What in the world does a groundhog know about the weather, anyway? It fascinates me to realize how many people lay their meteorological hopes on a fat, furry rodent from western Pennsylvania—and I say this facetiously, fully aware that folks in the western part of my own North Carolina do the same every fall with woolly worms.
Do I care what the Punxsutawney rascal saw this morning, when he emerged from his hole? Not really, given that his predictions for early spring vs. six more weeks of winter only hold about 39% accuracy. My local weather peeps get it right far more often than that. Still, it doesn’t surprise me to know that Punxsutawney Phil has his own Instagram account with nearly 14k followers. I believe this is ultimately because people are bored half to death after being cooped up inside with cold, gray, dreary weather, and they are just looking for something to amuse themselves. You can count me among them in that regard (and we haven’t even had snow this year).
It’s why I’ve been dreaming of this salad, and I finally made it last night in my own attempt to shake off the midwinter blues and blahs. My original intent was to make it a few weeks ago, and I had purchased all the ingredients to make it happen, but then we got Covid in our house—as if January, on its own, wasn’t miserable enough—and all bets (and burners) were off. Luckily, most of my ingredients for this vibrant, flavorful salad are sturdy; the sweet potatoes, cabbage, parsnips and onions kept well, and the only thing I had to buy new was the kale. Beyond that, the salad has so many things I love—tender lentils, cooked beets (I used store bought), feta, toasted pecans and a spectacular smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette that appeared to me in a dream not long ago.
The dressing begins with a generous shake of dried minced onions, which you’ll rehydrate with some just-boiled water. Add Dijon, rice vinegar, salt and pepper, sriracha and smoked maple syrup (I love this stuff from Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind, and you’ll appreciate what it does for an old fashioned cocktail, too). Whisk in some extra virgin olive oil and set it aside until salad time. This vinaigrette brings such a huge flavor punch, I know I’ll be making it again soon, and probably roasting vegetables in it at some point before spring finally arrives in, you know, six weeks or whatever.
Is the salad easy to make? Yes, and if you want to swap in different root vegetables, go for it. If you aren’t loving the lentils, I think canned or fresh-cooked cannellini beans would be a great swap-in, or even a hard-boiled egg for a bit of protein. For an entirely plant-based salad, skip the feta and add some cubes of tofu (marinated in the vinaigrette, of course).
I can’t say for sure how long it takes to make this gorgeous plate, because I worked on bits and pieces of it while multi-tasking my day job and scrolling punxseyphil’s Instagram feed. I can assure that none of it is difficult. Make the dressing first so the flavors have time to mingle. The kale needs to be cleaned, dried and massaged with olive oil and kosher salt. I like a nice, peppery olive oil for this, and I absolutely love how tender the kale emerges after its spa treatment. What’s leftover will be great in another salad or tossed into an omelet or on top of a pizza.
The sweet potatoes and parsnips are peeled (or scrubbed), cut into chunks, tossed with onions and oil, and then roasted at 400° F for about 40 minutes—toss ‘em once or twice midway so they roast evenly.
And I cooked my lentils from dried, which I know can be a challenge so here’s my advice: ditch the directions on the bag—they always turn to mush. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to lentils, but cook them over half the heat for two to three times longer than recommended in the directions. Add a bay leaf. It takes some time, yes, but for your patience you’ll be rewarded with perfectly tender, intact lentils. They are loaded with protein and I love the flavor of these little guys.
The only thing left is assembling the salad, and that’s the easiest part. You don’t have to be all artistic about it, but I find it satisfying to compose a plate that looks as terrific as it tastes. Kale goes on the bottom of course, topped with some of the shredded red cabbage. Then add a section of lentils, a pile of the warm, roasted root vegetables and a little row of beet slices. Run a winding trail of cubed feta down through the middle, let the toasted pecans fall where they may, and drizzle the dressing all over it, especially onto the feta and lentils.
Midwinter Salad with Smoked Maple-Sriracha Vinaigrette
This salad is nutritious, colorful and bursting with flavor. Guaranteed to help you shake off the midwinter blahs!
1 large bunch fresh, organic kale
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for massaging kale)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage
1 small sweet onion, chopped
2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
2 medium parsnips, cut into large chunks
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for roasting root vegetables)
2 cups cooked green lentils
4 small, cooked beets, sliced
2/3 cup cubed feta (preferably brine-packed)
1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken into pieces
Smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette (recipe below)
Prep kale by rinsing under cold running water. Strip leaves and discard tough stems. Roll kale leaves up in a clean dish towel to blot dry, then tear into bite-sized pieces and add to a large bowl. Drizzle kale leaves with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt. Massage with your hands until kale is wilted, and then cover the bowl and refrigerate a couple of hours.
Preheat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil directly onto the parchment, add cut up sweet potatoes, parsnips and onions. Drizzle on remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables around to coat them with the oil. Roast for 40 minutes, until tender with roasted edges. Toss vegetables once or twice midway through roasting.
Plate the salad, beginning with chilled massage kale for the base, then scatter the shreds of red cabbage. Arrange the remaining elements of the salad in piles around the salad; a pile of lentils, a large pile of roasted root vegetables, a fan of sliced beets and a winding line of feta cubes. Sprinkle the toasted pecans randomly over the salad. Drizzle on the vinaigrette and serve.
The dressing is really the star of this salad, with its smoked maple sweetness and spicy sriracha. Look for the smoked maple syrup online from a company called “Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind,” or substitute regular maple syrup for a similar flavor. Use the unseasoned version of rice vinegar, which is not embellished with additional salt.
Combine the dried onion and hot water in a glass measuring cup, and let rest until onions are softened (they will not absorb all the water, but do not drain it).
Add sriracha, syrup, mustard, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper to the measuring cup and whisk to combine. Drizzle olive oil into the cup, whisking constantly to emulsify the mixture. Dressing will improve after it rests awhile; give it a good whisking right before serving.
One of my favorite condiments is tzatziki, the Greek yogurt-based topping that is perfect for anything you put on a pita, including gyro and souvlaki. The zesty zing of garlic and cooling notes of grated cucumber are an easy, refreshing way to pile on the flavor. But for a vegan dish, such as the falafel I made recently, tzatziki is off the table. We wanted a flavorful topping that still had a Middle Eastern vibe, and one that could play many roles, as a dipping sauce, topping or dressing.
That’s how this tahini-lemon sauce came to be, and as I whizzed up the ingredients in my food processor, it occurred to me that this sauce is basically hummus, minus the chickpeas. All the other components of hummus are in there—the tahini, which is a sticky paste made from ground toasted sesame seeds, fresh garlic, fresh lemon juice, salt, spices and good olive oil. Processing these ingredients results in a smooth, completely emulsified mixture that can be thick or thin, depending on how much water your blend into it. For my purposes this time, I kept it on the thicker side as a perfect dipping agent for my falafel, but I can easily see the benefit of thinning it to pour onto a salad or Buddha bowl.
My husband’s adult daughter has adopted the vegan lifestyle, and I am always on the lookout for easy foods to make when she visits. This tahini-lemon sauce fits the bill, and it’s so tasty that we non-vegans won’t feel like we are missing out on anything.
1/2 cup tahini paste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon
A few shakes of crushed red pepper* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. fresh dill leaves
1/4 cup water (or more, for thinner sauce)
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
The crushed red pepper flakes that you see in pizza restaurants would be fine here, but if you can get your hands on Aleppo pepper, that is even more in keeping with the Mediterranean flavor profile. We used a three-pepper blend (Aleppo, Maras and Urfa) from Flatiron Pepper Company, and their rep informed me that it will be back in stock in a few months. I’ll update this post at that time to include a link, in case you’d like to check it out.
This recipe was shared with me many years ago by a friend who had the craziest schedule I’d ever witnessed. When she wasn’t running full speed ahead with her two middle-schoolers—to dance classes, soccer practice, music lessons, birthday parties, etc.—she was leading a high school youth group, teaching aerobics classes, volunteering at church and befriending every newcomer to the neighborhood. Her door was always open to visitors, even during the hectic holidays, and she always seemed to have something tasty to nibble on when someone appeared unexpectedly.
She didn’t have what I would call a passion for cooking, and certainly not much time, but she was incredibly skilled at getting a healthful and satisfying meal on the table in no time flat. This soup is one example, and when I pulled it out of my old recipe box the other day, I thought, “of course.” This is not an all-day-simmer kind of soup; rather, it leverages the already developed flavors of two key ingredients—jarred salsa and canned refried beans. Add some fresh onions and bell pepper, some veggie broth and your choice of chili beans and dinner is served.
The soup is every bit as comforting as any other homemade soup, but only takes 20 minutes, start to finish, which just happens to be the exact amount of time you need to throw a batch of Jiffy corn muffins into the oven (they’re perfect on the side).
What could be easier after a hectic day of shopping and errands during the busy holiday season?
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 bell pepper (any color), chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Cumin, salt and pepper
1 cup prepared salsa from a jar* (see notes)
2 cans beans (mix and match; pinto, black, kidney, navy are all good here)
2 cups low-sodium vegetable (or chicken) broth
1 can refried beans
Corn muffins for serving (optional, but yummy)
Any kind of savory salsa will work here. It can be mild or spicy, green or red, thick or runny. If you have a can of Rotel tomatoes on hand, you could also substitute with that.
Get your corn muffins in the oven, if you’re making them. This soup can be made while they are baking.
Drain and rinse the canned beans.
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Saute onion and pepper until softened. Add garlic and saute another minute or two. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.
Increase heat to medium-high. Add canned beans, salsa and broth, and stir to combine. When mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to medium. Stir in the can of refried beans, taking time to swirl and blend it into the broth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer until ready to serve.
With so much to do in advance of Thanksgiving, it may seem a little nuts to make the gravy ahead but hear me out on this. There are two big reasons I like to make this vegan mushroom gravy, and neither is related to having a vegan guest at the table.
First, the final minutes before dinner are hectic—the turkey has to be rested before carving, and the oven braces itself for round two, as I shove a baking sheet of vegetables in to roast or a casserole for final re-heating. The warmed dishes all need to be brought to the table and you can’t really make the turkey gravy until after the bird has emerged from the oven. If something goes wrong with the turkey gravy (been there, done that), I love having the savory, earthy flavors of this mushroom gravy as a backup.
Secondly, the mushroom gravy is less heavy—both in flavor and in calories—than a typical turkey gravy. It more than satisfies my craving for gravy without cranking up my cholesterol levels. Besides being completely delicious and easy to make several days ahead of the holiday commotion, this gravy can do double duty as a sauce for green bean casserole. And when we do have a vegan guest at the table, I like to do just one version of that dish for everyone to enjoy.
Rave reviews from all around the table, made from simple ingredients and easy to do ahead; this is a winner no matter how you slice, er, pour it. 😉
8 oz. carton of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced or pulsed in processor
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 Tbsp. mushroom and sage-infused olive oil (+ 2 Tbsp. more later in the recipe)
The umami seasoning is a Trader Joe’s product, and it gets plenty of use whenever I’m making a vegan dish. The ingredients are porcini and white mushroom powders, dried onions, ground mustard, crushed red pepper and dried thyme. It brings a depth of savory flavor to everything it touches, but if you cannot find it, I would recommend substituting with the flavors you do have and also use prepared mushroom broth in place of the vegetable broth. Look for mushroom broth in cartons in a well-stocked supermarket.
I always choose low sodium broths because it helps me control the overall sodium of a recipe. In this recipe, I specifically used a vegetable broth that does not contain tomatoes.
Roasted garlic is easy to make at home, and it gives a lot of depth and complexity to this mushroom gravy. If you have never made your own roasted garlic, please check out this post for step-by-step instructions.
As usual, the photos tell the story better than written instructions. Please have a look at the slides and keep scrolling for a downloadable pdf for your recipe files.
If you don’t already have your roasted garlic, go make that. Please don’t try to substitute with fresh sauteed garlic. The flavor will be too strong.
Heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Sauté half of the mushrooms, tossing to coat them in the oil, until they give off their moisture and shrink in size. Repeat with remaining mushrooms. Season with salt, pepper and umami seasoning. Move the mushrooms to the sides of the pot.
Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the center of the pot and add the shallots. Saute until slightly softened. Add flour and toss until absorbed into the oil. The mixture should look somewhat pasty, but not dry. Add a final tablespoon of oil if needed to reach this consistency. Cook the mixture for a minute or two.
Add vegetable broth all at once and stir continuously for a minute or two to hydrate the roux. Bring to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until mixture is thickened. Stir in wine and simmer over very low heat for about an hour.
Squeeze in the entire bulb of roasted garlic, taking care to not drop the garlic paper into the pot. Use a whisk to ensure the garlic is fully blended, or use an immersion blender to whip the gravy into a smoother consistency.
In a small skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil and sauté the sliced shiitake mushrooms until softened and slightly browned, then stir them into the gravy. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to three days ahead.
This gravy is delicious on a lentil mushroom wellington or use it as a substitute for cream of mushroom soup in any casserole you’d like to convert to vegan.
Thanksgiving is the favored holiday at our house. My husband, Les, and I both love preparing the traditional meal and we made an agreement early in our relationship to alternate responsibility for the turkey. We love having friends and family at the table and, more often than not, the friends outnumber the family members by at least two-to-one. I have no children, and Les’s two adult kids can’t always make it. His son, Alex, lives and works in Europe, and has only been here for one holiday season since I’ve known him. His daughter, Sydney, lives two hours away in the mountains of North Carolina, but she also sometimes has her own plans with her mother’s family or her friends. When she is able to join us, though, I have more than a few adjustments to make to the menu because Syd is vegan.
If the idea of having a vegan at the holiday table scares you, then I hope this recipe brings some relief. It most certainly will bring some big Thanksgiving flavor, and everyone at our table—vegan or otherwise—has asked for seconds. One of my friends, a regular guest at our Thanksgiving table, has been begging me for almost two years to share this recipe, so she is probably screaming right now to finally see it on my blog (you’re welcome, Linda). 😉
You might wonder, “why not just share it with your friend after the first request instead of making her wait?” Linda (who is not a vegan) has been asking the same, and the reason is simple—I didn’t actually have a recipe for it. As I have said many times about my way of cooking, I develop recipes by instinct (otherwise known as flying by the seat of my pants), and it has only been since I began blogging that I have bothered to write down how much of what goes into most of my dishes. The first time I made this lentil mushroom wellington, I couldn’t even quite remember all the ingredients so there was no possibility of describing it to someone else. But just after Christmas last year, I made the dish again when Syd came for a post-holiday visit—and on that occasion, I kept my notes—but I didn’t post it on the blog right away because the holidays were over at that point and I doubted that anyone would want to make a fuss over such a showstopper without a special occasion. It isn’t exactly a quick weeknight recipe.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this dish does take time and effort, though none of it is difficult. If you wish to make it for Thanksgiving, perhaps for a vegan guest at your table, the good news is that almost all of it can be done in advance. You will find most of the ingredients familiar—cooked lentils, rice blend, cremini mushrooms, kale, sweet potatoes and (vegan) puff pastry—and I’ll describe in more detail how I put the whole thing together and even gave it a faux “egg wash” before baking, to give it a golden crust while keeping it plant-based.
Now, with the holidays upon us, the timing is right and I have a written-down recipe to share. So for Linda, and anyone else who wants to enjoy a pretty, entirely plant-based meal that still captures the essence of Thanksgiving, here is my recipe for the lentil mushroom wellington. Enjoy!
1 cup uncooked lentils, rinsed and picked over* (see notes)
3/4 cup uncooked brown rice or rice blend
32 oz. carton low-sodium vegetable broth
1 or 2 bay leaves
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size cubes
Extra virgin olive oil*
1 leek, cleaned and sliced (white and light green parts only)*
Liquid from a can of chickpeas (use low-sodium; reserve the chickpeas for another use)
1 Tbsp. milled flax seed*
1/4 cup pecan pieces, toasted
3 Tbsp. hemp hearts
A pinch (or two) of dried thyme leaves (or several sprigs of fresh thyme, if you have it)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 sheet puff pastry (choose one with plant-based ingredients, such as Wewalka or Pepperidge Farm)
Flour to dust the countertop
Small handful (about 1/4 cup) of panko bread crumbs
For brushing, in place of egg wash:
1 Tbsp. plant milk, such as almond or soy
1 Tbsp. real maple syrup
1 Tbsp. canola or avocado oil
I use a lentil blend, which includes green, red and black beluga lentils. If you choose a single type of lentil, I would recommend using the green ones. Cook the lentils in vegetable broth rather than plain water. Why miss a chance to add flavor?
My go-to olive oil this time of year is the wild mushroom and sage-infused oil found in specialty olive oil and balsamic vinegar stores. But any olive oil is fine, or substitute canola oil or a favorite plant-based butter, if you prefer.
If using leeks, be sure to clean them properly to remove all traces of grit between layers. Drain and pat completely dry on layers of paper towel before sautéing. If preferred, substitute 1 medium sweet or yellow onion.
The umami seasoning blend is a product sold at Trader Joe’s, and its flavors include dried mushroom, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. If you can’t buy it, you can substitute with a combination of onion powder, garlic powder and a couple shakes of red pepper flakes, plus a pinch of salt. You might also want to mince up a couple of mushrooms to sauté with the kale or leeks to add earthy flavor to the lentil loaf.
Flax seeds are loaded with Omega-3 fats and very good for heart health, but you may not know that our bodies only reap that benefit when the seeds have been milled. You can buy flax seed already milled, but keep it fresh in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer. I purchase bags of whole flax seeds and use my blade-style coffee grinder to mill it a little at a time as I need it. For this recipe, it’s essential for the flax to be milled because it will be used in place of an egg as a binding agent.
I chose a combination of cremini mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms for this recipe. Use the largest ones you can find; mine were each about the size of a silver dollar. Clean the mushrooms as suggested in the slideshow before sautéing them.
There are many components to this recipe, and I believe it is helpful to break it down into manageable tasks over two days, beginning with preparation of the lentils, rice, sweet potato and vegetable mixtures (steps 1-6). On the second day, you can relax and focus on assembling and baking the dish.
Helpful tools for this recipe: food processor or small blender, rolling pin, pastry brush.
Cook lentils according to package instructions, using low-sodium vegetable broth in place of some or all of the water. During simmer, add a bay leaf to the pot. Drain excess liquid when lentils reach desired tenderness. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Add salt to taste.
Cook rice according to package instructions, using low-sodium vegetable broth in place of some or all of the water. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Add salt to taste.
Toss the cubed sweet potatoes with enough olive oil to lightly coat all sides. Spread onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and season with salt and pepper. Roast at 400° F until they can be pierced with the tip of a paring knife and are only slightly firm to the bite. Cool completely.
Sauté leeks (or onions) and chopped celery in a tablespoon of olive oil. Season with umami seasoning (or recommended substitute) and black pepper. When vegetables are tender and have given up their moisture, transfer to a bowl and cool completely.
Swirl another teaspoon or so of oil into the skillet and sauté the chopped kale until it has softened and reduced somewhat in volume. Resist the urge to cook the kale together with the onions; it will be used as a bed for the lentil mixture, not as part of the filling.
Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Arrange the mushrooms topside down, in the skillet, and then cook until the tops are browned and tender. Turn them over and sauté the underside. The mushrooms should give off a good bit of their moisture, but not to the point of shriveling. Lay them on layered paper towels to cool, allowing excess moisture to drain from the underside.
To assemble the mixture, gather up all the prepared components from steps 1 to 6. In a small saucepan, heat the liquid drained from the chickpeas over medium low heat. Simmer until it is reduced in volume to about 1/4 cup. Transfer the liquid to a bowl and stir in the milled flax seed. Let this mixture rest for at least 20 minutes. It will thicken up into a gel-like substance.
Transfer about 1/3 cup of the cooked lentils and about 1/4 cup of the cooked rice to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add the flax mixture to the bowl and pulse a few times until the mixture has the consistency of a loose porridge.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining lentils, rice, sweet potatoes, leek-celery mixture, toasted pecans and hemp hearts. Toss them all together. Give this mixture a final taste and adjust salt to your liking. Sprinkle thyme leaves and give the pepper mill a few twists over the mixture. Add the full amount of flax binder and fold to combine this mixture well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 400° F, with oven rack slightly lower than center, so that the wellington will rest squarely in the center of the heat.
Thaw puff pastry (if using frozen) according to package instructions. *Note: when working with puff pastry, do your best to work quickly to keep the pastry from getting warm.Sprinkle flour onto the counter and use a rolling pin to smooth out wrinkles and slightly enlarge the rectangle.
Spread panko crumbs over the center of the puff pastry, then layer the cooked kale on top of it. This will be a bed for the lentil mixture, and the crumbs will help absorb excess moisture so the puff pastry doesn’t become soggy on the bottom.
Scoop about half of the lentil mixture onto the kale, shaping it into an oblong mound like a meatloaf. Arrange the mushrooms in a tight line down the center, pressing them slightly into the lentil mixture. Shape the remaining lentil mixture over the mushrooms.
Use a paring knife to trim off the square corners of the puff pastry, leaving them rounded to match the shape of the lentil loaf. Use a cookie cutter on the scrap corners to make embellishments for the top of the wellington. Score the long sides of the puff pastry into strips, about 1 ½ inches apart. These will fold over the top of the lentil loaf, kind of like shoelaces over a sneaker. Turn up both ends of puff pastry to enclose the ends of the lentil loaf, then carefully fold the strips in alternating order across the top. Tuck in any loose edges.
Transfer the wellington to a parchment-lined, heavy cookie sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together plant milk, maple syrup and oil. Brush this mixture evenly over all exposed puff pastry, including down the sides. This will produce a beautiful golden color on the baked wellington.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, rotating pan once after 25 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes before transferring to a serving platter. Cut into thick slices and serve on individual plates with vegan mushroom gravy and tangy lemon-pomegranate Brussels sprouts. And don’t worry, I’ll have those recipes for you later this week.
One clear advantage to growing your own garden vegetables is that you have a wider range of varieties and sizes of veggies to choose from. I can find zucchini, for example, at my local supermarket, but only smallish ones that can be fried, steamed or skewered. Because this year we gave in to the deer and decided to forego attempting our own garden, I had to go to the farmers’ market to get a large zucchini, like the ones everyone gave away for free this time of year in my hometown. I appreciate that unlike grocery store produce, whatever I bring home from the outdoor market was probably hanging on the vine mere hours before.
On our last visit to the market, I was specifically on the lookout for large zucchini because I wanted to make a “boat” out of it. I have enjoyed stuffed zucchini for years, dating back to my hometown days and first apartment meals. Through the years, I have made them with sausage stuffing, ratatouille flavors or Italian-themed ingredients, depending on what else I had in the fridge at the time.
This time, I kept it entirely plant-based and gave it a spicy Moroccan twist. Israeli pearl couscous found its way into the mix, along with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic. I added a robust harissa paste for a big afterburn flavor. It was a double win for me—I got my wish for a hearty garden-based meal, and it was a fun flavor twist that my heat-loving hubby enjoyed, too.
Large zucchini, halved lengthwise and insides scooped out
Olive oil spray
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Israeli couscous* (see notes)
1 cup vegetable broth
1/2 medium sweet onion, chopped
4 or 5 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Half of a large can of whole peeled tomatoes with puree*
1 tsp. harissa paste (more or less to taste)
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp. melted vegan butter*
Fresh chopped parsley for garnish
Couscous is essentially really tiny pasta, and for this recipe, I used a blend from Trader Joe’s that combines Israeli (“pearl”) couscous, which is larger than regular couscous, with various other ingredients, including split baby garbanzos, orzo (another tiny pasta) and quinoa. Any type of cooked grain would work here, including bulgur, freekah, wheat berries or even brown rice. You need about 1 cup cooked.
I almost always have San Marzano tomatoes in play in my kitchen, and half of a 28 oz. can was about right for this recipe. Use a standard can of diced tomatoes or, obviously, go for fresh! 🙂
There are so many good options for non-dairy “butter.” I am fond of the olive oil version made by Country Crock. It looks, melts and spreads just like dairy butter.
Here’s a quick visual walk-through for making this yummy, plant-based zucchini boat. Steps are listed below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. Enjoy!
Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then score the inside to scoop out the seedy flesh. Cut the flesh up into chunks and toss with salt in a colander to remove excess moisture.
Drizzle, brush or spray olive oil onto the cut sides of the squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the squash on the parchment and roast for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender.
Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
Heat a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil and sauté the onions until softened and translucent. Add mushrooms and zucchini chunks to the pot and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a separate bowl.
Add another swirl of olive oil to the sauce pot and simmer the tomatoes and garlic over low heat until the tomatoes are soft enough to break when pressed. Stir in harissa paste and adjust seasonings to taste. Return the onions and mushrooms to the tomato mixture, along with the cooked couscous and the reserved salted zucchini pieces.
Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
Spoon the couscous filling into the zucchini shells. Top with buttered panko crumbs. Return the zucchini boats to the oven and bake until crumbs are browned and crispy. Serve with chopped parsley sprinkled on top.
In six short weeks, life will be turned upside down for my husband, Les, and me. This is when our kitchen tear-out will begin, and we are beginning to shift our expectations as we prepare for the eight weeks or so that we will be “without” a kitchen. Welcome, friends, to our “in-between” kitchen!
We have rearranged our dining room space to accommodate a baker’s rack that will hold some of the appliances that will help us get through the chaos. A new two-burner induction cooktop will allow us to do simple stove-top cooking, including heating water for my daily dose of French press coffee. We will make good use of our slow cooker, toaster oven and the panini griddle that doubles as a waffle iron. We have the gas grill for outdoor cooking, and so far, the only thing I haven’t quite figured out is how I will make bread without our oven, though don’t be surprised if I use one or more of the above to make it happen!
As we are preparing for the load out of the old kitchen (not to mention a bevy of random pantry and freezer ingredients), I’m giving all of our other small electrics a chance to prove themselves worthy of a spot in our new space. One item that will be (sadly) getting the boot is our KitchenAid 11-cup food processor, but not because we don’t use it; on the contrary, this thing gets so much action, it is on its last legs. The protective film over the power buttons has become brittle and is completely worn away from the pulse button, the feed chute is cracked and the inside of the “S” blade stem has some dried-on crud that I have not been able to remove. I have had the appliance nearly 20 years, and KitchenAid no longer makes my model (or any of the parts), so my only choice will be to replace the machine.
Until then, I’ll keep going with recipes like this one, for easy homemade hummus made with garbanzo beans, lemony artichoke hearts and lots of fresh garlic. Hummus is one of my favorite “blank canvas” foods, and it’s so simple at home, it makes no sense to buy it. The other key ingredients include tahini, olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon, which is a perfect highlight to the tangy artichoke.
Warm the garbanzo beans to soften them up before you begin and use a food processor or a good blender for best, smoothest results. Enjoy your hummus on crackers, chips, crostini or fresh veggie slices.
15 oz. can garbanzo beans, with liquid
3 Tbsp. tahini* (see notes)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
About 1/2 cup marinated artichoke hearts*, drained and rough-chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Kosher salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Tahini is a paste made of ground sesame seeds. It is available in most larger supermarkets, usually in the same section as olives, or perhaps in the international aisle.
The artichoke hearts I used were Trader Joe’s, marinated in sunflower oil, vinegar and spices. If you use plain hearts, consider adding a pinch or dried herbs (dill or oregano would be great), and either way, drain all the excess liquid from them.
Pour the entire contents of the canned garbanzo beans into a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat until mixture just begins to boil. Remove from heat and drain liquid off beans, but do not discard it (you’ll use it for blending).
Transfer warm beans into a food processor or blender and pulse a few times to grind the beans into a meal-like texture. Scrape down sides of the processor bowl. Add tahini, garlic, artichoke hearts, salt and pepper. Pulse a few times to combine. Scrape down the sides again.
Turn processor on and run continuously while slowly pouring about 3 tablespoons of the warm liquid into the processor. Blending slowly will help to emulsify the ingredients into a smooth blend. Add more or less of the liquid, depending on your preference for hummus consistency. Remember that the mixture will become firmer after chilling. Scrape down sides once more.
Run processor continuously and slowly blend in about 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
Transfer hummus to a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for up to a week.
The summer season brings all the garden-fresh vegetables I love, including zucchini and eggplant, which I would definitely be growing in our little garden plot if it weren’t for the deer. Year after year, I have tried in vain to grow my own veggies, and the increase of deer activity on our property and that of our neighbors has been almost humorous. Almost.
Gardening, for me, started as a fun, nature-loving adventure but has rapidly declined into a frustrating drama, and now we have this elevated box in our yard, where we cannot grow anything but marigolds and basil, which have proven to be the only things our local deer detest. Last year’s garden was demolished, right down to the flowers and budding fruit of the eggplants and even the jalapeno pepper plants (which I had been told deer would never eat). We have tried all the folk remedies on the internet—human hair, shavings of bar soap, peppermint oil, so-called deer repellent, and even a weird concoction I made from rotten eggs, cayenne and dish soap. That last remedy had near-catastrophic results, but I won’t embarrass my husband again with that story (you can read it here, if you’d like). This year, we didn’t even bother planting a garden, and I’m contemplating turning the raised bed into some kind of wildflower bed. I get exasperated just thinking about it.
To make up for a lack of homegrown veggies, we are regularly visiting our weekly Cobblestone farmers’ market, which features a variety of vendors offering fresh produce as well as pastured meat, eggs, organic mushrooms, jams and preserves, and even handmade alpaca wool products. It’s a fun way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning, and this past weekend, we came home with everything I needed for a new batch of ratatouille. Ah, my favorite veggie-centered summer meal!
Me being me, though, I cannot simply chop up these ingredients and make a “traditional” ratatouille, which would be a rustic casserole-meets-stew kind of thing. I have to twist it up! My culinary muse inspired me this time to combine the French classic dish with another favorite comfort food—lasagna. I figured that I could infuse my herbs de Provence seasoning into a ricotta mixture with lemon zest and some grated cheese and that it would be the “glue” to hold the other ingredients together inside a rolled-up lasagna noodle. The eggplant and zucchini would be sliced and roasted, and the red pepper would be worked into the sauce. This is how my mind sees a pile of ingredients, and the end result was exactly as I had imagined, both visually and in perfect summer flavor. Delicious!
This reimagined one-dish meal took mostly time to put together; it was not at all difficult. I cannot say definitively how much time is needed because I was cooking all day, in between work emails and other home tasks. I will say that it was mostly passive time; I was either waiting for things to lose moisture or to finish roasting or to boil or bake. The rest was just slicing, chopping and stirring, and there’s no particular order that must be followed. You could even make everything a day ahead and just assemble and bake it the next day.
The entire ratatouille-meets-lasagna project weaved itself nicely into my busy day, and because each ingredient received its own treatment, the simplest way I can describe it is to share the process of each component. I’ll share a PDF version of the recipe at the end if you want to try it, but I’ll let the pictures tell the story in today’s post. Here we go! 🙂
The Ricotta Filling
The Red Bell Pepper
The only classic ratatouille ingredient remaining is tomato, and though my ingredients photo displays a big, lovely heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, I thought better of it when I began cooking my ratatouille. The heirloom tomato would have been full of seeds and too juicy for this dish, so I cast it aside and used half a can of San Marzano tomatoes instead to produce a fusion sauce, together with the roasted red pepper and a healthy dose of garlic. This sauce was similar to the roasted red pepper sauce that my husband, Les, discovered last year, but it leans more toward tomato than pepper. It was exactly what this recipe needed.
Putting it all together
Assembling and finishing my ratatouille lasagna roll-ups was a cinch! I par-cooked the lasagna noodles until they were soft and flexible, spread the ricotta mixture onto them, layered the eggplant, zucchini and leeks and rolled them up!
Oh, and that plump, juicy heirloom tomato I mentioned found its way instead to a BLT, which we enjoyed as a separate meal on freshly baked sourdough bread with local greens and some pastured pork bacon (also from the farmers’ market).
There is nothing new under the sun, as they say, and when I start to feel flummoxed over what side dishes to make for summer meals, one of the best things I can do is revisit a classic and modernize it for my grown-up palate.
About the same period of time I became enthralled with the immense variety of baked beans at my great grandmother’s Fourth of July celebrations, there was a popular salad showing up on everyone’s dinner table. It might have been called a three-bean salad, including cut green beans, dark red kidney beans and little round garbanzo beans, which my dad always called “ceci beans.” But once in a while, yellow wax beans would also be in the mix, technically making it a four-bean salad but with generally the same flavors. This salad was often purchased ready-made, and as I recall, it was a popular item in the deli department of the grocery store where I worked as a young adult. The main thing I remember about it, besides its ubiquitous presence, is that it was sweet. Too sweet, in my opinion. I have no problem with a touch of sweetness in a salad dressing, but if it’s too sweet, it counters the benefit of eating vegetables.
So this summer, I have created an updated version of this otherwise good-for-you salad, shifting the flavor profile from sweet to zesty and herbaceous. The sugar in the recipe is nominal, and I’ve amped up the other side of the salad flavors with a hefty addition of minced garlic and a good bit of chopped fresh parsley and basil. The salad is quick and easy to make, as it relies somewhat on canned beans, and I’ve used ready-to-go fresh green beans to save time. If you’re lucky enough to have garden-fresh green beans, well, that would be awesome.
3/4 lb. fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
15 oz. can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
15 oz. can garbanzo (ceci) beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup sweet onion, finely diced
1/2 cup green bell pepper, finely diced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, finely diced
3 large cloves garlic, finely minced
1 handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Small handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tsp. Dijon mustard* (see notes)
2 tsp. cane sugar
1/2 tsp. celery seed
1/2 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning
2 Tbsp. cold water
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
In lieu of regular Dijon mustard, I used the recently-discontinued Honey Pale Ale mustard from Trader Joe’s. Does anyone besides me have a gripe about how they pick and choose which products to keep? If you happen to have a jar of it, I think it’s terrific in salad dressings. Otherwise, just use regular Dijon.
Heat a pot of water to a gentle boil. Add a generous pinch of kosher salt to the water, along with a half teaspoon of baking soda, which will help the beans retain their bright color.
Make dressing for the salad; combine all ingredients except the olive oil. Whisk in olive oil gradually to create an emulsion. Salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon the trimmed green beans into the simmering water and cook for about 6 minutes, or just until beans are tender enough to bite. Immediately spoon the cooked beans into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain beans to remove excess water.
Combine green beans, canned beans, peppers, onions and garlic in a large mixing bowl.
Pour in dressing and toss gently to combine. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Add fresh herbs and toss again. Chill salad several hours and toss lightly to redistribute dressing just before serving. The olive oil in the dressing will solidify in the fridge, so plan to remove the salad at least ten minutes before serving for best presentation.
Tomorrow at daybreak, about 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the strangest of all American traditions will occur. Punxsutawney Phil, the notorious groundhog (or woodchuck, as he is known in my old neck of the woods), will be dragged out of bed by the scruff of his neck and ordered to break the news to the faithful fans who have traveled there to get a verdict on winter. The mayor of Punxsutawney will hold this oversized rodent up to the crowd as Mufasa did in the presentation of Simba, and poor Phil will probably be some combination of terrified, confused and sleepy. Depending on whether he sees his shadow, we will either have an early spring or six more weeks of winter. I can never remember which scenario leads to which outcome, but how do we really know what he sees, anyway?
Such a curious thing, to imagine this whole scene is a valid means of setting expectation for what’s to come. Surely these folks have calendars. Winter ends March 20, when spring begins, and from Groundhog Day, the calendar states clearly that it is six more weeks, plus a few days. I suppose that everywhere else in the world, people just think of it as Feb. 2. I’m in favor of letting the rascal sleep.
At least we can watch the amusing Bill Murray movie. Again. 😉
From a purely whimsical standpoint, the observance of Groundhog Day does, if nothing else, provide a little comic relief from the heaviness of winter. Punxsutawney Phil may not be a real prognosticator, but he is a beacon of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel that was gray January. I’ve been trying to offer the same recently with presentation of bright and colorful dishes to chase away that gray.
These Tex-Mex stuffed sweet potatoes will bring a big generous pop of color to your Meatless Monday, and vibrant flavors, too. Zesty peppers and fire-roasted sweet corn, combined with black beans and cheese on an oven-roasted sweet potato is both nourishing and tasty, customized to your own heat preference, and you can top it with avocado, your favorite salsa, sour cream or whatever else you like. Our go-to seasoning for Tex-Mex dishes is my own spice blend, lovingly named “Fire & Brimstone,” given its multiple layers of spicy heat and smoky depth. Of course, I’ll share that, too.
This is one recipe that takes almost no skill in the kitchen. Really, if you can chop an onion, you’ve got this. You could even pop the sweet potatoes in the oven while you watch Groundhog Day on TBS (they’ll have it on a 24/7 loop, I’m sure), and finish the rest of the prep during the commercial breaks.
Serves 2 (or double it so you can have it again tomorrow)
2 large fresh sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 Tbsp. jalapeno, chopped
1/4 cup fire-roasted frozen corn (or regular corn)
A few shakes of Fire & Brimstone* (or another Tex-Mex seasoning, see notes)
About 2 oz. finely shredded mild cheddar cheese (or Colby, Monterey Jack, etc.)
1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 ripe avocado, cubed
Fresh cilantro and lime, for serving
Side accoutrements as desired, such as sour cream, salsa or pico de gallo
My homemade spice blends do not have salt in them. Be mindful of the sodium content in whatever seasoning you use, so you don’t overdo it on additional salt while preparing the dish. If you’d like to try my Fire & Brimstone, see the ingredients listed at the end of the post.
In a large bowl, combine kosher salt with enough hot water to cover both sweet potatoes completely. Allow the potatoes to rest in this quick brine for about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack in center of the oven.
Remove potatoes from brine and dry completely with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to cut an “X” about 3/4″ deep into the top of each sweet potato. This will be an “escape valve” for steam as the potato bakes. Place the potatoes on a parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake the sweet potatoes for about 1 hour plus 15 minutes, or until soft enough to squeeze easily with a towel. About halfway through baking time, remove the pan and carefully cut the X marks a little bit deeper, but not all the way through.
Near the end of baking time, heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add onions, red bell pepper, jalapeno (if using) and corn. Sauté until onions are softened and translucent, about five minutes. Add black beans to the mixture and toss to heat through.
Transfer sweet potatoes to serving plates. Carefully squeeze open the potato, using the X marks to guide them open. Use a fork to lightly smash the potato. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Divide the shredded cheese directly onto the hot potato, then top with the bean-corn mixture.
Use a sharp paring knife to score the avocado flesh for easy scooping. Divide the avocado onto the plates as a side to the sweet potato. Sprinkle with cilantro, give it a squeeze of fresh lime and serve.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! This is a recipe blend I developed after repeated disappointment with all the salt in commercial blends. I use a variety of pepper ingredients, from mild and fruity to hot and smoky, and it works well as a sprinkle-on seasoning, chili add-in or even a dry rub on steaks or roasts. Adjust the amounts of any ingredient to suit your preferences. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of spice blend. Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dry cabinet.