fancy

My brother-in-law J. had, among his collection of tin toys and keepsakes, a can of… peanut brittle. Uh-huh. A faded, peeling, scratched-up old can, smelling strongly of basement mildew, promisingly labelled peanut brittle.

But when you opened it, did you find delicious peanut brittle, as the label indicated? You did not! When you twisted and pried the stubborn lid from the tarnished old can, HORRIBLE SNAKES would fly forth!

And I mean HORRIBLE SNAKES: musty old fabric, worn away with time, here and there the sharp spikes of the spring ends poking through. Even if they didn’t scratch you when they sprang out, trying to cram them back into the can was a tetanus-tempting chore.

So one Christmas, I bought J. a new set of Snakes in a Can. (Note: I couldn’t find peanut brittle, but apparently the Snake Nut Can company is still doing booming business; I was able to find one immediately at the toy shop across the street from my apartment.)

When I wrapped my Christmas gifts at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, J.’s daughter A., then not quite six, wandered in to help. I showed her my gift for her dad and asked her advice: should I leave the can in its packaging so J. would know it was a joke can?

Or… should I remove the wrapping so he would think it was a can of fancy nuts?

A.’s little mouth twisted in delight. Unwrap it! Take it out of its packaging! Let him open it all unawares! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS! He’ll never know! Y’know why? Because it doesn’t say peanut brittle!

She even helped me take off the cardboard-and-plastic packaging and wrap up the tin of FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS prettily in tissue and ribbon. When we exchanged gifts the next day, I said “Oh, J., I have something for you,” and asked A. to fetch it from under the tree and deliver it, which she did, snickering and flicking thrilled, guilty looks at me the entire time.

J. put on his best poker face, accepting the present and unwrapping it nonchalantly, taking his sweet time and sparing me only one keen glance as he unwound the ribbon.

A. stood by, hopping from foot to foot, choking back her guffaws. Once, she almost fell over.

And then: “Oh! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS. Mmm. I love these, thanks. I think I’ll open them… right now.” J. leaned in toward his little daughter.

She took a huuuuuuge step back.

J. and I both almost burst out laughing. But we managed to hold it in…

… unlike the snakes, which sprang out into the room as A. and J. and everyone else started laughing. “Oh, snakes! YOU GOT ME!”

It was a good Christmas.

license to ill

It’s Thanksgiving. The Fella, who has been terribly sick for days, is juuuuust starting to feel a bit better. His instructions for today: DO NOTHING, just rest. I’m drinking coffee and getting ready to make our two-person feast. A preview for a Bond-movie marathon plays in the background.

Elsa: I’ve never seen the Timothy Daltons.
The Fella: They’re not very good. It’s not Dalton’s fault.
Elsa: Dalt- No! I’ve seen the Daltons. The other one. The — the — Brosnan? There’s a Brosnan? PIERCE!
The Fella: There’s only one good one.
Elsa: I might be sick, honey.
The Fella NOOOOOO!
Elsa: [stricken] I confused my Bonds!

update: OH NO, it’s worse than I thought. This whole time we were talking/I was typing, I’ve been confusing Lazenby for Dalton. I might be REALLY sick.

tipsy

Even if you don’t feel tipsy during the Halloween party, look for these dead giveaways:

– A complete inability to remove the foil from the champagne bottle, or to figure out how to uncage the cork without removing the foil.

– Taking the stairs down from the hosts’ apartment ever so slowly, getting both feet on each riser ever so carefully before moving on to the next.

– Your partner saying “You’re doin’ great!” at least three times during the five-minute walk home.

– Shucking off your bra and tights from under your costume in front of a (curtained) window while cheerfully giving the finger to the hypothetical neighbors who might be offended by the unintentional display.

– Being ever-so-proud! that you remembered to wash your face before bed.

– Waking up late the next morning ravenous for every smeary, fatty mass-market food being trumpeted by TV commercials.

– When your partner reveals that he brought home a frozen pizza last night, you rush wordlessly to him, fluttering your hands, and finally manage “I’m so glad we got married!”

resolving

I’m not a big fan of traditional New Year’s resolutions. Too often, I see friends commit to punishing life changes and ascetic regimes. This kind of self-denial is designed to fail, which only erodes morale.

I’m especially resistant to weight-loss resolutions. I’m frankly tired of hearing people deplore their bodies, and I’m sick and tired of them assuming that I feel the same way about mine. As I’ve mentioned before, my own relationship with my body is complicated, but it’s mostly a mixture of appreciation and tender protectiveness. I try not to deride my body despite the messages of inadequacy that bombard us all, and I try to take positive steps, not negative ones. When I exercise, I focus on getting stronger and feeling good, not on losing weight or looking different.

When it comes to resolutions, I focus on pleasure and self-care, not punishment and self-abnegation. Some of my oft-repeated resolutions from previous years: drink more champagne*; sing more; eat more eclairs.

I think I will make a resolution this New Year, and it’s one of celebration, not denial: dance more.

* I’m doing verrrrrrry well with this one.

little things

At not-quite-the-end of a long week of work and deadlines, The Fella came home from work around midnight and sat down with a blank look on his face, getting ready to write the weekly newsletter.

“You look a little beat, hon,” I said. “Did you have dinner?”

“Not really.”

It took me all of three minutes to whip up something simple for him to eat. As I gave him the plate and a beer, The Fella took my hand and quietly, earnestly said, “Thank you. Thank you for marrying me.”

Today is our second anniversary, and The Fella’s hatched some secret plans. (Nothing big, he assures me. Just secret.) The first item on the agenda: he got me an enormous coffee. Number two on the agenda: he’s doing laundry.

This guy gets me.

* [The Fella, don’t hover over the links!] update Now that I’ve given The Fella his gift, I can describe it here. We’re going to have a mid-year variation on our Valentine’s day tradition of staying in with cheesy horror movies and pizza.

For the cotton anniversary, I gave The Fella the abominable-looking Lady Frankenstein, starring Joseph Cotten. Yeah.

Because it’s too hot to heat the oven, I’ll be picking up fantastic take-out pizza from Otto.

Wait for it… cotton.

I toyed with plenty of other gift ideas. For example, I thought about getting a really luxurious set of sheets, which we kinda need. Or towels, ditto. But I dismissed those as gifts for me, not for The Fella.

What did The Fella give me? A really luxurious set of sheets. And a really luxurious towel. Did I mention: this guy gets me.

single-handed in the kitchen

My injured finger is healing up just fine, but the odd position and length of the cut (and the swelling and pain from the tetanus shot) means my right (non-dominant) hand was useless for a full week, and not much better the second week.

This long stretch of one-handedness fell inconveniently during a busy celebrating season, with two birthdays and several other parties to cook for. To my delight, I discovered that a little ingenuity and planning makes it easy to entertain one-handed; a trip to Trader Joe’s makes it even easier.

These are recipes — heck, not even recipes, just templates and ideas and products — that I plan to use again and again when time is tight or inspiration is lacking. Here’s just a few of the festive dishes I whipped up with one hand tied behind my back.

for The Fella’s birthday party, a twelve-hour open house:
– goat cheese with store-bought tapenade, served with grape tomatoes, roasted red peppers from the grocery store’s olive bar, and crackers.
– store-bought hummus topped with Trader Joe’s eggplant & garlic dip, served with pita bread, cucumbers, and olives.
– brie topped with a palmful of brown sugar and a sliver of butter, then baked until bubbly and served with baguette, water crackers, and cold grapes. Also good with dried cranberries.
Trader Joe’s spanakopita triangles, spread out on a baking sheet, not crammed into their tiny tray, brushed with olive oil or melted butter, sprinkled with coarse salt, and baked much longer than instructed, until deep golden brown and crispy. They weren’t as delectable as homemade spanakopita, and no reasonable person would expect them to be — but they were pretty darned good.
pulled pork. The Fella diced up the fixings for a taco bar, and I contributed a big mess o’ pulled pork, which required me to open 1) a butcher’s packet; 2) a bottle of BBQ sauce; 3) a tetra pack of cheap red wine. It is fannnnnntastic.
– marble cupcakes. (Yeeeah, this one was tricky to do one-handed, but it’s not a birthday without cake. I didn’t make the cake from scratch, just bought one packet of chocolate cake mix and one packet of yellow cake mix, whipped them up with cooled melted butter in place of the oil, and spooned them into the cupcake tins, then swirled with a skewer for delicate marbling.)
– ganache for frosting: just heavy cream brought to a boil and poured over good chocolate, then stirred until smooth. My professional-baker fancy-pants sister even gave me instructions for whipping it (much better instructions than Cooks Illustrated cookbook, by the way), but in the end I realized that dipping cupcake tops into the warm ganache would be faster and easier than any other method.

For a birthday dinner:
– baked brie again, because WHY ON EARTH NOT?
– more store-bought hummus spiked with lemon, topped with eggplant spread, and then sprinkled with the last of the tomatoes from the taco bar, seared with olive oil and chili powder, served with pita.
– my simplest, best black bean soup. (Instead of mincing an onion, I whacked one up roughly and processed the entire pot of soup, then added some reserved beans at the end.)
– oven-baked frittata with frozen spinach and caramelized onions, using up the last of the onions from The Fella’s taco bar.
– a perfectly simple salad: greens topped with cranberries and toasted almonds and tossed with good balsamic vingar, superb olive oil, cracked pepper, and Polish finishing salt.
– a half-baked loaf of bread (from TJ’s again), finished in our oven.
– buttery cake (on The Fella’s birthday, I baked the excess yellow-cake batter in tiny loaf pans and froze it), stabbed with a fork and soaked with orange syrup (simple syrup spiked with OJ and triple sec, reduced until thick), then glazed with the last of the ganache. I served three tiny slices on each plate, fanned out and drizzled with another spoonful of orange syrup… and I am converted: syrup-soaked cakes from now on!
– a final dessert garnish: chocolate-covered orange jelly sticks.

for assorted other events:
– goat cheese with good balsamic vinegar —the thick, expensive syrupy kind — and toasted slivered almonds, served with crackers or baguette. I made this twice, and not the same evening as I served the goat cheese with tapenade.. and by “made it,” I mean “tore open a packet of goat cheese, poured balsamic over it, and toasted some nuts.” It’s crazy-easy and crazy-good — so crazy-good that I made it twice in the last two weeks to take to some pretty ritzy doings.
– various permutations of hummus-with something: hummus with lemon and roasted red peppers and olives, hummus with tapenade, hummus with eggplant spread and tapenade, and so on.

and a few ideas I brainstormed up but never did try out:
– mushroom caps rolled in olive oil, filled with spoonfuls of frozen spinach souffle and baked.
– Whole Foods dumplings or gyoza warmed in sesame oil and scattered with scallions.
– vegetarian meatballs heated with chili sauce, red currant jelly, and white wine. (I’ve made these retro darlings with frozen actual-meat meatballs and people go INSANE for them.)

These last few ideas sounded so good it’s a shame we didn’t get to try ’em. Oh, well, maybe the next time I inflict a horrible injury upon myself, we’ll get around to these.