It always seemed to me that in America we celebrate Thanksgiving at the wrong time of year. A Thanksgiving meal, for which you have endless gratitude for the abundance of the crops, should be held when the stalls at the farmer’s markets are overflowing with the summer’s harvest. Anyone not thankful for the end of summer bounty is the worst type of curmudgeon and should be shunned by society at large. The trick is that for the calendar shift I envision to happen I’d either need to move to Canada, convert to Judaism or become queen of the world and since I’m pretty sure none of those things will happen soon (though I like the idea of being Queen of the World…) I’ll clam up about the when and concentrate on the what. Simply put what I adore about Thanksgiving is the gathering of family and friends around delicious food.
I have a fondness for all the foods associated with Thanksgiving from butternut squash to cranberry sauce to pumpkin pie and beyond. I love seeing what other folks make for their family traditions as much as I delight in reading what the food magazines cook up each year for this holiday. I have an affection for long storing root vegetables, hardy above ground foods like brussel sprouts, kale, and leeks, as well as fall squashes of all shapes and colors. Once in a while the tastes of Thanksgiving do show up in months other than November. It was September a number of years ago when my friends Bill and Elaine Streeter told me about this amazing dish they’d eaten at The Old Creamery in Cummington. Bookbinder by trade, Bill comes from a long line of Cummington farmers, many of whom still live near the family homestead. On the drives up Bill and his wife will often stop by The Old Creamery to just to see what temptations are available in the bakery and deli.
Referred to by locals as the Creamery it’s the kind of store I wish we had in my town. If you were to mix together a grocery store, bakery, craft gallery, wine store, deli, and local hang-out, then squished them all into a store with a life-size model cow on the roof you’d have something akin to The Old Creamery.
Located off Route 9 as you drive into the hilltowns the Creamery isn’t near anything unless you live out that way. If you do live in the vicinity of the Creamery its well stocked shelves will save you from having to drive 20+ miles into one of the bigger towns down valley. Need some bulk dried beans? They’ve got them. Motor oil? Check. A dozen organic eggs, head of lettuce, and loaf of bread? It’s there. Local beer, hard cider or valley brewed gin? They’ve got those too. Want to sit and eat a freshly baked apple muffin while you sip some coffee? The Creamery. Like I said, they’ve got just about anything you could need. The only problem is since I don’t live in Cummington, getting there requires a special trip.
When Bill and Elaine described this vegetable shepherds pie I immediately thought of Thanksgiving. The dish has so many of the flavors I associate with the holiday it seems like a natural to make not only when butternut squashes first hit the farmer’s markets but also as a wonderful addition to a Thanksgiving table or as a great combo of turkey day leftovers. I’ve played around with the recipe tweaking it to fit my family as well as to what I have in my cupboards. The original recipe went something like this–creamed butternut squash, a layer of wild rice, mushrooms, cheese and toasted nuts, all topped off with a mashed potato crust. Since we have dairy and non-dairy folks in our house I’ve made this into a vegan dish by tweaking the mashed potatoes and leaving out the cheese. I don’t always have mushrooms on hand so they’re another thing you’re welcome to experiment with but they didn’t make it into the final version of this recipe. I’ll be interested to hear how you tweak this dish in the comment section.
A few things to note when making this dish. The first is that I expect everyone to experiment and play with this recipe. Not a vegan then by all means add milk and butter to your mashed potatoes! Love toasted nuts? Add more. Hate them? Leave them out. It really is a flexible recipe that you shouldn’t feel you need to follow too literally. Secondly making this dish from scratch is a bit of a juggle. You need to roast the squash while you simultaneously boil the wild rice and potatoes in separate pots. It’s doable, it just takes a bit of time and coordination. Another thing to be aware of is that if you make the pie up a few days ahead and refrigerate it the brown from the wild rice can sometimes bleed a little into the mashed potatoes. It doesn’t affect the taste but if it offends your visual appetite I suggest squinting at your fork or looking at your dinner companion across the table while you eat. It still tastes delicious!
1 Butternut Squash, split, seeded and roasted till soft
3 – 5 Tablespoons vegan margarine or butter
3 – 6 Tablespoons maple syrup
salt & white pepper
12 – 16 ounces wild rice, cooked
one medium to large onion, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3/4 – 1 1/2 cups pecans or walnuts, roughly chopped
2 – 3 teaspoons thyme
salt & pepper
3 – 4 pounds of potatoes (depending on how deep you want your “crust”) cooked until soft
3 – 6 Tablespoons vegan margarine or butter
leftover water from boiling or milk, enough to make the mashed potatoes creamy
a few pinches of freshly ground nutmeg
salt & white pepper
If you don’t know how to roast a butternut squash read about it here. When the squash is cool enough to handle scoop out the flesh and season with the margarine, maple syrup, salt and white pepper. Mash until smooth and adjust seasonings. I find that a normal squash fills roughly two 9-inch pie plates or one 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Try to use glass or ceramic rather than metal for this dish.
In a large pot of water boil the wild rice in a generous amount of water. Wild rice is not the same as regular rice where you want to have a specific ratio of rice to water and want all the water absorbed. Instead you want wild rice to swim in the water as it cooks. Usually a 4:1 water rice ration works. It takes about 45-55 minutes for the rice to soften enough to open and start curling backward. You don’t need every grain to do this, but a significant portion should be “popped”. If during the cooking time your water level boils down so not all the rice is covered, simply add a little more water. Drain when done.
While the wild rice is cooking dry roast the pecans until toasted and fragrant, about 5-9 minutes in a cast iron frying pan over medium heat, making sure to stir often so they don’t burn. After the nuts are toasted pour them into a bowl and saute the onions in the olive oil in the same pan (yes, there will be a lot of dishes to wash) until translucent over a medium low heat for 10-15 minutes. Season with thyme, salt and pepper and add them to the nuts. Combine the drained wild rice with the nuts and onions and mix. Layer on top of squash.
Mashed potatoes. I’m hoping I don’t really have to tell you how to make them. Skins on or off, add some roasted garlic if you like, or not. Just don’t use a food processor to mash them as you’ll end up with glue instead of mashed potatoes. Use a potato masher instead. If you’re doing the vegan version you can use some of the water the potatoes cooked in or you can use a little unsweetened soy or rice milk. I prefer the potato water but any of those three will work. If you really need help you can email me at 50recipes at gmail dot com and I’ll try to answer your mashed potato questions.
If you have made the Thankful Pie from scratch you just need to heat everything up until it’s all hot again and the potatoes are browned slightly on top. If you made a Thanksgiving Pie in advance or are using leftovers you’ll need to bake it for longer as your ingredients will be cold. I usually bake a fresh pie at 350ºF for about 25-35 minutes. A cold pie will need 60-70 minutes or until hot all the way through and browned on top. You can also raise the temperature a bit if you’re in a hurry, just be careful the top doesn’t brown too much before the pie is hot all the way through.