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Tomorrow, I’ll be treating you all to a full menu of holiday recipes—perfect for Christmas Eve or day, New Year’s Eve or day, and the whole winter season. Today, I’m kicking off my holiday recipe fest with a perfect cocktail party appetizer: cheese and crackers. Raw cheese and crackers that is: to be precise, sweet cashew cheese with meyer lemon and dried cherries, and maple cinnamon flax crackers.

My childhood memories of cheese and crackers are not fond. As Chloe will attest, my tolerance for the smell of cheese is slim. I have been known to position myself as far away as humanely possible from the cheese tray at parties, and to beg my mother to confiscate it from our fridge—so sensitive am I to the smell of ripe fromage. Cheese is without a doubt the animal product that most of my vegetarian clients seem to have a hard time living without, but I can’t say I’ve ever understood the attachment.

When I went raw, though, I was delighted to discover the wonderful world of nut cheeses! Usually made with a cashew base (though macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds all work nicely, too) nut cheeses are tangy, tasty, and versatile. No, they won’t fool any cheese aficionado, but they are excellent in their own right (and if you’re like me, and you equate “cheese” with “skeeve,” they’re an incredible alternative).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a huge fan of sweet/savory flavor combinations. I, like my friend Kath, love adding sweetness and spice (that is, cinnamon, nutmeg, and so on) to savory dishes. I spice up whole grains with cinnamon and a touch of agave or stevia, I add cinnamon liberally to soups, and I often add dates to salad dressings or sauces. It wasn’t until this past weekend, though, that it occurred to me to add some sweetness to a nut cheese. The result—a cashew cheese flavored with meyer lemon and dried cherries—is a new favorite.

More on the cheese in a moment. To go along with it, I decided to put a sweet spin on my basic flax cracker recipe.

For those of you who haven’t tried making flax crackers before, do; it couldn’t be any easier! You simply soak 2 cups of flax seeds in just enough water to cover them (I begin with one and a quarter cups, and add if I need to—it usually comes to one and a half cups) and 1 tsp salt or 2 tbsp Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. After an hour and a half, the mixture should be gelatinous and gooey. Spread it onto Teflex sheets and dehydrate for 3-4 hours at 115 degrees:

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till the top side is all dry; carefully flip the whole cracker sheet over and dehydrate for another 3 hours. (You can also use an oven set to 150 with the door slightly ajar for this process.) Break the sheet into crackers, and serve.

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Naturally, you can season the crackers however you wish to: I often add chopped herbs, some cayenne for a kick, or sundried tomatoes. In keeping with the season (and with my sweet cheese recipe in the works), I decided on Saturday to turn these into maple cinnamon crackers. I reduced the normal salt in the recipe to ½ tsp, and I added ¼ cup maple syrup and 2 tsps cinnamon to the recipe, before dehydrating as usual. The crackers emerged a golden color and heavenly scent (excuse me while I have a VeggieGirl-like moment of nostalgia, here: the smell reminded me of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal!). They were warm, fragrant, and ready to be topped with my scrumptious cashew cheese.

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Cashew Cheese with Meyer Lemon and Dried Cherries (Yields approx 1 1/2 cups)

1 ½ cups cashews, soaked 1-2 hours

3 tbsps meyer lemon juice (regular lemons are absolutely fine, but meyer lemons, though more costly, have a specially sweet flavor I love)

2-3 tbsp agave nectar (to taste)

½ tsp sea salt

¼ cup dried cherries (try to get unsulphered and unsweetened)

2 tsps meyer lemon zest

Blend the cashews, lemon juice, salt, and agave in a food processor till very, very smooth (this may take some time, and some scraping of the sides of the bowl). When the mix is thick and consistent, add the cherries and zest and pulse till the cherries are slightly broken down.

Serve the cheese over flax crackers or with vegetable crudités. If you don’t follow food combining (or maybe even if you do, as an exception), this cheese would taste lovely with fresh fuji apple or pear slices, and it would also be great over sweet oven-roasted fennel (she says, brainstorming about her next usage).

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In all, this pairing couldn’t be better for a holiday cocktail party treat. And the best news is that it may be a far cry from your standard stilton and apples, or cheddar and crackers, but it’s completely delicious and intriguing in its own right: a perfect gift for a host or hostess or contribution to a holiday spread. Enjoy!

Before I go, I wanted to respond to a few questions I’ve been getting about Paul Nison’s recent announcement that he’s no longer 100% a raw vegan. For those of you who don’t know him, Nison is a recognized figure in the raw community, and previously a very ardent raw vegan. He recently declared that he’s no longer following a 100% raw, or a 100% vegan diet. This coincides with rumors that Victoria Boutenko—also a notable raw vegan—has announced within the community that she no longer eats completely raw (steamed vegetables, apparently — gasp!!), and with Anthony Anderson’s announcement that he’s no longer vegan. To be honest, I haven’t watched the videos in which Paul explains in depth his reasons for no longer eating 100% raw vegan. I’m sure he has valid reasoning. I’m sure that, as with all issues of nutrition, there are good arguments and counterarguments to be made.

My opinion? Um, who cares? I’ve never been all raw myself, so the notion that Paul is eating some brown rice now and again (or whatever cooked foods he chooses) doesn’t freak me out. Am I sorry to hear that vegans are giving up on veganism? Yes, of course I am: obviously, veganism is a lifestyle I feel very passionate about, and a dietary model that I believe can offer everyone sustained health. But what other people do and don’t do isn’t really my business. Unless someone is asking me for inspiration or encouragement or for my professional dietary guidance, I’m not in a position to judge what he or she feels is imperative for his or her body.

What did depress me was the outpouring of public relief that accompanied Paul’s announcement, and others. Countless readers and commenters chimed in with words of gratitude, as if they’d just been liberated from a labor camp (remarks along the lines of “thank you for your bravery, your honesty, etc.—thank you for showing me feel that it’s OK not to be a raw vegan—thank you for helping me to admit that 100% raw isn’t for me,” and so on), often with immense relief.

People. Come on. If you’re that miserable on a vegan diet, or a raw diet, or any diet, it’s time to rethink your habits. Do you really need a public figure to persuade you that it’s “OK” to change your lifestyle?

The whole point of eating raw is to feel good. To feel happy. If you’re not meeting that goal—if you feel trapped, or unwell, or anxious, or deprived—something’s very wrong. Don’t wait for someone else to compel you towards change. (You shouldn’t be looking to anyone else to tell you what is and is not right for you in the first place.) Listen to your body, and try to honor it. It may not mean giving up on raw foods altogether, but simply modifying the way you practice them; it may not mean abandoning veganism, but rather shifting or adding to the way your diet is composed. But you’ll never find out what’s up until you take some sort of personal initiative. Please, do not sit around in an anxious funk, waiting for a recognizable figure to validate the way you feel. If you don’t feel well, begin taking steps to feel better. Now’s the time!

And on that note, I hope you all enjoy the winter cocktail treats above. Expect more holiday fare late tomorrow, for a special Raw Wednesday holiday edition!

xo