Articles in Holidays

Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Osechi ryori. Credit: iStock

New Year’s in Japan, as in all cultures, is a time to reflect on the past, resolve to do better and begin anew. But it is different in that for seven days the entire nation reverts to a slower, quieter time.

At least when I lived in Japan, in the mid-1980s, this was the case. Nearly every store closed for a week, the streets were quiet, and families gathered to relax and share the special New Year’s foods known as osechi ryori.

Because it’s considered bad luck to work on the first three days of the new year, all of the osechi ryori foods are prepared ahead of time, then arranged in beautiful lacquered jubako (layered boxes) and eaten at room temperature.

Traditional foods

These exquisite traditional foods are steeped in tradition, and represent different forms of good luck in the new year. A few of my favorite osechi ryori foods and their meanings are:

Tazakuri (baby sardines) are used to fertilize rice crops, and represent a bountiful harvest.

Konbu maki (seaweed rolls) represent happiness because the word konbu, or kobu, is similar to yorokobu, the Japanese word for happiness.

Kuri kinton (Japanese sweet potato mashed with chestnut) has a light golden color that represents gold or prosperity.

Shin takenoko (bamboo shoots) are from the fast-growing bamboo plant and symbolize acquiring wealth rapidly.

Datemaki (sweet omelet roll) has a golden hue that symbolizes gold, while the egg itself represents fertility.

Kuromame (black beans) are simmered in sugar and are eaten for good health in the coming year.

Ebi (shrimp) curl like the backs of the elderly, so they symbolize living a long life.

Kimpira gobo (burdock root) has a number of good luck qualities. It has a long tap root, symbolizing long life. The deep, sturdy root is also said to keep family ties strong by keeping the family rooted. And if the burdock root splits at the end, that’s even better, as your good luck will also split and multiply.

Better than it looks

Burdock root. Credit: Terra Brockman

Burdock root. Credit: Terra Brockman

Of all of these foods, burdock (gobo) is the one that I have continued to eat over the decades, and not just at New Year’s. It definitely falls into the “can’t judge a book  …” category of vegetables. It’s dull and brown and looks tough and unappetizing. But it is in fact tender (you can scrape away the thin skin with a light fingernail), and the humble exterior of the large, dark, woody-looking root belies the sweet, nutty, delicate, crunchy flesh within.

In addition to being used as a food item for millennia, many cultures have used burdock medicinally. Early Chinese physicians treated colds, flu, throat infections, and pneumonia with burdock preparations, and it is considered a powerful source of “yang” energy, according to Chinese philosophy and macrobiotic practice — meaning it gives you the energy and strength to do what needs to be done — including, perhaps, keeping all your New Year’s resolutions.

This New Year’s week, celebrate the spirit of osechi — slow down, relax and enjoy time with loved ones. And for good luck, long life, and strong family ties, try some burdock root. Traditionally, in Japan, burdock (gobo) is stir-fried — alone or with carrots — in a dish called Kimpira Gobo. It seems that every Japanese household has a slightly different take on this, but here’s the recipe from a family friend, Masako Takayasu.

Mrs. Takayasu’s Kimpira Gobo (Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrots)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

2 sticks burdock (about 1/2 pound)

Carrots, 1/3 to 1/2 the amount of burdock

3 Japanese togarashii, Thai hot, or another hot pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon sesame seed oil

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon mirin (optional)

3 to 4 tablespoon soy sauce

Hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)

Sesame seeds, as garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash burdock and remove skin by rubbing with the back of a knife or with a vegetable scrubber. Cut into matchstick-size pieces and soak the pieces in cold water to prevent discoloration. Replace water two or three times or until the water remains clear, and then drain the burdock. Peel carrots and cut in pieces the same size and shape as the burdock.

2. Slice hot peppers, and after removing their seeds, cut the peppers into thick rings.

3. Combine olive oil and sesame oil in a frying pan and heat. Add burdock, carrot, and hot pepper rings, and stir-fry over high heat until carrots are cooked through. Reduce heat and add sugar, mirin, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes to taste. Stir to mix. Continue to stir over heat until the liquid nearly all evaporates. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top and serve.

Main photo: New Year’s foods served in a lacquered box called a jubako. Credit: iStock

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A festive Asti Spumante Risotto. Credit: Stephen Murello

Italy is Europe’s leading rice producer. Italy produces 50 varieties of rice, each suited to a particular dish or cooking method.

Risotto is one of those dishes that seems elusive to most home cooks, but it couldn’t be easier to make. Just slowly stir it every few minutes; it’s almost a Zen-like experience. There are hundreds of ways to vary risotto once you know the basic cooking technique.

Italians tend to focus on one ingredient, to concentrate and highlight that single ingredient’s taste. Risotto alla Milanese, a dish from Milan, for example, is mainly seasoned with saffron. Risi e bisi is a Venice classic that relies on the delicate flavor of spring peas.

But one of the most festive, whimsical risottos I’ve ever had was in Piedmont, a region known for fine wines like Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti Spumante. In this northern Italy region, they make an impressive risotto seasoned with a sparkling wine like Asti Spumante or Prosecco. The bottle is placed into the risotto, which causes the wine to overflow into the dish. Although a classic in Italy, this dish is virtually unknown here. A great way to toast to the New Year!

Asti Spumante Risotto

Recipe courtesy of Wes Martin

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

A fabulously festive dish. Pop the cork and let the fun flow!

Ingredients

5 to 6 cups homemade or canned low-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped, about 1 cup

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice

2 split bottles (187 millileters) Asti Spumanti or Prosecco, at room temperature

3/4 cup Pecorino cheese, plus more for serving

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Directions

1. Heat the chicken broth until just below a simmer; keep warm.

2. In a large heavy saucepan, melt butter with the olive oil over medium heat; add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until very soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes.

3. Increase heat to medium-high, add 1 bottle of sparkling wine and cook, stirring, until liquid is absorbed, 3 to 4 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring, until absorbed. Continue adding a broth, a little at a time, until done, but still very firm.

4. Stir in the cheese.

5. Set the remaining bottle of unopened sparkling wine on a wide, shallow serving platter with a high rim and surround with the rice. When ready to serve, hold the bottle in place and remove the cork; the wine should bubble up over the risotto, if not, just drop a pinch of sugar into the bottle to release the wine.

6. Spoon large scoops of warm risotto with champagne onto plates and serve immediately.

Main photo: Asti Spumante Risotto is a simple dish that makes a great addition to a festive occasion. Credit: Stephen Murello

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Pizza with spinach, eggplant, burrata cheese, and tongue headcheese or “pizza with bile and pus.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The popularity of zombie movies exploded in the past several years.

Since no one watches zombie movies alone, a New Year’s Eve party is perfect. From old zombie movies going all the way back to”White Zombie” from 1932 with Bela Lugosi to the long list of recent zombie hits, there’s not shortage of flicks to pick from. For food in front of the TV, popcorn is easiest, but here’s a fun idea: zombie pizza.

It’s a clever way to introduce offal, that is, zombies eat guts. Here are three pizzas that can be partially prepared ahead of time. An enclosed pizza is a “pizza with guts” made with lamb tripe, lamb kidney, veal sweetbread in a spicy-hot chile and tomato sauce. The second is “pizza with blood and thyroid,” made with tomato sauce to represent blood, comte cheese and fried veal sweetbread, which actually is thyroid gland. Finally, the “pizza with liver bile, gonads, and pus” is made with chopped cooked spinach to represent liver bile, roasted whole garlic (gonads), diced fried eggplant, burrata cheese and ricotta cheese to represent pus, and thin slices of tongue headcheese.

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or “pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or”pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

When I made this for my enthusiastic friends Erin and Deanna,  they thought that everything was representative and there were no real innards in the pizza. Erin later said “despite my insistence that no real’‘innards’ be included, my naïveté in believing that Cliff would honor that request got the better of me. I gobbled down all three slices of pizza with complete disregard to manners or napkins (do as the zombies do).” Both Erin and Deanna agreed the first pizza below was their favorite. I stayed away from liver because its taste is too strong, while sweetbreads are mild and flavorful.

When making this menu, prepare as much as you can ahead of time — a day ahead — so that they can be assembled quickly. Follow the instructions for making pizza using the following amounts, 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, 1 1/3 cup water, 4 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour, 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt or to your taste. Once the dough is made, divide in half. Divide one half in half again for the two small balls called for in the first 2 pizzas below. The remaining large ball is used for the stuffed pizza.The prep and cooking times below assume the pizza dough is already made (see link instructions for dough prep time). I advise prepping almost everything the day before so that on New Year’s Eve you only have to roll the dough and bake the pizza with its topping or filling.

Pizza With Sweetbreads and Comte Cheese: ‘Pizza With Blood and Thyroid’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 1 hour

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: about 1 hour, 9 minutes

Ingredients

1/4 pound veal sweetbread

Water

3 tablespoons distilled vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil as needed

1 small pizza dough ball (see link above)

1/2 cup tomato purée

1/4 pound comte or Gruyère cheese, diced

Directions

1. Soak the sweetbread in water to cover with some vinegar for 20 minutes. Remove and place in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat to medium and once the water is barely bubbling continue to poach the sweetbread until white and firm, 20 minutes. Remove and slice.

2. In a frying pan, cook the veal sweetbreads with a little olive oil over medium-high heat until golden, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread some tomato purée over the pizza leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the comte cheese over the pizza and arrange the sweetbread on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese, and Tongue Headcheese: ‘Pizza With Bile and Pus’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: 47 to 49 minutes

Ingredients

1 head garlic, cloves separated with shin on

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound eggplant, peeled and diced

One 15-ounce can cooked spinach (with no preservatives), drained and rinsed, with excess liquid squeezed out, chopped

1 smaller pizza dough ball

5 ounces burrata or mozzarella cheese

2 ounces ricotta cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

2. Place the garlic cloves in their skin on a piece of aluminum foil and roast until soft, about 12 minutes. Remove and remove their skin and set aside.

3. In a cast iron skillet heat the olive oil over high heat and when it is smoking add the eggplant and cook, stirring and turning, until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread the spinach to cover the surface leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the eggplant and roasted whole garlic cloves on top and then lay the sliced tongue headcheese on top. Place the burrata and ricotta cheese on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or “pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed Pizza With Mixed Offal in Spicy Tomato Sauce

The filling for this enclosed pizza must be made the day before and refrigerated. The preparation of honeycomb tripe takes at least a day before you even begin the sauce, so buy smooth-skinned paunch tripe (usually available in Middle Eastern markets), which cooks faster. We called it “pizza with guts for zombie-watchers.”

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 12 hours

Cook time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds lamb tripe (mixed tripe if possible and smooth paunch tripe if possible)

3 lamb kidneys, arteries removed

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 cups dry red wine

1 ounce fresh red chiles, blended until smooth with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a food processor

1/4 pound veal sweetbread (optional, for its preparation for cooking see below)

1 1/2 teaspoons red chile flakes

1 bunch fresh oregano, tied together

3 bay leaves

Salt to taste

1 large ball of dough

Directions

1. Prepare the tripe by boiling it for about 6 hours, replenishing the water as it evaporates. Remove and cut into small pieces. Let it cool and congeal in its fat.

2. In a flameproof casserole, cook, stirring, the tripe and its fat, the kidneys, the tomato paste, garlic, red wine, and chile paste, over medium heat until bubbling, about 5 minutes. Cover with water, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours.

3. Add the sweetbread slices (if using), chile flakes, oregano, and bay leaves and continue to cook, partially covered, for 4 hours. Season with salt. Remove the kidneys and slice then return to the sauce.

4. Divide the dough in two and roll one out to about 14-inches in diameter and place in an oiled 14- to 16-inch round baking pan or pizza pan.

5. Heat the oven to 400 F.

6. Spread the filling over the dough and roll out the other half and place on top, sealing the edges by folding over slightly and pinching together. Bake until the pizza is golden, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly before serving.

Main image: Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese and Tongue Headcheese or”pizza with bile and pus.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo

There’s something about drinking cocktails on New Year’s Eve that makes the occasion feel extra festive. But on New Year’s Day, there’s often something about those very same cocktails that feels like a big mistake. One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, kombucha is a fermented beverage made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea. The resulting drink has a slight effervescence, and a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but that’s not the main reason people drink it. Because it’s rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria), unpasteurized kombucha is used as a digestive aid that can offer protection from harmful bacteria and boost the immune system.

It also makes a delicious cocktail.

“Kombucha is really complex and interesting, more flavorful than soda, and drier,” said Jasmine Dravis, co-owner of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar in Petaluma, California.

It also has less sugar than soda and juices, which, along with kombucha’s gut-health benefits, may help prevent morning-after suffering.

“That’s the thing when people drink traditional alcoholic cocktails,” Dravis said. “Most of the hangover is the result of a battle between the alcohol and the sugar. With sugary cocktails, you’re going to be very out of balance the next morning.”

When Dravis and her husband Joseph, a kombucha brewer, opened Native Kitchen in October, they created a list of sophisticated kombucha cocktails that are not only a pleasure to drink, but potentially healthful.

“We thought, if we came up with a low-sugar way to mix our cocktails with kombucha, which supports your gut health, we’d be bringing some balance to the table,” Dravis said.

“OK, you’re still drinking alcohol, but you’re not going to feel the harsh effects that you normally would,” she continued. “The perfect example is our Ginger Mule. We use fresh ginger and kombucha and some vodka, and I can tell you that when I drink it I feel much better than if I had just consumed a high-sugar cocktail with ginger beer and vodka.”

The bar also serves a kombucha mimosa, which replaces half of the orange juice with fermented tea.

“I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I drink regular mimosas I can get a headache, or I feel low after drinking them,” Dravis said. “There’s definitely going to be a more sustained, balanced feeling when you drink a kombucha mimosa because you don’t get the sugar crash.”

Dravis isn’t the only one who believes kombucha can help prevent hangovers. Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn, claims that drinking kombucha between alcoholic drinks results in “reverse toxmosis,” and that drinking it the morning after can cure a hangover thanks to kombucha’s detoxifying properties.

Native Kitchen's kombucha mimosa substitutes kombucha for half the normal amount of orange juice. Credit: Tina Caputo

Native Kitchen’s kombucha mimosa substitutes kombucha for half the normal amount of orange juice. Credit: Tina Caputo

For those who are already suffering from a hangover, Native Kitchen offers kombucha on draft, along with kombucha elixirs such as the Pommy, a mixture of pomegranate juice, kombucha, local honey, lime juice and bee pollen.

The key to alleviating a hangover, Dravis said, is to reduce acidity in the body, and kombucha can help with that. “When you’re hung over your body is in a state of complete acidity from the excess sugar and the alcohol, so you’re going to want a quick boost of alkalinity,” she said.

Although there’s no solid scientific proof of these claims, they seem to make a fair amount of sense. And when kombucha cocktails are as delicious as Native Kitchen’s, lining up volunteers for further “research” shouldn’t be a problem.

The Ginger Mule

Ingredients

2 ounces vodka

1 ounce honey

Juice of 1/2 lime

3 ounces kombucha

1 ounce ginger juice*

*If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a ginger-flavored kombucha, or muddle a small piece of ginger in the shaker.

Directions

1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until mixed.

2. Serve over ice in a copper mug or double old fashioned glass, garnished with a lime wheel.

The Pommy

Ingredients

3 ounces pomegranate juice

1 ounce lime juice

1 teaspoon local honey

6 ounces kombucha (any flavor)

Small pinch of bee pollen (available in health food stores)

Directions

1. Add all ingredients except the pollen to a shaker with ice and shake until mixed.

2. Strain into a flute glass and sprinkle bee pollen on top.

Main photo: Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Three easy salsas for a New Year's Eve party. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

This time of year, most of us make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. To jump-start my own plans, and to help my friends who are all making the same resolution, I host a healthy New Year’s Eve party.

For advice and inspiration, I consulted the experts at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., one of the country’s premier spas. I asked Stephen Betti, executive chef of Canyon Ranch, what beverages to serve.

He offered up several yummy Canyon Ranch “mocktails” (recipes below) — nonalcoholic, healthy drinks. All can be made ahead of time and set out in pitchers so guests can help themselves. Among my favorites is Almosjito, with a hint of maple sugar and intense citrus tang that’s so delicious that no one will miss the tequila.

Healthy New Year’s party foods

Next onto food: What to serve that’s delicious, fun to eat and good for you? Again, Betti came to the rescue with a slew of great nibble suggestions, starting with an assortment of homemade salsas, low-calorie and low-fat sauces made with chopped veggies, and even fruits that can be served as a dip for raw veggies, tortilla chips or boiled shrimp.

“Salsas are easy to make,” Betti explained. “They are also easy on the host, as salsa ingredients can be chopped in a food processor using the pulse button.” The yellow pepper salsa is delicious and surprising because it doesn’t use tomatoes, one of the most common salsa ingredients. This is an especially good recipe to enjoy in winter when tomatoes can be rock hard and flavorless. Instead, the yellow pepper salsa calls for jicama, a root vegetable. If you’ve never tasted jicama, you’re in for a treat. Jicama’s white crunchy flesh has a sweet, nutty flavor and is delicious served raw or cooked. Use what’s left of the jicama from the salsa recipe as one of the ingredients in a crudités platter.

In addition to the simple-to-make salsas, Betti shared Canyon Ranch recipes for chicken gyoza and spicy crab cakes (recipes below). Both can be made ahead and kept frozen until the day of the event, then heated in the oven just before serving. Both are easy-to-eat two-bite finger foods perfect for a party.

The gyoza, which are effortlessly prepared with ready-made wonton wrappers, are better than any I’ve tried from a restaurant. I used chicken but also leftover turkey, which I had frozen after Thanksgiving, but both are terrific. You can adjust the seasonings to suit your own taste too. For example, I added more ginger, less wasabi and substituted cilantro for the lemongrass in one batch for excellent results. It is one of those recipes that, no matter how much you tweak, the dish is delicious.

Five party tips

OK so let’s say you cannot host your own healthy feast. What can you do to jump-start your New Year’s resolution? I asked for help in how we can avoid overindulging from Lori Reamer, nutrition director for Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. She had these five tips for coping with holiday parties:

1. Have a healthy snack an hour before arriving to the party

2. Offer to bring a fabulously delicious but low-cal, healthy dish to the event.

3. Eat from a small plate and drink from a small glass to control portion size and avoid overindulging.

4. Select only the most special dishes. Don’t waste calories on supermarket fare!

5. Don’t focus only on the food. Embrace the entire party experience — the company, decorations, music, conversation. Food is just one small part of the fun!

If you do happen to overindulge in food and drink on New Year’s Eve, all is not lost! You can repair come of the damage on New Year’s Day. According to Canyon Ranch’s Kevin Murray, a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist, “The best ways to rid your body of last night’s alcohol is by drinking lots of water the next day, eating light and getting plenty of sweat-producing exercise.”

Mocktails

Courtesy of Canyon Ranch Spas

Almosjito

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients
1/2 fresh lime

1/2 fresh orange

4 sprigs fresh mint

1/4 cup white grape juice

1/4 cup sparkling water

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup

1/3 cup crushed ice

Directions

Squeeze lime and orange into cocktail shaker. Add mint, white grape juice, water, maple syrup and ice. Shake and strain into glass.

Bloody Mary

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 6

Ingredients

1 tablespoon horseradish

1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

2 teaspoons celery seed

2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Pinch black pepper

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4 cups low-sodium tomato juice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for tomato juice in a blender container. Puree briefly. Add tomato juice and blend well. Serve over ice.

Margarita

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4

Ingredients

1/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups water

2/3 cup lime juice

2/3 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Directions

Combine sugar and water and allow to dissolve. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Serve cold or over ice.

Pomatini

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 6

Ingredients

3 cups white grape juice

3/4 cup pomegranate juice

6 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Pinch sea salt

12 fresh mint leaves

Directions

Combine grape juice, pomegranate juice, lime juice and salt in a large pitcher. For each beverage, add 3/4 cup juice mixture to a shaker with 2 mint leaves and 3 ounces of ice. Shake and pour into a glass.

H2 Tini

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 drink

Ingredients

1 fresh lime wedge

1/2 cup fresh watermelon juice

1/4 cup sparkling pear or apple cider

4 sprigs cilantro

1/3 cup crushed ice

Directions

Squeeze lime into cocktail shaker and add peel. Add remaining ingredients and shake. Pour into martini glass. Garnish with a thin slice of watermelon.

Party Food Recipes

Adapted from “Canyon Ranch Cooks”

Yellow Pepper Salsa

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 cups

Ingredients

1 large yellow bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup diced jicama

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 teaspoon minced, canned chipotle pepper

Pinch salt

Pinch pepper

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well.

Pico de Gallo

Prep time: 20 minutes

Yield: 3 cups

Ingredients

4 medium tomatoes, diced

1 1/2 cups canned, diced tomatoes

1/2 cup diced red onion

3 tablespoons chopped scallions

1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper

1 tablespoon diced jalapeño pepper

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions

Place all ingredients in a food processor and mix briefly.

Chipotle Salsa

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 cups

Ingredients

1 (15-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained

1/4 cup diced red onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1/4 teaspoon minced chipotle pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Pinch chili flakes

Directions

Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender container and blend until smooth.

Spicy crab cakes make for great party foods. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Spicy Crab Cakes can be made ahead and kept frozen until the day of the event. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Spicy Crab Cakes with Tomato Herb Coulis

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8

Ingredients

4 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 Roma tomatoes, about 8 ounces, chopped

1 cup diced red onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

5 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 pound lump crabmeat

1/2 cup minced shallots

2 tablespoons diced scallions

1/4 cup minced red bell pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large egg plus 1 egg white, beaten

2 tablespoons low-sodium tamari or soy sauce

1 cup bread crumbs

1 teaspoon canola oil

Directions

1. To make the coulis, sauté garlic with olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer,and cook about 5 minutes, until tomatoes begin to break apart. Add the red onion, basil, thyme, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, salt and pepper, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

2. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly and transfer to a blender container. Puree the coulis until smooth and reserve.

3. To make the crab cakes, combine the crabmeat, shallots, scallions, red bell pepper, 3 remaining tablespoons of parsley, cayenne pepper, eggs, tamari sauce and bread crumbs in a large bowl and mix well. Make 2-inch patties using about 1/4 cup of mix each.

4. Heat a sauté pan until hot over medium heat. Lightly coat with the canola oil. Place crab cakes in pan and cook until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and continue to cook to golden brown.

5. Serve crab cakes accompanied with the coulis.

Chicken gyoza are a terrific party good. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Chicken Gyoza are effortlessly prepared with ready-made wonton wrappers. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

Chicken Gyoza With Wasabi Soy Sauce

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Yield: 24 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 tablespoon diced lemongrass

1 tablespoon low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon wasabi (Japanese horseradish)

1 sliced chicken breast, boned, skinned and defatted

2 tablespoons chopped scallions

1 large egg white

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons olive oil

24 4-inch wonton skins

Canola oil

Directions

1. To make the wasabi soy sauce, bring 3/4 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons of the ginger and 1 tablespoon of the garlic, reduce heat. and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Add the lemongrass and tamari and continue cooking until the liquid reduces to about 1/3 cup. Strain and cool.

3. Blend the sauce in a blender with the rice vinegar, lemon juice and wasabi until well combined. Reserve.

4. In a food processor, chop chicken breast at high speed, until finely minced. Add the remaining tablespoon of ginger and garlic, scallions, egg white, pepper, salt and oil and mix well.

5. Arrange wonton skins on a flat surface. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of chicken mixture in the center of each wonton. Brush edges with water. Fold into half-moons and lightly pinch edges together to ensure a good seal. (May be frozen at this time for future use.)

6. Lightly coat a large sauté pan with canola oil. Arrange wontons in a single layer in sauté pan. Sear bottoms only to a golden brown color. Transfer to steamer and steam for 3 to 5 minutes.

7. Serve the gyoza with the dipping sauce on the side.

Main photo: A trio of salsas — yellow pepper, pico de gallo and chipotle — make for easy, healthy party foods. Credit: Canyon Ranch Spa

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Castagnaccio is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Credit: Aurelio Barattini

There are so many ways to enjoy chestnuts. A wonderful winter treat, chestnuts are delicious fresh, served either pan- or oven-roasted, or as an out-of-hand snack. They can also be dried, and when reconstituted, have a wonderful toothsome quality. The Italians in the northern region of Piedmont slow cook dried chestnuts in the oven in a mix of honey and wine. They then serve these smoky sweet delights with slices of lardo or salami.

Popular in northern Italy’s Piedmont region is a mound of chocolate-chestnut puree topped with spiked whipped cream — a melt-in-your-mouth delight. It’s called Monte Bianco, White Mountain, because the dessert looks like the snow-capped Alps. Many Italians elaborate on the theme and scatter candied violets and crushed candied chestnuts on the “mountain”to look like flowers and rocks.

Chestnut flour, made of ground dried chestnuts, makes wonderfully flavorful breads and desserts.

Leave it to the Italians to create a dessert that is not only gluten-free, but also sugar-free. Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Like so many traditional Italian recipes, it makes use of locally grown ingredients — chestnuts, olive oil, rosemary and nuts. Savory-sweet, with aromatic hints of rosemary, this cake is made with olive oil, not butter, so it’s ideal for vegans.

This cake is mentioned in a 1553 book by Ortensio Landi that notes it was created in Lucca, a province of Tuscany, so I asked my favorite chef from Lucca, Aurelio Barattini, for his recipe.

Tuscany’s Chestnut Cake (Castagnaccio)

Courtesy: Chef Aurelio Barattini of Antica Locanda di Sesto in Lucca, Italy

Prep time: 5 minutes

Bake time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Note: The cake stays moist for several days, and is terrific served with a glass of Vin Santo or muscato dessert wine.

Ingredients

1/3 cup raisins

5 1/2 ounces chestnut flour, about 2/3 cup

Pinch of salt

1 cup cold water

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves

1/3 cup walnuts and/or pine nuts

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 390 F.

2. Put the raisins into a small bowl and moisten them with a few tablespoons of boiling water to plump them. Drain and reserve.

3. Sift the chestnut flour and salt into a large bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of cold water and beat until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the reserved raisins, 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of rosemary leaves.

4. Grease a baking pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour the batter onto the pan. The batter should be less than a 1/2-inch high. Scatter the top with the walnuts and/or pine nuts, if using, remaining rosemary, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

5. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.

Monte Bianco

Courtesy: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh chestnuts*

2 1/2 cups milk

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

2 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon brandy or rum

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream

3 to 4 vanilla meringue cookies, coarsely chopped

2 to 3 candied chestnuts, marron glace, chopped, optional

Candied violets, optional

Directions

1. Pierce the skin of each chestnut with a knife. Boil them in a large pot with lots of water, until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool only slightly. It’s much easier to peel them while they’re warm.

2. Combine the milk, 1/2 cup of sugar and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan and heat over a low flame to release the fennel’s flavor, about 5 minutes. Strain and return the liquid to the saucepan. Add the chestnuts and simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Put the warm chestnut mixture into a food processor along with the chocolate, 1/4 cup of the brandy and vanilla extract. Pulse to blend and then process until very smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 2 days.

4. To assemble: Put a tall glass upside down into the center of a serving plate. Press the chestnut mixture through a potato ricer into a mountain-shaped cone around the glass. Remove the glass.

5. In a large bowl using an electric mixer whip the cream with 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar until peaks form. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of brandy.

6. Fill the hollow left by the glass with whipped cream and top the chestnut “mountain” with more whipped cream. Sprinkle with the meringues and candied chestnuts, if using. If you like, arrange a few candied violets around the base. Serve immediately.

* Note: You can also make this dessert with ready-roasted chestnuts, available in glass jars in most supermarkets.

Main photo: Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Credit: Aurelio Barattini

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Rosehips and cranberries in a bowl. Credit: Wendy Petty

Foraged rosehips are all it takes to transform an ordinary cranberry sauce into a gem for the holiday table. Rosehips really shine when combined with a bright and acidic ingredient, such as cranberries.

The cooked version of rosehip-cranberry sauce is just right with desserts such as cheesecake. When rosehips are stirred into raw chopped cranberries, the resulting relish is a delight with cheese or meats.

I will admit that by this time of year in the Rockies, there aren’t many other wild foods left to harvest. Rosehips, however, are special because they get better after a few strong frosts. These relatives of apples, with the kiss of winter, transform from simply mealy and tart into something richer and sticky-sweet, almost like wine-soaked dried strawberries.

Not only are rosehips one of the only wild edibles to forage in places that experience deep winter, they are easy enough to identify that even kids can help harvest them. Picking rosehips can be as simple as making a trip to your backyard if your garden is graced with roses. All true roses produce edible fruit. The only trick with garden roses is to be certain they have never been sprayed with any chemicals, which would render them inedible.

I prefer to get my rosehips from the wild, as it has been my experience that they have a stronger flavor. I also enjoy picking them during my winter walks, even in the snow. I take a container with me every day as I walk and pick rosehips just until my fingers get cold, sometimes not more than 1/4 cup at a time. Because they are essentially dried fruit on the plant, there’s not much of a rush to harvest. By the end of winter, the weather will have sapped out much of their flavor. But early in the season, a little snow and cold doesn’t degrade the taste of rosehips.

Rosehips in hand. Credit:Wendy Petty

Rosehips in hand. Credit:Wendy Petty

Harvesting rosehips is simple. Look for the reddest and plumpest fruit, and simply pluck them off with your fingers. I live in an arid climate, and rosehips can shrivel up hard as rocks. Those taste fine once they rehydrate, but I still seek out the ones that are like translucent rubies. When stripped from the plant, these rosehips reveal their sticky, gooey insides.

Once harvested, rosehips should be washed in a tub of water, simply to remove dirt and dust that may have been blown onto them as they aged. I then sort through them and discard any that seem damaged or discolored. As a final step, any remaining stems and dried bits of the flowering end can be cut away. But I will admit that I seldom do this, and find that it doesn’t detract from the flavor of the final product.

People with access to giant rosehips the size of marbles prepare them by cutting them in half and scooping out the innards before using the fruit. The fuzzy seeds inside of rosehips can be irritating to the digestive tract. The rosehips that grow in my area are so small that cutting them in half and scooping out the seeds would be a near-impossible task. Instead, I boil and mash the whole fruit, then press the mash through a strainer.

Rosehip-Cranberry Relish

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup rosehips, washed

3/4 cup water

1 cup whole cranberries

2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

Pinch of salt

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, combine the rosehips and water over medium heat. Let them simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Use a potato masher to crush the rosehips. This will release the fruit next to the skin and allow it to marry with the water. Continue to simmer the rosehips for another 5 minutes.

3. Pour the mashed rosehips through a strainer, and press the fruit with the back of a spoon. Fruity orange-red water should pass through the strainer, and the fuzzy seeds and skins will be left behind. Reserve the rosehips water.

4. Put the solids back into the pan, barely cover them with water, and allow them to come to a simmer. Pass the rosehips through the strainer a second time. Discard the solids left in the strainer.

5. Quickly rinse out your pan you used to heat the rosehips and return the fruity rosehip water to it. Place the pan over medium heat, and allow it to bubble until it reduces to the thickness of runny ketchup. Remove the pan from the heat, and allow the rosehip paste to cool to room temperature.

6. Meanwhile, use a food processor to grind the raw cranberries into a sandy texture.

7. Combine the reduced rosehips, the chopped raw cranberries, honey and salt. Add more honey if the relish tastes too tart.

8. Allow the rosehip-cranberry relish to sit, covered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before using it. This will allow the cranberries to soften, and all the flavors to meld.

Rosehip-Cranberry Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup whole cranberries

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups water

Reduced rosehip paste

Directions

1. Follow steps 1-5 for Rosehip-Cranberry Relish to create a reduced rosehip paste, set aside.

2. In a small saucepan, combine the whole cranberries, sugar, salt and water. Bring the heat up to medium, and cook the cranberries until they pop and slouch, about 10 minutes.

3. Mix together the cooked cranberries with the reduced rosehip paste. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.

Main photo: Rosehips and cranberries in a bowl. Credit: Wendy Petty

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