Cheer a grumpy Christmas by stacking tiny bricks of gratitude

2020 hasn’t been a normal year. This won’t be an average Christmas.

Xmas tree - 1Many of us are heeding public health advice and avoiding travel. Some of us are still grieving lost loved ones whose presence defined* special holidays. Ignoring these very real sources of pain is neither healthy, nor possible in the long term.

But does acknowledging the bumps in life’s road mean choosing between being a humbug or a Grinch? I hope to prove otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m having a Very Grumpy Christmas. While I wish for better for every reader, I suspect my miseries enjoy plenty of company.

When I’m in this kind of snit—so easily degenerating into a full on funk—about the only remedy is the doing of good or the counting of blessings.

As I took advantage of an un-rushed school vacation week morning today by staying in bed for an extra hour with my book, I was grateful for not yet having reached the end of the last series of novels my mother will ever recommend to me.

She bugged me for months to pick up the first one. Why did I resist until after she was gone? I wish with every page that I could tell her how much I’m enjoying them…

Comforting myself with this small thing for which I could give thanks, I realized each little blessing is a brick. If I stack up enough of them, I’ll have built a sizable structure. One brick won’t do a person much good against an invading army, but enough humble chunks of masonry suffice for The Great Wall of China.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1So perhaps I’m not playing so well with others, today. I’m hardly a Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ll be a builder, though, of my own Great Wall of Gratitude.

I think it will hold.

QC city walls

Here are a few more trivialities I’ve found to be thankful for today:

  • My husband went back to the too busy, too crowded day-before-holiday bakery when they forgot to include my favorite cinnamon buns in the pre-packed bag he went out for at dawn.
  • My teenager told me he loves me… without me prompting him by saying it first.
  • My younger one never hesitates to show me affection, not even when his friends can see him doing it.
  • My kids can collaborate on a project and produce something great without adult supervision.
  • My pantry is full; I’m not afraid for how I will feed my family.

Readers, please feel free to share in the comments what you can find to be grateful for this topsy-turvy holiday season. Your smallest joy would be a Really Wonderful gift to me.

* I can’t look at a Christmas decoration without being reminded of my mother, who died of cancer in 2019. On the other hand, to ignore her favorite holiday would be the most disrespectful possible thing as far as honoring her memory goes.

Today’s post is brought to you in memory of Mother Christmas.

Mom decorates Christmas tree with ornament

That would be the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. Find them listed in order here; I’ve made it to book 13, Glass Houses. You definitely do want to read these in chronological order if you opt to give them a try. They’re decorous enough for readers of cozy mysteries (Mom), but complex enough for those of us who like to pretend we’re exercising our minds with our choice of literature.

Be warned, however: If you get into these mid-pandemic, you’ll be cross that you can’t make a visit to Quebec, which Penny paints as paradise… if you can get past the political intrigues and frequent murders!

Roasting vegetables is the right recipe for pandemic winter

  • Hate to cook?
  • Trying to shop less frequently because of a pandemic?
  • Know you should eat more vegetables, but enjoy almost every other food more?
  • Spending more time working and/or learning from home?

If, like me, you tick all these boxes, you should start roasting root vegetables as soon as possible. Best of all, you will have an excuse to purchase a rutabaga. If there’s a vegetable that’s more fun to name, I have yet to hear of it.

Say it out loud: ROOT-uh-BEG-uh! You’re smiling now, right?

Plate of oven roasted carrot, beet, turnip, sweet potato and onionYou will need access to an oven or a toaster oven to cook veggies this way. Beyond that, all that’s required is about one hour and:

  • a sheet pan or other wide, shallow, oven-safe cookware
  • oil
  • salt or other, more sophisticated seasonings
  • vegetables
  • cutting board or plate and a sharp knife

Primal Kitchen avocado oil and Kirkland Himalayan pink saltYou can roast many other things, but the long storing properties of most root vegetables make them ideal for a COVID-19 era menu. Broccoli comes in little bunches; potatoes are sold in great big bags. Shelf life is the main reason for the discrepancy.

Root vegetables in storage boxes and bags: carrot, beet, turnipHere’s a nice resource discussing healthy root vegetables and their nutritional characteristics.

In normal times, many people rush home after work and need dinner on the table within minutes. Roasting is a long, slow process, ill-suited to that kind of lifestyle. Now that a greater* proportion of us are working from home due to the pandemic, however, this kind of “prep it, put it in the oven, then ignore it for an hour while you get back to work” recipe is a lot more accessible.

I was introduced to the concept of roasting root vegetables by a functional nutritionist to whom I was referred by my primary care physician. I suspected that my diet affected the symptoms of my autoimmune condition, but I struggled under the burden of cooking every bite of food for myself given my near total lack of enjoyment of time in the kitchen. This was the best idea the nutritionist gave me from a fairly wide array.

Before I started roasting vegetables, I didn’t buy turnips, rutabagas, or parsnips. Now, I usually keep at least a couple of each on hand because it is so easy to prepare them this way, and the results invariably taste good. Note that these are not vegetables I typically enjoy otherwise.

If you’d like a professionally produced set of step by step instructions, feel free to carry on with Epicurious instead of my low budget advice. Otherwise, here’s my 2 ¢ as the laziest possible chef.

Recipe for roasted root vegetables

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 450° F if you remember; if you don’t, allow more cooking time. This is not a fussy recipe.
  2. Wash all your vegetables, and peel if you prefer.
  3. Chop vegetables into uniform, small-ish pieces.
  4. Pour—or brush with a pastry brush or a bit of paper towel—a thin film of oil onto your baking sheet, lined with foil or a silicone mat first if you prefer.
  5. Spread vegetables in a single layer on prepared baking sheet.
  6. Drizzle with a little oil, and sprinkle on salt and/or pepper, Borsari, or other dried herbs or spices.Borsari original seasoned salt bottle
  7. Roast vegetables, lowering heat to 425° F for about 20 minutes. Check at the 20 minute mark, stirring and flipping pieces over. Continue roasting in 10-15 minute increments until you think they’re done. Look for some darkened edges, or note when the sharp odor of raw vegetables is replaced by the sweeter scent of cooked ones. If in doubt, a total cooking time of 45-60 minutes is probably about right, and most vegetables won’t hurt you if raw or under-cooked, unlike meat.

Roasted vegetables on Silpat lined half sheet panVeg roasting tips from an unseasoned cook

My most often roasted vegetables are sweet potato, carrot, beet, and parsnip, but I use turnips and rutabagas pretty often, too. I have yet to regret roasting any vegetable, but, in my experience, the watery ones seem like extra work for less deliciousness.

Unless you’re cooking for my husband or a similar philistine, always include one small onion with your other vegetables. Caramelized onion is just so tasty unless you hate onions, and maybe even then, and even a small amount lends tons of flavor to the entire rest of the tray of vegetables.

Chop up your vegetables to the size you like to eat. I make little pieces that look like breakfast hash for myself; my husband prefers heftier chunks, a bit larger than dice. I can cook both in the same oven for about the same amount of time with no ill effects, so I’d say the size is purely a matter of personal taste.

Don’t crowd the pan! I always do, and the results will be softer, more “steamed” vegetables with less of the really yummy, caramelized, crunchy bits. Use a larger pan than you think need, and you’ll get the tastiest results. If, like me, you prioritize getting that last dish into the dishwasher instead, just recognize that a smaller batch might turn out better.

Proper chefs on the internet tell me I would get crispier, more delicious vegetables if I used an unlined baking sheet. I use a Silpat non-stick silicone mat anyway. Again, I prioritize easy clean up, and the food ends up good enough for me either way.

Try roasting vegetables you don’t think you like. You may feel differently about them once roasted! I do not normally care for beets or parsnips, but I like them roasted. I like raw carrots, but hate them cooked moist say in a soup; I love them roasted. You can see where I’m going with this. Your experience could differ, but this is a wonderful way to try eating unusual produce that might not normally appear in your diet. Most of us benefit from the addition of greater variety in this category.

Offer roasted vegetables to your kids, possibly not mentioning exactly what they are until they’ve rendered a verdict on taste. Make sure the distinct varietals are different colors so you can identify favorites for future reference. Encourage your kids to eat a whole rainbow of foods. Let them select spices from your cupboard and try roasting with them, possibly by sniffing each bottle until they find one that smells tempting.

My favorite is Borsari Original Seasoned Salt. This is the only “mixed” seasoning in my spice cupboard. It is delicious on duck… and everything else I’ve tried it with. A Whole Foods employee recommended it to me c. 2003.

* 7% of Americans reported being able to work remotely prior to the pandemic; as of October 2020, one third of us are working from home all the time, and 25% report doing so some of the time. More than half of Americans have worked from home for at least part of the pandemic.

Hot water bottles to warm up 2020’s chilly COVID socializing & studies

It’s 2020, autumn, and the pandemic did not miraculously resolve after the election. For those of us who believe in science and value the health of others, the only safe way to socialize these days is to take our meetings outdoors.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1I suffer more from the cold since developing an autoimmune disease, but November in New England isn’t traditionally known for sedentary al fresco activities. Even hale and hearty young people become uncomfortable sitting still as the mercury drops much below room* temperature.

Snow sprinkled evergreen trees in autumnAnd, of course, we got weather like this in October!

The first step to staying comfortable outdoors is wearing appropriate clothing. It is always wise to bring at least one layer more than one thinks is necessary for extended jaunts on cool days. Wear a cap, and bring your gloves, too, of course. But if the sun sets, or the temperature drops below 60º F or so, the amount of clothing required—or the need for expensive, highly specialized gear in which you may not wish to invest—can become burdensome.

teal softshell rain

Why I use hot water bottles at home and outdoors

I send my child to outdoor classes—and welcome visitors to our yard for socially distanced visits—with a cheap, simple, classic, soothingly warm hot water bottle. Adding a source of radiating heat beneath a blanket or tucked into a jacket can add hours of comfort for anyone, and, as a bonus, it also helps ease pain for those of us with arthritis.

Unlike a heating pad, you aren’t tied to an electrical outlet with a hot water bottle. And, while I also use microwaveable “warm bags” —which I’ve heard friends call “rice sacks,” “heat pillows,” and also “heating pads”— the grain filled type weigh just as much, yet cool down relatively quickly compared with the long sustained warmth of water with its very high specific heat capacity.

Red rubber hot water bottle on bed

My history with hot water bottles

Before I married my husband, I’d never even seen a hot water bottle in real life. I knew what they were from old novels and cartoons, but hadn’t noticed they were still sold in stores.

Quaint and old-fashioned hot water bottles may be, but I’ve become a convert. I’ve found them readily available in major chains and tiny Main Street Mom & Pop drug stores across America. Ask the pharmacist—or the oldest person on staff—at your local shop, and you will probably get what you need.

Continue reading

LunchBots stainless containers for life, even lids lost 10 years later

It can be hard to splurge on expensive items designed to last a lifetime when cheap, semi-disposable alternatives abound in our stores. Their ubiquity makes them seem like the obvious choice.

For parents preparing to pack daily lunches for school, stainless steel and glass containers are a perfect example. I can buy a week’s worth of plastic sandwich boxes for the price of a single stainless steel one.

Screen grab shows $17 for stainless sandwich box vs $8 for 3 plastic ones

Kids lose things. Kids break stuff. Kids aren’t necessarily careful with something just because Mom paid more for it.

And, after all, they are just children! While I want mine to grow up to be careful stewards of their possessions, I’d also like for them to be able to enjoy a meal without fretting about my reaction if the fancy new lunchbox gets dented or scratched.

In spite of such obstacles, the LunchBots brand proved to me this week that I was wise to invest a bit more cash in their products vs. the cheaper plastic competition in 2010. They stand behind their products, even 10 years after purchase!

LunchBots is one of a few companies I’ve personally patronized that opened for business c. 2008. That’s when plastic-as-poison was gaining mainstream steam, leading suburban moms like me to look for non-toxic alternatives to plastic food containers laced with BPA and other endocrine disrupting* compounds that may or may not leach at dangerous levels into what we eat and drink from them.

In 2020, LunchBots replaced a ten year old lid that my child lost. They didn’t charge me a cent, not even the actual cost of mailing it!

Replacement LunchBots Pico lid next to well worn 10 year old version Continue reading