Strega Nona Entertaining: Conjuring Creative Fun

From recipes to rituals, I will kindly divine the perfect celebration for you!

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Colleen DuVall

Colleen DuVall

Colleen DuVall has written articles, plays, short films, and a novel. Most recently, her work has been featured in her new blog, Off The Beaten Path for the Shepherd Express online (http://shepherdexpress.com/blogs-1-1-1-61.html), and the Wisconsin Life radio show for WPR. She recently adopted a little grey and white cat named Tessa, after beloved 22-year-old Bootise passed on.

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The Healing of Zen

Everyone needs a safe haven to escape to. It may be a room in one's home, or more ideally, a garden outside. I discovered a space much my accident in a cul-de-sac between two apartment buildings. It was a strange outdoor cubby, which could only be accessed by crawling out to it through the kitchen windows, or through those in the bedroom. Making sure to open the chosen window all the way– a few head bumps later– I crawled out into a strange new world. Since we were on the second floor, this was one from being directly on the roof of our building. It was much like having a side porch, but with the added bonus of total privacy. There was a high wooden fence separating ours from that belonging to our neighbor to the west. From the sounds of it, she could access hers through her kitchen as well, listening to the familiar clink-clinks of dishes being washed in a sink. All above were the roof tops on either side and clear blue open sky. I noticed that the individual who had resided here before had brilliantly installed two heavy-duty hooks– one diagonal from the other– perfectly designed for a lazy swinging hammock. And thus, the "Zen Den" was born.

I really became excited with the possibilities of this secret zen space, so I began to decorate it. I picked out a large, outdoor, bristly throw rug, so it would be inviting to take off one's shoes and stay awhile. I also found a cool vintage table to set drinks and reading materials on in easy reach. I fastened hooks on the fence to hang cheery items: a mini tiki hut and a straw-topped wind chime from Jamaica that used shells for chimes. Although this would mostly be a space utilized in the day, I came across some pleasant outdoor lights – little metal flowers – to festoon across the windowsills leading to the bedroom. Also in order was a seasonal, gaily colored hanging plant that could withstand both shade and heat, requiring minimal care. My mother informed me that begonias would do the trick, so I went with those. I imagined there should be at least one other seating option for a guest, so I invested in a small fold-up camp chair on sale. The pièce de résistance? The hammock. I found one with the brightest colored stripes imaginable, and voila! Other items found their way here in time– a scented candle, four assorted stones arranged in a glass holder, a small clay statue from the Ren Faire in Bristol.

When the spot truly became a haven for me was the day after my grandmother died. I will never forget what a bright shiny day it started out as, that May 29th. A robin crossed my path on my way to my car to go to work. It hopped really close and stared at me for awhile. Odd, I thought. I got the call from my mother while driving. She asked if I could pull over. I told her I couldn't, I was on the highway. When she hesitated to tell me, I made her anyway. She was right about  pulling over. My eyes were so blurred with tears I could barely see. It was a beautiful day out. Gumma was gone. I didn't understand. She'd had a bout with illness shortly after her recent move to the retirement center, but I had a good long talk with her last week. She'd sounded strong. She was anxious to get out and celebrate her 95th birthday with us on June 12.

The next day I was home alone, deep in grief. My partner had asked if I wanted him to change his going away plans for the weekend to stay with me, but I declined. I thought it would be best if I were by myself to process this. And process I did – in my Zen Den. From morning until sundown. I ate meals, read, wrote, did yoga, listened to music, and napped in the comforting rock of the hammock. I sat cross-legged on the new rug trying to make sense of my loss. I looked up at the birds swooping across the sky above me and cried.

Now every year between May 29 and June 12, I reopen the Zen Den for business. I sweep it out of leaves, debris and dirt. I scour it clean with an old rag, a bucket of warm water, uplifting essential oils, and I unpack all the things taken down for the cold season. Six years after the first Zen Den and Gumma's passing, the rug needed to be tossed out. The table – which wasn't really an outdoor one to begin with – started to grow mushrooms on its edges, and the wood began to rot away. I'm not sure what became of the cheap little camp chair? The mini tiki hut and wind chimes have long since been retired, after losing many of their pieces in strong winds that have blown through. I keep meaning to replace things, but haven't quite gotten around to it. Since I've always kept rocks and candles in the space, I wanted to add some natural pool of water or a mini fountain, along with new wind chimes, so that all the four elements are represented.

I have made a point to hang a new basket of flowers in the Zen Den every year, though. Gumma would like that. She loved her flowers so.

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  • Tony Lima
    Tony Lima says #
    Zen (spirit) is the obvious reality of beings in their very own right - too simple by western terms but in reality is the basis to

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Travel the Earth

For Earth Day this year, I suggest keeping it simple. Pack a handful of your nearest and dearest in a roomy auto and go road-tripping. It could even be more fun if you have no particular destination in mind. You can call on the directions to help guide you to a beneficial place for all. There really are only a few prerequisites to make for the optimum road experience: gas, tunes, and snacks.

To be fair, why not have each rider pitch in with a playlist of road-worthy songs and take turns playing them? Speaking of pitching in, if you're not the driver, don't forget to offer some cash for fuel. The other kind of fuel you require is of course, munchies. You should cover sweet, salty, crunchy, protein-rich, and throw in something healthy if you can. Veggie Straws, celery and carrots, apples, grapes, cheese, hummus, trail mix, and fair trade dark chocolate all make my list. These don't really require a cooler, either. The other thing you don't want to be without is beverages. Water, iced tea or coffee drinks, and juice are all good bets.

Try to get rolling by high-noon so that you still have plenty of daylight to get out and go for a hike, if you choose. Crank the windows down, sing along, and let the good times roll. There is a lot of gorgeous green earth still out there. Get out and enjoy her while you can.

    COLLEEN'S CRAZY TRAIL MIX
    A perfect blend of salty, sweet and spicy.
    organic dark chocolate-covered cranberries
    organic Dried Turkish Figs
    sesame sticks (Cajun)
    brown rice miso crackers
    roasted, salted Peanuts
    organic raw pumpkin seeds
    Greek yogurt-covered pretzels
    wasabi peas
    All of these items should be available in your friendly neighborhood bulk foods section. You can use equal parts of each, or go heavy on your favorites to create your own mix!
    (Recipe concocted by Colleen DuVall, due to the tree-nut heavy trail-mixes already out there)

    BEET HUMMUS
    Start to finish: 20 minutes
    Servings: 5
    This hummus is a vibrant bright pink thanks to the addition of steamed beets.
            1 beet (small, trimmed and peeled, cut into chunks)
            1 1⁄2 cups cooked chickpeas
            1 clove garlic (coarsely chopped)
            3 tablespoons tahini
    3 tablespoons lemon juice
    1⁄4 cup water (plus up to a 1/4 cup more if needed)
    1 1⁄2 teaspoons cumin
    1⁄2 teaspoons salt
    Place the beet in a steamer basket above simmering water and steam, covered, until tender, up to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the beet pieces.
    Place the garlic and chickpeas in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the tahini, lemon juice, 1/4 cup of water, cumin, salt, and cooked beets, and process until smooth and creamy, adding more water, a couple tablespoons at a time, to reach the desired consistency.
    (Recipe adapted from www.dailyburn.com by Willy Street Co-op in Madison)

Photo by ponsulak at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net



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Crazy Slumber Birthday Party!

There are those who pooh-pooh the notion of nostalgia. You can't go back, you shouldn't go back, blah blah blah. But sometimes an urge to recapture one's youth hits, and it hits strong. This may very well be the throes of midlife crisis – but so what? Wouldn't it follow that those who seem to truly age gracefully, who are forever young at heart, indulge in a bit of good old-fashioned silliness now and again? Heck, yeah! That is why I am hosting a Spring Equinox Crazy Slumber Birthday Party this year. Let me show you how:

First, you need to load up on all of your favorite snacks. If this means Doritos and Skittles, so be it. I am going the somewhat healthy route and substituting the organic equivalent of Doritos and dark chocolate covered cranberries for the Skittles. Popcorn is always healthy if you have an air popper (my grandparents' still works from the 80s, for Pete's sake), and there is always no-cal Zevia soda, after-all. No slumber party would be complete without pizza, so I am bringing home an all natural Connie's za. The one thing that will be on hand that I did not have readily available when I was teen, is wine. But if one is going to imbibe, that is the healthier way to go, after all. I also plan on offering up some berry smoothies to sip while we whip up some homemade facials.

Since I don't expect anyone past the age of 20 to attempt sleeping on a the floor in a bag again, I will have spare bed, roll-out futon, or even an inflatable air mattress available, if need be. Also, don't feel bad if your slumber party is small – not everyone may be willing to go there with you. Quality, over quantity is always the better route.

Next up, entertainment. I am still a proud vinylphile, and to recapture the thrill of youth, it doesn't get much better than breaking out the vintage 45s and 33s and dancing with some abandon. If you start to feel amazingly carefree and childish, play a 33 on 78 rpm and let the giggles roll.

Another absolute must: movies! There should be one scary, one comedy, and one iconic coming-of-age flick. Go with what rocked your world back in the day. I myself am opting for the original "Hellraiser," "Ghostbusters," and the forever young, "Sixteen Candles." Sorry "Breakfast Club" fans, but I always thought "Candles" was edgier.

For good measure, and depending on who is game to go the whole distance with you, these activities can be thrown in for good measure: gossiping about boys (these can be celebrity crushes, significant others, or husbands), turning out all the lights and telling ghost stories, a 1 a.m. Jane Fonda workout session (yes, the original JF workout is actually available on DVD on Amazon, leg warmers and all), and perhaps some freshly baked chocolate cake for breakfast because, well, why not? In the age of Caller ID, I'd skip the crank calls, though. Here is the facial mask recipe I will be using, from organicwish.com

HOW TO MAKE AN OATMEAL AND ROSEMARY FACIAL SCRUB OR MASK
3 tablespoons ground oatmeal (To grind the oats just pulse in a blender until you have fine oatmeal)
1 teaspoon ground, fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder
water or milk or cream (see below)
    Add oats to a jug or medium sized bowl.
    Add fresh, ground rosemary.
    For a delicious scent, add cinnamon powder.
    Choose which liquid you want to use depending on your skin type: cool boiled water for oily skin, milk for normal skin or cream for dry skin.
    Add enough wet ingredients to form a paste with the dry ingredients.
    Dampen face, and spread the paste all over. To use as a scrub wash off straightaway; to use as a mask, leave on for 20 minutes before washing off.

The beauty of making your own skin care products is that you know exactly what is in your product, and many recipes, like this one, are made from basic kitchen ingredients. The cost is minimal, but the results are fantastic. Creating your own beauty products as part of an organic lifestyle is fun, entertaining and effective. Enjoy!

At any rate, have a blast at your party. What made your teen sleep-overs that way? Get the wheels turning, and make a list. I promise this will be more enjoyable than the awkward high school reunion with extras you don't care to meet up with again. Totally awesome!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t1vaF50Ks0

Photo by imagerymajestic from freedigitalphotos.net

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A Lupercalia Valentine

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Well wherever you may presently be, I suggest mimicking the pre-Romans with a Lupercalia Valentine's Party. Who couldn't use a little extra debauchery to get through this dreariest of winter doldrums. First off, everybody has to wear something sexy to gain entry (see what I did there). Since everyone has a different definition of that, anything goes. Lady Gaga to S&M bondage gear, cute Furry to 80's neon spandex – it should all be good fun.

There must be lot of wine flowing and succulent finger foods to eat. Feed each other bunches of grapes. Citrus fruits, chocolates, smoked salmon, pizza, venison summer sausage, and olives should all be present and accounted for. Heck, if you're feeling ambitious, grill up a few turkey legs. To me anyway, there's nothing more hedonistic-looking than people chowing down on a big old turkey leg in hand. Encourage your guests to bring additional bottles of vino and several decadent desserts.

The music needs to be lively and loud. This will cause people to talk louder to converse, and ultimately lead to laughter and automatically up the ante of your party. If you can bring in some extra lounging chairs to recline in while you dine, all the better for authenticity. Break out the Twister, if you have some game guests – it's the safe version of an orgy. Form relay teams and pass the orange from neck to neck. If that doesn't break the ice, you're on your own peeps.

Wrap things up with some cappuccino, aspirin, and apple cider vinegar diluted water as needed. Ideally, hold your party when you can have a a super lazy day off to follow. Salute!

GRILLED TURKEY DRUMSTICKS
(recipe from http://www.primalpalate.com)
If you've never tried grilling turkey drumsticks, you're missing out! These big, juicy cuts are perfect for grilling. Keep the flame low, and these babies will come out perfectly tender with a nice crisp skin.
Serves: 2
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp sea salt
2-pound turkey leg, 2 drumsticks
3 tablespoons red palm oil
    Preheat grill to medium-high heat.
    Mix together cumin, garlic powder, cayenne, sea salt and pepper in a small bowl.
    Rub drumsticks with seasonings.
    Sear drumsticks on the grill for approximately 3 minutes per quarter turn.
    After searing all sides, move drumsticks to a part of the grill where they can cook by indirect heat.
    Cook drumsticks via indirect heat for an additional 50–60 minutes.
    The grill temperature during this time should read around 300°F.
    Turn drumsticks 1/4 turn every 10 minutes until they have reached an internal temperature of 180°F.
    Baste drumsticks with red palm oil toward the end of their cook time, about the last 20 minutes or so.
    Reapply as necessary.

Notes:
This recipe uses an indirect cooking technique on the grill. If you have a gas grill, turn one burner off and leave the remaining burners lit at medium heat. Place the drumsticks over the burner that has been shut off. If you have a charcoal grill, move the drumsticks to the coolest spot on the grill or raise the rack. The objective is to slowly cook the turkey so that it does not burn or dry out.

Photo by radnatt at freedigitalphotos.net

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HOLIDAY PARTY ON ICE

An odd mix of emotions can flood us during the stretch between the Winter Solstice and the coming New Year. Missing those who we have lost, fretting about what we haven't yet accomplished, or just feeling blue about finances in general can all be commonplace. Sometimes the best remedy for this is breaking out of your normal routine and challenging your safety zone. I've always been a better roller skater than an ice skater, but my weak ankles won't keep me from doing my best at a cold winter rink.

Whether outdoors or in, just the clean fresh sound of those blades cutting their way through the ice is enough to wake up your senses and reenergize you. Many rinks offer their ice for free, and only charge for skate rental. For ideas of where to visit, check out my list of Midwest area resources below. If you have your own pair of blades collecting dust in the basement, all the better reason to clean them off and get going. Bundle you and your adventurous buddies up and glide around for at least an hour. Ice skating offers a lot of healthy benefits, according to Bonnie Schiedel at besthealthmag.ca. It's a low-impact sport, and good for strengthening your balance. Keep your knees slightly bent to avoid a stiff fall on your tailbone. If you do feel yourself starting to topple, it is safer to do so on your side, protecting the back of your head and your aforementioned butt. Don't worry about spinning out or looking silly. You're all in this together, and you never worried about that as a kid, right? Did you know that ice skating can burn a minimum of 387 calories, if you stay out for that whole hour? All the better reason to grab a Rum Hot Toddy or Irish Coffee after. If you haven't gotten your fill of cool treats for the night, indulge in one of those naughty spiked ice cream drinks, like a Grasshopper. Green crème de menthe equals a little cup of holiday heaven.

Resources:

http://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-you/fitness/the-fitness-benefits-of-ice-skating

http://county.milwaukee.gov/RedArrow11930.htm?docid=11930

http://thepettit.com/public-skate/

http://madisonice.maxgalaxy.net/Schedule.aspx?ID=5&GUID=c01e0143-2d57-4b00-86f1-4c041eca0663

http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/millennium_park10.html

http://www.thedepotminneapolis.com/ice-rink.php

http://www.claytonmo.gov/page392.aspx

http://www.bryantscocktaillounge.com/Home.html

"White Countryside" photo by dan at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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Sweet Skeletons

For those who wish to extend their Halloween/Samhain party celebrations, here's another notion for you:

Mexican Day of the Dead Party
The artwork and decoration for Dia de los Muertos (traditionally Nov. 1st and 2nd) has always been naturally festive. This sacred practice has more to do with customs and community rather than a particular organized religion. It is the answer to the Celtic origins of Halloween, but more so: The Mexican festival is truly a public celebration, not just a private affair. The Catholics may have All  Saint's Day, but this Mexican custom, like many native cultures, is a blending of ancient pagan practice intermeshed with the adoption of Christian symbolism and saints. In many of the whimsical and often beautiful altars on display, there are images of the Virgin Mary or Jesus interspersed amongst the whimsical sugar skulls.

I have one word for you here: skeletons, skeletons, skeletons! You could even recycle some Cinco de Mayo wall hangings if you like, to mix in with the bones. Decorate little sugar skulls and add to your altar/treat table. Have each guest bring a memento from a recently departed loved one to add to the altar space. Light a candle for each, and offer a favorite treat to all of them.

Speaking of treats, whip up some Mexican Hot Chocolate, and have a salsa bar with several degrees of hot to sample with some spicy tacos, nachos, and tortilla chips. Let Mariachi music ring out over your speakers. If that gets too scary for some after a spell, switch over to the Gypsy Kings. Share some tarot readings and ask for advice from a departed loved one. Keep it in the tradition of this honored day. Remember that Halloween can be sweet in more than one way.
 
MEXICAN HOT CHOCOLATE
(from Rachel Ray)
4 cups whole milk
1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) chocolate chips
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch salt
Combine all of the ingredients in a large saucepan and 1 cup of water over a medium heat. Whisk constantly but do not boil- about 8 minutes. This makes 4 mugs, so double or quadruple recipe accordingly. To spice things up, add a shot of rum to each mug!

Sugar Skulls
For more Dia de los Muertos ideas and sugar skull instructions, visit:
mexicansugarskull.com

 

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Wining and Dining

Beer enthusiasts may beg to differ, but there is no other alcoholic beverage that compliments food more splendidly than wine. For this Autumnal Equinox, get in the kitchen and see what can be whipped up for a pairing feast. To get your party started right, try the following impressive appetizer and welcome your guests with a glass of dry sparkling wine to set a festive tone. I used it  at a fall wine party a few years back, and it was very well-received.

DATES STUFFED WITH GOAT CHEESE (from WILLIAMS-SONOMA ENTERTAINING, by George Dolese)
(Serves 6)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons fine dried bread crumbs
24 large dates, preferably Medjool
3/4 lb. soft fresh goat cheese

Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly oil a baking dish just large enough to hold the dates in a single layer. In a small frying pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring constantly, until the bread crumbs are evenly golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, transfer the bread crumbs to a plate, and let cool.

With a small knife, make a a small lengthwise incision in each date. Carefully remove the pits. Stuff 1 tablespoon of the goat cheese  into the cavity left by each dates's pit. Arrange the dates, with goat cheese side facing upward, in the prepared dish. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the top. (The dates can be prepared up to this point up to 24 hours in advance. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.)

Bake the dates until warmed through, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and serve warm.

For the main dish, cook up your favorite couscous and toss with some stir-fried and roughly chopped fall produce of the harvest. Toss everything together lightly with some extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs. Serve it up with a fruity Syrah or Red Zinfandel.

Finish with a dessert plate of assorted apples, grapes, berries and locally-made chocolate. Match with a ruby port or a sassy Riesling. Assign each guest a bottle to bring for one of your courses, and be sure to have some mellow, romantic tunes playing throughout your party. If a round of Indian Leg Wrestling breaks out later, don't say I didn't warn you. ; )

Photo "Wines and Vines," by Xedos4 from freedigitalphotos.net

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