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My Thanksgiving Menu

The moment you tell people that you love to cook–that cooking is your passion, your life, your favorite thing in the whole world to do–they usually ask one question: so what are you making for dinner tonight?

But around this time of year, the question changes to: what are you making for Thanksgiving? Or, what are you making for Christmas? I wish I could reply with something fancy and extravagant, some out-of-the-box-and-exotic concoction of flavors and recipes from the nation’s top celebrity chefs. Sometimes I wish I could jerk a tear or two from them and say that I’m paying a tribute to my late grandmother this year by making a collection of her classic recipes for my holiday feast. Wouldn’t that be something special?

Truth is, I’m not doing either of those things this year (nor have I done them in years past). While a meal of a million courses featuring the recipes of Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentis, or other Iron Chef Hall-of-Famers would certainly impress even the toughest food critics, and while a table laden with classic dishes made from recipes scrawled in my grandmother’s own handwriting would be something memorable and idyllic, this year I’m going a different route. 

This year, with just three people expected at my dining room table on Turkey Day (that’s including myself), I’m scaling it back and doing something simple. Back in October when I started planning out my Thanksgiving menu and pouring over the latest holiday magazines, I couldn’t decide what to do. Big, small, fancy, simple, ethnic, American, gourmet, quick…there’s just so many choices! But in the end, despite hours of surfing the web for recipes and flipping through cookbooks, I’ve decided to meld a few tasty looking recipes together and call it good. Why stress about it when it will be over before I know it and Christmas will be following closely on Thanksgiving’s heels? Thanksgiving is, after all, a time for giving thanks–not spending days in the kitchen laboring over a meal that will be devoured in minutes! (I’ll admit, though, that that can be an awful lot of fun, too, when you have the time.)

So, what’s on the menu? Here’s a sneak peek:

  • Herb Roasted Turkey Breast (my own recipe) 
  • Classic Cranberry-Orange Sauce (again, my recipe)
  • Apple, Celery, and Leek Stuffing (a mish-mash of recipes from Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart, and my mom)
  • Garlicky Greens (from Heidi at 101 Cookbooks)
  • Easy Pumpkin Pie with Press-In Shorbread Crust (from Martha Stewart)

So there you have it. Simple and easy. No fluff, no frills. Just good old fashioned cooking. And you know what? Sometimes that’s just what we need in life. To take the pressure off of ourselves, lay aside extravagance, and just embrace the pleasure of enjoying the simple things in life.

This Thanksgiving, I won’t be breaking a sweat in the kitchen or running around to gourmet markets at the last minute picking up that special spice or those perfect pecans. Nope. Instead, I’ll be nestled in the warmth of my home surrounded by the people I love and giving thanks for the love that they give me back.

 

(This post is linked to Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays.)

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With the holidays just around the corner, I think it’s about time that I started sharing some good old holiday recipes–all made a little bit healthier, of course. And I can’t think of better way to kick off this wonderful season than with these scrumptious date balls.

I’ve been making variations of date balls for a long time. Some with straight up dates and walnuts, others with apricots or dried cherries. A few days ago I tried a new combo: cranberries and pecans, two classic holiday flavors. I’m in love with nuts–I eat them in some way or form nearly every day–but I usually reserve pecans for a special treat at the holidays. Their buttery, rich flavor is sublime in stuffings, on salads, or sprinkled atop baked apples or pears. But after trying these date balls, this may be my new favorite way to indulge in the savory pecan.

I love date balls for many reasons. Not only are they gluten-free, they’re also free of refined white sugar and flour, trans-fats, and high fructose corn syrup. Plus, they’re completely raw and require no baking. It’s a great recipe to use during the holiday season when your poor oven is already on operation overload with all the turkeys, hams, cookies, pies, and sweet potato casseroles coming and going.

Using a food processor makes light work of this recipe. If you don’t have one, you could try using a blender, although I can’t guarantee success if you go that route. You could also make these the good old fashioned way by simply chopping the nuts and dried fruits super-fine and then kneading the two together to form a dough-like mixture. Me? I’m far too lazy! I give all the work to my food processor, which is (not surprisingly) the most used piece of equipment in my kitchen.

IMG_0206I think these date balls are a hit with almost everyone who gets the pleasure of eating them. Bite sized and perfect for parties or cookie trays, they also would make a lovely hostess gift packaged up in a pretty box and tied with a ribbon. How wonderful would that be to give your hostess a treat that she can enjoy without worrying about sabotaging her diet? I don’t know what better gift there is than to give the gift of good health.

Enjoy!

Cranberry-Pecan Date Balls

¾ cup raw pecans

4 large dates, pitted and roughly chopped

1/3 cup dried cranberries, preferably fruit-juice sweetened

¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the S-blade, process the nuts until finely ground. Add the dates and process until they are pasted and fully incorporated into the nuts. Add the dried cranberries and cinnamon. Process until finely chopped and incorporated into nut-date mixture.

The mixture should stick together when pinched with your fingers. If it does not, add a few more cranberries or another date. If it is too sticky, add a few more pecans. When the consistency is right, form the mixture into balls about the diameter of a quarter. Refrigerate until ready to serve, or up to one week.

Makes 10-12 balls.

(For more gluten free, sugar free recipes, check out Slightly Indulgent Mondays.)

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Passion Defined

It’s 6:23 a.m.  Truth is, I’ve been awake since 1:47 a.m.  This is weird.  Normally, I’m a 9:30-6:30 sleeper.  Out like a light, sleep like a rock, wake up at 6:30 on the dot without an alarm.  Last night was completely out of the ordinary.

I awoke wide-eyed in the wee hours of the morning.  Went to the bathroom.  Drank a glass of water.  Went back to bed.  Sleep just wouldn’t come.  Go to sleep, I commanded.  You’re going to be exhausted tomorrow if you don’t.  Come on.  Just close your eyes and don’t open them up.  That’ll do it.  It didn’t work.  As I watched the beady red eyes of my clock morph from 1:55 to 2:08 to 2:46 to 3:10, I only grew more restless.  My mind would not shut off.  All I could think about was food…

What would sweet potatoes taste like drizzled with chile oil?  Would bell peppers be better stuffed with wild rice or brown rice?  What about quinoa?  How did I make those muffins again yesterday?  Shoot…I knew I should have written that recipe down.  Think pears are coming into season yet?  Nah, give ‘em another few weeks.  They’ll probably have apples at the farmer’s market on Saturday.  I should get some.  (Pause and doze, then wake up.  More thoughts follow.)  Is my cooking even any good?  What if people are just telling me my food is good and it’s not?  Am I tough enough critic?  People say you are your worst critic.  Am I?  That soup I made the other night was pretty good, but was it great?  Could it have been better?

I drove myself half-crazy (okay, maybe completely crazy) thinking about food last night.  So many things I want to try, so many food combinations I’ve yet to taste.  I have a plastic sleeve tucked in a binder on my bookshelf that’s stuffed with dozens of “this looks good” recipes I’ve clipped over the past few months.  They are all waiting for me, calling my name softly every time I walk by.  And those are just the ones on paper.  There is also a whole separate cluster of ideas jammed inside my head just waiting to break out.  I sometimes think I can feel them pressing on the walls of my skull in their efforts to leap into the kitchen and turn into some delicious meal. 

They torture me, all those ideas.  And yet, I love them for it.

Last night, as I stared at the vent in the ceiling above me and wished desperately to–at any moment–slip into sleep, I realized something.  Before my sleepless night, I’d always thought that passion was defined as something you absolutely love doing and are extremely good at doing.  When you’re fulfilling your passion, life is sweet.  Perfect, even.  But I was wrong.

Passion was redefined for me last night sometime around 4:00 a.m. (I guess that would mean it was morning)  I learned this: passion pulls you in two directions at once.  On one hand, you’re in love with it and wish you could just disappear deep into its many layers and folds.  But on the other, because it is always there–stalking you like a shadow–you want space.  Breathing room.  Strangely, though, if you stay away from that passion too long, somehow it pulls you back into its realm and infuses life into you again.  You cannot escape it.

The answer is no.  A life spent pursuing passion is not a perfect one.  It has its ups and downs, highs and lows, and a good handful of sleepless nights.  A passionate life will not be easy.  But it will be rich.  It will be full.  And in the end, what truly matters most?

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The Perfect Vinaigrette

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Photograph courtesy of Brianna Tittel

“A vinaigrette is one of the simplest preparations in the sauce lexicon.  At its most basic, it requires only two ingredients: oil and vinegar.  However, as many accomplished cooks can attest, turning these ingredients into a dressing that transforms unadorned greens into a finished, well-balanced salad isn’t simple at all.  Vinaigrettes can sometimes seem a little slip-shod: harsh and bristling in one bite, dull and oily in the next.  The best ones do the job quietly, complementing the greens without dominating them or engaging in combat.”

The excerpt above was taken from a recent article in Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  I thought it described the purposes and problems of vinaigrettes perfectly.  The article inspired me to share with you one of my simplest vinaigrette recipes.  I use it almost daily this time of year as a light dressing for salads, or to top steamed veggies such as carrots or asparagus or farmer’s market green beans.  It makes a terrific sauce for steamed new potatoes as well.

Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 3 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tbs. red or white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbs. Dijon or honey mustard (honey mustard will make the dressing sweeter)
  • 1 tbs. minced shallot or red onion
  • 1 tbs. minced fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, basil, rosemary, or thyme (dill is my favorite!)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk together oil, vinegar, and mustard rapidly until emulsified and smooth.  Then add the shallot, herbs, and salt/pepper.  If you don’t have a shallot or fresh herbs on hand, you can leave them out.  However I think the vinaigrette has a great deal more body and depth of flavor with them.

Here’s some other handy tips for dressing salads:

  • Squeeze the juice of a lemon over any kind of salad.  It just brightens up the overall flavor.  Then drizzle with olive oil to mellow out the lemon’s acidity.
  • For hearty salads with toppings such as walnuts, pears, and cheeses (think fall-type salads), the more robust flavor of balsamic vinegar is a perfect accompaniment.  I have an aged balsamic (it’s older than me!) that I reserve only for drizzling on tender greens in the fall and winter months.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for different types of oils at markets and specialty food stores.  Olive oil infused with a citrus rind is delicious poured over salads with fruit.  Oils with rosemary, thyme, or garlic lend wonderful flavor to roasted chicken or meat. 

I’ve found that by using unique olive oils or vinegars, or just making my own dressings and vinaigrettes, I rarely buy bottled salad dressing from the store anymore.  Once you get a basic dressing down, it opens up the doors to all kinds of creative variations.  Have fun experimenting!

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This yummy dinner is easy, flavorful, and fresh.  This is definately a summertime recipe.  The corn offers sweetness and color, the tomatoes bring tang, and the ground turkey bumps up the protein in the dish.  Garnish with some parmesan cheese and basil.  Serve with a tossed green salad and you’ve got a perfect summer meal.

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Olive oil for sauteing

1/2 lb. ground turkey

1 shallot and 2 garlic cloves, minced

3 ears of corn, kernels removed and cobs discarded

1 (14 oz) can diced tomatoes (mine had Italian herbs added)

Salt and pepper

1 lb. short whole wheat, brown rice, or quinoa pasta (such as fusilli, rotini, or penne)

4-5 basil leaves, chopped

1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated 

 Heat 1 tbs. oil in large skillet.  Brown turkey and crumble it up as it cooks, 6-8 minutes.  Remove from pan.  Add 2 tbs. olive oil to pan.  Saute shallot and garlic for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly.  Then add corn kernels.  Cook over medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes until beginning to brown and carmelize.  (It will smell delicious!)  Add the diced tomatoes, reserved turkey, and salt/pepper to taste.  Simmer for 5-10 minutes to marry the flavors.

While the corn sauce cooks, bring a big pot of water to boil.  When boiling, add your pasta and cook according to package directions.  Toss drained pasta with the corn-tomato-turkey sauce.  Top with basil and parmesan.  Enjoy.

(Note: I used 1/2 lb. pasta instead of the full pound because I was only making this dish for 3 people.  For 4 generous servings, use the full pound.)

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