This recipe was published in the Boston Globe on 12/28/11
The winter cometh. Finally. Not that I doubted it for a minute. But each day that passed without snow and freezing temperatures made me want to dance a little jig. If only I had the energy. Because though Christmas comes but once a year, and it is quite wonderful, it is also exhausting, is it not? I have been doing my darndest to stay in balance, to keep from eating and drinking just a tad too much of all that’s on offer: cookies and fruitcake and wine and Christmas dinner. So far, I’m not especially winning that battle. Now I want to eat something plain and simple. I am grateful to be staying home on New Year’s Eve to do just about nothing—maybe we’ll go out to a movie, and maybe we won’t. And maybe I’ll make a small version of this vegetable pie.
For the past fourteen years—I think it has been fourteen, but I lost count—I have gone to a friend’s house party in the mountains on New Year’s Eve. The house is a cavernous Adirondack style lodge on a lake designed by my friend to evoke the feeling of her childhood summers, but I reckon it is much grander in scale than the original. In any case, it accommodates a crowd, and we guests are appreciative of her efforts, since we are the beneficiaries, after all.
It started when our kids were little. We’d tuck them into bed after their mini feast of chicken nuggets (hey, they're Kaye's homemade and I’m not in charge of the menu here, I’m a guest!) and a snowman cake made from chocolate wafers and vanilla whipped cream. Once their cherubic eyes were shut fast, we’d start with a bit of champagne and caviar by the fire before we’d sit down to a feast of our own.
On the day of the Evening, a few of us brave the snow and ice, driving past tumbledown stone walls and the lovely woods (dark and deep) to keep our promises at the Hannaford supermarket. What can we forage from our list to fill the splendid table on this last night of the year?
Meanwhile, on this same day, the kids play games, indoors and out. And though they now tower over us, they still scream down snowy hills on giant Frisbees. Meanwhile again, the womenfolk who are so inclined cook and bake and work their fingers to the bone. Because now we have to feed not only ourselves, but those giants we spawned. And more than a few of their friends. Oh how naïve we were. By the time they’re in college they’re eating and drinking us under the table. You just can’t prepare yourself for that.
The grown-ups arrive in fancy dress—not clothes from racks on Fifth Avenue, but dug from the depths and piles of Goodwill or second-hand stores. Our hostess is cheerfully resplendent in some outrageous sparkly fluff, perhaps with a wig, wearing shoes in which a lesser mortal could no more navigate a dining room, never mind the stairs. After our chit-chat by the fire (note that it is now past ten o’clock) we eat dinner, and drink more wine and champagne. After dinner comes the mandatory countdown in Times Square as seen on television, which sets off cheers from a balcony overlooking the room, now populated with those very big people we can no longer call children even though they are still our children. Streamers, sparkles, streamers, cheers: a huge mess. But wait, there’s more. On to the champagne contest in which the guests try to rank the five or six bottles, contents in plastic champagne glasses all lined up and neatly numbered, to be judged in order of the most to the least expensive. The Mistress of Ceremonies tallies the result on a giant easel. This has gotten a bit unwieldy now that those giants I mentioned are of drinking age. Best not to go too deeply into that. Finally dessert. Because, as everyone knows, the best way to end such an evening is with a massive surge of sugar.
Friends, I will miss you this year. I hope we will meet again soon. My college boy is off to Iowa to take photographs and report about what he sees at the caucus. I take it as my cue to step back. Do a lot of nothing. Hope to keep my eyes open until midnight. And have a simple feast that will be more than a bowl of cereal, but just barely. I like the idea of grilled cheese sandwiches and a really, really good glass of champagne. If I feel more energetic, maybe I’ll scale down this pie to serve two.
May your days be sunny and bright
May your hearts be happy and light
Thanks to all of you who have
to Cooking Lessons this year.
Tempus fugit. May this be the year that, as in the words of Steve Jobs, you have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition and be who you truly want to become.
Happy, happy new year!
Winter vegetable pie
Serves 6 generously
When you crave something cozy and informal, feed this vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie to a group on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, or on a Sunday. It makes enough to serve 6, but would serve more if you have other offerings. Use plenty of sharp cheddar for a cheesy topping; taste and add more as you like. It can be made and assembled a few hours ahead of time. Just increase the baking time to make sure it is piping hot when you serve it.
3 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
Salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 cup milk, heated until hot
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives or finely sliced scallion tops
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup (about 1 1/2 ounces) grated cheddar, or more, to taste
1. Combine the potatoes, cold water to cover, and 1 teaspoon salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes, or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.
2. Drain the potatoes and return them to the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat for about 1 minute to dry them slightly. Mash with a potato masher while slowly adding the hot milk. Add the butter. Beat vigorously with a wire whisk until fluffy. Blend in the chives or scallions, parsley, and cheddar. Season with salt and pepper.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 large parsnips, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch lengths
4 large carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch lengths
1 celery root, peeled, and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 turnips, peeled, and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups (8 or 9 ounces) frozen pearl onions
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup white wine (or stock if not using wine)
4 cups vegetable stock
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Blend the butter and flour until smooth in a small bowl.
2. Heat the oil in a large, flameproof casserole over medium-high heat. Add the parsnips, carrots, celery root, turnips, frozen onions, thyme, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are lightly browned. Add the wine and cook, stirring often, until it comes to a boil. Cover the pan, turn down the heat, and simmer for 12 minutes, or until vegetables are tender but still a little firm.
3. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Push some vegetables aside and whisk in the butter and flour mixture. Simmer for about 1 minute, until it melts into the stock. Add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a large (2 1/2 quart) baking dish.
4. Distribute large spoonfuls of mashed potatoes over the vegetables. Spread with a fork and, if you like, make a wave pattern with the tines of the fork.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the filling is bubbly and the top is golden.
Breaking it down: If life were only as simple as cutting vegetables. There are only two things to remember about cutting vegetables: sticks and blocks. You may have to make slices first from which to make the sticks, but that’s all there is to it. Because
Nicely cut vegetables look pretty
Evenly cut vegetables cook, well, evenly
And furthermore: I know I said only two, but here are two more:
Keep your fingers out of the way
Always cut with the flat side down
How to deal with a gnarly vegetable (celery root)
Forget the peeler; it is an exercise in frustration. Slice off the top and bottom of the root. Stand it up so it sits firmly with the flat side down on a cutting board. Saw from top to bottom with a sharp paring knife to remove the rough outer coating in wide slices.
Cut in slices (e.g., 1-inch thick if you want 1-inch cubes). Cut slices into 1-inch sticks. Cut sticks into 1-inch blocks. See what I mean? It's all about sticks and blocks. The same goes for long, skinny vegetables like carrots.
Browning them in the pan adds a lot of flavor
It's been so warm that rosemary and thyme are still surviving in the garden. You can tie them in a bundle to flavor the vegetables, or use dried herbs when fresh ones are not easily at hand.
Northerners, stay warm--you other people, well, just happy new year!