Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Feast of St. Thomas Becket; Will no one relieve me of this lowborn priest!

To be perfectly honest, there are so many things that make me nearly fit to burst with pride simply because I am Catholic. One of those 'things' happens to be Thomas Becket, whose feast day is today.

There are countless literary forms available on the life of Thomas Becket, including the movie Becket, starring Richard Burton (as Becket) and the ever-so-dashing Peter O'Toole (as the rotten Henry II). There is also the amazing (more than amazing, really) play written by TS Eliot entitled Murder in the Cathedral. (If you are not familiar with either of these, then why on earth are you sitting around reading this silly blog? Run, I tell you!)

Thomas Becket was born 21 December 1118, 1119, or 1120 (these accounts all vary) in Cheapside, London. His parents were of merchant stock and were able to provide him with an excellent education. While still a young man he befriended both Archbishop Theobald and the young Henry II. These men played a big role in the future career of Becket, and Henry was the man ultimately responsible for his death.

After a brief stint as a clerk in a bank, Becket was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury and Provost of Beverly. In 1155 Henry appointed him Lord Chancellor. During this period Becket was supposedly living it up — hunting, gambling, dressing in medieval 'haute couture', and sundry other things, none of which were cheap. The movie Becket details this rather nicely, as does Thomas Craughwell's book Saints Behaving Badly.

It is only after he assumes the position of Archbishop (appointed by Henry in 1162) that Becket seems to undergo a truly Catholic conversion. There is a scene in the movie where Becket essentially begs Henry not to force the role of Archbishop upon him. However, Henry insists, because being close friends and allies, he assumes Becket will give him free reign and let him have his way with the Church, thereby making him the supreme ruler of England. That is what Henry hoped, anyway.

Becket changed his ways once he became Archbishop. In response to a request for money by traveling musicians, Becket responded 'I am not the man I was when chancellor. Church funds are for the Church and the poor. I have nothing to give you.' Craughwell responds that this statement 'marks the beginning of Thomas Becket's conversion from a worldly, ruthless king's man to a man of God and a defender of the rights of the Church.' Because of his refusal to allow the state to have any jurisdiction over ecclesiastic matters, namely where punishments were concerned, Henry became angered and the two fell out. It was then dangerous for Becket to remain in England, so off he went to France — for six years.

Pope Alexander III, apparently not a man to be rushed, was on the verge of excommunicating Henry on account of his abuse of power. Henry, after hearing of this, made amends of sorts with Becket and allowed him to return home to Canterbury. The masses (or Chorus, if you are TS Eliot) were elated by the return of their Archbishop. People began singing, along the roads to Canterbury, the same words that Christ heard upon entering the Holy City on Palm Sunday, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!' The telling of Becket's homecoming in Murder in the Cathedral is mesmerizing, and has one of the most beautiful lines ever written: 'Living and partly living.'

Once home Becket discovered that the archbishop of York and the bishops of both London and Salisbury held the coronation of Henry's son in his absence. This was a breach and misuse of power — only the Archbishop of Canterbury was authorized do such things. Becket made the move to excommunicate these men.

Upon hearing this, Henry shouted something along these lines, 'Will no one relieve me of this lowborn priest!' (There are several accounts or versions of what was actually said, but this is supposedly the most accurate. Although, I do enjoy the one that refers to him as a 'turbulent priest'.) The knights who heard this took it to be a death warrant and off they went to Canterbury.

During vespers 29 December 1170, these four knights stormed the cathedral. (Becket refused to allow the door to be locked — after all, it was a church and it was vespers.) Becket refused to give in to their demands and, knowing full well what was about to happen, was slaughtered on the steps of the altar. One of the four knights cut his skull open and scattered his brains onto the stone floor. And that was 839 years ago today.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in a Glass and Fresh Orange Bellinis

In one of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks he has a recipe for a drink called Christmas in a Glass. Essentially it is fresh oranges (mandarins, tangerines, and the like) squeezed into a glass with a sprig or two of fresh mint. The scent of orange and mint is heavenly together and really smells like Christmas. And it tastes absolutely perfect — just like Christmas in a glass.

Last year we discovered Mario Batali's recipe for Blood Orange Bellinis. And again, it is a match made in heaven, although obviously not a drink for the little ones.

This year, on account of not being able to find any blood oranges at Whole Foods, I opted for Minneola oranges (tangelos is the correct term, but really, that sounds absolutely ridiculous). They are a good choice because they yield a lot of juice, but the flavor is really not the same as a blood orange. Maybe we should have dropped a few raspberries into each glass, as that would have been a bit closer. Either way, just remember to make sure the oranges are very cold before pouring the juice into your glass. Otherwise you end up with a room-temperature cocktail, which just seems to cheapen the whole experience. But that is merely my opinion.

So this is what we made Christmas day during nap-time and sipped while we made our feast. Once Emilia was up from her nap she got some freshly squeezed juice and sparkling water in a sippy cup. However, after a few sips she was quite finished. Apparently she does not appreciate it when anything is added to her 'Perrier Drink'. 'More Perrier Drink, please!' is something I typically hear several times throughout the day. And while she may be a girl after my own heart, it would appear that I have created a monster. I mean really, the girl isn't even two.

Christmas in a Glass
A variety of mandarins, tangerines, and clementines (about 5 per person), squeezed
Mint leaves
(Recipe from: Happy Days with the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, Hyperion Publishing, 2002.)

Blood Orange Bellini
1 bottle prosecco, chilled
2 cups blood orange juice, chilled

Place glasses in the freezer (you are supposed to use champagne flutes, but we used martini glasses) for 20 minutes. Open prosecco and let sit for a few minutes.

Pour ¼ cup blood orange juice into each glass. Top off with prosecco, leaving within ½ inch at the top. Serve. (Recipe from: Holiday Food by Mario Batali, Clarkson/Potter Publishers, 2000.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Smith's Rosebud Salve

When it comes down to it, there are very few beauty products that I can't live without. Well, that may not be strictly true. In fact, I daresay it is one big-fat-lie. And if we must speak honestly, then I suppose I had better confess that I am a bonafide beauty product junkie. In all, there are probably about a million and three products that I can't live without. (What? It's not like it makes me a bad person or anything.)

The first time I went to Scotland, I remember wandering into Boots (or, Boots, the Chemists, as my husband insists on calling them). For those of you not in the know, Boots is probably one of the best drugstores around. And I remember wandering down each of the aisles finding all sorts of things to load up my suitcase. (In fact, I think I still have that pair of WonderBum stockings that I insisted on buying. And really, you would be an idiot not to buy something that makes such a claim.) Hands down my favorite find was a pot of lip balm — Mediterranean Olive Almond & Sage Wonderbalm. Boots' own brand, of course.

After that trip it was all I could do to keep myself stocked with the stuff. Thank goodness for my wonderful friend Polly (who would either mail it or bring it over to me in her suitcase), and my sister who has an annoying tendency to frequent London without me. Anyway, after all that hassle, it would appear that you can now buy most Boots (the Chemists) products from Target. Convenient, yes. But now the allure has begun to fade. (And besides, Target is usually sold out of it.)

Which brings me to the lovely Smith's Rosebud Salve.

During this Boots lip balm craze, I began frequenting all sorts of beauty websites in order to procure the rest of my beauty regimen. That is where I first stumbled on Smith's Rosebud Salve. (I'm fairly certain that if I spent 100 bucks I would qualify for free shipping, and lip balm is always an excellent choice when already teetering toward that $100 mark, as it typically costs less than ten dollars.)

Meanwhile, all these years later, I've switched my face lotion, my vitamin C serums, and my mascaras around like crazy, but I still keep coming back to this wonderful little balm. In fact, I've even taken to giving it as gifts to a few select people. And rightly so, it is a remarkable product.

Smith's started in Maryland in 1895 and this little salve has managed to become the mainstay of the company. What is so lovely about it is that it offers a slight rosy shade to your lips without adding any color. Not sure how they do that, but they do. It is also the perfect salve, balm, moisturizer, et al without an overwhelming fragrance to alter whatever you happen to be drinking at the time. (As much as I love Burt's Bees, I am not a fan of it when I have a cup of tea or a glass of wine in front of me...)

And so, even though I don't need to fly to the UK in order to obtain my favorite lip balm, I am satisfied. I don't even need to go to any particular beauty website to find it (although if you must, on account of the fact that it is easier, and who doesn't like getting a package in the mail, try http://www.beautyhabit.com/), because it can be found in all sorts of posh stores: such as Anthropologie and Sephora and the like. I suppose it is only a matter of time until one stumbles on this product at Target. And in all honesty, I know I would buy it anyway. What can I say? Smith's Rosebud Salve is part of the beauty regimen, and one must always take their regimen seriously.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Truman Capote's Christmas Stories

I am an avid reader; always have been. So that is why I get frustrated at times by the process of picking out a new book to read. It happens every so often, you know how it is, when nothing can really grab your attention. Or, if it does, you are annoyed the whole time and eventually put it down. That is exactly the state I have been in for the past month or so. I've been needing a page-turner, but everything I reach for turns out to be blah. (I read the first hundred pages of The Return by Victoria Hislop and had to put it down, despite the beautiful cover, and the same goes for Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stranger-Ross. And I know there was at least one more on this list...)

So feeling slightly disgruntled by my endeavors, I decided (what with it being Christmas and all) to pick up Truman Capote's Christmas Stories. Having read them a few years ago, I was well aware of what I was getting into, and therefore knew that they were exactly what I needed.

Truman Capote's Christmas Stories are comprised of three short stories: A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor. And to be perfectly frank, one could probably read the whole of them in one sitting. However, I wouldn't recommend it. Besides, sometimes it seems a bit disrespectful to plow right through something so quickly and not give it another thought.

All three stories are autobiographical, so they are filled with same the 'characters' throughout. And they all take place when Capote was a child (6,7,8-ish), living in Alabama. The first story, A Christmas Memory, is my favorite. It is about making fruitcake with his 'friend'; his friend being his 60-something-year old cousin called Miss Sook. She is also his best friend and their relationship is truly beautiful.

The second story, One Christmas, is about going to stay with his father in New Orleans one particular Christmas, and the eye-opening experience it turns out to be. The last story, The Thanksgiving Visitor, is about Miss Sook inviting the kid who beats the tar out of Buddy on a regular basis over for Thanksgiving dinner. (Buddy is the name that Miss Sook affectionately gives to Capote.)

All three stories are magnificent. The writing is beautiful — simple, but jam-packed at the same time. They are also tinged with a certain sadness, but don't let that put you off. The humor in them is ever-present.

Anyway, after re-reading the stories I am left wondering, yet again, why these are not considered a 'must-read' at Christmas time. The only thing I can figure is that the book In Cold Blood created the image of Truman Capote that most people seem to have of him today, which is not very Christmas-y. You know, the whole 'Good Will Toward Man' stuff that we all appreciate so much during the Christmas season? A book about a couple of gruesome murders may not capture this spirit so much. Maybe it's just me.
If you must know, I have not actually read In Cold Blood. Every time I pick it up my sister says, 'Oh! Don't do it — you'll be sorry. I still can't get the images out of my head!' And strangely enough her copy made it into the pile of books not to be finished. She laughs about this now, more than a little aghast with herself, for putting it down well after the gruesome murders take place. Fine point, I say. My mom, on the other hand, claims it was a page-turner and could not put it down. As for me, I do want to read it someday. However, not until my husband stops going out of town for work, and my vivid imagination becomes a little less vivid. In the meantime, I'll stick with his lovely Christmas Stories and not lose any sleep over it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beef and Guinness Stew

For the past few weeks we have been listening, from morning till night, to Frank Sinatra's Jingle Bells and either Lena Horne's or Harry Connick Jr's version of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer — over and over and over again. This is on account of the fact that Emilia has taken a fancy to these two songs, and says, time and time again, 'One more time, Jingle Bells! One more time, Reindeer!' In fact, one morning last week as I went to get her out of her bed, I could hear her jumping up and down in her crib, yelling, 'So excited! Rudolph Rednose Reindeer! So excited! Lights!' (The lights to which she referred are those on the tree...) And thus began our day.

I am so envious of Emilia's sheer joy in the morning, and wish so much that I, too, could capture it. It is a truly magical thing to witness. Her hair is a wild mess (if you ask her what her hair is doing, she will proudly make an explosion sound for you), and her little face is glowing. Whereas my typical morning is wild hair accompanied by a glower.

Anyway, the Christmas season is in full-swing at our house. We have: a very colorful and brightly lit tree; stockings hung by the fireplace; 24 hour Christmas music (I've been trying desperately to throw on Charlie Brown's Christmas or Bob Dylan's new Christmas album, whenever Emilia isn't looking); four nativities; and all the rest of the Christmas trappings imaginable — including a prominently displayed picture of Miss Milia screaming her head off on Santa's lap (goes nicely next to last year's screaming picture, if I do say so myself). The only thing we needed on Sunday evening in order to complete the scene was a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, kind of dinner. And since I had been quite literally craving beef and Guinness stew for days on end (obsessing over it, really), that is what graced our table. It put a smile on all of our faces, gave a lovely feeling of contentment, and warmed us up head to toe (Governor included).

Typically when I make beef and Guinness stew Michael builds a fire in the fireplace (which he did on Sunday), puts some sort medieval music on the stereo (he's really taken a fancy to Medieval Hour on one of the local radio stations — but, alas, had to listen to Rudolph as he danced around the living room with his daughter), and threatens to start reading Sagas of the Icelanders while drinking a stout (or a scotch, he's not too picky when it comes down to it).

These days I serve this dish with an enormous scoop of mashed potatoes in the bowl. However, you could also turn it into a pot-pie, of sorts, by putting puff-pastry over the top. This is also divine, but not as substantial as mashed potatoes. Either way, I'm virtually certain that it will help you get through several more renditions of Rudolph — and not a moment too soon, either.

Monday, December 14, 2009

To Believe

I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.

—Flannery O'Connor

Monday, December 7, 2009

Greek Yogurt with Honey, Cinnamon, Pecans, and Pomegranate

I received a gorgeous new cookbook in the mail a few days ago from one of my nearest and dearest (and oldest) friends. It is all I've had eyes for ever since. The book is called Apples for Jam by Tessa Kiros. It is filled with amazing pictures and so much color. (Incidentally this is also how the book is layed out. Each section is denoted by a specific color.)

As I sat at the table thumbing through the book, Michael says to me: 'So, is she your new nemesis?' Aaah, he knows me so well. There are a handful of things in this world that, just by looking at them, can make me question myself to the very core. Ultimately causing me to ask such things as, 'Why the hell don't I live in Tuscany with my husband and two children who are wearing the most gorgeous red shoes you've ever seen in your life?' Or, 'Why the hell don't I have that lovely kitchen and that stack of gorgeous plates?' Or, 'Why doesn't my back yard look like that?' Or, 'Where did she get that spectacular table cloth?' I'm a very simple person when it comes down to it.

However, even though we don't live in Italy with all those gorgeous linens and shoes and such, I don't think I can regard Tessa Kiros as my nemesis. She's too like the Lovely Clotilde for that category. Instead, I will curb my envy and cook up a storm using her recipes. And they really do look good.

For breakfast yesterday morning we had Greek yogurt with honey, cinnamon, pecans, and pomegranate. I think it may be my new favorite dish altogether. It is so simple and colorful — and even good for you, despite the full-fat Greek yogurt. (I refuse on principle to buy non-fat yogurt. Well, non-fat anything, really.) However, the Greek yogurt is an essential part of this recipe; you need that thick gloppy consistency so that everything will 'sit on it like a crown'. It is rich, but the pomegranate really tempers it with a burst of juices in each bite.

Emilia loves pomegranate seeds. When you ask her what she wants for breakfast, she'll typically respond, 'Pasta lunch tonight! Pinenut seeds!' (By 'pinenut', she means 'pomegranate'.) Being winter (or nearly anyway), I've been trying to keep the house stocked with them. They are a food I want to eat so much of we grow tired of them, and can happily wait until next year for more.

Greek yogurt with honey, cinnamon, pecans, and pomegranate
seeds from ¼ pomegranate
about ¼ cup shelled pecans, broken into big chunks
1 ⅓ cups Greek-style plain yogurt
4 teaspoons thick, clear honey
ground cinnamon

Remove seeds from pomegranate, making sure there is no white pith attached. In a small dry saute pan, lightly toast the pecans just until they become aromatic. (Pay attention to the nuts; it is easy to burn them!) Set aside to cool.

Spoon the yogurt into bowls, and scatter 'a child's fistful of nuts' over the top. Drizzle with honey, pomegranate seeds, and cinnamon. Serve immediately. (Recipe from: Apples for Jam, by Tessa Kiros, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2007.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Miel de Corse (Corsican Honey)

Last week when I was at Whole Foods buying groceries as fast as I could (literally right on the cusp of our swine flu bout), I spied little jars of Corsican Honey by the cheese counter. Gorgeous little jars with flowers on the top, a little map of Corsica with a bee on the front of the bottle, and a sticker with the expiration date on the side (at least I think it is the expiration date ... my French is a little rusty...). Anyway, the stuff cost an arm and a leg (12 bucks to be precise), and in my moment of weakness (quite literally, as it turns out, being I was coming down with the flu and all), I bought it. And the thought of my little jar of honey had been making me feel better every time I thought about it.

So when tea time rolled around this afternoon (that would be Emilia's nap time, to be precise), I realized that, still not having much of an appetite, I hadn't actually eaten anything yet today. I made two pieces of toast, buttered them up nicely with my salty Irish butter, and slathered a bit of Corsican honey on top. I then went and sat on the couch, with tea, toast, and Lynne Truss's book. And what can I say? After one bite — that's all it takes — your mouth is filled with the pungent aromas of cow manure. It's true. My lovely Corsican honey tastes exactly like cow manure smells. Who's ever even heard of such a thing?

I was so scandalized I called my sister. And she thinks something must be wrong with the bottle, because she can't imagine the French eating honey that tastes like that. As for me, I'm just trying to purge the taste from my mouth and telling myself it tastes pastoral — not cow manure-y at all. I'm also trying to figure out what to do with a whole blasted jar of the fancy stuff.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Swine Flu

My sister was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for three days. That's right, three days. My dad even flew in town, as he usually does, for Thanksgiving weekend. What did we do? We got Swine Flu, and remained quarantined in the house for almost five days.

After much worry I took Emilia to the doctor the day before Thanksgiving. They poked and prodded her, while she cried and cried. And then they swabbed her nose. 'The test results takes 15 minutes, so hold tight, and we'll be back,' they told us. Less than 5 minutes later they were back saying that after only 2 minutes it showed she had raging Swine Flu.

So they sent us down the the pharmacy for some Tamaflu, where Emilia sat on my lap saying, 'Go Home!, Go Home!' Poor thing. Nonetheless, I was very grateful for her Tamaflu, because it really seemed to help shorten the duration of her heebie-jeebies. I suppose we should have taken it as well.

On the bright side, my dad drove over to see us a few times over the long weekend. (He got his vaccine ages ago...) and even brought over some of my sister's Thanksgiving dinner to us. We were incredibly grateful — not to mention very sad. My family is wildly important to me, so I don't sit out family functions all that graciously. You know how it is.

The reason I am telling you this is because I have done no cooking to tell you about, eaten no cupcakes to dwell on, and read no books that I am dying to tell you about (although I have been doing some reading). Just give me a few to pull myself back together again, hopefully conjuring my appetite for life at the same time.