Thanksgiving & Sweet Sorrow

Celebrating & Remembering

This year, once again, our feast of gratitude is tinged with a wide range of other emotions. Over the weekend, Mom died in the swiftest, sweetest possible way, her body simply stopping with a gentle sigh as I stood, amazed, beside her. Nobody could wish for a kinder death and we are all filled with the deepest gratitude that her long struggle is over. I am especially grateful for the existence of Hospice, an institution that gentles and dignifies the dying process. The Hospice team supported and nurtured us through these last few months, meeting our needs, providing wise counsel and encouragement, and teaching us how to help Mom at every step.

I am also hugely grateful for the blessing of drugs like morphine to ease pain and lorazepam to sooth anxiety. When my husband Bud was dying, he once said, “We lied to the kids: Drugs ARE the answer.”  Mom’s last few weeks teetered upon the edge of awful and those marvelous drugs eased her pain very well. Before that, Mom’s drug of choice was comfort food. Until she could no longer swallow, she got true pleasure from the simplest things, from morning orange juice to macaroni and cheese, which she ate at least five times a week.

We Gather Together

This year’s family regathering will no doubt be rather subdued if still grateful. Thanks to complex schedules and multi-family events, we’ll replace one big dinner with several smaller reunions. It’s very freeing to change things up, keeping whatever is most treasured and introducing pleasant new ideas. Thus, we’ll start the day with a light, informal brunch, then have a more-or-less traditional Thanksgiving meal in the afternoon, ending with sandwiches and salads for whoever stops by in the evening.

My thanksgiving is often about sharing gratitude and celebrating belonging–to family, community, or the fellowship of humanity–not spending most of a day (or more) making a heavy, rich meal that will be over in the blink of an eye. One year, my young adult kids and their friends helped make the usual enormous meal, which takes the better part of a day. After it was consumed, they were shocked to realize that the actual meal lasted less than an hour, which led to some very rich and fruitful conversations (and a lot more holiday help).

Ever-Changing Traditions

I still enjoy making the traditional foods, yet my extended family now flows into others, presenting an interwoven net of connection and sometimes obligation. As my sons reached adulthood, I made a clear decision that I did not ever want being with me to be an obligation for my family or friends. That sometimes means that on the actual day of certain events, I am cooking for just two, which requires some imaginative adaptation.

There is an art to changing up long standing patterns, and new ways to celebrate are best introduced as intriguing innovation, not some sorrowful second best. As my mother’s health failed, she no longer enjoyed the friendly chaos of large gatherings and did much better when there were just a few guests at our table. Though the huge dinners-for-dozens had their own crazy joy, I find myself enjoying the continuation of that new pattern for all major family holidays, since small, informal gatherings throughout the day are less stressful and more pleasurable for me now as well.

Holiday Brunch Highlights

Here’s an array of vegetarian and vegan treats that complement each other beautifully, some rich, some tart and citrusy, some crunchy, some like edible velvet.

Marvelous Mushroom Tart

1 pie crust (can be gluten-free or vegan)
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
6 cups sliced mushrooms
3 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled (optional)
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a pie dish with crust, brush lightly with a tad of oil, set aside. Toss remaining oil and next 6 ingredients to lightly coat and spoon evenly into crust. Top with bread crumbs and bake until crust is golden (35-40 minutes). Serves 6.

Winter Jewel Salad

2 cups Savoy cabbage, finely chopped
2 cups Napa cabbage, finely shredded
1 bulb Florence fennel, finely shaved
2 clementines, sectioned and peeled
1 Honeycrisp or Opal apple, chopped
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped roasted hazelnuts
2-3 tablespoons citrus vinaigrette

Toss all ingredients and serve. Serves 6.

Roasted Cauliflower, Sweet Potatoes, & Cranberries

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced (1/4 inch)
2 tablespoons avocado or high temperature oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups raw cranberries, washed and picked over

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss vegetables with oil and spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet (or two). Sprinkle with salt and roast for 30 minutes. Stir with a spatula, add cranberries and roast until well caramelized (15-20 minutes). Serves 6.

Wild Rice With Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms

1 cup hand-harvested wild rice, well rinsed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon avocado oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon sugar
4 cups thinly sliced crimini or any mushrooms
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry red wine

In a saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat, add raw rice and toast lightly for 2-3 minutes. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and 3 cups water, bring to a boil, cover pan, reduce heat to low and simmer until grains are tender and puffing open (40-45 minutes). Remove from heat and let stand 5 minute, then fluff with fork and keep warm. While wild rice is cooking, heat remaining butter and oil in a large frying pan over medium high until foamy. Add onions, sprinkle with remaining salt and sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown (4-6 minutes). Lower heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly caramelized. Add mushrooms, sprinkle with pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Add wine, reduce heat to low, cover pan and simmer until mushrooms are wilted and reduced in volume (8-10 minutes). Stir into hot rice and serve. Serves 6-8.

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Baking For Bliss & Comfort

Foods That Nourish And Nurture

As my mother’s life drains away, I find myself doing more and more baking. Somehow, filling the house with the fragrance of bread is especially comforting to all of us, lifting sagging spirits with the promise of comfort and nourishment. Everyone’s favorite bread right now is a double oat bread that requires little or no actual kneading. It has a tender crumb, a warm, satisfying flavor and  a lovely amber color, thanks to a little molasses. It slices well and makes marvelous sandwiches and outstanding toast. It’s also wonderful in bread pudding or French toast. I especially appreciate this bread because it is such an undemanding, forgiving recipe that no matter how distracted I get or what crisis arises at a usually crucial point in its development, the result is not just edible but truly delicious.

When a recent rush of visitors arrived and the bread over-rose and partially collapsed in the oven, I was sure it would be soggy and nasty. Instead, it tasted wonderful and the texture remained pleasant despite having an ominous looking dip instead of a handsome bulge on top. Another time, it had to be gently punched down twice instead of shaped and baked off and the result was a very pleasing sour-dough-ish bread that didn’t ever get stale. Now that is a splendid recipe for tough times, delivering comfort no matter what happens.

Ready, Steady, Go!

These directions may look daunting, but they are very explicit so you can avoid common problems (including mess). The entire process is extremely simple, quick, and uncomplicated and well worth the very minor effort.

Total time: 3 hours
Action time: 8-10 minutes

Amazing Kneadless Oat Bread

1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup steel cut oats
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons sea salt
few drops oil
1/3 cup molasses
2 cups boiling water
2-1/4 teaspoons baking yeast
4 cups bread flour, plus a bit for shaping

In a large bowl, combine all oats with butter and salt. Rub a measuring cup with a bit of oil and measure out the molasses, then pour it over the oats and rinse it clean with the boiling water, which also goes into the oat mixture. Cover bowl and let it stand for about an hour. Combine yeast with 1/2 cup lukewarm water, swish it to wet it down. Let stand until it blooms (10-15 minutes), then stir it into the oat mixture, along with 4 cups bread flour, then cover the bowl with a plate. If you don’t have a warm place for bread to rise, put on the oven light and preheat the oven for 1 minute, then turn it off. This will give you a very cozy spot for your bread, which will double in 40-50 minutes.

Butter a couple of bread pans and scatter a little flour on a plate. Divide bread in half and put one half on the floured plate. Gently knead the other half in the floury bowl, just enough to shape it, adding a bit more flour as needed. Plop it in a bread pan and repeat with the other half (shape it in the bowl to keep the mess in one place). Return the loaves to the barely warm oven (light still on) and let rise until almost doubled in bulk (30-40 minutes). Gently remove risen bread from oven, preheat to 350 degrees F., gently put the bread back in and bake until golden and set (internal temperature of 180 degrees F, about 40-50 minutes). Cool loaves on their sides for 5 minutes so they steam out easily, then remove from the pans and cool. For best texture, cool another 10-20 minutes before slicing. Makes 2 loaves.

Bread Pudding Muffins

Leave out the cherries and nuts, add or substitute chocolate chips, or try any dried fruit and nut combination you prefer. These will be delicious no matter what.

Bread Pudding Muffins With Walnuts & Cherries

6 cups stale bread, in 1-inch cubes
6 eggs, well beaten
3/4 cups cane sugar
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup dried tart cherries
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup powdered XXX sugar

In a large bowl, combine everything but the walnuts and powdered sugar. Cover dish and refrigerate for 4-24 hours (I usually do this overnight). Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and line a muffin tin with paper cups. Stir in walnuts, then divide mixture between the paper cups and bake at 350 F until set and golden (45-50 minutes), rotating pan halfway through baking. Cool slightly, then sift on some powdered sugar. Makes 12.

An Old Stand-By

Though Mom can barely swallow anymore, she still loves a few bites of cinnamon toast.

Perfect Cinnamon Toast

2 teaspoons cane sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 slices homemade (or any) bread
1 tablespoon butter

Mix sugar and cinnamon well, set aside. Toast bread, spread with butter and sprinkle evenly with cinnamon sugar. Put in a toaster oven and bake for 2-3 minutes or until butter is bubbly. Serves 2.

Comforting Custard

Mom’s other favorite meal is about a tablespoon of baked custard, tender and gently sweet.

Baked Custard

4 large eggs, well beaten
2 teaspoons Tahitian vanilla extract
1/2 cup cane sugar
3 cups whole milk
few grinds or gratings nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Whisk first four ingredients together and pour into a glass 8 x 8 inch baking dish. Grind or grate on a little nutmeg and bake at 350 F until fully set (50-60 minutes). Serves 4.

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Crispy, Crunchy Yakon Recipes

An Awesome Andean Tuber To Try

Last week, the soggy, overgrown garden needed a tidy-up, so I pulled out all the last-gasp zinnias and marigolds, along with some depressed looking tomatoes and a few straggling pepper plants. My final harvest was pretty good, with several quarts of black-skinned tomatoes and some lovely black kale. The most interesting item, however, was the yacon, an edible Andean sunflower with tiny flowers, huge, hairy leaves, and chubby, tuberous roots. I’ve also been doing some garden renovation and expansion and my cheerful garden crew was very excited to see the plump yacon tubers emerge from the sandy loam berm where the plants were growing. They were sure it was jicama, but jicama is a climbing, vining legume while yacon is a tall, husky composite.

Pest free, vigorous, and easy to grow, my two yacon plants needed no fertilizer to yield over 40 pounds of tubers, ranging in size from slender, smooth, and sweet potato-ish to plump and rather lumpy grapefruit-ish. The crown of the plant is thick with knobbly, rounded, reddish tuberettes that will resprout come spring. The crowns can be overwintered in a frost-free place, tucked into a bucket of sand or well drained, dry soil. After all danger of frost has passed, the crown can be divided into new plants for the next season.

Taste Testing

Crisp and juicy, raw yacon tubers have a delicate flavor, somewhat like a cross between an Asian pear and jicama, with a texture similar to that of water chestnuts. The sweet flavor comes from oligofructose, a form of sugar that the human body does not metabolize. That makes fresh yacon both wholesome for diabetics with a sweet tooth and a dieter’s dream. As they cure, yacon tubers gain in sweetness as the oligofructose converts to fructose, glucose and sucrose. Stored in a cool, dry place, unblemished tubers can last for months, but any that are broken should be eaten quickly.

Yacon Recipes

For a wholesome snack, top sliced raw yacon with almond butter, goat cheese, or peeled orange sections. Toss chunks of yacon with citrus juice and a little sea salt for enticing appetizers, or dip them in herbed yogurt as a chip alternative. Sparkling with red pomegranate seeds and orange sections, lively with fresh lime juice, crunchy with raw yacon, the bright, sassy salad below makes a delicious lunch or zippy dinner side.

Yacon Winter Jewel Salad

2 cups thinly sliced raw yacon root
2 cups finely sliced savoy or Nappa cabbage
1/4 cup stemmed cilantro
2 Honeybells or any tangerine, peeled and sectioned
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, lightly chopped
1 organic lime, juiced, rind grated

In a serving bowl, toss first seven ingredients with 1 teaspoon lime rind and lime juice to taste, let stand 10 minutes and serve. Serves 4-6.

Yacon Slaw With Dried Tart Cherries

2 tablespoons egg-free mayonnaise
2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
1-2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
pinch of smoked hot paprika (or any)
1 cup coarsely grated yacon tuber
2 cups coarsely grated cabbage
1 coarsely grated Honeycrisp or Jazz apple
1/2 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped dried tart cherries

In a serving bowl, combine first five ingredients and stir well. Add remaining ingredients, let stand 15 minutes and serve. Serves 4-6.

Yacon Sushi

Crispy, sweet yacon is terrific in vegetarian sushi, where it can replace cucumber and/or carrots. To make these slightly addictive, totally healthy snacks, I prefer nori sheets that come from Japan, which are more expensive than the kinds from China. Many people say that any kind will do, but I have noticed that the Chinese versions tend to be a little persistently chewy, where the Japanese brands are much less obtrusive in the mouth.

The temperature of your ingredients also makes a huge difference to the end product. For best results, everything should be at room temperature, neither hot nor cold. Thus, it’s good to make your rice well ahead so it has time to cool. If the sticky rice is still even a little bit warm, it can cause the nori sheets to buckle and shrink (as I soon discovered). Chop and mix any extra bits with rice and tuck it into Inari wrappers (I like the refrigerated kind, from Hikari Inari). These are little pockets, like bite-sized tofu pita, that come soaked in soy sauce and mirin. They are irresistible!

Yacon Garden Sushi Rolls

1 yacon tuber, peeled and sliced into long, thin pieces
2 avocados, sliced lengthwise into strips
1 red or yellow sweet pepper, sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon ponzu or sweet rice vinegar
Nori wrappers (package of 10)
2 cups sushi rice (see below)
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
10 leaves mustard greens
1 egg pancake, sliced (see below)

Combine sliced vegetables and vinegar, set aside. Toast the nori wrappers for a few seconds over a hot oven burner (electric or gas). Place one sideways on a tea towel or bamboo roller (the orientation is landscape rather than portrait). Dab four blobs of rice (about a tablespoon each) in the corners of the nori wrapper. Dipping your fingers in cold water (often), smush rice thinly over the whole sheet, leaving about 1/2 inch bare at the top. Sprinkle a band of sesame seeds about 2 inches from the bottom, then arrange slices of vegetables sideways across the sheet. Add mustard greens and egg slices, tuck in tightly and roll up, pressing gently to close roll. Slice completed rolls with a VERY sharp knife, starting with a center cut (slice, don’t saw) and rounding each piece as you go. Each roll makes either 6 or 8 pieces, depending on the size of your nori wrappers.

Variations On A Theme

Other good additions include sliced radishes and radish sprouts, whole baby carrots, green onions, asparagus, young green beans, snow peas or snap peas (whole pods), pickled peppers, and pickled ginger slices.

Egg Pancake

1 teaspoon avocado or safflower oil
3 eggs
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Heat oil over medium high heat in a covered pan. Whisk eggs, sugar and salt and pour into heated pan, tilting to spread evenly. Cover and cook over medium heat until puffed. Cool and cut into strips.

Sushi Rice

2 cups Niko Niko or Japanese rice
12.5 ounces (360 ml) water
4.5 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt

Rinse rice until water is clear, drain and put in rice cooker. If cooking in a pan, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer until water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Combine vinegar, sugar and salt. Put rice in a bowl and fold in vinegar mixture with a wooden paddle (don’t stir) and let cool.

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We Need Safer Slug Baits

Commercial Brands Are Toxic After All

Slugs are the Northwestern gardener’s worst pest, followed distantly by aphids. For years, I’ve promoted the use of Sluggo and other iron phosphate-based slug baits as a safe, nontoxic alternative to metaldehyde baits, which harm or kill all kinds of critters from wildlife to pets. Ironically, I’ve recently learned that in fact, Sluggo and its kin kill earthworms (which metaldehyde baits don’t) and can also make dogs, cats, birds and other critters ill. More and more veterinarians are coming out with stories of poisoned pets (though few if any fatalities), but our beloved earthworms might need their own lobby to speak out for them.

So how does this soft of situation come about? Legal loopholes make it possible for manufacturers to provide required toxicity information on single ingredients but not on a blended product. Thus, the result of chemical interactions are not always called out, and an ingredient can be listed as inert rather than active even when it does interact with another. Sound stupid? Well, it is, and many other countries don’t manage dangerous substances this way.

Sad News About Slug Baits

Here’s the sad story with Sluggo and its ilk: Iron phosphate is listed as the active ingredient, even though by itself it is not actually toxic. Like so many gardeners, I believed the party line about these baits, which was that iron phosphate is safe for vertebrates but not for molluscs. As I now know, by itself, iron phosphate is NOT toxic even to molluscs. In order to make the iron phosphate toxic, manufacturers add a very commonly used substance called EDTA (because who wants to say Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid?). In itself also largely harmless, in combination with iron phosphate, EDTA creates iron toxicity not just in slugs and snails but in cats, dogs, birds, and more. Worse yet, it kills worms outright.

Recognizing this, some countries insist that EDTA be labeled as an active rather than inert ingredient, making these baits ineligible for organic certification. In the US, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to get such baits de-listed, but when they encountered significant push back from manufacturers, they were dropped.

Now What?

Our native slugs are nature’s composters, feeding mainly on decaying foliage and important in the forest biocycle. Most garden damage is done by Euro-trash, since about 16 slug species and 28 snail species have invaded the maritime Northwest. Since commercial slug baits are no longer a safe option, we can fall back on the time tested techniques we all used to use. All those old tricks still work, from letting ducks and chickens forage in the garden to spreading diatomaceous earth around susceptible plants.

It has also been discovered that strong coffee can deter the highly destructive baby slugs, which are hard to control since they are not attracted to baits of any kind. As little as 0.01 percent (1 part per ten thousand) caffeine keeps slugs off foliage plants. Higher concentrations of 1 to 2 percent (1-2 parts per hundred) kill slugs and snails outright. The average teaspoon of instant coffee contains about 0.05 percent caffeine, which works great for sluicing off tender foliage. To pick off slugs, make a lethal house blend with cheap-o instant coffee and fill a squirt gun. I used to pay my kids a penny a slug and they easily made a dollar before breakfast each morning.

Zapping Also Works

Copper strips can also ward off slugs because a biochemical reaction between the copper and the salts and acids in slug slime electrocutes them. Keep slugs out of large pots by wrapping the pot base in copper sheathing. In the garden setting, it’s less of an option, since slugs and their eggs may be almost anywhere. BY surrounding raised bed with copper strips, we may simply be keeping slugs and/or their potential offspring IN the garden we want to protect.

Perhaps the simplest slug controls are halved grapefruit rinds set in the ground and filled with beer. Independent tests (mine) showed that St. Pauli Girl dark is the most slug-attractive, but pretty much any kind will do. Small jars set into the ground at an angle and partly filled with beer (even flat dregs) also work, drowning slugs in presumable bliss. Teetotalers can make an attractive bait using simple kitchen ingredients as well:

Safe Liquid Slug Bait

1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baker’s yeast
1 cup warm water

Mix ingredients in a jar and let stand 20 minutes before using. Makes about 1 cup.

Dog Poisonings:

Earthworm Poisonings:

Swiss Investigation for Organic Certification:

Sluggo Label and Advertising:

NY Department of Environmental Conservation Statement:


Australian Article with Mode of Action for Iron Chelate products:

Dr. T’s Nature Products Slug and Snail Killer:

National Organic Standards Board review of product:

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