Roasted parsnips with harissa, preserved lemons and tangy yogurt drizzle. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Parsnips used to get a lot more love in the United States.

When this pale taproot — native to Eurasia — made its way to the New World in the early 1600s, the inherently sweet but peppery parsnip was a commonplace carbohydrate. It sustained English settlers both as a daily, wintertime starch and as a special occasion sweetener. In “Roots,” cookbook author Diane Morgan, explains that Native Americans picked up this new crop and ran with it as a staple root vegetable for quite a while. But then parsnips got pushed aside by the prolific potato and the burgeoning sugar trade. They were further slandered by wandering seeds that made parsnips more of an invasive weed (the leaves of which oozed a sap that causes a nasty rash) than a useful crop, and botanists discovered the scary similarities between wild parsnips and their deadly cousin, poison hemlock.

Centuries later, things are looking up for the lowly parsnip. Cultivated parsnips — the three main varietals, the All American, Hollow Crown Improved and Harris Model, are all pretty similar in taste — are now being celebrated by chefs in the more northern climes of the United States. Parsnips are particularly highlighted this time of year because chefs know these roots get sweet like candy after they sit in the ground after a few hard frosts. The cold forces the parsnips to metabolize some of their starch reserves into sugar.

Once Greg Sessler has had to scrape the frost off his car’s windshield several mornings in a row, the chef of Cava Tapas and Wine Bar in Portsmouth, N.H., knows it’s time to call one of his farmers, Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee, for sweet parsnips.

Bred for flavor

“The difference between a parsnip picked before a cold snap and one picked after is pretty amazing,” said Sessler, who makes a parsnip and vanilla soup with which he pairs crispy, fried lobster.

Chef Brendan Vessey of The Joinery, a farm-to-table place that offers a Southern flare to its fare but is located in Newmarket, N.H., makes a distinction between the straight and crooked parsnips that come into his kitchen. He knows the gnarly ones have been bred for flavor and not uniformity.

“You’ve got to work back from what comes in the door,” Vessey said. With the more uniformly sized parsnips, Vessey makes a confit in which he very slowly cooks the roots in oil or tallow, garlic and fresh herbs. The more gnarly ones get scrubbed, gently scrapped clean of the peel with a knife and roasted in all their twisted glory.

Parsnips.

Parsnips. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Parsnips can also easily be celebrated at home. Although the USDA does not track parsnip production or consumption on the national level as it does with its orange cousin, the carrot, anecdotal evidence shows that home cooks have increasingly better access to parsnips. They are popping up in farmers market stalls at a steadier clip and becoming more prolific in community-supported agriculture winter shares.

If you happen to find yourself in possession of more parsnips than you know what to do with, here are 10 ways to get them out of the market bag or CSA box and onto the table for dinner.

  • Surprise guests expecting potato chips with spicy parsnip crisps.
  • Grate parsnips for latkes, fritters or pakoras.
  • Use parsnips in any puréed soup that could benefit from their sweet, earthy flavor that has hints of both parsley and nutmeg. Straight roasted parsnip and leek soup is a classic, but you can easily mix that up with additions of curry or ginger.
  • Add parsnips to a pot of potatoes destined to be mashed.
  • Purée parsnips as you would celery root or cauliflower to have a surprisingly sweet, snowy white pillow for braised winter meats.
  • Add parsnips to long-simmering beef or vegetarian stews.
  • Replace half of the carrots in your favorite maple glazed carrot recipe with similarly sized parsnips for a fun, visual side dish.
  • Sauté parsnips in tangy goat’s milk butter, as author Morgan suggests, which plays off the sweetness of the root for an easy but out-of-the-ordinary application.
  • Swap the carrots in your favorite muffin or cake for parsnips.
  • Roast parsnips in a hot oven to bring out the sweetness even further and spice them up with trendy ingredients such as harissa and preserved lemons (recipe below).

 

Roasted Parsnips With Harissa, Preserved Lemons and Tangy Yogurt Drizzle

I became acquainted with parsnips while living in England and eating many a Sunday pub lunch after wet, rainy walks in the countryside. I’ve adapted this recipe, which I originally found in a grocery store advertisement, to fall more in line with the ingredients I can find easily now in my home state of Maine.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes

Total time: 40 to 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Kosher salt

2 pounds small parsnips, scrubbed well and halved lengthwise

2 tablespoons harissa

1 tablespoon honey

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces plain yogurt

1 teaspoon minced garlic

Skin of 1 preserved lemon, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped celery leaves

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add parsnips, bring back to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Drain parsnips, lay them out flat on a clean towel and pat dry. Toss parsnips in a bowl with harissa, honey and 1/2 teaspoon salt until they are well coated.

3. Slather olive oil all over a baking sheet and place it into the oven for 5 minutes. When the oil is hot, add parsnips to the sheet and spread them out in a single layer. Roast until the parsnips are crispy and golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.

4. As the parsnips roast, mix yogurt and garlic. Let mixture sit for 10 minutes and then season with salt to taste.

5. When parsnips are roasted, scatter chopped preserved lemon and parsley or celery leaves over the top. Serve warm or room temperature with a drizzle of yogurt sauce.

Main photo: Roasted parsnips with harissa, preserved lemons and tangy yogurt drizzle. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Carole Murko

Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.

Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.

Thanksgiving memories

Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.

As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.

The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.

Creamed Onions

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

3 pounds fresh pearl onions

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup beef broth

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup all purpose flour

3 cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons apple cider

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Peel onions and trim both ends.

3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.

4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.

5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.

6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.

7. Roast for 10 minutes more.

For the cream sauce:

1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.

2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.

3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.

4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.

5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.

6. Serve warm

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The Miles Smith Farm store is solar powered and heated. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

Old-fashioned farm, cattle

It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.

Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.

The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.

Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.

Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.

Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.

Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.

The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.

Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

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shochu cocktails

This year, you can transform your ordinary Thanksgiving dinner into an extraordinary one — not with food, but with drink. Shake up cocktail hour with shochu, a delicious distilled alcoholic beverage from Japan that’s caught the fancy of American bartenders.

Shochu is often wrongly described by Americans as a kind of vodka. Although it comes in a variety of flavors, it is lower in alcohol and calories than vodka or other distilled alcoholic beverages.

Shochu production in Japan began around the 16th century in certain regions. The famous production areas include the large southern island of Kyushu and the neighboring small islands of Amami, Okinawa and Iki. The warm winter climate in these areas is not well-suited for producing good quality sake, as this rice wine requires very cold winter months for proper fermentation.

Shochu production involves two steps. The first step is to produce alcohol in a way that is very similar to that of sake. Koji, the magic mold that creates flavorful enzymes and sugars from starch, is inoculated into steamed rice to produce a fermentation starter. The starter is mixed with yeast, spring water and the selected and cooked main ingredient: usually rice, barley, sweet potato, potato, buckwheat or sugar cane. It is left to ferment for about 14 days. This is half the fermentation period for sake, and so this brewed batch is very rough and wild in taste, texture and aroma. The second step, distillation, removes all sugars and roughness from the brew, and transforms it into a clean, clear and elegant alcoholic beverage.

Top-quality shochu is distilled only once. This is called Honkaku shochu. Single distillation leaves each shochu with a delightful hint of the distinctive taste and fragrance of its base ingredient. After distillation, the alcohol content approaches 80 proof (40% alcohol). Then, it is diluted to about 50 proof (25% alcohol). Honkaku shochu can be served straight-up or on the rocks in order to enjoy the full flavor of each variety.

Another less expensive type of shochu is usually made from lesser quality ingredients and goes through multiple distillations. The resulting shochu is deprived of the unique and sometimes funky taste and fragrance of the real thing. After multiple distillations, the alcohol content approaches 160 to 180 proof (80% to 90% alcohol). This is then watered down to around 72 proof (36% alcohol). In Japan, it is this less expensive shochu that is used to make cocktails at bars and restaurants.

But craft-conscious bartenders in the United States are taking a different approach. Jesse Falowitz, founder of Nehan Spirits LLC in New York, manages the production of his own award-winning brand of barley-based shochu, Mizunomai, in Japan and imports and markets it in the U.S. For this breed of bartenders, Falowitz says, “it is important to preserve the unique flavor of each spirit. whether it be shochu, whisky, brandy or gin, in the cocktails that they craft.”

For your Thanksgiving gatherings, reach for Honkaku shochu to enjoy the wonderful flavors of high quality shochu alone or in delightful cocktails. Here are the flavor profiles for some types of high quality shochu.

Imo-shochu, made from sweet potato, comes from Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island, a major sweet potato producing area. When you sip Imo-shochu, you can’t miss the hint of slight funky, sweet potato flavor and fragrance. Once you are hooked, you will love it.

Kokuto-shochu, made from sugar cane, comes from the small Amami Islands south of Kyushu Prefecture toward Okinawa. Kokuto-shochu will remind you of good-quality rum, but on average it is 12 percentage points lower in alcohol. Kokuto-shochu has a round mouth-feel and a subtle sweetness. It also is unique in being slightly alkaline, while all other distilled alcohol has a neutral pH. The sugar cane grown in the Amami Islands’ coral-rich fresh water is responsible for this unusual characteristic.

Kome-shochu, made from rice, comes from Kumamoto Prefecture. Kome-shochu presents a flowery and rich flavor similar to what you find in some sake.

Omugi-shochu, made from barley, may surprise you with a hint of banana, cantaloupe and caramel flavor.

Finally, if you are not a cocktail person, this is how we enjoy Honkaku shochu in Japan.

1. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts cold water. This is called mizu-wari.

2. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts warm water at about 98º degrees F. This is called oyu-wari. Warming shochu in this way allows the fragrant aroma to burst forth.

3. Or, try it simply on the rocks or straight up.

However, I encourage you to get creative with shochu cocktails, such as the following recipes provided by Jesse Falowitz.

Ringo, I Love You

This will be a smash hit for your Thanksgiving party, and for any gathering in deep autumn. This cocktail is characterized by a crisp and refreshing character with a delicate sweetness and hint of spice. Ringo in this case is “apple” in Japanese, not a member of the Beatles.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1/2 red apple, plus a few thin slices for garnish

2 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1/4 ounce maple syrup

1 dash of cinnamon powder

Directions

1. Core and cut the apple with skin into coarse pieces.

2. Add the apple half, shochu, lemon juice and maple syrup into a cocktail shaker or tall glass. Press the apple with a muddler, like the one used for making a mojito, to extract the most juice.

3. When the juice has been pressed out from the apple, close the shaker with the shaker top and shake vigorously.

4. Remove the shaker top and strain the cocktail through a cocktail strainer into a rocks glass in which you have placed a large piece of ice or two.

5. Garnish the cocktail with thin slices of apple. Lightly dust the apple with cinnamon powder and serve.

 

Neguloni, a Shochu Negroni

This is a Japanese twist on the Italian classic. This satisfying cocktail has smooth texture, a tinge of bitterness, sexy deep-dark red color, and pleasant buttery texture. You can make this cocktail without the grapefruit bitters, but it enhances the flavor of the cocktail, and the inclusion is highly recommended.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu

3/4 ounces sweet vermouth

1/4 ounce Campari

3 drops grapefruit bitters

1 peel of grapefruit skin

Directions

1. Pour the shochu, sweet vermouth, Campari and grapefruit bitters into a rocks glass in which you have placed a one large ice cube.

2. Stir the glass with a cocktail spoon for 10 seconds to chill and slightly dilute the alcohol.

3. Remove a long grapefruit zest from the grapefruit with a peeler and lightly squeeze the oils over the cocktail.

4. Garnish the drink with the grapefruit zest twist and enjoy.

Main photo: The Ringo, left, and Neguloni cocktails.  Credit: Jesse Falowitz

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Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.

A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.

The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.

I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.

Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors

My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.

Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.

The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.

Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.

The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.

Simple sides make for a happy cook

Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.

I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.

The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.

The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!

Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage

(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying your side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit:  Rinku Bhattacharya

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ginger paste

Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)

1 tablespoon salted butter

15 fresh sage leaves

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 375 F.

2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.

4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.

5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.

6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.

7.  Pour over the squash and mix lightly.

8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.

Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

3 cups of chopped spinach

1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Salt to taste

1/2 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.

3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.

4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.

5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.

6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.

7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.

8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.

9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.

Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya 

 

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Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

As you’re simmering your cranberries with sweetness this holiday season, you can thank Mother Nature for their astringent qualities.

The compounds that produce the cranberry’s bite — their proanthocyanins (PACs) — not only ward off enemies such as small animals and insects but provide possible health benefits for us human predators.

PACs in cranberries have extremely strong chemical bonds, says Amy Howell, Ph.D., a research scientist at Rutgers University. Instead of being broken down and absorbed into the blood, they appear to travel intact and take their benefits with them, to various parts of your body.

While cranberry juice’s ability to efficiently fight infections has been called into question, Jeffrey Blumberg has done research to identify why there may be conflicting results, and Howell is among those who suggest potential health benefits in areas such as these:

  • Stomach and bladder: You may already be familiar with how cranberries are reported to benefit these organs. PACs bind to harmful bacteria that cause ulcers and urinary tract infections and thus keep those bugs from adhering to the stomach lining and bladder walls. If the bacteria can’t stick, then they can’t multiply and cause damage, Howell says. “Thus, they harmlessly leave the body.”
  • Mouth: The same action happens here. PACs can help bind bacteria that contribute to decay and gum disease.
  • Intestines: But it’s new research on how cranberry’s PACs behave in the gut of model animals that’s getting berry scientists  excited. PACs can improve the bacteria in the colon,  Howell says, and compounds produced by those bacteria have far-reaching effects on your health.

“A top story on cranberry right now, just published in a very prestigious journal [Gut], is beautiful evidence for how compounds in cranberries — PACs in particular — act in the gut,” says Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University.

Fermentable fiber and your health

When it comes to fiber, “fermentable” is the latest buzzword. Once foods have been digested in the small intestine, the parts that aren’t digestible — their fiber — then travel to the large intestine. There, healthy bacteria feed on certain plant fibers and ferment them into important fatty acids. In turn, those fatty acids get absorbed into the blood and help control blood sugar, appetite and inflammation. They also help enrich your gut lining, which acts as a barrier to keep harmful particles from leaking out or in.

Some plants provide the raw materials for producing those good bacteria. They’re called “prebiotic” because they are prequels to healthy probiotic bugs.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender

And that’s where cranberries come in. “The fiber in cranberry skins serves as a prebiotic to help establish colonies of probiotic bacteria,”  Howell says. In addition, she is researching the possibility that cranberry’s PACs may help keep harmful bacteria such as E coli from invading the gut.

“This is very, very, very exciting stuff,” Lila says. “The cranberry PACs were able to create a healthy population of gut bacteria in those animals and protect against obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation caused by a poor diet,” she says.

In addition to PACs, cranberries have about 150 healthy compounds, as identified in research led by Jonathan Bock and Howell on esophageal and pharyngeal cancer — vitamins C and E; anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants and give them their vivid color; quercetin and myricetin, which bind minerals (iron and copper) that promote oxidation. Howell suggests that many of the compounds in cranberries may protect DNA from damage caused by oxidation and help guard against inflammation in body tissues beyond the colon.

  • Cardiovascular system: Research suggests that regularly consuming cranberry products “can reduce key risk factors for heart disease,” says Howell, by reducing inflammation and oxidation of harmful LDL cholesterol and by increasing good HDL cholesterol and the flexibility of arteries.
  • Brain: Scientists think that some of these anti-inflammatory compounds may also protect the brain against damage caused by stroke or aging, Howell says.
  • Cancer: Preliminary studies, all done in lab animals and cell cultures, suggest that cranberry’s compounds have the potential to inhibit tumor growth of some types of cancer, but much research remains to be done, suggests Howell.

If you’re still stirring those cranberries, you may be wondering whether all that cooking will destroy their healthy benefits. Howell suggests that “cranberry PACs are not seriously damaged by cooking or processing.” But other health-promoting compounds may be damaged by heat, and the effects of cooking on foods “is an area that needs considerably more research,” says Ron Prior, a research chemist at the University of Arkansas. In general, harsh cooking methods will result in degradation.

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

With all the scientists out there investigating berries, the dream is that there will be a verdict on cranberries by next season’s holidays. For this year, however, we’re sticking to a quick cooking method — in hopes of pleasing some hungry guts. Should we tell them about the microbes?

Quick Cranberry Sauce, with healthy bugs

Courtesy of Reveena Rothman-Rudnicki/ Raveena’s Kitchen

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings, 1/2 cup each

Ingredients

4 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup water

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 teaspoon grated ginger

4 to 6 tablespoons maple syrup

Handful pecans

Directions

1. Put cranberries and water in a medium saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Take off heat. Add cinnamon, orange juice and zest, ginger and maple syrup. Sprinkle pecans on top.

3. Cranberries have no sugar, so you do have to sweeten them. Start with 4 tablespoons, let the dish sit for a while, then decide whether you want more.

Main photo: Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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Candied yams with pecans is a Thanksgiving specialty in Tami Weiser's family. Credit: Tami Weiser

“I need white people lunch!” demands young Eddie Huang, played by Hudson Yang, in a trailer for the forthcoming ABC TV show “Fresh Off the Boat.”

The show is comically and more-than-loosely based on Huang’s life as a first-generation Chinese-American growing up in Orlando, Fla.

Young Eddie’s sentiment rings true for me, particularly around this time of year as we all scurry to get Thanksgiving meals in place. For me, growing up as the first-generation child of Trinidadian and Iranian immigrants, Thanksgiving was a chance to be “truly American.” But it was also a battle between me and parents, whom I wanted to serve only “white people’s food.” Not curried chicken or gormeh sabzi (herbed stew with kidney beans), just turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes — that’s it.

They ignored me, preferring instead to mark the holiday with special-occasion dishes from their own cultures alongside turkey and the trimmings.

At the time, I was too embarrassed to talk about it with my peers, but now, many years later, we compare notes. My high school friend Terence Weston told me that his own Caribbean family made Callalloo, a thick, green soup, on Thanksgiving. And in place of a turkey, his family would have molded tofu or bread because they were Seventh-Day Adventists who observed a vegetarian tradition. Over at the DeFazio house, my playmates Theresa, Anthony and Mark enjoyed lasagna and antipasto before the turkey came out, which was OK to my young mind, because Italian food was “really American.”

Melding Thanksgiving meals and American values

Brandeis University professor Ruth Nemzoff, an expert in family dynamics and author of “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family” (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012), once asked students to describe their Thanksgiving dinner in an attempt to highlight gender roles in the preparation of a ceremonial meal.

“Instead the students returned papers which described how each family put their ethnicity into the holiday,” she said. “The hors d’oeuvres were spring rolls, ravioli, or knishes, depending on ethnicity. Surrounding the turkey were remnants of the family’s past — a great metaphor for core American values.”

In some immigrant families, no turkey was in evidence whatsoever, although the day was marked with a celebratory meal. Amy Dalal’s family came to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, in 1974 as strictly vegetarian Hindus.

“We never had turkey,” she said. “My mother usually made some special food, but it would vary from year to year. It might be dosa or matter paneer, a vegetable dish with homemade fresh cheese.”

Dalal’s mother’s nod to American custom is her own fresh cranberry sauce, which the family smears on theplas, a spicy Guajarati flat bread with fenugreek.

On the other hand, Becky Sun’s family emigrated from Taiwan in 1976, and they did try to replicate the American Thanksgiving in the small towns in which they lived.

“Like all the other families, we had baked sweet potatoes in a casserole, topped with mini marshmallows and frosted cornflakes,” Sun said. “[My mother] also was — and still is — a fan of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, with which she makes green bean casserole with the French’s onion sprinkles.”

Still, the one thing conspicuously absent from the Sun clan’s Midwestern feast was the turkey. Instead, her mom cooked roast duck, and because bread stuffing seemed odd to her, she substituted sticky rice as a side.

Bearing witness to an immigrant past

As evidenced by these anecdotes, putting a personalized ethnic twist on Thanksgiving is an American tradition nearly as old as Thanksgiving itself. Families whose forebears immigrated to the U.S. far earlier, like Tami Weiser’s Jewish-American family, who came from Russia and Germany to New Orleans 100 years ago, melded “ethnic” foods with American expectations. Tzimmies, a sweet potato and carrot casserole made at Passover, was a logical addition to the holiday table. When her mother took over the feast, she made the offering more modern — and more Southern — by creating a candied yams with pralines. You can get that recipe from The Weiser Kitchen.

Today, children of newer immigrants, like Nadine Nelson, are much more at ease with their multicultural heritage, and I envy them for it. Nelson, whose Jamaican family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, where she was born, moved to New Haven, Conn., when she was 10. Her aunt once tried her hand at turkey and overcooked it. After that Thanksgiving became more of a day for everyone to come together and less about the traditional meal.

A professional cook, Nelson has recently taken over Thanksgiving dinner, with a specific eye to creating a multicultural meal to which the whole family contributes. There is jerk turkey, peas and rice cooked in coconut milk, curry-and-guava-glazed carrots, goat head soup and steamed stuffed fish, all alongside sweet potato casserole, cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Nelson said the best part of the melded meal is when her aunt insists everyone stand and say what they are thankful for. “It is important for a family to stand witness to that. ”

Keeping Nelson’s words in mind, this year, I, too, will stand witness to my family’s heritage. And even though my parents are long gone, their gormeh sabzi and curried chicken happily will be on my Thanksgiving table.

Nadine Nelson’s Jerk Roasted Turkey

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: About 2 1/2 hours for an unstuffed turkey or 4 hours for a stuffed turkey

Total time: 3 to 5 hours.

Yield: Makes 24 servings.

Ingredients

2 cups wet jerk sauce (such as Walkerswood brand)

1/4 cup dry jerk seasoning (such as Blue Mountain brand)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

10-pound to 12-pound turkey, cleaned and dried

1/2 stick butter, softened

Green seasoning (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Mix together the wet jerk sauce, dry jerk seasoning, salt and pepper in a large bowl, and then rub the jerk sauce evenly over the inside and outside of the turkey.

2. Using your fingers, gently separate the turkey skin from the breast and rub the sauce mixture under the breast skin as well. Use up all the sauce, rubbing it around the turkey.

3. Place the turkey breast side down inside a 2-gallon, heavy-duty sealable oven-proof bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible and seal the bag. Refrigerate and marinate for 24 to 48 hours, turning over every 12 hours.

4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Prior to cooking, open the bag and rub the green seasoning (see recipe below) all over the turkey, under the breast skin and inside the cavity.

5. Position the oven rack near the bottom of the oven. If using stuffing, remove the turkey from the baking bag and loosely pack the stuffing in the cavity. Rub the outside of the turkey with the butter.

6. Put the turkey back in oven-proof bag and seal well. Place in a deep roasting pan and cook for 45 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 degrees F. Continue roasting the turkey until a meat thermometer registers 180 degrees F in breast meat or 185 degrees F in thigh meat. This should take about 2 1/2 hours for an unstuffed turkey or 3 1/2 to 4 hours for a stuffed turkey.

7. Remove turkey from the oven and put it on a warmed platter. Cover loosely with foil and let rest for 30 minutes before carving.

Green Seasoning

Prep time: About 5 minutes

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

Two bunches parsley

3 medium red onions, cut into large chunks

1 bunch thyme

1 bunch scallions, root ends trimmed

1/8 cup paprika

3 tablespoons onion powder

3 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon ground allspice

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and process to a smooth paste, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Parvin Ganeshram’s Gormeh Sabzi (Persian Herb Stew)

Gormeh Sabzi and White Rice is a Persian specialty. Credit: Dreamstime

Gormeh Sabzi and White Rice is a Persian specialty. Credit: Dreamstime

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About two hours

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced thinly

2 pounds stew beef or chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon turmeric

4 cups water

2 bunches flat parsley, washed well

1 leek, trimmed, washed well and sliced into 1-inch pieces

1 bunch fresh fenugreek, washed well, or ½ cup dried fenugreek leaves

1 limou omani (dried Persian lime, available in Middle Eastern markets) or ½ cup lemon juice

1 12-ounce can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon saffron powder, dissolved in 1/3 cup boiling water

Directions

1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, then add the onion. Fry until the slices begin to soften and become translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes.

2. Season the meat chunks well with salt and pepper to taste and add it to the pot with the onions. Fry until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes for beef or 5 to 6 minutes for chicken.

3. Stir in the turmeric and mix well. Allow the mixture to fry for 1 minute more, then add the water.

4. Place the parsley, leek and fenugreek in a food processor and chop to a fine consistency. You may also do this by hand. Add the chopped herbs to the stew, along with the limou omani.

5. Add salt and pepper to taste and lower heat to a simmer and cook until the meat is fork tender, about 1 1/2 hours for beef or 30 minutes for chicken.

6. Stir in the rinsed kidney beans, more salt and pepper is desired and simmer 10 minutes more.

7. Stir in the saffron and simmer 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with rice. (See recipe below.)

Persian White Rice (Chelo)

The secret to the long, fluffy grains of Persian Rice is steaming and a method that “traps” the excess moisture away from the rice as it steams.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups high-quality basmati such as Lal Quila

1 tablespoon coarse salt

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

Directions

1. Wash the rice by placing it in a deep bowl and filling it with cold water. Swirl the water around with your hand until it is cloudy. Carefully drain the water. Repeat 4 or 5 times until the water is clear. Set aside.

2. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large, nonstick sauce pot or a large iron pot and add the salt and 1 tablespoon of the oil.

3. Add the rice and simmer on medium-low for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain in a colander.

4. Add 1/4 cup of water to the rice pot and 1 tablespoon of the oil to the rice pot. Swirl it around. Add 1 large spoon of rice into the middle of the pot and add spoonful after spoonful in a mound until all the rice is used.

5. Drizzle the remaining oil over the rice and pour another 1/4 cup of water over it. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the pyramid up into a smooth cone.

6. Place a clean dishtowel or doubled up paper towels over the pot and then squeeze the lid into place. Place over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes.

7. Remove the rice and place it on a platter. To remove the tahdig, or rice crust, take the pot and carefully hold the bottom under cold water. Then use the spatula to loosen the crust. Turn it out onto a platter.

Main photo: Candied yams with pecans is a Thanksgiving specialty in Tami Weiser’s family. Credit: Tami Weiser

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Fall squash. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Hello, my name is Louisa, and I am a procrastinator. Especially about big, fancy things like making a Thanksgiving feast for 20 of my nearest and dearest.

Like everyone else, I collect all the cooking magazines with trendy new recipes for holiday classics; I listen to endless radio pieces about Thanksgivings of yore. In my heart, I am revved up to do it ahead, make and freeze, be organized. And yet, once again it is Tuesday night, 36 hours and counting, and all I’ve done so far is order a turkey.

For self-made crises like this, you need a game plan to get a whole made-from-scratch turkey feast ready in less than a day. It can be done. That’s not theory; it’s experience. I do it every year. You can turn a grocery bag of ingredients into a first-class meal. The key is prep — good, smart, last-minute prep.

Tuesday night

Pick up a fresh, not-frozen turkey. If you get a frozen turkey, you are screwed. You’ll either have to pray it defrosts in the refrigerator or wake up every three hours to change its water bath. Go with fresh.

Order or purchase three pies (recommendations: pumpkin, pecan and apple). This is not the year to experiment with rolling the perfect crust. No one will mind if they are not homemade as long as you have good vanilla ice cream to go with the pies.

Pull out any basic cookbook. Use it for timing, quantities and whatever cooking tips your mental state can accommodate. Do not attempt a complicated, fussy recipe!

Make the stuffing. Use any old bread you have on hand and/or buy a loaf of good sandwich bread. Collect any unsweetened leftover breakfast cereal in your pantry (cornflakes, Raisin Bran, etc., but not Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs). Tear up the bread so no piece is bigger than a domino. Combine the bread and the cereal with a little chicken broth or some water and mix well; you want it to be moist, like a sponge you’ve just wrung out. Add salt (sparingly) and fresh ground pepper. Toss in a tablespoon or so of any fresh or dried seasonings you like — I’m a fan of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme. Meanwhile, sauté two or three good-sized onions with a little olive oil until the onions are soft. Combine all in a bowl.

Put the turkey in the fridge and put tinfoil over the bowl of dressing.

Call the guests and assign them the appetizers to bring, and have someone else bring a green salad.

Turn out kitchen lights and go to bed.

Wednesday morning

If you can, get to the grocery store before 10 a.m. If you can’t take the morning off, take the afternoon off. Do not get anxious. You won’t miss anything at work. Everyone else tunes out by lunch the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Check your pantry: Look for brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, butter, vanilla, cream or milk and other obvious staples.

Make a shopping list. The quantities you will need depend on the size of the party, but I usually figure on a cooked cup or more of each vegetable per person, and one sweet potato per person.

Onions

Celery

Sweet potatoes or yams

Brussels sprouts. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Brussels sprouts. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Brussels sprouts (unless you hate them)

Potatoes (Russets for mashed potatoes, fingerlings for roasted)

Green beans

Mushrooms (several fun varieties for gravy and vegetables)

2 bags of fresh cranberries

Butternut squash (cheat here and buy the bags of fresh, pre-peeled squash)

Orange juice

Fresh lemons

Wednesday night

This is prep time; you will need two to three solid hours in an unobstructed kitchen. (Order Chinese or sushi for dinner.)

Green beans: Blanch the green beans in salted water until they are bright green. Have a bowl of ice and water ready. Drain, cool and put beans in a zip-close bag in the refrigerator.

Brussels sprouts: Trim and blanch the Brussels sprouts using the same method. (They take a few more minutes than the green beans.) Drain, cool, cut in half through the stem and put in a bag in the fridge.

Fresh cranberries. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Fresh cranberries. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Cranberry relish: Follow the directions on the cranberry bag for water and sugar ratios for cooked cranberries. Let them come to a boil and start bursting, then remove from the heat. Tip: I use orange juice (frozen or fresh) instead of water to cook the cranberries and grate orange peel with a zester and add it to the relish. I also add a spoonful of red horseradish to the relish because my family likes heat with our sweet. Refrigerate relish.

Butternut squash: Steam the squash until it is tender to a fork. Drain, cool, mash or puree — but not to the consistency of baby food. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add butter to taste. For a savory flavor, add some thyme. For sweet, use a few grinds of fresh nutmeg and a little cinnamon. Don’t over spice! You can always add more tomorrow.

While all this is happening on the stove top, bake the unpeeled, washed sweet potatoes at 350 F until they are soft. Let them cool overnight on the countertop.

Mashed potatoes: Peel, scrub and throw them into a large pot of salted water while all else is baking and boiling. Let them cool in the liquid overnight. Roasted potatoes can wait till the morning.

Turn out the kitchen lights and go to bed.

Thanksgiving morning

Wake up. Turn on the parade. Make coffee.

Roast the turkey: Heat the oven to 300 F or 350 F, salt the inside of the bird then stuff it. Dress the turkey skin with olive oil, pepper, salt and herbs.

Tie the legs together with twine (or whatever) and close the opening as much as possible. Put some celery and cut onions in the bottom of the pan with a cup or so of water.

Place turkey on a rack in the roasting pan, then put it in the oven.

Do the math according to the size of the bird and use a meat thermometer. Very few turkeys take more than three hours to cook. Figure your start time based on the turkey being done an hour or so before you want to serve.

Exit the kitchen. Move the furniture. Set the table. Find candles, napkins and a tablecloth. Iron only if absolutely necessary. Decide which serving utensils and dishes you’ll need for the beans, squash and gravy.

Put wine and water in the fridge to cool. Take the pies out of the fridge.

Back to the kitchen: Check on the turkey. If it is browning too fast, put a sheet of foil over the breast.

Mushrooms: In a large pan over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil with a splash of lemon. Let them get soft.

Sweet potatoes and yams at the market. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Sweet potatoes and yams at the market. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Candied sweet potatoes/yams: If you want the sweet potatoes candied and in chunks, gently peel away the skin as if you were unwrapping a precious gift, cut into chunks, and place them in an attractive pattern in an oven-to-table baking dish or pan. Add a little water or juice to the pan. Mix maple syrup and butter, or honey and vanilla, dust with cinnamon, dot liberally with butter and crumble brown sugar over the top. Put sweet potatoes in the oven for a half hour or more before serving and after your turkey has come out. They should be crusty and caramelized.

Mashed sweet potatoes: Peel off the skin. Mash sweet potatoes with a ricer or fork to a smooth consistency. Thin with a little liquid if needed. (Apple cider is terrific!) Add butter, cream, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Put in a greased oven-to-table baking dish and top with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg, and if you like, dot with mini marshmallows.

Two hours before you want to serve dinner

Roasted potatoes: One hour before you estimate the turkey will be done, toss whole small fingerlings or another type in a bowl with salt, oil and rosemary. Arrange around the turkey in the pan, then the pan goes back in the oven.

Put cranberry relish in a pretty bowl.

Make mashed potatoes. Peel if you want. Do not puree! Add milk, butter, salt, etc. Put in a microwaveable serving dish.

Take a shower and make the bed. Get sort of dressed. Save the mascara application, if wearing, until everything is out of the oven.

One hour or less before dinner

Sweet potatoes: Put the sweet potatoes in the oven. After a half hour, put the squash and the mashed potatoes in the oven to warm.

Brussels sprouts: Heat a big sauté pan over a high flame and sauté the Brussels sprouts with a little lemon and/or balsamic glaze. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let them get a little charred and move them to a microwaveable serving dish.

Gravy: Using the pan drippings, make the gravy. Add wine or water and reduce the liquid on the stove top. In our house, we add a jar of currant jelly to the pan to give the gravy body and bulk.

Green beans: Just before serving, reduce the heat in the pan to medium, add a little more olive oil and a tad of butter, then sauté the green beans. Add a few handfuls of the cooked mushrooms and a splash of lemon juice.

Just before dinner

Uncork the wine. Put the turkey on the platter. Some idiot decides to carve. Side dishes go briefly back in the oven, stove top or microwave to get piping hot.

Turn off the oven. Put pies in cooling oven to warm for dessert.

Put on mascara if desired.

Take a bow. Operation complete.

Main photo: Fall squash. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

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Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.

Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”

Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.

Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.

Centerpieces through the ages

The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.

Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.

Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.

By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.

Today, in the era of climate change and environmental consciousness, I proclaim it the age of the sustainable table with the eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpiece.

Seldon_SlideShow_Carrots

Seldon_SlideShow_Carrots
Picture 1 of 5

Carrot centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece

1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)

2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).

4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.

5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.

6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!

7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.

9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?

10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).

When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.

Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

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