Stress-Free Seasonal Fun And Food

Playing Through The Holidays

As the holiday season rolls along, I’m noticing friends getting worried and weary instead of cheery. Some of that is definitely due to our abusive political climate but some is caused by societal expectations. Sadly, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed in a whirlwind of extra activities just when the year is winding down and nature is sinking into slumber. To keep social events simple, choose menus that involve either working ahead or lots of extra hands. That sounds contradictory, yet most of us enjoy making and doing things together and it’s a great way to get a mixed group to bond.

As a society, we’ve lost a lot of the small connections that once bound neighbor to neighbor and built sturdy communities. When family and friends get together, it’s more often to chat over coffee at a cafe or a restaurant meal than to engage in a shared activity. For me at least, it’s way more fun to be given the opportunity to help out with making a meal that will be shared. I’m relearning some of that sense of fun from my grandkids, who at not-quite-two and four-and-a-half are decidedly interested in helping. Lately, we’ve been making gifts for their family and friends who help care for them. It’s often amazingly messy (and wrapping requires an astonishing amount of tape) but their delight in creating something they think others will like is delicious and the seriousness with which they guard their secrets from grownups is adorable.

A Few Of My Favorite Things

Last week, we made sachets of fragrant herbs (cedar and eucalyptus) to put in closets and sock drawers, then made bags of herbal tea as well. For the tea, we filled small, muslin drawstring bags with blends of dried lemon balm, rosebuds, peppermint and lavender that we dried this summer. We set their low table with bowls of ingredients and each kid got a larger bowl and a big mixing spoon. The toddler ended up mixing all the bowls up and stirring with measuring spoons while her brother did some extremely vigorous blending and mixing in one big bowl. They played with the herbs for over an hour before getting restless and although quite a lot of the mix ended up on the floor, there was plenty left over to fill our bags. Swaddled in tissue paper and miles of ribbon, they fill a big bag that rustles mysteriously when prodded by small hands.

Today, we’re making gingerbread cookies to decorate as presents, and next week, we’ll fill pinecones with suet and roll them in birdseed. As we do all this, I’m relearning the valuable parenting skill of leaving well enough alone; if they are happily engaged, it doesn’t matter if my goals are not met right away or even at all. The cookies we end up with might not look elegant but they’ll taste good and doting adults will find them enchanting. Because the baby can’t process dairy, our icing will be made with fresh orange juice and icing sugar and the gingerbread is lightly spiced with orange rind as well as ginger. I even found my rolling pin (after two moves in six months, that’s fairly amazing)!

Simply Festive Food

Enliven a holiday breakfast, brunch or tea party with fragrant, gilded Cherry Ginger Rolls. Let everybody take turns kneading, or use a food processor with a dough blade to do the mixing and kneading for you. The unbaked rolls can spend the day (or overnight) in the fridge if you prefer and be baked off at mealtime.

Hot Cherry Ginger Rolls

3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk or any milk
3 tablespoons honey
1 package (1/4 ounce) baking yeast
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons avocado or safflower oil
1/4 cup dried tart pie cherries
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger

Lightly butter a muffin tin, set aside. In a bowl, cream remaining butter with brown sugar, ginger, and nutmeg, set aside. Heat milk to 120-125 degrees F. Pour into a food processor with a dough blade or mixing bowl, stir in honey, then add yeast, flour, salt, and oil. Pulse to blend, then hand knead to a soft dough; set aside for 15 minutes. Roll dough into a 10 x 12 inch rectangle, spread top with butter mixture. Sprinkle on cherries and ginger, roll dough into a 12 inch long cylinder and cut into 12 equal slices. Place them cut side down into the pan, cover with a damp towel and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 30 minutes). Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown (about 20-25 minutes). Cool for 5 minutes before serving. Makes 12 rolls.

Hearty Seasonal Soups

I’ve learned that few adults really enjoy heavy evening meals, but tasty, fragrant hot soups are universally welcome. Vividly colorful, deliciously scented, and tasty to boot, Festive Winter Soup combines red cabbage, shredded carrots, and sweet red bell peppers in a savory melange that cooks up quickly. Many hands make the chopping and slicing go fast, and everybody has fun helping. Garnish with pomegranate seeds for a little extra sparkle!

Festive Winter Soup

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 cups shredded gold skinned potatoes
2 large carrots, shredded
4 cups shredded red cabbage
3 red bell peppers, seeded and thinly sliced
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

In a soup pan, heat oil and butter over medium high heat until butter melts. Add garlic, onion, celery and paprika and cook, stirring, until soft (3-5 minutes). Add potatoes and carrots and cook, covered, until tender (10-12 minutes). Add cabbage and red peppers and cook, covered, until barely tender (3-5 minutes). Add broth and heat through. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve. Serves 4.

Hot And Sour And Spunky

Lively and satisfying, Cranberry Chicken Soup balances tart cranberries and lemons with rich chicken broth and whisked eggs, making a creamy, spunky soup that hits the spot on a chilly night. There’s also a great vegetarian version for those who prefer meatless options. Both are perfect for chasing away (or treating) colds or flu.

Cranberry Chicken Soup

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
4 cups chopped, skinned and boned chicken thighs
1 large white or yellow onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 cup raw cranberries
8 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup jasmine rice
4 cups finely chopped Napa cabbage
3 eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup stemmed cilantro or flat Italian parsley

In a soup pan, heat oil, garlic, salt and lemon rind over medium heat and cook, stirring, until golden (2-3 minutes). Add chicken, cover and cook until barely opaque (3-5 minutes). Add onion, celery, and carrots and cook, covered, until soft (3-5 minutes). Add broth, bring to a boil over high heat, add salt and rice, return to the boil, then reduce heat to low, cover pan and simmer until rice is tender (about 20 minutes). Stir in cranberries and Napa cabbage and bring to a simmer. Thoroughly beat eggs with lemon juice, then slowly stir in 2 cups hot broth, whisking constantly. Slowly pour lemon mixture into the soup, whisking constantly. Heat through (do not boil) and serve hot, garnished with cilantro or parsley. Serves 4-6.

Vegan Hot and Sour Cranberry Soup

1 tablespoon avocado oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 cup raw cranberries
1/4 cup stemmed flat Italian parsley
6 cups vegetable broth
1 cup cooked short grain brown rice
4 cups Napa cabbage, shredded
1/4 cup stemmed cilantro or flat Italian parsley

In a soup pan, heat oil, garlic, lemon rind, onion and salt over medium heat and cook, stirring, until golden (2-3 minutes). Add celery, carrots, cranberries and parsley and cook, stirring, until soft (3-5 minutes). Add broth, bring to a boil over high heat, add rice, return to the boil, stir in Napa cabbage and heat through (2-3 minutes). Add lemon juice to taste and serve hot, garnished with cilantro or parsley. Serves 4-6.

Posted in Health & Wellbeing, Nutrition, Recipes, Sustainable Living, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Finding Light In A Dim Season

Refusing To Fold

Last night’s super moon rose in a golden haze and sank in a silvery one. Fog at both ends of the night made for dramatic beauty and also accented the darkness at both ends of the day. These are indeed dark times for our country and the world, and I’m not the only one who feels like I’m stumbling through a dense grey fog. Though I can’t always see my way clear, I’ve read enough history to know that such backward swings as we’re experiencing now usually follow and are followed by forward swings. However, there have never been so many of us before, and we humans have never had as great a capacity for lasting, pervasive harm. Thus, I teeter on the edge of panic and despair, knowing in my bones that’s exactly what is intended by all the malicious nastiness oozing from the current regime. The daily smoke and mirrors are meant to keep us off balance and the relentless, aggressive destruction is carefully planned to make us despair. So I refuse. The despair of good people is the goal of evil people. So. I. Just. Refuse.

Instead, I am keeping close track of every scrap of good, every positive action, every kindness, every joyful effusion, every moment of sweetness that comes my way. I’m even carrying file cards around so I can make notes. My goal is to notice ten Good Things every hour, all day long. It can be a bird on a branch, my granddaughter running to me with open arms, my cat purring beside me as I knit little fish for my grandson’s game. It can be calling my senators and congress people and hearing cheerful thanks from their aides, no matter how often I call. It can be seasonal music, an enchanting book, or helping my grandkids make small gifts for their family and friends. It can be the scent of my birthday lilies, baking bread, folding tiny laundry (grandkids again), reading a story from YES Magazine, making my five calls ( It can be meeting friends, watching the clouds roll, seeing a burst of sunlight along with a scatter of rain. It can also be comfort food.

Just A Little Lift

Comfort food can definitely have its drawbacks, especially after this insane year when every day required some comfort. I’ve been working on recipes that deliver the soothing impact of classic comfort foods without the overburden of excessive dairy or sugar or etc. I’ll keep offering these recipes to you as the new year unfolds, along with some that have no redeeming nutritional virtue except that of bliss. Surely bliss nourishes us as much as protein or vitamins? For example, this extremely lemony lemon pie, my usual birthday choice, was a major hit at a recent pie day event (true, much of the competition was pumpkin, but still…). Ginger K., this one’s for you!

There’s also a heartening soup that can be vegetarian or not, depending on your mood and/or dietary choices. I find this palate pleasing, lemon-infused Greek peasant soup highly comforting, and it’s ideal for those recuperating from any illness; just add chopped cooked chicken, nutritional yeast, or tofu for additional protein. The seasoned salt blend is my go-to; sprinkle a little in the pan when you start things off with a little oil or butter or what have you, bring it to the fragrance point, and whatever else you add will taste subtly more delicious. It’s even lovely on pasta with just a bit of warm olive oil and pepper, or sprinkled on avocado toast, or scrambled eggs, or a baked potato, or a plain soup, or a sandwich. It’s super simple to make and I use some form of it every day. See what you think and let me know.

Leaning Into The Lemon

Yes, this pie filling is seriously tart, so you can adjust the flavor at then end of the cooking while the filling is still hot; just add sugar and/or butter to taste, but don’t eat it all, unless you really need to. Then it’s fine. The crust can be graham cracker, toasted nut crust, gluten free or regular dough or you may prefer the filling as a pudding, with roasted pistachios, toasted coconut, or candied ginger for garnish. Grate the zest for the seasoned salt below!

Zingy Lemon Pie

1-1/2 cups cane sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup water
grated zest from 2-3 organic lemons
4 large egg yolks, well beaten
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in piece
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 baked pie crust
1/2 cup chopped roasted pistachios

Sift together 1-1/4 cup sugar, the cornstarch and salt into a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Stir in the lemon juice, water, and lemon zest, then add egg yolks and blend well. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently (especially pan edges). When mixture thickens, stir constantly for a minute, then remove from heat and stir in butter until completely incorporated. Taste and add more sugar if needed, stirring until dissolved. Stir in vanilla and pour filing into the baked pie crust. Top with merengue (see below) if you like it or sprinkle top with pistachios. Serves at least one.

Sturdy Meringue

Weepy, floppy meringue toppings are kinda icky but this one, based on lightly coddled egg whites, holds its own for several days in the fridge if need be.

Meringue Pie Topping

4 egg whites, at room temperature
1/3 cup cane sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine egg whites and sugar in a bowl over very hot water and stir until egg whites warm up (around 80 degrees F). Remove bowl from the water bath, stir in salt and vanilla, and whip until stiff and glossy (an electric mixer works best, stick bender not so much). Preheat oven to broil. Spread meringue over hot pie filling, making sure it’s anchored to the pie crust edge all the way around. Broil until golden brown, about a minute (watch it, it goes fast!). Serve at once or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Avgolemono Soup

6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup cooked short grain brown rice
2 organic lemons, juiced, rind grated
(1/3-1/2 cup lemon juice)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flat Italian parsley, stemmed

In a soup pot, bring broth to a simmer over medium high heat. Add rice and lemon zest and simmer for five minutes. Whisk lemon juice into eggs, then add to hot broth while stirring constantly over lowest heat. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve, garnished with parsley. Serves 4.

Seasoned Sea Salt Blends

Seasoned sea salt makes a lovely small gift, useful enough to have some meaning without triggering any need to reciprocate. Play around with the proportions and ingredients to find your own favorites: lavender and rosemary is lovely, as is thyme and lemon, or basil and garlic. I save spice bottles (especially the kind with holes in the inner lid) and tiny canning jars for this stuff, which I can hand out freely during the holidays.

Italian Rosemary, Lemon And Garlic Salt Blend

1/4 cup chopped garlic cloves
1/4 cup stemmed and chopped rosemary
Grated zest of 2 organic lemons
2 cups medium flake sea salt

Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. In a food processor, grind garlic, rosemary, and lemon zest with 2 tablespoons salt to a coarse puree. Add remaining salt and process a few seconds until evenly distributed. Spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 225 F until slightly crispy (15-20 minutes). Break up any clumps with the back of a spatula and spoon into small jars with tightly sealing lids. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 2 cups.

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A Barrel Full Of Beans

Drying, Storing And Cooking Beans

As I’m settling into my newest new kitchen (I don’t really want to talk about it), I’m gloating over my cherished collection of dried beans. One whole shelf in this capacious kitchen is devoted to jars of beautiful beans in an enticing variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. I’d love to keep them on the counter where I can admire them, but like many foods, dried beans degrade in sunlight and kitchen moisture. Thus, my beautiful beans live in this tall cupboard where opening the door is a bit like swinging around a corner of my favorite island road to catch a glimpse of snowy mountains beyond ice green water. Ok, maybe not quite like that, but it definitely gives me a tickle of pleasure and that’s nothing to sneeze at in these challenging times.

All around the world, beans are a favored crop, which makes perfect sense when you realize that beans rank among the top foods in terms of protein and nutrients per acre. (Rice, corn, potatoes and quinoa are right up there too.) Permaculture fans devote significant space to beans and so do subsistence farmers everywhere. The specific beans they grow vary considerably and thanks to specialty nurseries, nowadays we get to try dozens if not hundreds of them. If you haven’t ranged much past pintos and black beans, take a closer look next time you visit a bulk food department. You might begin your exploration by choosing a cup each of several unfamiliar kinds of beans. Next season, you may be inspired to grow some Black Turtle, Anasazi, Cannellini, or Dutch Brown along with Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake or whatever your old favorites may be.

Discover The Wide World Of Beans

Fresh or dried, few crops combine nutrients and versatility as beans do. For culinary variety, grow a mixture of fillet and shell beans as well as dried varieties that store well. To expand your bean repertoire, try some famously flavorful heritage beans such as rose-and-white speckled Cranberry Bean and Christmas Limas, rust red Sangre De Toro and burgundy Rio Zape, or mottled brown Wren’s Egg and tawny Eye Of The Tiger. Creamy and a little sweet, Yellow Eye Beans are traditional favorites for cooking with ham hocks. Scarlet Runner Beans have edible, fragrant flowers and are delicious fresh or dried. Black Turtle is a very old black bean variety still widely grown today for its sumptuous flavor and fine texture. Italian cooks cherish White Runner or Cannellini beans, with the rich, buttery taste that makes them favorites for rustic bean spreads.

Growing beans is pretty easy as long as you’ve got space to spare. Indeed, if you don’t, you can let pole beans twine around corn stalks or up a trellis so they don;t really need all that much ground space. I’ve always enjoyed harvesting and threshing beans, a messy but satisfying process. Threshing is easiest if you don’t harvest your soup beans until the pods are dry and evenly brown but still intact. When a few pods just start to split open, uproot the plants, tie the tops with twine or stuff them into dry burlap sacks. Hang these upside down from a nail or hook set in a rafter beam, in a dry, cool, protected place (a garage is often just right). Spread a tarp under them so if they split before you find threshing time, beans won’t get all over the floor.

A Thumping Good Time

When you’re ready to thresh out your beans, just thump the sacks with a broom handle or rake. You can also grab dried bean plants by the roots and thump them vigorously against the sides of a clean barrel or a big washtub to spill the beans. Either way, your beans will be mixed up with shattered pods and leaves. Shake the tub so the dry beans settle and the lighter detritus floats up, then scoop out as much of the stuff as possible. Now pour the beans into a big bowl or shallow tray and jiggle it to bring the remaining small bits to the surface. Blow them away (use a hair dryer if you run out of breath) and sort out any sneaky pebbles or beans that look funky.

Even after all that cleaning, it’s wise to assume that a few bugs are lurking in there somewhere. To off potential pests, pour the beans into covered containers and freeze them overnight. The next day, pour your beans into clear glass jars with tight lids (canning jars work well, as do recycled pickle jars) and store them in a cool, dark place. Home-dried beans cook up far better than store bought ones; Commercially dried beans are often extremely dry and some of them end up with what’s called a “hard-to-cook” defect, thanks to a pectin imbalance. If you get beans like that, you can correct the problem by refrigerating the super-dry beans for a few weeks and they should cook up properly.

A Hot Tip From Master McGee

For the very best beans, brine them overnight in cold, salted water, rinse them well, then cook them in plain water. I learned this sweet trick from master foodie Harold McGee, author of On Food And Cooking; the science and lore of the kitchen. It’s one of my favorite go-to resources when I can’t figure out why something kitchen related isn’t working the way I think it should. McGee has written extensively about all kinds of foods, including beans, and he says that many factors can cause beans to turn out tough, hard, or mushy.

His solution, which works great, is to do the brine thing described above, which not only results in creamy, unbroken beans but also reduces the oligosaccharides that cause beans’ famously antisocial flatulence. I also like to cook un-brined beans in my slow cooker when I’m not home all day. This is brilliant because dry beans will absorb about half the water they are going to in a couple of hours, but need 10-12 hours to fully hydrate. Brined beans cook up faster, so don’t need the long, slow treatment. In fact, brined beans can cook up in as little as 10 minutes in a pressure cooker.

Savory, Not Salty

For bean brine, the rule of thumb is to use 2-3 tablespoons of salt to a gallon of soaking water, which will leave them tender, not salty. Stir in the salt until fully dissolved, then add the dry beans and let them sit overnight. The next day, turn them out in a colander, rinse them, then soak them briefly (2-3 minutes) in cold water, and rinse again. Since excess cooking liquid leaches out bean flavor, just put them in a pot with water to cover by about an inch. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender. Depending on how dry the beans were, this could be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

For a rich flavor boost, add 4-5 unpeeled cloves of garlic when cooking dried beans. When the beans are ready, squeeze out the boiled garlic, mash and stir into the pot. If your beans come out tough, don’t add salt or anything acid (tomatoes, citrus, or vinegar) until beans are already fully cooked and soft. And if beans make you gassy, keep on keeping on: those who eat beans regularly (once a week works fine) report a rapid reduction in “gassy” experiences as their bodies adjust to the extra fiber consumption.

Italian Winter Soup

This “classic” soup has a hundred variations, but this is my all-time favorite, and it’s vegsn to boot. Chopped Opal apples make a great garnish, as do crunchy garlic bred croutons.

Vegan Tuscan Bean Soup

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fennel seed
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups cooked canneli or any white beans
1 bunch black Tuscan kale, stems chopped,
leaves cut in ribbons
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped Opal apple (or any)

In a soup pot, combine oil, fennel seed, half the garlic, the lemon rind, the onion, and the carrots, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium high heat until barely soft (8-10 minutes). Add beans and water to barely cover, bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. With an immersion blender, puree with remaining garlic, add kale and pepper, cover pan and cook until barely wilted (2-3 minutes). Stir in lemon juice to taste and serve hot, garnished with chopped apple. Serves 4-6.

A Snappy, Seasonal Soup

Fresh orange juice adds citrusy snap to this pretty soup, combining pink lima beans, pink garlic, and tarragon. If you don’t have Christmas limas, any favorite beans will do, and each type will taste a little different, so experiment freely. This version is vegan, but you can add ham or spicy Italian sausage if your family leans that way.

Vegan Christmas Lima Bean Soup

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
3 cloves pink Italian garlic, chopped
1 organic orange, juiced, zest grated
1 red onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cups cooked Christmas beans (or any)
1 quart vegetable or chicken broth
1 teaspoon fresh or 1/2 tsp dried tarragon, minced
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

In a soup pot, combine oil, garlic, orange rind, onion and salt and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add celery and beans and cook for 5 minutes. Add broth just to cover, stir in tarragon and orange juice, bring to a simmer and serve, garnished with smoked paprika. Serves 4-6.

Posted in fall/winter crops, Health & Wellbeing, Nutrition, preserving food, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Giving Gratitude, Accepting Change

Changing Times, Changing Celebrations

Yesterday I hosted an early Thanksgiving with my kids in my newest home. I quite happily spent several days preparing a more or less traditional feast, but having lived in three houses this year, I sometimes found myself reaching for a cupboard that isn’t here, or looking for a pan that has passed from my hands. We were gathering in honor of my birthday, but for me at least it was a day of deepest thanks and gratitude for healthy, wholehearted relationships with family and friends. That hasn’t always been the case and it felt richly beautiful for us all to be fully at peace and accepting of each other as is.

On Thursday, I’ll honor the day in a different way. Many cultures have a tradition of commemorating lost people, causes, and more by placing an empty chair at a feast table. A candle is set on an empty plate in front of the chair in memory of those who have died, someone who might be estranged, travelers who are far from home and family, or some tragedy great or small. Last year, I wrote the words below and I feel their truth more strongly than ever.

“I’ve been swamped with feelings of deepest grief for the past two weeks, and realize that I feel the recent election results like a big, resonating death. Today marks the first anniversary of my mother’s death and I’m remembering watching her take her final breath, gently and peacefully and then simply stopping. It is not my mother’s death that grieves my heart, but what feels like the death of my country, land of liberty and justice for all. So this year, my celebration table will have an empty chair, and the empty plate will hold a candle. When we sit, we’ll extinguish all the lights, have a moment of recollection for all we have lost, then light the candle to remind us of what we still have in abundance, and what will remain when we ourselves are gone. “

Gathering In New Ways And Old

Like so many families, mine has expanded as my kids reach adulthood. Since they now have complex schedules and multi-family events to attend, I’ve found it more satisfying to swap traditional celebrations for smaller gatherings. As my sons reached adulthood, I made a clear decision that I do not ever want being with me to be an obligation for my family or friends. I am happily rediscovering how refreshing it can be to allow changes to reshape traditions that have become reflexive habits. After several years spent clearing out crammed closets and drawers to re-home an embarrassing amount of unneeded and unused things, it feels natural and soothing to renew the way I celebrate holidays by emptying myself of expectations and making room for something more spacious and new.

Instead of the sometimes frenetic round of events and occasions, of endless gifts and parties, I’m finding more fun in the small and the simple. At four and not quite two, my grandkids’ presence lets me keep some treasured traditions while releasing any that feel unsatisfying or outgrown. We are also creating pleasant new traditions based on the interests and abilities of these little people who are experiencing holidays and happenings as fresh and fascinating. If my perfectly round Santa Snowball cookies turn to asteroids that are splatted on the baking sheet, well, why not? If it’s great fun to trim and re-trim and play with a small fake tree (made of inventively recycled materials, of course!), well, why not that too?

Food, Glorious Food

Both the little kids like to cook and we’ve spent many happy hours making whatever they dream up. Yesterday, they stood on chairs to help make both classic and dairy free mashed potatoes, using my favorite small masher left over from a child’s kitchen set. These days, some adaptation is also needed to accommodate the varying dietary issues of any extended family, and I’m once again offering you a sampler of very tasty treats suitable for any feast. Some are vegetarian or vegan, some dairy- and gluten-free, but all taste wonderful even to those who can eat anything they want. Enjoy each other and be swift to love, for time is short!

Sugar Free And Scrumptious

This sparkling, tart relish relies on super-sweet oranges for flavor balance, but if need be, add a tad of maple syrup to taste.

Sugar-Free Orange Cranberry Relish

2 organic Cara Cara Oranges
1-1/3 cups organic cranberries
few grains sea salt
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup (optional)

In a food processor, grind oranges and cranberries, add salt and maple syrup to taste. Chill for 2-3 days before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

Best Vegan Mashed Potatoes

Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes with gravy? This truly delicious vegan version is made with buttery-tasting avocado oil. Reserve some potato water (the cloudy stuff at the bottom of the pan) for the gravy, and recycle any leftovers as potato cakes.

Vegan Garlic Mashed Potatoes

4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
3-4 tablespoons avocado oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives

Peel and chop potatoes, cover with cold water, set aside. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, add drained potatoes, garlic, and half the salt and cook until tender (12-15 minutes). Drain, reserving cooking liquid, and mash or put through a ricer (it gives a lighter texture). Thin to desired thickness with potato cooking water and avocado oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with mushroom gravy (see below).

Rich Vegan Gravy

Buttery avocado oil gives everything a fuller, warmer flavor, and umami-rich mushrooms give this plant-based gravy depth and savor. Flaked nutritional yeast adds protein and a salty (though salt-free), nut-like flavor as well. While any mushrooms will do, porcini offer the most antioxidants and apricot-scented chanterelles the sweetest flavor.

Vegan Leek & Mushroom Gravy

1/4 cup avocado oil
1 large brown or yellow onion, chopped
4 medium leeks, chopped (white and palest green parts only)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound porcini or any mushrooms, sliced
1/3 cup flour (any kind that will thicken a sauce)
4 cups fresh vegetable broth
1/2 cup red wine
2-3 teaspoons flaked nutritional yeast

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, onion, leeks and salt over medium high heat and cook until soft (10-15 minutes). Add mushrooms, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes to sweat mushrooms. Add flour and stir in gently, then cook, covered for 2 minutes. Add broth and red wine and simmer until mushrooms are tender (20-30 minutes). Serve as is or puree with an immersion blender to desired consistency and serve hot. Makes about 6 cups.

Winter Sparkle 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 Jazz or Opal apple, chopped
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped roasted hazelnuts
2-3 tablespoons flavored rice vinegar

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 (10-12 minutes). Serves 6.

Aromatic Pumpkin Pie (Dairy-Free)

1 unbaked pie crust
3/4 cup raw sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander and ginger
2 large eggs
2 cups (15-ounce can) cooked pumpkin pulp
12 ounces coconut milk (1 can)

Line a pie dish with crust, crimp edge, set aside. In a bowl, combine dry ingredients and stir well. Add eggs and stir until foamy. Stir in pumpkin pulp completely, then coconut milk. Spoon into crust and bake at 425 degrees F. for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake until set (40-50 minutes). Let stand for an hour or more before serving.

This light, fluffy vegan version is more like a cream pie than baked custard:

Vegan Pumpkin Pie

1/2 cup dark molasses or maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander and ginger
12 ounces silken tofu
1-1/2 cups cooked pumpkin pulp
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 pre-baked nut crust (see below)

In a food processor, combine all but crust and blend well. Spoon into baked nut crust and chill for at least an hour before serving.

Crunchy Nut Crust

1-1/2 cups almonds or walnuts
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
few grains sea salt

In a food processor, grind nuts coarsely. Add remaining ingredients and process briefly to blend. Pat into a pie dish. For chilled filling, prebake at 350 degrees F until golden (20-25 minutes), cool before filling.



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