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Hearty stews to warm your holiday heart

Long before there was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving was a time when mothers were more likely to take their daughters to lunch rather than bargain hunting.

My cousin Bonnie and I were lucky to have grown up with two such mothers. And so for all the young years that I can remember, Margaret Roberts and her daughter, Janet, joined Nida Alexander and her daughter, Bonnie, for an afternoon at Allied Arts Guild Auxillary in Menlo Park, California. In the years when our younger cousin Maggie Crawford was in town, she got in on the action also.

This iconic block of Spanish Colonial-style shops and theme gardens was originally founded in the late 1920s to support artists in a pre-industrial village setting. The auxillary’s beneficiary was (and still is) one of Stanford University’s medical arms, the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. By the time we were visiting, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it had morphed into a site of artists’ studios, exquisite boutiques and a charming cafe that is now called Blue Garden Cafe.

The afternoon always began with lunch at the cafe. Although the menu was limited in selection back then, the offerings were almost always delicious and included dainty little finger sandwiches made from unusual breads and zesty fillings, soups that came with odd-sounding names and exotic ingredients, and vibrantly green and crunchy salads presented on eggshell-white porcelain plates. Nothing less than artistic, after all, in an artists’ colony setting.

The only offering I recall that my cousin Bonnie and I balked at one year were the ham and asparagus rolls. That’s ham, rolled around a steamed stalk of asparagus. To a 7-year-old, that’s tantamount to poison. So we rebelled. Of course, our mothers had the perfect counter-attack: If you don’t try at least one bite, there will be no shopping for ornaments.

You see, that Friday-after-Thanksgiving was not just a delicious way to kick off the holiday season, it was our chance to pick out one very special Christmas ornament. With great enthusiasm and patience our moms guided us from shop to shop, checking out each and every artist’s offerings in the Christmas ornament genre. And so, my cousin and I not only have fantastic ornament collections, but a deep-seated respect for an artisan’s life and struggle.

I also believe that by taking the time to touch down in a quiet and thoughtful way at the beginning of what all too often turns into an overwhelming time of year, Margaret and Nida were setting the bar high for their daughters — think about how you want this month to unfold. And leave time for lunch with friends and helping a child discover her perfect ornament.

Indeed, we're all looking for meaningful ways to approach this special time of year. We plan events and coordinate gatherings. Happily, no matter how frazzled we're feeling, such occasions are usually buoyed by that wonderful element known as holiday cheer. But sometimes an extra bit of magic seems to insert itself into the festivities. Who knows where it comes from, but when it's there, the effect is unforgettable. Connections are made, and the warmth that's generated carries us along through our lives just a little farther.

Since I'm convinced it's mostly serendipitous in nature, there's no sense analyzing such moments very deeply. But one message comes through loud and clear: The Christmas season, above all else, is a time to embrace life, rather than to manage it.

So the following recipes aren't fancy and impressive. They won't see you through a seven-course marathon meal designed to knock the socks off guests who can't shake their heads free of sugarplum visions long enough to appreciate good conversation. But they're just the ticket for a casual night of breaking bread with the folks you really care about.

Indeed, these simple stews are designed to be enjoyed in a bowl in front of a roaring fire; or out of a thermos, at the end of an invigorating day of skiing. Such simple-and-hearty fare should set the stage for plenty of fellowship and fun. The magic part is up to you. May you find your own path to such fulfillment, this and every year.

No-Meat Black Bean Chili

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

4 cloves finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 (15 ounce) can black beans, with the liquid

1 (14-1/2 ounce) can of diced tomatoes and jalapenos with Mexican seasoning (check the Mexican food section of the grocery store if you can't find it with the other canned tomato products)

2 tablespoons chopped green chiles (either a fresh Anaheim or canned)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2/3 cup double strength canned beef broth

2 teaspoons each chile powder and cumin powder

Garnish suggestions: diced avocado and tomato, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped green onions

In a large, heavy saucepan, saute the onion, celery and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until the onions are soft. Stir in all of the remaining ingredients and simmer gently, uncovered, about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and the flavors have developed. This amount yields 3 to 4 servings, but the recipe can easily be doubled.

If you want to really jazz it up, pass around the garnishes for diners to pile onto their chile.

Zesty Chili

1-1/2 pounds coarsely ground beef chuck (or finely diced)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 cup diced yellow onion

4 cloves garlic

2 cups beef stock (or consomme)

2 (14-1/2 ounce) cans diced tomatoes

1 cup dry red wine

3 tablespoons diced green chiles (fresh Anaheim, or canned)

3 tablespoons minced sweet bell pepper (red or green)

3 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

4 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon salt

1 (15 ounce) can black beans

1 (15 ounce) can pinto or kidney beans

Garnishes: grated Cheddar cheese, chopped raw onion, cooked bacon strips, sour cream.

In a large, heavy pot, saute the beef in the oil over medium-high heat until the meat is thoroughly browned. Add the onion and garlic and continue to saute, scraping the bottom of the pan well to blend the bits of cooked-on food into the chili. Add the beef stock, tomatoes, wine, chiles, bell pepper, chili powder, cumin, oregano and salt, cover, and simmer gently over medium to medium-low heat for 2 hours. Add the beans and continue cooking for at least 1 more hour, or until the meat is very tender and the flavors well developed. Feel free to add additional wine and broth during the cooking to improve the consistency. Adjust seasonings. Serve hot, with the garnishes on the side in separate bowls. Yields 6 servings.

Spicy Vegetable Stew

Don't take the list of ingredients and amounts too seriously in this recipe. The main idea with this stew is to use what vegetables you have on hand or truly love. And play with the seasonings a bit to strike a balance between fire and flavor.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets

4 medium-sized red or white potatoes

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 cup sliced celery

1 finely minced jalapeno pepper

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro

1 tablespoon cumin powder

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon coriander

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Dash cinnamon

3 cups chicken broth

Accompaniments: about 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, 3 fresh tomatoes (diced), 1 cup sour cream

6 to 8 flour tortillas

In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and saute until they release their juices and begin to brown. Stir in cauliflower, potatoes, onion, celery, jalapeno, cumin, curry, garlic, salt, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon and broth. Cover the pot and braise the mixture over medium heat for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are very tender.

To serve, ladle the stew into bowls and let diners garnish with the accompaniments. Pass around heated flour tortillas prepared as described below. Yields 6 to 8 servings.

TO PREPARE TORTILLAS: Heat the flour tortillas one at a time in a dry skillet until they are soft and pliable, turning once. Sprinkle with a little grated cheese and keep the tortilla in the pan until the cheese begins to melt. Fold over once or roll, burrito-style.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.