CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #6 — CARE PACKAGES

Care packages are a welcome way to spread cheer this holiday season.  College students studying for finals are obvious recipients.  Military personnel stationed far from home are another excellent choice.  Wounded warriors shouldn’t be forgotten this time of year, or ever for that matter, and a surprise care package would be a great way to let one know that they remain in your thoughts.  Know anyone hospitalized this season?  A care package would surely brighten their day.  Perhaps you have friends that recently moved, and would appreciate a care package of goodies to remind them of home.  Think  of them as random acts of kindness.

Care packages can be as simple or elaborate as you decide to make them — it really is about the thought.  Try to make them personal, and add in some holiday items.  I just finished preparing few for college students getting ready for finals, and assembling them definitely put me in a holiday mood.  Included among the goodies in the various packages are snacks, peppermint-striped socks, light up ski caps, hot cocoa mix and mini marshmallows, mugs, pens, and a holiday movie.  Other ideas are paperback books, holiday window clings, fleece throw blankets, holiday t-shirts or leggings, and of course, homemade cookies.

IMG_5518An assortment of snacks and holiday-themed goodies

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Surely you know someone who would be surprised and delighted to receive a care package this holiday season.  Have fun putting one together, and bring an unexpected smile to someone’s face.

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #5 — REINDEER

Most people are not aware that Santa actually has 12 reindeer.  If you listen carefully to the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” you’ll hear them all named.  As the song goes, “there’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.”  That’s 8.  Then there’s ol’ Rudolph — that makes 9.   Next is Olive, who is the bitchiest of the reindeer — “Olive the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names.”  That makes 10.  Howe is number 11 — “Then Howe the reindeer loved him.”  Finally, there’s Andy — “Andy shouted out with glee.”  🙂

I found loads of cute and easy ideas for making reindeer cookies and other holiday treats.  I haven’t included the many beautiful iced ones I saw, because those require a fair amount of skill and patience, and well, ’nuff said.  Perhaps one of these might inspire you to get all reindeer crafty this season.

These reindeer cookies made using an upside down gingerbread man cookie cutter are so clever:

A sweet and simple sugar cookie reindeer (and other cute ideas) from Sarah’s Sweets & Treats: cookies2Chubby little peanut butter reindeer cookies, from the now defunct Ladies Home Journal (RIP print media): cookies3 And another idea for peanut butter reindeer from Bakergirl: cookies5 Nutter Butter reindeer from Edesia’s Notebook: cookies4Take those Nutter Butter reindeer to the next level with a dip in chocolate, from Candiquik: cookies7 How about these clever chocolate-covered biscuit reindeer with Teddy Graham antlers, from Smart Party Planning: cookies12 These gingerbread and sugar cookie pieced reindeer cookies from The Bearfoot Baker are a little more work, but worth the effort, don’t you think? cookies11

Meringue reindeer from I Heart Kitchen are almost too cute to eat (I said almost):

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Oreos can be used to create adorable reindeer cookie pops, like these from Easybaked:

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But reindeer imagination isn’t limited to cookies.  For example, you could make chocolate-dipped marshmallow reindeer pops, like these from Just a Taste:

Or reindeer Rice Krispie treats:

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Savory little reindeer cheese snacks will get a few grins:

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And finally, the piece de resistance, the reindeer bacon cheeseball (posted, unfortunately, without attribution on Pinterest):

Seeing these reindeer goodies definitely made me smile, and I’m sure the family would love to find any of these at our Christmas gathering.

I’ll leave you with one more Christmas joke — this one will “sleigh” you.  🙂

Q:  What does Christmas have in common with your job?

A:  You do all the work and the fat guy in the suit gets all the credit.

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #4 — SOCIAL MEDIA

To spread a little digital cheer this holiday season, try being social on social media.  In the coming days you’ll be seeing LOTS of photos on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. of kids with Santa, Christmas trees and holiday decorations, family celebrations, holiday foods, pets with antlers and jingle bells, and the Elf on the Shelf doing all kinds of naughty things.  Go ahead and “like” or “favorite” them.  It doesn’t cost a thing, and it brings a little joy to the person that posted the photo.  If you’re really feeling charitable, go ahead and leave a comment.  Ditch the political rants, the obscenities, the challenges to post something “for just 1 hour,” the inane quizzes (“what Christmas cookie are you?  I’m gingersnaps!!”), and other such negativity this season, and post some of your own holiday photos.

Here’s one of my holiday posts — what’s not to “like”?  🙂

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CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #1 — HOLIDAY PLANTS

It’s here!  The holiday season is officially here!  Tag Sale Tastes is counting down to Christmas with daily posts (updated for 2017) containing simple ideas to brighten the holidays for you and those around you.  (Of course, I’d love it if along the way you’d share your ideas with me.) I’d like to think of this Christmas Countdown as a sort of blog Advent Calendar.

According to my research the word “advent” is Latin in origin, meaning “coming toward.”  Christians were so awed by the importance of Christmas and what it celebrated, that they needed a period beforehand to prepare for it, giving themselves time to reflect on it as well as teach their children about the significance of it.  In the late 1800s, a German woman made an Advent Calendar for her son Gerhard Lang that consisted of 24 candies stuck onto a sheet of cardboard.  As an adult, Gerhard remembered how much he loved receiving his Advent Calendar and how it reminded him every day that Christmas was coming.  In 1908, he and a partner printed what is believed to be the first printed Advent Calendar with a little colored picture for each day in Advent.  Later they added the little windows that are still popular today.  The first Sunday of Advent varies from year to year, falling somewhere between November 27 and December 3 — Advent Calendars compromise for this by beginning on December 1.

For the first day of the Christmas Countdown, I’m going natural — holiday plants are an inexpensive and elegant way to decorate for the season.

Poinsettias are everywhere!  Pick up a few and instantly brighten your surroundings.  One of my favorite varieties is called Winter Rose — you can see why:

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I found these two stunning varieties this year:

An evergreen wreath is another easy way to usher in the holidays.  Wreaths have been a Christmas tradition for centuries.  The word ‘wreath’ is derived from the old English word “writhen,” meaning “to writhe” or “to twist.”   The circular shape of the Christmas wreath, with no beginning or end, is said to symbolize Christ’s eternal love and life never ending.  I got a beautiful one at Costco this year for $14.99 — it smells so fresh and pine-y, and looks so pretty on my door:

If you are lucky (or unfortunate) enough — all depends on how you look at it — to have mistletoe growing in a nearby tree, snip a branch and hang some with a ribbon.  You never know, you might get lucky!  (Unfortunately, mistletoe grows in the Chinese lace bark elms in front of my house, and every year a group of very loud neighbors wanders down and throws all sorts of things at the tree to try to knock some mistletoe loose.  Neither I nor my dogs find this holiday tradition amusing.)

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Rosemary Christmas trees are available at grocery stores and garden centers.  In addition to looking festive, they smell great, and you can snip a sprig here and there to use in cooking and baking.  My neighbor surprised me with one the other day, and I love to pat it when I walk by to release its fragrance:

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You could also force some amaryllis or paperwhite bulbs.  They, too, are widely available in garden centers and grocery stores, and kits for growing them can often be found at Target, Walmart, and other similar retailers.  Look for big fat bulbs with shoots and/or buds poking out.  If you plant some now, you can have gorgeous blooms by Christmas,  (Directions for forcing the paperwhites are here.)  Some people have luck planting them in their yard and getting them to rebloom year after year.  I am not one of those people.
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Paperwhites getting ready to put out buds

Fragrant paperwhite flowers

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Striking  amaryllis getting ready to show its colors

Amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs also make lovely, budget-friendly holiday gifts.  If you hurry, you too can have pretty blooms for the holidays.

There’s lots of other plants and natural elements that you can use to decorate for the holidays — hollies, berry branches, magnolia leaves, white tallow berries, evergreens, pine cones, cinnamon sticks, birch branches, just to name a few.  Ditch the silks, and use your imagination to combine natural elements to create beautiful holiday arrangements.

HALLOWEEN DEVILED EGGS — MERRY TO MACABRE

Who says deviled eggs are just for Easter?  They’re also fun to dress up for Halloween — cute or creepy, your pick!  I am constantly surprised by the creative ideas for these time-honored favorites.  Get inspired by this updated annual roundup of Halloween deviled eggs, from the merry to the macabre.

Nothing scary about these adorable candy corn deviled eggs from Edible Crafts (new for 2017):

 

Guests will go batty for these batty deviled eggs from Tastefully Simple (new for 2017):

Wonder who the brain was behind these creepy deviled eggs from Brit & Co. (new for 2017):

Who could resist a cute little pumpkin deviled egg, like these from Tadka Pasta?

 

Too generic?  How about a grinning Jack O’ Lantern, like these from Ochikeron’s You Tube channel:

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Or these from Happier Than A Pig In Mud:

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Who wouldn’t get a kick out of these owl deviled eggs from Maker, Baker, Glitter Shaker?  Hoo?  Hoo?

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Spider deviled eggs are cute without being too creepy, like these black olive ones from The World According To Eggface:

halloween1And these green olive ones from Momtastic:

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Of course, you CAN make them creepy, like this albino black widow spider deviled egg found on Hairpin:

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If you’re going to have spiders, you might as well have spider webs, like these from health-actually.com:halloween7

Food Planet kicks spider web eggs up a notch with a bright green filling;

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Devil horns are an easy way to dress up deviled eggs for Halloween, like these from Cookin’ Canuck:

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You can have lots of fun coming up with devilish little faces on your deviled eggs, like these from So Lovely Sweet Tables:

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Or these amusing little devils from Kraft:

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Skeleton deviled eggs from Thrifty Fun are a scream:

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It wouldn’t be Halloween without some eyeballs, like these from Kath’s Kitchen Sync:

halloween4  Or these zombie eyeballs from Happier Than A Pig In Mud:

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Or next level creepy with piped on capillaries from Mom Foodie:

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Or even these dragon (or cat) eyeballs from Chow Bella Paleo (new for 2017):

These black and orange eggs from aol.com/food might be too scary for some people:

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These red ones found on Homemade Recipes puts the devil in deviled eggs:

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Deviled eggs make cute ghosts in a graveyard, from Chef Morgan:

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These green goblin eggs from Betty Crocker are pretty scary:

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But nothing could possibly be creepier (or less likely to be eaten) than these Satan’s Spawn deviled eggs from Kravings.blog.  Nothing.  Ever.

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Happy Halloween!

P.S.  Do you know why ghosts don’t like it to rain on Halloween?  It dampens their spirits!

RETRO DINING: SHANGHAI RIVER

Shanghai River, located at 2407 Westheimer, has been serving Szechuan and Hunan cuisine since 1970.

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Located in a strip shopping center, the unassuming building doesn’t hint at the retro glamour inside.

The restaurant’s cool, dark dining room, with its glossy redwood finishes, lacquered artwork,  buddhas, and giant foo dogs brings back childhood memories of many meals at Chinese restaurants n New York.  There’s a hint of mystery in the air.  My son and I visited Shanghai River on a whim, and have been back many times since.  The recipes are what I think of as old school American Chinese food–tamed to suit what are perceived to be American tastes.

We first tried Shanghai River for lunch.  With 40 choices on the special luncheon menu, we had no trouble finding dishes we liked.  Each luncheon special comes with soup (hot and sour or egg drop corn) and choice of appetizer (spring roll, crab puff, or egg foo young).  We chose the hot and sour soup, which was thick and suitably hot and sour, and came with fried wonton crisps and mustard and duck sauce for dipping:

Among the lunch specials we enjoyed were Shrimp in Hot Garlic Sauce, with a generous number of plump shrimp (although I would not call this dish spicy by any stretch of the imagination):

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Chicken with Peanuts (made with all white meat on request):

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Hunan Shrimp:

Shredded Pork in Hot Garlic Sauce (again, not spicy):

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And Chicken with Cashew Nut:

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You’ll notice that the unifying characteristic of all of these specials is that they are varying shades of brown.  It would be nice to throw in a veggie or two just to break up the monotony of the plate, but the lack of color didn’t distract from our enjoyment of the food.

There are many more choices on the expansive dinner menu.  Just for fun, on one occasion I ordered the Pu Pu Platter with my son, which I hadn’t had, or even seen on a menu, since I was a kid.  The Pu Pu Platter came with spring roll, bar-b-q rib, shrimp toast, crab puff, skewer beef, and tempura shrimp, one of each for each person.  With its blue flame from the mini hibachi grill and giggle-inducing name (according to Wikipedia, the name has its origins in the Hawaiian language, where pū-pū signifies an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre), the Pu Pu Platter was a fun trip down memory lane.

At dinner, a complimentary dish of pickled vegetables is offered:

Dinner is served family style, accompanied by rice.  Some of the dishes we liked were Chicken with Cashew Nuts (the veggie flower garnish was a nice touch):

Beef with Snow Peas:

And Mu Shu Pork

Neither the dining room nor the bar were ever crowded on any of the occasions we visited, although there was almost always something going on in the private room.  If you’re looking for a quiet place to enjoy a meal, Shanghai River fits the bill.  I believe its longevity is likely attributable to its reasonably-priced menus, generous portions, satisfying–if not exciting–food, and brisk service.

 

 

 

 

 

SUN DRIED TOMATO PESTO

I bought these nesting bowls on ebay.

They were made in France by Vallauris, probably in the 1950s.

Several years ago I found a Vallauris dish at an estate sale, and have been buying pieces wherever I can find them.  I love the rustic, aged look of the pottery.

You’ll notice that these nesting dishes are empty.  Like my nest.  Last week we took my son — my youngest child, my backup kid — to college.  I’d been dreading the thought of being an empty-nester for the better part of the last year, and as the day arrived, I realized it wasn’t so much like ripping off a band-aid, but more like ripping out staples after open-heart surgery.  With a screwdriver.

Jasper had a hard time saying good-bye too:

My son’s dorm set-up is something I could only have dreamed about when I was in college.  He shares an on-campus apartment with a roommate.  They each have their own bedroom, and share a living room, bathroom, and kitchenette.  I had a teeny tiny room that I shared with a roommate (our beds were about 6 feet apart), and a community bathroom down the hall, where I would lug my bucket o’ toiletries and hope there was an empty shower stall.  He’s got a full-size refrigerator — not like the crappy little dorm fridges we rented that didn’t hold much more than a six-pack and some leftover pizza.  There’s free washers and dryers, a dining hall that’s open until 10:00 p.m. daily, free soda refills for eternity with purchase of a keeper cup, and free cable.

My son is blessed to have a wonderful roommate, a really nice kid that he went to high school with.  Unlike my first roommate.  I’ll call her Robyn (because that was her name).  Upon arrival, she announced that she had a “heavy-duty boyfriend,” — you know, like aluminum foil — and proceeded to place a half dozen or so framed photos of her and her heavy-duty boyfriend on her desk.  A few nights later I woke up to some unusual noises, which turned out to be Robyn having sex with someone who was not her heavy-duty boyfriend.  It turned out Robyn was a heavy-duty pig.  After this happened a second time in as many days, I asked her to please let me know when she was planning to have sex in the room and I would leave, which she did.  We quit speaking, and she eventually moved out.  At least that’s one thing my son won’t have to deal with.

Inspired by the empty nesting dishes and my own empty nest, I made something to fill one of the dishes.  Sun dried tomato pesto is an old favorite — my son calls it “deliciousness.”  We love it spread on crostini or crackers as an appetizer, but it’s also good spread over cream cheese, or stirred into pasta.  It’s definitely on the list of things to make when the kids come to visit, which I hope is sooner rather than later.

SUN DRIED TOMATO PESTO
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Recipe type: Appetizer
Author:
Ingredients
  • 8-ounce jar oil-packed sun dried tomatoes
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Olive oil
Instructions
  1. Drain tomatoes, reserving oil. Place tomatoes, cheese, basil, pine nuts, and garlic in a food processor. Add enough olive oil to reserved sun dried tomato oil to make ½ cup. With the food processor running, slowly add the oil and process until a smooth paste forms. Transfer to serving container and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with crackers or crostini.

This jar from Costco is enough to make two double batches — great for entertaining

It only takes a few minutes to make in the food processor

Deliciousness to fill my empty nest