Tuesday, January 20, 2015


         With only five days to go until Burns Night is here, it seems time to get started on making some crafts and decorations that will get your guests into the spirit of things. Let me start by saying I find much of the craft and decorating projects that fill Pippa Middleton’s Celebrate to be a little over the top. If I’m planning a holiday meal or throwing a birthday party I’m usually much more inclined to consider food, drinks, and presents than things like floral arrangements or place cards. That’s where Middleton and I really part ways. Not plan a lavish and coordinated table? She just won’t have it.

For something like Burns Night, though, I think I get it. There’s nothing about our condo that screams SCOTTISH, you know? You’re not just going to walk in and get that vibe here. To commit to a holiday that is already such a stretch for us maybe does require a little bit of extra effort. Below, what Middleton says about setting “A Scottish Table”:

For a Burns Night supper, choose a warm and romantic place for your table: a fireside spot is welcoming and the amber glow will complement the earthy components of the feast.

Our dining room table is four feet from the radiator. It’s very warm!

If you’re having a more informal gathering in your kitchen, you’ll still need plenty of flickering candlelight on this cold January night to make everyone feel as if you were all tucked up inside a croft in the depths of the Scottish hills.

Yes, but what is a croft?

Thistles are emblematic of Scotland and ideal for a centerpiece, mixed with purple and white poppy anemones and green foliage. Arranged in a small vase, they will add a lovely feminine touch to this rather masculine affair.

Thistles? Really? Where might one buy thistles in Chicago in the winter? Hell, in the summer?

Use…old bone-handled knives in keeping with the Highland theme.

“Honey? Where did we put the bone-handled knives? No—not those! The old ones!”

Middleton seems to sense at one point that not everyone is willing to drop $500 and a week’s vacation time from work just to get this holiday off the ground. For people like me she points out that “a tartan blanket laid over a table will add snugness and be fitting for a hearty spread for all ages.”
                Of course: tartan. We need tartan. I can tell you with confidence that one of the best places in the world, outside of Scotland, to buy fabric is at the Highland Store in London. There are two convenient locations and a website for easy international shopping. Should you not have the time or income to travel to Scotland or London, brace yourself. You’re going to have to go to Joann Fabrics like I did on Sunday. I emerged, frustrated, an hour later with a terrible green and white plaid I can't really defend now. While I was there I really built up this idea that I was selecting our family tartan, and it felt like an incredible weight on my shoulders. I could not get it wrong! Maybe it was just too much pressure because what I came home with looks like a cross between the placemats Adam used to have in his apartment senior year of college and a Yasser Arafat headscarf. I spent Sunday night cutting our family tartan into four small napkins and a kind of table runner-like thing. When I laid it on our dining room table and fully saw just how awful it looked, I felt both exhausted and dejected. There wasn’t supposed to be so much pressure with this holiday!
                Tonight I’m having a hard time flipping through Middleton’s Burns Night how-to because she’s managed to snag a lovely purple and green blanket to lay over her table. There are even plaid plates to match. She's located thistles for her centerpiece as well as teacups with thistles on the side. She’s nailed it. This girl will just have to keep trying.

                Next up: what to feed your American guests on Burns Night. Hint: not haggis.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


             It was almost exactly this time last year when, for the very first time in my life, I heard about Burns Night. It was January 25th actually (Author’s Note: January 25th is Burns Night) when I cracked open Pippa Middleton’s much-roasted Celebrate to get some recipe ideas for the week ahead. If you’re not familiar with Celebrate, let me explain that the book is divided by season into various events and holidays that the heir of a British family that has made its fortune selling party supplies believes to be worth celebrating. Burns Night falls just after Christmas and New Year’s and before Valentine’s Day. Let’s turn it over to Middleton for a moment:

Burns Night is the culmination of the Scottish winter festivals…It celebrates the life and work of Robert Burns, widely regarded as Scotland’s national poet…The format of the celebration largely depends on what you want to make of it: a black-tie affair that includes all the pomp of the night with bagpiping, toasts, speeches, and dancing, or a simple supper (perhaps a Highland tea) at home with friends and family accompanied by a few poems from the Scottish bard’s work.
              Despite not being much of a Burns fan and only being Scotch-Irish (it’s not really the same) I was immediately sold on our foursome celebrating this holiday. “Listen up, gang,” I yelled down the hallway of our condo. “There’s been a change in plans. It’s Burns Night.”

Deciding it’s time to get ready to celebrate a holiday when it’s the morning of the actual holiday requires kind of a frenzied pace. We spent the rest of the day gathering groceries for pseudo-Scottish food, buying whiskey at the liquor store, digging through our linen closet for something plaid to use as a table runner (a baby blanket my sister made for Nathan would have to do), and putting a delicious batch of millionaire’s shortbread into the oven around midday.

              Admittedly we flubbed up this holiday. We always will, and that’s for a few obvious reasons:

1.)    We’re Americans.
2.)    We were completely unwilling to eat haggis, which must be served on this evening. There is even a toast to the haggis. We still couldn’t stomach the idea of eating this meat mixture that contains a sheep’s heart and kidneys and is, frankly, served in an old stomach.
3.)    We don’t have anyone to play the bagpipes. We did, however, listen to BBC Radio Scotland on my laptop while we ate, and I would argue that was quite nice.
4.)    We remain only rainy-day fans of Robert Burns, who is the whole point of this evening.

And now you must be thinking, Why celebrate this thing, Chels? And all I know to answer is that I love celebrating this holiday. I adore it. Maybe it’s because we’ve just juggled Thanksgiving and Christmas, and no one is calling me saying, “When are you getting here on Burns Night? We really need to plan this thing.” I don’t feel any pressure about it. On Burns Night last year we just did our own crazy thing, and it felt lovely and wonderful. It’s this feeling I’m trying to impart on you. That’s why this week on the blog it’s BURNS NIGHT WEEK. I’m planning on multiple posts because there’s too much material here to cram into a single post. Next up? Burns Night Crafts.

Yes, I know how that sounds.

Where to buy: You can purchase Pippa Middleton’s Celebrate: A Year of Festivities for Family and Friends (2012) on Amazon. My lovely friend Lexa gave me my copy.

Friday, January 2, 2015


I think one of the reasons I’m so unhappy being a Chicagoan is because the second New Year’s Day is over I’m ready for it to be spring. Crazy right? Winter just started two weeks ago! Yesterday we returned our Christmas decorations to the basement, and today I found myself shopping for pink tulips at the grocery store and laying out yellow and white-striped placemats on our dining room table.

Maybe that yearning for spring is why I felt so drawn to Jamie Oliver’s recipe for a roast chicken salad tossed with green beans blanched just until they’re vibrant green and crunchy, alongside chopped flat leaf parsley and scallions. At the same time the “salad” features roast chicken, bacon, garlic, and big croutons you make by tossing pieces of crusty bread with olive oil and the chicken juices. The end product is comfort food fit for winter matched with vivid green spring vegetables—the best of both worlds.

This salad provided bread-tearing and green bean-snapping work for little boys’ bored hands (daycare is closed until Monday, after all) and looked like a great big bellwether of spring when I put it on a Tiffany blue platter and laid it on our dining room table.

I’ve adapted Oliver’s recipe for the salad dressing, just a bit, by including royal warrant holder Colman’s mustard. I also used a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store to simplify things. It’s good enough for Rick Bayless, after all. Certainly you could roast your own with lots of fresh thyme, lemon, and olive oil.


1 small rotisserie chicken
Olive oil, for drizzling chicken 
Sea salt and pepper
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
14 oz. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bulb of garlic, peeled and separated into cloves
½ loaf French bread
6 pieces of bacon
½ lb. green beans, trimmed
Fresh flat-leaf parsley
6 green onions

5-6 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Colman’s mustard
Apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the cooked chicken in a 13 x 9 pan with garlic cloves and cherry tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and add salt, pepper, and fresh thyme. Place in oven for 10 minutes (just to heat up the chicken and get some of the chicken juices in with the garlic and tomatoes). Meanwhile, tear French bread into bite-sized pieces and snip green beans. Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch green beans for 5-6 minutes. Set aside.

Remove heated chicken from the pan and set aside to cool slightly.

To the roasting garlic and tomatoes, add bite-sized pieces of bread. Mix with the chicken juices, olive oil, and garlic and add more thyme and salt and pepper, if desired. Place uncooked slices of bacon across this mixture and return to the oven until the bread is crisp and the bacon is cooked through, about 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop parsley (about ¼ cup) and slice green onions. Shred the chicken and add it to the green beans on your serving platter. To this add the bread, bacon, cherry tomatoes, and garlic. Top with green onions and parsley.

To make the dressing, whisk olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, and a small drizzle of honey together. Oliver’s recipe uses such precise measurements as 5-6 tablespoons of olive oil and “a few good swigs of cider vinegar.” He’s right, though—keep tweaking it until you like the taste of it. We served this mustardy vinaigrette on the side of our salad. Adam, who is no friend of mustard, topped his with a balsamic glaze. I tiptoed into it and found it absolutely made the salad, which we served with big glasses of Twining's English breakfast iced tea. (Is there any other kind?)

Where to buy: This recipe comes from Jamie Oliver's Great Britain, sold on Amazon.