Sunday, December 12, 2010

Have Nut Loaf. Will Travel.

Every Thanksgiving we go "over the river and through the woods" to take part in a pot-luck feast of food and friendship. "Over the river" happens in Healdsburg, where Highway 101 crosses the Russian River as it runs west to the sea, and "through the woods" happens in southern Mendocino County, where fragrant groves of bay laurel, live oak, Doug fir, madrone, and second-growth redwood cloak the rocky hills between Cloverdale and Booneville.

It's not grandma's house we're headed for, but a thriving counter-culture conclave founded in 1970 -- forty years ago and counting -- where former Peace Corps and Vista volunteers and friends have been tending (organically, of course) a large acreage of ancient apple trees.

The Thanksgiving pot-luck is well established, with the same people bringing the same dishes year after year. The hosts can determine the menu simply by asking around to verify who will be coming, uncovering any gaps that might need to be filled. Generally speaking, you can always count on M.'s hor d'oeuvres, T's traditional Czech Hoska (a showstopper braided bread), B.'s stir-fried veggies, P.'s Waldorf salad, and N.'s classic pumpkin pies from her grandmother's recipe -- to mention some of my personal favorites.

The photo above shows a few of these old-reliable dishes, plus the time-tested vegetarian entree, the nut loaf.

It's our responsibility to bring the nut loaf, an obligation not to be taken lightly.

This year, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving we got the usual phone call confirming that everything was on as planned, and the usual not so subtle hint about our role:

"Are you guys coming? If you can't make it this year we could come down there and get the nut loaf . . . ."

"We're coming! We're coming!"

And we did come, arriving a bit late as usual. As we lugged the heavy cardboard box full of nut loaves and mushroom gravy out of the trunk of our car, several friends came to greet us, rushing down the steps of the 100 year old farmhouse:

"Hooray! The nut loaf has arrived!"

Here's how to make this enthusiastically received holiday classic. It first entered our repertoire decades ago during college days in Berkeley, from Richard Hittleman's Yoga Natural Foods Cookbook, now out of print. My copy vanished long ago so I'm not sure how many adaptations have crept into our version over the years. Once change I do remember introducing is to use wholewheat toast cut into cubes, rather than bread crumbs -- so much easier!

1. Assemble all the ingredients:

1 and 1/2 cup walnuts, very finely chopped or blended
3 cups toasted whole wheat bread cubes (toast the bread then cut into small cubes)
1 cup celery, very finely chopped
1/2 cup onion, very finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons oil
1 cup tomato juice
1/4 cup parsley, very finely chopped*
Salt and pepper to taste

2. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
3. Beat together eggs and oil, combine with tomato juice.
4. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Don't be afraid to use your bare hands to make sure everything is thoroughly mixed together and liquids are evenly distributed.
5. Pack mixture into a well-buttered loaf pan (for a round loaf use a Pyrex bowl) and bake 45 minutes to an hour in a preheated 350 degree oven. Cover with tinfoil for the first 30 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a table knife into the center -- when hardly anything sticks to the knife it should be done. The loaf should have a well-browned appearance.
6. Run a table knife around the edges of the pan and turn the loaf out onto a plate. Pour mushroom gravy over the top, garnish with cranberry sauce and parsley*. (The cranberry sauce is important for fullest holiday splendor and taste. The parsley* is important because without it the dish can be mistaken for a dessert.)

And here's how to make the mushroom gravy, an absolute must accompaniment. (Sometimes I think we should be greeted with cries of "Hooray! The mushroom gravy has arrived!") These are B.'s instructions:

1. Put a pound or so of cleaned whole mushrooms in a pot. Cover with water plus an inch or so.
2. Bring to a boil.
3. Add juice of one lemon, some white wine or sherry, and five or six pepper corns.
4. Boil for 20 minutes until you have a dark broth. Strain and set aside.
5. Make a roux: Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and add some finely grated onion. When the onion is soft, add three tablespoons flour, blend until smooth.
6. Mix one cup of the mushroom broth into the roux. Add as much as needed to get the desired consistency of gravy. Slice up some of the whole mushrooms to add to the gravy.
Save any leftover broth for soup.

*A note about parsley: For the last several years the parsley has been coming from our backyard. All I had to do is run out the kitchen door and gather as much as was needed from generous swaths of volunteer plants. But this year, no parsley. It felt like cheating to have to buy some. Must plant more.

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