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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Honoring Mothers

Besides honoring our own moms this Sunday, there’s a mother goddess who could use a nod from us as well. Holding an "afternoon tea” for all of the beloved mothers in your life: friends whose parenting skills you admire, grandmothers, yourself – could be just the appropriate way to embrace the feminine energies flowing full-force right about now.

Since most consider it a luxury to sleep in, honor that too and shoot for a mid-day brunch. Hosting it yourself skips over-priced restaurants with long wait lines and gives your highly-regarded female friends a break with having to lift a finger. Have a variety of teas available to choose from, caffeinated and herbal. Make it a fancy affair with a tea service, if you have access to one, cream, honey, sugar cubes, and lemon slices. I would stop short of requiring people to dress up, however. In fact, encouraging slouchy sweats, comfy yoga pants, and hide-in hoodies should really be the order of the day.

If you do have some British blood in your family tree, by all means, embrace that. Set out a collection of small plates filled with cucumber finger sandwiches, assorted cookies and mini scones, and seasonal and organic fresh fruit. Play some Mozart in the background to set the mood and create a stimulating backdrop for intriguing conversation.

If weather permits, take it out to the patio. Regardless, have several vases of colorful fresh-picked flowers set out to welcome your guests. Gift everyone with a sachet of real lavender to take home and put in a dresser drawer or under a pillow. Before departing, let everyone there know how much they mean to you and how blessed you are to have them in your life. This is a feel-good day that should be about nurturing – for yourself and for others. Even if you are not a mother in this lifetime, that doesn’t mean you can’t practice some of those caring skills on your long-neglected you.

CUCUMBER WATERCRESS SANDWICHES
32 thin slices peeled English (hothouse) cucumber
4 tablespoons Neufchâtel cheese, at room temperature
8 thin slices white sandwich bread
1/2 cup watercress leaves (or assorted fresh local microgreens)
1/2 cup radishes, sliced thin
coarse salt
     To make the cucumber-watercress sandwiches, using paper towels, pat the cut surfaces of the cucumber slices to remove any excess   
moisture. Lightly spread cheese on one side of bread slice. Scatter the watercress leaves evenly over all of the spread bread slices. Layer the cucumber slices over the watercress leaves on 4 of the bread slices. Top the cucumber with some of the radishes and a pinch of salt. Top with the remaining 4 bread slices, cheese side down.
     (Recipe adapted from Steve Siegelman, "Williams-Sonoma Entertaining"

Photo by Stuart Miles from freedigitalphotos.net

 

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It's the Pagan Easter Bunny

Colorful eggs, hopping bunnies, fuzzy yellow chicks – these are inherent Pagan symbols. Just because Christians conveniently borrowed (OK, out and out stold) one of our unique seasonal special days does not mean that we have to step aside. Have a Pagan Easter Bunny Day, instead.

Invite some of your closest over this Sunday to boil and hand-dye eggs. Beets, carrots, and the skin of red onions make some great all-natural dyes. Boil the veggies in separate pots and save the water to dip the hard-boiled eggs in, once they've cooled. You can always add to the decoration with colored pencils, crayons, and stickers, if you like (again after they're good and dry). The key to all of this is the perfect hard-boiled egg, of course. Here is a recipe for success:

     HOW TO MAKE PERFECT HARD BOILED EGGS
     Place the eggs in a single layer at the bottom of a saucepan. Cover with at least an inch or two of cold water. The more eggs that are crowding the pan the more water you should have over the eggs.
     Heat the pot on high heat and bring the water to a full rolling boil.
     Adding a teaspoon of vinegar to the water may help keep egg whites from running out if an egg does crack while cooking. Also some people find adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the water helps prevent cracking as well as making the eggs easier to peel.
     Turn off the heat, keep the pan on the hot burner, cover, and let sit for 10-12 minutes.
     If you have the type of stove burner that doesn't retain any heat when turned off, you might want to lower the temp to low, simmer for a minute, and then turn it off.
     Depending on how cooked you like your hard boiled eggs, the eggs should be done perfectly in 10-12 minutes. That said, depending on your altitude, the shape of the pan, the size of the eggs, the ratio of water to eggs, it can take a few minutes more. Or, if you like your eggs not fully hard cooked, it can take a few minutes less. When you find a time that works for you, given your preferences, the types of eggs you buy, your pots, stove, and cooking environment, stick with it.
     If I'm cooking a large batch of eggs, after 10 minutes I'll sacrifice one to check for doneness, by removing it with a spoon, running it under cold water, and cutting it open. If it's not done enough for my taste, I'll cook the other eggs a minute or two longer.
     I also find that it is very hard to overcook eggs using this method. I can let the eggs sit, covered, for up to 15-18 minutes without the eggs getting overcooked.
     Strain the water from the pan and run cold water over the eggs to cool them quickly and stop them from cooking further. Or, if you are cooking a large batch of eggs, remove them with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice water.
     I find it easiest to peel the eggs under a bit of running water.
     The best way to store hard boiled eggs is in a covered container in the refrigerator. Eggs can release odors in the fridge which is why it helps to keep them covered. They should be eaten within 5 days.
     (Recipe from Elise Bauer)
   
Hide them in the backyard and have a hunt. The one who finds the most eggs wins a dark chocolate bunny. Heck, deck out a whole festive basket for them: they now have organic jellybeans, believe it or not. Remember those chocolate "nests" made with coconut and jelly beans in the middle, from your local small-town specialty chocolate shop? Yummy!

Throw together a simple brunch to share of hot ham and rolls and mimosas on the side. If weather allows, chow down outdoors. Remember what it was to be a child at this time of year, pondering all the possibilities of a fresh new start to spring. Pay attention to the especially chirpy birds and notice everything beginning to bud. Wonder at the concept of one little bunny (or one giant one, kind of Stephen King-ish) assembling and hiding all those baskets in your house when you were a kid.


References:
http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_make_perfect_hard_boiled_eggs/

Photo by Stuart Miles from freedigitalphotos.net

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A Hopeful Spring

There’s something about that first whiff of spring in the air that makes one hopeful. Even if you don’t normally consider yourself an optimist, it’s hard not to smile more often or sing to yourself when the sun shines a bit brighter and the birds sound a bit chirpier. This is the optimum time to start either a new project, exercise plan, or go for a new job. Here is a simple but effective ritual to assist in welcoming spring:

Decorate your altar with some fresh bright yellow daffodils. Fill your chalice with a sunny beverage offering such as orange juice or lemonade. Set out some eggs or images of eggs. In fact, get one boiling on the stove. An optimum hard-boiled egg should be brought to a rolling bowl, submerged in a small pot of water. Once the boil is full, turn off the heat but leave on the burner, cover and let sit for 12-15 minutes. Eventually drain out the hot water, rinse the egg in cold h2o, dry and set aside.

If you don’t already own some runic stones, I highly recommend "The Healing Runes," by Ralph H. Blum and Susan Loughan. Any set will do – however this one specifically for healing is apropos for new beginnings and the like. Light some incense and draw five runic stones from the bag and lay them out in a row vertically, going toward you. This is also fun because the stones are shaped like little eggs.

The first stone runic symbol that you draw symbolizes “heart in the past (overview),” and how that can be influencing your current situation. The second will represent the present, and what you will most likely be grappling with right now. The third stone represents “surrender” or an obstacle for you to overcome. And much like a tarot reading, the last rune will be the future, if you continue on this current path.

Decorate your now boiled egg with the symbol of the last rune of your reading. Peel, eat, and meditate on what you have learned. When you are done, toss the remainders of the shell into a planter outside that should bloom when spring gets fully underway.

Photo credits:

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Hugging Your Introvert


There used to be a time when identifying as an introvert might be akin to admitting you had a social disease. Since there is such a thing as geeky-cool now, and others fly their nerd flags high and proud, there is no shame in freely admitting that some of us recharge our batteries best solo, rather than surrounded by others. The world can be overwhelming, with non-stop cell phone tunes and Twitter tweets closing in on all sides. For one's mental and emotional health (which eventually effects the physical by the by), give yourself permission to turn off and drop out once in awhile. This is especially essential, if giving sidelong glares to strangers who sit too close on public transport is becoming the norm. And why is it in an otherwise deserted cafe, chatty Cathy always plops down right next you? Here are some kind suggestions to deal:

Learn to say, "no." It's been a crazy week and you've worked your last day of it. All you want to do is curl up with your latest SK tome or a good movie, under the covers, preferably with a mug of cocoa or tea. But your buddy who you haven't seen in many moons sends you a cheery text. "Having a last-minute party! Are you in?" Let me answer for you, fellow introvert. No. No you are not. You are not there in that frame of mind, and you will not get there, just because you force yourself to go. If all you want to do is hide from the planet, the last thing you want to do is plant yourself in an over-stimulating party scene. Likewise, cramming into an over-crowded bar to see a band is a bad idea. Because if you go, you will be resentful. You will be uncomfortable. Even if you are able to distract yourself for awhile, ultimately you are going to be wishing you were snug at home with your original plans. So that is your plan. When people invite you out, you say you have them already. It isn't necessary to go into great detail as to what they are. Take a raincheck and meet your friend for a one-on-one coffee chat, where you can really catch up the following week.

Unplug. Turn off the computer. Shut off the phone. Stop scrolling! The world won't stop spinning, I promise. There used to be a time when if you weren't immediately available, people would patiently wait for you to get back to them. Remember that? When you wanted to know how someone else was doing in your life, you would ask them in person when you saw them. Doing this for 24-48 hours can be sheer heaven. Lose yourself in a project that you've been putting off. Take a long walk. If you're camping, you sure the heck better do this, or I will come after you and scold you.

Listen to the sounds of silence. Taking a retreat where you observe an internal mute button can be therapeutic, as well. Sometimes it's good to give your vocal chords a rest. This can be done in an actual retreat center where silence is observed after dinner, or perhaps an imposed one on your own. If you live with someone, they've got to respect it, though. Check yourself into a reasonably-priced hotel if necessary. The interesting side effect here, is that thoughts will come to you – often with clear insight and clarity. Clear the cobwebs and have a revelation. Write it down in a journal, if you don't want to forget. See, being on your lonesome isn't so bad now, is it? Happy Imbolc, introvert.

 

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Shadow Solstice

This Winter Solstice, I suggest getting in touch with your shadow side. This is the season to become introspective – and with the weather often urging us to spend more time indoors – this is the perfect time to look inward.

Meditation:

Brew some good spiced herbal tea and burn some frankincense and myrrh incense on your altar. Light red and green candles and turn off the lights. Get in a comfy spot and slow your breathing. I have found the best way to completely relax is to first contract, then very slowly release all of the muscles in your body, starting with your head and working your way down to your toes.

Sit cross-legged or lie in the corpse position on a yoga matt on the floor. Start with scrunching up your facial muscles, furrowing your brow. Then relax your face in slow motion. Do the same with your shoulders, hunching them up. Tighten your arms off the floor and make your hands into fists, then release down the length of your arms, starting with your shoulders, and unfurl each of your fingers, one by one. Repeat the exercise with your chest muscles, stomach and lower belly (these Navel and Root Chakras can store an awful lot of stress, so take extra time to release the tension here if necessary). Tighten your legs all the way down to curling your toes under, and very gradually relax these muscles as well.

To clear your mind of tedious recurring thoughts and worries, concentrate on breathing in deeply through your nose, letting your diaphragm fill and let go while taking your time. Be sure to keep the deep breaths coming from your belly, not up in your chest. Count down backwards from 20. Repeat several times, until you feel your mind clear and open.

When you feel ready, meditate on your shadow self. What are the sides of yourself that you keep hidden? Could any of them be positive that you are hiding from the rest of the world out of fear, or any other reason? Whether it is something really adventurous – like trying downhill skiing for the first time, or simply attending a community event you've been curious about – give yourself permission to explore that. Think about the ways you could nudge yourself out of your comfort zone, and discover one of your hidden shadow selves more fully. When you've settled on one that particularly speaks to you, resolve to act on it between now and the new year.

Send an image of yourself participating in and enjoying this activity out to the universe, thank the Goddesses and Gods of your choice, and when you are ready, carefully roll up to a standing position. Gather a bit of icy snow from outside and sprinkle it in the candles to put them out. Drink your tea and experience gratitude. Peace.

 

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Transylvania Dreamin'

I will absolutely never top the 2008 Halloween that I spent in eastern Romania on the Dracula Tour. I have told this tale many times with a fondness and nostalgia only paralleled by the idyllic childhood that I experienced living out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the woods. Knowing this, the best that I could hope to do is to attempt to recreate some of the highlights of my revered trip with my dear friend, Michael Hora. So here's my best (pardon the pun) stab at it.

Michael and I ate very well when we were there. The included continental breakfasts were anything but a wimpy box of cornflakes, or a lukewarm dollop of canned sausage gravy on a stale biscuit. We stayed at many very pleasant hotels on our journey: in Bucharest, Brasov, Sighisoara, Sibiu. The included breakfast buffets alone were like something out of dream: plates of every succulent homemade pastry you could imagine, hot plates of eggs, sausages, potatoes, cold plates of cured meats, pickles, olives, several artisan cheeses, fresh vegetables and fruits, blintzes, juices, and well-made strong coffee. The dinners were nothing to sneeze at, either. Yes, Romanians know how to eat! But I digress. The best way to describe this fare would be a mix of Serbian, Russian and Greek-style dishes – hearty and well-seasoned.

In planning your Dracula dinner menu, why not stir up some homemade Hungarian "ghoull-lash" with extra garlic toast and cheese on the side? If you're feeling ambitious, grill some steak kababs (get it, steaks/stakes). Have several appetizer platters of the cold snacky fare mentioned above. Finish off with some "Vampire Bite Marshmallows," roasted over a big bonfire in your backyard. To achieve this effect, dip your toasting fork in some dry cherry wine to start. Impale the hapless marshmallow twice, and roast to your liking. When ready to eat, dip the half of the marshmallow below the bite marks in some more of the wine, then sink your own teeth in.

Besides knowing how to eat, the Transylvanians instilled in me a love for highly potent fermented pure fruit beverages. The ones to get a hold of are pálinka (apricot brandy) and Țuică  (double distilled plum brandy). Beware, as these little firebombs will kick you in the butt and keep one partying all night long. For some more mellow stylings, opt for the always popular Vampire wines, available in pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. This is not a night for white wines.

If you do not know any local gypsies in your area to play around the fire, download some atmospheric and authentic gypsy music, such as: "Authentic Gypsies," by Laszlo Borteri & Niko Radic. Gypsy Kings and/or gypsy jazz are probably a bit too upbeat for this affair, but in the end you must go where the spirit moves you. At some point, play the ultimate vampire crowdpleaser, "Bela Lugosi's Dead," by Bauhaus. Invite people to perform gothy interpretive dances.

As far as dress, I'd suggest folks attend as their personal favorite fanged one – there are so many to choose from! Have a steady stream of beloved bloodsucker flicks playing on the telly. Visually, they are always a treat. A word to the wise: this kind of event may inspire spontaneous biting. Consider yourselves warned, children of the night.

REFERENCES

http://www.dractour.com/

http://www.budapestbylocals.com/hungarian-goulash.html

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/75133/roasted-garlic-bread/

https://vampire.com/

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Back to School Partay

Fall Equinox is so tantalizingly close you can taste it. Whether you are a parent who routinely coaches homework, or a "non-traditional" returning bookworm yourself, fall is a glorious time of year. Truth be told, I geek out every year over needing to purchase new school supplies. Often noted as everyone's favorite season because of its best-of-both-worlds weather, rich warm hues in clothing and nature, and an excuse to overindulge in all things scented pumpkin – this is the perfect time for a get together to overindulge with pals in tow. Here's how:

Compile a playlist of several school-themed movie soundtracks: "Breakfast Club," "Dazed and Confused," and "Valley Girl," are just a few that immediately come to mind. "Rock 'n' Roll High School," and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," are other excellent selections.

If folks are game, have everyone dress as an archetype from high school: cheerleader, jock, nerd, drama club weirdo, hippie teacher, hard-ass principal. Dress to reconnect with your former teenage self, or to indulge a fantasy of what it may have been like to be someone else for a day. Let this be a warm-up for Halloween.

One word for food fare: apples. They are so succulent/tasty/lovely/tart/juicy at this time of year, no one can get enough of them. Cut up slices to accompany various cheese plates with grape garnishes, and make them the dipping favorites for a caramel apple sauce centerpiece. If you're feeling ambitious, bake a homemade pie. And by all means, break out the hard cider. Assemble "after-school snacks" of "Ants on a Log," (celery, peanut butter and raisins on top), or "Lincoln Logs Sandwiches." Do not be shy about breaking out a package of Totino's Pizza Rolls or a fresh bag of Cheddar Combos. Believe me, people will delight in the nostalgia.

For other gimmicky fun, create an initiation to gain entry to your event. If leaning more toward a college theme, pop in a DVD of "Animal House." Create a drinking game where everyone does a shot whenever John Belushi  as Bluto pulls a crazy stunt onscreen (food fight, breaking dude's guitar). I leave you with this from the FoodChannel Editor:

"WHAT IS A LINCOLN LOG SANDWICH?

"Question: I was watching the 'Sopranos' and saw Carmella making a dish which she called Lincoln logs. I am curious, what are they? They looked good, so how do you make them what are some of the ingredients?

"Answer: Lincoln Logs (as seen on the 'Sopranos') are apparently hot dog buns or white bread, in which you place hot dogs layered with cream cheese. They can be served warm or cold. They are also known as Seattle Cream Cheese Dogs, although the Lincoln Logs variety is said to be an East Coast version. The basic recipe appears to be:

Take a slice of white bread, spread cream cheese on it, split a cooked hot dog lengthwise and place each half, cut side down, on the bread. To get the Lincoln Log effect, you may need a second hot dog that is laid over the first in the other direction. Some versions appear to mix a little mayonnaise with the cream cheese for spreading ease. You can lightly toast the bread or add a piece of American cheese before adding the spread and hot dog.

"Or, you can try the standard Seattle recipe as found at All Recipes."

Resources:

Photo, "Early Morning," by Carlos Porto at freedigitalphotos.net

FoodChannel Editor. What is a Lincoln Log Sandwich. Foodchannel. The Food Channel®. April 30, 2008.  http://www.foodchannel.com/articles/article/what-is-a-lincoln-log-sandwich/

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