Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday Wishes

Another Christmas is here. Christians around the world are celebrating the birth of the Holy Child.

This is supposed to be a day to spend with family and friends. To share fellowship, food and gifts. A day of peace, love and goodwill towards all.

For many, this is a day tinged with sadness, anxiety and stress.

Too many people in this world, have little to celebrate. Economies are in trouble in many parts of the world. Financial problems have led many to abandon their homes. Wars and civil unrest have torn lives, and countries apart. Extreme weather and natural disasters in the forms of hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods and more have also taken human, emotional and financial toll.

Then there are those who have been dealing with illness or the loss of a loved one.

The thought of facing another Christmas is overwhelming for all too many. We want to crawl back under the covers and stay there till things look brighter – whenever that may be.

Some do just that – but the majority of us find a way to move on and celebrate even the smallest things in our lives.

Some decorate their homes to the hilt. Some just put a couple of ornaments out.

Some will prepare or sit down to a bountiful meal. Some will heat a frozen dinner or get take-out.

Many will choose to gather with others and some – either by choice or circumstance – will spend the day alone.

Some will go to a place or worship while others will say a quiet prayer of gratitude.

No matter what others may say, there are no set rules for how we spend this day.

We try to find a balance of what is right for ourselves while respecting the rights of others in our lives. Not an easy accomplishment on any day but even more so on this day of days.

We are thankful for the food on our plate. The shelter around us. The people around us who really do give a damn about us.

We are thankful for the times past that were shared with those who have left this world.

We cherish past holiday memories and traditions while creating new memories and traditions.

No matter how you and those around you spend the day, may if be a day of peace and love. May it be warm and safe. May there be food on your plate and goodwill in your heart. May the coming year bring you love, peace, health and prosperity!

Merry Humbug,

John Lennon – War Is Over (Happy Christmas)
So this is Xmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Xmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Xmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
And so happy Xmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Xmas
And what have we done
Another year over
A new one just begun
And so happy Xmas
We hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
War is over, if you want it
War is over now

Michael Bublé - Grown Up Christmas List
Do you remember me?
I sat upon your knee
I wrote to you with childhood fantasies
Well, I'm all grown-up now
Can you still help somehow?
I'm not a child, but my start still can dream

So here's my lifelong wish
My grown-up Christmas list
Not for myself, but for a world in need

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
Every man would have a friend
That right would always win
And love would never end
This is my grown-up Christmas list

What is this illusion called the innocence of youth?
Maybe only in that blind belief can we ever find the truth

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal our hearts
Every man would have a friend
That right would always win
And love would never end

This is my grown-up Christmas list
This is my only lifelong wish
This is my grown-up Christmas list

PS – I am taking a bit of a break over the next couple of weeks, but I will be back sometime in January, 2012 with new posts.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Soulful Chicken

Looking for a recipe to use up some leftover turkey? Or how about a great dish for a cool winter’s night? Have I got a recipe for you!

This recipe is a bit of a cross between a “Chicken A La King” and a Shepherd’s Pie”. It has a kicked up potato crust and a creamy filling loaded with veggies and chicken!

I found the original recipe “Hearty Chicken Bake” is from a 1992 cookbook called “101+ Hurry-Up Chicken Recipes”.

The original was good, but like every other recipe, I’ve played with the ingredients and method to make it my own.

What did I do differently?

To me, the sauce was always a bit too bland and runny so I decreased the amount of milk and added a bit of ranch dressing to kick up the flavour. Rather than using mixed frozen vegetables, I used frozen corn and frozen peas – but also sautéed onion, red pepper, garlic and carrots.

I baked the potato crust for a few minutes while I was preparing the veggies and making the filling. That way, the crust has a bit more stability and flavour.

As for the chicken, well there are a couple of things you can do differently. I’ve used leftover chicken or turkey and sautéed it with the vegetables to give a bit more flavour. If I didn’t have any leftover poultry, I used 1/2 pound of boneless skinless chicken breast. See the * at the bottom of the recipe.

Soulful Chicken

1 cup frozen kernel corn
1 cup frozen peas
2/3 cup frozen cut green beans
4 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 – 1 3/4 pounds)
1 79g/2.8oz can French fried onions, divided
1 1/4 cup grated medium cheddar cheese, divided
4 Tablespoons Ranch Dressing, divided
1/2 cup chopped onion
Olive oil for sautéing (about 1-2 Tablespoons)
1/4 cup chopped sweet red bell pepper
3/4 cup diced carrots (fresh – not frozen or canned!)
2 teaspoons minced garlic (bottled type) or 3 cloves, chopped
1 1/2 cup diced cooked chicken or turkey*
1 284ml/10oz can mushroom soup
2 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

Place the frozen corn, peas and beans in a colander and rinse with warm water till thawed. Set aside to drain thoroughly.

Peel and quarter the potatoes. Cook till tender and drain. Mash the potatoes. Crumble 1/2 of the fried onions and add to the potatoes along with 1/2 cup of the cheddar cheese and 2 Tablespoons of Ranch Dressing.

Spoon the potatoes into a well greased 2 quart oven dish. With the back of a spoon, spread the potatoes evenly along the bottom and up the sides to form a crust. Bake in a 350F oven for about 15-20 minutes.

While the potato crust is baking, sauté the onions, red pepper and carrots in olive oil. Once they are starting to brown, add the garlic and the cooked chicken*. Sauté for a couple of minutes then add the thawed veggies, mushroom soup, ranch dressing, milk, mustard powder and pepper. Stir to combine and let it heat through on a medium low setting. Stir occasionally.

Remove the potato crust from the oven and add the creamy chicken and veggie mixture to the center of the crust. Return to oven and bake for an additional 25 minutes.

Top with the remaining cheese and fried onions. Return to oven for 5 minutes or until cheese is bubbling and onions are starting to brown.

Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. (Do not expect the servings to lift out intact as a pie would. The potato crust is not that solid and does break as you take it out.)

Serves 4-6

*If you do not have left over chicken or turkey, take about 1/2 pound of boneless skinless chicken breast and dice into small pieces. Brown the chicken in the olive oil and remove to a paper towel on a plate. Then sauté the veggies in the drippings. Add the garlic on its own, then add the freshly cooked chicken with the veggies, soup and spices.

Note: If you have individual oven proof serving dishes, you could divide the potatoes among each of them and proceed as above – also dividing the creamy mixture, the cheese and onion toppings. Heating time will be less in this case but since the ingredients are all cooked, you are basically waiting till everything is heated thoroughly.



Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Holiday Waist

Have you looked at a grocery store flyer lately?

Noticed anything different?

An observant and health conscious shopper would have noticed that the usual fare is all but missing.

Oh sure, some of the basic produce, meat, dairy and grains are still there – just not as many of them. The versions that are there also tend to be more of the fancy variety or better cuts though.

Staple items have been replaced by the “must have” seasonal treats and delicacies. The fancy cheeses, gourmet meats and specialty baked items. Countless variations on appetizers, side dishes, desserts, flavoured beverages, snack foods and treats have filled the flyers and the aisles of our favourite stores.

The advertisers and manufacturers want us to buy their premade products rather than waste time making them ourselves. Who cares what it is made of or how many calories it has! This is already made! Why not pay us your hard earned money because we are saving you all that prep time!

Yes, I’m sure they have our best interests at heart – NOT!

We want to entertain and be entertained at this time of year. We try and crowd it all into a few weeks. To do that, it often means shortcuts of convenience and pre-packaged foods from the bakeries, delis and other specialty food shops to serve to the guests.

Just what we need – more artificial foods laden with hidden calories, sodium, saturated fats and other unwanted additives.

Waistlines get thicker and wallets get thinner in the name of socializing and being a good friend/family member or host.

‘Tis the season to indulge! We can diet in January!

Yeah, right. January rolls around and many people roll over on the couch, too tired from the holidays to get up and exercise or shop for healthy food. Oh, they may have good intentions and may even show up at the gym for a week or two, but far too many don’t have the will power to stick to it.

For that reason, we need to be very aware of what we do now. Think about what is being served at all those holiday functions.

Now, I’m not trying to be a party pooper, nor am I suggesting that you can’t have an occasional treat. Almost anything in moderation. There is nothing wrong with having a wee taste of almost anything. The problem is that most of us have trouble stopping at just one of those holiday favourites!

Before you put any of those seasonal fave's and treats on your plate or in your glass, ask yourself if the extra calories, sodium and lack of nutrition are really worth the temporary taste sensation.

Make a deal with yourself that you can’t have the less healthy options until after you’ve had two or more healthy options. Odds are, that you won’t be as hungry after the healthy foods and may even say no to those lesser options!

Here are a few more suggestions:
- Try and pick a healthier choice.
- Fill up on the raw veggies, whole grains and fresh fruit.
- Avoid the processed foods and creamy sauces.
- Limit your alcoholic beverages.
- Position yourself as far from the buffet table or other food trays as possible. It really does help to avoid grazing.
- Some people also find that if they drink extra water and have a small healthy snack before going to a holiday gathering then they are far less apt to overeat while they are out.

Oh, one more thing – PLEASE don’t drink and drive! If any of your guests have too much to drink, please make sure that they have a safe ride home or allow them to sleep it off at your home. If you want to drink while you are out, have a designated driver or pre-order a cab to drive you home. Many communities have programs that you can call to get a ride home. Here in Manitoba, we have Operation Red Nose. Teams of volunteer drivers, will drive you and your vehicle home. The service is free but donations are greatly accepted and money raised goes to local charities.

I know there is more stuff on your calendar than you probably want, but whatever you do - DON’T stop your workouts! With all the extra calories you are most likely taking in this month, your body needs that physical activity on a regular basis. Yes, I know that fitting a workout into a crowded schedule isn’t easy, but trust me – your body and your mind will appreciate the effort! Quitting or even cutting back on those regular workouts, will make it a whole lot harder to get back into the routine once the holidays are over.

Speaking of your mind. It is pretty easy to get overwhelmed this time of year. Either with schedules, responsibilities or family dynamics. You can’t escape all of it but try and set aside at least 10 minutes a day just for yourself – more if you can. Clear your mind of the past few hours and set aside the coming hours. Do something that relaxes and clears your mind. It could be meditation, yoga, a walk, playing your favourite music – whatever works for you. It will rejuvenate you. Taking that time will help you to de-stress and face whatever is coming up.

My mom always joked that had she known that Christmas was coming she’d have been ready. Well we do know it is coming. It is the same day every year. If you really wanted to take off some of the stress of the season there are things you can do.

Why not try spreading the socializing out more? There is no law or rule that says you HAVE to see everyone within a couple of weeks of Christmas or even in the month of December. There tends to be at least one friend that I end up getting together with in late November. Almost every year there are at least a couple of people that I don’t get to see until sometime in January as schedules are just too busy. Those visits are always more relaxed as the pressure of the season either hasn’t really started yet or is already over.

Whatever your holiday season brings, I hope you find the will power to resist the majority of those over processed, calorie laden, nutritionally challenged treats. I hope that the stress of the season is greatly overshadowed by the love, peace and goodwill that this season is supposed to bring.

Merry Humbug,

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Materialistic Season

December is always a busy time. There is Christmas and Hanukah as well as other seasonal celebrations. A season that is supposed to be about peace, goodwill and spending time with the people we care about.

Somewhere along the line, that peace and goodwill has all too often been replaced by materialism, over spending and over scheduling.

Once upon a time, Christmas used to be about spending time with the people who were most important to us. Sure we’d get small presents but they didn’t cost a lot. Certainly not enough to put consumers in debt for the next few months.

There would be one gift from Santa for each of the kids. A stocking with some peanuts, a mandarin orange, a candy cane and maybe some socks or a small toy. Parents would also give each child a gift. Depending on the income of a family, kids may or may not exchange gifts. The kids usually made something in school for the parents. With or without religious beliefs, it was more about spending time together than exchanging gifts.

Some families have tried very hard to stick to those goals. I know of a few families, where Santa leaves a stocking full of necessities such as new toothbrushes, combs, deodorant, socks etc. Yes, the kids also get an orange and a bit of candy but it isn’t excessive.

Merchants and manufacturers want us to believe that giving more is better. Their message is to buy, buy, buy! They want us to believe that the value of the gift is directly equal to how you feel about the other person. The more you spend the more you care.

Stores and advertisements are filled with the supposed “must haves” of the season. The things that they feel the customers never knew they always wanted and needed. They push their merchandise at unwitting shoppers, desperate to find the perfect gift. Our homes fill up with things we didn’t need, didn’t want or can’t use.

It’s hard to resist many of those sales pitches when it is all presented in a neat little ad or a 30 second pitch. People have gradually been conditioned to expect big and expensive gifts. You are made to feel like a cheapskate or you don’t really care if you don’t buy the expensive (fill in the blank) item that everyone wants!!

I’ve never bought that logic. My friends and family are in my life because we care about each other and love each other – not how much we spend on each other’s gifts. I refuse to measure a friends worth by how much they spend on me. I’d rather have something from a dollar store that was given with love than something that cost a lot of money and given out of obligation.

Many years ago, when one of my nieces was about 6 or 7, she gave me a plain white note pad for Christmas. Nothing fancy – just one of the ones you’d write a letter on. I asked her what made her decide to give me a note pad. She said that since I was always making lists on scrap paper, she figured this would be something I’d like! It was the best gift I got that year!

If consumers were to be perfectly honest, does anyone really NEED multi hundred dollar gifts such as shoes, purses, shirts/blouses, sweaters or jewellery? $50 pens or paperweights?

You can find lots of great deals at second hand shops, craft sales and discount retailers. I’m not talking kitsch either. There are gently used books, music, movies, clothes, toys, jewellery and any number of other items to be found in nearly new shops.

Consumers work extra hours to pay for the extra gifts and the extra entertaining of the obligatory gatherings. The extra hours mean less time with the people we want to be with so we compensate with bigger gifts we can’t afford. It’s a vicious circle.

Some recent surveys have shown that the average consumer here in Manitoba will spend close to $700 on gifts this holiday season. That isn’t counting the extra foods and decorations they may also buy!

In many ways I am lucky. I can’t afford to spend a lot on gifts but what I do spend goes a long way. Most of my Christmas gifts are my homemade chocolates and baking. This year I spent about $130 on supplies – including packaging. From that, I made up 37 gift bags and 3 trays in varying sizes. I donated 2 gift bags to a friend to auction as part of a fundraiser for “Movember” – a cause that has guys growing a moustache for the month of November to help raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research. The remaining will go to family, friends and the wonderful people who make my life easier throughout the year.

I spent about $125 on nine other gifts. Several of those were Christmas ornaments for the children in my life – the grandnieces and grandnephew and kids of friends. From the year they are born till they leave home they get a Christmas ornament every year (usually something handmade that I pick up at a craft sale in November). By the time they leave home, they have enough ornaments to decorate a small tree. They look forward to seeing what I get them every year and I love it because I don’t have to know what they have on their wish lists or the sizes they wear or what they already have.

Wish lists - done within reason - are a great way to make the shopping easier. Mine is generally quite detailed and even includes price estimates for many of the items. The most expensive item on it this year was about $60 but most were in the $5-$15 range.

Not everyone has the time or ability to bake or make their own gifts but that doesn’t mean that you have to spend a lot at this time of year either.

Spend what you can afford without putting yourself in debt. If you are lucky enough to have the extra money to spend, please consider a donation to your local food bank, a homeless shelter, a coats for kids program or a toy drive. Pay it forward - you never know what the future holds. Somewhere down the road you or someone you love may need that helping hand. Even a small donation can warm a lot of hearts.

Give from the heart – not the pocketbook. It isn’t about the cost. It really is the thought that counts.

Yes, that is a bit of a cliché but your real friends will understand and appreciate whatever you give them. And in the end, isn’t that what the season is all about? Goodwill, peace and spending time with the people who matter to us.