By Zel Allen

So much about the holiday season makes some of us a little sentimental, and many of those sentiments are centered on foods we remember fondly — those favorite sweet or savory dishes we've come to connect with cherished experiences in the company of those we love. And no matter whether we celebrate with unique rituals, attend holiday events, decorate the home or office, or enjoy our kids' holiday programs, we inevitably seem to come together at the table to share delicious food.

Many of the tasty delights of the holiday season are available only for a brief time. Flavorful items like chestnuts, cranberries, persimmons, pomegranates, and even some varieties of winter squash are a joy to incorporate into holiday fare. Though butternut squash is one of the year-round regulars, it just doesn't receive the devoted fussing and mussing until winter arrives.

While some people cling to the same favorites year after year and reach for that familiar chocolate crackle cookie without fail, others aim to explore new and delightful ways to infuse lively flavors into their holiday menus. With so many holiday gatherings taking place during this season, there's plenty of opportunity to prepare those old favorites and even delve into tempting new recipes that may give sparkling jewels like pomegranate seeds or chestnuts the spotlight.

Celebrations at home are the perfect opportunity to enjoy homey hot meals or dishes with rich, creamy sauces, lightly thickened gravies, or tasty soups. Foods like these would be difficult to transport to a potluck, but are ideal to enjoy in a home setting.

Finger foods and non-saucy dishes served cold or at room temperature are best for sharing at potlucks, office parties, and open houses where guests usually mill around the room chatting and rarely sit down. Those gatherings are the perfect setting to show off innovative appetizers, desserts, and salads that zing with color and flavor and are in no danger of spilling.

Few people turn down dessert when it's offered, especially office mates. To impress the work-scene crowd, nothing beats home-baked cookies or sweet chocolate mousse infused with seasonal cranberries. For the finishing touch, dazzle their eyes with bright accents of sliced Fuyu persimmons or juicy wedges of tangerines nestled into a fluff of mint leaves.

Salads are an instant hit at potluck gatherings. Perhaps humans just naturally recognize those leafy greens are good for them. But artfully arranged with bright red pomegranate seeds, brilliant orange persimmons, and shiny red apples — mmmm, the salad grows in appeal. Because divinely sweet fruits like pomegranates and persimmons are here for such a short season and disappear quickly after the holidays, they deserve their moment in the holiday spotlight. Include them frequently and put their bright colors to work as gorgeous garnishes. You mustn't be intimidated by pomegranates; use the handy preparation technique on the next page as a guide and enjoy them often.

Old family traditions can play a significant role in how gifts are wrapped and when and how they're presented. Some families place a high value on homemade gifts and may prepare for the holidays throughout the year, gathering special ideas, materials, and ingredients. But even lovingly prepared homemade gifts like cookies and confections are deeply appreciated, especially by those who rarely spend time in the kitchen.

A rewarding way to enjoy homemade treats is a holiday cookie party. Prepare some mulled cider or a creamy nog, and invite each guest to bake a different type of cookie. Exchange and enjoy the variety.

This festive season is when the gift giver and the recipient feel richly rewarded. It's a time to remember the smiling mail carrier, the attentive babysitter, the skilled auto mechanic, and others who earn a special thank you for their caring service during the year.

The Art of Gathering Pomegranate Seeds

In past years I've hesitated to buy pomegranates. I knew how delicious the juice was and fondly remembered the divine flavor of the juicy, sweet and tart seeds, but I hadn't a clue how to approach the fruit. In my first attempt, I ended up covered in juice, and so did my sweater, the counter top, and three dish towels.

I've since become intimate friends with this beautiful fruit and look forward to autumn when the fruits ripen. Happily, pomegranates are available throughout the holiday season and a bit beyond. Here's the technique:

  1. Place a colander into a large bowl and fill the bowl with enough water to submerge a large pomegranate. A salad spinner is the perfect tool.
  2. Put the pomegranate on a cutting board and slice the top off. Carefully cut it vertically into six sections.
  3. Working with one section at a time, lower it into the water with seeds facing downward. Use your fingers to release the seeds into the water.
  4. Most of the seeds will sink to the bottom while the pith floats to the top for easy removal with a fine mesh strainer. Repeat the process with the remaining pomegranate sections. Then, simply lift the colander and shake off the excess water.

For convenience, remove the pomegranate seeds in advance of your recipe preparation. Store them in a covered container with a folded paper napkin in the refrigerator until use. To prevent the naturally bright color of the pomegranate seeds from becoming muddy looking, add them to the recipe shortly before serving.

Spinach Salad with Beets and Pomegranates

(Serves 5)

With only five ingredients layered to create dramatic color contrast, this stunning salad is one you can proudly show off at the holiday table. This recipe is all about presentation and makes its best showing in a wide, shallow salad bowl. In addition to their blazing red beauty, the pomegranate seeds contribute delightful crunchiness and a healthy dose of fiber. The Maple Dijon Dressing is my vegan, oil-free counterpart to honey-mustard dressing. With its delicate sweetness, the dressing makes a tasty topping for fruity salads.

  • One 8-ounce package baby spinach
  • 3 beets, peeled, cubed, and cooked, or one or two 15-ounce cans diced beets, drained
  • 2 carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded
  • 2 large pomegranates
  • ¼ red onion, cut in half vertically, then sliced into half moons
  • ½ cup Maple-Dijon Salad Dressing (see below)

Place the spinach in a large, wide salad bowl and heap the beets into the center. Sprinkle the shredded carrots in a ring surrounding the beets.

Cut the pomegranates into quarters. Carefully remove the seeds with your fingers. Form a 2-inch ring of pomegranate seeds next to the carrots, leaving a generous border of spinach at the outer edge.

Finish with a sprinkle of onions around the outer edge. Bring the salad to the table to show it off. Toss it thoroughly with Maple-Dijon Dressing.

Total calories per serving: 92 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 21 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 192 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Maple Dijon Dressing

(Makes 2 cups) 1 serving = 2 TB

  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
  • ¼ plus 1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum or guar gum

Process all ingredients in a blender on high for 1 ½ minutes to allow the xanthan gum to slightly thicken the dressing, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender jar.

Shake well before using. Covered and refrigerated, the Maple-Dijon Dressing will keep for about 2 weeks.

Total calories per 2 Tbs serving: 18 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 143 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Butternut Squash, Beet, and Apple Soup

(Makes 8-10 cups or serves 5-6)

A small cup of this light-as-a-feather soup makes a tasty starter, while a hearty bowl will satisfy during the busy holiday season.

  • 1 butternut squash (1 ½-2 pounds), peeled and seeded
  • 2 small beets, peeled
  • 3 ½ cups water, divided
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 ½ cups apple juice
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored, and coarsely shredded
  • ½ teaspoon salt


  • Pinch ground nutmeg
  • 1 ½ cups corn kernels
  • ¼ cup dried cranberries (optional)

Cut the squash and the beets into ½-inch cubes and put them in an 8- to 10-quart stock pot with 3 cups of the water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the squash and beets are tender.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, cook and stir the onion, carrot, celery and the remaining ½ cup water for 12-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are very soft and beginning to brown. Add 1 or more Tablespoons of water as needed to prevent burning.

Add the onion mixture and the apple juice to the stock pot with the squash and the beets. Use an immersion blender to process the soup in the stock pot, or put the soup in a blender in batches. Process until the soup is smooth or slightly chunky, as desired, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender jar. Return the soup to the stock pot.

Add the shredded apples and salt and mix well. Cook the soup until simmering.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Garnish each serving with a pinch of nutmeg, 2 Tablespoons of corn, and the dried cranberries, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 223 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 58 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 291 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Shiitake Tornadoes in Cashew Cream Sauce

(Makes 12 balls; serves 12)

This sumptuous festive dish makes a showy presentation on the holiday table. It's a winning entrée for those with an inquisitive palate because its deliciously complex flavors present the fun challenge of guessing the hidden ingredients.


  • 8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps cut into quarters
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon tamari
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried tarragon
  • ¾ cup water
  • ½ cup pitted kalamata olives
  • 3 cups cooked short-grain brown rice
  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
  • ½ cup walnuts, coarsely ground
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup black or regular sesame seeds
  • 12 long sprigs fresh rosemary (garnish)
  • 6 cherry tomatoes cut in half (garnish)

To make the tornadoes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 17 ½ x 12 ½-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Combine the mushrooms, onion, tamari, and tarragon in a large, deep skillet. Add water and cook and stir over medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes, or until the mushrooms are cooked and the onion is softened and transparent. Add 1 or more Tablespoons of water as needed to prevent burning.

Transfer the mushroom mixture to a food processor and add the olives. Process mixture until smooth and creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the work bowl. Spoon the mixture into a large bowl.

Add the rice, oats, walnuts, salt, and pepper and mix well. Pour the sesame seeds into a deep medium bowl. Form the mushroom mixture into balls about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Roll each one in the sesame seeds to coat well. Place the coated balls on the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

Cashew Cream Sauce

  • 2 ½ cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • ¼ cup unsalted tomato paste
  • 1-2 Tablespoons tamari
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
  • Pinch cayenne
  • ½ cup finely-ground cashews
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Freshly ground pepper

To make the sauce, combine the vegetable broth, tomato paste, tamari, garlic, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, marjoram, and cayenne in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer 1-2 minutes.

Add the cashews, whisk and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. The sauce will continue to thicken upon standing. Before serving, stir in the lemon juice and pepper.

To serve, spoon the sauce into a large, deep platter and arrange the tornadoes over it. To garnish, poke a rosemary sprig into each tomato half and push them into the tops of the tornadoes, so they stand upright.

Note: If not serving immediately, refrigerate the tornadoes and sauce separately. Warm the tornadoes in a preheated 350-degree oven for 12-15 minutes before serving. Heat the sauce in a saucepan over medium heat for 4-5 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 242 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 310 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Sesame Appetizer Balls

(Serves 6-8)

Capture the winning flavors of the Mediterranean with these easy-to-assemble, captivating starters. Served warm, chilled, or at room temperature, they can be prepared a day or two ahead and still taste great taken right from the fridge or briefly warmed in the oven.

  • 2 slices whole wheat bread
  • 1 tomato, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup coarsely ground walnuts
  • ⅓ cup diced sweet onion
  • ¼ cup minced Spanish olives
  • 2 ½ Tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ to ⅔ cup unhulled sesame seeds
  • ¼ bunch parsley, for garnish
  • 3 cherry tomato halves, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a 17 ½ x 12 ½-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Tear the bread into pieces and put them in a medium bowl. Pour water over the bread to cover. Drain thoroughly, squeeze the bread very dry and put it in a food processor.

Add the tomato, walnuts, onion, olives, vinegar, garlic, and salt. Process until all the ingredients are incorporated and form a coarse mixture, stopping occasionally to scrape down the work bowl.

Put the sesame seeds in a small deep bowl. Roll Tablespoonfuls of the bread mixture into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in the sesame seeds to coat completely. Place the balls on the prepared pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Arrange the parsley around the perimeter of a serving platter and place cherry tomato halves in parsley, if desired. Transfer the balls to the serving platter.

Total calories per serving: 154 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 238 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Spiced Cranberry Nog

(Makes 3 ½ cups; serves 5)

A knock-your-socks-off joylicious holiday beverage, this unique take on eggnog lights up with a tangy edge and an inviting powder puff pink color thanks to the season's bountiful cranberry harvest. The nog is quickly assembled in the blender, but you may want to plan ahead for multiple batches when serving a crowd.

  • 1 ½ cups fresh cranberries
  • 2 cups vanilla soymilk
  • ¾ cup maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum or guar gum
  • Dash nutmeg
  • Cinnamon sticks

Rinse the cranberries in a strainer under running water and put them into the blender.

Add the remaining ingredients and process on high speed for 1 minute, or until the cranberries are completely broken down and the nog becomes creamy and thick. There may still be tiny flecks of cranberries visible even after blending thoroughly.

Pour the nog into a pitcher and chill until ready to serve. To serve, fill small punch cups with nog, sprinkle each serving with a dash of nutmeg, and stand a cinnamon stick into each cup. Covered and refrigerated, the Spiced Cranberry Nog will keep for 2-3 days.

Total calories per serving: 182 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 40 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 51 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Wicked Walnut Cookies

(Makes 4 ½ dozen cookies)

With a generous measure of creamy puréed walnuts, these delicious cookies offer melt-in-the-mouth soft centers and delightfully crunchy outsides. Black walnut extract makes these cookies stand apart with extra-rich flavor, making them an excellent choice for a cookie exchange party.

  • 2 cups raw walnuts, divided
  • 3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 ¼ cups organic sugar
  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup mashed bananas (about 2 large)
  • ⅔ cup vegan margarine
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons extract (black walnut, maple, almond, or another 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons flaxseeds or ground flaxseeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two 17 ½ x 12 ½-inch rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Chop ½ cup of the walnuts into small pieces and set aside. Combine the flour, sugar, oats, raisins, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon in a large bowl; mix well. Make sure the raisins are well coated with flour to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the batter. Set aside.

Put the remaining 1 ½ cups of walnuts in a food processor. Process until it becomes a creamy butter, stopping occasionally to scrape down the bowl. Add the bananas, vegan margarine, walnut and vanilla extracts, and process until smooth and creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the work bowl.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well. The dough will become quite stiff.

Pour the water and flaxseeds into a blender. Process on high for 1-2 minutes to form a thick slurry. Stir the slurry into the dough, mixing thoroughly to distribute it evenly.

Roll teaspoonfuls of dough into 1-inch balls and place them 1 ½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Flatten them slightly with your hands or the bottom of a glass and press a piece of the reserved chopped walnuts into the center of each cookie.

Bake cookies for 14-18 minutes or until they are lightly browned on the bottom. If the cookies on the top rack need browning, move them to the bottom rack for another 2-3 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack or plate and let cool completely.

Total calories per cookie: 94 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 47 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Chocolate Truffle Mousse with Cranberry Splash

(Serves 8)

Once tasted, this sublime chocolate treat, with its smooth texture, is not easily forgotten. This dessert is so easy to prepare, it even makes the host ecstatic. You can serve the truffle as a simple mousse without the Cranberry Splash, and simply garnish with berries and mint, but you'll lack the burst from one of the great jewels of the season.


  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup cashews
  • ⅓ cup coconut cream or full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 cup plus 1 Tablespoon organic sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 8 ounces unsweetened vegan chocolate


  • 1 ½ cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • ¾ cup plus 1 ½ Tablespoons organic sugar
  • 8 sprigs fresh mint leaves (garnish)

For the mousse, pour the water and cashews into a blender. Process for 1-2 minutes, until smooth and creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender. Add the coconut cream, sugar, vanilla extract, and cinnamon and set aside.

Put the chocolate in a 1- or 2-quart saucepan. Cook and stir over the lowest heat for 1-2 minutes, or until the chocolate is completely melted. Add the melted chocolate to the blender. Process until the mousse is smooth and creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender jar. Spoon the mousse into eight small dessert cups or long-stemmed glasses to within ½-inch of the tops. Chill for 8-12 hours to firm. Wash and dry the blender jar.

To make the splash, combine the cranberries, water, and sugar in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil, uncovered, over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer 12-15 minutes.

Let cool for 10 minutes. Transfer the cranberry mixture to a blender. Process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender jar. Pour the cranberry mixture into a small pitcher or serving bowl and chill for 8-12 hours. Because of its natural pectin, it will firm slightly when refrigerated.

To serve, stir the splash vigorously and spoon a generous portion over the chocolate truffle. Top with a mint sprig, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 438 Fat: 23 grams
Carbohydrates: 64 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 15 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Santa's Favorite Panforte

(Serves 20)

Panforte is a very traditional, festive Italian Christmas candy. Baked into slabs, dusted with powdered sugar, and cut into bite-sized chunks or thin wedges, these crunchy, chewy, nut-and-fruit-filled nuggets make joyful treats for gifting. For convenience, panforte can be made way in advance, wrapped in plastic, and refrigerated until you're ready to box it, wrap it, or ship it across the country. While panforte keeps at room temperature for several weeks, it might attract ants or other critters that may also find it a delicious holiday temptation. You'll need a candy thermometer for preparing the syrup.


  • 2 cups pecans
  • 1 ¾ cups walnuts
  • 1 ¼ cups almonds
  • 1 cup dried apricots (preferably Turkish), diced
  • 1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat pastry flour
  • ¾ cup plus 2 Tablespoons organic sugar
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ cup chopped dates
  • ½ cup sweetened dried cranberries
  • 2 Tablespoons plus 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon


  • 1 cup agave nectar
  • ¾ cup plus 2 Tablespoons organic sugar
  • 1 cup organic powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line four 8-inch metal or aluminum foil pie pans, or 7-inch cake pans with parchment paper.

To make the panforte, spread the shelled pecans, walnuts, and almonds on a 17 ½ x 12 ½-inch rimmed baking sheet and toast them for 8 minutes. Immediately transfer the nuts to a large platter to cool and decrease the oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Combine the apricots, flour, sugar, raisins, dates, cranberries, and cinnamon in an extra-large bowl. Add the cooled nuts and toss well to coat all the ingredients. Set aside.

To make the syrup, combine the agave nectar and organic sugar in a 2-quart saucepan and mix well. Attach the candy thermometer to the rim and place the pan over medium-high heat. Boil until the temperature reaches 230 degrees, about 5 minutes (this can happen very quickly). Do not stir.

Immediately pour the syrup into the fruit-nut mixture and use a heavy-duty wooden spoon to stir and coat the ingredients well. The mixture quickly becomes extremely stiff, and you'll need to apply muscle power to combine the syrup and fruit-nut mixture thoroughly.

Distribute the mixture equally among the prepared pans, placing one spoonful of the mixture in the pan at a time, packing it down before adding another. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Let cool completely before removing from the pans. Carefully remove the parchment paper from each slab and dust each with powdered sugar on both sides, using your hands to coat it completely.

To serve, use a sharp, heavy-duty knife to cut the panforte into 1-inch pieces or slice into thin wedges. Wrap in a double layer of plastic wrap at room temperature. Santa's Favorite Panforte will keep for a long time in the refrigerator.

Total calories per serving: 398 Fat: 19 grams
Carbohydrates: 58 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Zel Allen is a regular contributor to Vegetarian Journal. She lives in California.