My Work

Saturday, December 8, 2012

First Solstice, Then Christmas

“The days dwindle down to a precious few,” the song tells us, as the sun seems to have been doing for a few months now, leading up to the time when the sun will be giving its warmth and life for the least amount of time in a day.  That time, they tell us, will be 11:11 a.m. GMT on December 21.  Winter has arrived.

It’s almost a contradiction, for as the days grow longer, they also grow colder, and the icy blasts of old Jack Frost cover our souls, forcing us to stand ever so close to that roaring and spitting fireplace.  The ancients celebrated the winter solstice as a beginning; Mr. Sol would be with us a little bit longer each day.

We recognize the winter and summer solstices, the spring and fall equinoxes, mostly because of our Neolithic relatives thousands of years ago.  It was during the Neolithic age that agriculture came into being, and with it a sense of weather patterns.  Knowing the length of the day and placement of the sun in the sky were essential to timing for planting, tilling, harvest.

There were parties and celebrations leading up to the solstice thousands of years ago, because many believed if they didn’t coax that sun to stay up longer, it wouldn’t.  Then when it did, well, it’s time to celebrate that fact also.  One legend dating from the time of Mesopotamia says there was a twelve day festival.  No indication that turtle doves were involved, or dancing girls, but they probably were.

The science of the seasons can be quickly explained by simply stating that our planet’s rotational spin is tilted, thus the northern half gets more sunshine some of the time and less sunshine at other times.  If you must know, the angle of tilt is 23 degrees and 27 minutes off perpendicular.  While we’re chilling, Sydney’s baking.

The importance of the winter solstice today doesn’t relate to planting of crops or dancing to force the sun to stay up longer each day, but rather, it brings on the Christmas season.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

The Legend of Santa Claus

Who is this spirit so closely associated with Christmas?  According to legend, there was a man who became Saint Nicholas, and he lived in Asia Minor during the 4th century, A.D.  Traveling through Egypt and Palestine he became known for his extraordinary kindness, in particular his penchant for giving gifts to needy children.

St. Nicholas became Santa Claus, but not before the concept was splintered into many variations among European churches.

This jolly old elf eventually made it to these shores during colonial times, and of course, now Santa Claus in known more as a vehicle for driving retail sales from a week or so before Hallowe’en until moments before the end of Christmas Day.

It was initially his spirit of giving that brought forth what we so look forward to each year, a visit from St. Nicholas.

One must eat well during these delightful times, it’s cold as all get out, one can get chilled to the bone, so let’s have a real feast.  A few years ago I published a holiday cook book, and this was judged by many to be the best offering in that little tome.

Johnny’s Oyster Roast

Notes: This can be a first course at a long and involved holiday meal, it can stand alone as a light, late in the evening meal, or, if served in small bowls, can be a hot appetizer.

The recipe is slightly involved, so make sure you really want to take the time to do it.  You’ll be rewarded !

Use the refrigerated bottled oysters and drain them over a sieve, reserving the liquid.  Do this first as you’ll need some of the liquid for the glaze.

Glazing Sauce
Pour about a 1/2 cup of oyster liquid and fill the cup measure with milk.  In a 10-12 inch frying pan over high heat, stir 2 tbl butter and 1/4 cup onions, minced, for 2-3 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in 2 tbl flour, 1 tsp dry mustard, and 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg.  Return the pan to high heat and stir until flour is pale gold, 1-2 more minutes.  Remove from heat and add the oyster liquid and milk mixture along with a 1/4 cup whipping cream.  Whisk over high heat until boiling, and continue to boil, whisking often, until mixture is reduced to about 1 cup.  Scrape into a bowl and let cool.

3/4 cup coarsely chopped bacon
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper.  Red, Green, or mixed
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 tsp dried thyme
8 ounces spinach leaves
salt and pepper to taste

1 jar shucked oysters, drained (see notes)
1 cup glaze
2 tbl dry white wine (not cooking wine, use the good stuff)
1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese

In a 10-12 inch frying pan, crisp the bacon and remove to paper towels to drain.  Save about 1 tsp of the drippings and add the bell pepper, spinach, onion, and thyme, stirring over high heat until wilted and most of the liquid is evaporated.

Return the bacon to the pan, mix, and add whatever salt and pepper you like.

Lift the oysters from the sieve, and at this point you may wish to cut some of the larger ones into bite size pieces.  Divide the oysters into four shallow ramekins, and put them put them into a baking pan that you can fill with water.

Spoon the spinach mixture equally over the oysters.  In that same 10-12 inch frying pan, add glazing sauce, lemon juice, and wine, and whisk over high heat until bubbling.  Spoon this equally over spinach and oysters, sprinkle cheese over the sauce, and bake in a 450 degree oven until tops are lightly browned and bubbling.  About 7-10 minutes.

This is best served right in the ramekins, with a nice cold white wine to wash it down.  Some John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, or Aretha Franklin fills out the recipe.

If you can tear yourself away from the board, do you know why we hang our stockings by the fire, other than to get them dry and warm, that is?

The Legend of Christmas Stockings

The legend of hanging stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve dates back to the 1800s according to most who have studied this strange habit.

Do you hang your stockings?

It seems there was a young man who had three daughters but very little money, and on one particular Christmas Eve, his daughters had washed their stocking and hung them by the fire to dry.  It was the custom prior to washers and dryers.

The legend insists St. Nicholas heard the plight of the daughters, and that they might not get Christmas gifts.  He ventured onto their roof and threw three bags of gold coins down the chimney, and lo and behold, those coin bags landed in the girl’s stockings, one, two, three.

It wasn’t too many years later that children in Holland learned to leave their wooden shoes outside in hopes the jolly old elf would fill them with gifts and treasures.

I believe.  Do you?  Deep philosophical thinking like this makes me hungry.  Try this one on for size.

Eggnog Bread

Note:  This recipe will fill two aluminum loaf pans.

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup dairy eggnog
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp rum extract
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease bottoms and sides of bread pans

Beat eggs, sugar, eggnog, butter, rum and vanilla until well blended, add flour, baking powder, and nutmeg and stir until everything is moistened.  Don’t over stir.

Pour into the bread pans and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool, and remove from pans.  Let bread cool completely before slicing.

Uh, Oh … Have you sent out your cards?

The Tradition of Christmas Cards

The tradition of sending Christmas cards originated sometime in the mid 1800s according to most who study such things.

A few people began designing handmade cards to be sent to friends and family,
but it was a man named John Calcott Horsely who is credited
as being the first Christmas card creator.

Horsely printed his card in 1843 for Sir Henry Cole, the friend
who gave him the idea in the first place.

The card depicted a typical English family enjoying the holiday,
as well as scenes of people performing acts of charity, an important part
of Victorian Christmas spirit.

The card was inscribed:
“Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You”

A thousand copies of the card were printed, selling for one shilling
apiece.  This is reportedly the first Christmas card to be produced and sold to
the general public.

I’ve taken a lot of your time and had a lot of fun doing it.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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