Saturday was Christmas tree day. Out in the woods we went, exploring and tromping through the snow, looking for the perfect little tree. “Little” is an essential part of this description, because our cabin doesn’t exactly have lots of extra room. We both wanted a tree though, so we decided to make it work, clearing out a little space, and Joe, tape measure in hand, determined we could get a tree that was 2 feet by 2 feet at it’s widest, and probably one that was about 3-4 feet.
Now our spruce trees around here are not the most breathtaking variety. They are black spruce, growing on ground that has a layer of permafrost not too far down, so you’re much more likely to find a Charlie Brown Christmas tree than the perfectly shaped type. After a bit of searching, and a mental resignation that we wouldn’t be finding the ideal little tree in my mind, we found one that would work. After taking pictures of the lil’ guy, Joe got ready to put his bowsaw to work, and then as I surveyed the surrounding trees, I said “or how about this one?” We moved to another tree close by, and after inspection, decided he was much more filled out and shapely than our original choice, so, we took pictures again, and this time did cut the tree down, carried it out of the woods, then pulled it by sled back to the cabin.
I’d decided that I wanted to make something special for a ‘tree decorating’ meal. For some reason I’d been thinking about soft pretzels a lot recently, something that I used to make all the time in high school, but hadn’t tried again since then. So, soft pretzels were chosen, and as an accompaniment, I made up a big pot of chili – one of my favorite winter foods. There are two types of chili I love to make: a vegetarian black bean one, and then this one, which is rich and dark, full of meat, a mix of beans, cocoa and cinnamon. It’s absolutely warm and comforting. In order to make life real simple, I’d made pot of chili two days before and let it freeze, so all we had to cook on Saturday were the pretzels. We (well, Joe, he’s the bread maker!) got the pretzel dough going, and while it rose, worked on our tree.
The tree decorating process was the quickest and easiest that I’ve experienced. After letting the tree dry out, we moved him to his little space, put some ribbon on him, hung a few red balls, and then the origami peace doves I’d made earlier in the afternoon. Although simple, and not as sparkly as we’re used to in the absence of lights, he looks very festive and wonderful! A perfect little tree, and a better looking one than I was hoping to get!
I’m sharing both recipes with you here. The pretzel recipe is a very simple dough, and they are fun and easy to make! I use caribou or moose meat in my chili, but you can use whatever is available to you. If you use stew meat, it will need to cook in the chili longer to soften it. I used two pints of caribou that we had canned back in September, which is another easy option.
3 cups flour (I used 1/2 wheat and 1/2 white)
1 1/2 tsp dry yeast
3 Tbsp honey
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
1 tsp salt
6 cups water
3 Tbsp baking soda
coarse salt for sprinkling
Activate yeast with honey and water by stirring together in a medium bowl and letting sit, until yeast is bubbly. Add the flour and salt, stirring until dough forms. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and sticky, about 5-8 minutes. Return to bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.
Punch dough down and cut into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 24 inches long and then twist into a pretzel! Place on an oiled baking sheet. Let stand about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring water to a boil, then add the baking soda. Carefully place 2 or 3 pretzels in the water and cook, turning once, until puffed and set, about 1-2 minutes. Place back on oiled sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt and bake for 15-20 minutes. Serve with a stone ground mustard.
2 cups dried bean mix (I love Bob’s Red Mill 13 bean mix)
about 2 cups of stew meat
1/2 can tomato paste
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, diced
2 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, diced
1 1/2 Tbsp chile powder
2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 – 2 Tbsp cocoa powder (depending on your preference
A couple days before you plan to make the chili, start soaking your beans. You could just soak them overnight, but they cook quicker this way. Pour boiling water over the beans and add a little vinegar. The next day, change the water.
When ready to make chili, change the water in the beans again, and start cooking them in a big pot. The beans only took about 3 hours to cook this time, but it will vary depending on how long they soaked. Once beans are tender, add the meat, tomatoes and tomato paste. Saute onions and garlic in a cast iron skillet, then add to the pot. Add the chipotle peppers and spices, adjusting to taste. Add some water if it looks too thick. Cook for about 1-2 hours more, letting the flavors blend and making the meat more tender, if needed.