best wishes for the new year, and we would stuff the stockings with these messages.

The sunny day we arrived in New Orleans, I was optimistic that Christmas in the Big Easy might be easy after all. We are a family of travelers, and exploring together is something we are seldom able to do anymore, and everyone loves a movable feast. One person brought a good supply of pot, though, which meant at least half of our party would be getting stoned.

Walking through the streets of New Orleans on Christmas Eve was a singular experience. There were palm trees wrapped with lights, ludicrously over-the-top decorations on shotgun houses, the smells of something deep and unctuous cooking in steamy pots, and block after block of pink and yellow flowers.

We ducked inside a historic tavern for oysters on the half shell. (Oysters feel no pain, my suddenly seafood-eating children assured one another.) Later we dined at a long table, my family in our Sunday best, grown up and civilized, with cloth napkins on our laps. I felt matriarchal and humble and blessed. That Christmas transcendence settled in, and I finally relaxed.

When we returned to the hotel suite, I arranged the stockings on the fake fireplace, put out bowls of snacks, opened a bottle of wine, and gathered plastic cups from the bathroom. It was not elegant, but it was the best I could do. My friend called from the lobby; he was on his way up. I handed out the stockings, paper and pens. There was dismay at the assigned sentiment. They smiled at the stockings the way they would have smiled at anything outdated and useless, with pained tolerance.

My friend walked into the suite, and I’d be damned if he hadn’t brought a young woman with him. My friend is younger than I am, but this woman was probably half his age and wearing one of those stupid knit hats with the ties dangling on either side of her face. I would hate her for many things before the night was over, but that insufferable hat was the first thing I hated her for.

I clutched my pen and paper insistently, but the others had already set their stockings aside. Banter ensued, during which the young woman assumed the starring role of my Christmas Eve. She had a lot of stories. Some were about the desert. The stories went on and on until she loudly concluded, in an apparent epiphany, “I love rocks!”

This was sidesplittingly funny to some people in the room, but I’d had enough. I stood up and went into the bedroom portion of the suite and flopped down on the bed. My husband came in a few minutes later and rubbed my back as the party raged in the other room. It was Christmas Eve, and my family was stoned. Christmas was a bourgeois farce to them. I was furious at everyone, even at my sweet husband rubbing my back.

At midnight, I heard church bells, a sound that only exacerbated my disgust and self-pity. I jumped up, grabbed the coats of my friend and his young friend, and asked them to leave. It was the first time in my life I had ever asked anyone to leave my home, even if my temporary home was a hotel suite. Then I turned to my startled family and preceded to glare, scold and cry. The sober people tried to be conciliatory, but I was having none of it.

That night as I lay in my hotel bed, I did not move a muscle. I lay there like a dead person, eyes open, heart stone cold. My disappointment over this failed Christmas mingled with my sorrow that my parents never did emerge from their bedroom that Christmas morning decades earlier, arms around each other, to make us pancakes.

At breakfast the next day, Christmas morning, I felt strained and tight. No one liked me much. Conversation was conducted on all sides of me. I grimly ordered pancakes. My children were all staying in New Orleans, but my husband and I had a plane to catch. I loved Christmas so much I had destroyed it; I had choked my precious Yule puppy to death.

I have thought about my behavior all year, and I am resolved not to become the old person in the family who remains recalcitrant and claims outsize privilege with age. I am not going to guilt my children anymore for not giving me what I assumed they would be happy to provide.

I had hoped for grandchildren, and I wanted those grandchildren with glossy hair and pajamas sitting around my Christmas tree each and every year, but that’s not what I’m going to get. My children will bring kennels and leashes to my house, not strollers and car seats. They are going to be exchanging notes on dog food and doggy day cares, and they will continue to refer to their peers who are parents as breeders.

We are all going to meet at my daughter’s in Texas at the end of December. Even though we will never attempt a traditional Christmas again, we will have some winter holiday gathering where we eat bowls of faro and root vegetables topped off by a dessert of silken tofu lemon mousse. We will share stories of our lives and travels. The guitars will come out.

At some point, the girls and I will erupt in an argument, but we will immediately make up by piling into my daughter’s king-size bed to watch “Downton Abbey.” I’ll jump out of the bed when the dogs jump in, and this will make the girls laugh and ask me to please stay. And I will, of course. This year, there will be room at the inn for everyone. 

This at once broke my heart for the writer but also made me realize that we cannot expect others to know what it is we want, nor can we expect others to provide our happiness for us.

Building up impossible expectations about the events of one day will inevitably lead to disappointment. We can get through any 24-hour period. We may need to excuse ourselves from the festivities to ensure our peace of mind, or we may need to join in with more enthusiasm than we actually feel. Or we may need to create our own version of the perfect Christmas, as Anne Lamott wrote. Hot-fudge sundaes, a walk on the beach, and watching an old movie with like-minded people sounds like an excellent day to me. We have a choice: feel miserable about all the fun we think other people are having, or choose to enjoy that day on our terms.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen, Anthem

I wish for you peace and contentment, and the beginnings of hope and light getting in through the cracks. Merry Christmas.

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HOMEMADE MINCEMEAT

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I have a jar of mincemeat on the shelf  – I bought it when it was marked down considerably last winter; if you’ve bought it recently you know it isn’t just expensive, it’s damn expensive. I’ll probably make cookies from it, as they seem to be more acceptable than the pie.  Not everyone likes mincemeat. We’ll get that out of the way now.  I’m not sure why it’s considered a traditional dessert at Thanksgiving when hardly anyone eats it.  It’s probably because it’s full of candied fruit (always suspect in the eyes of kids)  including those weird green bits which NOBODY likes, and is gummy and sticky and usually too sweet even for kids, who won’t eat it anyway because of those weird green bits. My mother is the only person I ever knew who actually LIKED those.

If you’re one of the mincemeat fanciers, or you just like to mess about in the kitchen, it’s easy and rather fun to make your own. It wasn’t so long ago that mincemeat actually contained meat, as this recipe does; if you don’t tell anyone, they won’t know.

Note: You can substitute a mixture of dried fruit for the candied fruit, like chopped dried persimmons, mangoes, dates, currants, dried cherries, pineapple, etc. If the dried fruit isn’t unsulphured, rinse the hell out of it with boiling water. Soaking it overnight in some booze is not a bad idea.

Another note: when I say “booze,” I mean the straight stuff – brandy, rum, bourbon, whiskey, etc. Don’t use really expensive alcohol since it will be adulterated considerably, but don’t get the crap in plastic bottles, either. I do NOT mean pre-mixed cocktails or those weird sweet drinks in a bottle like Kahlua Mudslide, Skinny Girl Margaritas, Pennsylvania Dutch Eggnog, etc. Be a grownup.

MINCEMEAT

  • 2-3 pounds stewing meat – beef, pork, or venison
  • 6 Granny Smith apples, cored and chopped small
  • 1/2 pound suet
  • 2 cups golden raisins
  • 2 pounds mixed candied fruit for fruitcake (your choice; leave out the weird green bits if you hate them)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup dark corn syrup
  • 2 cups apple juice
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 teaspoons mixed spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice)
  • Booze

You need to pot roast the meat, so cover it with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until it is super tender – about 2 or 3 hours, possibly longer –  then shred it. Don’t drain off the liquid. Chop up the suet and toss that in with the meat, plus all  the other ingredients. Pour in a shitton of booze (your choice) and simmer the mincemeat all day. I’ll tell you what: mincemeat sucks up booze like nobody’s business.

You can pretty much keep simmering this on the stove for days, just making sure it doesn’t burn and add more juice or booze as needed. Add more sugar or spices if you think it needs it. When you’re sick of messing about with it and it tastes good, either make it into pies/ cookies/ whatever, or freeze it in small containers. It keeps forever. 

 

HOW TO DO THANKSGIVING, ACCORDING TO ME

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The First Thanksgiving did not look like this. Sorry to disappoint you.

[I wrote this on my personal blog three years ago and some people seemed to like it. I’m posting it here because, well, I can. And because I’m still opinionated. Updated slightly from the original.]

Next week I will be cooking my 33rd consecutive Thanksgiving turkey. There have been other occasions in which a turkey figured prominently into dinner – sometimes at Christmas, a few times at Easter, and once a long, long time ago when we had my SIL’s uncle over for dinner. The actual total is probably in the neighborhood of 50, but for counting purposes, the 2013 model will be the 33rd.

Thanksgiving is the holiday for my family. We like Christmas but as with so many other people, for us it is a season fraught with sad and unpleasant memories, as well as expectations and spiritual significance for which there is seldom an entirely satisfactory conclusion for all parties concerned.

In this country there is an overload of angst about minute issues like stores who don’t allow the Salvation Army to solicit on their premises, who put the X in Christmas, and whether wishing someone Happy Holidays is insulting. I’ve made up my mind about the divinity of Christ issue but I don’t want to beat others over the head with it, nor do I wish to endure someone else yammering on with their feelings.

Further, Christmas is not just one day. It’s an entire season from approximately November 1 through at least January 1 and maybe longer, depending on whether you observe Epiphany. You will probably find yourself invited to all sorts of school plays and concerts, soirees, brunches, lunches, and parties at which there will almost certainly be people you’d normally cross the street to avoid.

Then there are the presents. It’s very nice to get presents but in recent years I have come out of the mall with a certain understanding of and sympathy for those people who suddenly go insane and start shooting in a shopping center. More than once I have gotten back to my car and collapsed behind the wheel, exhausted and nearly in tears, thinking, “Is this really the best way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus?”  I no longer give Christmas presents so I have escaped this particular form of madness that envelops the country…. don’t even get me started on the entire Black Friday and Opening on Thanksgiving thing. Suffice it to say I don’t participate.

No, Thanksgiving is a better deal all the way around. No presents. No religious questions, save for the occasional dweeb explaining their version of the First Thanksgiving (to which the only appropriate response is “Uh-huh. Pass the cranberry sauce”). It’s about people you love, or at least tolerate,  greedily eating an enormous meal together and being thankful.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written you know I’m opinionated. Here are some of my opinions about Thanksgiving.

After the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, turn the TV off. If you can’t sit down to one meal a year with your family without watching football, your priorities are screwed up. If you feel so strongly about it that you must watch the game during dinner, go to a bar for Thanksgiving. They’ll have the TV on.

No appetizers. If you need appetizers, you aren’t doing this correctly.

Within 5 minutes of sitting down, a big fancy floral Thanksgiving arrangement meant for the dining table will be on a coffee table. Stick to little cheesy pilgrims and turkeys, especially if they were made by children.

Homemade cranberry sauce only. No one really likes canned. What they like is the sound of it sliding out of the can and the funny ridges. Canned cranberry sauce is fruit-flavored jelled sugar water. It takes ten minutes to make fresh.

All turkeys cook in about 3 1/2 to 4 hours. If part of it isn’t done (like around the legs/thighs), cut that part off and stick it back in the oven or microwave it.

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The turkey will not be all one beautiful even golden-brown color when it comes out of the oven, and it will be a bit shriveled. It might remind you of Nick Nolte’s DUI booking photo. Those photos on magazine covers of perfect plump tanned birds? Those are photos of raw turkeys photo-styled with Kitchen Bouquet.

I used to always stuff the turkey but I have stopped. One, less time in the oven for the white meat to dry out. Two, I am convinced stuffing sucks all the moisture out of the turkey. While the stuffing that cooks inside the turkey is most righteous, it can still be pretty damn good cooked separately in a casserole and basted with butter and turkey stock.

Do not attempt to cook one of those super broad-breasted turkeys unless you deconstruct the bird, then cook dark and light meat separately. Otherwise you are doomed to have a super broad-breasted hunk of dried-out white meat.

The proper time for the first alcoholic drink is noon, unless you have an earthquake, in which case you may start immediately. This actually happened once. Be prepared in case it happens again.

No green salad unless it’s an exceptional one – say, spinach and arugula with blue cheese and fresh sliced fennel and persimmons. People will only take a serving of green salad out of politeness and then shove it around in the gravy until it’s wilted. Why give up plate real estate for an ordinary head of lettuce?

Food magazines have lots of “interesting” recipes for Thanksgiving, most of which seem to combine two or more vital elements of the meal into one dish, i.e. Brussels sprout-yam medley with cranberry crust. Feel free to serve those but be prepared to hear remarks like, “So, no regular cranberry sauce this year? Hmm, that’s interesting…” and having lots of the new dish left over. Thanksgiving is not the time to spring new foods on your family. They want what they had last year.

I’m not crazy about dinner rolls, either. They  fill you up too fast. If you’re going to have dinner rolls, get decent ones.

This is not the time for expensive imported Nicoise or Picholine olives. Get the canned California extra-large pitted black olives so the kids can put one on each finger. Hell, go ahead and put one on each of your fingers, then shake someone’s hand.

To carve a turkey: wiggle a knife tip in at the wing joint, pull off wings, and put them on platter. Dig around with a long knife at the thigh where it joins the body, detach the thighs, and pull the thigh & leg off. Slice dark meat off thigh and put on platter. Put the legs on platter. Make cut parallel to the table into the deepest part of breast meat, all the way to the bone. Then make slices from the breast at a 90-degree angle to that first cut. It will not be picture-perfect. It’s still turkey. They’ll eat it.

For special guests, sneak them bits of turkey skin.

Lots of hot gravy. This cannot be over-emphasized.

Ignore all those health and fitness columns that appear this time of year about how to have a healthy Thanksgiving dinner by skipping the butter and not eating turkey skin and having fruit salad for dessert instead of pie. Can we have one meal a year that we aren’t neurotic about?

No remarks allowed about whether someone really ought to take that third serving of stuffing. In fact, no remarks at all about anyone’s weight. I restrained myself admirably one year when one person said to me, “I wonder if I ought to say something to X about their weight…” but I wouldn’t count on any restraint a second time should the subject come up again.

Do not worry about the correct wine to go with Thanksgiving dinner. This isn’t the French Laundry. Put out a bunch of bottles of whatever you have. No one will complain that the 2003 Oregon Pinot Noir was incompatible with the sweet potatoes. Personally, I drink champagne.

Take a walk between dinner and dessert.

The correct interval between the conclusion of dinner and the first turkey sandwich is 30 minutes.

HOW TO CLARIFY BROTH

In the last post I talked about poaching chicken and having a lovely broth or stock left over as a result. Great stuff to have on hand to stir into sauces and make soup from – it’s a staple in my kitchen. The fat rises to the top when it is chilled and it’s ready to go.

But for aesthetic’s sake, sometimes you want a very clear broth instead of the murky, cloudy stock you might have – especially if the broth boiled for any length of time. It might look like this:

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There’s nothing wrong with that – unless, as I said, you want a really clear broth such as for consommé. Don’t knock consommé , and do not confuse homemade with Campbell’s Consommé  in a can, which is pretty damn salty. It’s warming on a cold night – and if it’s rich, flavorful stock with a final garnish  of a fine mince of raw vegetables (carrot, celery, turnip, onion), you have consommé brunoise, which makes an excellent recherche, non-filling  starter to an elegant dinner. (There are infinite other consommé variations, all of them delicious.)

Anyway. To clarify stock that’s muddled and cloudy, heat the strained -of-bones-and-veg stock to simmering. While it’s heating, for each quart of stock (more or less; you don’t need to be precise) beat one egg white until thick and puffy.

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Now: whisk that fluffy egg white into the simmering stock.  Stir it around a time or two, then turn the heat UP and bring the stock to a boil. Immediately turn the heat OFF again, remove the pan from the heat, and let cool to warm-ish.

DSCN1032The nice white egg white will start to look like four-day-old New York snow.

DSCN1034Now get a clean dish towel – not a terry-cloth one, unless you enjoy chewy bits in your broth – and dampen it, then wring it out. Place the towel over a wire-mesh strainer  and place that over a bowl, and pour the stock-egg mixture into the towel. Let it drain.

DO NOT DISTURB THIS. If you try to hurry it by shaking the strainer or pressing on the towel, you will get cloudy gunk in the broth, so LEAVE IT ALONE.

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End result:

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Store, covered, in the refrigerator about four days. This method works on any meat stock – chicken, beef, pork, lamb, whatever – and makes a sediment-y stock into a much more appetizing soup by itself.

POACHED CHICKEN

We were watching Rachel Ray make something-or-other when she instructed the viewer to “add the boiled chicken.” My husband said, “Boiled chicken? You just… boil a chicken?” Well, kind of, but not really. I thought of how many recipes include “3 cups diced cooked chicken.” Where do most people get that three cups of cooked chicken… do they buy one of those canned chickens (I have seen photos and that is as close as I ever intend to get to one of those)? Do they buy a rotisserie chicken? Or do they just turn to another recipe?

“Boiled” chicken is actually poached chicken. If you were to cook a chicken at a full boil for an hour…. oh God, I can’t even imagine what that would result in, but you wouldn’t want to eat it. To poach a chicken, you do bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat so it simmers. Result: lots of moist, tender chicken meat, and a bonus of delicious chicken broth.

So: put the chicken and all its guts in a stockpot (i.e. a pot that is taller than it is wide) or at least a pot that will hold the chicken comfortably. Add an onion (you don’t have to peel it – cut in half if it fits better), a carrot or two (also not peeled, but cut up), a stalk of celery (ditto), a bay leaf,  a garlic clove or two or three, and a few peppercorns.  No salt! Add cold water to cover the chicken. If you have some white wine or dry white vermouth lying around, pour a generous glug of that in too.

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Put the pot on the stove, turn the heat on high, and wait…

As the water gets closer to a boil, you will see some yucky-looking foamy grey stuff rise to the surface. Don’t flip out. It’s coagulated juices and (yes) blood. If you have ever grilled a burger, you saw the same stuff form on top of the ground beef. When protein is heated to the boiling point, this happens. Just get a spoon, scoop it off and discard it, though it isn’t toxic – it’s just unsightly.

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Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat immediately and let the chicken cook at a bare simmer. If the water level drops, add more water or white wine.

How to tell when it’s done? Poke around in the leg-thigh joint with a knife. If the juices are red or pink, it isn’t done. If they’re yellow or clear, it’s done. A 4 or 5 pound chicken will take around 60 to 80 minutes.  Now comes the messy part: getting a hot chicken out of the pot. Get a large bowl and a large carving fork, and carefully-but-quickly transfer the chicken to the bowl.  Let the chicken cool until you can easily handle it.

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Once you can handle the chicken without burning the hell out of yourself, separate the meat from the bones & skin. Put the meat in one bowl –

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and put the bones & skin back in the stockpot.

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The chicken is now ready to eat or use in any recipe calling for cooked chicken. Store, covered, in the refrigerator – it will last about four or five days.

Return the chicken broth to a simmer and cook for another hour or two. Then strain and discard the bones, skin, and vegetables. You now have a very flavorful stock that can be used right away, or poured into a hot sterilized container (such as a canning jar or two) and stored in the refrigerator. The fat will rise to the top as it cools, effectively sealing the broth; the fat can easily be lifted off and discarded (or used as schmaltz, for which I will refer you to The Shiksa Blog). It will keep for about five days in the fridge, after which it should be re-boiled and re-poured into a sterilized container. Or it freezes very well; pour it into small containers of a size you’d be likely use (such as 1-cup), or pour it into ice cube trays, freeze, and store the chicken broth cubes in a freezer bag for a very fast, convenient way to utilize them.

DON’T PASS ME BY

I don’t know about where you live, but here in NorCal starting sometime in October, it’s guaranteed the supermarkets will have a giant overflowing bin of a wide variety of winter squash (also called vegetable marrow and hard shell squash, and probably other names as well). They’re all colors, patterns, shape and sizes, and most people glance at them and just keep walking.  Or maybe they’ll buy one that isn’t too scary looking and put it on their counter until it rots.

Supermarket winter squash is pretty limited most of the year to butternut squash (the pale elongated-pear-shaped one), acorn (green and/or gold, in a football shape with ribs) and banana (a giant squash that is usually cut into wedges and wrapped in Saran Wrap).  The fall season for unusual varieties is short, so next time you see that cornucopia of beautiful squash, stop and get one or two.  They’re delicious simply baked and served more or less as is, served in Thai curries, and make wonderful soups (Anna Thomas’s The New Vegetarian Epicure and Love Soup both have numerous recipes).

Last fall I picked up a squash just because it was so pretty. We kept it on the counter for a month or so just to look at it, and finally cooked it. SO GOOD. It was a red Kuri squash, a brightly intense orange color and slight teardrop shape.

Like most winter squash, it’s a bitch to cut into, so you need a cleaver and/or a chef’s knife.  Treat those implements of destruction with respect, but don’t be afraid, either.

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Scrape out the seeds and either discard them, or put them in a small baking dish with a little oil and bake until the strings shrivel up and the seeds get toasty. Salt them and eat like pumpkin seeds.  Put a little butter, brown sugar, and a sprinkle of cinnamon/nutmeg/cloves in the cavity. Bake at 350 until the flesh is easily pierced, basting now and then with the butter-sugar mixture. A quarter or a third of each squash makes a generous serving, so figure on four to six servings from one Kuri squash. Leftovers can be mashed and added to pancake batter or muffin batter.

My husband was shopping and stopped at that big bin of winter squash. He selected a Stripetti spaghetti squash.

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“Oh, you got a spaghetti squash!” I said. He looked blank. I explained that the flesh is not like other squashes, that you coax it out of the shell with a fork and it turns into spaghetti-like strands. He continued to look blank.

Spaghetti squash is even more of a bitch to cut in half than the Kuri. It took a cleaver AND a chef’s knife, and a lot of leverage. I whacked it once with the cleaver the way I cut up a chicken, and the cleaver bounced back. It was a bit of a project to get it cut open.

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Leave the seeds in. Put the spaghetti squash cut-side-down in a baking dish, pour in a cup of water, and cover the dish with foil. Bake at 350 until the flesh is more-or-less easily pierced (do not overbake).  The seeds will be easy to scrape out with a spoon. Then take a couple of forks, or a fork and a big spoon, and start digging at the flesh. It will be reluctant to give up, but you will start to see spaghetti strands form as you loosen it. Keep digging until you have removed the flesh from the shells. The strands will be slightly crisp and crunchy.

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Most recipes tell you to serve it with spaghetti sauce, and you can do that, but I think that masks the lovely nutty corn-like taste and crisp texture. I mixed some minced parsley and butter together and put that on top, let it melt in a few minutes, then sprinkled salt and pepper on top and tossed it all together. A little grated cheese would be good too.

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One spaghetti squash will make about four to six servings. Leftovers are nice fried up crisp as patties.

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