Celebratory Cooking

Opportunities arise throughout the year to celebrate.  Some of the biggest challenges a vegetarian host faces is developing a menu which will satisfy everyone–the carnivores and vegetarians alike.  Generally speaking, vegetarians are very easy to please.  They tend to be so food-deprived at parties, that when they attend an event where they can trust everything that is served, they are grateful beyond measure.  Sometimes carnivorous attendees who are new to my cooking decide they aren’t going to like anything.  I often hear cracks like “we stopped at McDonald’s on the way over” or “guess my diet will begin tonight.”  I’m proud to say, I never hear those cracks on the return visits!

With every event, I begin to “meditate” on the menu as soon as I know a party is imminent.  This past Christmas dinner is a perfect example to use in understanding my type of planning.  Because of the type of celebration it was, I looked to “tradition.”  In cooking, this translates into looking at where the dish came from and understanding what the original cook(s) intent was.  Over the years, this historical vision became a passion for provenance and a journey to discover vegetarian traditions in every culture I came in touch with.  The obvious Greek influence which came primarily through my grandmother and my aunt Irene, who were both excellent cooks, gave me a taste for the Mediterranean palate.  In my late teens and early twenties, I had the good fortune to visit and spend time in India, where I learned to cook dishes with ancient stories and also where every ingredient was connected to a healthy result.  All of this influences my menu decisions.  Even life changing events can play a part in menu planning.  My father passed away shortly before Christmas this year.  For me, he was a partner in celebration, always engaging and enjoying family gatherings.  I wanted to prepare a few things he would have enjoyed.

Once my menu and schedule for preparation is set, I prepare a shopping list to ensure I am not sending someone out for ingredients constantly, and then the cooking begins.  I began with the bread baking.  I made two different batches and proofed them together.  The first was a four grain loaf with oats, cracked wheat, quinoa and millet.   The second was a Tuscan baguette with home harvested fennel and corn meal which I sliced and used for a canapé base.

The next preparation was Eggplant bharta canapé.  A traditional Indian fire-roasted eggplant dip to which I added chilles, red amaranth leaves and lime. I served it on the sliced Tuscan baguette discs.

The centerpiece entrée was an Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan with Cavolo Nero (Lacinato Kale) and an almond ricotta.  I made it the previous morning to allow the flavors to meld and make cooking dinner on Christmas day a simple affair.

The other entrée was Asparagus Strudel and was baked just before serving.  Ten layers of phyllo dough were coated with a red pepper oil and maple syrup mixture and enveloped around fresh asparagus with a caramelized shallot and cashew nut puree.  I served it with roasted red pepper sauce.

On the side, I made some choices that would balance the meal through flavor, texture and visual appeal.

Muli Kofta, traditional Indian gram flour cakes made with grated daikon radish and greens.  Garnished with bundi and sweet pepper relish.

Organic Rigatoni pasta salad with pistachio-lacinato pesto.

Swiss Chard horta, Cretan boiled greens with extra virgin olive oil and lemon dressing.

Fresh tomato salad drizzled with balsamic reduction (see first picture).

To add a sweet finish to the meal, Sara baked my vegan Pecan Tart recipe  (She never cooked before last year, when I had to leave her to help take care of my father.).   The tarts were delicious with the right amount of sweetness and without the fatty finish.  When the meal was over, everyone relaxed, shared gifts and spent the evening in a state of joyful satiation—as my father would have liked.

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