Monday, October 6, 2014

Vegan Comfort Food for Fall: Creamy Butternut Squash Casserole and Apple-Chard Quinoa Bowl

I love fall.  I love layers, and warm beverages, and piling covers high.

But mostly, I love fall because as the weather gets cooler, I have an excuse to cook again.  While the summer heat makes the idea of sweating over a hot stove less than appealing, in the fall and winter all I want to do is cocoon.  Sometimes when I'm having a rough day at work, fantasizing about what I will make when I get home is about all that gets me through.

Vegan Creamy Butternut Squash Casserole
Such was the case last Saturday, when I made the completely logical decision to work a midday shift at Trader Joe's while fasting for Yom Kippur.  When not eating, it's amazing how much you realize the large role it plays in your life.  No point in getting up early if I wasn't making lunch or planning to swipe some free samples at the demo station. And then during my lunch break, I couldn't help but torture myself flipping through all the luscious pumpkin-themed items in the company bulletin.  

As the rain poured outside, I started to dream about all of the things I could cook when I got home. The more I read and thought about the new pumpkin products, the more I decided that winter squash was the way to go.  Like the "Chopped" addict I am, I thought about what I could do with the items in my refrigerator: namely, an open can of coconut cream.  Having just paid my rent, I was loathe to drop too much cash on a boatload of emotional grocery purchases (which is how I ended up with the coconut cream in the first place).  I had been living on soup the previous week to get over a cold, and felt like doing something with a little more "oomph" and texture than simply pureeing some veggies.  

So started conducting an informal survey among my customers, asking what they would make with the coconut cream.  The typical answer was some kind of soup or curry, that was too much in like with what I had been eating lately.  I had a taste for something creamy, something almost cheesy--but I knew if I went down the cheese rabbit hole who knows what I would end up buying.  One customer, a Caribbean guy, bought four cans of coconut milk. I asked him how he thought it would be if I used the coconut cream as a base for a gratin. "I cook everything in coconut milk," he said.  So it was settled.  

Now I had a plan:  I would buy a butternut squash, and make some kind of cream sauce.  I could even use this as an excuse to use up the remainder of a cauliflower head and some apples I bought a few weeks ago that I never got around to eating.   Because Trader Joe's was out of whole butternut squashes by the time I was done working, I had to debase myself by purchasing the pre-cut product.  

The result:  comfort.  Pure, vegan, autumnal comfort.  

This evening, I found myself leaving Rutgers weighed down with the latest round of student essays to read.  While my bus was stuck in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I started to think about what I would make for dinner.  I could always make some couscous or pasta with parmesan, but I'd had variations on that theme for the past week.  I had a yen for something green.  But because I went to the theatre last night, I was unable to bring home anything fresh from Trader Joe's.  

After I got back to my neighborhood, I lugged my tote bags full of folders to the local food mart.  My eyes lit on some gorgeous organic red chard for only $1.69.

Apple-Chard Quinoa Bowl

I decided to cook the chard in some apples and onions and eat it on top of red quinoa.  And it was good.

Here are the recipes.  Note:  all of the measurements are approximate.

Vegan Creamy Butternut Squash Casserole
Serves 2

1 pound butternut squash, diced or sliced
1/2 cup of cauliflower florets
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 apple, cut into into 1/2 slices
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3-4 medjool dates, chopped.

For the sauce:  
1 can of coconut cream or full-fat coconut milk
1 cup of vegetable broth
1/4 cup of potato flakes (that's what I had on hand.  You could also puree a potato.)
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (can also substitute both spices for pumpkin pie spice)
salt and pepper to taste 

1/4 cup of ground almonds or breadcrumbs 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Steam or boil squash and cauliflower until tender.  

While steaming, heat oil in a pan.  Add onions, garlic and apples and dates and cook until apples are soft.  

For the sauce, combine cream, potato, and spices.  Add broth slowly until consistency is creamy but not too liquid.  

Line bottom of pan with coconut oil or veggie butter.  I used a bread pan, but you can also use an 8x8 casserole dish.  Add a coat of sauce.  Layer squash and cauliflower with the apple mixture, and finish off with the rest of the sauce.  Top with ground almonds.

Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.  Take off the foil and bake for another 15 minutes more, until the top reaches desired crispiness.  

Apple-Chard Quinoa Bowl
Serves 1

1/2 cup of quinoa
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon oil 
1 small onion, diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 small apple, diced
2-3 medjool dates, chopped.
1-2 large leaves of chard 
spices to taste--I used a combination of pumpkin pie spice and Trader Joe's Everyday Seasoning
lemon juice to taste
chopped almonds

Either in a rice cooker or saucepan, cook quinoa until tender.

Heat oil in pan.  Add onion, garlic, apple, and dates.  Once the apples and the onions are soft, add the chard and spices (and more oil if needed).  Cook until chard is wilted.

Once quinoa is ready, top with chard-apple mix.  Drizzle with lemon juice and add chopped almonds.

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