Tuesday, June 7, 2011

St. Meriadoc's Day

Happy St. Meriadoc's Day!

St. Meriadoc is a little-known Welsh saint, but one who is very important to me and my family. It's an interesting story. Last year, my father was diagnosed with stage four metastatic melanoma. It was a very frightening time for our family. I spent almost all last summer with my parents while my dad was receiving intensive treatment that required him to be in the ICU every other week, driving my mother to and from each day (she was in no state to drive), preparing meals, sitting in on doctor's visits, and generally trying to be as useful and supportive as possible. At one point, a good friend of the family offered a class 2 relic of St. Damien, whom he is named after and feels a close connection to. My dad was unfamiliar with relics and their classes, so, my degrees being in religious studies and history, I gave a quick explanation. Intrigued, my mother jokingly said there probably wasn't a saint by mine and my dad's name (I am named after him). Challenge accepted!

Sure enough, within a few minutes I had discovered Saint Meriadoc (a version of his name is mine and my father's given name). Obscure as he may be, there he was. Quickly we discovered that not only did we share his name, but his heritage, as he was Welsh and part of our family hales from Wales. Reading further, we found that not only is he the patron saint of deafness, but is also considered a patron of incurable disease. Metastatic melanoma being one of the most difficult of all cancers to treat, we were all rather shocked at this discovery. But the most dumbfounding fact about Saint Meriadoc was that his feast day is June 7th, and that very day was June 7th. It shook me to my core that that day, of all days, was the one I went in search of him. I have said many times in my life that I do not believe in coincidence; to me, this was just another example of that fundamental truth.

Over the course of the last year, I have prayed almost daily to St. Meriadoc and woven him into my admittedly eclectic  and unique religious practices. I have felt his presence in my life over and over again. Shortly after becoming acquainted with him, a wave of new drugs to treat melanoma appeared on the scene, giving us greater and greater hope for successful treatment of my father. My father's condition is currently stable, which, in a cancer as fast-moving as this is, is a miracle in and of itself. I am so grateful for what I believe is his intercession on my father's behalf that I am at a loss for words. There is magic and grace all around us, if only we seek it out.

Needless to say, I had been very much looking forward to the first opportunity to celebrate Meriadoc's feast day! I spent personal time in prayer with a candle lit in his honor, thanking him for his benevolence. And, of course, I cooked! Because he was Welsh, I wanted to do some Welsh-inspired recipes. This is what I came up with (recipes below):

This is Bacon-Wrapped Cod with Leeks. From what I've read, bacon-wrapped fish is a rather traditional Welsh dish, and several recipes I found generally featured leeks, so combining the two seemed ideal. This is not a place to use fancy, heavily smoked, thick bacon, people - no, you want something thin, flexible and simple so you don't overwhelm that delicious fish. A little pepper and a pinch of herbs de provence, and into the oven it goes, easy-peasy. It was so good that I know it's going to be a new staple around the Gentle House!

To go with, I made Roasted Potatoes with Leeks. Simple and satisfying, but incredibly delicious. The leeks get crispy as they cook, taking this dish from daily dinner to divine experience.

A festive tipple seemed to be in order, so out came the mead! (Yes, I know it says Christmas - but hey, with mead, ANY day can feel like a holiday!) It was especially appropriate because I was lucky enough to have wonderful mead while visiting Wales in my teens. It seemed all to appropriate to bring it out in celebration today. If you have never had it, I encourage you to give it a try. It is a sweet, rich fermented honey wine, and it is a real taste of history - one of the oldest beverages in the world.

And for dessert? Simple, delicious macerated strawberries in cream. Macerating is simply the process of putting berries in sugar and letting it draw the juices out. This is one of the finest pleasures of summer, and is great either as a dessert or breakfast.

Having feasted in honor of my beloved patron saint, I feel more grateful than ever for so many things - his presence in my life, my wonderful family and the closeness that we share, the good health that we enjoy, and for the simple pleasures of life. Taking the time to remember and give thanks for those things enriches life and is a balm to the heart!

Bacon-Wrapped Cod with Leeks

Serves 2-3 (depending on your appetite!)

1 1/2 lb cod fillets (2 pieces)
1 leek, rinsed well, roots and leaves removed (leaving solid white/light green part of the vegetable)
4 slices bacon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Pinch herbs de provence
Pepper to taste
1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 400. Place cod fillets in shallow baking dish, tucking thinnest part of the fillet underneath so that it approximates the thickness of the rest of the piece of fish (about 1 inch). Sprinkle fillets with herbs de provence, pepper, and lemon juice.

Cut leek in half; set other half aside (this part can be used for the potatoes). Slice remaining half lengthwise, then into smaller slices, resulting in small ribbons. Sprinkle half of leek slices over fish.

Place two pieces of bacon side by side lengthwise to cover each fillet of fish, tucking ends underneath each fillet. Season lightly with pepper, and sprinkle with remaining leeks. Put water in the bottom of the pan (do not pour over top of fish) and place in the oven, uncovered, for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, raise temperature to 450, bake ten additional minutes, then remove and serve.

Roasted Potatoes with Leeks

1 1/2 lbs mixed red and white potatoes, quartered
1/2 leek, rinsed well, roots and leaves removed (leaving solid white/light green part of the vegetable)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon rosemary
Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400. In shallow baking dish, place quartered potatoes cut side down. Drizzle with olive oil and season to taste with rosemary, salt, and pepper. Slice the leek into thin rounds, then sprinkle over top of the potatoes. Place in oven for 1 hour. Serve.

* HINT: Make your potatoes first, then place the fish in alongside them for the last chunk of cooking time. The potatoes don't mind sitting through the ten minutes at 450, either, so make it easy on yourself and do it in stages!

Macerated Strawberries in Cream

I'm only going to share the method with you, because you can so easily change the quantities to suit your needs. Simply slice as many strawberries as you would like to use, and cover them with sugar (for a half-dozen medium sized strawberries, I would use between 1/4 and 1/3 of a cup of sugar - you'll learn to eyeball what you need). Stir, then place in the fridge for about an hour. It's helpful to stir it after about half an hour to ensure the strawberries are all adequately sugared. After an hour, you will see that the strawberries have softened and leached their juices, essentially creating a beautiful pink strawberry syrup. Simply add cream or milk and devour with a look of pure bliss on your face.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lonely Night Dinner: Whole Wheat Soda Bread & Tea

It's a cold, quiet night here - one of my favorite kinds - and I needed a simple, soul-satisfying dinner. When you're feeling chilly and cozy, what could be better than a slice of warm bread and a cup of hot tea? Clearly, it was meant to be a whole wheat soda bread kind of evening!

This loaf is wonderfully comforting - its flavor is simply, purely wholesome. It tastes wheat-y in a classically nutty, delicious way. Its texture is slightly chewy, and if you are like me an enjoy your bread crusty, you will not be disappointed. Cracking into that crust in anticipation of the moist, chewey interior - preferably still steaming hot! - is sensory bliss.

The best part? It's so ridiculously easy to make that as you shove it in the oven, you'll wonder if you somehow missed a step. Nope. It really IS that simple. Just sit back and enjoy the aroma of hot baking bread as it fills your house.

Once you pull it out of the oven, don't wait. Life's too short. Carefully ease it out of the pan, grab a knife, and have at it while its as hot and fresh as it can possibly be. Tonight, as you can see, I topped it with butter and honey, which, I assure you, is utterly divine. All the parts come together so eloquently: the warm, flavorful bread; the creamy, salty butter; and the sweet, thick, rich honey, all melded into the perfect simple dinner. It's equally good with your favorite jam; toasted the next day with any nut butter; or served accompanying a roast, soup or stew, or even a vegetable bake. Make some and treat yourself!

Whole Wheat Soda Bread

3 cups (12 oz) of wheat flour
1 cup (4 oz) of white flour (do not use self-rising as it already contains baking powder and salt)
14 ounces of buttermilk
1 teaspoon of salt
1 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.
Approximately 1 tablespoon honey (I admit, I just blop some in there!)

Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees.  Lightly grease and flour a round cake pan or spray with Bakers Joy. 
In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. If the dough still seems dry or too crumbly, just add a touch more liquid (regular milk or whatever you've got in the fridge is fine if you've run out of buttermilk). Flour your hands and lightly knead (too much allows the gas that helps it rise to escape) in the bowl.

Shape into a round and place in prepared pan. It probably won't touch the sides; that's fine. Cut a cross in the top of the dough. Cover the pan with another round cake pan or tinfoil (make it a little poofy so it doesn't touch the bread)  and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped when done. Let cool and serve with butter, preserves, and/or honey. It's wonderful with tea - I had chamomile!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Yay - New Hairstyle!

I have always had long hair, and I love it. I like the versatility of it. Feeling romantic? Wear it down. Need it out of the way? Put it up. And there are so many ways to do both of those things (and everything in between) I never get bored! I love long hair so much that after 29 years of never making much of an effort with it, I'm now taking much more care of it to see how long I can actually get it to grow.

Meanwhile, I'm having lots of fun learning new hairstyles. I utterly adore historical hairstyles, and yesterday I learned to do the Gibson Tuck! I LOVE this!

Can you believe this was my very first go at it? That's how easy this style is to achieve! If you'd like to learn how to do it yourself (and see some other really neat tutorials as well), this is where I learned how to do it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5JZOVnSjjE I can't wait to try some of the others she features - especially the Roman bun!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Long Time, No Post

But I have a good reason! I've been rather busy with the newest member of our family. Meet Alice!

Not such a great picture, but she's a quick little bugger and it's hard to get a decent shot! Here she is, getting a snuggle from my lovely husband. She's a five month old lionhead, and super spunky. She cracks me up!
I haven't had a rabbit in several years, but the mister recently decided he wanted one (he's never had a bun before). I tease him about spending too much time stealing glimpses at my weheartit page. But, truly, it was impossible for me to say no. I've missed having a bunny in my life. They're such fun to have around, with big personalities in really cute packages. What can I say? I'm a sucker.

Some things I've learned about the little miss:
  • She hates pellets, but loves her hay and green beans.
  • She can throw things REALLY FAR.
  • She learns words, including her name, surprisingly fast.
  • She's a dramatic flopper.
  • She has absolutely no fear of anything - noise, the dogs, heights, nothing.
  • Not paying enough attention? She can rattle that cage like an earthquake.

So basically I've been chasing her around the house for days. Yes, her favorite bunny game is, of course, tag. Needless to say, I've been having quite a lot of fun. ; )

Sunday, February 27, 2011

We Went to the Quilt Show!

Every year, Hampton, VA's coliseum hosts a really inspiring quilt show. Now, I don't quilt - I barely sew, just buttons and hems! - but if you appreciate art and beautifully handcrafted items, it's a wonderful place to spend a day. Every year my mother, aunt and I try and make it down. We look forward to it all year long. This year only my aunt and I were available, and we had such a blast!

The sheer variety of subject matter, colors, patterns, and general creativity at this event is almost overwhelming. If you think quilts are simply squares of fabric sewn together, think again. People dye their own fabrics, design outrageous motifs, create three dimensional elements, craft wearable items, make dolls - I could go on and on. And because you end up so inspired by the end, it's a good thing there's lots of shopping! Whether you want fabric (all kinds, from silk to sack cloth), yarn, wool roving, felt, beads, or something else, it's all there! I came home with a bagful of goodies to make dog collar covers, lamp shades and wool ornaments for my upcoming Easter Tree.

But enough about that. How about some eye candy?

 This pattern is called "Sunbonnet Sue", a pretty traditional motif. People like to have a lot of fun with her. Here, she's exploring her various hobbies. My aunt and I totally cracked up! Some close ups:

This tea and cupcakes themed quilt was so sweet. I loved it!

This one was my aunt's favorite. It just makes you smile!

This one was one of the top prize winners. Isn't it incredible? I'd never seen a portrait quilt before. Check out the closeup:

This one looked like a watercolor painting:

This sheep quilt was my very favorite of the day! I adore sheep, and I love how the quilter made them so three dimensional and fuzzy! And aren't the embroidered wildflowers just beautiful?

These little beaded bowls were amazing, and so tiny!

Here are some of the wearable art pieces we saw. The shawl was such a stunner - sadly, they were out of the pattern - and I was ready to wear the cape home!

It was such a great day! We were both so inspired and can't wait to start some fun new projects. I'm sure we've soaked up enough inspiration to last another year!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

First Rose!

I am so terribly excited! I got my very first rose (that I am picking and planting myself)!

It's called a Joseph's Coat, it's a climber (my favorite!) and is supposed to have a floral-fruity scent. I've actually been admiring one for years on a person's fence here in my city and said a million times I should just ask them what kind it is. When I saw the picture on the label, I knew this was it! They start out one color, then as they age they turn all kinds of tones, as you can see above. It's gorgeous.

Now if only it would get warm enough to plant! The poor thing thinks it's happy in the warm kitchen and is trying to sprout already! If you have a favorite type of rose - any kind - I'd love to hear about it! I really want to plant lots!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Belated Valentine's Day - Best Brownies EVER

I love celebrations. Holidays are a wonderful excuse to have a little fun with those you love, and create traditions - however simple they may be - that, to me, are part of what really are the heart of a family, however you define it. So any holiday that rolls around puts a smile on my face, including Valentine's Day. An excuse to show family/friends/lovers/pets (whatever you've got!) how much you care? Yes, please! We need more of that in life!

On major holidays we usually pack up and head to my parents' home a couple hours away, which is always wonderful, but for smaller ones such as this we usually simply invite my little brother, Pete, over. I love having him right in town, not only because I like spending time with him (he's hilarious), but also because he is always enthusiastic about a home-cooked meal and I love cooking for someone so happy about it! It's especially delightful because he's pretty handy in the kitchen himself, so I take it as a pretty high compliment. This Valentine's Day I made something the boys both love: Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole with Rice Pilaf.

The recipe is from Pillsbury; I made a few changes, though. For one, I used regular chicken tenders, not honey ones - too sweet for my liking. I also used regular black forest ham rather than the maple for the same reason. You can find the recipe here: http://www.pillsbury.com/recipes/deep-dish-chicken-cordon-bleu/69f1b769-d361-4333-96d4-0a733b2caf0a/ . Definitely give it a try! It's remarkably simple and utterly delicious. The boys ate almost the entire pan all by themselves!

Of course, what would Valentine's Day be without chocolate? So I made the boys a brownie heart, which I wish I had better pictures of, but it had to be done quickly before it was devoured mercilessly!

I'm in love with this brownie recipe, I must say - the best I've ever made. It has so many virtues. First, it is EASY. It only dirties up one pot and one pan, and is in the oven in, oh, fifteen minutes or so, and that includes some cooling time before you add the eggs. The reward for so little effort is a perfectly chewy, crackling-topped, deeply chocolate piece of homemade joy. Make this. Your loved ones will worship you. Make sure you have milk on hand!

Happiness Brownies

10 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 seaspoons water
3/4 cup plus two teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt (or more if you're using unsalted butter)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup chocolate chips, optional
1.      Preheat the oven to 325. Spray an 8x8 square or 8 inch round pan with lots of Baker's Joy.  
2.      Melt the butter in a medium sized pot over medium heat. Watch it carefully so it doesn't burn, stirring it around.  
3.      Once it's melted, remove it from the heat and immediately add the sugar, cocoa, water, salt and vanilla. Stir to combine; it will be grainy.
4.      Let it cool for five minutes or so, then add in the eggs one at a time, whisking after each one - I use a fork for this, actually. The cooling is so that you don't accidentally cook the egg. The batter will get thick and shiny as you do this.
5.      Add the flour, then, using a hand mixer if you have one, beat for 2 minutes. If you're using the chocolate chips, stir them in by hand once the 2 minutes is up.
6.      Pour the batter into your pan, smooshing it around with a spoon so it's even, and bake for 20-25 minutes. The brownies should look like they're dry and/or pulling away from the edges of the pan, but the center will still be gooey if you stab it. Don't worry, they will firm up after they set. Try not to devour in one sitting!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Weird Woodpecker Encounter

Odd things happen to me, and more often than not those weird happenings involve animals. I admit it: I'm a bleeding heart. All my pets are rescues, and I can never, ever leave an animal that seems to be in need. So when I was driving this morning and saw a little redheaded woodpecker sitting almost in traffic (like four inches from tires!) on the side of the road, I knew I had to try and help him. If you've never seen one, redheaded woodpeckers are pretty little things and look like this:

I made a u-turn, drove back around and pulled up in front of him. I got out of the car and slowly walked up to the little guy, talking quietly as I bent down to check him out. He didn't try and hop away from me - I was only about three inches from him - so I assumed he must have an injured wing. I went back to the car and grabbed a towel and small box, hoping to get him in it and off to the animal shelter quickly so he could get on the mend.

Returning to him and again talking quietly, he let me wrap the towel gently around him. I put the box down, and he eyed it, then eyed me. I went to pick him up, and he was fine until he realized I meant to put him in the box, so he hopped away a little bit - not unusual, as I'm sure anyone who has ever dealt with injured birds knows well! I wrapped the towel around him again and he was fine as long as he thought I was just going to pick him up, but when he realized the box was still his intended destination, he was none to thrilled... and that's when it happened.

All of a sudden, he cocked his little red head, gave me a funny look, and just TOOK OFF! His wing brushed my hand as he flew over to the brick wall of a nearby church, attaching himself to it with no trouble at all. The little guy was faking it! Hypochodriac bird!! Whoever heard of such a thing?!

I watched him fly off, laughing, both because it was such a bizarre thing to have happened and because I was so happy he really wasn't hurt after all - and also, I think, because it was such a miracle to have a wild animal like that be so overall trusting of me. It was clear he knew I was trying to be friendly; otherwise he'd  have used that incredible beak on me. Nature and all her creatures are so amazing. I'll never forget my unusual little friend!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Painting the Kitchen: Step One, Color Choices

Ever since we bought the house, I've known that I would need to paint the kitchen, and for two good reasons. First, the house has previously been painted in all matte, flat paint, and it is not a good or practical thing in a kitchen! Secondly, I utterly hate the color. It's a dusty blue, and it does nothing for the space. I'm not a fan of blue in kitchens in general (not lively enough for such a busy space!), but especially in this kitchen it seems to make it very dim.

My husband and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen - certainly many, if not most, people feel that the kitchen is the hub and heart of the home. We enter and leave through it every day, cook, eat, chat, and play there. To me, it 's a creative space as well, because I love coming up with new recipes and I always seem to do my best thinking when I'm stirring a pot or waiting for the water to boil for tea.

So my criteria for the new paint job is that is has to be bright, cheerful and clean looking. My color inspiration? Check it out:


Who doesn't love eggs? They're delicious, nutritious, and yes, definitely beautiful. They epitomize a cheerful morning to me. Seeing those sunny yellow yolks and perfectly white whites is one of the prettiest things in the world! And personally, breakfast is one of our favorite meals. I love having eggs, bacon, biscuits and coffee with Q - we always have the best conversations during a langorious breakfast or brunch. Not only that, but eggs are wonderfully symbolic of fertility, and the color yellow is a lucky one in many cultures. Perhaps the colors and symbolism will further get that creativity flowing! ; )

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pretty Scents

Confession: I am a junkie for pretty scents. Whether it be perfume, soap, bouquets, or even carpet deodorizer, if it smells pretty, I'm hooked!

As a birthday gift to myself, I ordered some room sprays from Crabtree & Evelyn. If you've never smelled any of their products, they are really remarkable. They tend to have the really pure, saturated scent of whatever the main essence is supposed to be. My all time favorite rose scent is their Rosewater, which is like tea roses and damask roses all mixed together in one heavenly mist.

The thing I love most is spraying a bit of this right before I go to sleep. I pretend I'm sleeping in a garden!

Another great find - this one a total accident - turned out to be Yardley's Lavender Soap. I was in the soap aisle at the grocery store the other day and someone had left a bar of this randomly on a shelf. That annoys me, so I picked it up to figure out where it belonged. When I realized it was lavender (which is one of the most lovely scents in the world, I think!), I sniffed it and knew I had to have it. It hasn't disappointed! My entire bathroom smells gently of lavender, and I was pleased that the soap itself seems pretty gentle. But really, even if it wasn't, I'd be tempted just to leave a bar around to scent the room anyway!

Best part? It was less than $2! Maybe all this will keep me away from candles for a little while. : P

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Arts & Crafts Day

A grey, drizzly day is the perfect time to pull out the paints and do some crafting! One project I've been meaning to get around to is making some pretty birdhouses for the feathered friends in our yard. We're blessed to have many regulars - two pairs of cardinals who are constantly flitting around, showing off their amazing colors, and a mockingbird who is a complete ham, to mention a few. I love the little mockingbird especially. He seems to realize that I'm a fan of his, and he and I have little talks every time he's out and about. I love watching the little guy puff up or stretch his wings, and listening to and watching him mimic the rest of the birds is one of my very favorite things.

The birdhouses are an especially timely project, though, because we've realized we need to do a bit of trimming outside. We are lucky to have several varieties of huge hollies surrounding the house, and oh my, they are gorgeous. I love comparing their foliage and berries, which vary a great deal between types! Unfortuantely, some of the branches are pushing up against the house, and that's not good for the plants or our home, so a haircut is in order. These trees are the favorite roost of many of the birds in our yard, though, so I'm hoping to get the birdhouses out soon to attract them away from areas we need to work on. I don't want to disurb anyone, especially in spring when they'll be nesting!

I started painting my first one this afternoon, and I've come to a point where I have to let it dry a bit before I can continue. Here's the progress I've made so far:

I like it so far! I wanted something rather whimsical. I can't wait to finish it up and put the sealant on! Hopefully my feathered friends will like it too. : )