Monday, December 23, 2013

A Little Night Music

Pat and Rett's first Winter Solstice Celebration at the Farm = 8 good friends + 5 assorted dogs (who got along famously for the most part) + a soggy, wet, windy weekend punctuated with fabulous food, a few cocktails and lots of laughter. Oh yeah, and a fantastic folk violinist from Kiev in the Ukraine.

Pat always has something up his sleeve. (Last year, for the "end of time" he greeted us at the front door in tux and tails -- if the world was going to end, he was going out in style, he said.) This year, we were just finishing up dinner, when out of the blue, a knock at the door! Enter, Arkadiy Gips, a classically trained violinist who emigrated from the Ukraine in the 1990s, winding up first in New York City and soon playing Russian gypsy music as a backdrop to Madonna's Sticky and Sweet Tour.

Gips, who lives in Columbus, played a handful of rich folk and holiday songs, performing with incredible skill and such passion, and making the lone violin sound like it was being accompanied by a host of other instruments. What a nice surprise!

But let's backtrack. The 8 of us had gathered in the late (wet) afternoon for our annual solstice celebration, and the best way ever of kicking off the holidays. That means great girlfriends.
Guy friends.

Perhaps a doggie friend.
Or two.

 Something shaken, not stirred.

A beautiful holiday table.

And Rett's always-amazing dinner. This year, she ventured to Carfagna's butcher shop earlier in the week for a luscious beef tenderloin, which she crusted with freshly grated horseradish root and served with three different sauces.

Truly delish! Especially with her roasted root vegetables and Mary Ann's beautiful salad. After dinner we had our traditional solstice readings; Pat always digs up wonderful prose for us to read aloud -- often something he's written himself! That evening, my reading was a fitting tribute to the farm:

"But May, or her mirthful spirit,
dwelt all the year round at Merry Mount,
sporting with the Summer months,
and reveling with Autumn, and basking in the glow of Winter's fireside.
Through a world of toil and care
she flitted with a dreamlike smile,
and came hither to find a home
amoung the lightsome hearts of Merry Mount."
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

After dinner, we had our traditional gift exchange, and talked and laughed the night away.

Finally, we girls donned our jammies and had a nightcap before we all retired til the gray, gray morn dawned.
Rio and I were up early, but the sunporch (in name only that day) was cozy and cheery with flickering candles.
I'd brought a good book, too.
And the rest of the day? A little cigar and pipe action on the soggy front porch.

A cut-throat game of Scrabble.

And a nice afternoon for a nap. Or two.

Sandra and I cooked dinner (chicken marbella, brown rice with pine nuts, sweet potatoes, and a salad) and Dave made a scrumptious creme brulee.
And since Saturday really was the solstice, we had a few more readings. Here's a good one to end with:

The Shortest Day
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away,
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshineblazed awake
They shouted, reveling,
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us -- Listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!
     -- Susan Cooper

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Solstice Preview: First Time at the Farm!

Ahhhh, it's my favorite time of the year. It's cold and brilliantly snowy for December in Ohio. The weeks are chock full of happy endeavors -- from decorating the tree with my 2 kids (tomorrow) and our cul-de-sac's annual progressive party (last night) to family gatherings, cookie baking, crackling fires in the fireplace. . . and my favorite outing of the season, Rett's Winter Solstice Party!

Rett and Pat have been gathering our group of friends together for darn near a decade for the Winter Solstice dinner on December 21. It's a night of fabulous food.

Great friends.

 Much laughter

 And some very thought-provoking, seasonal readings -- and an occasional voice performance -- from Pat.

Last year, in fact, when someone predicted that the world would end that night, he found (and in some cases wrote) prose that reflected on "A Message for the End of Time and Beyond."  Here's what I read after the dinner (written by Pat):

Poem for Winter Solstice 2012
If the Moon is in the Seventh House
and if Jupiter aligns with Mars
Will peace then guide the planets
And Love steer the Stars?

Will the Age of Aquarius
Bring harmony and understanding?
Will sympathy and trust be abounding?
Will falsehoods or derisions
Melt into heavenly visions?
wWll mystic revelation
Bring to humanity liberation?

On tonight's cosmogenesis,
Can we begin our metamorphosis?

But THIS YEAR, this year! Is the first Winter Solstice Celebration at THE FARM!

I can't wait -- Rio and I and 5 other guests (and 3 other dogs) will join Rett and Pat and their 2 doggies at Merry Mount, not just for a celebratory solstice dinner. . . but for an entire, joyous weekend together! Rett, in true southern fashion, already has her dinner planned for Friday evening. On Saturday evening (the solstice), I told her I'd pitch in and bring dinner down so she wasn't donning her apron two nights in a row.

My recipe of choice is simple and so yummalicious. You make it the day before, dump it in a baking dish and bake in the oven for an hour and everyone is in love! Here are the details:

Chicken Marbella
8-10 mix of chicken breasts and thighs (with bones and skin)
1-2 T chopped garlic
2 T dried oregano
salt and pepper
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted whole prunes
1 cup whole Spanish green olives and some of their olive juice
3 bay leaves
1/r4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
1 cup brown sugar
 1 cup white wine

The night before serving, combine garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives and their juice, bay leaves and cilantro or parsley. Mix well. Marinate chicen with mixture overnight (I use 1 or 2 big ziplock plastic bags).

Preheat oven to 350. Arrange chicken in single layer in 1-2 large baking pans. Spoon any marinade over. Sprinkle chicken with brown sugar. Gently pour wine around chicken. Bake for 1 hour or until golden brown. Serve with brown rice and green beans.

Will report on the merry Solstice Weekend at Merry Mount after the jolly weekend!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Flickering candles on a snowy blue morning, a little poetry, strong coffee, and the dogs of course (following a marvelous Merry Mount evening)

Rio and I got up early this morning, despite the late night last night (more on those festivities later), to see if there would be a pink-hued sunrise over the barren, snow-covered fields surrounding Merry Mount. We crept onto the sunporch so as not to wake the other 8 people (and 4 dogs) in the old part of the farmhouse. Quietly opening the porch door, however, we were greeted with the warm, golden glow of flickering candles and the heady scent of freshly brewed coffee, and I said out loud, “Oh look, how pretty! We have candles!”

Usually I’m the first one up at Merry Mount but Pat had beaten me to the punch, with his two Jack Russell terriers snuggling on his navy-blue robe-covered lap and a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. Rio and the Jacks – Jackpot and Sweetie – quickly headed outside, snuffling in the snow, while I grabbed a cup of java and settled onto the wicker sofa.

When Lee and his 17-year-old Jack Russell Bess joined us, while the rest of the house still slumbered. Pat said, “How about a little Yeats?” and read this poem aloud:

Brown Penny
I WHISPERED, 'I am too young,'
And then, 'I am old enough';
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
'Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.'
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.
O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.
William Butler Yeats

‘Twasn’t long before the rest of the pre-Thanksgiving, slumber-party-at-the-farm guests ambled in one at a time, aching for caffeine or a little ice water to combat the cobwebs that had formed since the previous eve. Surprisingly “Julie’s Baby” was Dave, not JR. Don’t ask me where that term came from -- but the last person to get up and at’em is always christened Julie’s Baby.

Soon, the scent of Rett’s southern specialties filled the air – light-as-air biscuits made with White Lilly flour and loads of butter, thick sliced bacon and scrambled eggs. More coffee.

Why any of us wanted to eat after a late evening feast the night before is a good question. But it’s the holidays. It's Rett's fabulous cooking. And, as Rett and Pat like to say, “When you’re at Merry Mount, you can do whatever you want.” Guess that includes eating!

Pat also likes to say, “There’s to be much Merriment at Merry Mount!”
And there was, especially last night. 9 of us converged on the wintry farm for a pre-holiday get-together of close friends, before heading out to roast turkeys, juggle side-dishes, and host nearly-grown children, parents and assorted relatives for the big event. No, this snowy night was full of laughter and love, easy (but fabulous) food, and just a little good wine (like JR and Dave’s favorite, Frank Family Vineyards).
Rett’s new gas stovetop and her red pots were standing at the ready for smoked salmon pasta with capers and parmesan.
 The table glowed with candles – and the sweet, sweet warmth of dear old friends.
The evening definitely went to the dogs…

There was much laughter…
 Even more… oh Lord, it hurts to laugh this much  
 Good girlfriends
 And perhaps a tiny mixed drink like a Manhatten.
Rett’s specialty, though she and Robert debated whose recipe was better. Here is Rett’s version, using her recommended Woodford Reserve for the bourbon

Rett's Manhatten:  2 jiggers bourbon, one scant jigger sweet vermouth, three drops of bitters, one teaspoon cherry juice and a couple of maraschino cherries. Pour over ice, or shake with ice and serve up in a martini glass. Enjoy!

Before we all headed to our various Thanksgiving celebrations with our families, we tried to get the doggies to pose for a picture. Not so much. So we enlisted some helpers for posing. Then off we went til our next warm gathering at Merry Mount!
 Once we got home, my Rio feigned a headache and took to her bed. All those little dogs were exhausting, she said!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ahhhh. Merry Mount. And Tomato Gravy Too.

Close your eyes and imagine the place on this planet that makes you the happiest. Hands down, for me, there is one place on Earth that makes me completely happy. I only have to stand there, take a deep breath, embrace my surroundings, and I am totally at peace.

That place is Platte Lake in Northern Michigan. I've been going there since the early '70s when my dad and uncle jointly bought a fishing cabin. Over the years, I've gone "up north" in high school (with Peggy when she said we could sip a half a beer and jump up and down and it would make us feel "drunk"), in college (oh, those fires on the beach), and with my beautiful young kids in a newer cottage that my dad bought on the opposite shore of the lake.

These days, I rent an old log house (complete with beach, dock and huge screened porch) from a rabid (gasp) U of Michigan fan. We love Platte Lake and even as the kids grow up, they all say it's their favorite week of the entire year.

My cousins and their children also converge that week, and all the kids jump into a conversation that they started the previous year. You know how that is? They don't talk for 12 months and then they just pick up where they left off. On jet skis, on tubes, at the fabulous sand bar, around the campfire.

So, that is my happy place. My only happy place.

Until now.

Now Merry Mount is my happy place too.

I realized this, last weekend, when I got that same ol' peaceful feeling when I got out of the car and ambled across the land and looked at the wide-open spaces. Deep breath. Oh yeah, this makes me happy.

 Last weekend Jim and Dave and I hung out happily at Merry Mount with Pat and Rett. We had planned on a big bonfire to scorch a huge pile of old bushes and brush. But, as the fireman across the street advised, it was a tad too windy to ignite a big fire.

No prob. We hunkered down, made some fabulous pots of soup (sausage/kale and roasted tomato) and popped open a bottle of vino. Good friends and good food; who needs anything more? Even the dogs got along; Rio was a lot less anxious at this sleep-over; I think she knew we were just visiting and I wasn't going to leave her! She's a sweetheart.

Next morning -- Rett's breakfast.

Bacon, of course.

Her famous Southern biscuits. Yum. (secret recipe)

And with them, tomato gravy. I've always heard of tomato gravy but never had this southern specialty. Rett made 2 versions; one regular and one gluten free for me! Recipes below!

After breakfast we took a walk down the road to a little farm with turkeys and chickens.

And then it was back to reality! Goodbye Merry Mount...for now. 

Tomato Gravy (Rett's directions):

Cook 3 or 4 pieces of bacon. Remove when done, but leave drippings in pan. Cut up a few fresh tomatoes or you can use a 14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes and add to pan. Let stew until mushy. Make a thin paste of 2 Tbls. plain flour (or cornstarch or gluten free flour for gluten free version) and milk to make about 1 cup.  Get out all of the lumps and stir in with the tomatoes. Add more milk until a bit more pink and stir until it thickens. Serve over hot biscuits!  Yummy !