Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So long, 2008

I wish you a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sewing a Plush Dog Toy

Amy received a sewing machine from Santa this year, and immediately set to work creating her first masterpiece: a plush dog toy for our dog, Scooter.

First, she free-handed a bone pattern on a piece of paper. Then, she traced it onto some sheepskin fleece, and cut out two pieces.

After a quick lesson on how to wind a bobbin and thread the machine, she was sewing away:

She made sure she left a small gap in the seam to be able to turn it right side out, and then added some stuffing. When it was just right, she hand-sewed it shut, and proudly showed off her handiwork:

Scooter loved his new toy, and it was extra-special because it was made just for him.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

One Solitary Life

This is excerpted from an essay by Dr James Allan Francis in “The Real Jesus and Other Sermons” © 1926 by the Judson Press of Philadelphia.

A child is born in an obscure village. He is brought up in another obscure village. He works in a carpenter shop until he is thirty, and then for three brief years is an itinerant preacher, proclaiming a message and living a life. He never writes a book. He never holds an office. He never raises an army. He never has a family of his own. He never owns a home. He never goes to college. He never travels two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He gathers a little group of friends about him and teaches them his way of life. While still a young man, the tide of popular feeling turns against him. One denies him; another betrays him. He is turned over to his enemies. He goes through the mockery of a trial; he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, and when dead is laid in a borrowed grave by the kindness of a friend.

Those are the facts of his human life. He rises from the dead. Today we look back across nineteen hundred years and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned are absolutely picayune in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Feast of the Seven Fishes 2008

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, my favorite holiday of the year. It's the day I host The Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional Italian meal featuring at least seven different types of fish. I always prepare more than seven, because I can't help myself. Go big or go home, as they say. This year, I'll top out at 10.

I like to switch things up, so the menu changes from year to year. Here's the menu for Christmas Eve 2008:

Cold Appetizers
Cheese & Crackers
Fresh Mozzarella w/Tomato & Basil
Shrimp Cocktail
Lobster pate
Salmon mousse
Baccala salad
Anchovies marinated in garlic & olive oil

Hot Appetizers
Crab Puffs
Fried Calamari
Fried Smelts
Popcorn Fish Nuggets

Salad Course
Tossed Salad

Pasta Course
Linguine with Red Clam Sauce

Main Course
Broiled Lobster tail
Steamed broccoli & cauliflower

Homemade cannoli

Coffee, tea, espresso

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter arrives

We got 7 inches of snow on Friday, with another 4-6 expected today. Time to dig out the hats, gloves, scarves and boots.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Crabmeat Puffs

Next week, I'll be celebrating Christmas Eve with my family, and enjoying the Italian tradition of The Feast of The Seven Fishes.

When I was little, we used to go to my grandmother's house for Christmas Eve, and after she died, no one else was interested in carrying on the tradition. So, when I got married three years later, I decided to host the Feast at my house for my in-laws, and have been doing it ever since.

Some people make 7 Fishes, to represent the 7 Blessed Sacraments. Others prepare as many as 13 different types of fish, to represent Jesus and his 12 Apostles. I usually come in somewhere around 10 different types (which can represent the 10 commandments), because I like to have a nice variety of dishes to offer. I switch things up from year to year, too, so that it doesn't get too predictable.

This year, I'm bringing back an appetizer that is always a big hit: Crabmeat Puffs (also known as Crab Rangoons). There is absolutely nothing even remotely Italian about them; I make them because they taste so good. I haven't made these for the past couple of years, and my brother-in-law has been asking for them, so they're on the menu again.

One thing that's really great about this appetizer is that you can make it ahead of time and keep it in the fridge or freezer until the day of the party. I got the recipe from an old Betty Crocker Chinese Cookbook by Leeann Chin (copyright 1981).

First, the ingredients:

1 can (6 ounces) crabmeat, drained and chopped (if lump crabmeat)
2 pkgs (3 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

20 Wonton skins
1 egg, slightly beaten

A few important notes: I've made two alterations to this recipe. The original one in the book calls for "frozen crabmeat, thawed, drained and cartilage removed, chopped" but the canned stuff tastes better and is easier to use. I use Starkist Fancy White crabmeat, drained, so there's no need to chop anything.

The other change is that I use half the number of wonton skins called for in the recipe (the original one said 40 wonton skins). That's because the Betty Crocker version uses two skins per crab puff, and I found that to be way too overpowering for the filling. I use just one skin for each and fold it as demonstrated on the package.

Making the filling couldn't be simpler: you mix the crabmeat, cream cheese, salt and garlic powder until well blended. Then, you put a small, marble sized dollop in the center of a wonton skin. Brush the 4 sides of the wonton skin with the egg, then fold it into a triangle, pressing the side edges together to seal them. Pick up the little triangle and fold the two bottom edges down towards one another, pinching to seal. I made a video to demonstrate:

Then you need to fry them in an inch and a half of vegetable oil, heated to 350 degrees. It is definitely worth investing in a candy thermometer so that you can get the temperature just right. It makes a big difference in how quickly and even the wontons cook.

Although the cookbook says they take up to 3 minutes each, as you can see, it takes half that when you're only using one wonton skin per puff. I also like to take them out just as they start to turn golden, so that they aren't overcooked when I reheat them on the day of my party.

Remove them from the oil and put them on a paper towels to absorb the excess oil. When cool, place the wontons in a heat-n-serve tray with a cover, and freeze for up to 6 weeks. This recipe makes about 20 wontons, so I usually double it because they go fast!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

R.I.P. Majel Barrett Roddenberry

She was the widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, but also an actress in her own right. Fans of the old Star Trek series remember her as Nurse Chapel (the one who carried an unrequited torch for Mr. Spock) or the voice of the ship's computer, but I loved her best as Lwaxana Troi, the free-spirited and irreverant mother of the ship's counselor on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She gave the character a joie de vivre that was endearing and irresistible. Rest in peace, Majel!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa's lament

As I mentioned a while back, I went to a fundraiser recently where a friend of mine dressed up as Santa. He was quite believable, and had a steady stream of tots waiting in line to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

I saw him again last night (in his civilian clothes, this time) and he mentioned that this year, he was amazed at how subdued the children were. He's been doing the Santa thing for many years, and each year, the kids are always boisterous and excited and ever-willing to rattle off a long list of things that they want him to bring.

Not this year.

This year, the kids were hesitant to ask for anything at all, and when they did, it was just one item. When he'd ask, "What would you like me to bring you this year?", many were content to leave it up to Santa. "I don't know," they'd say, "maybe a doll, if you can? Whatever you bring would be good."

He couldn't believe it, and feels certain that this is yet another indicator of the economic times we live in. The children are apparently quite aware of how difficult it will be this year for so many families, and they are reluctant to get their hopes up for anything.

While it's certainly comforting to see holiday greed take a back seat, it is a sad reminder of the far-reaching effects that we all feel during an economic crisis.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Flip Saga comes to a close

Earlier this year, I was so excited about my Flip Ultra camcorder. It records up to 60 minutes of video, and has a USB that pops out for instant uploading to any computer or website. I loved it so much, I took it with me on my cruise to Bermuda in August.

Since we'd already planned to go snorkeling on that trip, I also purchased the Flip Underwater case. It was designed to keep the camcorder safe and dry.

Well, you can guess what happened next: it didn't work, and within seconds, my beautiful Flip--and all of the footage I'd taken thus far on my trip--was waterlogged and ruined.

When I got back home, I wrote to the company, Pure Digital Technologies, telling them about what happened. Their response was swift and surprising: they apologized immediately, and asked me to send them both the camera and case to see if they could retrieve the footage and repair the items.

Unfortunately, they weren't able to recover any of the data from the camcorder, but they did replace it with a brand new one. They also promised to send me a new underwater case, but that item has since been discontinued by the company. (I'm guessing it failed once too often!)

Today, I received a check representing a full refund the purchase price of the underwater case, along with a "token of appreciation for your continued patience in waiting for your refund": a mini-tripod for the Flip!

I've certainly had my share of bad customer service experiences in the past, but this was one company that really did right by the customer. If only more companies conducted business the way they do, we might see more consumer confidence these days!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hangin' with Santa

Today, we took the kids to a Lunch with Santa charity fundraiser event. As you can see, I had my antlers all shined up for the occasion!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Free Online Shopping Codes

This is a crazy busy time of year for me, but I finally started doing my holiday shopping, and wanted to pass along some great websites for those of you who shop online. Over the past few days, I've been using some great websites to find money-saving coupon codes for free shipping and other offers. Yesterday, I found one for The Popcorn Factory that was better than the one advertised on the website itself or in the catalog.

Before you place on an order online, check out some of these places to see if the retailer you're using has a special offer out there:

Happy Shopping!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A starry night to remember

If you look to the southwestern skies tonight, you'll see a rare occurrence: a crescent moon nestled in close proximity to two bright planets: Jupiter and Venus.

The next time these planets will appear this close together will be on November 18, 2052.

I'll be 85 years old.

I'm sure glad I got to see them tonight!