December is time to celebrate

Mediterranean Vegetable-Lentil Stew (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

The weather is chilly. The days are short and gray. Nights are long. But this is the time for holiday cheer! Celebrate with food!

Hanukkah is past, but Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year celebrations are just around the corner.

Americans hail from many food traditions — our ancestors came from across the globe.

Jews from central Europe celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah oil with latkes, fried potato pancakes. For a sweeter treat, these can also be made with other vegetables, like carrots or parsnips. And many other fried foods, like jelly donuts, are part of the feast.

In many northern European cultures, Solstice (also called Saturnalia or Yule) celebrations are popular. Mistletoe, the Yule log, singing and dancing are part of Scandinavian traditions. Romans would relax and exchange presents at Saturnalia.

Foods tend to focus around the fall harvest — roots, apples, porridge, pork and, of course, hot soup to warm you from the cold winter days. Hot cider spiced with nutmeg and ginger — also called Wassail (translated to ‘be well’) — is a popular beverage. The custom of bringing this spicy alcoholic beverage from house to house while singing songs is what pre-dates modern Christmas caroling.

Christmas treats around the globe include mince pies (England), Buche de Noel (France), stollen (Germany), melomakarona (Greece), makosh and (Hungary).

Fish is traditionally eaten as the main course on Christmas Eve in Italy, Poland, Spain and Latin America. In the Philippines, the elaborate Christmas feast often includes a whole roast pig.

Kwanzaa is a Swahili word meaning first fruits. The holiday is the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at the University of California in Long Beach. It is an effort to bring the Black community together. Candles are lit, stories and poems are shared, and the seven principles of Kwanzaa are discussed each night over the festive meal.

Common foods include sweet potato biscuits, cornbread, jerk chicken, groundnut stew (a tasty West African dish), Cajun catfish, African Creole food, beans and rice. Collard greens, Kwanzaa slaw, okra, and Jellof rice are common sides.

Traditional Kwanzaa desserts include ambrosia, coconut cake, sweet potato bars, peach cobbler, and mango pound cake.

The December holidays of course culminate with New Year celebrations on the last day of the year.

In Vietnam, Bahn Chung — rice cakes stuffed with pork, beans, and other delicacies — are traditional fare for New Year’s. Koreans ring in the New Year with traditional kimchi and rice cake soup (Dduk Gook).

In Portugal, Spain, Italy, and parts of Latin America, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight, to ensure happiness in the coming year.

Italians celebrate with lentils; a vegetable and lentil stew is common New Year fare. Lentils and beans, as symbols of wealth, are eaten in Brazil and Italy. Pork is popular in Austria, where a suckling pig is a good luck symbol. In Poland and Germany, herring is eaten at midnight to bring good fortune. In Holland, special donuts, Olle Bollen, are eaten for a sweet New Year. In America, finger food and hors de oeuvres are typical at New Year’s Eve parties.

Mediterranean Vegetable-Lentil Stew

This high-fiber, low-fat vegetarian or vegan dish (omit Parmesan) is appropriate either for the meatless Christmas Eve meal traditional in Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as for New Year’s Eve where lentils are symbolic of coins.


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion

1 stalk celery

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 medium red bell pepper

2 cloves garlic

1 1/2 cup dried lentils

1 bay leaf

2 cups cubed Butternut squash

1 large potato

1 bay leaf

1/2 pound green beans or 1/2 pound kale greens, stripped from stems

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

Salt and pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for serving)

About 1/2 cup sliced olives, for serving


Heat oil in the bottom of soup kettle to medium-low. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Sprinkle with salt. Cover and cook. In the meantime, wash and slice celery; wash, seed and chop the red pepper, and add. Peel and mince the garlic, and add.

When the vegetables have cooked about 10 minutes, add lentils, bay leaf, Butternut squash, potato and 4 cups broth or water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer; cook until lentils and vegetables are almost tender, about 15 minutes.

Add green beans or kale (stripped from stems and washed) and diced tomatoes. Cook 10 more minutes. Stir in basil and parsley. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve in bowls or soup plates, with crusty Italian bread or French baguette. Pass Parmesan cheese and olives to garnish on top.

Serves 3 – 4.

To make in slow cooker: Place lentils, broth, and remaining ingredients except olive oil in crockpot. Cook 10 hours on low. Stir in olive oil just before serving.

Bacon Braised Greens

Braised greens are a great side for any meal, but are traditional southern and African-American fare for Kwanzaa.


2 or 3 strips bacon (or 1 – 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil)

1 onion

2 pounds fresh greens or about 16 cups. Greens can include collards, kale, turnip greens, beet greens, Swiss chard, bok choy

3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup broth or water

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar

Optional: 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes; diced cooked ham, for serving; shredded sharp cheese, for serving


Wash greens and chop coarsely. Set aside in colander.

Place bacon in deep, straight-sided skillet or pot with lid. Cook on medium-low to render fat, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. (alternately, use olive oil).

Add onion to bacon drippings (or olive oil), cover, and cook on low 5 – 10 minutes, until soft and golden. Peel and mince the garlic, add, and cook about a minute.

Add the greens and raisins, sprinkle with salt, and toss until wilted. Add broth, cover and cook 5 – 15 minutes, until tender (this will depend on the type of greens – chard and spinach cook in less than 5 minutes; kale and collards may take 15 – 20).

Crumble in the reserved bacon. Sprinkle with vinegar. Add the tomatoes and / or ham, if using.

Serve hot. I like this over cooked pasta.

Basic Fruit Cobbler

Peach cobbler is traditional for Kwanzaa. But a fruit cobbler is a wonderful dessert anytime!


5 cups canned peach slices, drained (or 5 cups frozen berries, thawed)

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon cornstarch

4 tablespoons bitter

1/2 cup milk

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Butter or oil 9” x 9″ baking dish.

Place peaches (or other fruit) in the bottom of baking dish. Sprinkle with cornstarch and drizzle with maple syrup.

I small saucepan, heat milk and butter until butter is melted.

I mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

Stir in milk and butter mixture.

Spoon topping over fruit; bake 30 minutes, or until golden brown.


Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.


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