Black bear eating from my apple tree, August night, 2012

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Friday Shopping Alternatives

Every year, merchandisers ring in the holiday shopping season with "Black Friday" (day after Thanksgiving) deals and early morning shopping hours. Well, this year, they've already started with the "special" deals, and stores will open as early as Thanksgiving morning for the annual mad rush to the malls.

I have to admit, I avoid this yearly stampede. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate getting discounts and deals on holiday gifts. And of course, I share a lot of my art around the holidays! Even if you do enjoy the Black Friday experience, perhaps you'd like other ideas to fill out your gift list. Just a few--
  • Consider shopping online. Many retailers with etail storefronts will be offering deals the Monday after Thanksgiving: "Cyber Monday." What could be more relaxing than surfing and shopping from home? Your gifts will be delivered right to your door, often with free shipping. Try the website to find discount codes for almost every store before you shop.
  • Dover Books is a great idea for those who are on a tight budget but still want to give a meaningful gift. The high-quality books from this publisher include thrift editions of classics for under 5 dollars, great activity books for kids, and new, lavishly illustrated hard-cover collector's editions. Plus, you can search their extensive library (over 9,000 titles) online, from the comfort of your couch. Here's a wonderful coupon code, but it's good only until November 29: $20.00 off an order of 40.00 or more. Enter code: NOVE. (There's free shipping with any order of $50.00 or more.) Be sure to check out their holiday collection featuring Christmas classics from Dickens, coloring and sticker books for kids, and vintage wrapping papers.
  • Shop local and shop small on Saturday, November 26--it's the official "Shop Small Business Day." In this tight economy, small shop owners are really feeling the pinch. Join the effort by making just one purchase from a small, independent business owner, whether online or in a brick-and-mortar store.
  • Consider hand-crafted gifts this year. Everyone loves to add a new, handmade ornament to their collection (google "salt dough ornaments" and gather the kids around), and who doesn't love cookies at this time of year? Don't feel intimidated by fancy cut-out gingerbread men and ornately decorated sugar cookies; people like those simple-to-make chocolate chip cookies just as much.
  • Give your time! Someone you know might be able to use a little help, such as dog-walking, babysitting, or house-sitting. Older friends could often use a hand with lawn mowing and debris removal. Younger people could benefit from your skills as a tutor. Writing your offer in a festive holiday card and affixing a bow to the envelope completes this gift.
  • If you exchange gifts with family, co-workers, or a friendly group, remember that half the fun of presents is the unwrapping and the surprise. Most people we know have just about everything they need, so the the gift of the fun and unexpected is more important than the item. How about agreeing that all gifts in the exchange come from thrift stores or rummage sales? You'll be repurposing and recycling and the treasure hunt for truly unique presents will be more fun for you. And everyone will spend a fraction of what they would buying new. In many cases, thrift store operations benefit charities, like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, so your purchases will help these organizations as well.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Whether you venture out with the masses this weekend or not, enjoy your friends, family, good food, and a little bit of relaxation. Keep in mind those you know who may be lonely this time of year. The gift of hospitality, of sharing your holiday with someone else, is the most precious gift of all. Is there someone you know who needs a last minute invitation to your dinner tomorrow?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Give the Gift of Art and Help Kids

I'm running a special promotion to raise money to help a local charity. With everyone getting so hyped up about shopping this week, I thought I'd offer an alternative. Buy some art, for yourself, or as a gift, and help someone else out too.
HELP CHILDREN HEALING FROM SEXUAL ABUSE. My Black Friday promo: all profits from sales of my art from 11/21-11/28 will go to provide much-needed supplies to run our local child advocacy center. The more art I sell, the more items I can buy. The center's requests are modest--things like board games, DVDs, toiletries, books, cat litter, juice boxes, Kleenex, etc. In the wake of the recent Penn State scandal, I think many of us would like to do something positive for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Please consider the gift of art.
If interested, please shop at my ecrater store:
(I am offering an ecrater discount coupon code running from now until 12/31--$5.00 off $15.00 or more. You must use Google check-out and enter the code ART5. Feel free to share this code and use it as often as you like.) 

If you can't afford to buy anything at this time (and even if you can), please forward this post to anyone you know who appreciates art, wildlife, nature, and helping others.
Let me stress that ALL profit (price paid, minus small packaging costs and shipping) will go towards purchases made for the advocacy center. I will be donating these items in mid-December.
BTW--I am able to send any artwork as a gift directly to anyone, and I can hold off from shipping until we get closer to the holidays. (You don't have to gift wrap or pay to mail!) Just email me and we'll work out the details. ( International shipping can be arranged.
Thanks to all of you for your support over the past 5 years. It has been such an experience to start painting again after so many years away from the craft. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Buttercup Squash

A few weeks back I wrote about another winter squash, the always popular butternut. Well, this summer, we grew what turned out to be a slew of a different variety--buttercup squash. Here's a pic of just a portion of our bounty. The buttercups are the round ones, mixed in with a few lovely acorn squash as well.

Having never prepared or eaten a buttercup squash, I enlisted advice from friends on facebook for recipes and got some good ideas. Essentially, I was told, you roast this squash like pumpkin or butternut. With that information, I decided to look up recipes for these squash in my 1961 New York Times cookbook, a great resource for "old-time" recipes. This is how I ended up preparing my buttercup squash, and it was delicious! I'm passing it on here--it is mostly 100% NYTimes, except for my addition of balsamic:

Roasted Buttercup Squash Glaze

1/4 cup brown sugar
3 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger (I used paste in a squeeze tube)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
Splashes of balsamic vinegar to taste

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the buttercup in half and sccop out the seeds and strands, and then cut again into even fourths.

Line a roasting dish or glass dish (with sides) with foil and coat with butter or Pam.

Melt the butter and ginger on stove. Add the sugar and keep stirring until it is dissolved. Taste the mixture and splash some vinegar in as needed (or don't) to cut down a bit on the sweetness and add a little tang.

Arrange the squash on the foil, flesh sides up, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and glaze with the mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes or until tender.

This squash is delightful, sort of a cross between a heartier pumpkin and a more delicate butternut. And for whatever reason, our homegrowns are especially sweet (you could eat them plain and enjoy doing it). If someone offers you a buttercup from her garden, accept! Keep in mind, this recipe is also an easy way to prepare any winter squash as a side dish that goes well with everything, from pork roast to a vegetarian medley. And Thanksgiving is upcoming. Popping some glazed squash in your oven with the turkey is a simple way to provide that much-needed orange color to the dinner plate. Bon apetit.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11.11.11 Veterans Day: Vets Helping Heroes

In honor of Veteran's Day, I thought I'd pass on the link to a worthy, non-profit organization, Vets Helping Heroes. From their website:

Vets Helping Heroes is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization created to solicit and provide funds for qualified training facilities so that they may provide assistance dogs and training to veterans and active-duty military personnel who have been wounded in the global war on terrorism.

Our Mission is to provide a professionally trained assistance dog prepared by a qualified instructor to every veteran and active-duty military personnel wounded in the global war on terrorism enabling them to return to their lives with dignity and self-reliance whether they are visually impaired or have other special needs.

Assistance dogs provide independence and service to a veteran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In addition, they are a source of much needed enjoyment as beloved "family members" - running with children, providing comfort for spouses, and the security of knowing that they can even provide such services as predicting an oncoming seizure.

There are several organizations who pair up veterans with dogs--this is one of many. In addition to providing assistance with physical tasks, these animals also help to ease the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a dog-lover, I know how much joy a canine companion can bring into your life, and I am thrilled to know that always-eager-to-please dogs are being trained to serve as companions for these vets. Hats off to all of you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Springerle Cookies--Playing the Waiting Game

Have you ever found something at a yard or rummage sale and wondered what it was and what it was used for? A few years back I found a cool wooden rolling pin at a garage sale.

After a little research, I found out that what I had puchased for a dollar was a springerle rolling pin. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, here's the lowdown from wikipedia:

Springerle is a type of German biscuit with an embossed design made by pressing a mold onto rolled dough and allowing the impression to dry before baking. This preserves the detail of the surface pattern. They are most commonly seen during the Christmas season.

The name springerle means "little jumper" or "little knight". Their origin can be traced back to at least the 14th century in southeastern Germany and surrounding areas.

As someone who loves cooking gadgets, and an artist who enjoys looking at the detail in things, I was very excited at the prospect of baking some of these biscuits, especially since I'm a history buff too, and it looked like the tradition of springerle is an old one. The rolling pin, although cute, features designs that are handcarved, but sort of crude. From my research into springerle, I discovered that hand carved wooden molds with more intricate detail are commonly used. I even found some modern-day artisans (mostly in Pennsylvania Dutch country) selling these molds online. (Here's one such vendor:

Well, a few months ago, I stumbled upon a 4" x 6," four-panel springerle mold at a rummage sale. It cost me 25-cents and I was thrilled with its detail. Here's a photo:

Now that I own a detailed mold, I decided to bake some springerle cookies for the holidays this year.  I always give a new recipe a trial run, before I actually rely on it. Because I'd read all about what an arduous process springerle making is, I decided to try the recipe out way before Christmas. As in yesterday. Undaunted, I scoured my cookbooks for a recipe and found one that seemed reasonable.

Here's the thing about springerle--there's a lot of waiting involved in making these biscuits. You don't wake up in the morning and say, "Hey, I'm in the mood for springerle--I think I'll bake some today." Oh no. There's a reason these cookies look like works of art when they're done. They take time. Lots and lots and lots of time.

Without getting into too many recipe specifics, suffice it to say, right off the bat, the time you spend beating eggs and sugar at the beginning of the process seems excessive. One recipe said to beat at high speed for 30 minutes! I know my electric mixer would have overheated if I'd attempted such a thing. I opted for a recipe that required about 13 minutes, and that seemed like a long time to wait.

Once the dough is done, you must let it chill in the refrigerator overnight. More waiting.

Next day, you carefully roll out the dough and impress it with your molds, then cut the cookies out along their frame lines. I was dumbfounded this morning when I attempted my first impression and it came out perfectly! I would have bet a million bucks that there was no way I'd capture the detail of the mold in the cookie dough, but it worked. Here's a pic of my unbaked cookies on the sheet (the other little things on the sheet are anise seeds, a common springerle flavorant).

Anyway, there's even more waiting involved before these cookies are finished. In order to preserve the impressions, the cookies have to dry out by sitting at room temperature for a day. Mine are doing just that now, under napkins, of course. Tomorrow I get to bake them. And then, there's more waiting. You can't eat springerle until they have cured by sitting in a cookie tin for three weeks. For real. Have you ever heard of working so hard for a biscuit?

If you've never eaten springerle (I have), they are something of an acquired taste. They are quite hard, subtly flavored (my recipe has lemon peel and anise seed in it), and bland. But I happen to love the flavor of licorice ad enjoy hard biscuits to dunk in tea, so I like these cookies.

Tomorrow, my pretties go into the oven, and then into a tin for safekeeping for the next 21 days. I will update the blog with the results of my springerle baking on November 29. And if they actually work out, I'll post the recipe I used. So far, so good.