Merry Christmas Bliss

Candy Cane Fashion?

Candy Cane Fashion?

O Happy Day!

No. The house has not sold.  That would truthfully mean an ecstatic day.

What’s the deal then?  Of course:  It’s Christmas Day! And, once again, I’m lucky to spend it, with my sister and her family.

I’ll admit to a bit of trepidation to making the eleven-hour drive.  We did the same last Christmas and it turned out to be an unbearably sad and difficult visit.  Add to that, this is the first Christmas without  mother.  As difficult as life with her often was, I miss her presence on this Christmas Day.  I miss the phone call (Okay…me making the call to wish a Merry Christmas).  I miss the story of what’s cooking–or not cooking– on the stove.  I miss sharing the fact that I pulled out the hand-crank pasta machine for tortellini-making and I stuffed them with leek instead of meat.  Unbelievably, I miss mom’s tirade against Obama and his policies as well as her “…now be good girl or else I’ll give you a big bop on la tua testa.”  Yes, this is our first Christmas without this force of nature. There hasn’t been a day since she has passed that I haven’t thought about her.

With that in mind how on earth did it happen that on this Christmas we didn’t make tortellini?  It’s a first after many years! Perhaps it’s because we are still reeling.  Mom’s passing and the drama and heartache that has characterized the last five years or so has left a deep imprint on our lives.  We are exhausted from trying to make everything just right… for so many…from every angle, for so damned long.  Perhaps we simply need to take a pause….a step back…along with an impossibly long, healing breath as we reflect on the good, bad and ugly.  Then, and only then, can we truly move forward with a renewed gusto for life and all its wonderful possibilities.   Sis and I realize that the little traditions that mom inspired and required through the years will soon be extinguished if we don’t do our best to keep some of them alive now that she is gone.  Indeed, it is a necessary mission to pass along to young Alexandre-the-Greatest and…if she is willing…my daughter and her husband-to-be.

So, we make a promise to press on though perhaps, when necessary –as in tortellini-making–on a different timetable.   True,  this particular Christmas Eve was not about midnight mass, tortellini, fish for dinner, opening presents, or watching Lawrence Welk Christmas show re-runs–or Andrea Bocelli–on PBS.  Traditions cast aside, but certainly not forgotten, we mixed things up considerably this year.    Instead this holiday found us making jalapeño poppers wrapped in bacon and slathered with barbecue sauce. Bro-in-law happily toiled over a goose gumbo and sis prepared a pot of hearty chili.  Alexandre-the-greatest, five months from turning nine, the youngest chef among us, made trays of Christmas cookies… from scratch!   Opa Kurt had to have been smiling from above too.  He would have been tickled with delight over the gastronomic delights being made in my sister’s cozy kitchen.

With dogs and cats underfoot, we cooked, we drank, we toasted, we danced and we filled the kitchen with laughter over Amazon’s Alexa as we peppered her with a host of silly questions and requests.  We talked and sang, embraced and tickled.  Simply put, there was joy where there once was heart-wrenching melancholy.   Sis invited folks over for Christmas cheer and we filled our bellies with seconds and thirds of everything.  This all the while keeping our mother uppermost in our hearts; wishing things had been better…different…but above all, wishing she was healthy and still with for one more Christmas.

Oh what a merry day it is when spent in the arms of love and acceptance with family and friends.

It was a day of Merry Christmas bliss.  I sincerely hope yours was filled with comfort and joy too.


 

 

 

Put A Cork In It?

We’ve got sun today and what a welcomed sight.  I’ve lived in “middle earth” now for just over two and a half years and it seems we’ve had more days of cold and gloom this winter, than usual.  Last week there was freezing rain and even a dusting of snow.   Poodle and I went for very brief walks in those freezing temps, and yes….in the rain as well.   Poodle would look mighty dapper with his blue coat but that wouldn’t last long.  You see, silly as it seems, I do wish he’d agree to a hat. My four-legged love is just not very handsome with wet-head.

This morning, like every other, we started on our customary walk down the hill.  My knees have not decided to cooperate in the cold and I confess to struggling in pain as I go and am tempted to turn back.  It’s cold at 32 degrees but the forecast promises to warm up to 50.  Keep going missy; you’ve got to move!  Despite the sun this morning my mind wandered to the land of fun-in-the-sun and swaying palm trees…Southern California.

“How I would love to be walking on the beach right about now” I say out aloud to Poodle (even if it meant limping as I am doing now).   His ears perk up as if in understanding as to what I had just said. Some days I’d swear that he is just as blue as I am and for the same reason: missing the beach, perfect weather and South Bay friends. I’m almost certain too that Poodle misses his play-dates with other poodles and his weekly crazy, all-out runs with other dogs at the dog park that was just up the street from our townhouse.

I’ve got music from Spotify flowing into my head as I walk. I’m listening to the Mood Booster playlist. It’s a particularly fitting name for a playlist and it’s one of my favorites for the gym.   A song that makes me think of coconuts and island breezes takes me back to a scuba diving adventure in Dominica, an island in the Caribbean.  Inexplicably I remember a night dive where we happened upon an octopus. It was thoroughly unexpected and even more unexpected was the fact that I found it. Yes. Moi. Imagine that! And with less than 50 dives under my weight belt!  At one point I’m sure I forgot to breathe!

These are mighty intelligent creatures

These are mighty intelligent creatures!

Night diving is not my thing. Rocket-man however loves it. And, even though this “octopus dive” was wonderfully memorable, I decided this— my fifth night dive experience— would definitely be my last. In pitch-black dark, ignorance is not bliss! I suck way too much air and shake in my wetsuit in a near-paralyzing fear. I’d much rather be bathed in the light of day when I’m underwater! Anyhow, for a good ten minutes we were absolutely mesmerized by the magnificent display of colors and textures presented to us by the octopus as it tried to get away from the prying eyes of its foreign “invaders.” Mind you, we didn’t attempt to touch her or anything of the sort; we just wanted to follow the timid, tentacled creature and capture her chameleon nature as she wardrobe-changed through a dizzying, spectacular array of colors…from turquoise to pink, to bright orange and brindle browns to marbled greys. In retrospect, this was the perfect end to my night-diving adventures. As dazzling and dramatic as our octopus dive was,  henceforth, I’d prefer to stick to broad daylight diving, thank you very much.

So imagine my thought process when this past holiday season Rocket-man and I had the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve with our neighbors (OK…I’m a bit tardy recounting our Christmas Eve. It’s apparent that I’ve been lazy at this whole blog writing thing!). Anyhow, Mrs. T. is half-Italian and when she extended the invite several weeks before the holiday she cautioned that she prepares the traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal.

“You mean fish, right? I asked.

Yes. Fish. But not just any fish. Lots of different kinds of seafood to include the main attraction, octopus.

That hole in the middle....yep...It's the butt! It's where the ink gets expelled!

That hole in the middle….yep…It’s the butt!  The hole acts as a tubular funnel;  It’s where sepia (ink) gets expelled as a defensive weapon and, when water is forced through, propels the octopus who can travel with great speed through the water.

“Oh my!  Octopus,” I say with a hard-to-hide cringe. For a moment I’m thoroughly horrified at myself that I couldn’t contain my reaction.  Fortunately, Mrs. T. understood!

“It’s OK…I know!” she said.  “I’m the only one who will eat it. My dad and mom always have octopus on the Christmas Eve menu but my kids and husband won’t touch it. Don’t worry though, we’ll also have salmon, shrimp and fried calamari.”

“Well,” I said, relieved that I had not offended my new friend.  ”Thank you so much for the invite and… you know…you won’t have to eat octopus alone this year…I’m game to give it another try, though I cannot promise I’ll finish what is on my plate!”  I went on to tell her that I had eaten octopus many years before as a child and suffered kicks under the table–and worse, the evil eye– from my mother who made me eat it as we were guests for dinner at her friends’ house. I remember it tasted like a moldy rubber hose (not that I have ever actually eaten a moldy rubber hose mind you…) but, you get my drift. It was definitely a gag-worthy meal and I never forgot it.

Mrs. T. texts me a photo of the octopus that she plans on preparing.  My stomach does a flip.  Oh God.  I agreed to eat that?!   I had to put a name to the beast (I habit I’ve learned to do thanks to my beautiful sis!).  I call Mrs. T. to tell her what’s on my mind.  “Your octopus must have a name; it’s Octavius the Octopus!

Then, a day before our dinner I happened to come across an article in the December issue of Bon Appétit magazine. It featured an octopus recipe.  One of the sidebar notes was that chefs swear by placing a wine cork in the cooking liquid.  Many chefs freely admit that they don’t quite understand how placing a cork in the pot as the octopus cooks makes for a tender (not rubbery) octopus.  In fact, one well-known Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, uses one wine cork for every two pounds of octopus.  It could be the cork has some kind of natural tenderizing enzymes?  There seems to be little understanding on the subject.  Even a 2009 article in the Miami New Times addressed this oddity.    How strange!  I thought. I wonder if it matters if the cork comes from a bottle of red or white wine?  Intrigued, I immediately picked up the phone and called Mrs. T.

“Hey lady. Coincidentally enough, the current issue of Bon Appétit magazine has a couple of octopus recipes in it. Did you know that you’re supposed to place a wine cork in the pot along with the octopus?

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. T. My dad always does that. He doesn’t know how it tenderizes the octopus but he swears by it.”  Wow. Who would have thought there was a culinary purpose for wine corks!

I arrived early before our Christmas Eve meal was to take place.  Mrs. T. had texted early in the day that she would be cutting up Octavius around 4:30’ish if I wanted to come by early to observe.  “Absolutely!”   I did not want to miss the opportunity and was certainly curious how Mrs.. T. would go about preparing the octopus.  I can tell you, it was interesting and definitely very entertaining. We shared lots of laughs over the entire process.  It wasn’t the prettiest process to be sure; Octavius was an ugly, slimy gray blob surrounded by ice as he lay in the sink waiting to be chopped up.  A hefty pour of a wonderfully buttery Chardonnay helped me endure the scene as I watched Mrs. T. expertly cut the long tentacles into one-inch pieces.

Octavius the Octopus moments before he gets chopped up.

Octavius the Octopus moments before he gets chopped up.

 

“You have to leave this part out,” Mrs. T. said as she pointed to a hole under the mantel of the octopus. This is the octopus’s butt.  “Ewwwwww,” I said nearly dissolving in giggles much like a 6-year-old, “disgusting!”  Mrs. T. laughed in agreement. Boy was I glad she had a good sense of humor over my every cringe!   Now that Octavius was reduced to a colander full of pieces, she placed them in one of her cheery, red Le Creuset pots.  She added roughly chopped onions, a small amount of water, chopped fresh Italian parsley grown in a pot on her kitchen’s windowsill, and a bay leaf.  The final touch before letting Octavius bubble along for an hour?  The wine cork.

This is a one-cork meal!

This is a one-cork meal!

 

What began as an ugly blob of grey tentacles turned into a beautifully red and deep purple-hued dish.  I have to admit that it was nothing like the rubber hose of my childhood.  It was quite delicious!  Really.  And yes, I did finish the serving on my plate.  But, I know what you’re thinking: Did I go back for seconds?

No.

It was the fried calamari and grilled salmon that captured my taste buds the most that night.  Along with the dish that I brought to share: my terrific Tiramisu.