Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Holidays and Birthdays...Not Perfect Together

Mom and Me on the front page of Courier Post
When the clock strikes twelve this Thursday, the days that filled 2015, break into fine particles that fill the inside of an internal Etch-A-Sketch. And then we shake it clean. Wipe it out. Now, we get to turn the knobs and design 2016. We have 365 days to thrive or screw it up. Usually both. But that's okay because in reality, New Years Day is nothing more than one big do-over.

It's a day when we come to the realization that over the holidays (which started in November), we ate too much, we drank too much, we spent too much, we slept too little. In short, we are exhausted, broke, hungover and fat. Happy New Years.

And, to the select lucky people like me, it's also Happy Birthday! Many years ago, way before the force was with us, I was born at three minutes after midnight on January 1. Since I was the first born in the county, prizes were awarded, newspapers gathered and a celebrity was born...although my 15 minutes ended on January 2. And, since those three minutes cost my father a tax deduction from the previous year, he reminded me annually that I owed him $550.

Holidays and birthdays. Oil and water. Spanx and big thighs. Actually, I don't believe that all birthdays on a holiday are difficult. I think it would be really cool to blow out birthday candles on the Fourth of July when parades and fireworks are happening all over the country. Even Easter wouldn't be bad when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord with dyed eggs and chocolate bunnies. But New Year's Day has a weight to it that is sometimes hard to carry into the new year.

Even as a child, after the family gathered around the roast pork on the New Year's table, my mother would finally carry out the Italian Rum birthday cake, candles burning, face beaming, I remember aunts saying, "Oh, none for me Jo, I made a resolution to lose weight." January 1 is the first day of resolutions. A January 5th birthday would probably have more people eating cake. (This may also be where my life long battle with weight started as I was determined that my mom would not be stuck with left over birthday cake by family members on a four day diet. And I don't even like Italian Rum cake!)

There is also the issues of a birthday gift seven days after the biggest gift giving day of the year! On our first year as a married couple, my then husband made the mistake of pointing to the pile under the tree on Christmas Eve and saying "pick which one you want to be your birthday present and I will put it away till next week." That only happened once.

But the truth is, by this time of year, most people have empty pockets and smoking credit cards, and the thought of purchasing one more gift can be a little over whelming. At least I feel that way. Even today, I feel bad-actually guilty- that my kids have to buy one more gift after the generous Christmas Eve swap.

It is more than enough for me that my sister cooks a lovely New Year's Day/Birthday dinner and my sons and "daughters" will gather around the table to celebrate. Especially this year, with my favorite leftover from 2015, my grandson Lucas! He makes everyday a reason to celebrate!

On January 1, my birthday, I will take down the tree and all the decorations. After the month long glow of white lights and favorite ornaments, baking, cooking and large gatherings, the house will seem stark for a while. The holidays are officially over and a new year begins. But it's all good. As you get older, even if it is on a holiday, each birthday is appreciated. Each new year is a gift in itself!

I actually look forward to 2016! After bouncing around in the beginning of 2015, I found a job that excites me. One I look forward to growing with this coming year. Along with an Autumn wedding and the continual daily wonder of Lucas, this new year holds promise.

So, on the eve of a brand new year, and with the approach of another birthday, I will celebrate by having an early dinner with friends, raise my glass to 2016, and slip into 10:00. I've been here before. I fall asleep confident that the ball will drop. And as long as it's not on my head, I don't need to see it.

Happy New Year's!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Small Business Owners...They Need Us Too

Nothing better than a stroll on Main Street
Last night, one full week before Christmas, I waited in front of the local mall for traffic to move. Traffic light, after light, I was inching my way up the road mumbling words that didn't really fit with the Christmas Carols playing on the radio.

And the frustration was this, I wasn't even going to the mall. I just needed to get passed it to get to my destination...a small town main street dressed in its holiday best.

Haddonfield, New Jersey, similar, I'm sure, to so many great old towns, has a wonderful main street that this time of year, shimmers with white lights, red and gold ribbons, and frequent greenery in every store. On each Friday night between Thanksgiving and Christmas, carolers are found on every corner and horse drawn carriages carry happy shoppers up and down the street under red and green blankets. Norman Rockwell would be proud.

Not a snow flake in sight but the kids were singing "Jingle Bells"
I had accompanied a friend who was on a mission. She was a little behind in her shopping and determined to get it done! I, on the other hand, was just looking for a few stocking stuffers and was totally enjoying ambling around the festively decorated shops. And, as it so often the case with shopping in small, independent stores, I found things I never would have found in the mall!

Shop owners and staff were all dressed in holiday sweaters or antlers (or both) willing to help with suggestions and selections. Maybe this impressed me because earlier in the day I was in a large department store and couldn't even find sales help at the registers! Actually, it was lovely talking to store owners who were just so glad you stopped in! I actually had a sales clerk who asked me to describe who I was shopping for, what my budget was, and then pointed me to the perfect find! I was thrilled walking out with my little bag in hand!

Coming back to this store when I'm shopping for myself!
On the East Coast, this December has been the warmest on record. Most days a winter coat is not even needed. As I spoke to a local shop owner, she explained how this has been a blessing. "The holiday season can make up to one-third and sometimes two thirds of our annual budget. A cold, or snowy month can be a disaster."

This year, however, main street shoppers are finding it very comfortable to meander and browse. Mother nature has been merciful to those with so much at stake.
Local church choir singing holiday favorites

Small business owners are also grateful to townships who roll out holiday carpets to attract shoppers. "This time of year is truly a make or break deal for most of us, " she continued, "for the owners of small shops, it can decide whether or not you will make it into the new year."  That is a difficult reality.

Plus, a little fact checking into the plight of small business owners, found that houses surrounding prosperous town centers have values that increase annually. That is certainly the case in this small town where large Victorian and stately homes are pricey pieces of real estate. The taxes paid by businesses that populate small towns are essential to local economies. Take a look at a down town main street that has closed shops and boarded up windows and you will find the surrounding neighborhood in despair.

My favorite shop anytime of year!
It is why towns like Haddonfield, neighboring Collingswood and so many townships across the nation, work so hard at the holiday season to attract those longing for a time when Christmas meant noses pressed against store windows, carolers on street corners and grateful shop owners so willing to help.

It still exist. You just have to make a promise to pass the mall and find it. There are six days left until Christmas day. Plenty of time to support our local small business owners. Plenty of time to support our community which depends on all of us for its' survival. One purchase from each of us could make all the difference.

Food Court? Not when small town restaurants look like this in December!

Photos by Jo Ann Phelps and GoogleImages

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Quick Amazing Holiday Appetizer...AMAZING I SAY!

There will be a lot of entertaining over the next couple of weeks, and if you are looking for something a little different, taking minimal effort
and absolutely delicious, this is the recipe you need. I did not create it but I will now certainly move it to the front of the recipe bin! Actually, I first saw it in a magazine a couple of years ago, clipped and filed it as a possibility, and then forgot about. Don't make that mistake.

Last year, when I wanted to make an appetizer to take to my son's in-laws on Christmas, I pulled out this recipe and the "let's do this" gene kicked in! I'm so glad it did. Since I was the only "non-relative" in attendance, I felt I needed to kick it up a notch over the standard spinach dip or cheese tray. I was relieved to see it disappeared quickly. According to one young man, it was as "addictive as bacon crack". I'll take that as a compliment!

Before baking...
This year, I made it for my annual soup night, and again, it was the first app to disappear! So many people have texted me for recipe that I thought this was the easy way to go. First, credit here goes to Ina Garten, the creator of this tasty "Caramelized Bacon" appetizer/candy/sweet and savory blend, with bacon, brown sugar, pecans, pure maple syrup and a surprise touch of heat! There is absolutely no describing the scent that wafts through the house as this is baking in the oven. There is drool, but no words!

Caramelized Bacon
After baking...Yum!
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 1/2 cup chopped or whole pecans
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 pound thick-sliced applewood-smoked bacon (invest in a quality bacon here. This is not the time for store-brand. I used bacon smoked by the Amish who are masters at smoked meats!)
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil (for easy cleaning) and place a wire baking rack on top. (Do not skip this step. Clean up was really a breeze!)
  • Combine the brown sugar and pecans in a food processor and process until the pecans are finely ground. Add the salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper and pulse to combine. Add the maple syrup and pulse again to moisten the crumbs.
  • Cut each bacon slice in half crosswise and line up the pieces on the baking rack without touching. With a small spoon, evenly spread the pecan mixture on top of each piece of bacon, using all of the mixture. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the topping is very browned but not burnt. If it's under baked, the bacon won't crisp as it cools.
  • While it's hot, transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature. (The caramelized bacon can be made early in the day and stored at room temperature.)
Note: Using food processor is a must with this recipe. I used a mini chopper and it worked great!

Holiday entertaining doesn't need to be stressful. Make things that can be made earlier in the day and then fill your house with warm, frequent aromas that welcome everyone coming in the door. As my dear old friend Louise used to say when she came into a pot cooking on the stove, "somebody's home!" Be the person who is home! Merry Christmas!

Photos by Jo Ann Phelps

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Groom's Side III...Outer Banks Bound

Bride & Groom, Ocean & Beach...Perfect!
Standing in the sand of Corolla, North Carolina, with my son Kyle and his fiancee, Melissa, I realized that while we may stake our claim to the beach, the ocean rolls in and takes a little of it back with each retrieving wave. It's a battle we'll always fight but never win. That said...some things are worth the battle. The beach is definitely one of them!

Which is why shortly after Thanksgiving the three of us trekked to the Outer Banks to plan the October 2016 wedding of this great couple. We met with the wedding planner, a dynamo Sarah Palin look-alike, a BBQ caterer, that simply knocked our socks off and Jay, a lovely man who is also a non-denominational minister. I profess to being an innocent bystander. They asked me to go so I could provide a third opinion, better described as a tie breaker. However, I must admit that these two had it together when it came to making decisions.

They employ the veto system. Each gets three when it comes to planning for their big day. Veto's are non-negotiable and I think only one was used during our four-day stay. And that was by Kyle. Which I'm not privileged to divulge (which is good because I really can't remember what he used it on...but it must have been important to him.)

The Place:
Currituck Lighthouse oversees the Sound surrounding the museum. 
I had never been to the Outer Banks portion of North Carolina which is a strip of islands separating the ocean from bays and sounds with spectacular sunsets, tall grass-filled marshes and fields of persimmons. The natural setting that Melissa loves and the beach that Kyle can't wait to party on. It is simply beautiful!

The wedding and the reception will be held on the lawns and porches of the Historic Whale Head mansion that can best be described as a beautifully restored 1920's Art Nouveau style residence that is now a museum.  The stately  mansion is part history and part mystery, dating back to the 1920’s, overlooking the Currituck Sound, where whales and dolphins can be spotted spouting while wild horses roam the beach. Local lure tells of pirates, shipwrecks and lost colonies with many quest reporting paranormal activities. In fact, when we took an unguided tour of the inside, we were alone in the basement when Kyle spotted a door knob turning. Needless to say, the tour ended quickly for us. (By the way, we were not informed of the many reported haunts when we took the tour. And, it is not mentioned in the presentation!) 

The Menu:
You have to know Kyle and Melissa to understand this menu. They live to enjoy life and their home is often filled with friends and family, food, wine and beer! They wanted something fun and different. So we are having a BBQ! We had researched award winning "pit masters" before we traveled down.

 We selected two for the tastings...and then canceled the second one while we were sitting at the table of the first one. Without revealing too much of the menu, I can tell you that this was the most amazing spread of smoke meats and sides that I have ever tasted. The meats are presented without the sauce. That choice is up to individual quest. And what a choice it is! From the vinegar based "North Carolina BBQ sauce" to the heated "Texas Pete", there is a large selection that quest will be encouraged to indulge in. The sauces are "brewed" in large boilers in secret ingredients that are not made available to the general public. And if BBQ sauces are not your thing, I can assure you that the brisket, like a tender roast beef, stands on its own! Southern sides and desserts will fill out this culinary adventure. 

The Month:
With off-season rates, daytime temperatures in the 70's and cool nights, the North Carolina shores have become a popular wedding destination in October. All of the shops and restaurants are open till Thanksgiving weekend, with many offering discounts up to 50%. Cooler ocean temps may keep some out of the water, but beach activity if plentiful. Kite flying is a major sport down here, with several kite shops in every town. Wave runner rentals are half the price of the Jersey shore, and of course, horseback riding on the beach is plentiful! Those seeking to have fun, will find it. 

Why the Outer Banks?
Until I was there, I will admit to not understanding why these two picked a location so far from home. But after spending time there, and watching the excitement between Kyle and Melissa, I got it! The budget didn't allow for a large, fancy wedding with the traditional trimmings. And (most importantly) they wanted something different in a natural setting with close family and friends around them. It will be a bit of a travel by car for most (from NJ, 6.5-7 hrs. Off season traffic keeps the time down), and by planes for others. They are totally understanding of those that can't make the trip. But for those that do, it will be worth every mile!

Kyle and Melissa are ready to take this journey!