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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Most people in the world mark the harvest season with some kind of ritual to thank a creature, or nature, or their loved ones. Raised in a tolerant Hindu family, I am always looking for an excuse to participate in all holidays.

Like many immigrant experiences, however, the Thanksgiving holiday evokes mixed feelings for me. I miss the many holidays we celebrate in India, so I appreciate that this is an occasion when family and friends gather to share nature’s bounty, and it is a secular holiday, so there is no deity to focus on and no obligation to buy gifts. But sadly, the Native Americans with whom the pilgrims marked this holiday in America may have little left to celebrate, and the turkeys, well, they have even less to celebrate. So here are some Thanksgiving recipes to honor endangered peoples and to save and respect animals.

For the main Thanksgiving entrée, many of my vegetarian friends struggle to make a mock turkey with soy or seitan (wheat gluten protein) or end up buying the frozen “unturkey.” Many of these products are healthy and tasty, but being a lifelong vegetarian, I do not have a need for fake meat, so I usually make a main dish that is substantial, such as a casserole. This year, I decided to make a main entrée that is a fusion between Native American food and Indian spicy cuisine. This pie does not need any crust. Instead, cooked polenta and cornmeal are layered on a filling that is fuss-free and nutritious.

This recipe is inspired by a Pueblo stew which uses the “three sisters” ingredients. According to Native American food lore, the three sisters are corn, squash, and beans, all daughters of Mother Earth. These three major foods were cultivated by Native Americans with the ecology of land and water in mind. Corn provides the stalk for bean vines to climb, and beans give the soil needed nitrogen. Squash plants spread out to keep weeds from crowding the corn. Native Americans invented the cultivation of these three crops together, using each other as partners. This is one of their finest gifts to the agriculture practices of the world.

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Savory Pueblo Pie with Spices of India

For the filling:

2 cups butternut, kabocha, or acorn squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup each chopped onion, red bell pepper, and Anaheim or green bell pepper
1 cup fresh or frozen and thawed corn kernels
1 cup freshly cooked green beans (save ¼ cup liquid from the beans)
½ to ¾ teaspoon each ground coriander, cumin, and turmeric
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
a few teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the topping:
4 cups milk or soy milk (nonfat or low fat)
1 cup corn meal
1 cup polenta
1 tablespoon oil
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
or 1 cup shredded soy or rice cheese (vegan option)
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 to 2 teaspoons minced jalapeno pepper

Cut the squash into halves or several large pieces using a serrated knife. Remove seeds and fibers and place the pieces in a vegetable steamer. Steam for 10 minutes or longer until the flesh is easy to separate from the skin. Remove the skin from the cooked squash, and mash the pieces. You will need two cups of cooked squash. Sauté the onion in oil with the peppers for five minutes. Add the corn and beans and continue to cook for a few minutes over moderate heat. Add the squash. Mix in the spices, salt, and lemon juice, and cook for a few more minutes, stirring constantly. Set the filling aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

To make the topping, combine milk or soymilk with the cornmeal, polenta, oil, and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly so that the mixture does not lump together, stick to the bottom of the pan, or burn. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, only until the mixture starts to form dimples on the surface. This can be done in a double boiler to prevent sticking. (If your polenta burns, make another batch; fortunately the ingredients are not expensive and the process is quick.) Set the cooked polenta aside to cool a bit. Then, add the grated cheese to the polenta, mix well, and set aside.

Oil a large shallow casserole (such as a lasagna pan) and spread the filling in it evenly. Next, smooth the cooked polenta evenly over the filling. Sprinkle chopped cilantro and minced jalapenos over the top.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until the top is golden and crusty. Allow to cool and settle for a few minutes before serving. Cut into big squares and serve with cranberry chutney (recipe below).

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Cranberry Chutney

As far as I know, this chutney is my own creation. My friends always expect me to bring this chutney for Thanksgiving dinner.
3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup water
2 cups honey, sugar, fructose, maple syrup, or other sweetener
l tablespoon freshly grated ginger
½ teaspoon each ground cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and cayenne

Chop the cranberries coarsely in a food processor, a blender, or with a knife. Cook them with the water until the berries are soft. Add the sweetener and spices. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the chutney has a jam-like consistency. (If you are using honey, don’t cook it; mix it in later.) It will solidify as it cools. Refrigerated, this chutney keeps for months. It makes a great holiday gift!

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The word halva means any type of sweet, often made with semolina, although in the United States it has come to mean a candy-like sweet made with sesame seeds. In Indian cuisine there are many types of halva with various consistencies. Carrot halva is pudding-like, badam (almond) halva is firmer like a sesame halva, and suji halva has a spongier, porridge-like texture.

Here I have created two kinds of pumpkin halva—one with cream of rice (or cream of wheat or semolina) and the other with ricotta cheese or paneer. Both recipes save space in the oven, which can be crowded during the holiday feast, and they are delightfully simple to make.

Suji Pumpkin Halva

A light Indian dessert with cream of rice, wheat, or semolina, and pumpkin

¼ cup (½ stick) butter
½ cup cream of rice, or wheat, or semolina
½ cup pumpkin pulp (canned or from freshly steamed or baked pumpkin)
½ cup or less sugar or other sweetener
2 cups water
a few pinches of cinnamon, or cardamom, or a pinch of nutmeg
a tablespoon of grated coconut, slivered almonds, or crushed pistachio nuts for garnish

Melt the butter in a frying pan over low heat. Add the cream of rice, wheat, or semolina. Stir constantly for five minutes until the mixture is well blended and starts to foam. Add the pumpkin pulp and continue to stir the mixture, breaking up any lumps, for about 10 minutes or until well blended and crumbly.

In a separate pan, heat the water but do not boil. Pour the water over the pumpkin mixture. Raise the heat to medium and keep stirring until almost all the liquid is absorbed. This takes about five minutes. Add the sugar and cinnamon and mix well. Stir for a few minutes more until the halva has a somewhat solid, lumpy consistency. Turn off the heat and cover for a few minutes. Then spread the halva on a platter, smoothing the surface. The halva will solidify as it cools. Top with your choice of garnish. Cut into squares or wedges and serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

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Pumpkin Pak Halva

A rich Indian dessert with ricotta, or paneer, and pumpkin

¼ cup (½ stick) butter
½ cup ricotta cheese or freshly made paneer
½ cup pumpkin pulp (canned or from freshly steamed or baked pumpkin)
½ cup or less sugar or other sweetener
a few pinches of cinnamon, or cardamom, or a pinch of nutmeg
a tablespoon of grated coconut, slivered almonds, or crushed pistachio nuts for garnish

This halva is richer than the suji halva. Melt the butter in a pan over low heat and add the ricotta cheese or paneer. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the pumpkin pulp, raise the heat to medium, and continue to stir for 10 to 15 minutes more. Then add the sugar and mix well. The mixture will be thin, but it will firm up as it cooks more. Stir the halva constantly for 10 minutes or longer until it forms a lump. Spread on a platter and smooth the surface. Top with your choice of nuts, and cover. After a few minutes, the halva will be firm enough to cut into wedges or squares. It can be served warm, or chilled and served later.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager of Other Avenues, a health-food store. Her daughter Serena Sacharoff is an illustrator and art student.