Monday, November 29, 2010

Meatless Monday: Thanksgiving Successes, Near Misses, and Discoveries

I’m particularly happy to observe Meatless Monday today after attending two bountiful Thanksgiving feasts with turkey as the main event, featuring some two dozen kinds of pie for dessert. My friends and family do love pie. Today I’m still in recovery.

As a guest bearing food to these feasts I had several dishes to produce. The request for Feast One with friends on Thursday was for a rich cranberry tart featured in Yankee Magazine some years back. Its ingredients include a crust made with sugar, two sticks of butter, and 3/4 cups of walnuts. Upon this crust 6 oz of blue cheese is spread, and then topped with cranberries cooked in cherry preserves and brandy until they’ve popped. It looked beautiful and we were able to turn it onto the glass serving plate without any damage. More importantly, it tasted great. Success.

With Feast Two, the Friday family celebration, there were a number of near misses.

Near miss number one involved the Butternut Squash and Wilted Spinach recipe recently featured in my blog about binging on beta carotene. By now there were high expectations for this dish: failure was not an option. The recipe is quite simple, and I had made it before, so you might wonder what the problem could have been. Here goes. What I learned last week is that butternut squash is not as easy to find as it was a month ago. With no whole butternut squash in the fresh produce aisle, I bought organic butternut squash peeled, cut, and shrink wrapped with a sale date of November 27, on sale at a reasonable price in the refrigerated section. But when I went to use the squash on the 24th, I discovered long, delicate, strands of black mold growing in both packages. Luckily I had four cups in the freezer, left over from a very large squash I had previously roasted, and access to a microwave, so the dish was saved. There were no leftovers. This was a dish nearly everyone loved (except the vegans).

Now might be a good time to mention that only omnivores (and one guy who only eats white vegetables) attended Thursday’s feast, but Friday’s guests included vegetarians and vegans. The vegans posed a challenge. While we knew the vegetarians would pass on the turkey, gravy, and stuffing cooked in the bird, we knew the vegans would also pass on both my squash dish and my celeriac gratin. And on the potatoes if we mashed them with milk and on the pies if the crusts were made with butter or if the filling included eggs or dairy products. So we offered more kinds of cranberry sauce, and plain roasted vegetables and potatoes mashed without milk or butter. I had just started mashing the large pot of spuds with some potato water when my husband took over and I ran off to set the table. At dinner I simply could not get over how great these vegan potatoes tasted. And then I learned the secret: one head of garlic and 1 and 1/2 sticks of Willow Run margarine! Although no animals were harmed in making this vegan dish, I am sure a few humans would be if they had this on the menu every day!

Now on to the dessert course. For my vegan-friendly pie, I turned to an old Shaker recipe. Shaker Cranberry Pie (from The Shaker Cookbook by Caroline B. Piercy) called for sugar, flour, vanilla, raisins, and cranberries (no butter) in the filling. I had long ago switched from shortening to butter to make my crust, but butter wouldn’t do this year. I turned to Betty Crocker for help and found a recipe for crust made with oil. I used organic canola. Because I was using a liquid instead of a hard stick of butter, the crust was very easy to make and it rolled out well. I did find it not as supple when I went to crimp the crust, and I could not be as ornate as usual with my finishing. But all seemed to be going well for a first experiment. So, what was the near miss? Apparently oil crust bakes quicker than the other kinds, at least in a glass pie plate. The crust browned right through my crust protectors! The crusts were a little too brown for my taste, and I think next time I will reduce the heat by 25° and check the pie 10 minutes sooner. It was certainly not the most beautiful pie in the world, but I decided to take it anyway. Imagine my joy when the crust turned out to be flaky, and the filling delicious. It seems this pie was kid- as well as vegan-friendly. To be honest, its flavor and texture called to mind an unfrosted pop tart (one of the organic ones of course!) and was one of the first pies to be finished. I’ll be making this one again.

Now for the error of omission. The vegetarians didn’t say anything, perhaps because they were satiated with cheese. However, the vegans asked about gravy. My sister and I had never considered this request so they had to do without. Next time I suppose we can grab a container of Tofurky gravy, but I’ll be checking online to see if there is a recipe for making my own. Does a hunk of tofu produce drippings if roasted? Any tips from readers would be most appreciated.

And, on to the happy discoveries. We had a stop to make in West Stockbridge before heading home on Saturday — Charles H. Baldwin & Sons where I purchased vanilla (see my blog post on gifts for the cook), table syrup, and some ground vanilla beans. We were told to use these in addition to liquid vanilla to enhance the flavor of baked goods, but I bet I can use the ground beans to make my own vanilla sugar. I’m going to email the proprietor to inquire. I’ll let you know what I find out. If you ever get a chance to visit the store in the Berkshires, be sure to check out the photo booth. For $3 you can get 6 photos in just 10 seconds. The machine talks, too. It’s hilarious. If you can’t visit in person, check out the Charles H. Baldwin & Sons website for all you might want to know about vanilla or to place an order online.

Finally, in time for the next holiday cleanup, my friend Polly gave me a package of Scotch-Brite natural fiber non-scratch scour pads made from the agave plant, part of a new line of green cleaning products from 3M. It would be a lie to say I can’t wait to try these, but I am glad to have them.

Hope your week’s off to a good start. I should return to blogging on Thursday with another list of eco-friendly shopping ideas.

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.


  1. It's easy to make vanilla sugar. You just take 2 whole beans (the longer the better) and insert the two pieces in a 5 lb. bag of sugar. This works best, if you keep your sugar in a tightly covered canister like I do. Pour half of the sugar inside, stick the beans in half way standing up, and cover with the rest. Leave, tightly covered. For a more intense flavor, slice the beans lengthwise to expose the seeds inside before placing in the sugar. The beans should be good for about a year, so keep repeating the process as your supply diminishes. I use this most frequently in my morning coffee, but its traditional use is in baked goods.

  2. Thanks for the recipe. My problem is that I bought ground beans, enticed by the large quantity at a good price. Hearing that the whole beans last so long, perhaps I will try this next time. Thanks again. It's always good to hear from you.

  3. Jackie and Marjorie (aka Milli and Vanilli) at C. H. Baldwin's replied with directions for using ground vanilla beans to make vanilla sugar. Here is what they said: “Re: ground vanilla beans/vanilla sugar - a teaspoon of the ground vanilla beans is equivalent to 1 whole bean. So, our recipe calls for 2 cups of sugar to 1 cut up bean, but in this case, just stir in a teaspoon of ground vanilla beans. I actually added a couple of teaspoons to the 2 cups of sugar and it was heavenly! Lots and lots of the little black seeds and the taste, divine!! You should let it sit for about a week so the sugar takes on the vanilla essence - keep adding sugar as you use the vanilla sugar. We sprinkle it on French toast, in oatmeal, of course a bit in coffee, on fresh berries (my fave), mix with brown sugar and sprinkle on squash - anything you can think of!”

  4. Milli Vanilli's method sounds much easier & quicker. The one I outlined, I picked up in Italy and takes a little longer to infuse the sugar. The one plus is the fact that beans keep on giving for about a year's worth of sugar. Also, if you are finicky about appearance, your sugar won't look like it has dirt in it... ;-)

  5. Perhaps I'll have to challenge you to a "Throw Down," but I guess you'd win on appearance. For now, grounds beans are what I have, and I am short on time, so ground beans is what it'll be. I'll let you know how it turns out, just like always.