Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Compassionate Christmas Dinner

It's a good thing, and I'm all for it, but no, I wasn't referring to compassion for animals. I'm working the other side of the street--the human side--where, I believe, compassion needs to begin in order to be ultimately effective. Truly, genuine compassion--like love, forgiveness, kindness, peace, and every other good thing--begins with the self. It's a simple premise: If I can't love myself, I can't love anyone else either.

So, on that premise, I decided to buck the system this year and blow off making a traditional Christmas dinner (along with a salad for myself, as usual). Instead, I went for broke and came up with a four-course all-plant menu that all twelve diners could enjoy, including me. This way, I got to eat the same thing as everyone else, and they got to eat a feast that didn't leave them lying around like beached whales afterwards. Zero cholesterol, healthy fats, and lots of vegetables. Here's how it went:

I began with an "Artichoke Caponata" that included fresh globe artichokes, onion, garlic, capers, preserved lemon, Sicilian olives, parsley, and of course, EVOO, salt and pepper. I served it on individual hors d'oeuvre plates with crostini. Sorry, no photo--I actually shot the plates the next day, using leftovers, and we ate all of the caponata. Moving along...

Following the appetizer, I served a brand new soup I developed recently when I was trying to make a butternut squash soup that doesn't taste like every other butternut squash soup.

I diced a giant yellow onion and sauteed it in coconut oil until soft and just beginning to color. I stirred in a ridiculous amount of minced garlic and four roasted, peeled, and diced red peppers, and continued cooking for several minutes. Then I added a small butternut squash and a couple of garnet yams, diced, along with Celtic salt and a little smoked paprika. Once the vegetables were nicely coated with oil and spices, I added a couple liters of water, a few bay leaves, and vegetable bouillon cubes. I got it boiling, lowered the heat to very low, covered the pot, and let it cook for about an hour. At this point everything was supersoft. I blasted the contents of the pot (minus the bay leaves) in a blender until very smooth and returned it to the pot. Then I added a pinch of saffron threads, a little ground hot red chile, freshly ground black pepper, and a bit more salt.

I reheated the soup on medium-low and stirred until the saffron's aroma began to penetrate. I served the soup in small bowls, garnished with snipped chives. No one knew what kind of soup it was until I told them--at which point there were epiphanous utterances of "oh...yeah...mmm!"

The main course was more complicated. I had decided on using beluga lentils, for two reasons: one. I love their color, taste and texture; and two, because these tiny black lentils are originally from Syria, and I thought a little solidarity with our oppressed Syrian brethren would be a good thing. I sauteed a large amount of diced fennel in EVOO until lightly browned on the edges and then stirred in the lentils, until coated with the oil. Then I added water and vegetable bouillon cubes and simmered until the lentils were tender (at my elevation, this took about an hour). Just before serving, I stirred in an ounce of absinthe, for good measure.

To serve, I browned large Portobello mushroom caps, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then finished them in the oven. I placed a cap in the center of each plate, concave side up, and filled it with the lentils.I surrounded them with four vegetable dishes:

Rapini, coarsely chopped, blanched, and sauteed in EVOO with garlic and Aleppo pepper (spicy and very flavorful, also from Syria).

Carrots and Parsnips, julienned and roasted with coconut oil.

Cauliflower and Beets, roasted with red onion and fresh thyme. I've usually served this as a salad, but of course it worked well served hot.

Sauteed Mushrooms, with a little coconut oil, splashes of aged balsamic and a few chunks of dark chocolate. Most people would never guess there was chocolate in there, but as soon as you tell them, you can see the light bulb coming to life in their heads. I love surprising people's palates that way.

A garnish of fresh thyme sprigs, a drizzle of chive oil, and a sprinkling of snipped chives completed the plate.

For dessert, I warmed pitted bing cherries with a little palm sugar, some crushed cardamom seeds, and a healthy slug of kirsch. I spooned them into bowls and placed a scoop of vanilla "Coconut Bliss" ice cream in the middle. Earlier, I had piped a batch of chocolate peace signs and dusted them with edible gold; I laid one on top of the ice cream for a crowning touch. I served dessert with a homemade spiced-pear brandy liqueur, which one of my nephews described as "like Christmas in your mouth."

When everyone was pleasantly sated--but not overstuffed--I announced that "No animals were harmed in the making of this meal." Compassion, come full-circle.

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