Little Eater chef/owner Cara Mangini shares some of her favorite dishes to serve this time of year.  
Story by Beth Stallings

Before starting her career in the food world, Cara Mangini asked herself one question: How could she create a business that would bring people together around good food? That driving query led to her to open produce-centric Little Eater, first as a pop-up eatery and now a fresh and colorful prepared food counter in the North Market (and, next year, Clintonville).

The holidays are a time when Mangini—author of The Vegetable Butcher cookbook, published earlier this year—gets to return to the root of that question, gathering with and cooking for the people she loves.

“It’s not expected, but it’s the time I feel like I get to play and be creative,” says Mangini, who will spend the season (happily) jumping from meal to meal, catching up with family and friends. “It’s kind of a mad-crazy holiday. It’s filled with one meal after the other after the other. And everyday thereafter tends to be the same kind of food-focused madness.”

Show up to a party with Mangini present, and it’s likely you’ll be handed a glass of bubbly to pair with two-bite sweet potato latkes with a cranberry chipotle compote. Or you may cap off a long meal with a slice of parsnip ginger layer cake (both recipes are below). Here, Mangini shares a few thoughts on her favorite early winter vegetables, along with no-fail recipes that’ll impress everyone at the holiday table.

Why should vegetables play a bigger role in our holiday meals?
The holidays come at the end of the harvest season and give us reason to celebrate vegetables, honor the people who grew our food and be grateful for the people we love. Part of connecting with this moment of the year is eating in harmony with nature and featuring fall and winter vegetables in the center of our plates.

What are some of your favorite ingredients we should be on the lookout for this time of year?
This season presents a range of so many delicious vegetables in their prime. Look out for every type of winter squash. You can find sweet potatoes, parsnips, and Brussels sprouts as well as gorgeous and enormous heads of cauliflower and broccoli. There are also turnips, rutabaga, radishes, carrots, beets and celery root.

What vegetable-centric dishes do you prepare around the holidays?
My holiday table always features a sweet potato dish, Brussels sprouts, a beautiful salad and roasted root vegetables and winter squash highlighted in both sweet and savory dishes.
Sweet Potato Latkes with Cranberry Chipotle Compote, Sour Cream and Chives always get my family’s meal started, along with a glass of something bubbly. For the main show, I love a Brussels sprouts slaw with pomegranates as a stand-in for roasted Brussels sprouts. I love roasted Brussels sprouts, but at the holidays they are the last to get oven time and end up soggy and cold by the time they get to the table.

I love spaghetti squash tossed in brown butter, fried sage, hazelnuts and Parmesan—it makes an elegant side dish that can also double as a main. And for a completely produce-inspired holiday meal Celery Root Pot Pie from The Vegetable Butcher cookbook is elegant, decadent, delicious and easy—everything you want on want on your holiday table and throughout the winter.  

For dessert, Parsnip-Ginger Layer Cake with Browned Buttercream Frosting is a must! (You can also make this cake into cupcakes or as a frosted sheet cake. The frosting pairs really well with pumpkin or carrot cake, too.)

Matthew Benson

RECIPES

Parsnip-Ginger Layer Cake
with Browned Buttercream Frosting
Serves 8 to 10

Unsalted butter, at room temperature, for greasing the pans
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the pans
1 cup grapeseed or canola oil (see Notes)
3 cups peeled and shredded parsnips (about 1¼ pounds)
1½-inch knob (1 to 1¼ ounces) fresh ginger, peeled and grated on a Microplane
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
1½ cups sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
4 large eggs
¾ cup low-fat or whole milk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped
Browned Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch cake pans. Line the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper.

Heat ¼ cup of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add the parsnips and fresh ginger and stir to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the parsnips are fragrant and tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the parsnip mixture cool.

Meanwhile, whisk together the ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in a large bowl. Add the 2 cups of flour, the sugar, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until incorporated.

In a smaller, separate bowl, whisk together the remaining ¾ cup of oil, the eggs, milk, and vanilla.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Stir in the parsnip mixture and toasted pecans until just combined.
Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans. Bake until the tops begin to turn golden, or an inserted toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.

Transfer the cakes to wire cooling racks and let cool in the pans for 10 minutes. To remove the cakes, run a knife around the inside edge of each cake pan. Invert the pans onto the cooling racks, leaving the pans in place until the cakes release. Remove the pans and parchment, and allow the cakes to cool completely.

Place one of the cakes top side up on a cake plate. Scoop about one third of the frosting onto the center of the cake, and use an offset spatula (or butter knife) to spread out the frosting evenly. Place the second cake, top side down, onto the frosted cake top. Scoop the remaining frosting onto the center of the second layer (you may use less frosting if you prefer—you want just enough to cover the top surface of the cake) and spread it in an even layer all the way to the edge (leave the sides bare).

Notes: I like to leave the sides of this cake bare, spreading the frosting generously between the layers and on top—this way the parsnips really shine—but you can frost the sides of the cake as well. There will be enough frosting either way.

For a lower-fat version of this cake, replace ½ cup of the oil with ¾ cup unsweetened applesauce.

To make a 4-layer cake, bake the cake in 2 pans and turn them out of the pans as directed. Once the cakes have cooled completely, cut each in half horizontally with a serrated knife. Double the frosting. Layer and lightly frost each round.

 

Browned Buttercream Frosting
Makes about 2½ cups

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
4 to 4½ cups confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 to 6 tablespoons milk or warm water,
plus extra if needed

Heat the butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat until it melts and becomes golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sift 4 cups of the confectioners’ sugar into a medium-size bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer).

Add the browned butter to the confectioners’ sugar along with the vanilla and beat together with an electric hand mixer (or a stand mixer) on medium-low speed until just incorporated.

Add 3 tablespoons milk or more to reach your desired consistency and beat on medium-low speed until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. If you add too much liquid and the frosting is too thin, just add more confectioners’ sugar, a little at a time, to reach your desired consistency. Let the frosting cool before spreading on the cake.

It will keep, in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 week. Bring it to room temperature before using and add more milk or warm water to thin it if needed.


Shredded Brussels Sprouts
with Pomegranate Seeds, Walnuts, and Manchego
Serves 4 to 6

Brussels sprouts shredded, raw and tossed with a vinaigrette make an excellent slaw or salad. Trim the tough end of Brussels sprouts, cut them in half lengthwise, then place them on your board cut-side down. Now thinly slice/shred the sprouts by cutting across.

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and finely sliced
1 to 2 tablespoons walnut oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ to ¾ cup pomegranate seeds (from 1 medium pomegranate)
¾ cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup freshly grated Manchego cheese (about 2 ounces)

Whisk together the vinegar, lemon zest, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and several grinds of pepper in a large bowl. Add the sprouts and toss well to combine and coat the sprouts. Let stand to marinate, 5 minutes.

Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of the walnut oil and the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss well to combine. Add the pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and all but about ¼ cup of the Manchego. Toss well and adjust salt and pepper and the walnut oil to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl or individual shallow bowls and top with the remaining Manchego, and sprinkle with more lemon zest if you wish.

Note: There are more reverent ways than this one to separate pomegranate seeds from their pith and membrane, but I recommend the following method for ease, speed, and a no-mess outcome. Trim a small piece off the top, stem end of the pomegranate. Resting the fruit on its cut end, cut it vertically into quarters along its natural ridges. Submerge the sections in a bowl of cool water and use your fingers to gently rub and release the seeds from the pith that surrounds them. The water helps keep the juice from splattering onto you and your kitchen. It also allows the white pith to float to the top, making it easier to skim and discard it. Drain the pomegranate seeds. You will lose some of their tart-sweet juice in the process, but not enough to worry about.


Sweet Potato Latkes
with Cranberry Chipotle Compote, Sour Cream and Chives
Makes about 18 small latkes

My sweet potato latkes are so fast and easy when you shred the potatoes in a food processor. Also, you can make the cakes ahead and reheat in the oven until warmed through and crisp just before topping with the cranberry compote and serving.

1 pound orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (2 small to medium or 1 large), peeled
½ small onion
1 large egg
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pinches of ground nutmeg
¼ cup grapeseed or canola oil
Cranberry Chipotle Jam (recipe follows), for serving
¼ cup sour cream, for serving
Fresh chives, cut in ½-inch pieces on a diagonal, for garnish

Cut the sweet potatoes in half crosswise and place them lengthwise on their sides in the feed tube of a food processor fitted with the shredding disk. Press down with the pusher and process. Halve the onion crosswise, peel it, and shred it in the same fashion. (Alternatively, use a box grater to shred the whole sweet potatoes and onion.) Set aside.

Lightly beat the egg in a large bowl. Whisk in the flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the sweet potato and onion, and stir together until well incorporated.

Set a couple of layers of paper towels on a wire cooling rack. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drop a pinch of batter into the pan to test the oil—it should sizzle when it is ready.

Use a dinner spoon to scoop a heaping tablespoonful of the batter; use another to shape it so that sweet potato pieces are not hanging off the spoon. Drop the batter into the oil and gently press the mound with the back of the spoon, flattening it just slightly. Repeat with more batter until the pan is filled but not overcrowded.

Cook the latkes until the underside is golden brown, 1½ to 2 minutes, then flip and cook until browned and crispy on both sides, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes more. Transfer to the prepared rack. Reduce the heat as needed to make sure the latkes don’t burn and repeat until all of the latkes are cooked.

(The latkes can be made ahead up to this point. Let them cool completely, then cover them in plastic wrap or place them in an airtight container and store them up to overnight in the refrigerator. To reheat, preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the latkes on a baking sheet and heat through until sizzling hot and crispy, about 5 minutes.)

Serve the latkes hot, topping each with some cranberry chipotle jam, a small dollop of sour cream, and a piece of chive.

Note: Some sweet potatoes may contain extra moisture. If the potatoes seem particularly wet after you shred them in step 1, transfer the shredded sweet potato and onion to a large piece of cheesecloth, gather the excess cloth, and twist it around them. Squeeze and wring out the liquid. Transfer the veggies to a colander and let stand briefly to drain further before mixing with the flour and egg.

 

Cranberry Chipotle Jam
Makes 2 cups

3 cups fresh cranberries (or frozen if needed)
⅓ cup dried currants
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup pure maple syrup
2 teaspoons finely chopped or pureed chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (about 1 whole chipotle)
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Place the cranberries, currants, brown sugar, maple syrup, ⅓ cup of water, chipotles, cinnamon, orange zest, orange juice, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, uncovered, until the cranberries start to pop in succession, then turn the heat down to low and continue to cook, stirring often, until most of the cranberries have burst and the compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Use the back of a spoon to further crush the cranberries. The jam will keep, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 5 days.