The Pumpkin Scrooge

This man was a pumpkin scrooge:


Yes, he generously shared martini olives with sweet little boys, and he was a one man Father Christmas, but when it came to Jack o’ Lanterns, he was all “Bah, Humbug!” Starting in early October, he would plan all car journeys carefully to avoid passing by the pumpkin patches that popped up around town. Most years, he would eventually, grudgingly give in but only late enough that I always ended up with the lopsided, practically un-carvable pumpkins from which to choose. The Charlie Brown Christmas Trees of pumpkins. One year, we waited so late that there weren’t even any sad, misshapen ones, and I had to make my Jack o’ Lantern out of a shoebox.

Are you crying yet?

But, really, how hard does your heart have to be to hate this:


As a child, I didn’t understand Dad’s aversion to Halloween pumpkins. He had nothing against Trick or Treating, but he was death on pumpkins. It might have had something to do with how they looked on the day after Halloween: cooked from the inside out by the candles, and sort of stove in, like creepy shrunken heads. It could also have been the scary black fungus that grew in them after a few days. (He hated mushrooms, too. Coincidence? I think not!)  As I got older — and gave in and bought a reusable, plastic Jack o’ Lantern — the whole Pumpkin Scrooge shtick became just another family joke. At bottom, though, I think there was something deeper at work. This lovely, otherwise holiday-loving Dad was — on the issue of Jack o’ Lanterns — shaped by his upbringing during the Great Depression.  He just couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea of paying good money (and Halloween pumpkins are not cheap) for a oversized vegetable, only to cut holes in it, leave it on the stoop to rot, and not even eat it.

I have, from time to time, detected some bemusement on the part of New Zealanders concerning the American relationship with the pumpkin. While — as I have already noted with some chagrin — the pumpkin is a much beloved vegetable in New Zealand, on a trip to any farmers’ market here, one would not find a single “pumpkin” that an American would regard as worthy of the name.  To kiwis, and most of the rest of the world, “pumpkin” is completely interchangeable with “squash”. So, if you look for pumpkin at the market here, you will find huge, green lumpy ones, smaller, cream-colored ones, and hard-shelled dark green ones with bright yellow flesh. What you won’t find is a bright orange, perfectly round, Halloween pumpkin. I’d be hard pressed to find anything suitable for carving, especially as October 31st falls right smack in the middle of spring — more asparagus than pumpkin season.

American-style Halloween traditions have gradually spread to other parts of the world.  I’ve seen children headed out for Halloween parties, complete with witch costumes and plastic pumpkin buckets, in Hong Kong. One year, in Goa, I saw Indians move seamlessly from Halloween to the Hindu festival of Diwali. There are hip Halloween parties and Trick or Treaters in Paris.  I’ve attended Halloween-themed nights in bars in Bali, Indonesia and Darwin, Australia. And New Zealand is no exception. While it is still, for the most part, an urban phenomenon, Trick or Treating has come to Aotearoa. While it is still overshadowed by the more traditional Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfires and fireworks a week or so later, Halloween has (thanks largely to the influence of U.S. marketing) earned its place on New Zealand’s celebratory calendar.

But these international Halloweens feel, somehow, as empty as a Jack o’ Lantern and as superficial as a plastic Hillary Clinton mask. While some cynics suggest that, even in the U.S., Halloween — with its pumpkins, candy, and costumes — is the stuff of canny marketing (Americans will spend almost $7 billion on Halloween this year), the real meaning of Halloween for Americans goes much deeper.

For American kids, Halloween is a sort of right of passage. American kids (and their parents) start planning their Halloween costumes right after school starts in September. Choosing a Halloween costume is one of the earliest opportunities American kids have to define themselves. My Mom made me some memorable Halloween costumes: I was a ghost, a bunny, a court jester, and Maid Marion (see the historian emerging?). In my fifth year, she made me a black cat costume that I wore every single day for most of the rest of the year (including the day I wandered through a graveside funeral at the cemetery behind our house). Sadly, one of the few photos I have of my later Halloween costumes comes from the one year my mother gave in to my (ill-considered) pleading for a store-bought costume because they seemed cooler than homemade. My plastic Mr. Ed mask made my face sweat, and I’m reasonably certain that if I had passed within range of a pumpkin candle my costume would have turned me into a Guy Fawkes bonfire of my own.

I suspect that for American parents, the year when a kid declares him or herself “too old for Trick or Treating” is, I as bittersweet for parents as when their kids start questioning Santa Claus.


You can track the demographic shifts in neighbourhoods by the trends in consumption of Trick or Treat candy. When we first moved to our house on Brookwood Drive, in 1967, my Mum bought many bags of candy. In my parents’ last years, there were Halloween nights that saw no Trick or Treaters at all. Kids grow up, trick or treating dies out, then parents downsize and a new generation of young couples with their young kids move in and Trick or Treating is born again. It’s the circle of life.

And Trick or Treating is truly multicultural. Over the years, I greeted Trick or Treaters of every shape, colour, and creed. Some were accompanied by parents from Korea, Vietnam, or El Salvador who barely spoke English but who embraced this strange custom of their new home. Others arrived in beautiful, multicoloured bouquets of Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic, and African faces. A few girls wore their costumes over their hijab. More than a few mothers wore puffy down jackets over their thin sarees and salwar kameez.

Halloween is also about neighbourhood and community. As a flaming introvert, I’m not a party goer. I am slow to meet people. What I love about Halloween is greeting the Trick or Treaters — and their parents — at the door. It made me — a shy single woman with dogs but no kids — feel part of a decidedly family-oriented neighbourhood. Halloween started, in my old neighbourhood, at about 6 pm when the wee ones came, dressed in their very first costumes and shyly holding out their plastic pumpkins with no idea what the whole thing is about. Then, about 7 pm, the big groups of older kids would come — five or six at a time, age appropriate and usually segregated by gender (because boys are icky and girls have cooties). Some brought their dogs, and I always kept treats for them, too. Finally, by 8 pm, you’d get the too-old-to-Trick or Treat crowd, the slightly surly teens who couldn’t be bothered to come up with a costume, are a little embarrassed, but still expect you to help them fill up their pillowcases. That’s when I’d blow out (or turn off) the pumpkin and retire to the basement.

For the record: my UK/Kiwi husband never got the charm of Trick or Treat and spent the entire evening in the basement with the dogs in those years when I was experiencing Halloween in Hong Kong, Bali, Goa, and Darwin.

So what is it about Halloween and pumpkins that works in the States but lacks soul anywhere else?  On my recent trip back to the States, Kojo Nnamde (the noon – 2pm host of WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC and fount of all wisdom) hosted a segment on America’s seasonal crush on the pumpkin.

The star of the segment was Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. I was intrigued. I bought the e-book and found myself surprisingly enchanted with the history of the pumpkin in America. What Ott explained, and what most Americans probably instinctively understand is that for us, the pumpkin symbolises and romanticises the America’s agrarian past and taming of the wilderness. Early Jack o’ Lanterns had arms and legs and were depicted as frightening tricksters.


By the post-World War II era, Jack had lost his legs and became just a head, incapable, however ferocious, of causing mayhem. Pumpkin, even the mass produced pumpkin that goes into the Libby’s can, is not an industrial fruit. It is grown by small farmers and picked by hand. This pumpkin, repository of powerful American myth, bears precious little resemblance to any squash that occurs in nature. It has been engineered and hybridised into a (more or less) perfectly-round, evenly segmented, bright orange fruit with a flat bottom (for sitting on stoops), thick stem for easy carrying, a hard shell, and relatively thin pulp that lends itself more to carving than to eating.


Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the perfect candy. You don’t mess with perfection. Fie on the white chocolate, pumpkin-shaped, and dark chocolate versions. And don’t even talk to me about Reese’s Oreo cookies. Heresy!

For Americans, Halloween is about community and identity as much as it is about costumes and candy.  So, in a sense, Trick or Treating  in New Zealand makes about as much sense as a Guy Fawkes bonfire would in Peoria. While I miss the ritual of carving a pumpkin and passing out candy (not to mention the excuse to lay in a supply of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Heath Bars), I wouldn’t want to reenact it here, in my new home.  We will make new traditions here. And they probably won’t involve pumpkins because, when it comes down to it, I’m also a bit of a pumpkin scrooge.

Iced Tea

Let me start by warning that, as much a I love him in SVU, I will not be writing about this guy:


We’re just talkin’ a different sort of Iced Tea here. But he does deserve a shout out.

When it comes to per capita tea drinking, New Zealanders are right up there with the British Motherland. I am an enthusiastic convert to the afternoon cuppa — my favourite is Yorkshire tea with a little milk, no sugar. It is a cup that aspires to be coffee, but without the jittery after effects. I like Earl Grey, too, but with lemon, no milk. My all time personal favourite is Lapsong Suchong, which is the closest thing to non-alcoholic Islay Single Malt. But as my beloved is a strict traditionalist, and since it is he that usually puts the kettle on in the afternoon, my usual is English Breakfast, milk, no sugar.  It is important to note that Brits (and Kiwis, in general) believe that strong, hot, very sweet tea, is the cure to whatever ails you. And they’re usually right. I’m not a biscuit dunker, but, Judi Densch’s description of the process of Builder’s tea dunking in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has me thinking twice.

And, just for the record, an oreo cookie just screams for a glass of ice cold milk. I’m a twist-lick-dunk-dunk girl.oreo dunking

I now drink my tea almost exclusively hot, out of a mug. This is a great departure from the South of my upbringing, where tea is drunk only one way: iced and sweet. This shift doesn’t reflect any dampening of my love of iced tea; rather, it is a function of living in New Zealand, where iced tea is just another sugary drink sold in bottles with strange and unwelcome flavours like peach and mango. In most of the world, outside the Southeastern United States, you can’t walk into a restaurant or cafe, order iced tea, and just assume they know what you mean. You are likely to get brewed hot tea poured over ice with some sugar packets or Splenda on the side.

sweet tea

Even where I have to settle for unsweetened iced tea, it is my restaurant beverage of choice. It is more festive that just plain water, less intoxicating (and usually cheaper) than beer or wine, goes with almost any cuisine, and because you actually pay for it, waiters are less cross if you choose to linger over an additional glass after you’ve finished your meal. It plays the same important social function as that last little bit of wine in the bottle. And if you choose not to drink alcohol, you don’t feel quite so awkward hanging around. I costs next to nothing to make, so everyone wins!

Proper iced tea has three ingredients: water, tea, and optional sugar. A slice of lemon is acceptable, as long as I have the option of picking it out. No ginger. No lemonade. No peach, mango, raspberry, or — please GOD — frappe.

Kool Aid pitcher

My Grandpa and Grandma Saltenberger had this plastic Kool Aid pitcher and cup set that made the Kool Aid taste even better

I didn’t grow up with iced tea. My family came from Europe via the Upper Midwest, where the whole point of drinking things was, for the most part, keeping warm. Or intoxicated. When we moved to Georgia, where it is hot . . . DAMN hot . . . for at least six months a year, the refreshing beverage of choice at our house was Kool-Aid. The old fashioned kind that didn’t come with sugar.  And ours didn’t get sugar. It was, to say the least, tart.

I learned about iced tea from my southern friends, who drank the stuff by the gallons.  And iced tea in Georgia is sweet. I mean really sweet. As in make your cavities SING sweet. While the iced tea nation pretty much starts at the Mason & Dixon Line (essentially the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland), the Sweet Tea Nation begins at the Virginia – North Carolina border). If you grew up in Virginia, and you’re accustomed to ordering iced tea and adding your own sugar, you’ll need to change your strategy in the Sweet Tea Nation. Here, tea is sweet. And cold. Even in winter. If you want that other stuff, you will have to ask for it. You will have to say, out loud, in front of God and everybody, ” I would like unsweetened tea, please” and immediately brand yourself as an Yankee. You can also order hot tea, but I won’t promise what you’ll get. It is (sort of) acceptable, and slightly less suspicious, to order half-and-half (iced tea, half sweet, half unsweet).

Now, I know I said I don’t approve of lemon-flavored iced tea, but there is an exception: the Arnold Palmer, which is half iced tea and half lemonade. This is best made with unsweetened tea and real (ONLY real, squeezed) lemonade (not the instant stuff, and not the pub lemonade you get in your shandy). This is not, however, southern. Arnold Palmer is from Pennsylvania.

If you happen to find yourself at Zeb Dean’s Bar-b-que in Danielsville, Georgia, you’ll get: a loaf of Sunbeam Bread (in the bag), a plastic pitcher of sweet tea (you can also get one of unsweetened tea, if you have the courage to ask for it — then you can make your own half-and-half), a serving of “Stew” (aka Brunswick stew, but made with the barbecue detritus instead of the traditional squirrel), a pitcher of Zeb’s peppery, vinegary sauce, and the best damned pulled pork barbecue in the whole wide world. Strictly speaking, however, Zeb’s barbecue is not vegetarian. So this is not an official Kale Whisperer endorsement. But really, if you are ever headed south on I-85, and you eat pork and/or are a slacker vegetarian like me (Shame on you!) it is well worth the 45 minute or so detour. (Sorry, Wee Charlie.) zebs

So, what makes southern sweet tea unique? There are two key factors: the tea, and the sugar delivery system.

First, the tea. Most commercial teas — Lipton, Tetley, PG Tips, etc. — are for brewing and drinking hot with milk. So they are WAY to strong for iced tea. When you chill them, as you must do with iced tea, the tea turns cloudy. Not only does it look awful, but it makes the tea too tanniny. When I was growing up, the mainstream tea companies hadn’t caught on to this yet, so the iced tea brand of choice was Lusianne: “Alway clear as a bell.”

Nowadays, most of the big companies offer special iced tea blends that address the cloudiness issue, but for those who live in non-iced tea cultures, like New Zealand, there is still an alternative to those horrid iced teas in bottles. The answer is sun-brewed tea. I don’t understand the science, but it you brew regular tea in the sun, instead of with boiling water, it doesn’t get cloudy. It works like this:

Sun Tea:

  • Find a large glass container with a fairly tight lid and fill it with the desired amount of COLD water.
  • Add 2 or 3 regular teabags (or the equivalent amount of loose tea) per litre (or quart) of water.
  • Place the jar in the sun for no more than 4 hours (obviously, this only works on sunny days).
  • Then remove the teabags (or strain out the loose tea) and chill the brewed tea as soon as possible.
  • Sweeten (or not) to taste. This works with regular or green tea).

The sugar delivery system for proper sweet tea is easy peasy, and absolutely crucial. You can sweeten your sun tea with Sweet and Low or Splenda, but I don’t want to know about it. Unless you like your tea cloyingly sweet, you aren’t going to add that much sugar anyway. You may, however, add artificial sweetener if you send me a doctor’s note. Here’s the process:

Simple Sugar Syrup for Southern Iced Tea:

  • Put one cup of sugar and three cups of cold water in a saucepan that is high enough not to boil over.
  • Watch it carefully.
  • Bring the sugar and water to a boil and AS SOON as the water starts to boil, turn it down to a simmer.
  • Simmer the water and sugar, stirring constantly, until the sugar has completely dissolved. This usually takes about 5 minutes. Cool for 4 hours.
  • Done. But,
  • If you like flavoured tea, you can, at this point, add mint, basil, a little lemon or orange peel, or fresh ginger — whatever flavour you like — and steep until the syrup is cool. Again, about 4 hours. Pour the syrup through a sieve, and press the flavouring to get out all the essential oils and yumminess. This way, your sugar syrup will taste better and last a long time in the fridge without moulding.
  • You can use the mint syrup to make that other Southern Classic, the Mint Julep, which involves: a mint julep cup (or an old fashioned-sized glass) filled to the brim with crushed or shaved ice to which you add a TBS (or two if you have a sweet tooth or don’t like whiskey), and 1 1/2 jiggers of whiskey — Bourbon or Tennessee mash are traditional, but mild blended scotch works too. What you get is a sort of alcoholic shave-ice. I haven’t tried this with Single Malt because, why would you? But you can try it if you want.
  • Basil syrup makes a nice change, but then you are absolutely not allowed to call it a Mint Julep. Really, though, the cocktail possibilities are endless. Once you try it, you won’t want any other cocktail in the heat of summer, except, perhaps, a nice G & T (with bitters).

And remember:

Sweet Tea Keep Calm


St. Joan of the Mashed Potatoes

The Kale Whisperer

There are two major food groups: mashed potatoes, and everything else.

On Bethel Road in the 1960s, Sunday was all about mashed potatoes. Actually, to my mind, life is about mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are my perfect food. Mashed potatoes are my desert island food. I never get tired of them. When I’m celebrating, I eat mashed potatoes. When I’m sad, I eat mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are my stress food, my happiness food, and my just-regular-old-day food. I probably bleed mashed potatoes. I like them plain, with butter, with gravy, with olive oil, under creamed vegetables, stroganoff, or chili (weird, I know). In short, any day is better with mashed potatoes.

What are the roots of this mashed potato fixation? Well, the answer lies with St. Joan, the patron saint of mashed potatoes. While she has not yet been officially canonized, I’m working on her nomination. You see, St…

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St. Joan of the Mashed Potatoes


St. Joan of the Mashed Potatoes

There are two major food groups: mashed potatoes, and everything else.

On Bethel Road in the 1960s, Sunday was all about mashed potatoes. Actually, to my mind, life is about mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are my perfect food. Mashed potatoes are my desert island food. I never get tired of them. When I’m celebrating, I eat mashed potatoes. When I’m sad, I eat mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are my stress food, my happiness food, and my just-regular-old-day food. I probably bleed mashed potatoes. I like them plain, with butter, with gravy, with olive oil, under creamed vegetables, stroganoff, or chili (weird, I know). In short, any day is better with mashed potatoes.

What are the roots of this mashed potato fixation? Well, the answer lies with St. Joan, the patron saint of mashed potatoes. While she has not yet been officially canonized, I’m working on her nomination. You see, St. Joan’s mashed potatoes cured all ills and performed miracles. And every time I make mashed potatoes, she is sitting on my shoulder whispering “remember the lumps.” If I had to name one person who most shaped my lifelong food preferences, it would be St. Joan of the mashed potatoes.


Lisa, the Kale Whisperer, and Jeannie, with Sharon Chapel in the background during one of our late ice-age blizzards

I passed the first nine years of my life on Bethel Road, a gravel dead end street in Northern Virginia. It was an ideal place to be a kid. There was an excellent climbing tree at the bottom of our driveway, and my friends and I spent hours building villages and making up stories with the stones on the street. The houses (all three of them) were at the tops of the hills, so rolling down hills was a major activity. So was jumping off front stoops. In those days, it snowed a fair amount in the DC area (it was just at the end of the last ice age), and we sledded and built enormous snow forts. My bestie, Jeannie, and I would swing on my swing set, as high as we could go, and sing the Beatles” “Help” at the tops of our lungs. I still remember all the words, and when I sing them, I’m back on that swing.

One of our neighbors was All Saints’ Sharon Chapel Episcopal church, which was – for the first few years we lived there – a charming, wood, Civil War era chapel with a wonderful stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. My father played the organ there, and my mother was on the altar guild. Jeannie and her family went there, too. And every Sunday, I went to her family’s house for Sunday dinner. Her Mom, Joan, made a traditional Sunday dinner – roast beast, various vegetables, and . . . wait for it . . . MASHED POTATOES. The absolutely most extraordinary mashed potatoes in the entire mashed potato universe. She always – at least in those early years – mashed them by hand, so they were the ideal combination of creamy and lumpy. Rules 1-10 of mashed potatoes: MASHED POTATOES HAVE LUMPS. On the rare Sunday when there were no mashed potatoes, my little world collapsed.

I was born with wonky tonsils, and I spent an inordinate amount of my childhood housebound with tonsillitis. On those Sundays when I was too sick to go to Jeannie’s for Sunday dinner, Saint Joan would appear at the door with a bowl of mashed potatoes. When my parents finally gave in to the inevitable and had my tonsils taken out, I was unimpressed with promises of ice cream. But when St. Joan promised as many mashed potatoes as I could eat, I was there! Where’s the operating room? Bring on the ether!

At the age of six – just a few weeks before I was to be the flower girl at my Auntie J’s wedding – I rode my bike down a steep hill into a ditch (I knew how to go, I didn’t know how to stop), slashed open my chin (six stitches), and knocked out my two front teeth. When I got home from the Emergency Room, who was there waiting? Saint Joan of the mashed potatoes! Oh, joy! Manna from heaven.


The Kale Whisperer and Jeannie in our backyard. I’d love to post a photo of St. Joan’s mashed potatoes, but they hadn’t invented digital cameras or foodies yet.

Who needs Lourdes when you have St. Joan’s mashed potatoes. They cured whatever ailed you.

When my family moved to Georgia in 1967, it seemed my mashed potato universe would implode. My Mom made nice smooth mashed potatoes with the mixer. I kept trying to explain that mashed potatoes have lumps. But she just couldn’t do lumpy mashed potatoes like St. Joan. It’s a gift. A calling. Happily, for years after we moved, I would take the Southern Crescent train from Georgia back to Alexandria: ostensibly to visit Jeannie, but really? It was a mashed potato pigrimmage.

Eventually, I grew up and Jeannie left home and the mashed potato pilgrimages ended. I still visited St. Joan from time to time, and she would look at me, and smile, and say “Awwww, little CARE – oh – line” in her distinctive West Virginia drawl and make me feel very loved. But the mashed potato days were over. The last time I saw St. Joan, she came to dinner with my folks at my townhouse in Annandale where I served, you guessed it, mashed potatoes. Were they up to snuff? Probably not, but St. Joan never criticized. She just smiled and said: “Awww! Little CARE-oh-line!”

There is a great deal of debate about mashed potatoes. Some experts insist they must be made with Russet (or, in the Southern Hemisphere, Agria) potatoes. Others advocate using waxy (Red Rose or Moonshine), or even new potatoes. I actually like a combination of floury and waxy: the waxy potatoes go all creamy and you can count on the floury potatoes (provided they aren’t over cooked) for some decent lumps.

St. Joan, as far as I remember, always peeled her potatoes, but I like to leave at least some unpeeled. This adds flavor, vitamins and all-important lumps.

As for mashing liquid, I’m agnostic regarding the relative merits of skim versus whole milk or cream. Just potato-cooking water will do in a pinch, or if you are vegan, but I never do it. The real key is to cook them just enough and not one bit more. And please, please, please, don’t let them sit in the cooking water. It won’t keep them warm, it will just make them watery. Better to go ahead and mash and then reheat in the oven. Mashed potatoes are very forgiving.

It’s all about the potatoes.

Mashed potatoes need fat. I’m a butter girl. I add butter before I mash, and more after I mash. Under certain circumstances, olive oil works. Margarine? You can if you want. I never touch the stuff.

I must confess to St. Joan that I never mastered hand mashing. I always watched her. She had this magical sort of round-and-round, full-body mashing technique. I’ve tried numerous types of potato mashers, and I just can’t get the right rhythm or that perfect cream / lump balance. I’ve used potato ricers and food mills. They make super fluffy, creamy, but, sadly, lump-free mashed potatoes. [They are good for mashing potatoes for other uses, like gnocchi.] A handheld electric mixer is the next-best thing to hand mashing, they aren’t powerful enough to over-mash and eliminate all the lumps. I had to re-home my hand mixer when I moved to New Zealand. I’ve tried the masher attachment on my immersion blender, but that didn’t work at all. So, I’ve had to resort to using my big, standing mixer. When I had a Kitchen Aide mixer, even with the paddle attachment, it was too efficient and eliminated the lumps. The one I have in New Zealand does pretty well, leaving a good amount of lumps. That is excellent for mashed potatoes, less wonderful for cake batter.

Never, ever, ever . . . really NEVER mash your lovely potatoes in the food processor. They will immediately turn into horrible gluey glop fit only for hanging wallpaper.

In the end, the perfect mashed potato is a very personal matter. My perfect mashed potato isn’t necessarily your perfect mashed potato. So experiment. And remember, St. Joan of the Mashed Potatoes is always smiling down on us!

The Kale Whisperer’s Rumpledethumps

Mashed potatoes, mixed with other vegetables, make terrific casseroles that can be either mains or sides. One of my all time favorites, and a regular at holiday dinners in our family, is Rumpledethumps (which is also known as Colcannon or Bubble-and-Squeek, but Rumpledethumps is the most fun to say out loud).potatoes-group

For years, I used the Rumpledethump recipe from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant (Touchstone, 1990). They suggest a combination of white cabbage, broccoli, and leeks. These are yummy, and make a good, traditional side dish. They are really good with turkey gravy.  But I wanted something livelier that could stand-alone as a vegetarian main.

I settled on kale, cauliflower, and leeks. The kale adds texture and a ton of flavor, the cauliflower balances that out with a milder, brassica flavor, and the leeks add a nice sweetness that balances out the slightly bitter kale. The Moosewood recipe uses cheddar cheese, and that works fine with the kale, too. But I prefer something nuttier and more assertive – a Gruyere or Parmesan. Gruyere can be hard to find and, in New Zealand, quite pricey, so my go-to cheese is a mixture of parmesan and cottage cheese.

The star here is the kale. For a recipe like this, I like it cut into thin ribbons and braised. Here’s what I do:

  • Start with a large bunch of kale, roughly 1.5lbs/1kg
  • Take the tough central stems out of the kale (I just grab the stem at the end and strip it off, like you would strip the leaves off a tree branch; you can also cut it out with a sharp knife or scissors), and slice into thin ribbons – no wider than 6mm/.25 inch. Rinse the ribbons several times in cold water to get off any sand, then let them drain in a colander.
  • Heat a Tablespoon of olive oil. When it is shimmering, add a clove or three of garlic, some hot pepper flakes if your like, and sauté for just a few seconds
  • Add the kale ribbons, with whatever water is clinging to them, to the hot oil with a sprinkling of salt. You’ll probably have to do this in batches. Just add a new handful as the previous batches wilt. You might need to add a pinch of salt to help it wilt along. When all the kale ribbons are in and wilted, sauté them a bit longer, just to ensure that they are all coated with oil and fully wilted.
  • Add about 120ml/4 fl.oz. braising liquid of your choice. I like red or white wine, but vegetable broth, potato cooking water, or just plain water will work too. You can even use chicken broth, just don’t tell me about it.
  • Other kale gurus will tell you to just braise it until its crisp-tender, but crisp tender kale still tastes raw to me. I braise mine for about 15 minutes, until it has turned a nice, dark green and is tender, but a bit chewy. Add more liquid if it gets dry. Season it with salt and pepper. Toss in the juice of a lemon or a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, or to taste. It ends up looking something like this:DSC_1015
  • You can use this kale for all sorts of things. Add it to marinara sauce for pasta. Toss it with chunky pasta (like penne) with a little high quality olive oil, chopped raw tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts or walnuts — This doesn’t need cheese, so it makes a nice vegan option. If you really need cheese, parmesan is good and gorgonzola is better. Use it to doctor up commercial bean and lentil soups. And, of course, it is an awesome pizza topping!

For the Rumpledepthumps, you’ll need:

  • 6 cups of diced potato (I like a mix of floury and waxy; leave some of the waxy potatoes unpeeled. If you are a baked potato fan, by all means, leave some of the flour potatoes unpeeled), cooked until tender (save some of the cooking water) and mashed with:
  • 2 TBS/25g butter or oil
  • 2 oz/125g cottage cheese (large curd is best)
  • 1 cup / 250 g mild white cheese (Monterey Jack or, in the Southern Hemisphere, Egmont works great here)
  • 1 TBS Dijon or coarse ground mustard
  • 1 large bunch of kale, preferably lacinato or blue / Russian, braised as per above (Curly kale is hard to cut into ribbons, but if that is all you have, you can chop it fairly fine — in this case, you’ll need to wash it first.
  • ½ medium head of cauliflower, broken into small flowerets and lightly steamed
  • 1 large or 2 small leeks, julienned or thinly sliced and sautéed in butter or olive oil until it is translucent. For a slightly sweeter, richer flavor, you can let the leeks caramelize a bit.

Mix the Kale, cauliflower, and leeks together with the mashed potatoes/cheeses; add a bit of potato cooking water or braising liquid if it seems dry.

Turn the whole yummy, gooey mess into a buttered 2qt/ 1.8 l casserole. Dot with a little more butter or olive oil, sprinkle with about  1 oz / 25g of shredded parmesan.

Bake in a 350F/180C oven until it’s piping hot and the cheese is lightly brown. That will take about 15 minutes if everything is fresh off the stove. Longer if it has cooled. This is even better assembled a few hours (or even a day) ahead. The flavors blend nicely, that way. It will take longer to reheat, and you’ll want to start off with it covered with foil: say, 15 minutes with foil, and 15 minutes without.

For a vegan/dairy free version, you can make a cream sauce for the kale:

  • Heat 2 cups of vegetable stock until it’s hot but not boiling (2 minutes on high in the microwave)
  • sauté a small shallot or 1/2 a small oinion, finely chopped, in 3 TBS olive oil or margarine (if you must) until translucent.
  • Whisk in 2 TBS regular flour and 2 TBS nutritional yeast and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes. It should be the consistency of wet sand.
  • Pour in the vegetable stock all at once and whisk like crazy until it is smooth. Then, bring it to a simmer and cook for a few minutes to let it thicken.

Add the creamy sauce to the kale, leave the cheese out of the potatoes (they might need some extra cooking water to get smooth), and proceed with the rest of the process. This version is good topped with a handful of whole wheat breadcrumbs and some finely chopped walnuts tossed with some olive oil and your favourite chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, and chives are nice)– these will get nice and toasty while the Rumpledethumps bake.