‘May your upcoming Labor Day weekend contain no labor!’
If I heard this phrase once, I heard it for the 12 plus years I lived in the quiet, residential neighborhood I called home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I’m not kidding either. Each year I heard it uttered from the lips of a dear elderly neighbor, and it was always accompanied by a playful wink in my mother’s direction.
I think he winked for two reasons.
First, he knew my mother and the preparations that went into the picnic my family hosted each Labor Day at a nearby state park renowned for its scenic lake and huge, buffalo head-shaped pool. A frequent guest himself, he never once saw my mother sit down until all the guests were fed and tended to. And that was after a couple days of food preparation and helping my father to set up the table, chairs and tents on the day of the picnic.
More importantly, he winked because he was no fool. He realized my mother wasn’t the only one schlepping away to prepare for a holiday that, ironically, celebrates reasonable limits on, well…working.
It’s true. For many folks this historical three-day weekend, initially brought about in 1872 by cranky Canadians tired of a 12-hour workday, often brings extra work. Granted, it is the best kind of extra work because it involves beloved overnight guests or a daily deluge of visiting friends and family members ready to revel in each others’ company. Still, the bottom line is that homes nevertheless need to be cleaned and tidied, beds need to be prepared, and tummies need to be filled. And that translates into some real work for somebody.
I know because every year I wait for that maid I’ve hired in my head to magically appear, but I remain perpetually disappointed. For all my wishful thinking, this darn figment of my imagination continues to be a no-show.
Thankfully, the passing of the years has given me some additional smarts. I’ve learned a thing or 13 after spending too many holidays on my feet for too many hours beating countless egg whites, trussing various members of the poultry family, and insanely carving rose radishes for added aesthetic value. By the time I was finished cooking and could finally sit down, I possessed only blurred recollections of special moments that had happened all day long around me. To make it even worse, I felt like a toddler badly in need of a nap.
Those days are mercifully behind me as I’ve reworked my whole approach towards preparing for a holiday. I now take inspiration from the wise words of a young and fabled wizard named Harry Potter, who said: “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are… it is our choices.” See? I now have my very own quote to undoubtedly annoy some poor neighbor with in the years to come.
Kidding aside, I have taken to choosing simplicity. Every time. While I could prepare mini artichoke quiches to accompany some deliciously grilled salmon and have them come out pretty well, I choose to make a simple raw zucchini salad that takes minutes to prepare. I could also make a tasty paella too, but instead choose to make a quick and completely flavorful herbed couscous dish that comes together in a breeze.
The end results remain festive and delicious, and involve the perfect amount of labor to celebrate Labor Day.
making herbed couscous pilaf with cranberries & pine nuts
To prepare, heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to pan, swirling to coat. Add 4 finely chopped shallots (about 1 cup or 5 oz.)
and sauté 10 minutes or until tender and partially browned.
Add 1 cup of uncooked couscous.
Mix well and sauté for an additional minute.
Add 1 1/4 cups of chicken broth and salt (only add the salt if needed: I make my broth using the Better Than Bouillon paste which tends to be salty, so I don’t add any but know many people use salt-free chicken stock). Bring to a boil. Cover, remove from heat, and let stand 5 minutes.
As the couscous is resting for those 5 minutes, toast ½ cup pine nuts
by placing them in a 10-inch nonstick pan and turning the stove to medium heat. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until the pine nuts start acquiring a golden color, usually about 4-5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Chop 1 handful of chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley. Remove the leaves off a few thyme sprigs and chop them (it should be around 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves).
Fluff the couscous with a fork. Add ¼ cup dried cranberries and the toasted pine nuts and mix well once more.
Transfer to a serving bowl. Makes 6 servings.