Max here... Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everybody! We are having a wonderful Christmas season, and we certainly like to draw out the season for all it's worth! Things got rolling Christmas Eve, starting with a farmers market in the morning, then straight to my parents house for tree decorating, and then from there to Deirdre's parents for Christmas Eve dinner. On the way over, we stopped at the farm to make one final check on the plants, and to pick greens for that evening's salad. After a lovely Christmas Eve dinner of traditional fish soup and salad, the whole extended family gathered around the tree for poetry, carols and tunes late into the evening.
Siobhan awoke the next morning with delight to find her stocking stuffed with healthy, yummy goodies!
Christmas day started out once again at my parents' house, then midafternoon we drove 30 minutes to be with Deirdre's family for the rest of the day (and a lot of the night!) We lose track of time on days like this, and we did not sit down to Christmas dinner until 10:30 at night. Turkey, gravy, salad, homemade apple sauce, cranberries, olives... a true feast!
Why celebrate just Christmas day? We don't like to let a feast go uncelebrated, so we gatherered back at our house the next morning for a St. Stephen's day brunch, followed by a brisk hike along a mountain road within walking distance of our house.
Among the bounty of beautiful gifts given to us by many loving family members and friends, we mention just a few here. We prepared jars of our chai mixture spices, together with local raw honey, and homemade persimmon leather for our family members. Deirdre surprised me with "The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs," the latest book written by our favorite farming mentor Joel Salatin. I surprised her with a subscription and 10 back issues to our new favorite magazine "Taproot," edited by Amanda Soule of "Soule Mama Blog." We have been avidly reading the articles, which go hand in hand with our vision of a life fully lived -- intentionally seeking beauty, community and rootedness in nature.
Moving on toward 2017... we took some time the last few days to sit down and talk about what we want to accomplish this year. We came up with a daily schedule to live by which we will start tomorrow -- exciting, but it's going to take a real commitment to our goals. In particular, we plan to pull all the loose ends of our farm together, and really establish it as a smoothly (as smooth as a farm can be!) functioning, profitable farm, that generates a good living for our family. We have learned a LOT over the last two years of farming, and we feel poised to make our third year the most efficient and organized one yet.
We also have comitted to finding new ways to keep our home more organzied, and setting it up in such a way that tasks flow more easily, and messes get cleaned up quicly, or are even avoided altogether. Living with two kids, and doing business in a 540 square foot house is not easy, but we have commited to staying here until we can afford something bigger, and we will absolutely maximize every square inch of living/working/storage space until we move. Ever since we moved in 4 years ago, we have embarked on an ongiong quest arranging our home to maximize efficiency and organization, but just as importantly beauty and homeliness. Part of our new effort these last couple days involved building and installing wall shelves in our kitchen and bedroom. Functional and beautiful, these shelves are going to make a huge difference! Go vertical!
We re-arranged our living room to have our table in front of the main window -- more light for meals now. The table is set for this morning's New Year celebratory family brunch. Eggs, Pasture-raised sausage, buttered toast, homemade apple sauce, fresh sapote, whipped cream, brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, fresh pressed spiced cider, homemade chocolate truffles and hot tea! Yum...
Happy New Year! Let's make it a good one!
OK, as promised, here are the results of my "baking" (you don't actually bake these treats) experiments to find Christmas treats that are both delicious, and also healthy. I love improvising and finding new recipes, but it usually takes a few times to get one that really works. Here are the ones that turned out great.
The recipes below are healthier than normal treats in 3 main ways:
Chocolate Almond Squares
2 oz 100% bakers chocolate
1/2 cup almonds
1 Tablespoon Cream
1/8 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
Optional Ingredients (these make it yummier and healthier):
1/4 teaspoon acerola powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Try using pecans too! If you want to be even healthier, buy your nuts raw, soak them for 12 hours in salt water, then dry them crispy in an oven on low heat, or in a dehydrator/ This reduces the phytic acid in the nuts, and activates enzymes to make them more digestable.
4 oz 100% bakers chocolate
1/4 cup cream
1/8 cup maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon acerola powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Finely Chopped Almonds or Cacao Powder (We use a raw organic cacao powder from Amazon.)
Variation: use 20 dates blended into a thick paste instead of the syrup. Stir / fold in the dates after melting the chocolate in the hot cream. The result will be a slightly stickier, more fruity truffle -- still quite good! Don't forget to let the mixture partially cool before strying to form into balls.
Make these exactly the same as the truffle recipe, but add 3-4 drops of food-grade peppermint essential oil to the mixture. Shape them into balls, or patties, or whatever you like. These taste best on their own with no extra coating on the outside.
Chocolate Covered Dried Cherries
Use the truffle recipe above and form balls of truffle surrounding a dried cherry in each one! You can also do this with raisins to make chocolate covered raisins, but this is pretty time consuming since they are so small. The cherries go a lot faster! Also try putting a whole almond or pecan in the middle.
Spiced Chai is one of our favorite winter drinks, and we can easily drink 1-2 gallons a day between all of us. We love to share this with anyone who comes over to our house, and try always to keep a pot ready on the stove. We make it 6-8 quarts at a time, so it lasts for a while (well, at least for a day!)
Chai is really just the word for "tea" in several different languages, but it has come to refer to a blend of spices usually made with black tea, but we leave the black tea out of our recipe to avoid the caffeine, and also because it really isn't necessary to make a great tasting hot drink. Sweetened with honey, our blend of chai is loaded with immune boosting spices which come in handy around the holidays, when lots of people seem to get sick. Since ours has no caffeine, we finish off each day with a hot cup before bed!
Here's the basic recipe. Feel free to innovate, and try different spices and different proportions too. We have encountered lots of different chai recipes, but this is the one that works best for our tastes. We buy all our organic spices whole (not ground), and in bulk. The main two companies we use are Starwest Botanicals and Frontier, and they are both available on Amazon.
About 6 quarts water
(optionally add 4-8 cups almond milk too)
4 oz fresh ginger, cut into slices
6-8 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup whole cardamom pods
1/3 cup whole anise seeds
1/3 cup whole fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
Boil / simmer the entire mixture for an hour or longer. Serve with a ladle and strain with a sieve into cups to mke sure whole spices don't end up in someone's cup! You can leave the whole mixture on the stove overnight, and just reheat it the next day. You can either sweeten the whole pot with honey, or simply sweeten individual cups as you serve them. A little cream added to the cup, or a little almond milk makes the perfect cup...
It was a very musical weekend at the Santa Barbara and Ojai Farmers Markets. We are always delighted when a local bluegrass band sets up next to our stand. Siobhan and Declan enjoyed sitting on the ground watching and listening.
Deirdre, one of her fiddle students, and some of her cousins all gathered next to our stand on Sunday in Ojai to play Christmas carols and fiddle tunes for market customers. Siobhan showed up ready to jam, and played or danced the entire time! That girl was born to perform, and has no shy bones in her body.
Deirdre here... Excitement continues to build as we get closer to Christmas. We got our tree on Friday, and decorated it Saturday night with help from some aunts, uncles and cousins. Max spent most of the time holed away in the kitchen experimenting with inventing healthly Christmas treats while I tried making persimmon sugar plums for the first time!
I am not sure if they really are called Sugar Plums, I think I heard someone call them that, but they are a Japanese treat called Hoshigaki. I first had them at a contradance that we played for a few years ago. They were the most delicious treat ever! Sweet and sticky almost carmelized dried persimmons. The best part about them is that they do not have any added sugar!!
Later my sister-in-law learned how to make them when she worked at a farm to table cafe in our town and later experimented with making them at home. They look really awesome when they are drying, like bright Christmas ornaments hanging in the window! Ever since trying them at the contradance and seeing them at my sister in law's house, I have wanted to try making them.
So yesterday at the farmers market, we traded our microgreens with another vendor for some Hachiya persimmons. Hachiya are a variety of persimmon which is inedible until soft, but for making Hoshigaki, you need to start while they are still firm. I peeled the persimmons and then tied twine to the tops of them to hang them. They are hanging in our sunny main living room right now. I plan on leaving them hanging for about a month. In a week I will start to "massage" them every day or so to get rid of excess moisture. I have no idea how they will turn out, but we'll see! If they don't taste good, then at least we will have super cute, festive persimmon "ornaments" hanging in the living room, so it will be great either way!
For the last several years, we have had a big pine cone collection in our Christmas box, but I didn't know what to do with them. On the way home from the market yesterday, I saw some beautiful pine cone ornaments hanging in the window of a local florist shop. I did the same thing with ours last night, and hung them in our living room. Together with the drying persimmons, they look festive and cheery! They were simple to make: just screw an eye-hook into the top of a pine cone, add a ribbon/bow, and hang it with twine. My brother pre-drilled the eye-hooks with his drill, which made it a lot easier to screw them in.
Max here... While Deirdre was busily crafting and decorating with others in the living room, I was trying to come up with some good recipes for Christmas treats that are not wildly unhealthy. We both LOVE Christmas baking and Christmas treats all season long. Growing up, I was the household Christmas baker, and turned my parents' kitchen into a cookie factory each December. Deirdre's family has an impressive array of decadent baked goods which they make every year. The hours of work and preparation that go into it are a big part of the joyful anticipation that leads up to Christmas for us.
But more recently, we have eaten almost none, because they are so often loaded with sugar, white flour, and vegetable oils which don't do our bodies any good. I am currently on a quest to find/create alternative recipes that are both completely delicious, and less taxing on the immune system. At a time of year when colder weather and late-night parties already make us susceptible to illness, we don't want to make ourselves sicker by eating tons of refined sugar and flour! I like to be healthy for Christmas time!
I came up with a few recipes that worked, and I'm working on refining them, and making a few new ones. I will post the final results with photos in one or two days!
Deirdre here -
Yesterday Siobhan awoke to find her boots in front of the fire place filled with treats from St. Nick, (delivered with help enlisted from the older generation). Traditionally, the time of visitation by Santa Claus (aka St. Nicholas) was on December 6th when children would put out their boots or stockings and receive treats. We like any excuse to celebrate so we are very happy to be visited by St. Nick twice in December.
This year, Siobhan's boot was filled with tangerines, kefir, yogurt, banana chips, chocolate mints, and chocolate covered almonds, raisins and cacao nibs.
Our boots were not quite as healthy... chocolate, chocolate and chocolate, in different forms. (I guess St. Nick knows that we eat plenty of healthier stuff without persuasion so we qualified for the 85% chocolate bar boot. Phew!)
I was excited and genuinely surprised to find my first issue of Taproot magazine sticking out of my boot. Taproot is edited by my favorite blogger, Amanda Soule of soulemama. A few days earlier, my sister in law had shown me the publication in our local health food store. As I perused the magazine I couldn't believe that every article spoke to me: articles on food, contradancing, farming, enjoying the natural world, etc! Thank you St Nick! I thought I knew exactly what my boot contained but apparently he doubled back around 3 am to sneak this one in while I was sleeping. (Thanks Max! You sure know what I like!)
This year, I decided to bring out our little collection of Christmas picture books out on St. Nick's day too. Siobhan and I spent the rest of the day reading them all! Both Max and I have some of the fondest memories as kids, during the anticipation that builds up to Christmas. These books were a big part of that for us, and it is so special to see Siobhan having some of these same experiences herself. I don't know whether its more fun for her or us!
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!