BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Tagine O’ Plenty

Two weeks, and counting. Are you ready for Thanksgiving yet? Don’t worry, there’s no need to rush out and grab a frozen roast from the grocery store yet. As a matter of fact, there’s still ample time to plan out a genuine feast fit for a crowd of voracious revelers. Be it a fancy affair or a low-key, casual gathering, I have just the recipe for you.

Shrouded in mystery as it arrives to the table covered, concealed by the heavy ceramic lid of the tagine. Hot and heavy, it lands with a weight of importance; all eyes are on this curious dish. Lift the lid to release a great plume of steam, followed shortly by awed gasps, wide eyes, and possibly even a round of applause. It’s no exaggeration to say that this entree is the height of my holiday hostess career up to this point.

Laden with slow-roasted autumnal squash, root vegetables, and caramelized onions, the multicolored melange of produce is just the tip of the iceberg. Dig deeper to uncover a warmly spiced chickpea and tomato curry, freckled with fresh herbs and punctuated with briny green olives. Explore further still, and eventually your spoon will hit gold; a vibrant bed of garlicky, flaxen couscous lovingly cradles the savory mountain with ease, supporting and absorbing those brilliant flavors without disappearing into the background like a bland bit player.

Thanksgiving is about celebrating abundance, and this meatless main is the epitome of just that. It’s not trying to imitate any trussed up fowl nor does it care to compare itself against ingrained traditions. It’s a bold departure from the standard American menu, and yet it makes so much more sense from a plant-based perspective. Rejoice in the season and all it has to offer, rather than stick to an antiquated script that hardly resonates with the average eater of today.

With great inventions comes great responsibility, and no small measure of commitment. Truth be told, this is a serious undertaking, a huge amount of food to break down and a lot of time to invest for one meal, but wouldn’t you go through exactly the same lengths for a grand roast? How many times a year do you get to invite over all your friends and family and feed them a lavish, over-the-top banquet, after all? This is the time to break out the nice plates, pull out all the stops, and create a dinner that everyone will talk about for years to come.

So now, tell me… Do you have your Thanksgiving dinner plans yet?

Harvest Tagine

4 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
2 Apples, Cored and Sliced
2 Small Parsnips, Peeled and Cut into 4-Inch Long Sticks
1 Large Red Onion, Cut into Wedges
2 Medium Red and/or Orange Bell Peppers, Seeded and Cut into 4-Inch Long Sticks
1 Medium Delicata Squash, Halved, Seeded, and Sliced into Half-Rings
1 1/2 Cups Baby Carrots
1 Teaspoon Salt, Divided
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
4 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
2 Teaspoons Smoked Paprika
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
28-Ounce Can Fire-Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cup Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
1/2 Cup Green Olives
3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Cup Fresh Parsley, Roughly Chopped
1/4 Cup Toasted Pepitas

Toasted Golden Couscous

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Couscous
3 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease 2 – 3 sheet pans.

Begin by breaking down all the apples, parsnips, onion, bell peppers, and delicata squash, and laying them out on the prepared sheet pans, along with the baby carrots, in one even layer. Drizzle evenly with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and all the black pepper. Roast for 50 – 60 minutes, rotating the pans every 20 minutes or so, until evenly browned and fork-tender. No need to flip as long as you adjust the sheets on higher and lower levels as you spin them around.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown and highly aromatic, stirring frequently to prevent the pieces from burning; about 5 – 7 minutes. Sprinkle in all of the spice and mix well, toasting for just 1 minute to unlock their full flavor potential. Quickly deglaze with the crushed tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pot with your spatula to make sure everything is fully incorporated. Bring up to a simmer and add the chickpeas and olives.

Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for an additional 15 – 20 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice, give it a taste, and add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, if needed.

For the couscous, set another large pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the oil and garlic, and cook until golden. Add in the couscous next and stir well, coating that granules with oil and toasting until the mixture smells wonderfully nutty and garlicky. Pour in the vegetable stock and stir in the turmeric. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Let sit, undisturbed, for 15 minutes until the grains have absorbed all of the liquid. Fluff with a fork before transferring it to the bottom of a large ceramic tagine (or casserole dish fit for serving table side.)

To complete the tagine, cover the couscous with the chickpea stew and arrange the roasted vegetables attractively on top. Finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and pepitas, and serve immediately, while piping hot.

If you’d like to prepare the tagine in advance, you can make the entire assembly up to 5 hours before serving. Cover and store in the fridge. Reheat in an oven preheated to 375 degrees for 15 – 30 minutes, depending on how conductive your serving dish is. Just check periodically to see if it’s hot all the way through.

You can also create the individual components up to 2 days in advance. Just store them separately in airtight containers in the fridge. Be sure to re-fluff the couscous before proceeding with the rest of the construction.

Makes 10 – 12 Servings

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Lady Marmalade

Batten down the hatches and hide the good porcelain; the holidays are here again. Ready or not, Thanksgiving hits in just over a week, throwing cooks and eaters across the country into a predictable annual frenzy. If your menu is already planned and locked down, you’re probably sick of reading the incessant recipe suggestions churning out of every food publication, online, in print, on TV, over the radio waves, and beyond. If you’ve been remiss in your advanced preparations, your blood pressure is probably spiking to greater heights with every mention of yet another overly complicated, time consuming new dish to consider adding to the elaborate affair.

Let’s take it back a step, shall we? Eight days is still plenty of time from either perspective, whether you need to get your act together or just stick to the script. No matter what, you’ve still gotta eat in the meantime.

There’s enough to stress about without adding another random recipe into the mix, so I’m not saying this is one for the Thanksgiving table. It does just happen to fit the theme beautifully, incorporating seasonal root vegetables into an easy condiment that would be just as home atop crackers as it would alongside your festive roast of choice. Ruby red, it glistens with the same luminosity as cranberry sauce, but shines with an entirely unique earthy yet sweet and zesty flavor. Beet marmalade was one of our top selling items at Health in a Hurry, and it remains a nostalgic favorite of mine. It’s the one single dish that I can point to that finally converted me from beet hater to lover.

I deeply regret not writing down that secret formula before the restaurant closed, but the good news is that it’s such a simple concept, it doesn’t take much effort to recreate a very close proxy. Caramelized onions lay down a rich, savory baseline, while jazzy orange peel hits the high notes, complimented by the sweetness of maple syrup. Perhaps an unlikely combination on paper, the final flavor sings with a resonance that far exceeds the sum of its parts.

I’m not saying you should save it for Thanksgiving… But I’m not saying it would be a bad guest at the table, either.

Beet Marmalade

4 Medium Red Beets
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Large Red Onion, Sliced
1 Large Orange, Zested and Juiced
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the beets up in aluminum foil so that they’re completely covered, and roast for about an hour, or until fork tender. Let cool before peeling. If they’re cooked properly, the skins should just rub right off with a bit of pressure.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat and add in the sliced onion. Cook gently, stirring frequently, for 30 – 40 minutes, until deeply caramelized and almost silky in texture. Add in the orange juice about halfway through, and reduce the heat if necessary to prevent burning.

Roughly chop the cooked beets and place them in your food processor along with the orange zest and caramelized onions. Add in the maple syrup and salt. Lightly pulse all of the ingredients together until broken down and thoroughly combined but still quite chunky.

Serve warm or chilled, as a dip or topping for crackers, a condiment on the dinner table, or as a spread with bread.

Makes about 2 Cups

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Pie-Giving

For all their fussing, planning, and maddening preparation, hosts and hostesses across the country would have you believe that Thanksgiving is all about the turkey, but let’s be real: It’s a holiday built around pie. Although food historians now suggest that there was no pie on the menu for the first Thanksgiving, alleging that early colonists had no flour nor butter at their disposal, that simply strikes me as a terribly shortsighted judgement. What if they just went gluten-free and vegan for the final course? Or perhaps they simply went sans crust and opted to fashion impossible pies for the event instead.

Truly, a life without pie is one too dreadful to imagine, especially on this pie-centric holiday. One thing that scholars can agree on is that an assortment of native pumpkins could have indeed been found, so at least we’ve got the building blocks of a modern dessert in place right there.

My apologies to the pilgrims, but Thanksgiving is really more like Pie-Giving in my book, and I don’t make any concessions to tradition. My version of the holiday is filled with lavish sweets and a veritable parade of pies.

This year, I’m still stuck on marshmallows and pumpkins alike, so joining the two for a grand finale seemed all but inevitable. This rendition isn’t the typical baked custard affair, however. Aiming for a loftier consistency and cooler presentation, this chiffon filling is the dreamy antidote to even the most unimaginative, conventional Thanksgiving meal.

Celebrate the holiday to the fullest by gracing your festive table with these fluffy, ephemeral orange slices. Had any of the components been a glimmer in a wily baker’s eye, I have no doubt that the pilgrims would have definitely partaken in a generous helping or two as well.

Marshmallow Chiffon Pumpkin Pie

Graham Cracker Crust:

1 1/2 Cup Graham Cracker Crumbs (About 12 Full Rectangle Sheets)
6 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine, Melted

Marshmallow Chiffon Pumpkin Filling:

1 Cup 100% Pumpkin Puree
1 10-Ounce Bag Dandies Pumpkin Spice or Original Marshmallows
1 1/2 Teaspoons Coconut Oil
1 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 (14-Ounce) Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk, Chilled

To make the crust, break up the graham crackers into smaller pieces before pulsing in a food processor until very finely ground.Drizzle the melted margarine into the crumbs, and stir thoroughly to moisten the ground cookies.

Transfer the mix to a 9-inch round pie pan, and use lightly moistened fingers to firmly press it down on the bottom and along the sides. Use the bottom of a flat measuring cup or drinking glass for smoother sides.

To prepare the filling, place the pumpkin puree, marshmallows, and coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir gently but frequently until the marshmallows completely melt and the mixture is homogeneous. This can can get sticky, especially at first when the marshmallows are reluctant to join forces with the pumpkin, so stir carefully and be patient. Once smooth, stir in the spices and salt. Remove from the heat and cool for at least 5 minutes before proceeding.

Meanwhile, open the can of coconut milk without shaking it and skim off the top layer of thickened cream. Place it in the bowl of your stand mixer and begin beating it on a low speed. Gradually increase the speed, whipping in as much air as possible. Continue whipping for about 8 – 10 minutes, until greatly increased in volume.

Using a wide spatula, gently fold the whipped coconut cream into the pumpkin mixture, trying not to knock out the air bubbles you just created. Transfer the resulting filling into your prepared crust and smooth it out into one even layer.

Place the pie in the fridge and chill for at least 4 – 6 hours before serving, but overnight is best. To serve, simply slice the pie into wedges and top with additional dollops of whipped coconut cream, if desired.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

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Tradition with a Twist

Thanksgiving purists, avert your eyes.

Truth be told, I can’t recall ever having a green bean casserole on the table at any of my childhood Thanksgiving celebrations. Perhaps there was one though, lovingly prepared by traditionalist grandmother, aunt, or uncle, but I sure never noticed. A holiday fraught with food complications even before I went vegan, there’s rarely been much on the expansive buffet table that got me excited, or even remotely hungry for that matter. Hunk of dry, bland turkey for you, my dear? How about a smidgen of mushy breadcrumbs swimming in a pool of their own tears? What about the gelatinous, can-shaped cranberry “sauce” that clearly has remained untouched up to this decade? No thanks, no thanks, and not on your life.

Mercifully, being that the menu remained more or less the same no matter who prepared it or where we met to eat, it became easier to predict the horrors that awaited me on that fated day of celebration. Prepared for the worst, it was a much more survivable experience, like going into battle with a map of where the landmines were hidden. It was still rough going- Downright traumatic at times, depending on the mortifying family memories that might be unearthed yet again- But at least you’d make it out alive.

Best of all, everyone would be so sick of the typical Thanksgiving fixings the next day that in spite of the copious embarrassment of leftovers, it wouldn’t be too difficult to plead for a dinner of Chinese takeout. That was the true festive meal, for all I was concerned.

Now on my own and separated by every member of my family by over 2,500 miles, I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ve finally gotten my wish, freed from the obligations of the traditional dinner, and I’m not quite sure I really want to escape it anymore. Suddenly those old-school favorites seem ripe with potential, and even though I have no plans or guests to feed, I can’t help but go back and create pieces of the feast that I always wished might be on the table.

That means combining the standard green bean casserole with an infusion of spicy sichuan peppers, just hot enough to make your lips tingle but still keep the inherent savory soul of the baked dish intact. The twist might very well horrify those who expect nothing but the same menu, year after decade after century, but for anyone who’s wanted to shake things up just a bit, I can’t think of a better dish to start with.

Sichuan (Szechuan) Green Bean Casserole

1 Pound Fresh Green Beans, Trimmed and Halved
1 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Shallot, Minced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1-Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Minced
1 Cup Cremini or Button Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
1 Cup Unsweetened, Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Vegetable Broth
3 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
2 Teaspoons Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Teaspoon Dried Red Pepper Flakes
1/8 – 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Sichuan Pepper*

1 Cup Fried Shallots or Onions, Divided
3/4 Cup Crispy Fried Noodles or Wonton Strips

*Given that true Sichuan peppercorns can be difficult to hunt down at times, you can omit them for an equally delicious, if less tongue-tingling experience.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Pour the sesame oil into a medium saucepan and heat over high. Once blisteringly hot, add the prepared green beans and saute while stirring briskly, until seared all over but still crisp; about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool.

Return the pan to the stove, down down the heat to medium, and add the olive oil, shallot, garlic, and ginger. Cook until aromatic and just barely browned around the edges; about 8 – 10 minutes. Introduce the mushrooms next and cook until softened. If any of the vegetables threaten to stick or burn, begin adding in splashes of the non-dairy milk.

Shake up the vegetable stock and flour in a closed jar to create a slurry. Add it into the pan, stirring to thoroughly incorporate, followed by the non-dairy milk. Introduce the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, pepper flakes and Sichuan pepper next, reducing the heat to medium-low and stirring to combine. Continue to cook, stirring periodically, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil.

Remove from the stove and add the green beans back into the mixture. Mix to combine, folding in 1/2 cup of the fried shallots as well. Transfer everything into a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish and top evenly with the crispy fried noodles and remaining fried shallots. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

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A Working Holiday

It’s been quite a few years now since my last Thanksgiving on the line, but I can still feel it in my bones; a physical memory that persists like a scar, emblazoned deep within. The crushing heat of the oven, pumping out roasted vegetables and tofu steaks; the furiously boiling pots of thickening roux, destined to become bases for a dozen different gratins; the reverberations of the knife on the cutting board, mowing down everything from beets to scallions seemingly of its own free will. These sensations return in flashbulb moments, random and unexpected glimpses into the past. Every Thanksgiving wasn’t just Doomsday, but Doomsweek. Manageable lists of orders quickly swelled into a wild mass of demands, nimble hands always turned out in short supply, and yet the shoebox kitchen still couldn’t accommodate the number of bodies toiling away, jockeying for a place at the tiny four-top burner. It was a violent dance, or perhaps a dark comedy, but it was certainly a show for all to see. The utilitarian rubber mats became our stage- No, red carpet- As we all starred in our insular performance. Though anyone outside of the industry could only consider this affair a pre-show for the great event, this was our time to shine.

Time continues to put more distance between this memory and the present, as the cafe has been closed and darkened since the ravages of Hurricane Sandy took their toll. For as long, painful, and exhausting as those long days leading up to Thanksgiving were, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else. Fierce loyalty to the business and the team behind it drove me forward; that sense of comradery kept us afloat. No matter how much I dreaded those days, I secretly adored them and looked forward to them just as much, if not more. While it’s a luxury to finally enjoy Thanksgiving like most other people do- with their families, partaking in the festive meal, and cooking only enough for a dozen rather than half the town- I miss the maddening Thanksgiving catering rush dearly. Nothing made me more grateful than completing a successful day-long shift, bidding farewell to my cooking compatriots with hugs and long goodbyes, and quietly departing into the dark, cold autumn night once more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate, whether you’re working, cooking, or just lucky enough to be amongst family and friends.


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Delicata Delicacy

Have you ever seen a better vegetable for stuffing than the humble delicata squash? Each perfect yellow and green-striped edible tube becomes an ideal vessel for every sort of filling imaginable, no matter how you cut or cook it. I’m no stranger to the concept, but all sorts of inspiration has steered my seasonings in an entirely different direction since those first filled squash emerged from the oven.

Allow me to introduce to you a prime candidate for your new Thanksgiving main dish, replete with a very posh-sounding beluga lentil filling. Sparkling like legume caviar within their roasted golden delicata containers, these particular lentils eschew the typical autumnal spices found on every festive table in favor of more worldly flavors. Infused with an aromatic blend of cumin, mustard seeds, and jalapeno, this entry is guaranteed to spice up the traditional feast. Spiced rather than spicy, it’s designed to suit a wide range of palates, subtle enough not to offend those who appreciate less heat but want abundant umami to savor on their plates.

Complimenting that distinctive piquancy is a creamy cashew-based raita, replete with cooling mint leaves and crisp diced cucumber. Don’t even dream of skipping it; that rich final flourish ties together the meal, elevating the dish into something truly memorable. It’s the kind of surprisingly easy dinner that eaters will rave about for years to come, but by all means, don’t just save it for an annual event. Stuffed delicata are delightful all autumn and winter, if not beyond those seasonal boundaries, too.

Like all the best Thanksgiving dishes, stuffed delicata are rock stars for prepping in advance and waiting patiently until their solo arrives. Bake and stuff them as written, cover the casserole dish with foil, and simply reheat in a 350 degree oven for 10 – 20 minutes when the party begins.

Beluga Lentil-Stuffed Delicata Squash

2 Medium Delicata Squashes (About 1 Pound Each)

Lentil Stuffing:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Shallots, Finely Diced
1 Jalapeno, Seeded and Finely Diced
1 1/2 Teaspoons Whole Cumin Seeds
1 1/2 Teaspoons Whole Mustard Seeds
1 Cup Dry Beluga Lentils
2 Cups Vegetable Broth
2/3 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
3/4 – 1 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Cashew Raita:

1 Cup Raw Cashews Pieces, Soaked for About 4 Hours
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint Leaves, Roughly Chopped
3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Cup Water
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers, Finely Diced

Although it’s the last addition to your stuffed squashes, it would be wise to prepare the cashew raita first so that it’s ready to go when you are. Thoroughly drain your soaked cashews and toss them in your blender along with the chopped mint, lemon juice, water, and salt. Puree, pausing to scrape down the sides of the canister with a spatula as needed, until completely silky-smooth. This process may take longer if you use a lower-powered model, but stick with it; that creamy texture is important for successful raita. Once perfectly velvety, stir in the cucumber pieces by hand. Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated prior to serving.

For the filling, heat the olive oil in a medium pot over moderate heat before tossing in the diced shallots and jalapeno. Saute until translucent before introducing the cumin and mustard seeds next. Cook until the vegetables are lightly caramelized and the entire mixture is highly aromatic. Add the lentils and broth, cover, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes when the lentils become tender. Add the coconut milk, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Keep the pot partially covered and simmer for an additional 5 – 10 minutes, until the final liquid addition has been absorbed. Cover and keep warm.

Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Cut both squash in half lengthwise and scoop out (but reserve) seeds. Place each half with the cut sides down on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 5 minutes before handling.

Reduce the heat to 250, toss the reserved seeds with just a splash of oil and a pinch of salt, and roast for just 10 – 20 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent them from burning. Once golden and crisp, let them cool completely.

To complete the dish, flip the roasted delicata squashes up to turn them into edible boats and spoon the warm lentils inside. Serve the cashew raita alongside for guests to top their squashes as desired, and finish with a sprinkle of roasted seeds.

Makes 4 Main Dish Servings; Cut the Halves in Half for 8 Side Dish Servings

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