A Thoughtful Christmas

December 15, 2019

A Thoughtful Christmas

Cooking, or should I say, experimenting with recipes and new food innovations is quite meditative I have realised over the years.  It is something I have always enjoyed.  The bright, inviting colours in fresh fruit and vegetables are an endless source of creative enjoyment - and wonder.  Nature is magnificent and I am grateful to all the growers - large and small - who provide such a variety of fresh, seasonal and regional fare under increasingly-challenging conditions.

As a menacing bushfire continued to burn nearby, on an extremely hot day here in the Blue Mountains on Tuesday, preparing food for this blog was a necessary diversion: A good way to forget what was happening 5 kilometres away, in our World Heritage National Park.  Our strong community survives because of the seen and unseen heroes, such as those volunteers in the Rural Fire Service, working to protect our wilderness, our communities, our unique built environment. Summer has only just arrived. This 'new normal' is hard to deal with.

Helicopters flew overhead and numerous hungry, hot and thirsty wild birds flew in on my rear verandah. I worried about my cool climate hens on the other side of my property, and checked on them to ensure they were in shade, had plenty of water and also sprayed the tree canopy above them as well as the the ground, with water, to keep them cool. The lucky ones. Heaven help all the millions of animals being raised intensively in Australia as we burn and get hotter - and hotter.  No lyrebirds came close today, wonderful 'soil engineers' that they are, scratching in the ground litter, turning it over to create soil - and create firebreaks!  It is said the average lyrebird moves 200 tonnes of soil and litter per year. Their extraordinary feet are constantly busy! They are also at home flying among the big old trees dotted throughout the landscape here. Miraculously they have held on in the area where I live, despite tourism, urbanisation and incremental clearing of many old gardens backing onto the escarpment and National Park. My home is a sanctuary for these 'opera stars' of the bird world  - total theatre to watch, astounding birdsong and mimicry! 

As we approach Christmas Day and the enjoyment of special fare, a time supposedly celebrating and promoting peace on earth, I would like to think especially in Australia, my homeland, where identity is very much associated with meat-eating and embedded in our national psyche, in this 'new normal' of climate change/loss of nature/loss of biodiversity, even what we eat at Christmas can no longer be the same: A little more thought is required . . . substituting the meat roast for a plant-based one, having a smaller roast perhaps, cutting back on the seafood at the very least . . . or mixing plant-based seafood in with it? No seafood at all - just plant-based prawns?? Too difficult? (Over the Festive Season, Australians will consume a staggering 50,000 tonnes of prawns.) Surely not, if we wish to invest in the future and help to cool our planet for young generations  now or yet to be born? 

Putting the finishing touches to the various dishes I experimented with, as well as cooking some old favourites, I knew the friends and neighbours who would enjoy this Thoughtful Christmas Dinner the next day were a reflection of massive global social change at the grassroots, despite laggard governments in denial about our climate crisis: Several of us were long-standing vegetarians/vegans, another, more 'flexitarian', while another a lover of meat but open to trying new foods and conscious of the issues. The dining table was decorated with foliage from the garden, a handmade candle placed in the middle, some gingerbread amongst the foliage. The special dishes were placed on the table, alongwith regional organic, vegan-friendly wine and favourite liqueurs - especially the coffee liqueur! I just knew it would be finished by the end of the night - and it just about was! The stage was set: A thoughtful Christmas for the 21st century! What follows are the recipes and tips, as well as reviews of some commercially-available products we enjoyed. Feedback from my dinner guests is also included in this. Savour. Reflect. A joyful Christmas to each and everyone of you! 

Lentil Walnut Roast

1 cup red lentils (or why not double this amount, saving half to make  Herbed Lentil Dip?), 1 cup finely-chopped walnuts, 2-3 onions finely-chopped, seasoning to taste, 1 cup chopped fresh herbs, 2 slices multigrain or sourdough bread cubed, olive oil.

Method: Cook lentils on low heat, just covered in water, with salt, pepper and other seasonings until soft - around 20 minutes. Fry onions slowly in oil and when tender, add bread cubes. Add cooked lentils and chopped walnuts. Mix well. Press into greased ad lined loaf tin. Bake in moderate oven until lightly-brown on top. Serve with roast vegetables of your choice or surrounded by garlic asparagus. Roast can be topped with cranberry sauce or caramelized onion jam. Even more flavoursome if caramelized onion jam is left overnight on roast. Delicious also served as cold cuts, garnished with plant-based feta crumbs, capsicum slices and a variety of salad dishes.

Dips, Dips, Dips!

These never go astray at Christmas and the good thing about making your own is all that packaging can be avoided, as well as being low-cost. Keep some readycooked red lentils in the fridge to be turned into dips quickly and easily. The key ingredients for lentil-based dips are 1 cup cooked lentils mixed with equivalent plant-based cream cheese, salt, pepper, fresh herbs, spices of your choice. Cooked red lentils can also be mixed with fresh breadcrumbs, spices, some chick pea (besan) flour and shaped into balls before being shallow-fried. Buckwheat flour also works well. Serve with raw vegetable sticks. Seasoned, cooked lentils can also be used as a spread on crackers/savoury biscuits.

Tahini is another good staple in the kitchen for dips. Mix several dessertspoons of tahini with water, lemon juice, finely-chopped garlic to create dipping sauce consistency. Add salt, pepper to taste. Vary this by adding grated raw beetroot, or chilli sauce.

Greek-style tzatziki dip can be made with coconut yogurt, chopped cucumber, lemon juice/zest, garlic, salt and pepper to taste.

Celebration Cauliflower Roast

Cauliflower cooked this way is a standout, so make sure you reserve a special serving platter for it. I have never made this without using dairy-based yogurt, but by applying 21st century thinking to it, the only dairies I will support are the artisanal ones, with the highest of ethics around care of land, wilderness, soil and animals. (See Product Comments and Recommendations.)

 One large cauliflower, steamed for 30 minutes in the oven, 1 carton Barambah Organics Full-Fat Yogurt, sweet paprika, salt, pepper, mixed herbs, 3 teaspoons mustard.

Method: Remove cauliflower from oven and cool. Mix other ingredients together and pour over cauliflower packing into flowerets. Roll cauliflower into surplus mixture and let it sit in this for about an hour. Place in baking dish, flowerets facing up, and put any surplus yogurt mixture on top. Bake in moderate oven for about an hour. Check to see cauliflower is cooked by placing sharp knife in sections. Place on platter to serve. Scoop any juices around base.

Summer Fruits Festive Pudding

The fresh, seasonal fruit on offer in Australia during our Summers is quite simply, outstanding. I have fond memories of long drives to visit family for Christmas stopping at Young, said to be our 'cherry capital' to buy fresh cherries on the way. All were devoured before we reached our destination! Choose your favourite fresh fruits for this recipe. It all looks so fabulous on the Christmas table. I finished this with a generous drizzle of chocolate sauce, made by a local chocolatier. (We are famous for our handmade chocolate in the Blue Mountains.) The essence of this is a date pudding, literally elevated to a more dizzying height by being placed on a thick base of plant-based yogurt/cream cheese, containing desiccated coconut, stevia for sweetening and a generous dollop of Amaretto liqueur! Once assembled, arrange fresh fruit around the base and top, before finishing off with chocolate sauce. Fresh cherries and apricots work particularly well. Slice to serve an with each slice is the cream, fruit and pudding. Store in fridge. Pudding can be frozen.

Pudding: One cup chopped dates, 1 cup self-raising flour, 1 teaspoon bicarb soda, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons butter ( or alternative such as Nuttelex Buttery, which I used) 1 cup soy milk or equivalent. 

Method: Place in saucepan milk, dates, sugar and butter. Bring nearly to boil and then add bicarb soda. When it foams, remove from heat and stir in flour. Pour into greased pudding basin. Steam 2 hours in a moderate oven. Cool and then assemble/decorate.

Aquafaba Festive Berry Chocolate Pavlova Cake

I must confess to finding aquafaba (chick pea liquid) a bit tricky, so worked out a simpler version. If your pavlova goes flat, do not worry! Slice it gently in half and create this Festive Berry Chocolate Pavlova Cake instead! 

One can chickpeas (strain off juice and set aside) use the chick peas in your salads, fresh strawberries and raspberries, balsamic vinegar ( I used a regional Pukara Estate Vanilla and Cinnamon Balsamic Vinegar in mine), carton plant-based yogurt, stevia for sweetening, additional icing sugar for decorating, fresh mint, geranium petals to garnish.

Aquafaba Pavlova: Juice from one can of chick peas,  1 cup icing sugar, 1 tablespoon cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon vinegar, pinch salt, 3 tablespoons raw cacao powder. Preheat oven to 130 degrees. Line baking tray with baking paper.

Method: Using an electric mixer, whisk chick pea liquid and vinegar until you  see soft peaks form - about 5 minutes. Gradually add icing sugar and cream of tartar, salt, whisk for 5 minutes more. Fold in cacao - just swirl it through. Arrange to form a pavlova shape on baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake in oven for 2 hours - it will spread and go flat. Turn oven off and leave in oven, preferably overnight. When dry, slice in two. Carefully peel from  backing paper. Place one half on serving platter, on a base of fresh strawberries an raspberries, topped with coconut yogurt (make sure you mix into the yogurt the balsamic vinegar and stevia to taste).Place one aquafaba sheet on top. repeat with fruit and yogurt cream. Place other aquafaba sheet on top. Finish with additional yogurt and fruit. Sift icing sugar over all of this using a tea strainer. Garnish with fresh mint leaves and geranium petals.

Lake Como Cake "Miascia"

This is like a magnificently-stylish bread and butter pudding, only better! I would love to learn the origins of this clever recipe, created out of necessity no doubt, based on what was available. Food stories are fascinating! It originated in a very favourite part of the world for me - Northern Italy. Perfect served with colourful fresh fruit on Christmas morning with strong, strong coffee! Looks exquisite served with fresh red currants if you can get them.

One loaf stale sourdough bread, around 12 stale biscuits - nut/almond biscuits work best, 2 cups milk (or soymilk), 1/2 cup Amoretto liqueur or similar, 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or hazelnuts, 3/4 cup raisins, 2 eggs (or equivalent in firm tofu mashed), 1/3 cup sugar, 2 apples and pears, lemon zest, 3 tablespoons melted butter or equivalent, 3 tablespoons flour. 

Method: Preheat oven to 190 degrees. Soak bread cubes in milk and liqueur for at least 2 hours. Chop apples and pears, add to other ingredients, then add to bread. Mix well. Pour batter into greased, lined and wet pan. Cook 15 minutes at 190 degrees and then lower to to 150 degrees and cook 30 minutes until golden on top. Allow to cool in tin, turn onto serving plate, sprinkle with sugar.

Some Products Used - Comments and Recommendations

Coles Plant-Based Christmas Roast

In the chiller section at Coles Supermarkets, presented in an attractive red box. Ideal for people who do not wish to cook, or need something to prepare quickly as a plant-based option. Ok there are a number of ingredients, but when tasted by friends at the dinner, it was agreed the taste was pretty good and chutney sauce gave it visual appeal. When also taste-tested by neighbours with a young family recently, they felt it tasted 'just like chicken', had a great texture and really loved the sauce. Even the youngest member of the family ate it. The ingredients list reflects what is readily-available in supply chain: Wheat is the protein basis. (Alarmingly around 15 crops are sustaining the world at present.) At least 40% Australian ingredients in this product.

Sophie's Fresh 100% Plant Based Prawns

These were lightly-cooked in olive oil with garlic and served on a platter of lettuce leaves. General agreement texture was 'chewy' (think I overcooked as must confess to never having cooked prawns or plant-based prawns before). Dinner guests suggested they would have been better crumbed or as part of a dish, rather than just on their own. Available in Coles Supermarkets in chiller section. Product produced for NextFoods Australia.

Cocobella Dairy Free Coconut Yogurt

Made in Australia from at least 50% Australian ingredients. Great texture, flexibility. I thickened with desiccated coconut to give more thickness in the pudding base. Works well combined with plant-based cream cheese to give it a whiter colour. Available in most major supermarkets. 

Creamy Sheese 100% Dairy-free Original

Travelled a long way - made in Scotland. To date, have been unable to find an Australian-made equivalent. Excellent texture, delicate taste. A blend of coconut oil and soya providing an alternative to cream cheese. Available in refrigerated section of major supermarkets. (Purchased from a Woolworths Supermarket.)

Fresh Seasonal Produce 

All fresh produce used in recipes was Australian-grown and came from a local, family-owned fruit and veg store, Todarellos Katoomba, including very delicious cherries and wonderful vine-ripened tomatoes that were also used as 'baubles' in the festive greenery on dining table. (Too good to hide!)

Nuts, grains, Australian-grown red lentils, seeds, Pimp My Salad Hemp Parmesan and Barambah Organic Yogurt purchased from Bue Mountains Food Co-operative, Katoomba. Find out more at https://bmfoodcoop.org.au

Barambah Organics, Organic Full Fat Yogurt

This was used in the Celebration Cauliflower Roast. Barambah has two farms in the Border Rivers Region of Queensland. Their cows graze on mixed pastures. Barambah also have a 10,000 tree olive grove. Calves are not considered as waste products by Barambah, and are only separated from their mothers when deemed suitable at around 6 months of age, and assessed individually. They are taken to another Barambah property, 100 kms away. The cows are not artificially inseminated.  Find out more at www.barambahorganics.com.au

Bio Cheese Dairy-Free Feta (used on Lentil Walnut Roast) has a great texture and taste. Made in Greece. Available in major supermarkets.

Blue M Food Co, Katoomba, Caramelized Onion Jam (At least 99% Australian ingredients) so delicious as part of topping on Lentil Walnut Roast. Find out more about this local Blue Mountains brand and their delicous jams, smoked nuts and other products at www.bluemfood.com

Gingerbread Folk Gingerbread (part of table display) Vegan gingerbread produced at the foot of the Blue Mountains and packaged in compostable packaging. Product also nut free, gmo free, no added flavours, preservatives or colours. Find out more at: www.gingerbreadfolk.com.au

Pukara Estate Vanilla and Cinnamon Australian Balsamic Vinegar, Muswellbrook, Australia

Added a generous dollop to the plant-based coconut yogurt and perfect with fresh berries in the Festive Berry Chocolate Aquafaba Cake. Find out more at www.pukuraestate.com.au

Aquafaba juice was drained off Edgell brand Australia-grown chick peas available in supermarkets. Find out more at www.edgell.com.au 

Lamyong Vegetarian Health Foods are available in a number of Health Food Stores in Australia or you can shop online. An extensive variety of vegetarian/vegan foods, includindg wide variety of plant-based seafood, including plant-based king prawns, vegetarian duck, roastpork, even plant-based chicken nuggets. This company has been based in Australia for 10 years and provides easy to use products that look and taste like regular meat. Find out more/shop online at: www.lamyong.com.au

Carrington Cellars and Deli, Parke Street, Katoomba (At the rear of The Carrington Hotel.)An Aladdin's cave of international, local and regional wines, craft beers, liqueurs as well as delicatessen items. The wine and liqueurs we used came from this local business and included the following: Martins Hill Organic Wines (Mudgee) (Vegan Friendly) Italian-style Alfresco Red. Find out more at www.martinshillwines.com.au

Baker Williams Distillery (Mudgee) Artisan Cafe Liqueur - gentle coffee taste (not overpowering) an light sweetness; Lemon Myrtle Liqueur - A delicate infusion of native lemon myrtle and local honey. Find out more at www.bakerwilliams.com.au

Blue Mountains Australia Amazing Food Fact:  Junction 142 in Katoomba is the headquarters for Blue Mountains Food Rescue. Over 60,000 kilos of surplus food is collected by this organisation each year from local businesses - large and small. Free Community Lunch on Sundays using some of this surplus food. Everyone welcome. Find out more at www.earthrecoveryaustralia.org.au  

Visiting the Blue Mountains Australia shortly, or keen to do some thoughtful Christmas shopping? Download our Blue Mountains Slow Fashion Guide - a 'meander' through a number of our villages for the best in ethical shopping (not just clothing!) and great 'village secrets' only the locals know! Some great circular economy ideas too.

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