Saturday, January 31, 2015

Once there was a snowman … or two or three or more …

Here we are at the close of January. Those of us living in the Intermountain West have had an unseasonably warm month. I'm starting to get the urge to get out and work in the garden, however, I am also aware that February and March have the potential to bring their share of snow and colder temperatures.
With the lack of snow outside, we have had to rely on snowman-themed decor on the inside to remind ourselves that we truly are in the midst of winter. When I put the Christmas decorations away at the close of December, I like to fill the void with winter decorations featuring snowmen. Two years ago, I began working on a wool appliqué snowman quilt. After completing the individual blocks, piecing the top together, and having it quilted, I am thrilled to have this quilt hanging in my parlor. 
For someone like me who doesn't like to sit without anything to do, working on the individual snowman blocks was a lot of fun and kept me busy on airplane trips. I also enjoyed building my skills in working with wool. Here are some up close pictures of the individual snowmen featured in this block:

Here is one wearing a warm winter scarf and another juggling some snowballs.

These next two blocks feature a snowman with a broom and another with hearts, perhaps for Valentine's Day.

Here we have a snowman with a birdhouse and another wearing mittens and enjoying falling snow.

These final two blocks feature a mama and baby snowman and a snowman with a bird.
The center block features the name of the quilt, "Warm Winter Blessings."

I was absolutely delighted with the exquisite work that my quilter did to make this such a wonderful quilt. The pictures really don't do it justice but here are a few close ups to give you an idea of the detail. Here is a look at the snowflakes that she stitched into the light blue sashing strips between the blocks.
This next picture of the back of the quilt gives you an idea of the overall detail with the off-white snowflakes outlining the snowman blocks, stars and snowflakes in the inner border, and the feathering in the outer border.
 These final two pictures feature the feathering detail in the outer border and more of the snowflakes in the inner border.
In the spirit of this quilt's title, I wish you "Warm Winter Blessings" as we continue through the winter season. In the words of the psalmist:
God be gracious to us and bless us, 
And cause His face to shine upon us - 
That Your way may be known on the earth, 
Your salvation among all nations.
Psalm 67:1-2

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Beef and Barley Soup

As late December gives way to early January, I find myself experiencing an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, I am eager to begin the new year, resume our normal routine, and get the house back in order. At the same time, I find myself in no huge rush to get all of the Christmas things put away and have the season come to an end.
These same sentiments also apply to the food of the season. One the one hand it's nice to be cleaning up the treats and party foods. On the other hand, we miss all of the good food of the season. 
For a number of years now, we have elected to prepare a prime rib roast for our Christmas dinner. It's really quite easy to prepare, and we prefer not to spend a whole lot of time on Christmas Day preparing dinner. Even with our family's appetite, we can typically get a good meal or two of leftovers from the roast. After that, I use the final remnants of the roast and the gravy to make beef and barley soup. Knowing that we will be making soup, we tend to leave a rather generous amount of meat on the rib rack and we set aside an additional slice or two of roast as well. I've really not used a recipe to make the soup so I will do my best to describe the process as I go. As a point of reference, I am making my soup in a 12-quart stock pot, and am using the remnants of a 3-rib roast.

Step 1: Cover the rib rack with water and simmer in a large stock pot for about an hour or so. This will allow any extra meat to fall off the bones. Boiling the bones also helps create the stock for the soup.

Step 2: Remove the bones from the broth. Skim off and discard any excess fat from the broth. Cut off the remaining meat from the bones and cut into smaller pieces. I tend to make my pieces rather small since this is a soup rather than a stew. Cut up any reserved slices of beef as well. Return all beef to the stock pot. Discard the bones.

Step 3: Stir in any leftover gravy and beef broth that you may have from preparing the roast. These tend to add some great extra flavor to the soup and limit the need for any additional seasoning.

Step 4: Now for the vegetables. To be honest, you really can just go with what you like in a soup. Here is what I included in this batch.
  • One heaping soupspoon of chopped garlic
  • One medium sweet onion
  • Celery. (Note: we had bought a bag of two celery hearts, both of which were rather small. After I chopped up the first one and added it to the soup, it wasn't enough so I  chopped up and added the second one.
  • Green beans - approximately 1.5 - 2 cups (Note: I used a bag of frozen green beans, and this is the approximate volume of green beans that I put in a freezer bag when freezing vegetables from our garden. You could also substitute fresh.)
  • Carrots - approximately 3 - 4 cups. (Note: I used 2 of our prepared freezer bags. Feel free to substitute fresh in their place.)
  • One 11 oz. can of Niblets corn.
Step 5: The seasonings. Again, feel free to use what you like. For the most part, I just use salt and pepper to taste and add about 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme. Allow the soup to simmer together until the vegetables are cooked.

Step 6: Prepare the barley. You can actually start this step at any point in the process. I always prepare the barley separately and then stir it into the soup. Use one cup of barley and 2.5 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil and cook until done, about 45 minutes. Once the barley is cooked, stir it into the soup.

Step 7: Adjust seasonings as desired. If the beef broth is tasting a little weak, add a beef bullion cube or two, a spoonful of beef base, or some Kitchen Bouquet.

Serve with warm bread or cornbread. This soup also freezes well. With fewer of us living at home these days, we often find it convenient to make a large batch of soup and then freeze some for another meal or two later. We use the 1 gallon Ziploc freezer bags, and they hold up well in the freezer.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Stitches

Once again, we find ourselves with Christmas Day nearly upon us. This short post conveys my wishes for a very blessed Christmas to you and yours. 
For this post, I thought I would share a some of my cross stitch projects from the past few years. All of these projects have come from my favorite stitching shop, Shepherd's Bush in Ogden. As previous posts have indicated, I am rather fond of sheep, so I am always eager to pick up a new project that features sheep. 
This year, I elected to display these ornaments from the garland that hangs from our bannister in December. Who knows how many others will be added during the years to come. As you can see from the picture below, I have plenty of room for adding more.
This picture features words from the English carol, "I Saw Three Ships," and features a shepherd and his sheep watching a ship come in. 

This next one features a spindly sort of tree with multiple shapes and decorations, including a sheep, of course. Each of these small pillow ornaments also features a button from Just Another Button Company. You can take a look at others of their handmade buttons at their website
 This final ornament has a series of stockings in a row with a row of sheep beneath them.
 Here is a quick peek at our Christmas tree. As you can see, our two cats are ready for Christmas. They like to hide away under the tree. The Siamese, in particular, loves baskets. Since he has taken over the basket, I haven't had the heart to fill it up with our Christmas story books as I usually do during December.
As we make our final Christmas preparations, I again wish you a very blessed Christmas and thank you for your readership over the past year. I will conclude this post with the words that were spoken over 2000 years ago to a group of shepherds who were keeping watch over sheep of their own. These words heralded the arrival of our own Great Shepherd.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring  you tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10-11    

Saturday, December 13, 2014

O Holy Night!

As the days of December creep ever closer to Christmas, I find myself becoming more introspective and reflective in relation to the season. The parties and programs, for the most part, are over, the Christmas cards have been mailed, and the packages have been wrapped and sent. Now comes the time to quiet down and enjoy time at home with my family. 

Given that it is the Christmas season, it is no surprise that I have a number of nativity sets around the house. What might be surprising, however, is the number and variety of sets that I have. Some are ones that are meant to be kept up and out of the reach of small fingers, some are intended for young fingers to touch and play with, some have been handmade gifts from friends, others come from different parts of the world. 

For this post, I thought I would take you on a "tour" of sorts of some of the handwork projects that I have around the house that reflect the nativity story. Many of them are from patterns designed by the wonderful folks at Shepherd's Bush, my favorite local needlework store. Please keep in mind that these projects have been completed over a span of nearly 25 years rather than the past few weeks.

This first series of pictures is of a Christmas sampler that I completed to be framed and ready for our first Christmas in our new home in 2010. I've included some close ups of each of the
portions of this sampler as well.

 I have several projects that incorporate button figures into the cross stitch picture such as with this small framed piece and this decorative pillow.
I also have a small "nativity tree" that include a number of handmade ornaments that tell a portion of the Christmas story. You can discern some angels as well as cross stitched and quilted ornaments that feature a component of the Christmas story.
Fortunately, the Christmas story doesn't end with the nativity. The same Jesus who was born in a stable grew up, had an earthly ministry, died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, rose again, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. 

A few days ago, as I was driving to work, I listened to Steven Curtis Chapman's arrangement of the traditional song, "We Three Kings," from his "Joy" Christmas album from 2012. Although I have heard the song numerous times through the years, it was as though I was listening to it with a new and refreshed perspective. Although this song tells the journey of the wiremen and the gifts they bring, it also presents the gospel message in its entirety, encompassing the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I thought that I would share it here and hope that it blesses you as much as it blessed me.

 From my family to yours, we wish you a very blessed and merry Christmas.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; 
And the government will rest on His shoulders; 
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace
Isaiah 9:6-7

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Snacks for a Christmas Journey

Shalom Friends! At least that is how I will be greeting people in my family, my very large family, over the next few days. I will be portraying a fictional Jewish woman, Naomi, who will travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her husband, Gaddiel, daughter, Elizabeth, and a large, newly-acquired "family" in order to pay their taxes. During the course of our Journey, we will encounter Roman soldiers, three magi who have been following a new star, shepherds who are visited by an angel, a rabbi and his students who are studying the Old Testament prophets, and tax collectors - all before we finally make it to Bethlehem. Once we do make it to Bethlehem, we will be turned away at the inn. In our efforts to find a place to stay, however, we will have our own personal encounter with Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus.

This is all part of my church's annual presentation of Journey to Bethlehem. We have been presenting Journey to Bethlehem since 1996. It is a live, outdoor nativity event that we offer as a free gift to the community. As our guests arrive, they are placed into "families" who will then experience about a 45-minute journey as part of Gaddiel and Naomi's family.

An event such as Journey to Bethlehem requires a large cast and crew. During the course of each night, the cast and crew always are ready to enjoy a snack or two to keep our energy going as we are able to catch a momentary break. For this post, I thought I would share a couple of my favorite Journey to Bethlehem snacks that seem to be hits with kids through adults. They are rather portable and easily consumed. They are also relatively easy to put together which is always a bonus during Journey week.

Caramel Cereal Mix
I prefer to use the Chex brand cereals, but any type of crispy corn and rice square cereal will do.
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons margarine or butter
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 cups crispy rice square cereal
  • 4 cups crispy corn square cereal
Microwave the brown sugar, margarine, and corn syrup in a large microwaveable bowl uncovered on high for 1-2 minutes, stirring after 1 minute, until margarine is melted
Stir in baking soda until dissolved. 
Stir in cereals. 
Microwave on high for 3 minutes, stirring every minute. Caution: the bowl will get hot so handle carefully.
Spread out onto a large cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Allow to cool and break into pieces. 
Store in an airtight container. The Christmas-themed plastic containers that are available this time of year work great and are a ready-to-go serving bowl.

Popcorn balls
These turn out nice and soft and caramel-y. They do take a bit of time because you need to boil the caramel coating on the stove, but they are well worth the effort.
  • 1/4 cup margarine or butter
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 bags of microwave popcorn, popped (I prefer to use a "light" variety to avoid too heavy of a butter taste - the caramel taste doesn't need any competition)
Pop the bags of popcorn and empty them into a very large container. I use a large stockpot. You will need the space for mixing the caramel mixture over the popped corn.
Combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook until soft ball stage (234 to 238 degrees Fahrenheit). Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. 
Pour over the popcorn, toss the popcorn and caramel mixture together, shape into balls, and wrap in plastic wrap. Be careful - the caramel mixture will be hot!! At the same time, you need to work somewhat quickly because as the caramel mixture cools, it also hardens, making it more difficult to form the popcorn balls. I also spray my hands with non-stick spray to keep the caramel from sticking to my hands while forming the popcorn balls.
In the spirit of the Advent season, here is a Christmas hymn to listen to while preparing your own Christmas treats. This arrangement is by Red Mountain Music from Birmingham, Alabama. Their focus is arranging new music for all-but-forgotten hymn texts. Their album, Silent Night, is available from iTunes store as well as their website.
Shalom! and I hope to see you on the journey. Feel free to make some of these snacks for yourself and bring them along.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Block Testing

During the past year, I've had the opportunity to be a quilt block tester for Quiltmaker magazine. I responded to a call for testers on their Facebook page, and then received an invitation to test blocks for volume 9 of their 100 Blocks magazine. I enjoyed the experience and agreed to continue for volume 10. Volume 10 was released just this week. Here is a photo of the cover. Since Quiltmaker is featuring a blog tour to celebrate the release of volume 10, I thought I would use the opportunity to showcase the fun blocks that I tested.
 Quiltmaker's 100 Blocks
Being a block tester means that you commit to testing about 12 blocks that will be included in the upcoming issue of 100 Blocks. You receive a new block pattern to sew and evaluate about every 1 to 2 weeks over about a 3-month period. You don't get to pick and choose what style of block you will receive, and you have to be willing to accept whatever pattern you receive. As someone who is particularly partial to traditional pieced blocks, I had to think about whether this was really something that I wanted to do or not. I also need to admit that upon receiving some of the patterns that I was to test, I wasn't certain if I would be able to complete them or not. Some of them required me to step out of my comfort zone and learn some new skills and techniques.

For each block, I will also link to the designer's webpage so that you can see some of her other designs.
I will start with the scrappy, pieced blocks. These include Starwash by Peg Spradlin, Chevron Squares by Amanda Murphy, and Butterfly by Jennifer Ball.

These next two blocks feature foundation paper piecing. If you look closely, you can see the small pieces that were included in each one. Both of these blocks are by international designers. The blocks are Coneflower Playground by Regina Grewe from Germany and Little Cottage by Kristy Lea from Australia.

I also received a couple of whimsical appliqué blocks to test. These included Lazy Days by Janet Maurer and Believe by Ann Weber

I enjoyed the light and dark contrast in these next four blocks. These are Throw the Bones by Diane Harris, Sewing Triangles by Cheryl Brickey, …and so on… by Kelli Fannin, and Windmill by Heather Jones


The final two blocks feature batiks. The first, Five and Diamond by Eileen Fowler is foundation paper pieced. The second, Half Moon Rising is by Kelly Eisinger. Both Diane and Kelly work for Quiltmaker magazine.

As a block tester, I have come to enjoy the anticipation of receiving new patterns and the challenge of expanding my skill set. As believers, we likewise can wait in eager anticipation of God's work in our lives as He continues to shape and develop us. This time of year, I particularly find myself reflecting back over the past 12 months and the many wonderful ways I have been amazed by God's goodness and blessings. I am also reminded of God's sustaining faithfulness and endless mercies. In this season of Thanksgiving, I wish you all a very blessed holiday.
The LORD's loving kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Preparing for Black Friday and Gumbo!

Lest you jump to the conclusion that we have fallen prey to the uber-consumerism of the Black Friday craze, please rest assured that we have not. My preference is to remain as far way as possible from any retail establishment on the day after Thanksgiving. Over the past few years, I have come to enjoy Small Business Saturday, an emphasis on supporting local small businesses, but that is another story for another day.

As many of you are already well aware, our family loves to eat. Thanksgiving is one of our favorite holidays, and I truly enjoy the multi-day effort of preparing our family's Thanksgiving meal. One of our more recently acquired Thanksgiving weekend traditions is to spend Black Friday making gumbo with some of our leftover turkey.

A few years ago, one of my work-related trips was to New Orleans. I brought home a cookbook featuring recipes from Gumbo Shop, a rather well known establishment in New Orleans. I have to admit, we really didn't know much about New Orleans-style cooking, other than that it tastes incredible. We have come to enjoy several recipes from this cookbook, however, I think the turkey and sausage gumbo one remains our favorite. Here are a few things we have learned about New Orleans cooking as well.

Gumbo …
Although we often associate gumbo with Louisiana, gumbo is a dish that combines culinary traditions from French, Spanish, German, West African, and Native American cultures. Even today, different variations of gumbo can be found. Gumbo was first named in the early 1800s and was described as a thick soup eaten with rice. Earlier records dating back to the 1700s describe soups mixing cooked okra with rice to make a meal. At any rate, here are a few contributions from different cultural groups that are often represented in gumbo.

  • West African - rice and okra
  • Native American - filé powder and corn
  • German - sausage
  • French - tomatoes
  • Spanish - onions and bell peppers
  • Canary Islands - seafood and cayenne pepper
  • Caribbean - hot peppers

First you make a roux …
Although a roux is essentially a mixture of flour and some type of fat, it's also a rather interesting lesson in chemistry. This gumbo recipe calls for a roux made of butter and flour. We use a heavy-bottomed pan to melt the butter and then whisk in the flour. The consistency of the mixture will change as it is cooked. At first it will bubble, indicating that the moisture is being cooked out of the flour. Once the bubbling stops, the mixture will start to smell like popcorn, which means that the flour is frying. At this point, watch the mixture closely so that it does not brown too quickly. The goal is to get the roux to about the color or peanut butter. Here is a picture of a roux in its bubbling stage.
The Cajun holy trinity…
When speaking of New Orleans' cuisine, this term refers to a combination of onion, bell pepper, and celery. This combination of vegetables serves as a base for the gumbo as well as étouffée and jambalaya.

Filé powder …
Filé is actually an herb derived from dried leaves from the sassafras tree and was first used by the Choctaw Native Americans. The sassafras tree is native to the southeastern United States. Filé powder provides seasoning to the gumbo and serves as a thickening agent. Here are pictures of the sassafras tree and the filé powder. 

Turkey and Hot Sausage Gumbo
Prepare the turkey stock on Thanksgiving night after the dishes are cleared away using:
  • Turkey carcass broken into pieces
  • 3 quarts of water
Bring to a boil and then simmer together for about 3 to 4 hours. Strain the stock and set it aside until Friday morning. Also, set aside about 1 1/2 pounds of cooked turkey meat to use in the gumbo.

On Friday morning, the real work of cooking the gumbo begins. Here are the ingredients:
  • 1 1/2 pounds of cooked turkey meat
  • 1 pound of hot sausage (we like using andouille sausage, Chaurice sausage, a type of hot Creole sausage can also be used)
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp filé powder
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp basil
  • 1/2 tsp sage
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes (may use fresh or canned)
Slice the sausage into 1/2 inch rounds and spread on a baking pan. Place in a 400º oven and brown for about 20 minutes. Drain the rendered fat and set the sausage aside. Here's a quick picture of the sausage rounds with the turkey added on top.
Now it's time to prepare the roux. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Prepare a dark brown roux. During this stage, it's helpful to have someone tending to the roux and another chopping the vegetables.

Once the roux is the proper color, stir in the onion, bell pepper, and celery. Stir well, and cook until tender. From time to time, allow the vegetables to stick (not burn down) a bit and then scrap them up from the bottom of the pan. At this point, your mixture will be looking something like this:
Once the vegetables are nice and tender, stir in the garlic and cook for about another minute. Stir in the herbs and cook for another minute. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes, continuing with the sticking and scraping process. Don't these herbs look tasty? Given the number of bay leaves, this was a batch of herbs for at least a double batch of gumbo.
Slowly pour in the reserved turkey stock and mix well. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 minutes. Now the house is really starting to smell good.
Add in the turkey meat and sausage. Bring back to a boil and simmer for about another 15 minutes. Adjust the seasonings as desired. Serve over steamed rice.
This recipe is a bit of work, but so well worth it. Of course, if you aren't up to spending your Black Friday making gumbo, you can always come over to our house.