Anyone else feeling a little dazed, wondering whatever happened to Thanksgiving? It was lovely, but where did it go? As much as I love the open invitation to officially bring out the holiday season sparkles, this year I’m struggling to keep up with speedy time more than ever, and it feels like I’d better not dare close my eyes unless ready to wake up to 2017, tomorrow.
It’s a little ironic, this year’s dwelling on the fleetingness of Thanksgiving, when actually I stretched it out over weeks and in truth am still stretching. Dave’s mum visited us from England for most of November, and since not only does Thanksgiving not feature in English tradition but it also happened to coincide with Dave’s 40th this year, I chose to focus on Thanksgiving moments and emotions in subtle, grateful-but-also-gratifying ways for pretty much a whole month.
It started the day after Halloween, with this casserole. After that came a festive vegan Sunday dinner with Thanksgiving flair, kicking off Thanksgiving week. Stuffed acorn squash, stuffing, cranberry sauce…that sort of thing. On Thanksgiving Day itself, Little F and I shared a pumpkin pie breakfast smoothie and roasted pecans pressed in a Medjool date to taste like pecan pie. And this week, Thanksgiving over, I’m finishing my personal alternative Thanksgiving dinner-snacks with a welcome reprise of this delicious casserole, left off the Sunday Thanksgiving dinner only because my MIL isn’t the sweet potato’s biggest fan.
It feels somewhat greedy to venture beyond the basics of being thankful for simply, food…but even so these sweet potatoes make my gratitude list. I do love this dish. It’s a scrumptious side, a snack, a bit of breakfast in moderation, or dessert. And so much lighter than the typical creamy, marshmallow-topped version. I originally made if for Ancient Harvest, and it became an instant tradition, easy to tweak and equally delicious with every alteration.
To slow down Thanksgiving, literally savoring it in stages, felt quietly appropriate this year in a number of ways. One, I’m a little loath to even note. After a year of healing a running injury, a couple extra pounds snuck up on me for one thing, so it was handy to step back from an overload of sentimental feasting. I suspected but wouldn’t step on the scale for a good while. Because, old ghosts, numbers being deceptive…there were all sorts of reasons. But mostly the ghosts. And fear. For a long time, the scale has been a healthy thing for me to avoid. When I did dare brave the thing however, confirming my suspicions, I was able to get back pretty quickly. I don’t mean that to sound glib, like weight loss is easy, because it isn’t. It’s only worth noting because it was a good reminder, information propels progress.
To say I was disappointed with the results of this year’s election and the appointments thus far would be an understatement. But in all honestly I have also been oddly inspired. When typically this time of year I’d be logging hours on the treadmill tuned into Christmas movies and rom-coms on Netlix, this year I’m choosing documentaries. (OK, about half the time I am.)
It’s hard work to become informed, and the work never actually ends. Compared to where I’d like to be, I’m still doing a pitiful job of it. Also, there are some things I’d rather not know. If Alzheimer’s is hands-down written in my cards for instance, or if the world is going to end tomorrow (undecided on the latter…would you want to know?). But it is gratifying to take a broader view of things and to consciously work on building and fortifying my beliefs with information as much as my default, emotions. I’m sure my choices are still overtly slanted to my personal biases overall, but just making the efforts has been quietly reinforcing my faith in the potential of personal power.
So what is the connection between two not-well-related tangents and my favorite sweet potato casserole? Probably there is none. Sweetness in knowledge, at a stretch. But I am finally beginning to understand, attempted connections don’t always have to be successful to not be considered failures. What matters is we try.
- 2 pounds sweet potatoes (3- 4 medium)
- ¼ cup pure maple syrup
- ¼ cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
- dash salt
- ½ cup Ancient Harvest™ quinoa flakes (or sub quick or lightly processed oats)
- 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar (or use coconut sugar)
- ½ cup finely chopped pecans
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon melted coconut oil or olive oil
- 1.Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray.
- 2.Scrub sweet potatoes puncture with a fork. Place potatoes on a baking sheet lined with foil and bake for approximately one hour, or until soft. Allow potatoes to cool, 5 minutes.
- 3.Cut open potatoes and discard the skin. Place potatoes in a large bowl and add in maple syrup, milk, vanilla, egg, salt and spices. Beat until smooth with an electric mixer. Pour into prepared baking pan.
- 4.To prepare topping: Mix the quinoa flakes or oats, brown sugar, pecans and cinnamon in a bowl. Use a fork to stir in the melted butter. Sprinkle evenly over the potato mixture. Bake 40-45 minutes. Serve warm.
I had the honor of being interviewed for our local paper this past week. Reporter Pam Mellskogg, a lovely freelance writer who, like me, has young children, focuses largely on food writing, and feels lucky to be able to work part-time and prioritize flexible scheduling, was investigating low-sugar alternatives to traditional cranberry sauce. I shared my go-to method for cranberry relish–bright, beautiful, tasty and playfully variable. It’s a little different every year, but never disappointing. It was such a pleasure, but so humbling to talk with her. I was quick to emphasize the usual…I’m not a chef, nor an RD, and I can’t bolster my poor girl’s kitchen play with scientifically impressive credentials. She was just as quickly reassuring, however, and in the course of the conversation I realized a few things:
One, it dawned on me how somehow I’d started to take for granted how much I enjoy creating, re-writing, and experimenting with healthy recipes. I love it. I’m passionate about it, even. Sometimes we allow thin, protective veils prevent us from wholeheartedly embracing and announcing our passions; because, someone is always more talented, more passionate, more successful; or because acknowledging them make the fear of, let alone actually, losing them more painful. Even when it comes to simple pleasures, like finding out what happens when replacing sugar with orange juice, for example.
Another thing, I may be deceiving myself a little here, but I realized that I have a lot to say about cranberry sauce, and it’s not all embarrassingly dull. Just as I love learning about others’ food journeys and creations, there are people who enjoy sharing in mine, and I’m so grateful I can’t even explain it. You have no idea how much I like you just because you asked me my opinion on baking healthy cookies. I hope that doesn’t come across as freaky. 😉 And finally, it hit me I was hungry. For cranberry relish.
Thanksgiving is coming, and I’ve had hazy beginnings of sentimental messages to post in mind. But we’re all in busy-mode, aren’t we? And sometimes nothing suits happy industry so well as something delightfully, deliciously utilitarian. Since we’ve gone meatless, Thanksgiving sides and accompaniments have developed and evolved to become the main show, and this relish is a star. It’s as harmonious and yummy alongside squash, roasted vegetables, and stuffing as bird. It’s beautifully balanced in sweet and tangy notes, textured and full of singing flavors not masked with granulated sugar. Walnuts add a pleasant little bit of chew, too. Best of all, it’s so easy to adapt to taste I’d almost say it’s fail-safe. Swap in pecans for walnuts or coconut sugar for honey. Reduce amounts to taste. Add in different fruits, or dried fruits. Try with barely any sweetener at all–it’s still scrumptious, a little something to snack on as well as accompaniment.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends!
- 1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
- 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped
- ½ cup chopped pineapple (optional)
- ½ cup orange or pineapple juice
- ½ cup honey or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer until thick (about 15 minutes), stirring occasionally. Cool completely.
It’s Thankful month. Seems somewhat ironic, in the face of an election year that delivered punches left and right, shocked and devastated. On the same token, the traditional reminder for conscious contemplation and gratitude couldn’t be more timely.
Here are a few things I’m thankful for this week, starting with the most prosaic, which may seem shallow yet is also awesomely useful: I’m very thankful for my new Cuisinart food processor. I’m in awe of its fabulous options, offering chopping, medium and fine slicing and grating. I love the smooth, swift way it can swallow the likes of woody broccoli stalks, peppers, carrots, celery…and whatever I throw in it, and transform the bunch into slender, flavorful vegetable ribbons that are a brighter, tastier throwback to finely sliced, old school chow mein. Along those same lines, I’m grateful for the beautiful deliciousness and ease of stir-fries; the colorful, healthy way the cluttered contents of what’s left in the fridge combined with the distracted methods of a muddled mind can form a cohesive, satisfying, variable dish. It’s what we’re eating pretty much all week. And I’m thankful to have had coffee with Santa.
We all know it takes many hands to do good work, to share in spreading joy and cheer the weary and growing wearier world over. There’s a need for many helpers, none of whom make any of the others any less real. For Longmont’s John Chilson, an international marketing consultant, teacher, and speaker, a remarkable journey began in October of 1999, when he spotted a particularly fun $35 Santa suit, complete with covers for boots, a wig, bag for toys and cozy hat, at Walmart. “I’ve had a beard since ’72, and was a natural fit for a Santa” he told me Tuesday morning at a local coffee shop, eyes twinkling over his red flannel shirt while sipping his drink. “The outfit looked like fun. I put a note on neighbors’ doors that Santa would be sitting outside our house at certain dates, and there it began. Before I knew it, I was Santa.”
Mr. Chilson helped to found the Society of Santa, where people can search for available Santas who are reliable, professional, and with completed background checks and performance and liability insurance, for their events. His website, Santa Claus at the North Pole, dazzles with cheerful offerings including videos, Santa-approved gift recommendations, downloadable coloring pages, updated calendar of Santa’s schedule, recipes, favorite music and more. And upon meeting Santa John, it goes without saying, being Santa is far more than a job. It is a year-round lifestyle, one which entails always wearing red and driving a red car with the license plate “North Pole”, among many other fine details. Meeting him Tuesday brightened my day. He was so kind, so compassionate, so authentic.
Wednesday morning I woke up feeling despondent for our country and the hate, fear, and violent simmering of its stark divides. The feeling was at first immobilizing. I found myself returning to pieces of my conversation with Santa the day before. Namely, the magical potential of little kindnesses. Santa John shared stories of hospitals, shelters, family events, each special and stirring in its own way. He talked of teens whose eyes filled with tears when he told them he believed in them, because, “no one had ever said that to them before.” He talked about how blown away he was by an older woman in the hospital when he recognized how much comfort he was able to give her by simply saying, as Santa, ‘you have permission not to get everything done for Christmas’. The red suit delivers. “It’s rather addictive putting on the red suit,” he told me. “There’s power, and not the kind that comes from personal gain, though I do gain so much from it. In fact, I’m happier with myself, more accepting of myself. That is a big part of what I love most.”
I know I’ve taken a huge leap and tangent talking about a talk with Santa in a post about an easy stir-fry you could probably make with your eyes closed. I can’t even say I know whether Santa John himself would enjoy this noodle dish, but I do know he’d sample with appreciation. But somehow this week, Santa and noodles seemed to deserve a shared space, if only in my mind. I am only one person, and without a red suit. But I can choose kindness where possible, and that does mean something. This week Santa reminded me, little things are powerful. They are the way forward to cohesive, colorful hope.
- 1 8-ounce package of extra firm tofu, cubed
- 1 1-inch piece ginger root, peeled and minced
- 2 garlic gloves, minced
- 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
- 3 bell peppers (red, orange, yellow), julienned
- 1 large broccoli stalk, thinly sliced
- 1 cup mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 1 8-ounce can water chestnuts, sliced and drained
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable stock or broth
- ¼ cup hoisin sauce
- ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup (or honey if non vegan)
- 1 T tomato paste
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Cooking spray
- Preheat oven to 400 F.
- Prepare a baking sheet with cooking spray or line with silpat. Evenly spread cubed tofu on tray and bake 30 minutes, turning halfway through.
- In a pot of boiling water, cook noodles according to package directions. Drain well and set aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together broth, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice vinegar, syrup or honey and tomato paste. Set aside.
- Heat oil (or cooking spray) in a large nonstick skillet. Add ginger and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until garlic is lightly browned.
- Add all the vegetables and water chestnuts to pan. Cook, stirring, 3 minutes.
- Add sauce. Bring mixture to a near boil, reduce heat and let simmer until slightly reduced and thickened, about 4 minutes.
- Stir in noodles and tofu and serve.
You don’t need this recipe for pasta salad. That is, one of many brilliant aspects of salad is the versatile, no-brainer assembly. You can put just about anything you like in them, your pasta can be gluten-free or not, and in fact you don’t even actually need pasta. But I need to share this peanut sauce with you.
It can be almond sauce, if you’d prefer. Probably even sun-butter. One day, I swear I’m going to play around with a variation using tahini, only I’m afraid said “variation” will really be a tahini dressing that, while yummy, isn’t so much riff as departure.
This peanut sauce, though. I first made it when I was creating this salad for Ancient Harvest two years ago, and since I use it all the time. It works in wraps, in spring rolls, as dressing, with stir-fries and noodle bowls. It’s the glue that brings it all, whatever “it” is, together.
My brain has been throwing that phrase back at me a lot lately (about the glue). Recently I’ve been expanding my writing work in a fulfilling, productive way that still allows the greatest flexibility I could hope for, maximizing time with the not-so-Little Monkey. Just enough to remind me in those woebegone moments flung from who knows where, I’m still me and I can grow and be resilient as simply me. Because so much of what’s best in life right now is dependent on one very important center outside of myself.
Lately, beyond the narrow, scheduled borders of work, workouts, and the tornado fillers of rushing around the house in a mad dash of chores, most of my hours are spent in a playful in-between place of play that can be idle and exhausting, vibrant and trying. Often this play includes a special crew:
Monk/Lil’ Monk/Monkey, Charlie, Fuzzy Charlie, Rackanooey (not sure how to spell), and the Croc…these stuffed toys are a bundle of fun. They were “The Buddies”, then “The Boys”, sometimes “The Girls”, and this week they’re “The Guys”. I love the way “The Guys” are fun-loving, and wonderfully engaged in exploring problem-solving with role play. We navigate countless topics and fears with them. They also love to sing and dance. Sometimes in the process my head starts to pound with the achy knowledge of the to-do list in the background. But I’m sooo going to miss these days.
Sometimes I remember that I used to and still love doing plenty of different things, all by myself. Always I realize, I wouldn’t be spending so much of my life this way as just me, by choice: sitting on the floor negotiating what the reaction should be to a line of stuffed animals taking it in turns to do a poo poo on the carpet. Usually, “Dr. Felix” ruthlessly administers powerful shots to each poor creature. Often “Chef Felix” takes over concocting remedies of plastic vegetable soup (unfortunately, sometimes this turns out to be contaminated with throw-up). Whatever the outcome, Felix is the key. He’s the glue that holds it all together. He turns plastic into magic and frustration into fun.
Sometimes I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand on my own two feet in whatever new life is around the corner as my Little Monkey needs my physical presence less and less. These days, I tear myself up with fear about everything, mostly how I’ll know how to handle the world and how it will receive my aging self. Then the sunlight shines on the still plump apple cheek and everything feels better again. I can tell myself, the dishes may take different forms; there will still be peanut sauce.
- 1 pound pasta (I like Ancient Harvest's gluten- free black bean & quinoa elbows, and regular pasta, any shape)
- 1/4 cup natural creamy peanut or almond butter
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy or tamari sauce
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 tablespoon honey (maple syrup for vegan)
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
- 2 carrots, grated or cut julienne
- 1 English cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced
- 4 cups baby spinach, washed
- Toasted sesame seeds for garnish
- Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain, rinse, and set aside.
- Using a whisk or fork, combine peanut or almond butter, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, lime juice, honey and ginger in a small bowl and mix until smooth.
- In a large bowl, toss pasta, sauce, and vegetables. Garnish with sesame seeds to serve, slightly warm or chilled.