Aine McAteer
This time last year, I was combing the beaches of Kauai, searching for treasures that had drifted in from the ocean—little heart-shaped coral pieces, interestingly shaped pieces of driftwood, shells, water-worn colored glass—my favorite version of Christmas shopping. I was getting ready for a Christmas celebration with my close friends on lovely Tunnels Beach and wanted to be prepared with little gifts to offer. I had already made my annual Christmas card—a laminated recipe—and distributed it among my friends.

Christmas Day was spent lounging in a bikini on the most beautiful beach, sharing food and fun. It wasn't the traditional Christmas dinner in any sense of the word, but it still had that festive feeling of coming together to celebrate a holiday that has different meaning to different people and cultures.

For me, any excuse to come together and enjoy good food and friendship is a welcome one. I have celebrated Christmases all over the world, some memorable, some forgotten. I remember another Christmas on Kauai where a group of us decided that we would host different courses of the Christmas meal in different houses, ending up with dessert and gift exchange in one of the larger and more luxurious homes. Everyone brought a gift, which was put into a big sack, and we all picked one. It was a really fun day and made less stressful for everyone, as each household just had one course to prepare. At this stage, I would really like to be able to say "and every year I work in a soup kitchen and feed hundreds of homeless people and those less fortunate than myself." I would be lying however, as for the most part, until now, I've been feeding people who can afford to have the best of everything and for whom no expense need be spared in creating the most magnificent feast imaginable. Of course, for my creative soul and to indulge my love for cooking, this is a most rewarding experience. However, I'm at a point in my life where I feel so blessed and fortunate that I know it's time to give back. This is the kind of reward I'm more drawn to these days. I see the world and the imbalance that's the result of greed and excess, and I know that I can play my part, however small, in creating balance by sharing some of my blessings with others.

For the past three months, I've come home to spend time with my elderly parents in Ireland. This has been a humbling and rewarding experience and one that has given me a lot of perspective on life. On one hand, I see how much I've grown from all my travels and experiences and interactions with people from all walks of life and all levels of success. My friends and acquaintances range from Hollywood stars to people with beautiful souls but little means. Coming back home at this stage in my life has shown me that I have grown so much, but at the same time I'm still the exact same person. When we step back from our lives as we know them and connect with the simplicity of who we are and our roots, it's both humbling and rewarding. In a small way, its given me an opportunity to give back to those who've given me the most—the parents who gave birth to me and who continue to nurture and support me in all my endeavors. They're my biggest cheerleaders.

This year, I'll be enjoying a more traditional Christmas celebration with my family. I, of course, will be at the helm in the kitchen and have already been busy with preparations. My puddings are made and stored so the flavors can mature and they'll be steamed up again to be enjoyed on Christmas Day with some homemade vanilla-cashew ice cream.

Get Aine's healthy holiday recipes
With so little time before Christmas, I wanted to share a few recipes that I'll be cooking up, so here goes:

My Vanilla-Cashew Ice Cream
I make this in an ice cream maker, but if you don't have one, you can just freeze it in a bowl and stir every so often as it's freezing. Alternatively, you could try the fun and traditional coffee can method of freezing— this is a very fun activity to do with children.

To make the ice cream: Soak about 2 cups raw cashew nuts in about 4 cups water for several hours or overnight. When ready to make the ice cream, combine 1 cup apple juice in a saucepan with 1 Tbsp. agar flakes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the agar flakes have dissolved.

Drain the cashews and put into a blender along with the agar juice mixture, 1 1/2 cups filtered or spring water, 1/2 cup maple or agave syrup and 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract. Blend until very creamy and transfer the mixture to the bowl of your ice cream maker. Continue to set the ice cream, following the instructions on your ice cream maker. This can be made days in advance and stored in your freezer. When ready to use, let it sit out of the freezer so it softens up a bit before serving.

To make the ice cream using the traditional coffee can method, find one large can and one smaller can that will fit inside the large can (a 3-pound can and a 1-pound can). Make sure there is enough room to put a layer of ice around the smaller can. Put the cashew mixture into the smaller can and place it inside the bigger can. Crush about 6 cups of ice cubes and mix it with about 1 cup salt and surround the smaller can with the ice and salt mixture. Seal the lid of the bigger can with duct tape and roll it back and forth on the floor or a table for about 10 minutes. Check to see if it has frozen. If not, repeat the process, draining off some of the melted ice and adding some more ice/salt mixture.

Cashews are a rich source of copper and magnesium, both vital for bone health, and magnesium also regulates nerve and muscle tone. They also contain tryptophan, which is calming and relaxing, and are a valuable source of monounsaturated fats vital for cardiovascular health.

Zesty Cranberry Sauce
I'll also be making my Zesty Cranberry Sauce a couple of days in advance so it's ready to go. I try to find some fresh cranberries, and if I can't find them fresh, I'll buy some frozen.

To make the sauce: In a saucepan, I combine about 2 cups cranberries with 1 sweet apple, peeled and finely chopped, 1 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger, 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg, 1/3 cup sugar-free orange marmalade, 1/3 cup agave or maple syrup. Bring all to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir in 2 Tbsp. lightly toasted pine nuts—this gives a nice texture to the sauce.

Cranberries are high in vitamin C, and juice made from cranberries has long been used to protect against and treat bladder and urinary tract infections.

Mushroom and Thyme Gravy
On the Christmas Day, I'll be whipping up my Mushroom and Thyme Gravy, which will go famously with my Herbed Cous-Cous Stuffing.

To make the gravy: Heat about 3 Tbsp. olive oil in a saucepan and sauté 1 minced shallot or small onion with a big pinch of sea salt for about 30 seconds. Add a cup of chopped mushrooms—you can use cremini, shitake or a mixture and 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves. After about 1 minute, add 3 Tbsp. unbleached white flour (spelt or wheat) and continue to cook until all the flour is coated.

Slowly drizzle in water or vegetable stock, while whisking thoroughly. Start with 1 cup of water or stock and allow it to boil and start to thicken. Continue to drizzle in water or stock while whisking until you get the desired consistency. Add about 2 Tbsp. tamari and 1 tsp. Dijon mustard—or to taste. Continue to simmer for about 5 minutes. Add 1 Tbsp. of minced fresh parsley or chives before serving.

Herbed Cous-cous Stuffing
I'll also be serving my delicious Herbed Cous-Cous stuffing.

To make the stuffing: Cut some sourdough bread (minus the crusts) into small cubes—you want about 3 cups of cubes—and soak them in 1 cup of warm water to which you'll add 1 heaped tsp. vegetable bouillon or 1 stock cube. Then, sauté in 1 Tbsp. olive oil; 1 large onion, small diced; 2 cloves garlic, minced; 2 stalks celery, small diced, about 6 fresh sage leaves, minced;1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves; grated zest of 1 lemon; and about 1/2 tsp. of sea salt until softened.

Mix this with the soaked bread cubes and add 2 cups cooked cous-cous. You can drizzle with a little more warm water or vegetables stock if it's a little dry—you want it quite moist but not soggy. Add a handful of minced fresh parsley and some ground black pepper and mix well. Pile the mixture into an oiled casserole dish, drizzle the top with some olive oil and bake at 350 degrees until nicely browned on top—about 25 minutes.

My family of course will want some turkey, so since our oven is quite small and I have several dishes to bake, I'm making a Turkey Loaf instead of cooking the whole bird. I'll be serving it all up with some roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips. And, no Christmas dinner would be complete without some brussels sprouts, which I'll steam lightly to soften them up, then toss in a little olive oil and salt and pepper and add them to the roasting sweet potato and parsnips for about 10 minutes before the end of cooking time.

To keep our digestive systems in shape, I'm making some radish pickles by slicing some radishes and tossing with 1 Tbsp. umeboshi plum vinegar—let them marinate for at least 30 minutes—to accompany the meal and large jugs of water in which I've infused fresh mint sprigs and slices of lemon, lime and orange to sip on before our meal.

Happy cooking!


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