Monday, December 15, 2014

30 Great Christmas Albums for the Whole Family

Music makes the Christmas season for me. I have a playlist of 200+ songs going all the time right now. It includes both secular and spiritual pieces, some nostalgic and others new discoveries.

I realize that the word "great" is subjective. I don't care for most Christmas music in the popular vein (think scoopy voices and ultra-emotive interpretations) or really country music either (for rather the same reasons). And I haven't explored any Christmas rock. So my list doesn't include much of those genres. Also, it only includes music all of us enjoy, including the kids. They couldn't handle much Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Marilyn Horne, so that didn't make it either. :)

Almost all of this music can be found on Spotify and other internet radio, so you don't have to purchase it to enjoy it. I hope that among these you might find something to add to your list of favorites. In return, don't forget share what you love with me!


A Little Christmas Music with the King's Singers
Such a great mix of class and humor.  My kids run to the speakers at the sound of "singing gaily all together" to hear the funny, clunky "fa la la la la" that follows. Their renditions of the Boar's Head Carol" and "Patapan" are stirring and powerful while their "Es ist ein Ros' entsprugen" and "Simple Gifts" are peaceful and heartwarming.

Spirit of the Season with Sissel and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
My visiting teachers gave me this album when I was first married, and I had no idea how it would become one of my favorites. It includes a few great Scandinavian carols presented by the crystal voice of Norwegian singer, Sissel. In fact, she's the reason I love this album.

Joyous Day with the Utah Chamber Artists
Even if my mom weren't in the choir when this album was recorded, it would still be one of my favorites. Bradford's arrangements are as moving as any I know. My favorites include "Sussex Carol," "Still Still Still" and "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella" but it's so hard to choose.

Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends
As a violinist, this album makes me snicker, but if you enjoy silky violin playing, you can't do any better than Joshua Bell!  Here, he collaborates with a different awesome artist (of various genres) on every track.

The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky 
Performed on this album by the New Hope Orchestra, this is more crucial Christmas listening (most any recording will do). We love all of it.

Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites by Leroy Anderson
Sleigh ride is a seasonal must, but my favorite piece on this album is Suite of Carols for strings (the last track) which I played many times in string orchestras when I was a teenager. It is lovely.

Cassation in G Major ("Toy Symphony") by Leopold Mozart 
It is disputed who really wrote this piece. For a long time people thought the composer was Haydn, but while most people now think Leopold Mozart (the famous Mozart's dad), it's apparently unconfirmed. Whoever wrote it gets credit for a lot of fun! There are actually parts written for toy instruments that make it quite an amusing listen.


A Charlie Brown Christmas with the Vince Guaraldi Trio
It's just not Christmas without it.

An Oscar Peterson Christmas 
A master of jazz, Peterson's suave, sophisticated piano playing will completely entrance you.

When My Heart Finds Christmas with Harry Connick Jr.
I'm under the impression that this album's no secret. We've used his "Winter Wonderland" and "It Musta Been Ol' Santa Claus" over the years in family Christmas programs (you should hear my brother Joe go at the piano!). Now, I'm tickled hearing my four-year-old belt out "I pray on Christmas!" with the best of 'em!

Christmas with Maureen McGovern
This is a unique collection of arrangements that you will listen to over and over. Her pure, versatile voice is so satisfying. I especially like "Do You Know It's Christmas?" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "I Wonder as I Wander" and "Our First Christmas" and her Sleigh Ride medley and, well, all of them. I was so lucky to grow up on this one.

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas
What's any playlist without Ella Fitzgerald?

Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas with various artists
One album, eleven jazz monarchs!

Christmastime with the Swingle Singers
A classy set of sparkling voices, these French singers meld their beautiful harmonies on pitches stated with jazzy syllables, rather than words. These arrangements feature a cozy jazz combo as back-up.


Traditional Christmas Carols with Pete Seeger
A devoted fan of Seeger's sound and style, I discovered this album just this year, and it is a gem! I love the folk approach because of its unadorned simplicity. He can sing all the verses you've never heard to "The First Noel" with not a bit of worry that it might seem too long or redundant.  I never knew I'd like a Christmas album with banjo, but I love it. I love it.

The Sounding Joy with Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends
Another folk singer unafraid to stand close to the microphone and keep it simple. Released just last year, this album presents songs you may never have heard and includes several memorable collaborations.

Christmas Spirituals with Odetta
You might not be able to stomach all of this album at once, but please treat yourself to a couple songs at a time. What a deep, resonant, soulful voice!! Wow.

Celtic Christmas and Christmas Angels with Katie McMahon
A soloist in the original Riverdance troupe, this Irish singer is probably my favorite discovery of the year. I am head over heels for her clear voice in these mixtures of both familiar and new carols.

Feliz Navidad with Jose Feliciano
Because, come on, why not?

Christmas Album with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
I grew up on this group, but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed this holiday album.

Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas with the Klezmonauts
This album was introduced to me just this year by some friends. You might have to hear it to believe it. Unbelievable what's going on here. Well done and so much fun!


Christmas Collections with the Carpenters
Karen Carpenter's rich alto voice. That's all.

The Very Best of Burl Ives Christmas
You might know his voice best from the stop motion animation of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, some songs from which are included on this disc. Ives has a nice classic voice with a straightforward style.

The Andrews Sisters Sing Christmas
A very fun trio. They recorded many Christmas songs with Bing Crosby, considered by some to be the king of the Christmas playlist. I'm only slightly ashamed to admit that I just can't stomach him. But I love the ladies by themselves!


Cole, Christmas, and Kids with Nat King Cole
He has always been one of my favorites singers this time of year, but I just discovered this super album made especially for kids. We all love it. Our favorites include "The Happiest Christmas Tree," "All I Want for Christmas," and "Buon Natale."

The Polar Express Soundtrack
I love this movie and I love the soundtrack. We wait in anticipation all year to re-experience it! The theme song ("Polar Express") is our favorite, followed closely by "Hot Chocolate," but we also love "Spirit of the Season." And Keenan has been very patient with the numerous listenings to "Rockin' on Top of the World" (he thinks the singer sounds like a wild animal).

A Christmas Together with John Denver and the Muppets
I wish I could find an album with the songs from A Muppet Family Christmas, but these guys are a fun combo. "Twelve Days of Christmas" and "We Wish You a merry Christmas" get us giggling.

Chipmunks Christmas with Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and Dave
A little silly stuff is okay. ;)

Raffi's Christmas Album
Another admirably straightforward singer who draws the kids right in. This album does not disappoint.

What are you listening to this season?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

DIY: Installing Airlocks (Cheap, Easy, Fast!)

Well, I'd say we took the summer off blogging, didn't we!? We've all been off galavanting every which way, enjoying the long summer days, and trying new things to share. :)

I've had several inquiries regarding my previous post on making sauerkraut. I'm happy the love is spreading! I have officially installed nine airlocks this summer, and just must share how easy and worthwhile it is.

The point of the airlock is to allow carbon dioxide to escape (put off by the lactic acid-producing bacteria), without reintroducing any oxygen. Those little critters need an anaerobic environment to thrive.

Here's What You Need:
Some airlocks

Some 3/8" grommets

A drill with a 7/16" bit

Here's What You Do

1) Attach the 7/16" bit to your drill (if you find this too tight to slide the airlock in later, you can also use the 1/2" bit, but try the former first).

2) Drill a hole in the top of a mason jar lid. I found it easier to do this while the lid was secured onto a quart jar. Mason jars really seal well, which is why I like to use them, but you could also use a jar with a lid that has a rubber edge around that inside of the lid (like most salsa jars).

3) Fit the grommet into the drilled hole.

4) Carefully press the end of the airlock into the grommet. It doesn't need to go in terribly far, it just needs to be as tight as possible. (Be careful how you put weight onto these cheap airlocks—they can crack, like the one pictured here. We used some super glue on it and thankfully didn't have any leaks.)

5) Ta-da!

6) After you pack the jar with whatever you want to lacto-ferment, be sure to add a little water to the fill-line on the airlock. This helps keep your veggies airtight.

Right away I started fermenting some garden beets and carrots. I found tricky ways of keeping the veggies submerged below the brine. For the beets, I left the largest slices uncut and lodged them down beneath the shoulders of the jars. For the carrots, I used celery slices (which ended up being delicious) and did the same thing. Be sure to leave at least an inch of headspace between the brine and the top of the jar.

 Feel free to stare for a few minutes.
I did.

I left them at a friend's house for a few weeks while I was out of town, so eager to try them upon our return. Wow. I was not disappointed. Neither were my little boys. We all loved them!

Next I did pickling cucumbers, Bubbies style. I kept the cucumbers submerged with grape leaves, which help keep the pickles crisp. Two of the jars are still going (six weeks later) and some of the brine has sunk below the leaves at the top. I can see no sign of mold. Props to the airlocks!

Here they are after three weeks of fermenting.
The airlock water in the first jar is a little 
off-color because some of the escaping 
CO2 tried to drag my brine up with it!

Lastly, I made 5 gallons of sauerkraut (2.5 pictured here, 2.5 in my Harsch crock). I kept the kraut submerged by anchoring a large, firm cabbage leaf beneath the shoulders. The sauerkraut became really bubbly really quick as the first stage of fermentation began. I had to open the jars and re-press the cabbage beneath the brine. I recommend leaving a little more than one inch of headspace, and plenty of brine above the veggies.

I made these five weeks ago.* We've already gone through two of these jars, with three of them (and the crock) still going strong. The flavor is a little different every time I open a new jar (the older it is, the more I like it). When we're ready to dig in, I swap out the airlock lid for a unpunctured lid, and pop it in the fridge, ready to accompany every meal. :)

Honestly, it's a thrill.

*I must admit, I came out liking the airlock method more than the open-vat method (mentioned in the sauerkraut post) for two reasons: 1) I never had to deal with skimming mold off the top, and 2) I found the flavor slightly more complex for the same amount of time.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sauerkraut: Want It, Love It

When I was 16, I spent a few weeks touring around Europe as part of a youth orchestra. It was unforgettable.

My strongest culinary memory from that trip (aside from Italian gelato and a certain restaurant on the Champs-Elysées) was the sauerkraut in Switzerland. Knowing nothing about it, I wished then that I could forget it. It was rather sour. It smelled funny. I didn't like it. I didn't want it. And I couldn't wrap my mind around its immense popularity.

I wish I could see my teenage self peer into the future and observe in disbelief my love affair with this fermented cabbage now. It is deliciously sour and impressively complex. I love it. I crave it. I eat it almost every day. If it runs out—tragedy.

A standout in the repertoire of lacto-fermented foods, sauerkraut packs a powerful punch. The fermentation occurs as tiny little bacteria called lactobacilli happily feed on the starches and sugars in the food, producing lactic acid (thus lacto-fermentation). This amazing, transformative process
  • perfectly preserves the food
  • enhances digestibility
  • increases vitamin levels 
  • creates new nutrients 
  • removes toxins from the food
  • produces beneficial enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances 
  • inhibits growth of bad bacteria, not only on the food but also in your gut (that is, it would give E. coli a good fight if it happened to show up down there)
  • breaks down phytic acid, even in the gut
  • promotes healthy gut flora (probiotic), thereby strengthening your immunity
  • produces a complex flavor that evolves with age

Wow. Raise your hand if you want some of THAT!

Whether you want it or not, you do need it. As you make it and eat it, little by little you will start to crave it and love it. Your body will recognize the good it's doing and keep reminding you. When I have encountered sugar cravings, taking a few bites of sauerkraut instead has been both satisfying and healing. My body sings its praises after every little bite.

A caution: many brands of sauerkraut available in stores have been pasteurized, killing the beneficial microorganisms we so desire. In order to reap the deep benefits, you have to make it yourself.

Fortunately, it's easy! If you've never lacto-fermented anything before, sauerkraut is a great place to start. I suggest reading the whole recipe before starting. Here we go!


For every pound of organic cabbage, use 2 tsp. sea salt

  • A sharp knife
  • A cutting board
  • A scale (if you don't have one, weigh your cabbages at the market, keeping in mind that you'll be coring them) 
  • A large mixing bowl
  • Fermentation vessel of choice (you can use a regular mason jar)*

1) Technically this step is optional, but I like to start by sharpening up my knife a little to expedite the cutting, especially if I'm making a big batch (which is always).

2) Remove outer cabbage leaves. Cut and core the cabbage.

3) Shred the cabbage. (You can use a food processor if you want, but I prefer the consistency I achieve with a knife.)

4) Weigh the cabbage, adding the salt as you go. The salt preserves the cabbage as the pH drops during the first few days of fermentation.

5) Squeeze and press the juice out of that cabbage! You can go nuts and do it all at once OR you can let the cabbage and salt sit together for a while to help draw out the juices before pressing (which you can do right in your fermentation container, if you like). This can take hours or even a whole day if it suits you.

6) Using a small implement (e.g. a little jar, meat hammer, potato masher, one of these fancy crushers, or your fists), pack the cabbage tightly into your fermentation container, getting rid of as many air bubbles as possible. Leave at least one inch between the juice and the top of your jar (the sauerkraut will expand). If you're having trouble getting the juices to rise above the cabbage, you may add some salt water (1 tablespoon sea salt dissolved in 1 cup filtered water) as needed. I have rarely needed to add water, but it won't ruin your ferment to do so. :)

My Harsch crock, stored under the sink

7) Sauerkraut requires an anaerobic environment to ferment, so you need to keep the cabbage submerged under the brine to avoid spoilage. If you're using a mason jar without an airlock, use one of the two following methods:
  1. Leave the jar open, but weigh the cabbage down with something heavier so the brine stays well above it. Keep your eye on your kraut. If you notice a thin white film forming atop your brine, just skim it off. You're welcome to taste and stir your sauerkraut whenever you like. 
  2. Close the jar tightly and put it in a cool, dark corner of your kitchen. The lactobacilli put off CO2 that needs to be released, so if you choose this method, you should "burp" the jar every few days by loosening the ring and allowing the CO2 to escape. You can also take this opportunity to taste your kraut. You will notice the flavor changing as the fermentation progresses.
8) Wait. You have to be patient. Sauerkraut goes through three stages of fermentation, and you get the most benefit out of it if you wait a minimum of four weeks (see "mistake #1" in that post). Remember, the cabbage must stay submerged under the brine.

9) When you taste the sauerkraut, trust your instincts. Sauerkraut has a high success rate (I don't think I've ever botched a batch), but occasionally one might go bad. This post includes some visuals that might warn of an improper ferment (see "mistake #2," though if you use any purple cabbage to begin with, then "pink cabbage" is not going to be an indicator of spoilage). Above all, trust your gut!

10) There are lots of ways to eat it. Like this:


Or even this (the juice is an amazing digestive tonic!):

Or whatever tickles your fancy or tempts your palate. It can be eaten plain or added to just about anything—salads, sandwiches, smoothies, warm soups—and it's notoriously good with meats.

I hereby wield the power of the Daily Dare and challenge you to make some sauerkraut and eat it! I promise that if you make it, wait patiently for it to transform, and consume it regularly, you will reap tremendous health benefits. You will want it.

Once you've made it a couple times, you'll be ready for sauerkraut's foreign cousins, kimchi and cortido (coming soon!).


Some of my resources on lacto-fermentation:
  • Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (he has a couple other good ones, too)
  • Real Food Fermentation by Alex Lewin
  • Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (just a section dedicated to it in this book)
  • Lacto-Fermentation eBook by GNOWFGLINS (Wardee also recently published a book called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods, which I don't have)
  • Lacto-Fermentation eBook by Cultures for Health (free online!)

*An Important Word on the Vessel
Some recipes call for using a plain old mason jar. I fermented this way many times before a wonderful person gave me a 10-liter Harsch crock a year ago. Everyone seems to have a different idea about fermenting in mason jars. Some think it's best to have a container that can release the gases produced by the lactobacilli without allowing more oxygen into the jar (using something like these, or here's a more economical DIY for attaching an airlock to your mason jar lid).

At least one blogger has stirred up some controversy regarding the safety and efficacy of lacto-fermenting in mason jars. Here is another blogger's responses to those circulating concerns. Traditional fermentation expert Sandor Katz is not at all concerned about using an open ferment method, as long as the food is clearly submerged beneath the brine. The post I referenced above (with the three common fermenting mistakes) contains good information on how to ferment optimally (staying totally anaerobic, avoiding mold, getting consistent results, and increasing lactobacilli) as well as lots of interesting discussion in the comments. Also, do check out this cool experiment (18 different vessels for 28 days).

All that said, I personally think mason jars are a fine place for someone to start out their fermentation journey. Better there than not at all! I did it many times before using a crock, and I never experienced anything but wholesomeness. :)