don’t have a cow, man

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I’m warning you right now, this blog post is long as HELL due to the fact that I was tinkering around with ideas for Christmas Dinner recipes and somehow ended up making three recipes at once in an absolute fugue state of proficiency and perspicacity: Brined and Roasted Whole Cauliflower with Pesto Glaze; Roasted Whole Pumpkin with Herb and Onion Stuffing, and Eggplant Roulade, AND Mushroom, Walnut and Red Wine Gravy. It’s suddenly less than a month till Christmas and whether or not you observe the holiday in an official capacity there’s no denying that this time of year calls for an excess of abundance and an abundance of excess so I was like why not just … write about this all this at once. So whether you’re the kind to settle in with a glass of port to scrutinise this from top to bottom or you’re already flexing your scrolling finger (or indeed, whichever body part you use to scroll downwards through large swathes of text), here we go.

I’m not one to not boast, but I just want the record to state that I made every single one of the below recipes all at once in just under two and a half hours. Why? You know and I know, because I bring it up a lot, because it happens a lot: I’m quite all or nothing. At times an inert snake lying in bed unable to finish, well, even this sentence; at times I’m like “Uh I wrote an entire violin symphony in twelve minutes” (to everything, turn turn, there is a season, turn turn) and while the presence of Ritalin in my life has helped to both enable activity on the inert-snake days and to moderate the high energy hyper-focus, that’s still just how I am. And I guess this week’s blog is precisely an example of that hyperfocus in action: I had all these ideas for recipes that might be cool for Christmas dinner, or indeed, any celebratory food-eating time, and I just put my head down and made the whole lot at once without really thinking through what I was doing and suddenly two and a half hours later there was an enormous meal just sitting there. (This is how I know I’ve made personal growth/consumed some Ritalin though: I actually wrote down the recipes as I was making them. Yes, this is what counts as personal growth for me.)

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Somewhat hilariously, none of the friends that I messaged to come help me eat it were available, leaving me alone at the table with this massive feast and wondering ruefully whether perhaps you really cannot, in fact, win friends with salad. I’m not saying I like, threw it all in the bin or anything, I had a delicious plateful of everything and have been eating leftovers gleefully ever since, but what I am saying is that you’ll just have to take my word for it that these recipes are good.

My aim for these recipes was to create a sense of lavishness, intense deliciousness and layers of texture and flavour, so that there was no sense of being without, that you would feel and indeed taste the effort and care taken. I wanted food that was somehow inherently Christmassy – which is a little weird, I grant you, because in New Zealand Christmas falls in the middle of summer but so many people still have a very traditional English style full roast meal. By which I mean, even though we’re all sweating uncomfortably, the food is resolutely winter wonderland because that’s just how it is. So that’s what I was going for.

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1: Brined and Roasted Whole Cauliflower with Pesto Glaze

A recipe by myself, but inspired by the title of this one on Food52.

  • 1 whole cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Brine:

  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half/into bits
  • 1 inch or so slice of fresh ginger (or 1 teaspoon ground ginger)
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced in half (no need to peel)
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup

Pesto:

  • The leaves from 1 of those supermarket basil plants (roughly two cups loosely packed basil leaves)
  • 1 cup loosely packed rocket leaves
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice (can be from a bottle)
  • Plenty of salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup water, optional

Remove the leaves from the cauliflower and trim off as much of the stem as you can manage, so that the cauliflower is able to sit on its haunches, so to speak, without anything protruding from the base.

Place all the brine ingredients in a large mixing bowl, fill partway with cold water, and give it a stir just to dissolve the maple syrup and salt somewhat. Sit the cauliflower in this and top with water till the cauliflower is more or less submerged. Cover – either with plastic wrap or simply by sitting a plate on top – and set aside away from any heat for an hour, although if it’s like an hour and fifteen minutes because you forgot or something came up that’s honestly fine.

Get on with the pesto while the cauliflower is brining – throw all the ingredients into a food processor and blitz to form a rough green paste. Add a little water to loosen it up a bit, it can absorb it without making it watery. Taste for salt, pepper, or more lime juice, and set aside.

Set your oven to 200C/400F and get an oven dish ready. Once the oven is hot and the brining time is up, remove the cauliflower from the brine, shaking off any bits that have stuck to it, and place it in the roasting dish. Drizzle with the two tablespoons of olive oil and roast, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, or until it’s evenly golden on the surface. At this point, spoon some of the pesto over the cauliflower, using a pastry brush to spread it down over the florets, and return to the oven for another ten minutes. Serve with the remaining pesto in a dish beside for those who (rightly) want more.

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2: Roasted Whole Pumpkin with Herb and Onion Stuffing

A recipe by myself

  • 1 good-sized buttercup pumpkin (roughly 900g I guess? But I personally relate more to “good sized” than weight for accuracy)
  • 1 can white beans, often sold as haricot beans
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 small ciabatta or similarly hearty bread roll
  • 1 tablespoon English Mustard or wholegrain mustard
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • A pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
  • Plenty of salt and pepper, to taste

Set your oven to 200C/400F. Cut the ciabatta in half and sit it in the oven while it’s heating up for about five minutes, the aim being to lightly toast it and dry it out (just don’t forget that it’s there.)

Using a small, sharp knife, make incisions in a circular fashion around the stem of the pumpkin so you can wiggle it out and reveal the insides. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon – set aside to roast them if you like but this level of sustainability was unfortunately too much for me, and I simply binned them. (This might be a good time to check on the state of your ciabatta in the oven.)

Dice the onion and gently fry it in the olive oil till it’s softened and golden. Add the pumpkin seeds and give them a stir for a minute just to toast them a little, then set the pan aside off the heat.

Drain the can of beans and roughly mash them with a fork, it doesn’t matter if some are left whole. Roughly slice the ciabatta into small cubes and add this to the mashed beans along with the thyme, rosemary, mustard, maple syrup, cider vinegar, nutmeg, plenty of salt and pepper, and the onion/pumpkin seed mixture.

Carefully spoon all of this into the waiting and emptied pumpkin, pushing down with the spoon to fill every crevice and cavity. Place the stem on top like a lid. Sit the pumpkin on a large piece of tinfoil and bring the tinfoil up the sides of the pumpkin so it’s mostly wrapped but with the stem still exposed (did I explain this right?) and then sit this in a roasting dish. Roast for an hour and a half or until a knife can easily pierce through the side of the pumpkin, thus meaning the inside is good and tender. Serve by cutting the pumpkin into large wedges.

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3: Eggplant Roulade

A recipe by myself

  • 2 sheets flaky puff pastry (check the ingredients to make sure they’re dairy free, if this is of concern)
  • 1 large eggplant
  • olive oil, for frying
  • 1 cup bulghur wheat
  • 70g walnuts
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • plenty of salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons almond butter

Set your oven to 200C/400F. Place the bulghur wheat in a large bowl and pour over water from a just-boiled kettle to cover it by about 1cm. Cover with plastic wrap or similar and set aside for about ten minutes for it to absorb.

Meanwhile, slice the eggplant as thinly as you can lengthwise. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant slices a few at a time on both sides till softened and browned, adding more olive oil as you (inevitably) need it. Set aside.

Fluff the cooked bulghur wheat with a fork and stir in the walnuts, cranberries, rosemary, cumin, cinnamon, and plenty of salt and pepper.

Set the two sheets of pastry side by side with one inch overlap on a large piece of baking paper, and press down where they overlap to kind of glue them together into one large piece of pastry. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the almond butter over the pastry – soften it with a little olive oil if you need to. Place the eggplant slices on top of this in one layer starting from the left side, with the long side of the eggplant parallel to the long side of the pastry – I had six slices of eggplant so there was two sets of three laid horizontally, if that makes sense. If it doesn’t, let me know and I’ll try to explain further. Now take the bulghur wheat and spoon it in a thick column on top of the eggplant, roughly an inch in from the short side on the left. Carefully but confidently roll the pastry from the short side over the bulghur wheat and continue rolling, sushi-like, till you have a fat cylinder of pastry coiled around the eggplant and bulghur. Tuck the edges down and pinch them together, and carefully place the pastry into a baking dish. Make a couple of slashes in the top with a sharp knife and brush the surface with olive oil, then bake for 30 – 40 minutes until the pastry is puffy and golden brown. Serve in thick slices.

(There’ll be heaps of bulghur wheat leftover but it’s delicious reheated and drizzled with lots of olive oil the next day, however reduce the quantity if you don’t want leftovers.)

4: Mushroom, Walnut and Red Wine Gravy

A (vague, I admit) recipe by myself

  • 1 onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 7 brown mushrooms (if you have like 9 this is not a problem)
  • olive oil, for frying
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 70g walnuts
  • A pinch each of ground nutmeg and cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

Roughly chop the onion and garlic. Make sure the mushrooms have any dirt brushed off and roughly chop them as well. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan and fry all of this over a low heat until the onions and mushrooms are softened. Sprinkle over the flour and stir for a couple of minutes, before raising the heat and tipping in the red wine. Stir till the wine is absorbed into the floury oniony mushrooms, then tip in the walnuts, the nutritional yeast, and the cinnamon and nutmeg. Slowly add water – around 250ml/1 cup – and allow it to come to the boil, stirring continuously till it’s looking a little thick. You’re going to be blending this up so all the ingredients will naturally thicken it, so it doesn’t have to be too reduced down. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before blitzing it carefully in a high speed blender. I tipped it straight back into the pan to reheat it, but by all means strain it if you want it to be super smooth. It may need more water added at this point if it’s too thick, but up to you. Finally add the soy sauce to taste, and serve hot over EVERYTHING.

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With all that in mind, let’s assess them individually.

1: The concept of roasting a whole cauliflower is, as I noted, an idea I got from Food52, and the idea of brining it first is something I got from a Nigella turkey recipe. I love the idea of treating a vegetable in the same way that you’d treat meat and while cauliflower is more or less going to look after itself in the oven this does come out sweet and tender with its crisp pesto-crusted exterior. It also looks rather wonderful in the roasting dish because it’s so big and whole. On the other hand, because one must be critical: even with the brining and the pesto, this is still just like, a cauliflower alone on a plate. My verdict: this is delicious but I would want it as well as something else, as opposed to being the only thing, otherwise it’s like “wow cool thanks for my slice of damp vegetable really appreciate this.” You of course personally might be more than satisfied by this! But this is how I feel.

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2: The whole pumpkin looks really cool, somehow splendid yet storybook-adorable at the same time. The stuffing has, somehow, and I mean this in an entirely positive and non-innuendo way: a certain sausagey-ness to it. Something in the way the vinegar and mustard play off the rich thyme and the mashed beans and the texture of the bread, it’s all very cured-smallgoodsy and hearty and traditional tasting. My verdict: I am super pleased with this, however I would recommend leaning further into the luxuriousness by making the pesto anyway to have alongside, and perhaps consider adding some pistachios or something else treat-y to the stuffing so that the vegan in your close proximity feels particularly loved.

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3: The eggplant roulade was my favourite! There’s something about pastry that makes anything feel like an enormous effort was made (which, if you managed to make it through my attempts at instructing how to roll the pastry up, is entirely true) and also tastes of true opulence. Happily, it’s very easy to find ready-rolled sheets of puff pastry at the supermarket which are incidentally vegan because they use baker’s margarine or whatever they call it; and it still somehow tastes exactly like it should, probably because it’s what’s used in all commercially made pies and pastries and so our tastebuds are used to it (depending on how many times you’ve fallen asleep with a half-eaten gas station pie nestled beside you on your pillow, I guess.) The eggplant is rich and fulsome and the cinnamon and cranberries in the bulghur wheat are merrily Christmassy. Again, you could consider adding more to make this more, well, more: pistachios, almonds, that ubiquitous pesto, but as it is this is just wonderful. My verdict: Yes.

4: Gravy is so important and I refuse to miss out! This is pretty straightforward, layering savoury upon savoury upon savoury. My verdict: absolutely necessary.

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Because this is already sprawlingly enormous I’m going to wrap it up but overall I’m delighted with everything and with myself. I mentioned last time that I was sick with something flu-like, I thought it had gone away but then halfway through Friday night at work my voice started to disappear, unfortunately I skipped right over sexy-husky and went straight to useless (whispering “hello…welcome” in a strangled modulation as customers blithely walked by, not hearing a single thing I’d said) and seemed to be regressing back into glum sickness. Fortunately I managed to harness the one burst of high-octane energy that I’ve had all week to hoon through making these recipes; I also managed to update my Frasier food blog (Niles and Daphne, sitting in a Gothic mansion!) and have spent the rest of the time when not at work in bed irritably lacking in voice, which is possibly why I’m luxuriating in talking so much on here. Whether it’s residual sickness or just sheer effort I now feel like I need a nap after writing down all those recipes and you may well too if you’ve managed to read this far: napping is the most seasonally-appropriate activity there is, let’s be honest.

title from: Initially I was going to make it “you don’t win friends with salad” from that Simpsons bit but then I thought the “don’t have a cow, man” Simpsons quote was even funnier, all things considered.

music lately:

Blackberry Molasses, Mista This was one of my favourite songs in 1996 and it’s still super sweet, but I am also so sure that the version we got on the radio was faster than this? Can anyone verify?

Laugh It Off, Chelsea Jade. I actually did 1 (one) other activity this week: I went to see local angel Chelsea Jade live at Meow. Her music is just incredible, floaty and dreamy but pinprick-sharp as well and it was so cool to see her again.

Two Dots on a Map, Russian Futurists. This song is so swoony and expansive and pretty much undeniable Laura-bait. While I’m here may I also recommend their aggressively enthusiastic song Paul Simon.

Next time: less is more, I promise.

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