Everyday Gifts: 10 No-Cost or Low-Cost Ideas for the Holiday Season

Ornaments

It’s the holiday season, and the pressure builds to buy.  So that we may give.  But giving does not always require a purchase.  In fact, when I look back over a lifetime of friendships and family and giving, the most memorable gifts have been from the heart – not from a store.

Here are some ideas for low-cost or no-cost gifts that make a true impression.

  • Original Art.  Frame a drawing, painting or simple sketch or scan, print on high quality paper and make holiday cards.  An abstract painting on thick paper can be cut into bookmarks (with an inspirational quote).
  • Children’s artwork.  See above!  Kids’ artwork and photos can also be incorporated into simple and memorable ornaments.
  • Love of reading.  Read a good book lately?  Share with a friend that has similar tastes and have a book club for two over a cup of tea.
  • Instant garden.  Pot a few plants from your garden that can be taken inside for the winter.  An arrangement of a few small succulents potted in sandy soil becomes an instant garden.
  • Seeds for the future.  Save seeds from your butterfly plants or vegetable garden, dry and package in ziplock snack bags.  Wrap in a square of decorative cloth and tie with a ribbon or tuck into an inexpensive cloth bag (you can find mini tote bags or gift/favor bags  at the dollar store).  Gift tags can include a drawing or printed picture of the future plant, fruit or flower.
  • Cooking inspiration.  Share a few of your favorite recipes and include the finished product or a few hard-to-find or exotic ingredients.
  • Make mine a double.  The next time you bake, make a double batch and share with a friend or neighbor.
  • Home sweet home.  Furniture, kitchenware or other items not in use are a welcome gift for someone just starting out, a student or friend in need.
  • Mr. (or Ms.) Fixit.  Offer to share your skills and talents with someone that needs assistance.  Rake, shovel, repair, or do some computer maintenance – your time will be well spent and much appreciated.
  • Songs and laughter.  Organize a house concert or talent show and share the gift of music and companionship.  The price of admission can be a drink or snack, a willing voice and plenty of applause.

10 Tips for a DIY Photo Safari

One fine Saturday morning I grabbed the camera and the husband and decided to go on a local DIY photo safari in downtown Houston. It was fun to experiment and to see the city with a different perspective.

Here are some tips for a fun excursion and a few pics from the outing.

1. DIY = Do It Yourself. Although it is great to take a class and learn from the experts, it’s ok to experiment on your own! A digital camera is very forgiving. Just have fun with it.

2. Charge your battery or bring a spare. It was painful to run out of juice a short time after starting so unfortunately I have a limited number of pictures this time.

3. An open and curious mind can create the most interesting shots. See the beauty in unusual places. Sometimes an abandoned building can hold as much promise as a garden.

4. Be respectful. Being in a crowd is an advantage when taking anonymous photos of others. If it’s a one-on-one situation, it’s considerate to ask permission.

5. Look for contrast. A bit of green in an urban setting. Young and old. Old and new. Differences add creative tension and interest.

6. Be aware of the lighting. Buildings look good in the sunshine. People look better in the shade.

7. Change your position and line of sight. Instead of the usual dead-on shot, look up, try kneeling, climb some stairs. Different angles and positions give you and the viewer a whole new perspective.

8. Zoom in to capture texture and look for patterns.

9. Photographers, artists and designers use the “rule of thirds.” Imagine that your viewfinder is divided into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and place your subject where the lines intersect for a more pleasing composition.

10. Focus on the entire frame – not just your subject. Pay attention to objects in the background that may be distracting.

 

 

 

 

Around the World #5: Chocolate con Churros in Spain

Photo Credit: Leslie Montes
Inviting fruteria on a rainy night in Madrid

It’s Thanksgiving, and I think of two of my daughters who are far away:  one in Cairo and the other in Madrid.  Although I can’t travel to Spain, I will imagine the busy streets of Madrid and take you there with a couple of recipes to make a typical Spanish breakfast.  There’s so much I could write about Spanish food, with all of its flavor and regional variety but I’ll keep it simple!

When visiting Madrid, a traditional way to start the day is to stop by a local cafeteria for chocolate con churros.  This breakfast treat is inexpensive and delicious, but not exactly a dieter’s delight!  The hot chocolate is thick, almost like pudding, and churros are sticks of fried dough meant to be dipped in the chocolate.  Churros can be sprinkled with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar (Mexican style) and come in 2 sizes:  thick (porras) or thin (churros).  Places like Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid’s center are popular and open all night long if you’re on Spanish time and prefer late night to early morning.

Photo Credit: Leslie Montes

Spanish Chocolate

Mixing the Chocolate

3 tablespoons cocoa powder (preferably Dutch or dark cocoa)

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons corn starch

1/2 cup water

2 cups milk

1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate (chopped bar or chocolate chips)

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix cocoa powder, sugar and corn starch together in a saucepan.  Slowly add water until mixed thoroughly.  Place on a burner, turn heat to medium high and bring to a boil, whisking constantly.  Watch very carefully as the mixture will become very thick and come to a boil quickly.  Take off the heat and whisk milk in slowly until well blended.

Turn down heat to medium and return to the burner.  Do not bring to a boil again – just heat.  Whisk in semisweet chocolate until thick and smooth.  Turn off heat and stir in vanilla.  Chocolate will be thick – almost like pudding.  If too thick, add a little milk until it’s the consistency you like.

Dough goes into the churro press

Churros

1 cup flour

1 cup water

1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

(oil for frying)

Powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar

Mix water, salt and oil.  Heat t0 a boil and add flour all at once, stirring quickly with a wooden spoon until a soft dough is formed.  Let cool.  When cold, spoon into a pastry bag, cookie press or churro press fitted with a star tip.  Heat oil in a deep fryer or heavy pan.

Press churro dough into long strips into the hot oil and fry.  You may need to cut with a knife or kitchen shears.  Fry until golden brown and remove to a plate lined with paper towels.  Once slightly cooled, arrange on a serving plate and sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar.

Serve warm with Spanish hot chocolate.

Everyday Shrines

When you think of a shrine, you may envision a holy place of worship, pilgrimage and sacred relics.  In some parts of the world, people have household shrines dedicated to a deity.  I also see them in businesses like my favorite Asian restaurants – little altars with offerings of food, tea and incense.

I have everyday shrines; places of magic that contain memorabilia associated with revered people and places.  These are small corners where sacred relics disguised as ordinary objects gather and lend some of the personal energy that makes our house a home.  Here are some sacred possessions and their stories.  What are some personal objects that have meaning for you?

A Kitchen Shrine:  Silver and lapis ring from a small shop across from Albrecht Dürer’s House in Nürnberg, Germany; Opal ring purchased on my first business trip to Boston; Sandstone oil burner and Satsuma oil from The Body Shop (Anita Roddick is a personal inspiration); Stone and Bergamot oil from the beautiful Grüne Erd (“Green Earth”) store in Nürnberg.

 

Portraits and Cards:  Portrait of my husband painted by my daughter for his birthday; photograph taken by my mother when I was 17; birthday cards from my mom and my friend Els.

Kitchen Tools can be sacred:  Marmalade crock from the 1930’s found at a stall on Portobello Road (where I used to walk each day); wooden spoon from my mother by way of my grandmother;  kitchen tongs from Germany; assorted utensils I use to cook every day.

The items in my kitchen are well-worn and ordinary, but I use them with care to make good food for people I love.

Are you thinking about your everyday shrines now?

Boxes:  Handmade wooden box from Costa Rica; special handcrafted box with a circus motif – a gift from my husband from a trip to New York; inside the circus box are earrings from my mother and grandmother.

Shells and Stones:  I gather shells and stones wherever I find them and keep them in a clay bowl.  They have been collected from all over the world and airport security is sometimes interesting with a bag full of rocks.

Last but not least are the letters and artwork from my family.  I think I’ve kept every one.  Probably my most precious possessions.

e•nol•o•gy – (n.) the study of wines

I’m something of a novice in the enological sense. In other words, I don’t know zip about wine.

Today I visited Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods flagship store in Houston. Hardly your typical neighborhood wine shop (it’s Texas, y’all), this 80,000 square foot cavernous warehouse has aisles (or “streets”) of bottle-lined shelves. The staff was definitely friendly and seemed very approachable, but I had no idea where to begin. It helps to at least begin with a country, then a preference for a region and type.

In the end, I chose a Pinot Gris from Alsace, only because it was affordable and I hoped it would bring back good memories of the bottles I sampled in France this summer. Next time I may venture down the Spanish aisle. I can always use the helpful signs on the shelf as a guide.

Perhaps being a connoisseur is not in the cards, but I’m willing to take it slowly, one bottle at a time. What are your favorites? How have you learned? Next time I visit this vast Mecca of fine food and wines, I plan to be prepared.

Fear of Festivals

I have a confession to make.  I’m not very good at holidays.  Taken to extreme, fear of holidays even has an official name:  Heortophobia.  Not wanting to be bound by obligation disguised as tradition, I’ve veered a little too adamantly to the other extreme of unpredictability.  Spontaneity seemed better, somehow.  Brighter and freer.  My kids asked, “Can’t we just have turkey dinner like everyone else?” when I proposed some new and exotic menu.  I thought I was rescuing them from the horrors of green bean casserole (sorry, Mom – I confess that it was never a favorite).

Recently, a comment from a new Australian acquaintance made me think.  He noted that in workshops that he leads, he would ask participants to raise their hands if they were indigenous.  Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders would raise their hands confidently, while white people would sit still.  “Everyone is indigenous to some place, but white people seem to have forgotten their past.”  He continued to talk about the importance of names, family and clan/kin/tribe, connection to your origins and knowing your traditions.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since.  It’s probably appropriate this time of year.

Festivals

Diwali – Festival of Light

Now I read with curiosity and slight longing when I discover posts about others’ joyous traditions.  For example, I just happened upon this wonderful post about Diwali on Kiran’s Cooking Club site.  Diwali is also known as the “Festival of Light” and it is India’s most important annual holiday.  The name Diwali refers to the clay lamps that people light outside their homes, symbolizing inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness.  Originally a harvest festival, Diwali is a time when Indian people (regardless of faith) seek the blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.  The holiday is celebrated with family gatherings, lamps, lights and fireworks and traditional sweets.

“Zie ginds komt de stomboot…”

When we lived in Holland, we enjoyed the arrival of Sinterklaas (otherwise known as Saint Nicholas) with his crew of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes – Moorish helpers) by steamboat the third week of November.  The Sint rides his trusty white horse and “Petes” engage in all sorts of mischief.  Children leave shoes out each evening, and if they are lucky they will find small presents in the morning.  December 5th, the Eve of Sinterklaas, is celebrated with gifts, rhymes and sweets.  Typical treats include pepernootjes (small spice cookies), speculaas (more spice cookies!), large chocolate letters for the first letter of the child’s name, marzipan figures and chocolate coins.

Other harvest festivals and fall and winter celebrations draw me in with their family time, sense of belonging, music and fun.  We spent 8 of the last 20 years living in The Netherlands and London, far from home and family holidays.  This year, we’re divided.  Extended family is far away as always and two daughters are studying abroad, leaving a small group of three to celebrate a quiet holiday.

What will we do?

Will we celebrate my husband’s Spanish background with a feast of tapas and traditional dishes?  Should  we explore my English/Scottish/Irish heritage and perhaps rediscover the rituals of the Winter Solstice?

Or shall we stick to tradition and try something completely new?

Uprooted

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Brutal splitting crash

Rootless earth and naked sky

Whispering leaves so still.

 

Response to the sudden removal of dozens of old trees in a field behind my house.  I already miss them.

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