Sweet Potato Chew Treats

As parents everywhere are putting the finishing touches on Christmas gifts and treats for their children, we have a similar situation at our house, but with a slight difference. Our children have paws and whiskers.

Nilla, guarding the stockings in 2019.

This will be the sixth year that my husband, Les, and I will stuff stockings for our pets. On Christmas morning, there will be plenty of joyful ruckus in our living room, as they will enjoy new toys, a few packaged treats and some extra special surprises.

For our spoiled cat, Taz, the big surprise will be a new, tall cat tree. Her old one, which Les bought to help her feel at home when the cats and I were preparing to move into his (now our) house, had seen better days, and we moved it to the garage toward the end of summer. Like any cat, Taz likes to be on top of things, and I predict that she will quickly claim the tree’s top perch as her new favorite spot, just as she did with the last tree.

Little Miss Spoiled. ❤

And sweet Nilla, our 13-year-old husky mix, has already been looking forward to opening her stocking—so much so, that she has excitedly brought the stocking to us a few times since we unpacked the Christmas decorations. It’s empty, but she remembers Christmas mornings past, and no wonder, with these tasty, chewy, totally healthy treats tucked inside.

It’s Nilla’s Christmas dreams come true. 🙂

Nilla’s love for vegetables is not limited to sweet potatoes. She gives equal time to green beans, red bell peppers, butternut squash, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, raw asparagus, peas, carrots and (her all-time favorite) spaghetti squash. But these sweet potato chews have become a bit of a tradition for us at Christmas, and I cannot refuse this sweet girl!

If you also have a very good dog at home, here is a treat that is easy to make and delightful to share with your furry loved one. All you need is a couple of good-sized sweet potatoes, a sheet pan and an oven. Cut the sweet potatoes into thin slices—lengthwise if you have a large dog and crosswise into chips for a small dog—and roast them at a low temperature until they are somewhat dehydrated and chewy. So easy! Dogs love the flavor and texture of these one-ingredient treats, and the vitamins and fiber are good for their bellies.

Please consult your veterinarian if your dog has dietary issues and remember that although your dog will want to eat the whole batch in one sitting, it’s best to share these sweet potato chews as treats rather than a replacement for their regular feedings.


Ingredients

Fresh sweet potatoes—that’s it!

Olive oil spray and ground cinnamon (optional)


Instructions

Preheat oven to 300° F, with two oven racks in the near-center positions. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Scrub the sweet potatoes (peeling is not necessary) and slice them into ¼” thick pieces. Arrange the slices in a single layer on the parchment-lined sheets. If you wish, spray the slices very lightly with olive oil spray and sprinkle a touch of ground cinnamon onto one side of the slices. Do not use salt or sugar, as both are not great for dogs.

Roast for about two hours, turning the sweet potato slices over halfway through roasting time. When the potatoes reach a chewy, firm texture, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

Note that the sweet potatoes will continue to dry and harden a bit after removal from the oven, so you don’t want to roast them until they are fully dry.

Keep the cooled sweet potatoes in an airtight container in the fridge. For Nilla’s stocking, I like to wrap up a handful in a piece of plain parchment paper. Here’s a sneak peak at what Christmas will be at our house.

Merry Christmas!


‘Tis the Season.

No matter your religious leaning or background, this time of year is meant to inspire joy and wonder. It is inevitable as the new year approaches that we take stock of the year that is almost done, and we will begin to make plans (if we haven’t already) for the next one. As if our best-laid plans really set the course for anything these days. I can barely get things off the ground for a weekend, so I dare not even look ahead to the coming year just yet.

As the year closes, I find myself as frazzled and worn out as I always seem to be this time of year, and though some of my exhaustion is my own doing, the rest is the culmination of a busy season at my job, preparations for the holidays and confusion in the wake of our kitchen remodel (I still can’t find everything). I am convinced that peace does not come from getting everything done, but from letting things go.

Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control.

Jack Kornfield, American author and Buddhist teacher

We put up our tree last Friday night, an endeavor that always seems to provoke passionate differences of opinion. My Jewish husband (who only began erecting Christmas trees a few slight years ago when he hooked up with me) had some unconventional ideas about how to stabilize the wobbly tree in our cheapo plastic Christmas tree stand. And I (of course, being me) provided a fair amount of pushback on his helpful suggestions. To some degree, I admit my resistance to Les’s ideas was result of my perfectionism, but mostly, I was having flashbacks of Christmas trees past, toppled over in the middle of the night, with microscopic shards of glass splayed in every direction. This is no fun, especially with pets in the house, and given that our tree is adorned with special, impossible-to-replace ornaments, some of which I have had since I was a child.

After several rounds of shouting over the problem of stabilizing the tree (obviously, that didn’t help anything), I did what any reasonable (and utterly exasperated) person would do. I asked the internet if anyone, after all these centuries of decorating indoor trees, had yet discovered a better way to prop the damn thing up. Lo and behold, a German-based company has cracked the code on Christmas tree stands with a carefully engineered cable-and-lever system. So we shoved the half-steady, strung-with-lights tree into the corner and made a run to Ace Hardware the next morning to get this stand, which has an ingenious method for securing the tree, and even alerts me to the water level. Best $79 I’ve spent so far this Christmas. To be fair, since I haven’t yet begun my shopping, it is the only $79 I have spent. But this tree stand is not playing.

As we began digging through our box of whimsical ornaments, including the one we picked up in Asbury Park at the end of our summer vacation, we realized that it had been exactly two years to the day since we lost our sweet cat, Zoe. This little girl looooved Christmas, especially lying beneath the tree, and she even knew which stocking was hers. I still miss her so much. When she left for the Rainbow Bridge, I had printed her sweet face onto a sheet of vellum paper and inserted it into a glass ornament tied up with ribbon.

Placing her precious kitty face in the best, most prominent spot on the tree was a reset button on our moods, and we spent the rest of the day reminiscing over the stories behind our eclectic ornament collection and eventually lighting the menorah on that seventh night of Hanukkah. And a short-lived peace fell upon us.

With the tree secured and decorated, it was officially “Christmukkah” at our house!

I have been reflecting on a message that our rabbi shared in his Hanukkah message, pondering the miracle of the oil. It is easy enough to understand what made the overall event of Hanukkah miraculous—the oil being enough to keep the eternal lamps going for eight nights, despite the fact there was only one night’s worth of oil in the jar—but what was the big deal about the first night, for which the oil was already sufficient? As Rabbi Mark put it, the miracle of the first night was that the people had faith to go ahead and light the lamp. They had no idea what would happen on the other nights, but they trusted that things would work out, and that it wouldn’t be by their own figuring or planning or careful conservation of oil. Without their faith on that first night, the miracle would not have been realized.

This is a good message for me. During the holiday season (and any other time I feel overwhelmed), my default mode is to freeze up and fret about whatever it is I’m running short of, and it’s always something: time, resources, strength, faith, help, extension cords. This year feels particularly rough—we had no sooner returned from our fabulous, much-needed vacation, and it was time to dismantle the kitchen for six weeks of remodeling, which wrapped up (mostly) at the start of what was literally the busiest, most hectic two weeks of the year for my day job. Amid the chaos of long workdays, Les and I had to move everything back into the kitchen, then it was time for aesthetic adjustments to the new cabinets just two days before Thanksgiving. Whew. Not 72 hours later came Hanukkah, and now here we are staring down the Advent season and barreling toward Christmas. Yep, I’m pretty well frozen in terms of getting things done, including sharing any of it here on Comfort du Jour. But another thing happened last weekend to give me pause and put my priorities under a microscope.

On Sunday, Les suggested that we take our dog, Nilla, to her favorite downtown brew pub for a relaxing afternoon. Nilla knows everyone at Fiddlin’ Fish, it seems, and we love watching her soak up the attention of the staff, fellow patrons and other dogs. It was a beautiful day and we should have gone. But we stayed home because I felt strangely obligated to follow through on making more latkes (using parsnips, carrots and purple sweet potatoes). I wanted to get that done and posted on the blog while it was still Hanukkah, as if it made any difference. My day in the kitchen did not end well, and if I could go back to that afternoon, I’d make a different decision. Our Nilla turned 13 at Thanksgiving and one (hopefully far away) day, we will have to memorialize her sweet face on the Christmas tree. Doing something together that is fun for Nilla brings joy, and I hate that we gave it up for lousy latkes. This weekend, we will be there.

She even gets a sip of beer when we chill at the brew pub!

It is not only the Hanukkah miracle that has been on my mind. There is a well-known story in the Bible’s New Testament about two sisters entertaining Jesus in their home. One of the sisters, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet, enthralled at every word He spoke. And the other sister, Martha, was busy as a beaver in the kitchen and she complained that Mary was not helping and that she had to prepare the meal by herself. Jesus gently informed her that Mary had the right idea. Martha was missing out on the wonder.

When I’m doing Martha’s kind of “busy,” I can be robbing myself of peace, and when I am caught up in all the self-imposed trappings of the season, I do miss the joy and wonder. What I want most of all is to be fully present for the holiday season, and I will be thankful to see people face-to-face rather than on Zoom calls. I want to experience the pleasure of simple things like sipping hot cocoa by our chiminea on a cold December night. I want to make Christmas cookies—not for the blog, but just because I love making them and never seem to make the time. And this year, for the first time by myself, I’m going to make “crub,” a traditional Norwegian dish that was always on the table at my great-grandparents’ tiny little house on Christmas Eve. It is not a photogenic dish and I may or may not post it later, but it is special to me and tastes like home. Great-Gram, whose crub recipe is scattered across the country with her descendants, had words of wisdom for times like these. She’d say, regarding things that went wrong or didn’t get done, “a hundred years from now, nobody will ever know the difference.” It’s funny how that comes back to me now, and I’m grateful that I knew her.

Les asked me the other night if I was ever going to post the story from our vacation about the fantastic VIP tour I experienced at one of the nation’s top-ranked pizzerias. I’ve been sitting on it for three months now, and yes, eventually I will share it. Others (maybe even you, dear reader) have wondered, “Are you ever going to show us your kitchen?” Yes, and I’ll be excited to do it. But I am busy actually using the kitchen for Christmas and I don’t want to stop to tidy it up for pictures just now. But I promise, soon.

We will always fall short of something at the holiday season. This year, I want to fall short of stress, and I want to open the door for joy and wonder to enter. I hope the same for you! ❤



Lentil Moussaka

Sumptuous layers of Mediterranean flavor—béchamel-topped eggplant, potatoes and ground meat seasoned with a delightfully different tomato-y sauce. Moussaka is one of my favorite Greek-themed foods. It’s not quite lasagna, not quite eggplant parmesan, but 100% the comfort food value of both, and while the one pictured is a vegetarian version, there is also a simple switch to make it vegan.

You read correctly. Vegan moussaka. All the flavor, all the richness, all the comfort, but none of the meat. And it’s way easier to make than you might imagine. I’ve learned that when it comes to “converting” a meat-centric recipe into a vegan delight, if you keep your focus on the spices and flavors, you’ll have a winner. It’s not the meat that makes moussaka special, but the other layers of flavor around it, and especially the tomato sauce. Unlike an Italian red sauce, this one gets its distinct flavor from warm spices, such as cinnamon and coriander. And if we can nail those flavors, it really doesn’t matter what goes in place of the meat—but of course, I’ll offer some suggestions to get you started.

This is my approach to making a vegan version of a classic dish. I want protein, texture and flavor—the three things the meat would otherwise contribute to the moussaka, and the rest of the recipe will remain traditional. Lentils will bring the protein, and they’re one of the earliest crops domesticated in ancient Greece, so they’re already speaking the same language as the spices and eggplant. And I love lentils! One cup of cooked lentils packs a hefty 16 grams of protein, about the same as a 3-ounce serving of cooked ground beef. They add more than 15 grams of dietary fiber, too. Nutrition-wise, this is a very smart substitute. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably be looking at garbanzo beans.

Plenty of vegetables provide the other qualities my recipe needs, but I want to avoid the ones that might compete with the eggplant and especially that scrumptious sauce. Bell peppers are great with eggplant (I can’t wait to make ratatouille this summer), but the flavor feels a little off for moussaka. Broccoli is too bitter. Green beans are too specific in shape. Zucchini is a little high on water content. I need something I can chop or pulse into smaller pieces in the food processor. That leaves me with cauliflower, washed kale leaves, onions and carrots. There’s good body in all of them, and they’ll hold their shape after a quick sauté.

There are a few other tricks I’ll employ to make this dish hearty and satisfying. I’ll salt and sweat the eggplant slices to make them more “meat-like,” and nutritional yeast will help bring an umami experience to the vegan bechamel topping, which would otherwise be bland and uninteresting. My husband’s adult daughter has embraced the vegan lifestyle, and she comes to town every so often for special dinners. As a result, all these ideas have become very common to me, but I don’t want to assume all of this makes sense to you, dear friends, so let me back up a little bit.

What does it mean to “salt and sweat” the eggplant?

Layering the sliced eggplant on salted paper towels will draw out the moisture from the eggplant, which improves the texture a great deal, especially when I want to grill or roast the eggplant as a replacement for meat. If you’ve ever had slimy, bitter or soggy eggplant, somebody skipped this step. Please give eggplant another chance. Properly “sweated,” eggplant will be remarkably meaty and substantial—exactly what we want in this moussaka. Take care of this step a couple hours before you’re ready to make the full recipe.

What is nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast is a common substitute for cheesy flavor in vegan cuisine. It’s the same species, but not the same form as the yeast you’d use to bake bread. Nutritional yeast is a yellowish flaky substance, widely available at any natural foods store or online from Bob’s Red Mill. It provides some of the salty, savory quality you would expect in a hard cheese such as parmesan. It’s tasty just sprinkled on hot popcorn. And for the vegan moussaka, it will lend a familiar “cheesiness” to the béchamel alternative.

What does “umami” mean?

When I was a kid, we learned in science class that the human taste buds recognized four main things—sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But within the past decade or so, a fifth taste, “umami” was officially invited to join the party. It’s a savory flavor that is most easily described by example. Think of what you taste when you bite into a piece of steak, or a sautéed mushroom, or a piece of sharp cheese. This savory sensation is distinctly different from the other four tastes and is often the missing link in meatless dishes. If you can successfully supply this “umami” taste, you’ll be victorious in every vegan dish.

A.K.A. “The Bomb.”

This new seasoning from Trader Joe’s is one of the best ingredients ever for meeting this goal (no, they’re not paying me to say so). It is made from ground dried porcini and other mushrooms, plus garlic, onion, thyme, salt and some red pepper spice. I fell completely in love with this stuff last year at Thanksgiving, and I sometimes use it even in non-vegan dishes.

Ready? Let’s get cooking!


Ingredients

1 medium eggplant, sliced, salted and sweated

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, with peels

1 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped

1/4 head fresh cauliflower florets, rough chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and rough chopped

Several handfuls of washed kale leaves

Spice blend (listed below)

2 cups cooked lentils (I used a blend of red, brown and green)

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup dry red wine

Béchamel or vegan alternative (recipe below)


Spice Blend

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. Spanish sweet or smoked paprika

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground coriander

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper


Vegan Béchamel

4 Tbsp. vegan butter*

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups plain, unsweetened almond milk

Kosher salt

Fresh grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp. white pepper

2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes

1/2 tsp. Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning (optional)

1/4 cup dried potato flakes* (if needed for thickening)

*Notes

Some vegan butter brands will work better than others in this recipe. For the roux that will be the base of a cream sauce, choose an oil-based option. Earth Balance brand used to be my go-to, but my new favorite is the Country Crock line of plant-based butters (they’re not paying me, either). In this recipe, I used the avocado oil version. It melts perfectly and has a pleasant, neutral flavor.

When purchasing potato flakes (or any other processed ingredient) for vegan recipes, take notice of the label to be sure they don’t have some hidden dairy ingredient. I’m partial to the “instant mashed potatoes” available at Whole Foods. There’s only one ingredient—dehydrated potatoes. I love when something is simple.


Instructions

Wash the eggplant and trim the stem end, but do not peel it. Place a double layer of paper towels on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. Slice the eggplant into 1/2″ thick rounds and arrange them in a single layer on the salted towel. Sprinkle salt over the tops of the slices. Place another double layer of paper towels over the top of the eggplant slices, then place another cookie sheet, weighted by a cast iron pan, over the top. Allow this to rest on the counter a couple of hours.

When you are ready to proceed, pre-heat the oven to 350° F. Wipe the excess salt from the eggplant slices. You might be shocked at the amount of moisture the salting step has removed. Brush (or spray) both sides of the slices with extra virgin olive oil and arrange them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Grind some black pepper over them, and roast for about 30 minutes, turning once about halfway through. They will shrink considerably but that’s OK.

Scrub the potatoes clean and poke them all over with a fork. Microwave them for about 4 minutes, or until they are just tender enough to slice (not as tender as you’d serve). Cool, then slice them into rounds about 1/2” thick. This is a little thicker than I would slice them for a traditional meat-centric moussaka, but in this vegan version, I want them to provide a little extra body for the foundation of the casserole.

In a food processor with the chopping blade, add the rough chopped cauliflower and carrots. Pulse about 5 times, until vegetables have a coarse, uniform texture.

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium heat and add about 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the chopped onions and the processed carrot-cauliflower pieces. Stir and sauté while you process the kale.

Fill the food processor bowl with kale leaves, and pulse about 5 times until the kale is reduced to about half the original volume. The appearance of chopped parsley is just about right.

Add the chopped kale to the skillet and sauté the whole mixture about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, season with kosher salt, then add the spice mixture and cook another 2 minutes. Add the cooked lentils and the entire can of crushed tomatoes. Get every bit of flavor by “rinsing” the can with the red wine. Simmer on medium low heat about 10 minutes until liquid is reduced.

Assembling the Moussaka

Spray an oblong (9 x 13) glass baking dish with olive oil spray. Arrange the cooked potato slices in a single layer, placing them as close to each other as possible to  provide a good base for the casserole. Add about half of the sauce mixture and spread it evenly over the potatoes. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer, then top with the remaining sauce mixture. If you’re working ahead, you can pop this in the fridge for a day or two until you’re ready to add the vegan béchamel and bake the casserole. If you prefer a classic dairy béchamel, follow this recipe but with dairy butter and milk, and skip the nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. We usually toss on a handful of fresh parm-romano blend also. After baking, it should come out pretty much like this one:

Lentil moussaka with dairy bechamel

To make a vegan béchamel, begin by melting the vegan butter and cooking the flour in it until it becomes lightly golden and bubbly. Add the almond milk, then cook and whisk over medium heat several minutes until mixture begins to thicken. Add salt, fresh nutmeg, white pepper, nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. Spread over the layered casserole and bake at 350° F for about 40 minutes, or until you can see the inside sauce bubbling around the edges of the béchamel. Give it a couple minutes to cool and firm up, then dive right in.

My brand of almond milk was on the thin side and didn’t thicken as well as I’d expected. I resolved the viscosity issue by whisking in about 1/4 cup of dehydrated potato flakes. I’m a bread-making nerd, so I have such things on hand. Without it, I probably would have made flour or corn starch slurry to whisk into the sauce instead. But the potato trick worked like a charm, and it made kind of an “echo” of potato-ness from the bottom of the casserole. If your béchamel seems to be the correct consistency, this step would not be necessary, but still delicious.

This dish has become a “go-to” recipe for our Meatless Monday rotation, and my husband, Les, and I generally don’t mind having some dairy ingredients in the béchamel topping. Frankly, we prefer it because we love his DIY parm-romano cheese blend lavishly sprinkled on top. But we were delightfully surprised on Memorial Day weekend to hear from his adult daughter—Syd was planning to drive two hours into town for a visit and wondered if she could bring her boyfriend to meet us around midday the next day. Of course! Let’s plan on lunch while we’re at it. Normally, a bit more notice gives me greater confidence in preparing a completely plant-based meal, but as fate would have it, this lentil moussaka was already in my plan for the weekend. Coincidence? We don’t believe in coincidences in our house.

By the time Syd phoned us, I had already prepped the moussaka up to the point of adding the béchamel, so we made a last-minute decision to divide the 9 x 13 casserole into two smaller 8 x 8 casseroles—one with dairy béchamel and the other with a vegan alternative.

Dairy on the left, vegan on the right.

Side by side, you can see the slight difference between our two versions. Underneath the topping, they were exactly the same. The spices offered a nice complexity, and the texture of the lentils, cauliflower and kale made it feel substantial—all the things I described when we first talked about Meatless Monday.

Les is a great dad (and husband), and he gets pretty excited any time either of his kids pay a visit, and we were extra lucky that day because his adult son also happened to join us for our moussaka dinner. Alex came home unexpectedly from Hungary during the early weeks of the pandemic and having both of his kids with us at once was a real treat. Honestly, it was the first sit-down meal we’ve hosted for guests since New Year’s Eve—five whole months ago. For a couple of hours, life felt almost normal.

So excuse me forgetting, but I got a little sidetracked and missed taking pictures of the casserole just out of the oven or even at the table. One of the new things I’m learning during this pandemic is to pay closer attention to the people you love while they’re in front of you. If that means I miss a photo of the plated food—well, no big deal. I’ll update this post when I make it again one day. 😊

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