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Richmond Christmas Mother Rhonda Harmon shares her holiday tastes, from apple stuffing and turkey stew to Oreo cheesecake and apple crisp

Richmond Christmas Mother Rhonda Harmon shares her holiday tastes, from apple stuffing and turkey stew to Oreo cheesecake and apple crisp

The buttery, fragrant crisp part of Rhonda Harmon’s apple crisp blanketed the mound of chopped apples snugly and completely, as to not allow even one little apple piece to peek through the top.

That’s the way her family likes it, Harmon joked — “a bit of apple with the crisp.” Warm from the oven, with notes of cinnamon, cloves and vanilla, it’s the sort of dish that looks and smells like the holidays.

It’s properly dressed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Harmon, who is the 2020 Richmond Christmas Mother, spends a lot of time in her kitchen this time of year. This season, however, will be decidedly different for the wife and mother of four.

COVID-19 restrictions will alter one of Harmon’s biggest holiday traditions, which is feeding upward of 70 or 80 people for either Thanksgiving or Christmas, people who don’t have friends or family with whom to celebrate.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday that gatherings are limited to 25 people in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

On top of that, Harmon’s beloved Texas-smoked turkeys, which she purchases every year from the Lone Star State, aren’t available. She was notified recently by the turkey company that it suffered a catastrophic fire and will have to bypass Thanksgiving in its recovery efforts.

2020 has been harsh.

But as Christmas music filled her Manakin-Sabot home last week and lights twinkled on Christmas trees, Harmon bopped around her kitchen, chopping apples and talking about the special dishes that have become staples in her home. The apple crisp is one — and a recipe that Harmon said should be used as a guide because it’s good with so many additional ingredients.

For example, raisins, dried cranberries, pecans or walnuts — even almond extract instead of vanilla — would work, as would a combo of apples and pears, and spices like cardamom in addition to the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

Apples also take center stage in Harmon’s stuffing. There are the usual elements such as celery and onions and herbs like sage and thyme, but apples add sweetness that complement the savory notes.

In another dish, leftover smoked turkey gets chopped and added to a rich stew with a Southwestern touch thanks to black beans, cumin and hot sauce. As with a homemade broth, the stew gets much of its flavor from the turkey’s bones and skin, which are removed before serving. Sour cream and cilantro go on top.

Then there’s the Oreo cheesecake.

Harmon said hers is a family that (mostly) loves cheesecake. She makes it throughout the year, but always around the holidays. When given the option for more decadent cheesecake varieties, like peanut butter, or those with complicated layers that include cake, her simple, straightforward Oreo version wins out every time.

Early on, she’d follow a recipe, tweaking it as she went along. She admits she uses more Oreos than called for in some recipes. They get chopped and folded into the mixture, then she tops the baked cheesecake with lightly sweetened whipped cream, finely crushed cookies and also Oreo halves.

A golden rule in her kitchen: “You take a recipe and make it your own,” she said.

Harmon says that while she likes cooking, it’s feeding friends and family that she loves, nurturing the fellowship that comes with breaking bread — or, in her kitchen, connecting over bowls of warm apple crisp or smoked turkey and black bean stew.

She does her best to make everything from scratch, and much of what she buys and cooks is organic. It’s her way of showing love, she said.

Friends and strangers alike, “I like to bless people with my cooking,” she said.

— Rhonda Harmon

— Rhonda Harmon

— Rhonda Harmon

— Rhonda Harmon

(804) 649-6945

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