Mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe

This time of year means falling behind on gift shopping and getting overrun by CES pitches, but it also brings my annual excuse to make my mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe. It’s pretty great and not that much work, though the dough does call for an overnight stay in the fridge. Share and enjoy!

Christmas cookies (an old recipe)

Makes a few dozen cookies, depending on cutter size

  • christmas-cookies-before4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl, then set aside. In a stand mixer’s bowl (or a large, regular bowl; you can combine everything by hand with more effort and sufficiently soft butter), mix butter, sugar and egg, then add sour cream and vanilla before adding the flour mixture. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

christmas-cookies-coolingThe next day, cut the ball of cookie dough in half. Preheat oven to 375° and lightly grease cookie sheets with butter or cover them with parchment paper. Cover a clean kitchen surface with flour and roll each half of the dough flat to about 1/4 in. thick. Cut with cookie cutters, place on cookie sheets and decorate with colored sugar (I stick with red and green because Christmas, but use what you like). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

About those cookie cutters: You want a mixture of small, bite-size cookies in generic shapes and larger, statement cookies for when you absolutely, positively need 200-plus calories of cookie in one serving.

You also want some creative shapes. Stars, basic geometric shapes, trees, and gingerbread men and women all work. But as the D.C.-outline cookies in these photos should attest, I’ve grown fond of state-shaped cookie cutters like those you can buy in the District at Hill’s Kitchen, across the street from the Eastern Market Metro stop and just off the 8th Street SE row of shops in Capitol Hill.

2016 gardening report card: arugulification and cucumbering

With Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to take stock of a hobby that makes zero financial sense if you put any value on your time.

(For reference: my 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

arugula-can-be-a-december-crop_30721026823_o Arugula: A+

This incredibly versatile green–beyond using it in place of lettuce, you can also use it as you would chard in soups, stews and risotto and even make pesto out of it–rewarded me with bountiful spring and fall crops. My only regret: I didn’t clear-cut the remaining foliage on Wednesday.

Cucumbers: A

These took off beyond my expectations or intentions–a bunch of cucumber plants volunteered in the other raised bed and random spots around the yard, which makes me wonder if the squirrels or the birds helped redistribute them. Making cucumber salad, cucumber soup, gazpacho, and cucumber salsa–not to mention using them as a sandwich condiment–wasn’t enough to use them all up.

cucumbers_29466424642_oHerbs: A-

The parsley was not as prolific as last year, hence the slightly lower grade. Cilantro did well in the spring, but nothing came of the seeds I planted in September; meanwhile, sage didn’t come around until the fall. Mint, oregano and rosemary were their usual unkillable selves, but basil was yet again nearly a complete bust. Speaking as a quarter-Italian American, that last part really hurts.

Spinach: B

I only rarely had enough of this to use as a major part of a salad, but in the spring and the fall I could count on being able to step outside and grab a few leaves to use in an omelette or whatever.

Lettuce: B-

Its spring performance was matched by its weak showing in the fall. But considering what you pay for lettuce in the grocery store or at the farmers market, this still represents one of the best gardening bargains. It’s just not arugula.

tiny-tomato_29881788191_oGreen beans: C+

This grade would have been higher had all of my travel in May and June not led me to neglect the green beans that had gotten off to a fantastic start.

Tomatoes: C

Mindful of my history of heartbreak here, I limited my efforts to buying a couple of plants at the farmers market and trying to grow a few others from seed. The handful of tomatoes I was able to harvest were utterly delicious, even the tiny specimen in the photo at the right; I just wish I’d had more of them.

Bell pepper: F

At least my sunk cost on them was under $2, the cost of a packet of seeds. And at least these are pretty cheap from the right farmers-market vendors.

2015 gardening report card: parsley FTW

Every earlier version of this annual post has come in November or December, but this time around winter forgot to start on schedule. Until a few days ago, I could still step outside and grab some cilantro, parsley, oregano or mint.

With temperatures that fell into the teens yesterday and a snowstorm forecast for the weekend, that’s no longer an option. So it’s once again time to grade my attempts at growing my own food in our tiny backyard.

(See my reports from 201120122013 and 2014.)

Herbs: A

This grade is almost entirely parsley-driven. I had so much of this stuff growing that I started making tabbouleh just to make it go away (and was then flattered to have a friend with Lebanese ancestry approve the results). Parsley-walnut pesto is another good way to deal with a surplus of that herb; it keeps forever in the fridge and is a good addition to sandwiches. I also had good results with mint, oregano, rosemary and chives, leaving basil as this year’s one notable disappointment.

lettuce

Green beans: A- 

Once again, I had more of these than I knew what to do with, and too many rotted on the vine. I should have blanched and frozen them, right?

Arugula: B+

Like last year, this did fantastic in the spring, but my attempts at a fall crop didn’t pan out. I’m blaming the crush of conferences that kept me out of town for much of September.

Lettuce: B

Getting this to grow always makes me happy, because lettuce is one of the more expensive items per pound in a store. This outperformed in the spring, but nothing came of the seeds I planted in September.

Spinach: B

I got a decent yield in the spring, and then it was starting to show signs of a second crop in the fall when the weather got a little too cold for a vegetable that fragile.

Tomatoes: C-

I finally stopped trying to grow them on the shady side of the house and instead set up a planter on the sunnier end of the back patio, but the local squirrels kept snacking on my still-green tomatoes until I finally enclosed the whole thing in netting. One last, sad, little plum tomato has now almost ripened in my kitchen.

Cucumbers: D-

I harvested two or three, tops. But since I’d only bought one packet of seeds, that’s not an awful return on investment when you compare what buying those cukes would have cost.

Bell peppers: F

I assure you that I planted some seeds for them, but I cannot tell you what happened to them afterward.

Lenten lunch challenge: crafting sandwiches without cold cuts

One of the lesser-known facts about me is that on Fridays during Lent, I don’t almost never eat meat. It’s not that I’m anybody’s idea of a devout Catholic… but several years ago, I thought that giving up meat on Fridays during those 40 days would be a good idea on a few different levels. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve stuck with it.

The challenge hasn’t so much been going without meat at dinner (except on a Friday in Austin during SXSW, when I feel like a dweeb for making this sacrifice) but figuring out lunch. I am an extreme creature of habit for mid-day meals: Unless I’ve got a lunch date, I make myself a sandwich.

And that sandwich has almost always been built around some sort of cold cuts: ham one week, turkey the next, roast beef afterwards, repeat. Why not? It tastes good (baking my own bread helps), I save money, I can make the sandwich fit my appetite, and having one instead of leftover pasta or whatever reduces the risk of having the same type of food for lunch and dinner.

I could revert to my childhood staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but they’re not too filling. So what else if the traditional sandwich formula is out? In case this season has put this question in your mind–or you just ran out of cold cuts and need to make something for lunch–here are a few options.

Grilled-cheese sandwichOne answer is another childhood favorite, grilled cheese, that’s particularly apt when it’s as cold out as it is now. But not just cheese between two slices of bread; you want to exercise some creativity. Here I have to credit the higher-end grilled-cheese options at Stoney’s in D.C. for making me think about including tomato slices, and I’ve since gotten into the habit of adding such extra ingredients as sautéed onions or apple or pear slices, avocado or garlic-scape pesto. The sandwich at right, photographed after I’d nibbled it into a vague resemblance of D.C.’s outline, features the first two additions on that list as well as whole-grain mustard, and was delicious.

The one downside: There’s actual cooking involved, which means both waiting in front of a hot stove and more stuff to clean up.

Credit for another veggie-sandwich choice goes to the Potomac Pedalers bike club, which on its annual century ride serves up these great cucumber and tomato sandwiches at about the 75-mile mark. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of those rides (can we not talk about my diminished cycling mileage these days?), but the recipe was a keeper. I will often top those thin cucumber and tomato slices with some cream cheese and sautéed bell peppers or caramelized onions. Or you can substitute hummus for the cream cheese.

One potential problem: In the winter, good tomatoes are scarce or expensive, and without one of the two main ingredients this sandwich becomes a little one-dimensional.

My third regular choice on these Fridays is a straightforward ripoff of any good bagel place’s menu: smoked salmon and cream cheese, plus maybe capers or thinly sliced red onions, sautéed or not. (I keep coming back to onions as an accoutrement because they are the easiest thing to cook alongside dinner–either in a pan you’ll later use for another ingredient, or in a foil packet on the grill.) Later in the spring, I can top this with some arugula if my tiny garden has come back to life soon enough.

Awkward issue: Despite all of my efforts, my wife doesn’t like seafood and so remains unconvinced of how awesome this sandwich tastes.

So anyway, hope that helps to diversify your lunch choices. Any other sandwich recipes I should be trying between now and April 5?

(Were you expecting more of the usual earnest musing about journalism or technology? I’ll try to get back to that next week.)

Updated 2/21 with a few editorial tweaks and additional suggestions.

My 2014 gardening scorecard

The D.C. area got its first hard freeze this week, and so this year’s outdoor gardening has officially ground to a halt–which also means it’s once again time to assess my attempts to grow my own food in a few spots around a tiny, largely shady backyard.

(See my earlier reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Green beansGreen beans: A

We literally could not eat these fast enough. The funny thing is, the pole beans that took over the larger raised bed did not come from the bush-bean seeds sown this spring; I guess last year’s experiment in growing pole beans had lasting effects.

Arugula: B

This was once again a reliable performer–but my attempt to grow a second crop in the fall ran afoul of a stretch of dry weather in which I was out of town too often to water the garden regularly.

Lettuce: B-

For the second year in a row, we had good results in the spring and nothing in the fall.

Herbs: C+

We never lacked for parsley, mint and rosemary (you can imagine my excitement this spring at seeing that the rosemary bush planted last fall had survived our polar-vortex winter). The sage did okay, and cilantro and basil briefly flourished. But dill, chives, thyme, and oregano all apparently don’t like me anymore.

Cucumbers: D+

After last year’s near-total bust, we were pleased to be able to harvest a few decent-sized cukes in the late summer.

Strawberries: D

Once again, I failed to water the pot on the back patio often enough or shield it adequately from the squirrels.

Blueberries: D-

The one medium-size and one small blueberry bush in the side yard yielded a respectable amount of fruit, which I’m sure the birds enjoyed very much.

Tomatoes: D-

The pole beans that grew so well also effectively blocked the sun for the tomatoes. After the bean plants died, one of the tomato plants mounted a comeback of sorts, and maybe the two puny specimens I grabbed before the first freeze will ripen on the countertop. I need to look into growing tomatoes elsewhere in the yard.

Bell peppers: F

I planted seeds. Nothing came of them. The end.

Call me crazy, but I’m warming to the smartwatch concept

From the thumbs-down I handed out to a Microsoft “SPOT Watch” in 2004 to last year’s “try again” dismissal of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, I have not looked too favorably on the idea of wearing a smartwatch with a data stream of its own.

Android Wear watchBut now that I’m wearing yet another one of these devices, the Samsung Gear Live loaned to me at Google I/O, I find myself thinking of reasons why I’ll miss this thing when I have to send it back to Google PR.

Here’s the key thing it does right: provide a no-hands-required external display for my phone’s notifications list. If I’m cooking, gardening, biking or holding my daughter’s hand as we cross the street, I often have no ready way to get at the phone and so can only wonder if the beep or buzz of a notification is something I need to check or not.

Now I can see for myself. In some cases, I can dictate a reply by voice, but I’ve only done that once or twice; just knowing if what’s new on my phone is important enough to require taking it out of my pocket is good enough.

(I have, however, been surprised by how often I’ve leaned on Android Wear’s voice control while grilling: “OK Google, set a timer for five minutes.”)

Android Wear’s unavoidable updates are not always advantageous. As I noted in a Yahoo Tech column, I did not need or appreciate having the watch light up to alert me of a new e-mail (of course, spam) as I was putting our daughter to bed.

And that’s where Google could do a better job. Gmail has multiple ways to prioritize your e-mail–starring messages, marking conversations as important, displaying them in the “Primary” inbox tab–but none of them seem to inform what pops up on an Android Wear watch’s screen.

Should Apple surprise absolutely nobody by introducing an “iWatch” next month, I trust that such a timepiece will have an option to only notify you of new mail from people on your “VIP” list.

I also expect that any Apple smartwatch will be thinner than the Gear Live–which at roughly 3/8th of an inch thick, itself represents a welcome advance over the nearly half-inch thick Galaxy Gear and the 3/4-inch thick Microsoft-powered Suunto I hated in 2004.

That, in turn, should push the next Android Wear–or Pebble smartwatch, another promising contender–to get smarter and sleeker. And with these things costing $200 and change, that may be enough to get me to buy. And then you all can point and laugh at the nerd who decided he had to walk around with not one but two interactive gadgets.

Recipe: farmers’ market gazpacho

About this time of year, farmers’ markets are all about the tomatoes. And the more cost-effective ones are all about tomatoes with issues. Sold as “seconds tomatoes,” “sauce tomatoes” or maybe just “scratch and dent,” these specimens have enough cracks, blemishes or other surface imperfections to require them to be sold at a substantial discount–think $1.50 a pound instead of $3.

GazpachoThese tomatoes also fall right into one of my favorite summer recipes: gazpacho. A soup that barely requires you to turn on a burner is easy to cook even if it’s 98 degrees; paired with a baguette, it makes for an ideal dinner on the front porch or maybe at an outdoor indie-rock concert.

My usual recipe mashes up the directions from two stories that ran in the Post in an earlier millennium (from July and August in 1998). It was an insane amount of work when I had to chop all the ingredients by hand; with a food processor, everything’s done in under an hour.

Farmers’ market gazpacho

Makes about 6 cups, or 4-6 servings

  • 1/4 pound sweet onion, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound bell peppers of any color, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 1 rib celery, chopped (optional)
  • About 2 1/4 pounds seconds tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and then smashed into paste with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or other spicy seasoning (optional)

Cut an x pattern across the bottom of each tomato. Fill a pot with enough water to cover them, bring it to a boil, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for two minutes. Dump the tomatoes into a strainer (pour ice over them if you’re in a hurry) and let them sit.

Throw the onion, cucumbers, peppers and (if using) celery into a food processor and finely chop until barely chunky. Pour the resulting mix into a 6-cup container. Pull the skin off the tomatoes, cut out any blemishes or cracks, cut them into quarters, and push out their seeds. Process about 3/4 of them and pour into the container.

Process the last quarter of the tomatoes with the garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and (if using) sauce and seasonings. Pour into the container and stir to combine; eat the next day, preferably with a locally-baked baguette (current favorites near me: Leonora in Arlington, Bread Furst in northwest D.C.) and outdoors.