Happy (Belated) Canadian Thanksgiving!!!

I've been up to my neck (in a good way!!!) celebrating Thanksgiving and although my greetings to you, my dear readers comes in late, I hope this post will be inspiring for those of you down to the south of the border so when your Thanksgiving rolls around you'll have more than sufficient ideas, inspirations and recipes for your celebration. Mainly, I want to get you excited about vegetarian recipes, because almost all across North America, this holiday is so strongly associated with eating a stuffed turkey. I've been vegetarian since birth (and only recently succumbed to eating creatures of the sea, as I feel my body needs just a little of extra boost of vitamin D to compensate for the year-around shortage of sunlight in Vancouver).

For a few years now, I had a fantasy of convincing some friends to celebrate Thanksgiving with me without the turkey (the vegetables "side dishes" are more than filling anyway, don't you think?).

Instead of stuffing a turkey, I cooked what I do best: Turkish-style stuffed vegetables. There is hardly any vegetables you can't stuff, and although many Arab recipes call for ground red meat in their stuffed vegetables, I used the same stuffing used in grapevine leaves to stuff all the other vegetabls I laid hands on (all avaialable from the farmer's market this season!): cabbage rolls, stuffed zucchinis, stuffed peppers (I used poblano peppers, which are more spicy and robust in flavour, especially after roasting them in olive olil... Mmm...), stuffed Roma tomatoes and red Spanish onions. It was all heavenly!

This year my dream Thanksgiving dinner finally came true. To me this was a meaningful moment: perhaps Vancouver really this is my home, at long last. I certainly have dear friends here who are happy to play along my vegetarian menu and try something different and beautiful that symbolizes abundance and supports local agriculture.

To make the rice filling:
Basmati Rice Stuffing
3 cups brown basmati rice (soaked for an hour or overnight, and drained well)
1 large diced onion (plus any of the interior of the onions you were going ot use for stuffing but weren’t able to separate into layers)
1 Tbs olive oil
Remainders of other vegetables for stuffing (i.e.: the flesh of zucchini, eggplant, etc.), minced
1-2 large carrots, grated
2 large bundles of baby dill, finely chopped
1 large bundle of spearmint leaves, finely chopped
1-2 tsp salt
1-2 tsp allspice, ground
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup or more pine nuts, toasted (you may substituted for blanched, chopped and toasted almonds)
A handful of raisins (optional)
4-6 cups of boiling water

Sautee the onions in the olive oil. Add the minced vegetables and grated carrots. Sautee and add the rice and keep stirring for about 2 minutes. Add boiled water (4 cups at first, and the rest only if necessary – i.e. if the rice does not cook well).

For the sauce:

Red sauce for stuffed vegetable
1 large onions
1 Tbs olive oil
3-6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. red wine
1 green bell pepper, diced
4 celery sticks, cut lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 carrots, grated
1 Can Pureed Tomatoes
4 whole clove buds or ½ tsp ground cloves
1 cinnamon stick or 1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp allspice, ground
2 bay leaves, whole
½ cup parsley
½ cup fresh dill
1 Tbs. raw cane sugar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the onion till it is golden in colour. Add the celery and the pepper and sautee till they soften a bit (about 3 minutes), and lastly – the garlic. Add the carrots and any other minced vegetables cores that you got from preparing the stuffed vegetables. Add the wine and cook for 30 seconds or so. Add the canned tomato puree and spices, sugar if desired, and bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. Add the dill and parsley at the very end.

To prepare the vegetables:
Begin with preparing the vegetables for stuffing – and remember to reserve the parts removed from the core of each vegetable (except for the pepper seeds…) for the stuffing or the sauce.

Choose peppers with thin "skin", such as Poblano (which are very dark green peppers also spicy when fresh, and piquant and robust once baked), or Cubanelle (pale green peppers and also very thin), or even sweet banana peppers. Cut off the tops. Leave the stems on to make nice little "lids" to cover the peppers once stuffed. Bake in the oven in 375F in olive oil pyrex pan for 45-60 minutes.
Stuffing Poblano Peppers

Mini summer squashes:
Cut a circle around the top as you would with a pumpkin, and reserve to create a "lid". Scoop out some of the flesh with a melon baller. Bake in the oven in 375F in olive oil pyrex pan for 30-45 minutes.

For stuffing purposes, I prefer the dark purple eggplants rather than the Japanese eggplants (whose skin is too tough and waxy). Select small ones, which you can cut into two and scoop out the flesh with a melon baller. If you can only find large eggplants, slice into very thick slices, and remove some of the flesh to create an indentation for the stuffing. Bake in the oven in 375F in olive oil pyrex pan for 45-60 minutes.
Stuffing Zucchinis
Choose small zucchinis, which are just long enough for a potato peeler to be inserted into them to carve out the core. Arrange the zucchinis laying down in the pan when using small ones. If you can only find long zucchinis, cut into halves (or more pieces as needed) and do the same, keeping a bottom piece undamaged so it can keep the stuffing in. You can make them all have a flat bottom, and arrange them standing upright in a bread-pan. Bake in the oven in 375F in olive oil pyrex pan for 30-45 minutes.

Cut the top and hollow with a melon baller. Place in a deep pan immersed about halfway through in olive oil. Bake in the oven in 375F in olive oil pyrex pan for 30-45 minutes.
Stuffing Roma Tomatoes

Cut into halves lengthwise, and carefully separate into its layers. The very core can be used for the sauce or the stuffing. Bake in the oven in 375F in olive oil pyrex pan for 20-30 minutes.

Stuffing Onions

Cabbage Leaves:
Cabbage leaves require softening before you can roll them around the stuffing. Salt water will do the trick! Boil a large and deep pot of water with 1 Tbs sea salt. Cut around the base of a whole savoy cabbage (their leaves are easier to separate). Insert a fork into the base (aka stem) of the cabbage so it's easier to turn it around in the boiling water as you remove the leaves. Stuff them by placing a couple of tablespoon or more of the rice filling and roll around. You can either arrange in layers inside a pot, or in a pan (I like to layer mine with olive oil, the tomato sauce, than put the cabbage rolls and cover with tomato sauce). Bake covered with aluminum foil for 30-45 minutes. You may want to remove the foil at the end of the baking time for 10 minutes for getting a slightly caramelizing effect on the sauce - which is simply delicious!

Cabbage Rolls

And this is how they come out of the oven (well, that's really left overs because there was not enough light the night of the dinner party...):

Stuffed Tomatoes & Zucchinis

Served with hot tomato sauce poured on top, and some yoghurt drizzled around the plate or in small side dishes. It's the best harvest dinner I can think of - for both Sukkot and Thankskgiving.

Stuffed Peppers & Cabbage Rolls

Grape Vine Leaves

While grapevine leaves do not have a very distinctive scent, they have the most fantastic tangy flavour, and are used for the legendary stuffed grapevine leaves. Everything about making this classic specialty dish is sensual and relaxing. Picking the leaves and arranging them in orderly piles; blanching them in salt water; rolling the fragrant rice, spiked with mint, dill, allspice and pine nuts; their fragrant and quiet simmer in lemon juice and olive oil; and finally, eating the cool and elegant rolled leaves one by one, admiring their exquisitely delicate flavour. A woman who knows how to make these is sure to find a husband quickly. And a man that is patient enough to sit among the chatty women rolling those little pieces of perfections is an unusual sight in this region, but is sure to be the first one to taste the delicious results!

If you are up to the task, prepare these a day in advance, as their aroma improved after all the ingredients are in each other presence over night. If you are not fortunate enough to have a grapevine in your yard, you can substitute the leaves with preserved leaves, which are widely found in most Middle Eastern and Greek specialty stores. The pickled leaves are usually more crunchy as they are made of more mature leaves and have more fiber.

For the rice stuffing:
Basmati Rice Stuffing

Soak over night or for a few hours:
3 cups long grain brown rice (Basmati or Jasmine are the best)

1 large diced onion
1 Tbs olive oil
1-2 large carrots, grated
2 large bundles of baby dill, finely chopped
1 large bundle of spearmint leaves, finely chopped
1-2 tsp salt
1-2 tsp allspice, ground
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup or more pine nuts, toasted (you may substituted for blanched, chopped and toasted almonds)
A handful of raisins (optional)
6 cups of boiling water

One large lemon
3 Tbs olive oil (or to taste)
1⁄2 cup water

In a large pot, saute the onions in the olive oil until slightly golden. Add the carrots and stir constantly. Strain the rice and add more oil to the pot if needed. Saute the drained rice along with the onions and carrots, for about 5 minutes, while constantly stirring to avoid scorching. Add the raisins and boiling water and cook on high heat until water reaches boil. Reduce to low heat, and let simmer until water is only at the bottom. Turn off the heat, and leave covered for 15-20 minutes, until rice has absorbed all the water.
Toast the pine nuts in a pan, and add the pine nuts and chopped herbs to the rice and mix well. Transfer to a big bowl and wait until it’s cool enough to work with your hands and stuff the leaves.

To prepare the leaves:
Stuffing Grapevine Leaves

Pick as many leaves as you can – 150-200 leaves should be a good start, and if you need more you can pick more later. Pick only the largest of the youngest (which are also the softest) leaves, and keep the stems on (the stems will not be removed until just before stuffing the leaves). One jar of leaves would be enough if you are not picking your own leaves. Arrange the leaves in piles of 10 leaves each, so that you can easily count them.

Boil a pot full of water with one tablespoon salt. Blanch the leaves until they change their colour from bright green to olive (at this point they will look as if they were pickled).

With a small pairing knife, remove the stem of each leaf before stuffing. Place a teaspoon of rice int eh middle of the leaf, and fold the sides of the leaf starting from the top and the sides (next to the stem), and then roll to the bottom. Be sure not to over stuff, in order to achieve an elegant, elongated shape of each stuffed leaf.

Place the leaves in a pot, arrange them in circles and layers, and make sure they are sitting tight and close to each other. Add 1⁄2 cup water, lemon juice of one large lemon and three tablespoons of olive oil. Place a ceramic plate large enough to cover the leaves but small enough to fit into the pot (as to keep the leaves and place so that they don’t open during the cooking). Simmer in low heat for 30-45 minutes, until all the water is evaporated. If there is an excess of water after 45 minutes, gently pour it out.

Wait until the leaves cooled a bit, transfer into trays and serving plate and enjoy!

These can be served warm or cold, and are an excellent appetizer, but can also make a main dish – especially if you make a huge amount of stuffing and prepare other vegetables. My favourites stuffed vegetables are cabbage leaves, onions, tomatoes, peppers and zucchinis. I prefer to serve them with tomato sauce, and bake them in the oven with the sauce, or with olive oil and than pour the sauce over just before serving.

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