Thankful / Vegducken (Vegan)


December, man. This month brings so much anticipated joy and heaviness all at once. It's the month where we take a look at the decisions we have made and the challenges we have faced this year and wonder if we handled everything properly. Every emotion we thought we had taken time to reconcile suddenly rises back to the surface and we are left with feelings knocking at our door, the traumas we thought we overcame, the wounds we thought we'd healed. The temperatures cool, the trees lose their leaves, and suddenly life doesn't feel as fresh and sparkly anymore. It becomes somewhat difficult to stay light and to capture the excitement that should be felt this time of year. 

Just this last summer, when I was in Mexico, I had a teacher who told my group and I, "Don't should on yourself." She's right, we should ourselves silly sometimes. Societal norms put so much pressure on us to do what should be done rather than what we want or choose to do i.e. we should be excited for the holidays, we should feel thankful for the roof over our heads, the job that puts it there, and the people who support us. We should keep working and putting blood, sweat, and tears into building a career for ourselves, working to find purpose, and search high and low for someone to partner up with in life, someone to keep us company when we are lonely, someone to fall in love with, to marry, to raise kids with. We should, we should, we should... 

I made a choice on December 2nd to complicate my life of should's and introduce a choice to the picture. I awoke at 4am without knowledge that when I got off work, I would be driving 20 miles east of LA to test drive a built out 2005 Ford Econoline van. I pulled off the freeway exit a little early, so before I showed up, I parked my car at a Vons grocery store and wandered around the isles in a complete daze. I wasn't looking for anything there besides a distraction from what I was actually about to do. Then, when the time came, I bought a single apple that I couldn't even eat because my stomach was in knots. Then, I got back into my car and drove less than a mile to the address of a Craigslist seller. There, I shook hands with a guy, probably in his late 20's, and inspected the van of my dreams. It came complete with a built in high top, insulation, solar panels, white wood lining, a carpet, a roof vent, a transformable bed with a thin foam mattress, a camp stove, and a fancy ARB fridge. The build would need some updates, and I could handle that - no problem. I took it on a test drive with the owner and his dog, who sat up on the dashboard while we tried to get it past 55mph, but didn't succeed due to rush hour traffic. We drove for a good 20 minutes. I got comfortable. I envisioned myself out there, just me, my dog, and the road, and I fell in love with the idea. 

I shook hands with the owner and walked back to my car, my heart and mind pumping with adrenaline as if I just ran a 10k race. The adrenaline stuck around into the evening, and my gut told me to make an in-cash offer through a text message, which I did. I made a lot of phone calls, stirred up a ton of excitement, and then slept on everything I chose to do with my December 2nd. 

Then, I woke up on December 3rd. in a panic. What did I just do? Do I really want this? Am I ready for this change in lifestyle? Am I really getting dressed for a job that I know I'll be quitting to live in a van? Do I have enough savings to quit? Am I ready to leave my apartment? My oven? Am I actually ok with living somewhere without a shower, without a toilet? Would I be safe sleeping in Walmart parking lots and truck stops? Would the freedom be worth it? Will I actually pull off my goal of writing a book? I thought this panic would cease once I got to work. I thought, once I smooth my thoughts over with a cup of coffee, I'll be ok again. But the excitement and worries didn't end, they just grew from here. 

I've been spending the past week engrossed in the back-and-forth contemplation of buying the van. One minute, I'm all for it, and the next, I'm curled up in a ball of emotions having a panic attack, backing out of it. As far as I know, the Craigslist ad is still up, the van is in the palm of my hands if I want it, and just writing this makes me feel a wave of indecisive emotions. I've pulled in advice from multiple sources. I've asked friends who currently live in vans, friends who would never in a million years live in a van, members of solo van-dwelling Facebook groups, and of course, family members who have been left completely puzzled by how crazy I am. However, here's what I've been saying each and every time I ask: "I don't know what I SHOULD do."

That said, I'm consciously recognizing that I have got to put an end to this should-ing I've been doing to myself and look at what I actually want to and do not want to do in order to make a decision, a choice, that is all mine and no one else's.

And so, this December, I'm here to remember and embrace the love and support that everyone has given me during this time and this year. I'm going to remain thankful for all of the friends, jobs, and shelter I have, the best I know how to. Lastly, I'm going to stay true to myself and the choices that I have the power to make. Day by day, stitch by stitch, I will straighten out the kinks in my thoughts and embrace my final decision. Although, let it be known that if I let this van pass me, there will be other vans, other opportunities, and other times for me to live on the road. This is how we learn, and I am thankful to be given the body, mind, and tools to just be here during this final month of the year, to keep trying, to not give up, and to grow. And that is a beautiful thing to have. 


Flashback to Thanksgiving, before all this madness really began. My friends and I woke up at the crack of dawn to buy $9 gourmet holiday lattes from Go Get Em Tiger. If I'm going to drink a pumpkin spice latte once a year, then it's going to look like this:


After coffee, I took myself on a short hike to burn off the sugar and macadamia nut milk, and returned to my apartment to make a vegan vegducken, a recipe I adapted from Epicurious. This is my second go at the vegducken, my first was a little rocky back in 2015, but I this year, I nailed it. I want you all to know that this isn't as complicated as it looks, and I highly encourage making it your main dish for Christmas dinner (or whichever holiday dinner you are having). And if you still insist on turkey or turducken, I judge-not, as long as you don't make poor assumptions about this masterpiece of mine. 








Vegducken
adapted from: epicurious
makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients:
- 1 cup pecans
- 1 (7" long) zucchini
- 1 (9" long) eggplant
- 1 (11" long) butternut squash
- 2 scallions
- 3 garlic cloves, divided
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 1/4 pound mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2-3 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) earth balance
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 2 flax eggs (2 tablespoons flax seed + 6 tablespoons water)
- 1/3 cup nutritional yeast
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 6 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- salt to taste
- peppet to taste
- kitchen twine

Method:
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay pecans onto a baking sheet and toast until slightly darkened, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool, then chop coarsely and set aside. 
  2. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone baking mat. 
  3. Cut the zucchini, eggplant, and butternut squash lengthwise and use a heavy spoon to carefully scoop and hallow out the insides. Leave a 1/4" border on all sides of the eggplant and a 1/2" border on all sides of the butternut squash. Reserve the fillings. 
  4. Use a fork to pierce the squash and zucchini and a knife to make cross hatch marks on the inside of the eggplant to ensure the vegetables cook evenly and throughout. 
  5. Trim the scallions to match the length of the butternut squash, set aside. 
  6. Combine 2 cloves of garlic, shallot, mushrooms, zucchini filling, eggplant filling, and squash filling in a large bowl. In separate batches (because it won't all fit at once), transfer the ingredients in the bowl into a food processor and process until finely chopped. 
  7. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add the vegetable purée along with the fresh rosemary, half of the thyme sprigs, salt, and pepper. Cook until the mixture browns, about 6-8 minutes. Then, remove from heat and let cool.
  8. Meanwhile, peel and mince the remaining garlic clove and combine it with the earth balance, red pepper flakes, and remaining fresh thyme. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the earth balance is melted. Then, stir in the maple syrup. Set aside. 
  9. Make the flax egg by combining ground flax and water together and whisking. Set aside in the fridge for 10 minutes to gelatinize. 
  10. Add the chilled flax egg, nutritional yeast, bread crumbs, and chopped parsley to the bowl of browned vegetables and stir. 
  11. Brush the inside of the butternut squash halves with the maple "butter" and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spoon 1/3 of the filling into each half of the squash and flatten with he back of the spoon. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the toasted pecans and dried cranberries. Then, set the eggplant inside the butternut squash, and repeat the previous steps. Once more, repeat with the zucchini. Reserve about 1/4 cup of the maple "butter." When each of the halves are filled, lay the scallions down the middle.
  12. Cut the three 18" pieces of kitchen twine. Tuck the twine under one squash half. Then, put the other squash half on top so the cut sides match up. Press down to seal and tie the twine around the squash to secure. 
  13. Brush the top with remaining butter, salt, and pepper, wrap in aluminum foil, and place the squash on the baking sheet. Use 2 loaf pans or upside-down, oven-safe bowls on each side of the squash to keep them in place. 
  14. Bake until squash is tender and a fork pokes through the thickest part without resistance, about 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours. 
  15. Remove from oven and remove foil and let rest for 20 minutes. 
  16. Place the vegducken on a cutting board and cut 1" slices with a serrated knife. Serve with all your favorite holiday sides.

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© A Little Baker
Maira Gall