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Fabulous Food & Fantastic Fiction--holiday memories old & new--recommended reads & recipes


by Virginia Campbell

This holiday season is a very different one for me. My life has undergone tremendous changes in these last few years, and since I often have to think fast on my feet and go with the flow, my holidays are also a work in progress. I guess that wisdom comes with maturity, and I have learned to relax a little more and accept that life happens, with or without me. The wonderful holidays of my childhood and young adult life are forever available as cherished memories. My immediate family is gone, so I celebrate the holidays with my close friends and my cat-children. I will always hold dear the traditions of holidays spent with my mother and grandparents, and I have made a few traditions of my own. I am one of the most old-fashioned, “hearth & home” people you’d ever meet, but I am leaving open the door for new ideas and experiences. I am very thankful that I have never lost my joy of living. I am still just a big kid at heart. Thank goodness!

One of my favorite holiday stories involves a pie that took a beating, but was still worth eating. I have always loved to cook, and I began preparing the meals for my family when I was just ten years old. By that time, my grandmother was no longer able to grocery shop and cook our meals. She taught me how to cook, and we managed pretty well. My mom and grandfather worked full-time and I went to school. We each did what we could to keep it all together. My grandfather’s favorite pie was mincemeat, and I decided to make him a pie one Christmas. It was a beautiful mincemeat pie with a golden, fluted-edge crust. I wanted to be just like my grandmother, and I sat my pie on a chair on the back porch so that it would cool more quickly. My grandfather could hardly wait for a taste of that pie. It was a wonderfully clear and cold December day with a bright blue sky. Not a cloud in sight. A great day for birds! When I went back to get my prize-worthy pie, birds had completely pecked away the carefully fluted edge of the pie crust. They left a perfect ring of crumbs around the pie pan. I was devastated! My grandfather loved to tease me, and he told me that since there were no dead birds in sight, the pie was probably safe to eat! I cried, but he gave me a hug and took over that pie. He brushed off the top and cut away a narrow ring around the edge. Over the next few days, he managed to consume the whole pie. No one else would touch it! He told me many times that it was the best mincemeat pie he ever ate. It was the only one I ever made!

It really is okay to be different, and that includes our reading choices. Variety is the spice of reading life! The more variety that I read, the more I appreciate my favorite authors and books. We are truly fortunate to live in a world with such an amazing array of awesome authors and bodacious books, and so many people who share our same love of reading. The varied life experiences and observations of the authors combine with the individual interpretations of the readers and reviewers, and it all adds up to a marvelous mix!

I recently read a very lovely book that touched on the theme of allowing your heart to take chances and giving yourself the opportunity to experience the wonders to be found in this great world. “A Summer in Europe”, by Marilyn Brant, is a beautifully written story of a young woman’s self-renaissance. As Gwendolyn Reese turns thirty and contemplates her life experiences, she considers the orderly manner in which she goes through each day to be her safety net. Her mother’s sudden death at age forty had left Gwen shaken and in need of the pedestrian reliability of a structured existence. With her mother’s passing, Gwen assumed the responsibility of caring for her father and two younger brothers. Later, she finds some sense of satisfaction in her teaching career, and her love of music is a source of pleasure. Expecting her boyfriend, Richard, to propose, she is taken aback when he postpones making the commitment. Gwen’s lively Aunt Bea, sister of Gwen’s late mother, offers her a chance of a lifetime–to join her and the members of her S&M Club for a summer-long tour of Europe. “S&M” stands for sudoku and mahjongg, and Aunt Bea and her friends are die-hard devotees of the games. At first, Gwen feels awkward and out-of-place, intimidated by the timeless culture of her surroundings and the intellect and sophistication of some of the fellow travelers she meets along the way. However, as time passes, Gwen begins to absorb the sights and sounds and tastes and textures of each place that they visit. The more she takes in, the lighter she begins to feel, shedding the repression of her inhibitions. Her attention is captured and held by two charming and intelligent brothers, Emerson and Thoreau, whose main goal in life seems to be one-upping each other at every opportunity. It is Emerson to whom she is most drawn, and when he makes it clear that he returns her interest, her emotions take an unexpected turn. Still involved with Richard, she is not free to begin a relationship with Emerson, but her heart speaks a different language. When Richard unexpectedly joins her near the end of her grand tour, she must face her real feelings about life and love. Will she learn to let go and take a leap of faith, or will she return to the known comfort of the cocoon of her orderly world? The author’s great love of Europe and her extensive travels there are evident in her delightful, irresistible descriptions of the beauty and bountiful offerings to be found throughout the European continent. The subtle, insightful way with which Marilyn Brant has crafted Gwen’s story will make you feel as if you are experiencing everything right beside Gwen. You will breathe the air, inhale the intoxicating aromas, and be enchanted by the art and music and flow of languages. You will taste all the fantastic flavors of gelato, savor the linguine with meat sauce and the variety of quiches, and feel lust in your heart for the fabulous pastries and artisan chocolates. Perhaps the Sachertorte will be your undoing. A layered chocolate cake is filled with apricot jam, coated in chocolate ganache, and then finished with a chocolate glaze. The flavors are then immeasurably enhanced by the giving and receiving of forkfuls of said cake between two people caught up in the spell of the love of a lifetime. Like me, you may never see your travel dreams come to fruition, but thanks to Marilyn Brant, you will always have the pleasure of “A Summer in Europe”.

I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons, and I am offering some scrumptious recipes and recommending some terrific reads. Please share some of your own holiday traditions and favorite books and authors. Let’s cook up something good together!

In “The Nine Lives of Christmas”, a matchmaking cat named Ambrose decides to play matchmaker for the fireman who saved his life. Written with Sheila Roberts trademark involving characters and charming story line, this is a perfectly heartwarming holiday read. My cats gave this book an enthusiastic “two paws up”!

James Garner Book Cover - P 2011

Outspoken, opinionated, handsome, funny, charming and talented, James Garner is an American icon. In “The Garner Files”, he pulls no punches and gives us an eye-opening look at his own life and insights into the entertainment world he knows so well.

Debbie Macomber’s “Christmas Cookbook” is so beautifully presented, the book itself looks good enough to eat! This delightful book is filled with amazing recipes, craft ideas, and Debbie’s own personal stories. You will reach for this book again and again, all throughout the year!

A basket of puppies, holiday hopes and hearts, and the wonderfully romantic storytelling of Debbie Macomber all come together at “1225 Christmas Tree Lane”. The final book in Debbie’s “Cedar Cove” series is sweet, funny, touching and terrific!

In “Lions of the West”, acclaimed author Robert Morgan offers a grand treat for lovers of American History and Old West lore. Ten amazing Americans and their contributions to the expansion and evolution of the American continent from ocean to ocean are brought once again to vivid life. Here are the titanic ten men: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams.

What a delicious book! “Comfort Food Fix”, by Ellie Krieger, painlessly makes over favorite recipes into healthier alternatives. The beauty of this book is that the recipes still use regular, readily-available ingredients, many of which you already have in your kitchen. This is real food–not unpleasant diet food filled with artificial ingredients and strange substitutions. Rock-the-house recipes for all occasions!

Actor Kevin Sorbo rose to fame as TV’s “Hercules”. In his candid, inspiring, and self-effacing new book, “True Strength”, Kevin reveals what viewers didn’t know: he suffered three strokes from an aneurysm in his shoulder that had radiated blood clots throughout his body. He was left partially blind and entirely incapacitated at just thirty-eight years old. How he fought his way back from intense pain and depression, and gained new perspective and appreciation for life is remarkable and reaffirming. A true hero’s story indeed!

Savory Sauced Turkey Cutlets with Wild Rice

1 1/2 cups apple juice
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon cornstarch (dissolve in a small amount of cold water before adding)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds turkey cutlets
1 small green apple, unpeeled, sliced thin
1 small yellow onion, sliced thin
Combine apple juice, mustard, honey, and cornstarch; set aside. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet until hot. Cook turkey until browned on both sides, about 5 minutes. Add apple and onion; cook and stir 5 minutes. Stir in reserved sauce. Bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, about 2 minutes until sauce thickens. If sauce becomes too thick, thin it with additional apple juice. Serve over hot cooked wild rice.

“Pass the Peas, Please”

1 pkg frozen sweet peas with pearl onions
1 small jar or can of sliced mushrooms, drained
4 tbsp butter, sliced
grated parmesan cheese

Cook peas per package directions. During last few minutes of cooking time, stir in mushrooms and continue cooking until mushrooms are heated through. Pour into serving bowl and top with butter slices. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese.

Apple-Sour Cream Bundt Cake

1 pkg. (2-layer size) yellow cake mix
1 pkg. (3.4 oz.) vanilla instant Pudding
4 eggs
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup oil
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup sour cream
3 tart green apples (1 lb.), unpeeled, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

2 Tbsp. sour cream
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. water

Heat oven to 350ºF. Beat first 8 ingredients and 1/2 cup sour cream in large bowl with mixer until well blended. Stir in apples; pour into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan or 12-cup fluted tube pan. Bake 1 hour, or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in pan 15 min. Loosen cake from side of pan with knife. Invert cake onto wire rack; gently remove pan. Cool cake completely.

Glaze: Whisk powdered sugar, remaining sour cream and 1 tsp. water until well blended. Drizzle over cake. Let stand until glaze is firm.

Marvelous Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes

6 baking or all-purpose potatoes
3 tbsp butter or margarine, cut into chunks
1 3-ounce package cream cheese, cubed, room temperature
1/4 cup cream or whole milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

Peel the potatoes and cook until tender, then mash with butter, cream cheese and cream or milk until fluffy. Beat in parmesan, salt and pepper to taste, then transfer into a casserole dish sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Cool briefly, then cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to use. To serve, heat at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to one hour or until hot. Sprinkle shredded Cheddar cheese over top of potatoes, turn off oven, and let potatoes set in oven just until cheese is melted.

Turkey & Bacon Spinach Salad with Honey-Dijon Dressing

fresh spinach leaves (washed & dried)
cooked turkey breast meat, cut in bite-sized pieces
fresh white button mushrooms, sliced
crumbled cooked bacon
small red onion, thinly sliced
cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
crumbled or shredded cheese, like Blue, Feta, or Parmesan
sliced hard-boiled eggs

1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp honey (or to taste)
2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup olive oil

For the dressing: In a bowl whisk together garlic, salt, black pepper, Dijon mustard, honey and balsamic vinegar; add in olive oil slowly until blended. Adjust honey and salt to taste. Chill for several hours before using to allow flavor of dressing to develop.

For salad: In a large glass bowl, sandwich layers of spinach with turkey, sliced mushrooms, bacon, onion, tomato, and cheese. Garnish with sliced eggs and croutons. Serve with prepared dressing on the side. Store any remaining dressing covered in refrigerator.

Dilly Beef Cheese Logs

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/8 tsp prepared horseradish (jarred sauce)
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced
1 large dill pickle, chopped
3 cups (12 ounces) finely shredded Cheddar cheese
1 pkg (about 5 ounces) dried beef (like for chipped beef), chopped fine

1 cup (or enough to cover) finely crushed cheese-flavored crackers

In a medium bowl, allow cream cheese to soften at room temperature. Blend in mayonnaise, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce. Add scallions and dill pickle and mix until combined. Blend in cheese and beef. Cover and chill for 20 to 30 minutes. On a sheet of waxed paper, shape cheese mixture into two logs. Sprinkle cracker crumbs onto waxed paper. Roll cheese logs in crumbs, covering entire surface. Place on serving plate. Serve immediately, or cover and chill.

“Bee My Honey” Snack Mix

1/4 cup honey
8 cups crispy rice, corn or wheat squares cereal
2 cups whole grain “O-Style” cereal
1/2 cup salted peanuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup butter
1 cup candy-coated chocolate candies

In a large microwaveable bowl, mix cereals, nuts, and dried fruits. In 2-cup microwaveable measuring cup, microwave honey and butter uncovered on high 1 to 2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until mixture comes to a full boil and butter is melted. Pour over cereal mixture, stirring until evenly coated. Microwave uncovered on high 2 to 4 minutes, stirring every minute, until mixture is well-coated and looks glazed. Spread on waxed paper or foil to cool. Place in serving bowl. Stir in chocolate candies. Store in airtight container.