Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Song : Labor of Love

It hit me this morning that Christmas is now less than a week away. That means the window of opportunity in which to complete preparations is narrowing quickly. Preparations not just related to traditions and festivities, like shopping and wrapping the rest of the presents, addressing and mailing our Christmas cards, and thawing the turkey for Christmas dinner (all of which remain on my To-Do list), but also preparations of the heart--readying my spirit to celebrate once again, at this appointed time of year, the truth that God came to earth, put on flesh, and lived among us.

Some Christmas music is festive and gay, producing the levity of heart that some equate with "the Christmas spirit" (such as Jingle Bell Rock, or We Wish You a Merry Christmas). Other Christmas music is more somber, reminding us that we were totally lost and without hope until Jesus Christ came as our Redeemer (such as one of my favorite carols, O Holy Night, which reminds us that before Christ, and without Christ, the world--and each human heart--lies in sin and error pining).

And then some Christmas music takes you back to that very first Christmas: it pulls aside the curtain and invites you to gaze upon the scene in Bethlehem and wonder at the sight. Andrew Peterson's Labor of Love (sung by Jill Philips) is that kind of song. Take a minute to read the lyrics:
Painting by Simon Dewey
It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David's town

And the stable was not clean

And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother's hand to hold

It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love

Noble Joseph by her side

Callused hands and weary eyes
There were no midwives to be found
On the streets of David's town
In the middle of the night

So he held her and he prayed

Shafts of moonlight on his face
But the baby in her womb
He was the maker of the moon
He was the Author of the faith
That could make the mountains move

It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love
For little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
It was a labor of love
This song is on AP's Christmas album, Behold the Lamb of God, which is probably my favorite collection of Christmas music ever. This album is unlike any other I've encountered, as it draws upon the sweeping Biblical narrative to tell the story of Christ's coming (and Andrew Peterson is an excellent story teller). I was pleased to discover that you can still listen to the entire album online here, for free. Start with the first song and then move through the rest one by one (you'll need to click on each title to start the next song). Blessings as you prepare your heart for Christmas. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best. Appetizer. Ever.

I don't remember exactly when I fell in love with bacon-wrapped dates, but I do know that from the moment I let that first scrumptious bite melt in my mouth with all of its warm, sweet and savory, fruity and bacony goodness, I have never been the same.

In the early years of my love affair with bacon-wrapped dates, I limited my encounters to infrequent visits to tapas restaurants (such as Cafe Babareeba, the Chicago dining establishment where I met the Hubs for the first time, and where I've been known to polish off an order of BWD all by myself). No more. Now I make them myself. And once you see how incredibly easy it is, you will too. The next time you have people over and need an appetizer, whip up a batch of these. Then stand back and watch with satisfaction as the unsuspecting, uninitiated pop that first bite into their'll see their eyes widen in surprise, then roll back in their head as they release a soft moan of pure satisfaction. Or something like that. If you've never tried one, trust me on this: they're that good.

Bacon-wrapped Dates with Cider Gastrique

What you'll need for the BWD:
A package of dates*
A package of bacon (avoid thick-cut, which is harder to wrap around the date)

*There are several different varieties of dates, which affects their size, color, and degree of sweetness. Medjoul dates are probably the most widely known by name in the U.S., but they can also be the most expensive. Use what you can find at the grocery store. I've found that once you wrap a date in bacon and bake it up in the oven so that the sugars caramelize and turn the date flesh to a soft, melt-in-your-mouth consistency, the variety of date doesn't matter too much. 

Yes, that's all it takes for the BWD themselves. The name pretty much says it all. 

However, you'll also need: 
A large, rimmed baking sheet
Aluminum foil
Oven-safe cooling rack

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line the baking sheet with foil (this makes clean-up so easy!). Place the rack in the baking sheet. (You don't have to use a rack, but doing so allows the grease to drain off and helps your bacon get crispier all around.)
2. Cut the package of bacon in thirds. (Since raw bacon is on the slimy side, I find it easiest to use kitchen shears or a sharp knife and cut it up all together, packaging and all.)
3. If your dates didn't come pitted, pit your dates. Use a paring knife to make a slit in the side of the date, pull out the pit, then squish the date back together.
4. Take a date, wrap it in bacon, secure the bacon with a toothpick, and set it on the rack in the baking sheet. Repeat until you run out of dates or you run out of bacon, whichever comes first.
5. Bake for 10 minutes. Flip dates using tongs, rotate pan, and return to oven for another 10 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
6. Allow to cool slightly before serving. (This is where patience is required. The dates will smell AMAZING and you'll want to pop one in your mouth right away, but trust'll burn your mouth and then your taste buds will be ruined for the dates to come.)

Now, you can stop right there and have a truly delectable appetizer. Or, while the dates are in the oven, you can go the extra mile and make a cider gastrique to drizzle over the BWD that will add a subtle complexity to the flavor and make you feel all chef-like because then you can say "I made a gastrique." And then your guests will ask, "What exactly is a gastrique?" and you can tell them:
A gastrique is a classic French reduction sauce made from a base of vinegar and sugar. Gastrique is the French word for “gastric,” pertaining to the stomach, from the Greek word for stomach, “gaster.” While the term first appeared in 1656, the word “gastronomy” wasn’t coined until 1800, when French poet Joseph de Berchoux created it as the title of a poem on good living. 

What you'll need for the Gastrique: 
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
a small saucepan

1. Dissolve the sugar in 1 tablespoon of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.
2. Increase heat and boil, without stirring (don't even think about it), until amber, about 5 minutes.
3. Add vinegar (mixture will bubble's kind of exciting) and stir until all of the caramel bits dissolve and the sauce thickens slightly.
4. Remove from heat; sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.

Once you've nicely laid out your slightly cooled BWD on a serving platter, drizzle them with your mostly cooled gatrique. Then try not to make a noticeable dent in the platter's contents before your guests arrive.

If you give this a try, have any questions, or simply want to share your love of BWD, please leave a comment!

a new look

If you've been here before, I'm sure you've noticed I've changed the design and spruced things up a bit. What do you think of the new look?