Quick: Picture your family seated around the holiday table. We bet that between your cousin’s veganism, your mom’s diabetic partner, your dad’s gluten-free GF and second-cousin-thrice-removed Fitzwilliam being off the (cranberry) sauce this year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who will “just eat anything”! Whether by choice or actual condition, we live in the age of “RSVP dietary requirements,” and we couldn’t think of anyone better than Susan Jane White to act as our “alternative-eating-agony” aunt. This Irish cookbook author, and reformed crap-food addict, has made a name for herself with her delicious cheekily gluten-, refined-sugar-, processed-weirdness-free eats. She even threw in a bespoke recipe just for us (scroll way down) and solved our holiday dilemmas.
Q: I quit the sweet stuff about six months ago, and I feel great, but now the holiday season is coming and I’m a bit sad that I won’t be eating Aunt Sue’s shortbread and my other sugary season faves. Do you have any suggestions for keeping things festive but sugar-free? A: “Suggestions? Hell, yeah! Wake up and smell Aunt Sue’s shortbread! It won’t kill you, and it will make Aunt Sue so happy to see you enjoy her recipes. Go and give that tray a love bomb. Remember that this is only one day. It’s not about diets; it’s about love. If you’re really freaking out, you should probably meet [my book] The Virtuous Tart. This is a cookbook that takes the hell out of healthy. You’ll be able to arm yourself with an artillery of nourishing treats for Aunt Sue’s instead of snoresome festive junk. Think of it as ammunition to get you through the holidays.”
Susan Jane White's cookbook The Virtuous Tart.
Q: Our office holds an annual holiday potluck competition, and I want to WIN. What should I make? A: “Pomegranate halvah! It’s good enough to make a devout friar feel like Ricky Martin. Every health nut will want to straddle you — it’s vegan, gluten-free, paleo and bad-ass. You won’t be laden with a big shopping list either — just tahini, honey, coconut oil, flaky sea salt, vanilla and some pomegranate seeds. Gently melt it all together, pour it into a lined lunch box and decorate it with more pomegranate seeds. That’s it! Freeze until set, and then let everyone in the office rub your halo.”
Q: Come December 27, I am so over anything involving the oven, but we often have mates pop by during that week. Any recommendations for something good (and easy) to rustle up? A: “Yes: wine. Grapes are part of your one-a-day, right? And chocolate, lots and lots of chocolate. It was my six-year-old son, Benjamin, who reminded me that cacao beans come from a plant. And plants are basically salad. See?”
Q: I’m hosting my entire (“weird food”-hostile) family for Christmas lunch this year, and I want to wow them with a showstopper of a dish that will finally win them over to my healthy-eating ways. Anything come to mind? A: “Yes. Try serving kale chips on Michael Fassbender’s abs — always works. Failing that, here’s a scorching recipe: Mushroom & Merlot Stew. One taste will ignite their dimples, like kissing Bradley Cooper or giving Donald Trump a wedgie live on air.”
RECIPE: MUSHROOM & MERLOT STEW
6 tbsp. (90 mL) ghee butter or olive oil
2 large onions, peeled and diced
4 fat cloves of garlic
4 beetroots, peeled and chopped into bite-size pieces
3 bay leaves
5 sprigs of thyme
3 c. (750 mL) Merlot or other dry red wine
81/2 c. (2 L) really good stock or bone broth
1 tin of anchovies, chopped
8 handfuls of wild and regular mushrooms
4 tbsp. (60 mL) grated ginger (optional)
2 tbsp. (30 mL) Kudzu (optional)
Heat a little of the ghee or oil in your largest heavy-based saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until glassy, say eight to 10 minutes. Tumble in the chopped beets, bay leaves and thyme and let them socialize for five minutes on low heat. Then pour the Merlot, stock and anchovies into the pot. Let the pot gurgle for 60 minutes, until the beets are tender. Leave the lid off and let the alcohol escape (which probably sounds counterintuitive for a festive recipe, but it’s very necessary — sorry).
While the stew merrily cooks, prep the mushrooms. Slice them into bite-size chunks or leave them whole if they’re small. Heat the rest of your chosen fat in a large frying pan, lower the heat and cook the mushrooms until tender and caramelized. I do this in three or four batches and listen to comedy podcasts all the while. Once the mushrooms are done, season them and parachute them into the pot.
When all the mushrooms have been added, you can pop in the ginger too. That’s it. If you want to thicken the broth, dissolve the optional kudzu in two tablespoons (30 millilitres) of cold water, add to the pot and let simmer for another 10 minutes. My cranky husband prefers to add Dijon mustard, but I like to leave it out to annoy him. Serve with creamed celeriac or plain mashed potatoes with some grated horseradish. It’s your party. Rock it.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of ELLE Canada.