- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The best thing about the holidays is sharing time and food with friends and family. Welcoming people into my home, filling the rooms with delicious scents and covering a table with nourishing treats inspires me.

Food is my best gift, but before I get too involved in poring over old recipes and concocting new ones, I must confront that universal holiday-time anxiety and perform the important ritual that tames it: cleaning out the kitchen.

There is some wisdom to be taken from the way our grandmothers did things around the house, even if the demands of career, overflowing e-mail inboxes and freeway traffic jams mean we don’t have the kind of time they did, especially around the holidays. That’s all the more reason for getting organized, cleaning up and making a plan so we can enjoy the holidays rather than just survive them.

In my grandmother’s time, the kitchen was kept orderly throughout the year. She had daily, weekly and monthly rituals for maintaining her domain.

These days, most of us wait until New Year’s or springtime to perform cleaning rituals, if at all. We clean out a cabinet when something in it spills, and we are then horrified to find what’s lurking in the corners: grain moth infestations, ancient dusty peppercorns, sardine cans from the last decade.

I used to wait until January to clean up my act, but now I clean up before the holidays. I also try to make a few things ahead to serve to guests, such as icebox cookies and no-yeast breads that can keep in the refrigerator or freezer and be served at a moment’s notice.

We’ve all seen the studies about anxiety during the holidays, and yet year after year we continue with the same pattern of overcommitting and not giving ourselves a bit of extra time to make sure we get through the season with a little sanity left over.

Here are a few simple suggestions that will help you move into the holiday season with less stress. It might reduce, at the very least, your kitchen angst. Don’t forget, joy is what it’s all about.

A book that belonged to a friend’s grandmother, called “The Way to a Man’s Heart” (Settlement Cookbook Co.), published in 1938, has dozens of amusing housekeeping and entertaining hints. Some are outdated and funny, but others actually make real sense:

m “Serving the meal, where there is no maid: All the food belonging to one course is placed on the platter or suitable dishes before the person who will serve.” Translation for times, holiday and otherwise: Get someone to help you serve at meal and party. Don’t do it all yourself. My mother always says that if she cooks it, she won’t serve it. This is a great way to involve people who do not help in the kitchen. They know who they are.

• “Keeping foods fresh: Box is placed on the window ledge outside, northern exposure is preferred.” Translation for modern times: For those living in colder climates, don’t forget that if your refrigerator is overflowing, as it often is around the holidays, you may have the option of storing things outside for a few hours, as long as it’s 40 degrees or below.

• “Proper dress for the kitchen: Jewelry should not be worn in the kitchen. Wear a cotton wash dress or a coverall apron with a pocket for a handkerchief. Have a small hand towel that buttons on the band of a dress or apron. And have two potholders fastened together with tape and attach to dress or apron. Wear a cap that covers the hair.”

• “Setting the table: Table setting is divided into three parts: Laying of cloth. Placing of decorations, flowers, candlesticks and compotes. Placing of plates, silver and glassware.” Translation for modern times: A beautiful table comes in many forms.

• “Cleaning before a party: Never sweep or dust the dining room just before a meal.”

Here are some tips from a few friends:

• Survey your baking ingredients: flours, sugars, spices, butter, baking soda, baking powder, yeast and nuts, and make sure you have everything in hand for making cookies, cakes and other holiday confections.

• No one really needs 100 plastic bags in their cabinet. Recycle all but a dozen, and tuck them into one lone bag. Begin the transition to reusable canvas bags.

And a few of my own tips:

• Buy a case or two of large Mason jars, available at a hardware store for about $1 each. Larger storage jars are also available at places such as the Container Store. Move your boxes of grains, rice, sugar and other dry foods to jars, and label them with a label maker or by hand with masking or electrical tape and a pen. This helps keep things looking clean and eliminates packaging and seals out grain moths.

• Throw out any packaged foods in your pantry or refrigerator that you have been harboring for more than six months. Food does not have an eternal shelf life.

• To freshen an odor-emitting garbage disposal, drop in two lemon halves and run the disposal with warm water circulating for a few seconds.

m Make a few things ahead of time that can be refrigerated or frozen. Try icebox cookies that can be pulled from the freezer, sliced and baked in 10 minutes; sauces such as pesto that can be used for quick hors d’oeuvres (spread it on French bread or crackers, serve alongside meats or seafood, or toss with pasta), and snacks such as spiced nuts that keep for up to a week refrigerated and can be frozen.

Spiced ginger nuts

3 tablespoons sugar

teaspoon ground ginger

Pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 cup unroasted and unsalted walnuts, almonds or other nuts

Combine sugar, ground ginger and cayenne to taste in a small bowl. Heat a 9-inch or larger nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until a drop of water sizzles. Sprinkle sugar mixture across skillet evenly.

When sugar is almost fully melted, add nuts and begin to toss to coat. Continue tossing nuts, using a wooden spoon, if necessary, for several minutes until the sugar begins to caramelize on nuts, turning a deep brown.

Transfer nuts to a baking sheet to cool. When cool, break up any clumps of nuts and store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. Or freeze for up to 2 months.

Orange anise-seed cookies

pound unsalted butter

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

2 tablespoons orange zest

Pinch of salt

21/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

teaspoon ground anise seeds, or to taste

Sugar or cinnamon sugar, optional

Cream softened butter and sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed. Beat in vanilla, egg and orange zest at medium speed. At low speed, work in salt, flour and ground anise seeds. Dough should be soft.

Divide dough in half, and roll each part into a cylinder about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap each cylinder in plastic wrap, then with foil, and chill at least 2 hours, up to 24 hours. Or freeze for up to 1 week. Remove wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch-thick cookies.

Dust with sugar or cinnamon sugar, if desired, although they are also wonderful plain. Place on baking sheets with at least inch between them, and bake them in preheated 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are light golden on the bottom and pale golden on the top.

Makes about 36 cookies.

Pesto

4 large garlic cloves

1 teaspoon salt

cup pine nuts

3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

teaspoon black pepper

4 cups loosely packed fresh basil

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Mince garlic, then sprinkle with a little salt and, with side of knife, mash into a paste. In food processor or blender, combine garlic paste with pine nuts, cheese, remaining salt, and pepper and basil, and process until finely chopped. With motor running, add oil, blending until incorporated.

Store, refrigerated, in a bowl with pesto surface covered with plastic wrap for 3 days, or make without the cheese and freeze for several months. Just before serving, stir in the cheese.

Makes about 2 cups.

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