By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Modified dish suits the season

I had something of a revelation recently, when I realized I didn’t, actually, need to find a whole new recipe for shepherd’s pie to replace my favorite Mollie Katzen recipe, in order to accommodate winter vegetables.

I just needed to use different vegetables.

After more than 25 years of cooking, you’d have thought this would be obvious. But, no.

Katzen calls for eggplant, which is out of season, mushrooms and onions. But leaving out the eggplant and substituting a mixture of turnips, carrots and chard stems — the items I happened to have in the refrigerator — worked beautifully.

Moral: stew or hash covered with crust or mashed potatoes is just plain delicious, whatever vegetables find their way into it. It’s a great way to make a simple dish into something special.

Katzen also called for parsley and chives in the mashed potato topping. Lacking any chives, I put in some minced rosemary and parsley, and made a note to remember to do that again; it was wonderful.

It’s the time of year when we simultaneously want hearty, comforting meals and are often short on time, so it’s a good time for casseroles and soups that will last a few days.

Also, eating plenty of really tasty, nutritious meals leaves you with less room for filling up on eggnog and cookies, and more likely to just nibble a bit.

As someone trying to avoid eating much sugar, this time of year poses difficulties; I love to bake. And Christmas just cries out for baking. Fruitcake, cookies, minted nuts, pie – oh, dear. That doesn’t look much like moderation, even if much of it does get shipped off in boxes.

It’s taken years to develop better habits, and the will to eat only a couple of very thin slices of homemade fruitcake, not several thick slices. A taste of a cookie; not a whole one. And so forth. Also, I’ve learned to cut back on the amount of sugar that goes into the recipe in the first place, and to calculate the number of grams per serving. Sounds dreary, but it really isn’t. Allowing myself so many grams per day feels much more luxurious than the previous strategy of denying myself any at all.

Sugar issues aside, cooking in December can be a lot of fun; there are so many tasty things to make. The baking, of course, can be sheer delight, especially if there are family heritage recipes to make.

Popcorn is an inexpensive, fun and sugar-free treat, albeit often a buttery, salty one.

And even cooking meals offers lovely possibilities for making wonderful family memories; homemade pizza or raviolis, for example, can make a celebration out of anything.

Shepherd’s pie or barley vegetable soup is just the thing to come home to when you’re tired and cold. A hearty plate of spaghetti with sausage and steamed or roasted broccoli can warm you right down to your toes.

Happy holidays. May they be filled with family, friends, warmth and good meals.

Contact Nicole Montesano at


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