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Passover mid-week: what’s for lunch?

With the best will in the world, there is only so much matzah anyone really wants to eat in a day. Even whole wheat. Yes, it’s crunchy. No, you don’t have to run the toaster oven. Yes, you should eat something else, and not just macaroons or gefilte fish from a jar. Or more hard-boiled eggs. Yeesh. Something lighter, please.

Salad

If you can get tomatoes of worth yet (it’s been a pretty long winter across much of the US), cut up some tomatoes and cucumbers, some red bell pepper, splash a bit of olive oil and vinegar on, maybe some Greek yogurt, some dill or basil, a bit of scallion and some feta or an olive, If good salad veg is scant but you can get cabbage, shred it and toss with some fresh or dried dill, thyme or oregano, maybe mint, oil and vinegar, a bit of lemon juice if you’ve got it, a couple of Greek-style olives. Or make a mix of oranges–slice them and serve with vinaigrette and lettuce or chopped cabbage, maybe a scallion and an olive or so, to brighten the last of winter and the first of spring.

Microwave melts and other vegetable and cheese combos

My standard eggplant microwave “melt” combo, with peppers and/or artichoke hearts and mozzarella/feta sandwiched between two slices of microwave-steamed eggplant. Salsa or shakshouka or even plain tomato sauce if you’ve got it, but jazz it up with hot pepper flakes and/or smoked paprika, or if you don’t have sauce then at least some hot pepper flakes, paprika, and basil or oregano–something.

Fish

Tuna salad is pretty classic, obviously, even though if you keep kosher it means scouting out kosher-for-Passover mayonnaise, making your own, or using plain yogurt instead (my current preference; my experience making mayo from scratch is more vast than I care to admit, and I don’t even like the stuff).

But if you have leftover cooked fish, especially tilapia or salmon, or you’re willing to cook a pound of it specifically for a batch of quick fake-smoked-whitefish-style fish spread, go ahead and microwave it a couple of minutes until cooked through, then drain off the liquid and mix with fat-free plain (!!!) Greek yogurt (add cautiously by spoonfuls so you don’t get too much and make it gloppy), plus or minus tehina if you eat it at Passover and like it, plus some lemon juice and grated or finely chopped onion or scallion, a bit of garlic and dill, and either a couple of drops of liquid smoke or a good dash of smoked paprika, with salt just to taste at the very end. Let it chill and it’ll solidify a bit overnight in the fridge. Good again with Greek olives and some salad (and okay, a little–but only a little–matzah). If you’re going for a meat meal and want to keep it nondairy, do a little more lemon juice and some olive oil as the binder and leave out the yogurt.

Fake-smoked tilapia salad on matzah

Fish Salad Rellenos?

But you can take it further, as I discovered. I’ve never actually loved gefilte fish, and even though Joan Nathan swears that fresh homemade gefilte fish is much better, I have chosen all these years not to believe her because it’s a big to-do and an even bigger mess, plus all the matzah meal and eggs mixed in–it’s basically a fish meatloaf full of stretchers. No. In my book, if you can get real fish, you should eat real fish as a main course and treat it with respect.

Leftovers, maybe, if you don’t just want to eat them straight–but not with yet more matzah and eggs. For crying out loud.

And all leftovers have to be good enough to eat on their own merits. Whatever you do to them should improve them or at least not degrade them.

I live in warm–sometimes way too warm–territory near Los Angeles, so the Armenian and Latino corner greengrocers always have good veg for cheap. Both are into peppers of varying shapes, sizes, colors and burn factor, a plus in my book. Passover can really use a hit of ta’am (flavor) and some vegetabalia to go with it.

A bag of Hungarian peppers–pale green, mostly-mild, thin-walled, good for quick-pickling–was going for 50 cents a pound this week, and they’re long like Anaheims but nice and boxy at the stem end, not flat, so they’re easy to core and stuff without parcooking first. Fill them with the fish salad, I discovered, and you can microwave them a couple of minutes on an open plate or in a snaplock container with a lid until the peppers are cooked just to tenderness on both sides. I sliced one of them crosswise into inch-thick pieces and got this:

salmon-stuffed peppers

A decorative sprinkle of smoked paprika over it and not only was it good for a hot lunch, it would also be a quick and pretty southwestern take on gefilte fish as an appetizer, one or two slices per person, without all the traditional filler or grating and boiling and carp in the bathtub and so on, but with some actual flavor and freshness.

B’te’avon (bon appétit, mangia bene, eat nice) and Chag Sameach (happy Passover)!

A Microwaveable Passover, 5778 (2018) edition

Spinach matzah balls in the microwave

No matter how many times I vow I’m not going to work too hard this year, I always end up cleaning the fridge some time in the small hours the night before Passover, swearing creatively to get all the vegetable bins and shelving back in the way they came out. Between packing out the unkasherable dishes and appliances like the toaster oven, shopping for the week, and kashering the silverware, dishes and pots for Passover, it always ends up about 5 to 6 or so in the evening before I can actually cook.

Passover started Friday night, and it was just us at home this time around for the first seder. So I didn’t have to make a huge menu, which was good. Because I did have to kasher the kitchen–starting after a 3-hour stint at the DMV (my third this month) to help my kid finally get her learner’s permit. Type I diabetes throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings and requires extra time, paperwork, and hocking to make sure one office actually sends the other office the fax within your lifetime…so it was a bit on the late side that I actually got to start, and by the time sunset rolled around, I was kind of wiped and ready to skip it. Not a great frame of mind for experimenting in the kitchen, certainly not that night. Although the fridge IS still astonishingly clean and sparkly.

We don’t always get fully past the rush to the enjoyment of the seder, especially those of us who are doing the cooking. But the first bite of parsley dipped in saltwater always signals the start of the holiday for me, and the first bite of matzah tastes like freedom. (The thirty-fifth bite or so, perhaps not so much…)

By now I’ve played around enough to have quite a number of simple Passover-worthy dishes that can be microwaved, some of them start to finish. That can be handy when you’re either short on cooking time after getting home from work on Friday or just short on patience and yet you still want to do a simple–but still nice–small seder. It might even provide a save at least for the side dishes if you’re doing a bigger one.

Some things you can’t help cooking on the stove–hard-boiled eggs for the seder plate and for the table of hungry guests.  And some things like charoset take some hand work to chop if you don’t have a food processor around.

However.

Even if you’re serving something long-cooked like chicken or brisket as a main dish, a couple of easy microwaveable vegetable dishes, appetizers and desserts–even soup–might benefit from not having to compete for stovetop and oven space, particularly if a heat wave is headed your way. And microwaving reaps big benefits for reheating or supplementing leftovers quickly during the next several days if you keep kosher for Passover, or even if you don’t.

Vegetabalia

Fresh vegetables really matter for Passover. Salad, yes. It’s spring, after all (even though my mother said they were expecting another snowfall this week in Boston). And also cooked greens. I’m a big believer in microwaving them lightly and last-minute wherever possible, so that they’re just-cooked, fresh-tasting and still green when you serve them–at least, if they’re supposed to be green.

microwaved asparagus with a poached egg

Lightly-microwaved asparagus stays green even the next day. It’s good either cold or reheated with light vinaigrette and a poached egg (regular or microwaved) and some basil or other spring herbs.

Asparagus is traditional, and as long as you don’t abuse it the way my mother [probably] still does, by boiling the regulation seven minutes, shocking in ice water, and then letting it sit around in the cold water for ages until the stalks start shredding into floaty olive-green kelp-like bits, because she’s too busy with the soup, and dinner’s not for another whole hour…..skip all that and microwave the stalks instead for 2-3 minutes and you can be a winner.

Snaplock containers that are about the same size as the amount of vegetable you’re microwaving make it easy to prep ahead and store raw trimmed, washed asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts or other greens in the fridge, ready to nuke and go. When you’re ready for them, just add a drizzle of water, maybe a quarter-inch, to the container, put the lid back on, shake once or twice over the sink (in case of drips), and microwave them 2-3 minutes for a pound–you can let them sit a minute or so afterward and they’ll continue to steam. If you’re doing 2 pounds in one container, double the time, but stop and stir gently halfway through so the less-cooked ones on the bottom get moved to the top, and keep an eye on it the last minute or so–that is, stop the microwave again and check with a fork for doneness–so you don’t overcook.

Once the vegetables are just fork-tender and still green, drain them carefully and either serve right away or take the lid off and lay it back on loosely with an  air gap–you can probably get away with letting it sit this way for 10 minutes or so without it cooling too much, and the veg will stay green. But obviously, it’s best to serve it fairly quickly.

Vegetables you plan to roast or pan-brown can get a very quick head start in the microwave before tossing quickly with olive oil, garlic and rosemary in a frying pan or, if you’ve already got it going anyway, the oven. The precooking definitely cuts down the browning time. Brussels sprouts, fresh fennel, new potatoes, carrots, and red squashes are easy to microwave with just a bit of water in the bottom of a covered container to help steam them quickly.

Not-Chicken Soups

Microwaveable not-chicken soups, good for a vegetarian, vegan, or fish dinner,  can be made ahead in a couple of minutes (well, 5 to 15, including prep time) and reheated. They’re also good to have on hand if you’re doing a big meat dinner with the standard chicken soup in a stock pot but you also have a few vegetarian guests.

vegetables for microwaveable not-chicken soup

Basic not-chicken soup (about 2 1/2 quarts or 8-10 servings)

  • 3-4 full-sized carrots
  • medium or large onion
  • 4 long stalks of celery
  • drizzle/spoonful of olive oil
  • fat clove of garlic, minced, mashed or grated
  • handful of fresh dill or 1-2 T dry
  • 12-20 black peppercorns
  • lemon juice and salt to taste at the table

Fill up a 2.5 quart microwaveable bowl or container nearly to the top with chopped (bite-size pieces) vegetables. Stir in a spoonful of olive oil, and microwave-wilt the veg for 5 minutes on HIGH with the lid on. Add a fat minced or grated clove of garlic, a handful of dill and a few black peppercorns, plus water to cover and reheat another 5-6 minutes or until steaming hot, then let it sit with the lid on. Your soup will be pretty flavorful after letting it steep half an hour, if possibly a bit sweet (just one of those leftover mongo onions from last week’s “gifting” weighed a full pound on average). A squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt–not Campbell’s or Lipton’s level salting, salt-shaker-at-the-diner’s-discretion salting–and a grinding of pepper will work it out.

Pan-browned not-chicken soup

The pan-browned minimal carrot-onion soup is a little more hands-on, but very convincing and full-bodied. The basic setup is the same as for plain, but after wilting, pan brown the veg in a nonstick frying pan until you see actual browning, about 10 minutes. Add a grated or minced fat clove of garlic, a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine, and cook it down to dry. Put the veg back in the microwave container, swirl a bit of water around the empty pan to pick up the browning (i.e., deglaze), add it to the veg, fill the container up to the top with water, and microwave 5-6 minutes to heat, then let it steep.

My current version (since I was gifted with celery as well last week) includes a couple of chopped stalks of celery with again, a very large onion. I also added in a bit of dill plus–chop ’em if you’ve got ’em–one or two finely-diced shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried and soaked in half a cup of hot water,  for added not-chicken potency.

diced shiitake mushrooms

A squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt and fresh ground pepper at the table makes it even better than actual chicken soup. And you never have to skim any scum.

If you want to surprise people, go with bok choy broth but skip the soy sauce (contains wheat) and add extra shiitakes and fresh brown mushrooms, plus scallions, garlic and ginger. Use apple cider vinegar. We think sesame oil is fine for Passover but a lot of people don’t; it’s okay even without it.

Whatever soup you offer, keep the vegetables in. I never really understand the appeal of throwing out good veg just to have a 1950s-style “clear consommé”.

Microwave matzah balls?!

You can, actually, but not the conventional way, at least not in water to cover, mimicking the usual stovetop boiling. I tried it one afternoon last week just to see, using the classic back-of-box recipe just to be sure (I try these things so you don’t have to…). Continue reading

Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would. Continue reading

Chocolate Quickie: Unromantic but Reliable

It’s Valentine’s Day again–midweek, busy, too many items still on the list from last week to want a lot of fuss–or even be able to guarantee that my husband and I will both get home a reasonable time for dinner in a reasonable frame of mind to celebrate romance by cooking, or eating, something fancy. Last night I spied way too many people at the Trader Joe’s heaving large bars of chocolate and multiple bouquets of hothouse roses toward the cash registers. That’s okay–I’m not raining on anyone’s actual romance, but I have to admit I’m not feelin’ the official holiday symbols this week. Chocolate is good, don’t get me wrong. Flowers are pretty but require a vase and a pair of shears–usually right when I’m trying to cook dinner.

Last year we actually managed éclairs, and it was fun if a bit much–even though I managed to strip it down considerably with the microwave. Microwaveable ganache truffles are also easy, quick and fun if you’ve got the time to feed them to someone you love.

But with a kid who’s now waiting for college acceptances (and us parents anxiously figuring out both taxes and how to get around the outrageous Estimated Family Contribution)–well, we could all use a smallish midweek-style treat that doesn’t involve even that much effort to make–or work off afterward.

Lately I’ve been digging around in my cooking “blank books” from the last couple of decades. Part diary, part notes to self with or without illustrations in scratchy pen and occasional bragging, political satire, or outright swearing as the situation demands–when you’re writing cooking instructions for yourself, why not? I started these books long before the era of the blog, and hunting through them takes me back to what I was doing at the time.

Half the recipes I came up with are from before I figured out how to work a microwave, but I seem to have gone overboard as soon as I got enough of an introduction. One of the more unusual finds that worked really well a couple of years ago in a birthday dessert emergency (why do I tend to have these?) was a small but rich-tasting dessert halfway between cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake. The best parts:

  1. A limited and very simple ingredient list and
  2. You microwave it in 3 minutes. Seriously. Also,
  3. It’s small, and there are no leftovers. Sometimes that’s a plus.

This would probably be a decent rescue option if you had to make dessert with whatever’s in the cupboard and the fridge, and you’d left things till the last minute…or even a little later than that. As slapdash as this quickie is, it’s got big, big advantages over anything storebought–time, taste AND chocolate. Also, modest calorie and carb counts.

Not everyone has a grocery that carries labaneh, which is kind of a Middle Eastern cross between sour cream and yogurt cheese. Nowadays, though, a lot of mainstream supermarkets are carrying plain Greek yogurt, which also works pretty well, even nonfat. And not every doctor approves of cheesecake in any quantity, much less huge. Damn, as I’ve said before, my cholesterol-packin’ genes (also jeans, but that’s another matter). The completely nonfat version of this dessert works fine and tastes good too, now that I’ve retried it, and all the ingredients are real.

So–whomp the ingredients together in a bowl, nuke it about 3 minutes, cool it, stick it in the fridge. Serve it with raspberries, peaches, cherries, whatever goes with chocolate in your book. Or jam (raspberry, apricot or sour cherry would be great on this, and so would marmalade…).

Chocolate Quickie

Serves 3-4 in smallish wedges if you don’t care how it looks–otherwise (probably smarter) pour it into small single-serving ceramic cups before microwaving. If you double the ingredients, it’ll need another minute or so in the microwave. Definitely serve with fruit.

  • 4 T cocoa powder (20 g by weight; 8 g carb)
  • 4 T sugar (60 g, all of it carb)
  • 1 lg egg
  • 1/2 c. (112 g by weight) labaneh, preferably 1/2 the fat, or else fat-free or 2% plain Greek yogurt. (about 3-5 g carb for any of them; about 7 g saturated fat and 10 g total fat for the full-fat labaneh, much less for the yogurt)
  • 1/4 c. water (yes, really. It’s 60 grams or mL if you’re weighing it out)

Whisk everything together until smooth in a microwaveable ceramic dish (big soupbowl is fine), or else mix and then pour into small microwaveable coffee or flan cups for individual servings (more attractive and probably less prone to serving mishaps where it falls apart when you cut it and lift it out). Microwave uncovered on HIGH 3 minutes for the big bowl, maybe 2 minutes for the individual cups, checking progress and adding extra time in 20-second increments just as needed so you don’t overdo it. When it’s done it’ll be a little dry around the edges and just pulling away from the bowl or edges of the cups. Cool to room temperature, cover and chill until it’s time to serve. Cut in wedges with a sharp knife if you went with the single bowl version. A pie server would probably help it keep its shape long enough to dish up.

Variations–add some grated orange peel or marmalade to the mixture; add a spoonful of almond extract, vanilla, amaretto, or hazelnut liqueur; add espresso instead of water…?

Carb counts: about 17 g apiece for 4 servings, 23 g each for 3 servings, all of it in the form of sugars.

Cauliflower pakoras, lightened up

Cauliflower pakoras

Back at the beginning of Chanukah in mid-December, I was too busy to do much celebrating or posting. We were traveling more than usual and my daughter’s college application essays were still in rough shape and we were both a little panicked. My poor husband was working 13-hour days and trying to calm down the younger post-docs that this wasn’t ALWAYS how R&D goes–just sometimes. It’s the price you pay for doing rocket science.

And it was pretty hot and dry around Los Angeles–hence all those fires in the news. Makes it hard to feel safe breathing. Still, we did manage to celebrate modestly, even though the first night of Chanukah was during the nailbiter Alabama special election, whose results wouldn’t be in until after supper.

In any case, I’m posting this now because these are relatively quick and easy (and inexpensive) appetizers. They’re not super-svelte but not overloaded either, and they taste good, even after Chanukah is over (but please, make a fresh batch…)

I don’t do deep frying for Chanukah, particularly not with olive oil, which is expensive and wastes the oil and the calories (gotta save a few for the gelt–chocolate coins). And the cleanup. As my forebears did, I want to make a little olive oil last a longer time by using it sparingly with foods that deliver a slightly better svelte potential than potato latkes. Well–most of my forebears were more worried about getting enough food during the winter, not about eating too much, but let’s say my parents, who grew up in America with enough potatoes and enough oil to give you a gallbladder (and if that’s not a Jewish expression, I don’t know what is). In any case, frugality is warranted but so is enjoyment. How to balance the two?

I’m in love with gilded cauliflower–I think I’ve mentioned it a few (hundred) times. It’s quicker to prepare and probably even somewhat cheaper in salad bowl volumes than pasta or potato salad most of the year. Certainly more nutritious and sophisticated. And it contains garlic. I recently reinforced that view with my entire congregation when I brought a Sicilian (Roman? don’t exactly know) roasted cauliflower, pepper and artichoke salad to a brunch buffet after services. I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of the meal most of it was eaten and actually complimented on. I know, that’s not a true indicator in a lot of places, but Jews aren’t generally shy about telling each other what they really think, especially my congregation, and especially about food.

But I wasn’t totally in the mood for more of the same, even though I had about a third of a big head of cauliflower and some marinated artichokes left over from a frittata. Somewhere in the depths of my grains-and-beans drawer in the fridge (most people use it as a meat drawer; I use it to foil moths) I had stashed a bag of chickpea flour (Bob’s Red Mill; about $2-3 for a 16-ounce bag) because I thought I might make felafel (microwaved and pan-browned, still not deep-fried). But that seemed like a bit of work and kind of heavy.

When I went to pick up my daughter from school, I still hadn’t quite figured out how or what I was going to do quickly but semi-festively on a weeknight with homework and college applications looming. I knew I wasn’t even going to bother wrapping the presents I had for her and my husband, and I had to scrounge for enough candles to light the first night’s lights (note to self, get an extra box, one for next year).

As we passed a new Indian restaurant on the way home, though, it finally clicked.

“How about if I tried making some cauliflower pakoras?” I asked.

“That would be freaking delicious!”

OK, then. Continue reading

Surviving the holiday table

Yeah, yeah, I know. Last month every newspaper and online health magazine was brimming with handy top-10 tips to avoid stuffing yourself into a coma when you got over the river and through the woods to your in-laws’. Did it work? Did you try any of them? Was it even possible with the food available? MMMmmmph.

And…now we’ve started on the next round of holiday parties. And yes, I’m well aware, after last week’s “let the fools have their tartar sauce” tax subversion bill, that the tenor of my questions could equally apply to trickle-down economics, neocon “efficient” remote war management in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I am not a crook,” “too big to fail,” “No Collusion,” “FAKE NEWS,” and other fantasy favorites.

I don’t want to add to the burden of public speculation on the kinds of people who could genuinely fall for those slogans or excuse them in the face of the visible harm they do to all of us (okay, MOST of us. 99.9 percent of us). I’ve met some of these true believers, a few are actually friends, and they are otherwise decent, but really, stubbornly naïve is the kindest thing I can say. Tunnel vision, perhaps.

But back to holiday food–an even more fraught social topic. Because the same stubborn naïveté applies.

The trouble with most of the dutifully published top-10s for navigating party fare is how incredibly vague and trivial they are. They don’t give you a plate plan diagram like the ones for DASH/MyPlate balanced meals and the Idaho Plate™-style recommendations for Type II diabetes management. They don’t help you set a reasonable goal number for carb grams for the total meal including desserts and appetizers, and they don’t help you estimate anything or give you some sample sizes to go by.

Instead, they put the burden on you (or your kid) to select and use the fictitious ideal of self-control (more accurately known as “winging it”) in an environment that, to put it mildly, probably won’t support it. Oh, dear. JUST like the tax boondoggle.

There is also a big, big missing ingredient for most of these party suggestions: vegetables of worth. People don’t cook as much as they used to, chain restaurants and drive-thrus don’t really serve them, and the big food mags have almost dropped them from any party spread that isn’t for summer.

If there aren’t greens on the table, how do you fill half your plate with them as recommended by doctors and CDEs and RDs everywhere? If there’s one green vegetable dish and it’s breaded, panko’ed, crusted, dressed, nutted, topped, creamed or cream sauced, gratinéed, gravied, stuffed, sweetened, pancetta’ed, buttered or cheesed (I know, some of that litany is starting to sound a little obscene, as it should) to within an inch of its life, is it still worthwhile counting it as a green? Or is it actually mostly yet another starch with cheese, cream, butter, breadcrumbs, bacon bits and so on?

If you need to cover up any dish that thoroughly, it should tell you something pretty important about the recipe:

It is not exactly a taste explosion.*

Sorry, I WAS trying to get away from the obvious political metaphor, but it looks like it’s going to stick. (*And my thanks to the much-mourned Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series–and more specifically another of his books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for that line).

In any case, to survive the holidays and look good doing it, you need a winter holiday table that works better and tastes fresher and is actually lighter than the usual stuff and won’t leave you wishing for a sleigh to schlep your stomach home in after the party.

You need vegetabalia, ungunked. Some actual greens (or purples) on the table to lighten the load and redress the balance.

Actually, vegetabalia has always been a key part of classic dinner parties and it would be a shame to forget it, especially when you’re in the heart of winter. I don’t think I actually have ten ideas here, because as you may have seen in my previous attempts at top-10 lists, I tend to go a little overboard. Let’s see.

One way to do it without too much shock is to make the starch dishes a little smaller and the greens platters a little bigger and more numerous, colored, varied and–this is actually important, at least for a party–pretty.

Another is to add a green salad worthy of a celebration–keep it simple, elegant, just a couple of key and colorful ingredients that go together, not like something you scooped out of your local chain restaurant salad bar. See the big box of salad post for some inexpensive and winter-worthy vegetable selections that are easy to prep and store in the fridge for showtime and won’t look like “rabbit food.”

The third is to provide appetizers that are bigger on vegetabalia, ones that get beyond celery sticks, baby-cut carrots and bottled ranch dressing and are actually appetizing.

…Of course, the key element for avoiding idiots who take one look and say, “Oh. Rabbit food.” is not to invite them in the first place. The second strategy is surprise (in a good way, that is, not as in “celery with marshmallow fluff!”)

Good-looking vegetable appetizers that won’t bore people aren’t necessarily more expensive, especially if you buy bulk vegetables and wash and cut them up yourself. And some can actually be easier to make, and make look impressive, than lining up all those crackers and cheese slices neatly on a circular tray (my bane, I just don’t have the hostess/catering gene). The bonus: if you’re the host, you won’t have a load of crackers and cheese sitting around the house the next day, and you might have some fresh noshing vegetables left over, ready to grab and go.

Here are a couple of more specific (forgotten?) ways to make vegetabalia rock, cold and hot.

Crudités (#4)

The “just wash and nosh” scheme for raw vegetables is pretty easy and can even be elegant for a raw vegetable tray. You don’t need fancy chef-school knife skills or fancy expensive knife sets to make the magic happen, either.

You don’t have to do a massive tray or a zillion different expensive designer raw vegetables–three or four types on a medium platter with some contrast and a good fresh dip make a nice party display. At between $1 and $5-6 (for heirloom, top-end stuff or for portobello mushrooms) per pound, most noshing vegetables are also cheaper than many chips-and-dips junk foods, designer breads, cheeses, sliced deli meats, and premade party platters of just about any kind.

Do get away from the tedious carrots-and-celery-sticks-and-ranch-dressing version, even if you are doing carrots and/or celery. Celery and carrots are still good, mind you, but you might want to grow them up a bit, cut them differently, add one or two less common dipping vegetables for variety and something fresher and more interesting than ranch dressing for a dip or spread.

Usually I’m against “fashion vegetables,” heirloom everything and bagged, prewashed/pretrimmed veg because of the price markup compared to bulk. But if you’ve got access to something a little extra in an unexpected color (purple is good, so is bright yellow), like purple cauliflower or multicolored peppers, you might want to go for it just once in limited amounts and mix them up with the regular vegetables.

And there are non-designer vegetables with enough mix of color and flavor to do the pretty at a slightly lower price point.

  • Regular globe radishes are pretty bright and crunchy and eye-catching and peppery–lop off the thin root and most of the stem; wash them really well to get out any sand and keep them whole or slice them in half lengthwise. If you have a local farmer’s market that doesn’t slap on chichi markups in the price per pound, or you happen to see a bunch of longer or otherwise eye-catching radishes for about the same price in the produce section of your grocery store, go for it.
  • Fancy variety pods like sugar snap peas and snow peas–even raw green beans–are a nice choice too. You can get bulk snap and snow peas for about $3/lb. at the Ralph’s/Kroger’s and fresh green beans are sometimes on sale between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for under $1/lb. but usually about $2/lb.
  • Trader Joe’s sells 2-lb. bags of multicolored full-sized organic carrots for about $2 at this writing. White, deep purple with a gold core, bright yellow…pretty dramatic and they mix up nicely with the cheaper orange ones without being a lot more expensive.
  • If you can get colored full-sized bell peppers, maybe get one or two, and choose colors other than green. Sliced lengthwise they go pretty far in brightening up a vegetable tray.

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And one more…

Butternut squash salad with tehina

Butternut, kabocha, red kuri, Hubbard, turban, pumpkin (and acorn, and delicata, and all the rest)–if you’re microwaving a large red squash, you may as well have another easy recipe in your back pocket.

This is one from my gourmet cousin up north, something she served us as a Friday-after lunch a couple of Thanksgivings ago, and it’s both beautiful and surprising with almost no effort.

Red Squash Slices on Arugula with Tehina

I know, I know. I’ll never get that chichi cookbook deal giving it away that fast. You wanted suspense. Obviously.

But really. If you have a couple of big chunks of leftover roast or preferably microwaved butternut squash, peel and slice it up–cold or hot, either is fine. Put down a bed of arugula or other salad greens, fan out the slices of butternut, mix up a little tehina (sesame paste) with lemon juice, a small clove of garlic and an optional pinch of salt, add just enough water to get it pourable and drizzle it over the squash.

[Note: if you’re making tehina sauce yourself, put a large dollop of the sesame paste in the bowl first, then add the juice of a lemon and stir slowly with a fork, then the garlic and salt, then water by spoonfuls. If you try to add tehina paste to water, you get murky, milky thin stuff that never really emulsifies and you waste your expensive ingredients. I learned this the hard way in a kibbutz kitchen while the two crazy ladies I worked for cackled at me and smoked inches of ash over the food, so take my advice to heart. I’d never want to put you through that humiliation.]

If you want color and glamour, go for the Trader Joe’s or similar smoked paprika and sprinkle it lightly over the platter. Roasted sunflower seeds (shelled, obviously) are nice too. As are hot pepper flakes if you like heat. Sumac (the purplish red sour spice, not the irritating weed) is also pretty if you can get it where you are, but smoked paprika really hits the spot.

If you’re being impressive at short notice and you have an organic kabocha squash, scrub it well, cut off the cap carefully with a very sharp knife and dig out all the seeds, put the cap back on, then stick it on a microwaveable plate (Corelle is probably the best) or in a microwave-safe casserole dish, with either Saran wrap or a big microwaveable bowl as a cover. Drizzle a quarter-inch or so of water around it on the plate, hit it for 8 minutes and see if it’s cooked through (depends on the size of the squash). Give it another 3-4 minutes if it’s not quite there, until you can poke a sharp knife through it easily at a thick point. Let it sit 10-15 more to steam further and/or cool a bit. The kabocha is thin-skinned enough to slice through and eat the skin if you want, and it’s a pretty contrast between the dryish, nutty orange flesh and the thin green skin. Drain and bring the whole thing to slice at the table if you feel like it, and pass the tehina sauce.

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