Holiday Drop-In

By Peggy Rynk

Sharing food, drink, and hospitality with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even new acquaintances is a holiday tradition for many of us—and one of the most enjoyable—whether we are hosts or guests.

Drop-in entertaining, because people come and go, provides us with the opportunity to entertain a larger number of guests in an afternoon or evening than we could accommodate at a sit-down dinner or even a buffet. It also gives our guests—and us—the chance to mingle and enjoy many conversations instead of just a few.

As a vegan, I want the foods and beverages I serve to be consistent with my habits and beliefs. Fortunately, this is easy because there are countless options available—so many, in fact, that the problem (if this could ever be considered a problem) is deciding which to include and which to consider for another time.

Before you head for the natural foods store or the supermarket, begin with a menu. Decide what you’d like to serve, what you have room for, and what fits into your budget. Try to include something sweet and something savory, something hot, something cold, and something at room temperature. Textures matter, too, from the crunch of raw vegetables, chips, and nuts to the softness of sandwiches or cooked marinated vegetables.

Finger foods are ideal for a drop-in. They’re easy for guests to handle, require no utensils, and are less complicated all around.

Foods can be arranged on a dining room table, sideboard, or even an uncluttered kitchen counter, if space is limited. Another option is to arrange food in several different places. This encourages guests to circulate and to engage in conversations with a greater number of other guests.

Whatever foods you serve, they should be displayed so that they look plentiful. If you have a choice between arranging small sandwiches spaciously on a large platter or piling them artfully on a smaller one, choose the smaller. The food looks more appetizing if you put out only part of each item at a time. Replenishing platters, bowls, and baskets as needed keeps food looking fresh, instead of picked over, as guests come and go.

A seasonal centerpiece adds to the festivity of the table—greenery and pine cones, for instance, or flowers (fresh or dried) in holiday colors make beautiful centerpieces. So does an arrangement of washed fresh fruit, especially if you encourage guests to help themselves.

Loving preparation of home-cooked dishes can add to the pleasure of entertaining. But if time is short and you have less time to cook than you’d like, there’s lots of help available. Many excellent foods can be bought ready-made straight off the shelves or in the deli department of supermarkets and natural foods stores—whole grain breads, bite-sized rice cakes, nuts, hummus in a wide variety of flavors, salsas, dips, chips, salads, party mixes, and cookies, for example. Read labels to find which ones fit into your diet.

Even if you buy most of what you serve already prepared because of time constraints, you can still create a homemade touch with a platter of raw vegetables that you cut up yourself, a homemade sandwich spread, or a batch of cookies. It’s good to remember, too, that it isn’t just the food or how we present it that helps our guests to have a good time. The most important ingredients are our welcoming attitudes and our joy in having guests in our homes.

Hot Spiced Apple Juice with Cinnamon and Cloves

(Serves 6)

This fragrant beverage is just right for holiday entertaining. The recipe can easily be doubled or tripled, if desired.

  • 6 cups apple juice
  • ⅔ to 1 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons whole cloves
  • 8 inches of stick cinnamon (does not need to be all one piece)

Put the apple juice, lemon juice, cloves, and cinnamon in a 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a simmer (do not boil). Allow to simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat and keep warm. Just before serving, remove cloves and cinnamon. Serve warm, ladled into cups or mugs.

Total calories per serving: 119 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Chilled Marinated Vegetables

(Serves about 12)

The flavors are well balanced and the vegetables, because they are cooked only until they are tender-crisp, still have some bite to them.

  • 4 cups chunked peeled carrots
  • Water
  • ¾ teaspoon salt, divided
  • 4 cups bite-size cauliflower florets
  • 4 cups bite-size broccoli florets
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
  • ½ teaspoon dried savory leaves
  • ½ teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan granulated sweetener
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ½ cup seasoned rice wine vinegar

Put the carrot chunks, ½ cup water, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a 4-quart stockpot. Cover and steam carrots over medium-low heat until they are somewhat tender. Add cauliflower, another ¼ teaspoon salt, and a little more water, if needed, and continue to steam another few minutes. Finally, add the broccoli, another ¼ teaspoon salt, and a little more water, if needed. Cover again and continue to steam until all vegetables are tender-crisp, being careful not to overcook.

While vegetables steam, put ½ teaspoon salt, the pepper, thyme, basil, savory, tarragon, and granulated sweetener in a jar with a screw top. Add the oil and vinegar. Cover the mouth of the jar with a double layer of waxed paper. (The waxed paper keeps liquids from leaking out.) Screw on the top. Shake the jar vigorously and set aside.

When vegetables are tender-crisp, shake dry over low heat. (There should be almost no water left at end of cooking time.) Remove from heat, shake dressing again, and pour over warm vegetables, turning them gently to coat. Cover and chill thoroughly.

Total calories per serving: 126 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 230 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Cayenne Pecans

(Makes 4 cups)

These nuts are spicy and have a wonderful texture. They’re great not only for munching but also in place of croutons as a topping for tossed salads. They’ll keep, tightly covered or in a plastic bag, for up to a week.

  • 3 Tablespoons vegan margarine
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ teaspoon cayenne
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 4 cups pecan halves

Put the margarine in a 13 x 9 x 2" baking pan and place in a cold oven. Set oven temperature at 350 degrees and let the margarine melt in the pan, checking often to be sure it doesn’t burn.

When margarine has melted, remove pan from oven and mix in the salt, cayenne, and garlic powder. Stir in the pecans, coating well. Shake pan to distribute nuts evenly and return pan to oven. Bake 12 minutes. Remove pan from oven, stir and shake pan to again distribute pecans evenly. Return to oven for 5 minutes, or until pecans are crisp, being careful not to overbake. Cool in pan. Makes about four cups (pecans shrink slightly during baking).

Total calories per ¼ cup: 206 Fat: 22 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 134 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

A Trio of Canapé or Sandwich Spreads

Whether making canapés or sandwiches, use whole grain breads such as whole wheat, rye, or pumpernickel. If making canapés, garnish as desired. Thinly sliced cherry tomatoes go well on the Green Pea Spread; sliced black olives are perfect for the Bean and Tomato Spread; and a light sprinkling of paprika looks just right on the Vegan “Cream Cheese” Spread. If making small sandwiches instead of canapés, cut sandwiches into small triangles to serve.

Green Pea Spread

(Makes 1½ cups)

Creamy and thick, this is a well- seasoned, satisfying spread.

  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 1-¼ cups chopped yellow onion
  • 1 pound bag (3-⅓ cups) frozen green peas
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¾ cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan mayonnaise

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions and sauté until tender. Add peas, salt, pepper, coriander, and about ¼ cup of the water. Cook, covered, adding more of the water as necessary, until peas are tender. When peas are very tender, remove from heat and mash well with a fork or the back of a wooden spoon. Cool slightly, and blend in vegan mayonnaise.

Total calories per ounce: 69 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates:74 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 247 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Bean and Tomato Spread

(Makes 3 cups)

The spice measurements as given make a mild spread. For a spicier flavor, increase the chili powder, ground red chipotle, and cayenne to taste. This spread can also be used as a dip for tortilla chips, if desired.

  • One 16-ounce can refried beans
  • One 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • ¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon chili powder
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground red chipotle (optional)
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • ⅛ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin

Put the refried beans, tomato paste, salt, chili powder, ground red chipotle, cayenne, garlic, and cumin in a 1½-quart mixing bowl. Blend thoroughly, scraping sides of bowl often. Cover and chill.

Total calories per ounce: 21 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 121 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Vegan “Cream Cheese” Spread

(Makes 2 cups)

While great on canapés or sandwiches, this spread is also perfect with crisp crackers.

  • One 8-ounce carton vegan “cream cheese”
  • ¼ cup soymilk
  • ¼ cup finely chopped green onions (both green and white parts)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon granulated garlic or garlic powder

In a small mixing bowl, blend together the cream cheese and soymilk until smooth or until reasonably close to smooth. Add green onions, salt, pepper, and garlic, blending well. Cover and chill thoroughly.

Total calories per ounce: 42 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 121 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Pumpkin-Cranberry Cookies

(Makes 42 cookies)

These soft, moist, chunky cookies have a rich flavor. One batch may not be enough, so you may want to double the recipe. You can also substitute dried cherries for the cranberries.

  • ¾ cup vegan margarine, softened
  • ¾ cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • Dash ground cloves
  • 1-½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1-½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 Tablespoons arrowroot powder
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1 cup broken pecans or walnuts
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, cream together the margarine, sweetener, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the salt, baking powder, and then the arrowroot powder. Blend in the flour alternately with the pumpkin, beginning and ending with the flour. When well-combined, fold in the nuts and cranberries.

For the best baking results, drop mixture onto insulated cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. If these are unavailable, use regular cookie sheets sprayed with vegetable cooking spray. Use 1 tablespoon batter for each cookie and space them about 2½ inches apart. Bake for 20 minutes or until cookies are set and very lightly browned. Remove from cookie sheets to wire racks and cool.

Total calories per cookie: 96 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 85 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Whole wheat and Carob Brownies

(Makes 16 square brownies)

The flavors of the carob and whole wheat blend well in these brownies. Be careful not to overbake them. They should still be a bit moist when they come out of the oven.

  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ¾ cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup soymilk
  • ½ cup carob powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 16 whole raw almonds (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, blend together the oil, granulated sweetener, and vanilla. Blend in the soymilk. Add the carob powder, salt, baking powder, and cornstarch, mixing thoroughly. Blend in the whole wheat flour, then the all-purpose flour.

Spoon batter into an 8 x 8" baking pan sprayed with vegetable spray, spreading evenly. If desired, arrange almonds over the top in four evenly spaced rows of four. (When brownies have baked, cooled, and are cut into squares, there should be an almond in the center of each.)

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center almost comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool in pan on wire rack.

Total calories per brownie: 165 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 23 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 213 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Chocolate Chip Bars

(Makes 24 bars)

A full-flavored chocolate chip bar that’s easy to whip up.

  • ½ cup vegan margarine, softened
  • 1 cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 cup soymilk
  • ¼-½ cup semi-sweet vegan chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, cream together the margarine, granulated sweetener, cinnamon, and vanilla. When well combined, blend in the arrowroot powder, salt, and baking powder. Stir in the flour alternately with the soymilk, beginning and ending with the flour. Next, either fold in the chocolate chips or set them aside for a moment to sprinkle on top of the batter after it is spread in the pan.

Finally, spread batter in a 13 x 9 x 2" baking pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray. If chocolate chips have not been folded into batter, sprinkle them on top now. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center just barely comes out clean. Do not overbake.

Let cool, then cut into bars.

Total calories per bar: 109 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 16 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 138 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Dried Fruit Compote with Lemons

(Makes one generous quart)

The lemons are just the right counterpoint to the sweetness of the fruits.

  • 1 cup quartered dried pineapple rings
  • 1 cup dried pitted cherries
  • 1 cup Turkish apricots
  • 1 cup dried papaya, cut in bite-size pieces
  • ¼ cup diced crystallized ginger
  • 2 to 3 unpeeled lemons, thinly sliced, seeds removed
  • 2 cups water

Put the pineapple, cherries, apricots, papaya, ginger, lemons, and water in a 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes or until fruit is tender. Do not overcook. Remove from heat. Serve hot, warm, or chilled.

Total calories per bar: 228 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 61 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 9 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Peggy Rynk is a writer and vegan who specializes in health and vegan cooking articles.