The holiday season is upon us, which usually means that we are faced with endless invitations and opportunities to attend parties, and gatherings of friends and family. By responding to these invitations we also inevitably rsvp to the gluttony of holiday eating. Yes the holidays are a great excuse for indulging in cookies, pies, and loads of potatoes, and I am not condemning this tradition at all, but I am encouraging everyone to think outside the box this year when preparing for such gatherings, because not EVERYONE needs to bring a casserole to the potluck and sometimes you just don’t want to eat pudding and cool whip for dessert everyday. Now casseroles and cool whip Jell-O desserts may be good old standbys because they seem easy to throw together last minute and most people will eat them, but, using winter vegetables from your garden and trying new recipes really doesn’t have to be all that hard and can actually be very fun and inexpensive.
So let’s start with the main meal side dishes that frequent most potlucks, corn, beans with fatback, chicken casserole, mashed potatoes, ham casserole, egg salad, unidentified casserole…. Ok but for real can we get something for the vegetarians up in here. Sorry I digress into my personal opinions. I don’t mean to sound like a food snob on my soap box but I do truly believe that as Americans in the 21st century we need to take a close look at what we are eating and work towards a healthier common diet. The holidays are a good time to really think about the kinds of food that we are celebrating and the traditions that we are passing on to the younger generations. There is also no better time, in the spirit of the holidays, to share the vegetables that you have preserved from your garden with those you love. Anyways….. why not try something like a dish of spiced and roasted winter vegetables or baked squash?
Grow Appalachia participant Astor Smith with the Cushaws he grew

Being as fortunate as we are to receive food from our Grow Appalachia participants we have a cellar full of potatoes, butternut squash, and we even had one HUGE cushaw left in the kitchen until last Saturday. Squashes are extremely easy to prepare and are a healthy option amidst all the meat, bread, and butter (which is all delicious of course, even though I don’t eat meat?). Squashes are also great because once they are baked you can use them in savory dishes or in baked goods. This past Sunday evening with a impending potluck to attend and feeling rather lackluster about spending our last 2 free hours of the weekend in the kitchen Maggie and I contemplated what we could cook that would be easy, and tasty and eventually decided we (we meaning Maggie because I was real lazy) could use the cushaw we already had in the fridge to make a tasty squash dish (recipe will follow).

Savory Cushaw (you could also use other similar winter squash such as spaghetti squash)
½ cushaw (baked and scooped out of skin)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Any other seasoning you want
1. Cut cushaw in half, scoop out seeds and lay face down on cookie sheet to bake for 1 hour at 400° F and let cool.
2. Scoop flesh out of skin and use mesh strainer to drain off extra liquid.
3. In a large skillet sauté onion and garlic in olive oil, once cooked and the squash, herbs, and salt and pepper to the skillet and cook until hot.
4. EAT it and ENJOY!
            Alright, moving on to other possible party fare, there are of course the standard appetizers, such as veggie platters, deviled eggs, corn bread etc. But what if you don’t want to serve another cheese log and baby carrots are against your beliefs (most baby carrots are treated with chlorine)? Why not try this easy and well liked recipe that we picked up after attending a taping of the wonderful radio show What’s Cookin’ Now on WMMT. This cream cheese dip is easy, uses garlic and dried tomatoes, both of which we had from the garden this summer, and is VERY tasty, albeit VERY garlicky!

Dried Tomato and Garlic Cream cheese dip
8 oz. cream cheese
1/3 cup dried tomatoes (rehydrate slightly by soaking in water)
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped

Throw everything in the food processor and pulse and smooth and fully combined. Serve with crackers of any kind.

We love these homemade crackers; they are also very easy to whip up and will make everyone think that you are an extremely knowledgeable and talented cook, because really who makes homemade crackers?

Cheesy Chickpea Crackers
1 can (15.5 ounces) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
¾ teaspoon coarse salt
¾ teaspoon ground pepper
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for surface
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
½ cup grated parmesan
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in middle and lower third. In food processor, pulse chickpeas until coarsely chopped. Add coriander, salt, pepper, flour, and butter, and pulse to combine. With machine running, gradually add 3 tablespoons cold water until dough forms a ball. Add parmesan and pulse to combine.
2. Divide dough and form two 1-inch-thick disks. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each disk to a 1/8 inch thickness. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds. With a knife, cut into 1-by-3 inch rectangles and place, ½ inch apart, on two parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until golden brown and crisp, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Let crackers cool on sheets.
            Last but not least (probably greatest in my opinion) you always need to have some kind of dessert on hand, and why not continue with using winter squash or garden produce to round out the meal. By simply baking, scooping out, and pureeing a pumpkin, cushaw, or butternut you could create endless desserts including cupcakes, pies, cookies, muffins, and so much more. Though I do advocate buying whole pumpkins to use for baking, canned pumpkin is one thing that I am not opposed to as a shortcut in baking because a can of pumpkin is usually just that, pumpkin, no sugar, salt, maltohyphenatedcellulosedextrincancercausingdeath…. So here is a simple recipe for pumpkin bread, if you are feeling inspired, bake a pumpkin up or if you don’t have much time just grab a can of pumpkin puree to use.
Pumpkins from our local orchard
Pumpkin bread
*Note: This bread tastes best when it has cooled completely for a few hours and tastes even better the next day.
*Makes 2 (9X5-inch loaves) or 3 (8X4-inch loaves)
2 ½ cups white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
3 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
15 oz. pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
1 cup canola or vegetable oil
4 large eggs
2/3 cup water
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9×5-inch loaf pans or three 8×4-inch loaf pans.
2. In a large bowl, mix flours, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt together. Set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together canned pumpkin, oil, eggs and 2/3 cup water until well combined and stir into dry ingredients, just until the dry ingredients are moistened and no dry streaks remain. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour batter in prepared pans.
4. Bake the bread for 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the bread from the oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Run a knife gently around the edge of the bread and turn the bread out, right side up, onto a wire rack to cool completely.
This bread freezes beautifully. After cooling, wrap the bread in a layer of plastic wrap and then a layer of tin foil. Freeze for up to 2 months.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all our GROW APPALACHIA friends, I hope you enjoy your traditions, family, friends, and food during these next few weeks!