The Ghost of Christmas Repast

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
― Charles DickensA Christmas Carol

Just about everyone has a story about some disastrous Christmas they experienced.  If you ask me or my sister you’ll hear all about the year when Christmas dinner was just served on the table and my sister got a nose bleed that eventually sent her to the hospital, I got extremely ill and was sent to bed with fever and chills, the dog knocked over the Christmas tree, my father tried to vacuum up the myriad broken glass pieces from ornaments we would never see again, and the water from the tree stand made the vacuum cleaner short out and catch fire.  All of this happened in about a half an hour.

We didn’t blame our Christmas horror on the food like Ebenezer here. No one ate Christmas dinner that year.  Ours was not an earth-shattering disaster but it has always made a good story especially when my sister tells it.  She got to watch the Hoover catch fire and our father rush out the front door with it and toss it into the snow.

It seems to me the Thanksgiving dinner tradition is quite different from the Christmas one. Thanksgiving is usually one main, all-important, all-American meal and the people who are eating it are zeroed in on that main course and all the trimmings and side dishes they have loved year after year.  There’s a little less decision-making as to what to cook but a lot more investment in the final outcome of that sacred stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce with all their fixin’s and sides.

There is so much for a cook to choose from at Christmastime!  Everything from cookies, party foods, eggnog, gingerbread people in their gingerbread houses. . . not to mention that the Christmas cooking season stretches on for weeks and weeks giving us plenty of time to try all the dishes our hearts desire while still turning a blind eye to anything so mundane as caloric content because it is, after all, Christmas!

There’s traditional Christmas food from every part of the world as well as our own homegrown family traditions. I guess some people get around all those choices by simply making another Turkey Dinner for Christmas.  My mother did that.  Our Christmas dinner was always exactly like our Thanksgiving one except at Christmas there were Christmas cookies.  (Including my grandmother’s wine cookies which I wrote about last year but I promise this year not to whine about wine cookies again.

My own Christmas cooking has run the gamut starting with Turkey Dinner Like Mom Used to Make until one year when I saw a recipe for slow-cooked turkey that promised a very amazingly moist roasted bird.  I learned there is a big difference between slow-cooked and no-cooked.  We ended up ordering pizza because the turkey didn’t finish cooking until very late.

Next I decided to impress a boyfriend by cooking Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding in honor of his British heritage. He was born in Philadelphia, PA but his adorable aunties and  mother were always talking up the English in them and he did too. The Beef and Yorkshire was very experimental–no Internet in those days to look up recipes and watch videos on how it’s done–my recipe was cut out of the newspaper and it came out surprisingly well.  And not surprisingly it was a very heavy meal what with the eggy Yorkshire batter being fried in the mostly fat roast beef drippings.  I tried this for two Christmases just before I became a complete vegetarian.

That changed everything as far as holiday cooking was concerned.  Not only was I vegetarian, I had stopped eating any refined sugar and got into brown rice and seaweed! (Still into those.)  But when it came to Christmas, I tried to mock up vegetarian versions of traditional food.  Maybe you’ve heard of “turkey” made from tofu or Japanese seitan (sometimes called “wheat meat”) shaped like something recognizable.

Hubbard Squash

Hubbard Squash – Just like a big green and orange turkey!  (Photo credit: Smitten with Kittens)

I often opted for stuffing a squash.  I would choose a Hubbard squash because it was fairly easy to find one that had the general shape of a turkey. (Go ahead, squint your eyes and imagine this is a turkey!)  Being a big squash, the Stuffed Hubbard Turkey Squash took almost as long to bake as a real stuffed turkey.  The stuffing was what you might expect–whole wheat bread dried and cubed, onions and celery sauteed in olive oil with garlic, sage, salt and pepper.  Then there were all the fixings plus mock mince meat pie, pumpkin pie, cookies, potatoes, cranberry relish, etc.  It would take me the best part of two days to make this dinner and my dear children would periodically come into the kitchen to hang out with me and steal stuffing.

Sometimes we wouldn’t eat Christmas dinner until well after normal dinner time.  My family generously refrained from complaining.  This kind of grand dinner plan nearly always included way more dishes than we needed to have at one meal and, especially in my earlier years as a vegetarian, was challenging to make.  And let’s not even think about the dishes, pots and pans involved!

“Besides, the kettle was aggravating and obstinate. It wouldn’t allow itself to be adjusted on the top bar; it wouldn’t hear of accommodating itself kindly to the knobs of coal; it would lean forward with a drunken air and dribble, a very Idiot of a kettle, on the hearth. It was quarrelsome, and hissed and spluttered morosely at the fire. To sum up all, the lid, resisting Mrs. Peerybingle’s fingers, first of all turned topsy-turvey, and then with an ingenious pertinacity deserving of a better cause, dived sideways in – down to the very bottom of the kettle. And the hull of the Royal George has never made half the monstrous resistance to coming out of the water, which the lid of that kettle employed against Mrs. Peerybingle, before she got it up again.
“It looked sullen and pig-headed enough, even then: carrying its handle with an air of defiance, and cocking its spout pertly and mockingly at Mrs. Peerybingle as if it said, “I won’t boil. Nothing shall induce me!”
― Charles DickensA Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

I am no longer a complete vegetarian, though I do eat a lot of vegetarian food.  I have not yet decided what to make for Christmas dinner but I am planning to include a few choice dishes from family traditions over the next couple of weeks.  At the top of that list is my vegetarian lasagna made with my family-famous squash and carrot sauce and tofu cheese.  That sauce was once manufactured in a Brooklyn factory under the brand name, “Sarah’s.”  They made 500 cases of my sauce before we decided to call it quits.  The one that comes out of my kitchen is a thousand times better.

Another will be a Hungarian chestnut pudding called “Gesztenyepure.”  I learned about it from my daughter-in-law who is from Budapest.  And if it comes out well, I’m thinking about how I could make it and send it to her.  And if it comes out well, I’m thinking about how I could photograph it and give the recipe to you, my dear blogging friends and followers.

I’ll probably end up telling you about my Instant-But-Not-Out-of-a-Package Stuffing, too.  I miraculously discovered how to make a bread stuffing in ten minutes that comes out very well and can be made for only one or two people or servings at a time.  My husband liked it so much, he thinks I should blog about this.

I often indulge in an oyster stew for Christmas dinner.  It’s on my list of maybes, depending on where the oysters are from.

Surely my Field Greens and Pear Salad will be a part of Christmas cooking, too.  I’ve made that for many years and I think it all started with memories of pear halves dyed red (cinnamon-flavored) and green (mint-flavored) that my mother served us over the holidays. These delighted us.  Well, mine aren’t dyed but here is my simple recipe:

Field Greens and Pear Salad

  • 2/3 cup soft wheat berries
  • 1 cup spring water
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • juice of one lemon
  • one pound of field greens washed and dried
  • 3 pears cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 oz. currants

Salad Dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons walnut oil
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 3 teaspoons brown rice syrup
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Soak wheat berries in one cup of water overnight.  Drain wheat berries and place in a small saucepan with 1 1/2 cups spring water and a pinch of sea salt.  Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat.  Cover and cook 30 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and berries are tender.  Spread the cooked berries out on a towel to dry.

2. Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Add wheat berries and saute until lightly toasted (about 10 minutes).  Stir in soy sauce, cayenne and lemon juice.  Keep the wheat berries warm until you are ready to serve.

3. Combine the salad dressing ingredients in a small jar and shake vigorously.  (The dressing can be made a day ahead of time.)

4. Assemble the salad, toss the field greens and pears with the dressing in a salad bowl.  Top with warm wheat berries and if desired, garnish with currants.

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The Pot Thickens

FOUR WAYS TO ENRICH YOUR MENU

Are you wishing you could eat a nice, thick, creamy bowl of soup without sacrificing your diet? Does your mouth water when you see smooth, rich desserts even though you know you shouldn’t indulge? Do you “pass” on the gravy?

Let me show you some ways to enjoy rich, thick textures in your meals that are guilt-free and nutritious without cramping your style. These methods can be used by anyone even though my particular recipes here are vegetarian.

1. Agar Flakes: You might recognize the name “agar agar” as something used in laboratory experiments and you’re right—it is used in petri dishes. Agar comes from seaweed. Food-quality agar is usually a blend of sea vegetables that have strong thickening properties. Agar is great for making gelatin-type dishes like aspics, desserts and pie fillings and it can be molded. It also comes in bars but I much prefer the flakes because they are so much faster and easier to use. To use agar flakes, add them to hot liquid and stir often until it is dissolved. Stirring helps prevent it from getting too thick and sticking to the bottom of the pot. Once the agar flakes are dissolved and have simmered about ten minutes, the mixture will thicken as it cools down. For the best taste and consistency, let your agar-gelled dish cool down outside of the refrigerator so it doesn’t get rubbery. After it is cooled, you can refrigerate it, covered. Like all sea vegetables, agar contains minerals–sodium, potassium, calcium, iodine, magnesium and iron are some. Agar is also considered to have medicinal properties and may relieve constipation if eaten several days in a row. Agar is good for vegetarians and vegans to know about as a replacement for gelatin which comes from pigs’ hooves or sometimes from other animals. If you are substituting agar flakes instead of gelatin in a recipe, you’ll need much less agar than you would gelatin.

One tablespoon of agar flakes has 10 mg of sodium, 10 mg of potassium, 1 gram of carbohydrate and 1 gram of dietary fiber. It has no calories, no fat and no cholesterol. Here is my favorite summer pie recipe using agar flakes:

Strawberry Blueberry Pie
(Given to me by Claire Kauffman from Meredith McCarty’s American Macrobiotic Cuisine with a few of my own notations)

• Single Pie Crust, baked and cooled. You can use pastry, graham cracker, etc.
• 2 Pints, Strawberries
• 1 Pint, Blueberries
• 1/2 tsp. sea salt
• 1/2 c cup rice syrup (you may substitute other sweeteners such as agave or honey and adjust for the right sweetness)
• 1/2 cup agar flakes

Wash all the fruit and remove the stems and leaves. Cut only the large strawberries in half and leave the rest whole. Put the strawberries in a pot, sprinkle them with sea salt and pour the syrup over them. Add the agar flakes. Cover and simmer until the agar flakes are dissolved.  This takes about 10 minutes.  Stir occasionally to gently combine the ingredients.  If necessary to get the agar fully dissolved, you may add a tablespoon or so of water.  No other liquid.  Add the blueberries for the last five minutes of cooking.  Pour the fruit mixture into the baked and cooled pie crust and let it set.

Strawberry Blueberry Pie

2. Kuzu: If you’ve ever been in the deep south of the U.S. you’ve probably seen these prolific vines with big leaves. They are so hardy and grow so fast they can take over an entire stand of trees in one season if they aren’t constantly cut back. The kind of kuzu (or kudzu) I use for cooking is a starch derived from the root of the plant. It comes from Japan in the form of white powdery lumps and is sometimes referred to as “wild arrowroot.” Kuzu can be used to thicken soups, sauces, desserts and even a hot drink. To use kuzu, crush the lumps up with the back of a spoon before measuring it and dissolve it in a little cool water or liquid first. You will need about a tablespoon of kuzu for every cup of liquid you want to thicken. When adding the dissolved kuzu into a hot liquid, stir constantly to prevent lumps. The dissolved kuzu will look cloudy at first, but as you stir and cook it will become clear. When it’s clear, it’s done. If the end result is not thick enough, add more kuzu. Add more liquid if your result is too thick. Kuzu does not have a strong flavor itself, so you can use it in many dishes without the kuzu interfering with the taste. Kuzu can be very soothing and is sometimes used in certain medicinal remedies for digestive troubles.

Српски / Srpski: Kuzu prah, koristi se u kuhin...

Image via Wikipedia

 One tablespoon of kuzu has about 30 calories, 8 grams of carbohydrate and 2 mg. of calcium. It has no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium and no sugars. Here is a very basic recipe for using kuzu to make a quick, soothing drink:

 Kuzu Apple Drink

Gently heat a cup of apple juice and a pinch of sea salt in a sauce pan. Bring this to just below a boil and take it off the burner. Dissolve about a teaspoon of kuzu powder in a quarter cup of water. Mix the kuzu and water into the apple juice while stirring constantly. Return the mixture to the stove and heat for a minute or so and serve. If you like, you can dress it up with a cinnamon stick.

3. Whole Grain Helper: We’ve all heard that eating whole grains is better for you. This is a great way to start incorporating them into your daily menu and introduce yourself and your family to the wide variety of types and uses for whole grains. I’m sure you aren’t new to the idea that cooking with grains can produce a thick and hearty soup or stew, such as a barley stew. Many grains can be used as thickeners including brown rice, oats, buckwheat and millet. Sometimes I use the whole grain and sometimes I use a milled or flaked version. An added plus is that when you use whole grains along with beans in a dish, you get what is known as a “complete protein.” In otherwords, a food that has all the needed requirements to provide good, useable protein to your body.

One of my favorite grains to thicken the pot with is millet. Millet is an ancient grain that comes from Africa and India. You might recognize the tiny yellow balls of millet in your favorite birdseed mix! Millet is an excellent grain for people to eat. To help you know more about millet, you can check out this information: http://chetday.com/millet.html .

One half cup of millet has approximately 378 calories, 4 grams fat, 8 grams fiber and 11 grams of protein. It has no sugars and is a decent source of iron. To demonstrate how grains can be used as a thickener, here is my recipe for hearty Navy Bean and Millet Soup:

Hearty Navy Bean and Millet Soup
Serves 6 – 8

Hearty Navy Bean and Millet Soup

• 2 cups of cooked or canned navy beans (If you use canned beans, I recommend organic ones that have been cooked with kombu seaweed. The seaweed makes the beans more digestible.)
• 1 quarter onion sliced ¼ inch thick
• 2 stalks of celery sliced
• 1 carrot cut in half moons. (Wash the carrot and slice it in half lengthwise. Then slice the halves on an angle, about ¼ inch thick.)
• 2 Tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 cup millet
• 2 cups spring water
• 2 cloves garlic
Sea salt (You can add other spices and herbs that you like. Last night I used black pepper and oregano)
• Naturally brewed soy sauce

Put the millet into a bowl and rinse with cold water, draining the water off and rinsing again. Use your hand or a sieve to keep from losing the millet when you drain the water. Put the millet in a small pot with 2 cups of water and a pinch of sea salt and bring it to a boil. Simmer the millet until it is soft, 20-25 minutes. If the water is gone and the millet needs more cooking, just add more water. You want your millet to be soft and somewhat wet.

While the millet’s cooking, begin sautéing the other vegetables in a 3-4 quart pot. Heat the olive oil and sauté the onions first. Put in a pinch of sea salt and sauté the onions until they are translucent and sweet-smelling, then add carrots and another pinch of sea salt and sauté them. Last, add the celery, another pinch of salt and sauté that. Add four cups of water, your cooked beans and any seasonings or herbs and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Blend the cooked millet until it is smooth and creamy. I like using an electric hand blender because you can blend right in the cooking pot and you’ll have less to clean up. Add the creamy millet and stir to incorporate it into the soup. If it is too thick, simply add a little bit more water. Season with a couple teaspoons of soy sauce. Voila! You have a thick, creamy protein-rich soup or stew. Serve with a garnish of parsley, sliced scallions or if you use dairy products, some grated parmesan cheese.

4. Reduction: Ooh La La! The very name “reduction sauce” sounds so haute cuisine! It is really very easy to make and can have a nearly unlimited variety of flavors. A reduction sauce is made by simmering liquids down in order to slightly thicken them and intensify their flavors. It is most often done after cooking meats by simmering the cooking juices with other things such as wine, vinegar, or cream and getting a very rich concentrated sauce. But reduction sauces are by no means limited to meat juices. You can reduce many kinds of liquids including fruit juice by simmering them in an open pan (no lid) and letting the liquid evaporate until you have the desired finished product.
Here is a recipe for Savory Mushroom Reduction Sauce:

 Savory Mushroom Reduction Sauce

• 6 medium portabella mushrooms, sliced
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 clove garlic, minced or crushed in a press
• Sea salt
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
• 1 tablespoon of barley malt syrup (or substitute a small quantity of a sweetener of your choice)
• 1/2 cup of water

Heat the olive oil up in a heavy skillet and add the garlic, quickly followed by the mushrooms and a pinch of sea salt. Sauté the mushrooms until they start to get tender. Add balsamic vinegar, water, soy sauce and syrup or sweetener and stir to combine them. Let the mushrooms and liquid simmer until the sauce has thickened to your liking and turn off the heat. Use this as a sauce for grain dishes, cooked tofu dishes or steamed or boiled vegetables. I like it on steamed fresh green beans or asparagus.  This makes about a half cup, enough for 2-3 servings.

Asparagus with Mushroom Balsamic Reduction Sauce

I think you can see that these methods and ingredients for adding texture, richness and of course thickness to your menu are healthy and nutritious. They are useful for any type of diet—omnivore, vegetarian or vegan. You don’t have to rely on heavy cream, flour and butter when you’ve got these alternatives.

Purchase items such as kuzu, agar flakes, naturally brewed soy sauce and whole grains at a natural foods store or order them online if you can’t find them locally.

I’d love to hear about your experimentation with these ingredients and methods and if you want to share your own recipes, that would be wonderful too!

NEW!!

For additional free recipes using these techniques, you are invited to join PATTY’S CLUB!  Just go to my new Patty’s Club Page https://mycookinglife.com/pattys-club/ and follow the directions.