Monday, March 22, 2010

Herbed Butternut Squash Cakes with Wild Rice Pilaf

Visiting my family is one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend particularly when the snow has melted in Minnesota and I don’t have to brace myself for the bitter subzero shock that inevitable freezes my poor Arizona-adjusted body. Aside from being lovely, intelligent, humorous and incredibly entertaining, my family members are also pretty adventurous eaters. They have embraced my crazy vegan ventures with open minds for the most part and limited judgment, seating whatever I put on the table and listening to my veggie banter with genuine, if not sometimes divided, attention. I am amazed by how my personal decisions and adjustments regarding food have actually impacted their diets, even if I continue to harp sometimes about a stray high-fructose-laced box of cereal bars (ok they would tell you it’s all the time). I truly admire and am deeply grateful that they’ve taken so many strides to be conscious consumers – it’s a long and hard road to health in this country, that’s for sure.

So with each Minnesota visit comes a somewhat elaborate vegan feast. I, more or less humbly, secretly dote on demands that I cook at home, because I am more than eager to produce another plant-based meal on this planet that may have otherwise been meat-infested. Menu planning can be positively challenging, however, particularly when the northern farmers markets are in the last stages of hibernation before the first spring picks are ready. I say “positively” because it’s not necessarily difficult to plan and the available resources are generally inspiring: the bulbous root vegetable bunch, the cruciferous crew, and the beloved winter squash family. Wild rice is another valuable ingredient, not to mention a local specialty that is delicious and gluten-free (still trying really hard to limit wheat these days). The challenge lies in the timing and the crowd. When it feels like spring before it actually is spring, how do you make a bright meal out of winter crops?

The more personal challenge lies with the audience. The real menu planning challenge is making a meal taste un-vegan and family friendly without putting a plate in front someone that looks completely foreign. Though my family is generally open, I don’t typically cook outlandish, exotic meals unless we have a themed night plan where everyone knows we’ll be eating Ethiopian or Indonesian. The chef in me often wants to prepare a 5-6 dish gourmet spread. The daughter, sister, and aunt in me brings me down reminds me though that the best way to have an effective vegan influence is to prepare not necessarily omni-preferred analogues, but something that is equally familiar as it is exploratory. Though anything foreign has to be snuck in gently, it pays dividends to both eager-to-please chef and hesitant eater.

Results: the taste and feel of this meal matched the chilly but sunny limbo weather perfectly! It wasn’t a spring meal in terms of crunch pods or baby greens, but it was a far cry from a heavy winter goulash. With a side of steamed broccoli, it was a delectable brightness to inspire enough freshness to tide everyone over until spring comes in a couple of weeks. As for the other challenge – when your meal has gained the approval of a 14-month old and his incredibly wary mother, you know you’ve pulled of some special vegan magic.

Tip: To make this all together, use one medium or large butternut squash. Cut in half and scoop out the seeds. Leaving the peel on, microwave the bottom half (the round half) in a glass dish filled with ¾” water on high for 6-7 minutes or until very tender. Peel the top half, cube and use in the wild rice pilaf.

Herbed Butternut Squash Cakes
Makes 10 small cakes (3” diameter)
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes


1 tsp. Sage, dried
¾ tsp. Garlic powder
½ tsp. Marjoram, dried
½ tsp. Thyme, dried
½ tsp. Onion powder
Dash of ground cloves, nutmeg, or allspice
2 T. Soy sauce
½ c. Boiling water
1 c. TVP
1 ½ c. Butternut Squash, cooked and mashed
2-4 T. Corn flour or masa (as needed)
Pepper to taste
¼ c. Canola oil


Mix together first 5 ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk in soy sauce and mix until well blended. Pour hot water into herb mixture and whisk well.

Place TVP in a medium bowl, pour seasoned water over TVP and stir to blend in herbs. Let hydrate for 5-10 minutes or until TVP has absorbed all of the liquid and is soft in texture. Mix in the mashed squash and pepper to taste. Add flour as needed if the mixture does not hold together well. Mix with hands and form into small patties. Transfer cakes to a medium baking dish coated with cooking spray and refrigerate patties 15-30 minutes to set. Preheat oven to 450˚F.

After cakes have set, bake in oven 10-15 minutes or until the cakes feel firm to the touch. Remove from heat and set aside. Heat canola oil over high heat in a large frying pan until oil is very hot. Place each cake carefully in oil and fry until cakes are browned and crispy on the outside, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from pan and set on a paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Wild Rice Pilaf
Makes 6-8 servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes


2/3 c. Wild Rice
3 c. Water

½ T. Olive oil
1 ½ c. Butternut squash, uncooked and cubed
Salt and pepper

1 T. Olive oil
½ Medium onion, chopped
2 Large celery stalks, chopped
4 Garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. Thyme
½ tsp. Salt
1 Red bell pepper, chopped
Vegetable broth (as needed)
Pepper to taste.


Bring water and rice to a boil. When water starts to boil, turn heat to low and simmer until rice is tender, 50-60 minutes. Drain (if necessary) and set aside.

Preheat oven to 450˚F.

In a medium mixing bowl, coat squash with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast in oven 25-35 minutes or until brown and crispy on edges. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté onions and celery until transparent, 8-10 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and salt and cook an additional minute. Add red bell pepper and ¼ cup of vegetable broth to deglaze pan if too dry. Cook mixture until vegetables are just tender, 5-6 minutes. Mix in wild rice and butternut squash and let cook until all liquid has evaporated. Season with pepper and additional salt to taste.

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