Feasting with Thanks

Buy the book now, by clicking this link! Critics are calling it the stateside version of Francis Mayes' beloved classic Under the Tuscan Sun, and are comparing the writing to that of the great garden master Henry Mitchell.

Buy the book now, by clicking this link! Critics are calling it the stateside version of Francis Mayes’ beloved classic Under the Tuscan Sun, and are comparing the writing to that of the great garden master Henry Mitchell.

This is a summary of today’s post.

  • Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, the Christmas season is fully under way at The Garden Interior.  We confess that we have been listening (covertly, but without shame) to Christmas carols since Labor Day.   The cold of the approaching solstice has chilled that garden and we are doing the last autumn chores.  We advise against cutting the power cord of the electric hedge trimmers, and we tell you exactly why.  And then we move indoors to give two outrageously good recipes to grace your holiday table: for apple and sausage dressing, and for the best garlic mashed potatoes ever.
  • Also, please check out the photos posted under the button on the right (“Weekly Garden Photos”), for some new and beautiful pictures of what is going on in the garden in late autumn.  The garden is still OPEN, so please come in!
  • And in the “Book Reviews” section (button on right), we are reviewing The Longest Silence, by Thomas McGuane. If you both like to read and like to fish, this is a book that must be on your shelves, and in your backpack. It is a truly lyrical book about the mysterious, I might almost say mystical, sport of angling. This book is in a class of its own: a loving, measured and extremely nuanced paean to the great meditative and athletic sport that fishing is.
  • Has any of your friends been turned into a statue?  No?  One of mine has and today I am reminiscing about that (hint: he was an astronaut) and about how great it is to be headed home for Christmas after a long year of business travel.  There are four personal and sentimental vignettes that I think you will like: Jerusalem, Munich, Madrid and the Amazon.  Please check it out today, to the right of this post, under the button “Personal snapshot: I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

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People who are moved by the Christmas spirit are definitely divided into two groups: those who listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, and those who think this is quite wicked and are adamant about waiting and taking their holidays in the proper order. I confess I am in the former camp and, if truth be told, have even secretly started to listen to Christmas carols after Labor Day, when in my view it is perfectly legal, so long as it is done discreetly and in the privacy of your own automobile. Today, I was humming a carol and thinking of how winter is definitely and grimly bearing down on us, with a nice arctic blast of air that has cut right through the garden, leaving a pall.

Most of our leaves are down, but there are still a few pockets of color around our town. The reds of the maples were especially vivid this year.

Most of our leaves are down, but there are still a few pockets of color around our town. The reds of the maples were especially vivid this year.

The impatiens have all now completely collapsed, the grass had a crispy crunch when I went out to get the papers, and even a rhododendron or two were droopy. Brrrrr, that’s how you know it’s really cold here, when the rhododendrons droop like that. Our leaves are mostly down, raked up, and carted away, though our town still looks lovely, with quite a bit of remaining color here and there. A single giant purple clematis flower has opened and flung itself defiantly into the teeth of the oncoming winter, and across the patio, a single bold pink gerbera daisy has bloomed; a few roses are straggling along in sporadic bloom, as they will almost until Christmas week at our place.

Not many blooms are left on the clematis, but every now and then, on a mild day, a bloom will open here and there that reminds us of their summer glory.

Not many blooms are left on the clematis, but every now and then, on a mild day, a bloom will open here and there that reminds us of their summer glory.

Every once in a while, not often, but just enough to keep me in my place, my wife has the fun of saying, “You know, for a Rhodes Scholar, you’re not really all that bright, darling.” The “darling” just manages to make the comment respectable, and I think that’s a deft touch. The last time I heard this was a few days ago, when I used our electric hedge trimmer and carelessly cut through the hot cord. In case you ever wondered what that would be like, let me tell you. It is quite exciting: there is a tremendous explosion with smoke and flames and sparks shooting out everywhere; it’s all extremely stunning and impressive. Plus, as I say, it tends to elicit unwelcome and unhelpful marital speeches, cautions, you-should-be-more-carefuls, and the like. I am on my second electric hedge trimmer now, and treat this one with much more care. One does not want to be electrocuted more than once while pottering about in the garden, after all; it is amazing how rapidly wisdom enters in, occasionally.

Here is the abelia bush I was trimming, when I cut the trimmer’s power cord, with such an impressive result.

Here is the abelia bush I was trimming, when I cut the trimmer’s power cord, with such an impressive result.

But I am in high spirits all the same, as I have bought a replacement trimmer, as I said, and this weekend, I tried a new thing. I used it to cut down by degrees all the dead or near-dead things in the garden in furtherance of my new theory of mulching-in-place. This is an admittedly experimental gardening practice, but it is derided scornfully by other members of the household as “messy gardening.” I, on the other hand, find it more environmentally sound and, frankly, quite a lot easier. Must be getting old. Or soft in the head, perhaps. Anyway, that went all right, and amazingly, I managed not to cut any bits of myself off in the process or to cut the power cord with the trimmer again.

A few Christmas decorations are beginning to appear around our place, starting with a few festive windows.

A few Christmas decorations are beginning to appear around our place, starting with a few festive windows.

But we really must come inside and get cracking on the holiday cooking, so here is the recipe for some outstanding dressing. This can be for Thanksgiving or Christmas and can be served with or without a roasted bird. The sausage makes it very hearty, so it can accompany a holiday feast or stand on its own. We make it all winter.

A hearty, fragrant dressing made of chicken sausage apples, that can accompany holiday meats or stand alone as an entree. Secret ingredient: cognac (or bourbon).

A hearty, fragrant dressing made of chicken sausage apples, that can accompany holiday meats or stand alone as an entree. Secret ingredient: cognac (or bourbon).

Chicken Sausage Dressing

1 baguette or similar loaf of French bread

2 crisp apples

2 stalks celery

8 Tbsp. butter

1 medium yellow onion

1 lb. of chicken sausage, without casings

4 oz. Portobello mushrooms

1½ cups chopped Italian parsley

3 eggs

16 oz. chicken stock

1½ Tbsp. chicken base (or 4 Tbsp. chicken bouillon powder)

1 Tbsp. diced thyme leaves (no stems)

½ tsp. freshly ground pepper

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

1/8 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg

4 oz. cognac or bourbon (optional, but preferred)

1 clove garlic, finely minced

5 oz. pecans, finely chopped

Cut the loaf into half-inch slices, brown these on both sides under the broiler of your oven, and then cut the toasts into half-inch cubes. Peel and core two large apples; any will do, but crisp ones are better and locally grown ones will have a great starchy crispness. “Honey Crisps” are perfect and they are just going out of season at this time of year, but they are worth looking out for. Cut them into a half-inch dice too. Cut two stalks of celery lengthwise and then cut them into a half-inch dice; brown the celery in two tablespoons of the butter. Dice the onion and brown it also in three tablespoons of the butter. Brown the chicken sausage. Chop the Portobello mushrooms and brown them in three more ounces of butter; add a little water if the mushrooms absorb the butter too quickly. Chop the flat Italian parsley. Lightly beat three eggs. Put all the foregoing ingredients into a large pasta bowl and toss, mixing well.

In a medium-sized saucepan, create a fragrant broth by combining the chicken stock, chicken base or bouillon, fresh thyme, ground pepper, cayenne, ground nutmeg, cognac or bourbon, and the garlic. We have also used aged tequila in lieu of the bourbon or cognac, and this works well too. Simmer the broth for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to combine. Once the broth has cooled somewhat, pour it over the ingredients in the pasta bowl and toss all the ingredients well. Butter a large casserole dish and put the stuffing in it. Cover with tin foil and cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes; remove the tin foil and cook for 15 more minutes. While that is cooking, toast the pecans and, immediately before serving, sprinkle the toasted pecans over the top. If you like, you can double this recipe and freeze half for later use.

And here is a recipe for the best garlic mashed potatoes ever, while we are on the topic of holiday food.

"The Best Garlic Mashed Potatoes Ever"

“The Best Garlic Mashed Potatoes Ever”

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

2 bulbs garlic

1 Tbsp. olive oil

3 lbs. of potatoes (or 2 lbs. potatoes plus 1 lb. sweet potatoes)

1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. freshly ground pepper

4 oz. whipping cream

8 oz. melted butter

1/3 cup chopped parsley or cilantro

1 tsp. coarse sea salt

2/3 cup Japanese bread crumbs (such as Panko)

2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan

Cut off the pointed ends of the garlic bulbs, drizzle them with the olive oil, and bake them for 30 minutes at 350 degrees; allow them to cool, then squeeze out the pulp and put it into a blender. While the garlic is roasting, peel and quarter the potatoes (or, if you prefer a bright orange color and a slightly more interesting taste, potatoes and sweet potatoes). In a large stock pot, boil the potatoes with the tablespoon of salt, 20-25 minutes or until tender. Mash the potatoes by hand (or, better, put them through a ricer) in a large bowl. To the garlic in the blender add the teaspoon of salt, the ground pepper, the whipping cream, the butter, and the parsley or cilantro. Blend this together, then add it to the potatoes until it is all combined. Spoon into a buttered baking dish. Mix together the sea salt, bread crumbs and cheese; sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the potatoes for a crispy topping. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. This recipe may likewise be doubled and half of it frozen for another occasion.

We made both of the above dishes for Thanksgiving this year and they were big hits. The other day, I was putting up Christmas lights, and in late morning, it started to snow: big fat flakes that could not have been more atmospheric. It was very festive and seemed tailor-made for the season.

In the reading room these days, I am sailing stately through James’ The Wings of the Dove, getting so much more out of it now as an older reader than when I first read it as a much younger man. His prose is masterful, but let’s be honest, it’s just too dense, really; it makes me feel a bit like the Emperor Joseph II, who supposedly said to Mozart on hearing “The Abduction from the Seraglio” for the first time: “That is too fine for my ears–there are too many notes!” Oh yes, I know the elegant, rarefied writing of this particular book adds a special horror to the morally monstrous story line, but still, it is a bit thick. If I have just a single glass of wine while reading him and my perception is not totally acute, I quickly lose the thread of the narrative and can scarcely tell what he is rabitting on about.

Then December arrived on a dark but mild morning at 6:30 a.m., the sky just lightening. By seven, it was a tropical sunrise–surprisingly mild and humid, the sky a beautiful shade of tangerine, but instead of the tropical turquoise, here it was more of a purple bruise color. It was sixty-three degrees at 8:00 a.m., but then fell to fifty-three degrees and rainy by the afternoon, and near-freezes are suggested for the next few nights. And so December comes on.

Buy the book now, by clicking this link! Critics are calling it the stateside version of Francis Mayes' beloved classic Under the Tuscan Sun, and are comparing the writing to that of the great garden master Henry Mitchell.

Buy the book now, by clicking this link! Critics are calling it the stateside version of Francis Mayes’ beloved classic Under the Tuscan Sun, and are comparing the writing to that of the great garden master Henry Mitchell.

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