A Meatless, Unprocessed Christmas (With Pumpkin Soup Recipe)

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Satish and I drove down to LA last Wednesday to spend the Christmas holiday with his sister and family. I had planned to make the Christmas Eve dinner as I really want to create tradition for Satish and I.  This entire  meal was going to be vegetarian, since my sister-in-law is a vegetarian and with all respect doesn’t like meat cooked in her kitchen. Therefore, I had packed up all of my key spices, herbs, oils, and favorite kitchen tools. I almost packed up my most versatile pan, zester, and spatula, but decided I could live without them. (Later, I learned I can’t live without the zester.) It’s tough cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. I had plans to visit a farmer’s market in LA for the main ingredients.  LA has at least 120 farmer’s markets happening during the week, so there is hardly no excuse to not go.  I curiously went to the Westwood farmer’s market on Thursday, with high hopes of finding all of the ingredients I needed for the Christmas Eve dinner.  I was disappointed to find that it was a sparse market, but I still bought kale and parsley. Later, I met my dear friend for tea and hot soup. She suggested we stroll through the farmer’s market nearby, but time seemed to slip by at the Jewish bakery as we sipped our tea, flirted with the rows of baked goods, laughed, cried, shared, and reminisced. By the time we were ready to leave the bakery, it was dark and I needed to rush back to avoid being stuck in traffic. Of course, I didn’t listen to our GPS, made a couple of wrong turns, and missed the closest 10W onramp. Awhile ago, I stopped getting upset with myself for making wrong turns and getting lost and started enjoying the new route I created. Due to the wrong turns, I happened to drive by the La Cienega Farmers Market. Since, I was crawling in the local traffic, I got to look into the farmers market held at the parking lot of the La Cienega Plaza Shopping Center. It was beautiful. The sun was already gone, Christmas lights were bright, food trucks, fresh flowers, all amidst red break lights. Peering, I saw berries, popcorn, chestnuts, citrus, and greens. I was surprised by the berries…maybe it’s the mild, spring like weather in SoCal. I was tempted to pull into the driveway and finish shopping for the ingredients needed to make the next day’s dinner. Though, I knew that every minute I waited to get onto the highway would be to risk being stuck in major LA traffic. I sighed and kept driving.  The next morning, I woke up early and rushed to the nearest Whole Foods in hopes of avoiding the last minute mad dash for groceries. I had a simple grocery list: pumpkin, Delicata squash, arugula, eggplant, spinach, ricotta, feta, and Parmesan. The Whole Foods in Santa Monica has a very tiny fresh produce section so I drove to the one in Brentwood. Surprisingly, most of the Whole Foods in West LA are much smaller in general. I nearly had a panic attack when I couldn’t find half of the fresh ingredients that I needed. The problem was solved easily by asking the grocers, who went into the back to get what I needed. (I had not made a back-up dinner menu)…

After getting a great latte at Caffe Luxxe (which was recommended to me on twitter), I was ready to start cooking. The menu was simple but I wanted to give myself ample time and not rush to finish during the end. The starter was a rather easy pumpkin soup spiced with cumin and cinnamon. I had an incredible pumpkin soup at Garibaldi’s earlier this week, which was the main inspiration. I had even made it on Tuesday, using my beloved Fairy Tale Pumpkin. Next on the menu was the Squash and Pomegranate Salad, Kale and Quinoa, and Garlic + Bread (inspired by Little Star Pizza). The main course was a variation of my vegetable rich lasagna. My niece helped me make the pistachio cookies that I made for 18 Reasons’ cookie swap, which would be dessert along with rich, hot chocolate.

Cumin Scented Pumpkin Soup

1 medium Sugar or Fairy Tale pumpkin (4-6 lbs)
olive oil for coating pumpkin
4 large garlic cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons cumin, fresh grounded
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
1/2 stick of unsalted butter or 1/3 cup olive oil
6 cups water, approximately
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup Creme Fraiche (optional)

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Cut pumpkin in half, discard the stem, seeds and stringy pulp.  Rub oil over the pumpkin, coating well. Place the pumpkin cut side down on the prepared pan. Tuck 2 garlic cloves under the cavity of the pumpkin. Bake pumpkin until it is very tender. Remove from the oven and let cool. Once the pumpkin is cool enough to touch, remove the peel. Cut the pumpkin into smaller pieces so it’s easier to puree.

2. In a large stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add in the cinnamon sticks. Once the cinnamon sticks open up, add in the cumin and ground cinnamon. Cook for 30 seconds. Remove pot from heat.

3. Puree the pumpkin in batches by adding in 1 cup of the pumpkin pieces  with a 1/3 to 1/2 cup of water. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Add water to reach a consistency of your liking.

4. Put the pot back on the stove-top and heat on medium. Once the soup is heated thoroughly, add salt and pepper to your liking. Stir in the Creme Fraiche. Taste and adjust seasoning.

 

Pumpkin Soup garnished with Sage

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My Sustainable Holiday Table

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Last month for Thanksgiving, Phantom Floranista and I collaborated to make a beautiful Thanksgiving table arrangement. We tried to use all compostable and sustainable materials to create a feeling of warmth, abundance of food, and elegance. The table arrangement was so beautiful that I had a hard time taking it apart once Thanksgiving was over and it was time to transition into Christmas. Therefore, we consumed all of the edible fruit and composted the flowers and some of the leaves. Even though, we didn’t have any specific plans to entertain during this month, I just had to do something with the table now that Phantom Floranista showed me the basics of floral arrangement. We also got our first tree as a married couple this year and decided to really get into the spirit of things by decorating our apartment. Inspired by magazines and in-store displays, I bought extra glass ornaments and other decorative knickknacks to put on our long, rosewood table.

I carefully placed large, round ornaments in places where the apples, corn, pomegranates, and mandarins were for the Thanksgiving table.

I also placed a few taller ornaments to give height and character.

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I also replaced the Fairy Tale pumpkin with a cubed vase filled with ornaments and decorative balls for the centerpiece. I bought the red cubed vase last year and filled the bottom with tissue to prop up the decorative pieces. I also used  tall candles that I already had to give more height and depth.

I covered up an empty aluminum can into a festive utensil holder with tissue paper, rubber band, ribbon, and an ornament.

Please share your holiday decorating tips and pictures!

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Club Dine In! dines out with Grub Crawl

Grub Crawl has teamed up with Club Dine In! for a special progressive dining experience in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco!  The ticket gets you exclusive entrance and great grub at three restaurants.  Each restaurant will showcase a special Club Dine In! Grub Crawl menu. The restaurants are close together, so we will be walking (“crawling”) from restaurant to restaurant.

When: Wednesday, December 15th.
Time: The Grub Crawl  starts at 6pm SHARP!
Where: Appetizers at Marengo on Union, entrees at Gamine, and desserts at American Cupcake.
Tickets: http://grubcrawl5.eventbrite.com/
Get you tickets here now as space is limited!

Read Club Dine In!’s review of Marengo here.

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Eating Beyond The Holidays (With Recipe)

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A few weeks ago I attended a Thanksgiving cooking demo at We Olive SF, a sustainable olive oil store. Teresa studied holistic nutrition, manages Oak Hill Farm’s CSA program, and has started Can Can Cleanse. Teresa showed us how easy it is to prepare seasonal food for a holiday gathering. It got me to thinking that often times, Seasonal Food is also known as Holiday Food to be only consumed on holidays. Well then, what about rest of the season? We don’t need to wait until Thanksgiving or any holiday to eat fresh, homemade dishes. Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, are available throughout Fall and Winter and there a ton of ways to enjoy these foods.

The dishes served at the holiday dinner table are richer and more decadent (more fats and sugars), which makes that meal so enticing and is nothing to feel guilty about. Though, the same ingredients can be prepared in a healthier way for daily consumption. The food that is grown locally and seasonally should be eaten everyday and not just saved for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The turkey or ham may take center stage, but the abundance of vegetables (green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, potatoes, Brussels sprouts) really make up the holiday table.

It’s always been all about the vegetables.

Butternut Squash soup is easy to make, delicious, and very healthy.

Brussels Sprouts are another typical holiday side dish that can be enjoyed any night of the week. Brussels sprouts are easy to pack also, so you don't have to resort to fast food for lunch.

Homemade Cannellini Bean and Rosemary Dip

Winter Squash Salad with Arugula, Feta & Pine Nuts

This recipe is modified from Teresa Piro’s Thankful Soups and Sides cooking demo at We Olive SF. It is a mouthwatering salad that looks really pretty and elegant. The salad is packed with antioxidants and flavor that you will want to eat it everyday. The warm squash makes the salad perfect for a cold, winter evening, also.

Ingredients
2 cups Delicata squash, seeded
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
1/3 cup feta, crumbled
2 tbs pine nuts, toasted

1 tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 cup arugula

Preparation
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cut squash into 1 inch squares. In a large mixing bowl,  toss squash,  sea salt, black pepper, and  olive oil to coat the squash well. Evenly lay out the squash on a baking sheet. Roast in oven for 30-35 minutes, or until soft, but not mushy. Remove from oven and let squash cool slightly.


3.  In the same mixing bowl, add roasted squash, feta, toasted pine nuts,  pomegranate seeds, extra virgin olive oil and gently toss. Garnish with arugula and serve.

A warm winter salad of squash, arugula, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds is soul satisfying and super simple to make, and is a perfect everyday meal.

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Farmers Market Find: Blood Oranges and Traditions

Last Monday, Satish and I walked over to the Marina Middle school to pick up our first Christmas tree as a married couple. It was really exciting and I even made up a Christmas tree song while we carried it back home. Even though I am of Indian ethnic origin, my family always celebrated Christmas. It was more about embracing the American culture and spending time with family than religion. My family went all out with the decorations, presents, and food. On Christmas Eve, my many aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at my parent’s place and it would just be a big family gathering. The food was really interesting in the sense that we didn’t eat ham, squash, or green bean casserole. We had  Mexican fried rice, enchiladas, Chinese soup, frozen corn, a large variety of Indian dishes, and turkey. So the turkey and frozen corn were the only traditional, “American” food at our “American” holiday gatherings.  Since my parents grew up in India, enchiladas and Chinese soup represented traditional American food to them. Christmas had to have been my most favorite time of the year, when everyone was so happy and together. Now, I look forward to this time of year so I can make the food that is available seasonally and create my own traditions.

 

Our tree!

Our tree decked up with simple ornaments.

Between holiday parties and my parents and brother-in-law visiting, I am going to make really easy dishes that require no time or attention and am making large batches to stretch throughout the week. (I also want to spend the little free time testing out a healthier, gluten-free cookie recipe).  I caught the first sighting of blood oranges today at the market! Blood oranges are one my most beloved fruits. They are extremely seasonal and gorgeous. When just right, they have the perfect balance of sweet and sour. One of my most memorable experiences with blood oranges was at Ella’s Restaurant. Every winter they serve a 6 ounce glass of pure blood orange juice that is a brilliant blood-red color. The juice is worth the long wait at Ella’s and this year I will make my own!

 

Blood Oranges- Hamadas Farm

Stinging Nettle were also sighted!

Weekly Dinner Plan:

Monday:  Lentil salad, Butternut Squash and White Carrot Soup
Tuesday: Arugula salad, Cumin Cauliflower, leftover soup
Wednesday: Grub Crawl!
Thursday: Cumin Cauliflower, Chicken Kebabs
Friday: Dinner out
Saturday: Leftovers + Holiday Parties
Sunday: Friends and Family Brunch + Holiday Parties

Miscellaneous Cooking
Savory Muffins
Sun-Dried Tomato and Olive Pesto
Pistachio Cookies (gluten-free)
Earl Grey Cranberry Sauce with Dates

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Farmer’s Market Find: The Thanksgiving Table

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The power was out in parts of the city last night due to a brief, yet tumultuous storm. I was thoroughly exhausted from organizing and hosting the Music and Pancake Benefit for Doctor’s Without Borders, Pakistan and just wanted to sleep for all of Sunday. Though, I woke up at 8AM this morning, temperatures were in the 40’s, and I really tried talking myself into staying under my covers. But, I knew if I did, it would be at the cost of my farmer’s market Thanksgiving menu. So I got up, finalized what I really wanted to make for our Thanksgiving dinner, put on my puffy down jacket and woolen hat, grabbed my reusable grocery bags, and headed out the door. I was so glad that the clouds were clearing and the sun was coming out stronger, because I had big plans to create a festive Thanksgiving table arrangement with Phantom Floranista and I did not want to fight the Lighting Gods.

I haven’t been to the Fort Mason farmer’s market in 3 weeks, so I was really curious to see all of the new additions and the familiar farmers.  Just saying hello every Sunday to these farmers and farmhands has become the equivalent of keeping in touch with friends (without social media channels). It’s very heartwarming and real.

I have to admit, today was the earliest I have been to this market in a long time and it was really quiet. However, by the time I made it to Rio de Parros Organics to buy their colorful carrots, they were all sold out! I am planning on making roasted carrots and potatoes, instead of mashed potatoes. I was  also really hoping to get fresh herbs from Hollie’s Homegrown, but she wasn’t there. I wonder if she is returning this year. My backup plan is to go the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Tuesday.

Olives were just harvested in Northern California and this really is the time to buy olive oil. Olive oil is the freshest and even more nutritious right at harvest, and the taste is just divine. I did a little olive oil tasting last weekend at Long Meadow Ranch and I was convinced that fresh olive oil is the way to go. California Olives and Olive Oils is at the Fort Mason Farmer’s market every Sunday, selling fresh olive oils, uncured olives, cured olives, and lemons. Today, I tasted olive oil that tasted just like the whole Piccholine olives. I don’t think I ever tasted an olive oil that tasted so close to form.

These Viking Potatoes would make a beautiful side dish.

I picked up tiny apples (Rainbow Orchards and Billy Bob’s Organics), mandarins (Ken’s Top Notch Produce) thinking they would make  simple appetizers or snacks,  a pomegranate (Hamas Farms) for a salad,  and a pumpkin (Swank Farms) for a side dish, but they all ended up as accents for my special Thanksgiving table arrangement.

I bought my first Fairy Tale Pumpkin. I’ve never cooked any type  of pumpkin, but this one just called my name. Also, the farmhand from Swank Farms explained the cooking process, which was no different than of a butternut squash. So I carried home my 8 pound Fairy Tale Pumpkin, eager to show Satish and make a home for it.

The mandarins, apples, and pomegranates became the accent pieces on my Thanksgiving table arrangement. The Fairy Tale pumpkin took center stage.

 

thanksgiving table

I got these little guys with the intention to use them for the table setting.

What are your Thanksgiving plans?

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Taking the Can Out Of Cranberries

Deliciously shaped.

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Canned cranberries. I thought that was the only way it goes, never even having seeing cranberries in their fruit form. Then sometime 5-6 years ago, I saw Ocean Spray whole cranberries being sold at a supermarket. I popped one in my mouth and was really sorry. I always thought cranberries were really sweet, but was I wrong! I would have never guessed that cranberries were so bitter because they are super, duper sweet when coming out of the can. I examined the ingredients and nutritional information on the can and compared it to the whole, fresh cranberries. Here is what I found:

Canned Cranberry Sauce
Cranberries, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Corn Syrup and Citric Acid

Whole Cranberries
Cranberries

Simple, Homemade Cranberry Sauce
Cranberries, water, sugar

Notice the significant difference between the ingredients used to make homemade cranberry sauce and the canned stuff. Sugar is not exactly the same as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and corn syrup. HFCS are created in a lab and does not come from the earth.  If you wish to believe the advertisements and propaganda put on by the industry, who have a lot of money to spare, I will not debate here.  By the way, the industry is calling HFCS and corn syrup “corn sugar nowadays to make it harmless and simple. You can decide for yourself. It’s just bad for you and it’s in virtually every packaged, processed, pre-made product.  The important message here is that you can control the amount of sugar you eat if you make the food at home. You can also choose sugar alternatives (Muscovado sugar, coconut palm nectar, dates, raisins, Agave nectar, raw honey, Stevia).  Also, another thing that everyone should be concerned with is Bisphenol A. BPA needs its own post(s) altogether, but everyone should be cautious of it as it has been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, just to name a few. BPA is used to line canned and pre-packaged food, which leaches into the food.

Cranberry sauce has to be the easiest Thanksgiving dish, ever. Of course, you can tap into you creative side and jazz it up by adding one or many spices, orange juice, or anything else you seem fit. I started taking pride in making my  cranberry sauce when I read the recipe on the back of Trader Joe’s cranberries and the sight of canned cranberries just make me a little uneasy. Also, cranberry sauce can be made well in advance and actually thickens in the fridge. It’s also super easy (and cheap) to take to potlucks. Check out the recipes below on how to make your own cranberry sauce. Also, if you want to really surprise your guests, try my Earl Grey Cranberry Sauce with Dates.

Simple
Homemade Cranberry Sauce– by Pioneer Woman (who won the Thanksgiving Throwdown against Bobby Flay)
Gingered Cranberry by Sauce by Closet Cooking
Jellied Cranberry Sauce by The Bitten Word

Creative
Earl Grey Cranberry Sauce with Dates by Club Dine In!
Bourbon Cranberry Sauce by The Craving Chronicles.

via 5 Second Rule

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A Perfect Cup of Pumpkin Chai

This chai pairs perfectly with a warm slice of pumpkin bread or fresh pumpkin pie. It is easy to make in a large batch to serve at holiday parties or even after your Thanksgiving meal. Continue reading

Treat Treats As Treats

“Treat treats as treats.”– Micheal Pollan

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have the biggest sweet tooth. I am not so much of a candy person as I am of baked treats. However, it was a long time ago that I was able to metabolize and burn off all the extra fat and sugar. Also, I started becoming more aware of processed and unprocessed foods. I was grossed out when I learned that I was literally putting cancer causing, toxic chemicals in body in the form of preservatives from candy and packaged sweets. Also, it seemed like high-fructose corn syrup or now corn syrup was just plain hard to avoid. Whether HFCS is bad for you or not, any type of processed sugar is bad in the long run. Therefore, it’s best to minimize overall sugar intake. Desserts (including candy) are special occasion food and should be treated as such.

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