Sunday at the Christkindlmarket

My friend Elizabeth and her husband, Josh, are the kind of people who love street fairs. They’ve been to a strawberry festival in their home state of Florida, a spam festival (yes, spam!) on vacation in Hawaii and, of course, there was that kumquat festival Elizabeth and I toured back in January.

So when they said they’d be in town Thanksgiving weekend, you can probably guess where we planned to meet. Because when it’s late November in Chicago, there may not be fresh produce, but there is an annual tradition built around tents of German food and imported shopping: We spent the afternoon at the Christkindlmarket.

Yesterday afternoon, the weather was unusually warm (40s, I think?) and there was no snow, but there was a lot of food. Boy, was there. Bratwurst, potato pancakes, goulash, Bavarian pretzels, fried dough, spiced nuts, mulled wine, imported beer, candy, chocolate…. If you’re from Chicago, the market’s open through December 24 right outside Daley Plaza, so there’s still time to check it out; if you’re not, well, get comfortable—I’m taking you with me through a photo journey of what it offers:

german christkindlmarket

chicago christkindlmarket

people at market

Inside a booth

free taste of stollen

bite of stollen

drinks

josh's sandwich

kim and scott's pretzel

snowballs

pecan praline strudel

people eating

ornaments

hand-crafted wood ornaments

german gifts to buy

christmas tree daley plaza

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for the unthankful (like me)

thanksgiving
I am not, naturally, a thankful person: I notice problems more than blessings, frustrations more than good gifts, mistakes more than successes. You could say a million nice things to me and one mean one—just one—and I’ll be darned if that’s not the part I won’t forget, ever. My perspective is polar opposite to rose-colored glasses, my attitude completely un-Pollyanna. It’s really unfortunate.

But that is why I love Thanksgiving.

thanksgiving

People like me need reminders to count their blessings, just like some people need to remember appointments or how to get projects done on time. We—the natural analyzers, the closet worriers—can get lost in our critical nature, our ability to dissect things so far you forget what you’re looking at. I need Thanksgiving in my life. I need something that forces me to stop and see how full my hands are (and they are full, indeed). And I am just now learning that being thankful is more than making a list or saying certain words. It’s about really appreciating, mentally recognizing in that crazy analytical way I tend to see things, how good something is.

For example –

Sometime last month, at a point when I was halfway through reading a book on gratitude, I was trying to make a turn onto a busy street and found myself wishing traffic would let up. This wasn’t the normal, Oh, that’d be nice, kind of desire; it was passionate. My heart rate was elevated, I was gripping the steering wheel, leaning forward, mumbling things out loud to my empty car. And then, just like that, cars parted, I made the turn, with clear sailing up ahead, and all was well. Then I started worrying about something else. It hit me that day like it never had before: when I can’t have what I want, it is enormously important, all I can think about; but when I get it, I forget it. Pretty fast.

november

Another example –

I was thinking the other day, what if everything I didn’t appreciate went away? No more blue skies if I didn’t notice them. No more hot water in my morning shower. No full refrigerator. No money in the bank. No one to talk to when I’m discouraged late at night. No one to hear my prayers. No Word of God that is as relevant today as it was when it was written. No steadfast love. No reminders of providence.

But then again, the very fact that that isn’t true, that gifts don’t cease to exist when I cease to appreciate them, makes me thankful, too.

november nashville

Because just like negativity catches on, infecting more and more of you until it hits people around you, so does thankfulness, you know? I am thankful for that. I am thankful for people who infect me with their gratitude, for people who point me to truth, for reminders that even difficult things have good in them because they remind us heaven is there, not here, for example.

And while this may not be much of a food post, as it has no recipe, no kitchen photos, no restaurant review (just a few highlighted recipes below), it is still posted on my food blog, shared with all you food readers, which reminds me of one more thing I am thankful for: every one of you.

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Chicken Waldorf Salad Wraps

chicken waldorf salad wraps

These wraps, which I’ve had for lunch for the last three days, illustrate one of the best parts of working from home. Because, are you ready? When you call your kitchen table your office, this is what happens: you pull open your Google Reader on a casual Tuesday afternoon, see a recipe you’d like to try and, instead of just bookmarking it for later, you walk to the kitchen right that moment, pull out ingredients and, in minutes, see exactly what it tastes like.

chicken waldorf salad

Like I said though, that’s just one of the best parts of working from home, and since a couple of you have been wanting an update on the self-employment situation anyway, it’s probably time I told you about some of the other benefits.

First of all: It’s been almost five months, can you believe that? Five months since I set my alarm for the same time every morning. Five months since I said, Oh, I can’t; I have to work. Five months of setting my own schedule and working fewer hours (and, admittedly, also making less money). People ask me all the time how it’s been going, and I’m sorry to say my standard answer is awful—something about how things are up and down, how I’m still learning what I’m doing, that I’ll reevaluate after six months. I’ve got to work on that because, really, the truth is: it’s been good.

chicken waldorf salad wraps

I went through my financial records last week, determining my average monthly income and budgeting time for upcoming projects, and you know what? It’s been really, really good. I’m not rich, I’m not all sunshine and roses all the time, but every one of my needs has been provided, I’ve gotten several new clients when I lost one, I have the free time like I’ve always wanted. So while I know myself and therefore realize things may seem very glass-half-empty come tomorrow morning, right now, this moment, I am thankful—thankful to sip homemade chai tea lattes at my computer, to run errands in daylight, to have time to work out or clean or, no kidding, take naps in the afternoon. I am thankful to not be making a lot but to always be making enough. And I want to remember this feeling.

holding a wrap

In a recent post at A Sweet Spoonful, Meg wrote about remembering forward to next November, imagining what you’d like to change about your life as if it will really happen. And ironically, it got me thinking about last November, when I never would have guessed I’d leave my job or, launch into something risky or, work for myself like I’d always wished I could. I’m so glad these changes came, for as long or as short as they end up lasting, and I’m so glad to find myself where I am right now—working in blue jeans while I eat homemade chicken salad wraps, counting my blessings.

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Chicken Fingers

chicken fingers

Supersize Me was on TV the other night. Despite the fact that it was created six years ago, I’d never seen the documentary until this year, a few months ago when I streamed it to my computer during my one-month free trial with Netflix. This past Sunday night, I caught the couple minutes where the main character weighs in after a few days of eating a McDonald’s-only diet, something he tried and documented for a full month, gaining weight and hurting his health just as you’d expect. I also caught the scene where he orders chicken nuggets, and the movie does a quick aside, complete with a cartoon illustration, of how chicken nuggets are made.

It’s not pretty.

chicken fingers

A while ago (was it last year?), I also watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (I’m guessing a lot of you did, too?), and saw him explain to children where chicken nuggets come from. And of course I’ve seen this image (click at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you) floating around the Internet and people’s Facebook profiles. I know where commercial chicken fingers or tenders come from; you probably do, too.

But like with everything else we already know is bad for us, chicken fingers have one small thing going for them, and sometimes that’s all it takes to win us over: they taste good. So what are you supposed to do?

Enter homemade, boneless, skinless, marinated, covered-with-homemade-breadcrumbs and then baked chicken tenders.

homemade chicken fingers

I have to say, I love remaking something with good ingredients, taking a fast-food idea and redeeming it with whole foods, whether it’s a chicken panko recipe or french fries. It’s like recovering a chair you got from a garage sale, not that I’ve ever done that, or like renovating a living room, not that I’ve ever done that either. I imagine those things to be all that this is: encouraging, exciting, empowering.

Not only is this homemade version of chicken fingers better for you—not to mention you know which part of the chicken it comes from—but it’s also delicious: crispy and flavorful, perfect for dipping in honey just like we used to. I made mine with a side of roasted sweet potato circles (just wash the sweet potatoes, slice them into rounds or half circles, bake with coconut oil for about an hour). Whether you care about the health benefits or not, these are chicken fingers you can feel good about eating—and while eating, and I think that’s pretty great.

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Gruyère Quiche with Caramelized Red Pepper, Red Onion and Greens

I bought a new purse last week, for the first time since 2006, all because I asked a stranger in a bathroom where she got hers, and she said Target. I enjoy mushrooms now, after 27 years of hating them, because reading this blog post made me want to. I like reading Bon Appetit because I like reading how this girl writes. I’ve taken a photo almost every day this year because I’ve watched other people do it and been motivated.

In cooking as in life, inspiration to try new things can come from almost anywhere. It can be a conversation with a stranger, an article you notice, something quick you look at, maybe sometimes something you read on a blog like this one. For me, with this quiche, it was even simpler: a solid white pan.

ingredients for quiche

The white dish I’m referencing is not mine, but it’s my brother’s, one he set on the counter the other day, and every time I’ve walked into the kitchen and seen it, I’ve thought, Quiche! That pan needs a quiche! So although making homemade pie crusts is not high on my life’s to-do list, I saw no way around it: a store-bought crust could make a quiche, but a store-bought crust could not use that pan. I knew what I had to do.

quiche crust

Turns out the process couldn’t have been simpler. Tuesday night, I mixed flour and salt, cut in butter, added water, and formed the dough into a ball, wrapping it in plastic and sticking it in the fridge. I think it took 15 minutes. Wednesday, I pulled out the dough, rolled it out on parchment (with the confidence that only making perfect homemade apple strudel could have given me) and pressed it into the quiche pan, cutting the edges off the sides.

finished quiche

Choosing the type of quiche was even easier. I looked at what I already had in the kitchen—a red pepper, a red onion, gruyere, some random greens—and found a recipe that made the most of those things. Inspiration by necessity! It begins with caramelizing the vegetables, a step that fills your kitchen with the most incredible aroma of browning peppers and onions mixed with coconut oil. Then you saute the greens, mix all those things with eggs, milk, and cheese, and bam: a golden, flaky quiche with the colors of Christmastime.

sliced quiche

The only change I’d make next time is extra salt—the original recipe said to add to taste, but you add the salt to the cooking peppers and onions, so it’s hard to judge at that point, so now I’d just say to be generous—because when I pulled this out of the oven, it was not only delicious but utterly beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes you want to take a picture when you don’t have a food blog or have someone over for brunch although it’s not Saturday morning or, you know, make a quiche even without this pretty white pan to put it in.

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Pear Custard Pie in Spelt Pie Crust

Once upon a time, a girl decided to surprise her boyfriend for the weekend. It’s a classic story: she booked a plane ticket, got his friends involved and, hardest of all, fought to keep from spilling the beans beforehand. There were two months of wait time from idea to fruition, which meant lots of vague conversations and deceptive communication meant to throw him off along the way. But finally, early November came.

three pears for pear pie

She made phone plans with him for the day she was to arrive—or really, and maybe she should have seen this as a clue or as the thing we’d call foreshadowing in English class, he made phone plans with her, to cook something at the same time, from their separate cities. When she’d talked about her blog and how she’d been lacking inspiration for it (as those of you on Facebook know all about), he’d suggested this idea, and she’d said, Something with pears! Because they’ll be on sale! And she’d laughed to herself the whole time thinking, aha! he has no idea I’m coming!

making pear pie

That Saturday, after she’d landed at the airport and after she and her friend and ally had driven to his house, analyzing every option of how to actually work out the moment of surprise, they drove up to his door, ready for the sure shock that was to come, and surprise! The joke was on her—and at least it was on her friend, too—because are you ready for this? He had known the whole time, had accidentally read a Facebook message on her phone months before. So there he was, greeting her at the door. With flowers. And an entire meal. Of homemade ravioli, tomato sauce and braciole.

I know.

pear pie ready to bake

As if that wasn’t enough, two days later, they still made pear pie. And it was delicious.

streusel topping for pear pie

So to keep me from any further gushing about things other than food, let’s talk about that pear pie. Have you ever had a pie with pears? I hadn’t. Actually, I’d never even heard of it until last week, researching pear recipes. People say it’s a little like apple pie or, as in this version, like a Dutch apple pie because of the creamy custard and streusel topping.

pear pie

Since generally speaking I like pears more than apples and since there’s nothing quite like the creamy, sweet tang of a good custard, this pie is a brilliant combination.

We just used a simple store-bought pie crust (there are spelt ones in the frozen section at Whole Foods, if you’re looking for a good option), so all that was involved with this was peeling and slicing the pears (me) and mixing up ingredients (him).

piece of pear pie

It bakes for about an hour and fresh out of the oven, it’s hard to slice, so if you can wait, it’s better to let it cool and chill for a while before cutting a piece.

If you can’t wait, though—and hey, we’d get along well—then scoop it out and enjoy the creamy goodness right away.

Eating it with someone you like even more than the pie? That’s entirely optional.

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Accidental Chocolate Trifle

Here is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now: it seems for the most part that the home cooking world is divided into two camps. You see it when you’re a guest in someone’s home, you see it on cooking shows and books and blogs, you see it in yourself if you think carefully enough.

First, there are those with skills; then, there are those with kindness.

Let me explain what I mean—or maybe I’ll start with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that the cooks with skills aren’t kind or that the cooks with kindness aren’t skilled. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t mean that cooking well makes you a snob or that wanting to have a nice dinner party means you’re a monster.

I think what I just mean is this: There are people who wow you and there are people who love you. And sometimes I wonder which one I’m trying to be.

The first group is successful, you know? They are highly organized, on top of things—the kind of people who have you over and you are awed by every picture-perfect thing they give you. I know a lot of people like this. I admire them.

The second group, well, they might not impress you as easily. They bake you something they know you like—it might be simple, it might be complex. Their kitchen might be messy when you come over, and they’re quick to confess they dumped a tray of cookies in the trash before you got there. You don’t leave their house talking about the amazing recipe; you leave talking about the amazing night. I know a few people like this. I admire them, too.

Of course the world is rarely black and white, and so there’s a good chance most of us fall somewhere in the midst of these extremes. I’m glad for that. Because while I think I’d rather be the second person, the one who loves people with the way she cooks for them, I spend an awful lot of time forgetting that and trying only to be the first.

This weekend for example, I baked two cookie recipes Friday night, changing four or five ingredients along the way: disaster. Saturday, I baked two trays of chocolate cupcakes; they overflowed the tins. I went to the store for heavy whipping cream and didn’t buy enough. I went back to the store for more heavy whipped cream and forgot what I needed to buy for lunch. I made so many silly mistakes, did so many things I wish I hadn’t—and don’t get me started on the ice cream I’d made Thursday that was so bad, someone spit it out when she tasted it.

chocolate trifle

You could say the saving grace was this trifle, the perfect way to salvage eight cups of cupcake crumbles, but even more that that, it was the party I took it to, where this trifle (and another one of these strudels) that I’d spent so much time on blended in with a table filled with other birthday desserts. There were Happy 50th Birthday cookies, with dough from a 5 and a 0 set together before baking to make perfect 5-0s. There was one of the best cakes I’ve ever had, three layers and super moist, topped with chocolate frosting and decor.

And mostly, there was the person we were celebrating, as a surprise, and all the people who came together to show her love. I want to remember that when I think about this weekend and also, when I think about this trifle.

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