Our wonderful next door neighbors have a thing for the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving found Bernie in the big yard next door, going up and down their long fences and big gates with a ladder and a toolbox and crimping wire. He spent the better part of the day stringing loops of vibrantly colored, old-fashioned Christmas lights. By the time the sun went down he was ready to turn them on. Jacob and Lucas were ready too: they raced to the front yard and begged to be lifted so they could see over our fence to where Bernie’s porch was wrapped in garlands and swoops of bright, glowing holiday magic.
The boys cheered when they lit up.
We have it easier: long strands of golden outdoor lights are permanently laced through our fences and gates at the bottom of the driveway and along the street. Year round, they blend into the greenery of the hedges and vines. Then Thanksgiving night, we flip a second switch as we turn on the porch light and there you have it – not all-in like Bernie’s day-long efforts, not snobby like our many neighbors with their Professionally Lit Outdoor Landscaping!, but certainly it gets the job done.And there is a job to do. This is the time of year when darkness comes real and early and thick. Not quite how it did when we lived back east, and certainly not how it does in some parts – but still. There is surely a reason so many traditions celebrate light during these long nights.We have been spending as much time as we can outside, despite the shortening days and the recent rains. We have climbed trees, dug in the dirt, poked all sorts of things with sticks, and have even spotted a few slender salamanders hiding in the rock walls of our yard as the species makes its annual emergence for the cooler, damper days. The surprise carpet of green growing things has been thickening over the garden, and we are rife with baby arugula and radish sprouts, which the guys happily eat straight from the ground but generally refuse from their dinner plates.And when the rain drops start falling harder and the wind starts gusting faster, we come in from all the busyness and cozy up with books and blankets and sometimes even hot cocoa. We light the candles in their glass pots on the mantle piece, we switch on lamps, we start a fire in the wood stove. And then, on the best days, we laugh – at Lucas’s squeals of excitement when the zookeepers say “no no!” to George, at Jacob’s elaborate descriptions of the planetarium shows he will direct (“We will talk about planets and stars and rocket ships and God, but not much about God because I don’t know much about that.”).
Laughing together brings a brightness and a warmth that I love even better than all the rest. This is the season of darkness, and so it is also the season of the best kind of light.
Saturday will be the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. On the CD that we put together to give as a favor at her big memorial service, one of the songs that I picked was Sarah McLachlan singing I Will Remember You. There are many things to love about that song if you like Sarah (and I do), but I picked it for one line in particular – “You gave me everything you had, oh you gave me light.”
And I will remember you.
My mom loved this version of Silent Night, and so despite my general non-Christmas-music-listening-ness, it gets a lot of play in my car starting this time of year. So does this, because (like my mom and my brother Gabe) Jacob has a thing for Elvis’s Christmas CD.
As these beautiful, black nights deepen around us, I listen to these songs and find myself thinking about the magic, the mystery, the peace we can find in the dark.
A Winter Salad
A lot has been said about the brilliant alchemy that happens when you put mint and feta together in a salad. I think it was Emmy who brought it to my attention this summer, or maybe it was Deb. This version I’ve been making has its own claims to fame, including the noteworthy investment in an excellent block of salt-brined feta, the kind that can be cut into little cubes rather than crumbled, and then arrives in each bite with a firm-yet-creamy, briny-salty, unbelievable awesomeness. I went with the best firm salt-brined feta I can get around here, but I hope you can find one there, too. Totally worth it. (Crumbly feta would also work though, not a doubt).
Also, while Deb and Emmy both sing the praises of lime, and while I too love lime (amen), what I have right here, right now are lemons. And lemons, right here and right now, are really right with this salad.
You are also going to want a good tart apple. A Pink Lady is the best, and looks so festive to boot – but something snappy and a little bit acidic makes a perfect bite with the briny, creamy/chewy goodness of that feta.
Now. A funny thing happens when you mix this salad up. The baby arugula, delicate and almost iridescent in its greenness, lights up the plate. The finely slivered mint is just a shade darker green, and then there are these bright punches of red and white from the apples and feta. Bright green, crisp red, and all that party-in-your-mouth, festive flavor goodness – I’m pretty sure that this salad, if it had a voice, would be singing.
This makes one lunch time serving for me, but you could easily double or triple the recipe. Also, I use Meyer lemons because that’s what we have, but if you’re using a regular lemon you might want to add a pinch of sugar or a drizzle of honey, especially if you’re using a super tart apple as I recommend. One word of warning: I have eaten this salad for the last four days, and am planning to have it for lunch again tomorrow. It gets its claws in you ….
2-3 cups baby arugula leaves, washed and dried
1/2 a Pink Lady (or other very tart apple), diced
6-8 spearmint leaves, finely ribboned
3 ounces firm, salt-brined feta, diced (but not dried or drained)
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
Drizzle of grapeseed oil
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Combine ingredients, toss gently, and serve.