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Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

We’re a few days post Thanksgiving. The words “hurry now” and “save 50%” have left our fingers twitching towards our wallets. In most cases we don’t even know what we want to buy – we just want to SAVE.

Friends, we’re in the liminal zone – wandering in a post-Thanksgiving haze, headed towards the New Year, just a few short weeks away. The time can easily be spent in a craze of shopping that we hope will somehow transform us into happier, more fulfilled versions of ourselves, but that only ends up dumping us on the other side of the New Year with more stuff. We wobble through the first days of the New Year, staggered by the weight of our new belongings, grappling for a resolution that will make the future somehow more meaningful.

Can we just… stop?

Instead of following the signs – “hurry now” and “save 50%” – let’s slow down and spend 100% on each other.

A family tradition

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

After my daughter’s first Christmas, when she got a million and one gifts, I realized I’d have to make a serious effort to help her understand that the holidays have nothing to do with how much loot she has under the tree. Now that she’s in school, this is even more critical (yes, even first-graders compare gifts).

I want her to know the holidays are about…

  • Believing in something bigger than ourselves.
  • Taking time to enjoy each other’s company.
  • Loving each other.

Instead of giving her PJ’s or a book on Christmas Eve, I realized I could use this quiet night to celebrate the things that money cannot buy.  That way, come Christmas Day, she would enjoy her tangible gifts with a little perspective – namely, that it’s not all about the object in the box, but the love and thought that goes into it.

And so our tradition was born. We call it Gifts from the Heart.

Gifts from the Heart

Every year since Ava’s first Christmas, my husband and I have marked Christmas Eve with a tradition of getting each other NOTHING. We even pass around an empty box to underscore the point.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

Giving each other “nothing” is really about celebrating the gifts that cannot be wrapped – time, love, and intention. It works like this: During Christmas Eve dinner, we take turns passing around the empty box, offering each other something intangible.  We usually do it at the dinner table, after we’ve eaten. We take our time and turn the moment into a sweet celebration.

Examples from our family:

Last year, I knew that Ava wanted to have a lemonade stand. I also knew (from reading stories with her at bedtime) that she was smitten by Amelia Bedelia’s lemon meringue pie. When it was my turn I said:

Ava, I give you the gift of helping you organize a lemonade stand and making a lemon meringue pie together.

I then presented her with the box. In turn, she made a production of opening the drawstring and hugging the box to her heart.

Accepting the gift with some sort of drama is an beloved part of the ritual. It makes us laugh but it also helps us slow down, take a moment to acknowledge each other’s gifts. Rushing through the giving defeats the purpose.

After I gave Ava her gift, then she gave hers – time for me and Keith to play in her cardboard castle together (as well as “wings” to fly together – so cute!).

I gave Keith “7 boxes of donations” to help simplify our belongings. Keith turned around and gave me 7 boxes of donations and topped it off with a promise to take me out on a fancy date night. He gave Ava a fancy Father-Daughter night out, too, along with a night to bake cookies.

In the past we’ve given each other promises to be digital-free at certain times, to close the office door after 5 p.m. (we both work from home), and to eat breakfast together whenever possible.

And so it goes.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

We wrote down our Gifts from the Heart in a notebook so that we could remember them from year to year. Plus, things like lemonade stands can’t be done in cold weather, so it helps my fuzzy brain to have a written record of exactly what I gifted my family for accountability purposes.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

About the box

Why I'm giving my family nothing this Christmas

Passing an empty box for your Gifts from the Heart is symbolic and fun, though not entirely necessary. If you choose to use one, don’t fuss about finding something fancy.

Ours had a rather humble beginning. I found it nearly a decade ago on a shelf at the local thrift store, on top of a clothing rack near the candles. In fact, I think it used to hold candles. I was drawn to the box because it was so unusual – a lightweight metal frame wrapped in sheer cloth. The cloth pulls together on top with a drawstring, making it as much a bag as a box. I purchased it to transport our rings when Keith and I got married (instead of using a traditional pillow). I tied an “X” across the top frame with some ribbon and dangled the rings from the center. The rings remained visible as the terrified ring bearer walked them down the aisle.

Very cute.

After the wedding, I tucked the box in the back of a closet and forgot about it until we started our Gifts from the Heart tradition.

Why “nothing” is so great

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas


By giving each other “nothing,” we’re actually setting intentions for the New Year – how we plan to spend time together, what’s important to us. It serves as a mini-vision board for family time.

Gifts from the Heart is about slowing down and spending 100%… on what matters.

That way, when the tide of gifts rises at dawn (as it inevitably does), there’s a small life raft of meaning for our children to grab onto. While I’ll always get Ava gifts on Christmas Day, I hope that, when she’s an adult, she’ll remember those intangible Gifts from the Heart most fondly.

Cultivating Gratitude

Another hope is to teach our children to appreciate what they’re given, no matter how small or large, real or intangible. Last year, I knew we were getting somewhere when Ava wrote us these spontaneous thank you notes. She did it late one night, after bedtime stories.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for ChristmasNo one asked her to do it.

She was 5-years old.

What a gift.

Here’s what she wrote:

To: mom

I lov the presets tha yoou gav me. I lov you.


To: Popo

I lov the presets that you gav me. I lov you.

I mean… c’mon.

You’re invited

If you like the idea of giving your family “nothing” this year, remember you don’t need a fancy box. Two cupped hands will do for sharing gifts from the heart. I think doing it around the dinner table is a nice touch, though what night you choose will certainly depend on your family traditions. Again: this is not about replacing traditional gift giving, but about underscoring the fact that the most important things in life can’t be wrapped.

Finally, remember the GTA community is here to support each other. I invite you to share  your photos and stories on Instagram with #GlobalTableAdventure and #Giftfromtheheart. Let’s cheer each other on!

Flemish Brussels Sprouts Recipe

Flemish Sauteed Brussels Sprouts | Spruitjes

Flemish Brussels Sprouts Recipe

The Holy Grail of Brussels sprouts is a perfectly sauteed specimen. Done poorly, they are stinky, squishy, and muddy in color. Generally, I don’t even bother – preferring instead to roast Brussels sprouts with a bit of olive oil and herbs.


Long ago I vowed never to disgrace my sprouts by cooking them any other way.

But this time of year there’s not much room in the oven for roasted veggies – hefty turkeys, geese, and hams elbow out all semblances of health food. Little choice remains for Brussels sprout fanatics but to relegate our baby cabbages to the stove top.

Seeking perfection overseas

I began my search for the perfect sauteed Brussels sprout in the logical place – Belgium, whose capital city is the Brussels sprout’s namesake. While several countries enjoy Brussels sprouts (including Italy and the United Kingdom), I figured Belgium would have the largest assortment of recipes to choose from.

"Floréal 04". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Floréal” in Brussels, Belgium.

I was wrong.

For starters, of the five Flemish restaurants I looked up in Brussels, none of them had Brussels sprouts on the menu (Was this perhaps a stubborn desire to defy expectations, I wonder?). Next, I reached out to a few contacts who’d lived in Belgium. Turns out, the traditional Flemish recipe varies little. For the most part, Belgians parcook their sprouts in either steam or boiling water, then finish them off by sauteing them in butter. A shallot or onion sweetens the mix, while a really creative recipe will add some cream or lemon juice. Nearly all recipes include a pinch of nutmeg.

Simplicity is a true test of a cook.

Any recipe with just a few ingredients has little margin for error. This recipe has fewer than five ingredients. No squeezed, slathered, or dusted ingredient is included to mask any overcooked specimens.

You might as well hope for a magical, bike-riding elf.

Oh wait…

Flemish Brussels Sprouts Recipe

Game Day pressure

I decided to bring my first attempt to a friend’s house for Game Night. Not only was I unsure how many friends actually liked the little cabbages, I had no idea if this new-to-me recipe was going to “work.”

Plus I spent an inordinate amount of time posing a doll and bicycle with a stalk of Brussels sprouts, which made everything a little more rushed in the end.

And ridiculous.

And fabulous.

And ridiculous.

Flemish Brussels Sprouts Recipe

The actual cooking process was painless and quick. In a mere 15 minutes I was ready to go, casserole in hand. My biggest fear? That when I took the lid off to reveal a puff of warm, fragrant steam, everyone was going to sniff, grimace, and take ten steps back.

Surpassing expectations

Instead of running for the door, our friends ate the buttery Brussels sprouts with gusto. Not one green leaf was left at the end of the night.

Even more pleasing, I managed to make a believer of… myself.

There was a lusciousness to the sauteed sprouts that cannot be replicated in the oven. Where the latter is bold and nutty, properly sauteed sprouts are buttery, each nibble silken and sweet.

Tips for perfect sauteed sprouts:

Flemish Brussels Sprouts Recipe

  • Trim off any tough outer leaves.
  • Use a timer when steaming the sprouts so they don’t get mushy.
  • Cool them off in an ice bath if not sauteing them right away (this will help keep them bright green).
  • When sauteing, use a large pan so they aren’t crammed in there. This is the only way to keep them from steaming further and getting mushy.
  • Season well because… yum.

One more thing.

For complete enjoyment of this dish, be sure to enjoy your sprouts with a dash of Brussels and your Brussels with a dash of sprouts.

Confused? Check out this map.

Turns out Brussels looks a lot like a Brussels sprout.

"Brussel 1657 Janssonius" by Janssonius, Johannes - Sanderusmaps. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Map of Brussels from 1657, by Johannes Janssonius, Johannes

I mean, c’mon…

"Chou de Bruxelles ordinaire Vilmorin-Andrieux 1904" by Mettais & VAC = Vilmorin-Andrieux & Compagnie - Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie, 1904. Les plantes potagères. Description et culture des principaux légumes des climats tempérés. ed. 3. Paris, Vilmorin-Andrieux. fig., XX-804 p.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Chou de Bruxelles ordinaire” by Mettais (1904)


Only of the most delicious kind…

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sasha & family

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A quick stove top method for making Brussels sprouts in the traditional Flemish way. Flemish Brussels Sprouts | Spruitjes
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 10minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 10minutes
Cook Time
  1. Steam the Brussels sprouts 8 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium-high until soft.
  2. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook 3-5 minutes to brown lightly, stirring occasionally. Season with nutmeg, salt & pepper.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.

Part of the "I love you" wall in Paris, by Montmatre. Over 300 languages represented. Concept by Frédéric Baron.

We are the sum of our hearts

We are the sum of our hearts // Part of the “I love you” wall in Paris, by Montmatre. Over 300 languages represented. Concept by Frédéric Baron.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t love enough, that I don’t have enough fingers to stay on the pulse of the world – there are so many tragedies, so much hurt that needs tending.

Today I have some sort of flu that seems to be attacking my lungs in particular; I’m laying in bed with a low grade fever, feeling each labored breath, reading the news. As I grieve for the city I lived in as a child, I also read about how many other tragedies I missed in different parts of the world. I begin to feel shame, embarrassment. And in the midst of growing shame, I find that I can’t help but to continue to mourn for my old home.


Because that’s personal to me.

We are most affected by what is personal. And we are most effective at bringing about change when our cause is personal.

I often refer to this as “Turning your anguish into your answer.” Personal heartbreak can be fuel for your greatest good.

Here’s the thing – we all feel passionate about different subjects. When I share posts about injustices in foster care on my personal Facebook page, I get 1/10th of the likes and comments I usually get. Friends who are passionate about race relations face similar frustration when their articles aren’t as widely shared as they’d hoped. Same goes for folks who speak up for the homeless, the elderly, or, heck, those who work to improve city infrastructure. One person’s cause might seem remote to you, but aren’t you glad someone is championing that cause?

We all have a heart for something.

There is some overlap, but generally we’re on our own journeys, trying make the world better in our own way, for the whole. I smile when I see my friends championing race relations. I know they are making this world better for all of us. I hope they smile when they see me championing for foster youth. This, too, improves the world for all.

We’re all members of a real life Justice League, working together to fix this broken world – relying on everyone stepping up with their own unique contributions to better the whole.

Peace Pilgrim Quote

BUT… We still must help one another.

I am so grateful to my brothers and sisters who’ve pointed out how much heartbreak there is to fix in this world…and that we should not be selective with our horror and outrage.  There is much truth to this. If the idea of taking in all that pain seems to be too much …

Ask yourself if you can do one simple thing: Can you stand with Love?

We must recognize that our individual causes are just one part of the puzzle. Some serious love is required if we’re ever going to help humanity. Beyond our own causes, we must challenge ourselves – not to shutter down or turn a blind eye because that’s ‘someone else’s problem’ – but to be ever openhearted.

To care more.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to be get better. It's not." Dr Suess

This means not resting on our laurels, comfortable with what we know.

Part of the issue is a lack of knowing or familiarity with certain parts of the world (or causes within our own communities). I realize people can’t fully mourn someplace they’ve never been to, never saw pictures of, never heard about, or – worse yet – got false information about. Unfortunately, the media controls a lot of what “we know”… and even covering a story doesn’t guarantee it gets shared enough to be seen on a large scale. I’ve tried to change that in my own small way, here on Global Table Adventure – by providing easily-accessible recipes for every country, no matter how small or “out of the media” it is.

You can dig through the archives (sorted A-Z by country) and learn about somewhere unfamiliar – so that next time that part of the world experiences grief, it’ll be a little more personal.

Consider choosing a country you wish had more of a presence in the media and trying a recipe from that nation. Share it with your loved ones (or on Instagram if you do that sort of thing), so that, together, we can better know our global family.

And while you’re at it, go ahead – read and share an article from a friend with a different cause than your own – be grateful they have the passion and time to research it.

That makes doing your part easier than ever.


“I love you” wall in Paris, by Montmatre. Over 300 languages represented. Concept by Frédéric Baron. Photo by ‘Oh Paris.’

Finally, let the wall of I LOVE YOU in Paris serve as a reminder that our capacity for love is what unites us. In the words of the creators:

In a world marked by violence and dominated by individualism, walls, like frontiers, are usually made to divide and to separate people and to protect them from one another. On the contrary, The Wall is a link, a place of reconciliation, a mirror which reflects an image of love and peace.

The Wall is built on a surface of 40m2 (10 x 4) and composed of 612 tiles of enamelled lava of 21×29.7 cm in size. The shape of the lava tiles remembers of the sheets of paper on which Frédéric Baron wrote his texts. The splashes of colour on the fresco are the pieces of a broken heart, those of a humanity which is too often torn apart and which The Wall attempts to reunite. (Source: Official Web Site for the I Love you Wall)

Remember, my friends…



How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity

How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity: Tips for hosting a Global Potluck

Your school can honor Thanksgiving in a thoughtful way.

Modern Thanksgiving celebrations typically mean an overload of turkey and one too many slices of pumpkin pie. Schools often add their own Thanksgiving feasts to the mix, giving our children a double whammy. Unless you love, love, love turkey, you’re likely to have a bit of Thanksgiving fatigue before the weekend is over.

We’re doing things differently at my daughter’s school.

A little background:

Our country is made up Native Americans and immigrants from every corner of the world. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate how we’ve come together as a nation, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to honor where each of us comes from. As our country becomes more blended, it is important to recognize how our unique cultures add to the spirit of the whole.

How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity: Tips for hosting a Global Potluck

The Challenge

As a way to celebrate your multicultural community, invite parents to contribute a dish to a school Thanksgiving potluck from their ancestors’ country (or countries) of origin. Here’s a sample letter that can be sent home in children’s folders or via email, accompanied by a Recipe Card (with map).

Dear Parents:

This year our Thanksgiving Feast will celebrate our school’s multicultural heritage.

Are your great grandparents from Italy? What about Brazil or Kenya? Did you move here from India? Or are you Native American?

We invite you to prepare a dish from your family heritage for the feast on November ____ at ____ AM. Attached is a sheet to fill out with your child. Please invite your child to color or place a sticker on the continent where your recipe originates. Please turn the paper in by _____.

I can’t wait to see what you make!

With gratitude,

Parent of    ____________


Global Potluck Recipe Card

Opportunity for learning

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, after the harvest. The event lasted for three days, with nearly twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims in attendance (90 Native Americans versus 53 Pilgrims).

My daughter’s 24-person class served up 2 dozen dishes from every continent except Oceania. Only a couple of Native American families were represented on the buffet. Some schools may find they have no Native American dishes represented. This is a poignant reminder of how much things have changed since the Pilgrims came to America, and is a great opportunity for class (and family) discussion.

Decorating to make the event “flow”

How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity: Tips for hosting a Global Potluck

1. Tables & Tablecloths

We set up 2 lines of tables on opposite sides of the room: One line of tables was the western hemisphere (North America & South America); the other line of tables was the eastern hemisphere (Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania).

We decorated them with tablecloths in different colors. Originally we were going to do a different color for each continent but ended up just doing 2 colors, one for each side of the world because we had a small group of families participating. If the event is a larger, all-school event, consider doing a set of tables for each continent to help parents and students see where one continent begins and another ends. The tablecloths also make clean up a breeze.

How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity: Tips for hosting a Global Potluck

2. Continent Signs

My husband made continent signs on a laser cutter. You could do something simple by painting old tin cans and filling them with dried beans. Attach a handmade sign to a wooden dowel and poke it into the tin can base to secure the sign.

How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity: Tips for hosting a Global Potluck

3. Food Signs

Families can identify their dishes with food signs. The signs should not be too large – no more than a 1/2 sheet of paper – because the tables quickly fill up with food. Include a spot to indicate any possible allergens as well as what part of the world the dish comes from. We taped these signs in front of the dishes so they didn’t get knocked to the floor accidentally.

How schools can use Thanksgiving to celebrate diversity: Tips for hosting a Global Potluck

4. Passports

Want extra credit? Give the kids a passport to stamp as they travel through the dishes. I made a fun, free Printable Passport Download for events like this:


What did the kids & families think?

We did this with the Kindergarten and Preschool families at my daughter’s school. We got feedback that this was the best school potluck the families had ever attended. Teachers loved the educational component – both as community building and a lesson in geography. Parents were thrilled to not have “another” dose of turkey (and a conversation starter with parents they may not know), while the children took great pride in sharing the food of their cultural heritage with their classmates. Families also loved preparing for the event, as it gave them a chance to talk with their children about their family’s roots.

An important note on sensitivity:

Our “melting pot” of a nation not only includes a variety of cultural heritages, but various family situations. Not all children know about their family’s roots – whether because of adoption, death, historical events, or the past is simply “not talked about.” For some, turkey & mashed potatoes are the only roots they know. With this in mind, please welcome whatever food the children and their loved ones choose to share. Your open heart validates their experience.

Happy Thanksgiving!

How to make Argentine Pumpkin Soup

Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo

Argentina's Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo

In 2011 a young Argentine man went viral in a 6-second video when he laughed about the cost of a burger at a soccer stadium. His exact words were:

Con quince peso me hago alto guiso.pum

For 15 pesos I could make quite the stew.

To put this young man’s remarks in perspective, 15 Argentine pesos is just under $2 USD. It seems as though, relatively speaking, overpriced stadium food is a shared phenomenon – as common as rainy days and sunny dispositions. What is remarkable – and what made the young man’s comment go viral – is the assumption that good, homemade stew can be made for the cost of an overpriced burger.

I looked into his logic: here in the USA an overpriced stadium burger in Silicon Valley goes for $12.

Surely, I could make a soup for less than $12, even shopping at costly American grocery stores.

Testing the theory…

Curious (and inspired), I began looking into Argentine stews – sending me down a delicious rabbit hole of beef and root veggie based bowls. I finally emerged victorious, ready to adapt the most epic Argentine stew of all – Carbonada en Zapallo,  or Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin. While the name might sound rather unremarkable, this soup follows the Argentine tradition of roasting and serving foods in gourds. True to tradition, this simple, earthy stew is, in fact, roasted and served inside an enormous pumpkin.

Argentina's Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo

Typically, Carbonada en Zapallo is made for Christmas. I think it would make a grand Halloween or Thanksgiving dish, as well. Recipes vary but generally feature beef, potatoes, peppers, corn, and dried apricot. Sometimes there’s rice to thicken the mix. While the ingredients cost more than a $12 stadium burger, the soup would serve 8 times as many people making it much cheaper than the $96 it would take to purchase buying 8 fancy burgers.

Turns out the boy has a point!

Attempt # 1

Ingredients for an Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo

My first attempt was a comical mad-dash, tearing through the kitchen at 4:30 p.m. on Halloween, half-dressed as Mary Poppins – daisy-covered hat cocked sideways, Victorian blouse unbuttoned for breathing purposes. We’d spent the afternoon on a Disney-themed float for Tulsa’s BooHaHa Halloween Parade. Keith, Ava and I wore our costumes from Ava’s British Mary Poppins Birthday Party this summer.

We got home with barely 45 minutes left before we needed to head to our next event: an evening Halloween Potluck and Trick-or-Treating extravaganza with friends. I tore through vegetables at speeds worthy of a television cooking competition. And, in an error characteristic of those competitions, I completely forgot to season the stew OR put the pumpkin “serving bowl” in the oven. Thankfully Keith seasoned the soup before loading the pot into our car for the party.

Dressed as silent film stars for Halloween.

While the soup bubbled on the stove (at a simmer furious boil, in hopes of softening the veggies), we all changed into our costumes for the 5:30 Halloween party – including Keith and me smearing entire containers of black and white face paint on ourselves. After only 57 minutes we pulled away from the house as silent film stars and a Renaissance princess … with a pot of Argentine stew on the floorboards. We were only 12 minutes late to the party. Later, when I  tasted the stew, I was shocked – it was delicious, managing to survive my haste and frazzle with grace.

Attempt #2

The second time I attempted Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin I wanted to do anything but cook. I’d spent almost an hour crying in my parked car  (in my own driveway no less … am I the only one who does this?!). I followed that crying session with another on the couch, in my husband’s arms. All this while my daughter was at school, thankfully. With all those tears you’d think something terrible had happened – and in a way it had, but that was more than 2 decades ago.

Grief has no rhyme or reason. It is an old, unwelcome friend that pops in, unasked, and always outstays its welcome.

On this particular day the remarks of an acquaintance had scratched open old grief. What they said doesn’t matter – I want to put it behind me. But one thing is certain… No one is strong all of the time – we all have weak spots in our hearts – and the wrong thing uttered carelessly can take days to recover from. People like to tell me how “well I turned out” given my childhood – but some days I don’t feel like much of a survivor.

How to make Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo: Behind the Scenes

Knowing I was running out of time to test the recipe (and light for the photos), I hoisted myself off the couch, away from the numbing scroll of my cellphone, and forced myself to cook. Every knife cut felt labored. But chopping through the great list of vegetables – onion, two kinds of peppers and potatoes, an enormous pumpkin – became meditative. I’m not sure if my mood lifted when I was scraping the seeds and sticky strings from the pumpkin, or if it was when I’d tossed the last herb into the simmering pot – but eventually I could breathe again.

I cooked the beef separately so my vegetarian daughter didn’t have to have any. Then, I ladled the soup into the pumpkin and roasted it for 30 more minutes. When it came time to serve the soup, I found I could not lift it off the baking sheet (the tender sides of the pumpkin threatened to crack in half). So I brought the enormous, brimming pumpkin and baking sheet to the dining table and stared at it. This soup was tremendous. A show stopper. Stellar.  There was enough for a party, but this was a school night – there’d be no party, no costumes, no festivity.

Cooking might have helped me pop back to the surface, but I wasn’t hungry.

How to make Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo

I called Keith into the dining room, showed him how to scrape the pumpkin into the soup when serving and asked if he’d mind if I took some time for myself. Before I left, I let him take me in his arms and squeeze me. I gave my daughter a kiss and a reassuring smile, and then I drove down the road, to a place where I wasn’t a blogger. Where I had no obligation to be chipper. Where my life wasn’t required to be all happy ending, all the time. Where no one knew my story.

I took some time to think, write, and breathe.

When I came home that night I asked Keith how he’d liked the soup.

“It was sweet,” he said, taking me in his arms,”Is that because you cooked it in a pumpkin this time?”

I thought about how Keith’s love and support sweetens my life, even when I feel as gnarly as a knob of garlic. I thought about how my daughter says something every single day to make me laugh.

“Yes,” I said, letting my head fall on his shoulder, “the vessel makes all the difference.”

Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo
P.S. Keith took this photo of Ava enjoying her vegetarian portion that night. The stew is just as good without the beef. No matter how you cook it, the stew works for happy, festive days, and it works for sad, winter days. This soup just.. works.

Thanks, Argentina.

Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin



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Carbonada en Zapallo is a traditional Christmas dish in Argentina, it also makes a wonderful dish for Halloween or Thanksgiving potlucks. It's best to bake the pumpkin on something you can use for serving because trying to lift a softened pumpkin full of soup ... well, let's just say it begs to crack in half and spill everywhere. If this is not an option, roast the pumpkin on a baking sheet until well browned - about an hour and fifteen minutes, remove to serving platter and fill with completely cooked soup right before serving.Argentine Beef Stew in a Pumpkin | Carbonada en Zapallo
Servings Prep Time
1gallon 30minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
1gallon 30minutes
Cook Time
Prepare the pumpkin:
  1. Preheat the oven to 375F.
  2. Meanwhile, Cut the top off the pumpkin. If you are able to get a large one, as I did, you can cut it about 1/3 of the way down so that it is wide but shallow. Remove the strings and seeds - I find it helpful to use a paring knife to cut smooth the top four inches of the inner edge for presentation. Brush the cut edges with vegetable oil. Roast the oven for about 45 minutes.
For the soup:
  1. Add about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to a large pot over high heat. Add the beef, stirring a couple of times to ensure even browning. If there is excess liquid, it will need to boil off before the meat begins browning.
  2. Reduce the heat, then add the onions and garlic. Once translucent, add the peppers and continue cooking for about five minutes. Add on the potatoes, tomatoes, corn, apricot, oregano, and bay leaves. Cover with 8 cups of broth.
  3. Simmer gently until the vegetables are just tender - about 30 minutes. Season to taste. Ladle into the pumpkin in the oven and bake 30 more minutes to finish cooking . Serve hot, on a chilly day. Spoon with some of the pumpkin flesh into each bowl.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.

Organized spice jars: ground spices on the left, whole on the right. French Square spice jars so they don't turn.

10 Essential tools & ingredients for cooking the world

Curious what it would be like to eat a meal from every country? You’re not alone. More people than ever before are bringing the world into their kitchens. These 10 essentials will help you make eating internationally an easy part of your weekly routine, although only the first two are absolute requirements. 

1. A good attitude


First things first: All the cookware in the world won’t help a bad outlook. The first requirement for trying international food is to be open minded. No saying “ugh” or “gross” at the dinner table.

Think: How would you feel if someone spoke that way about your mom’s cooking? Plus, if an entire country loves the food, is it really a question of preference or is liking a certain dish more about what we’re used to?

My rule of thumb? If you can’t think of anything nice to say, hold your tongue.

2. Time with your loved ones


Can you cook alone? Yes. Can you eat 195 countries alone? Sure. But I spend enough time alone, in front of a laptop or cellphone. When you take on eating meals from every country in the world, you have the opportunity to take on lively cooking experiences and dinner conversations with those you care most about. Face-t0-face.

Even if you don’t start out sharing your adventure with others, learning about other cultures – and how they come together to make involved dishes like apple or beef empanadas, Hungarian campfire bacon,  and Kosovo’s campfire cake, Flija – might make you rethink your cooking experience. Within the first few months I donated my microwave, bread machine, and toaster – simplifying my tools so that my focus could be on cooking with loved ones.

Be prepared to bond.

3. Epic Spice Collection

Organized spice jars: ground spices on the left, whole on the right. French Square spice jars so they don't turn.

This is not a question of a frivolous, consumer-driven want but rather a question of what’s going to happen if you cook enough countries. In the early days you’ll be buying new spices for most recipes. After a while you’ll be well stocked. By the time you cook recipes from 195+ countries and territories, you might – like me – have 80+ herbs and spices (including whole and ground) tucked in multiple drawers and a cabinet.

The trick is keeping my insane spice collection organized…

I prefer keeping my spices in the dark. This extends their shelf life. Because I have so many, a standard spice rack doesn’t have enough room or flexibility for me. SO, I keep my spice collection in drawers and use a dowel to keep the jars towards the front (a dab of glue holds the dowel in place).*

When it comes to spice jars, I like the order and clarity provided by French Square spice jars (that link goes to a wholesaler that charges less than $1/ea). The square shape keeps the jars from spinning so I can easily read the labels. When it comes time to refill, I buy my spices in bulk so I don’t have to pay for jars I won’t use.

Be prepared: the same phenomenon happens with your coffee, tea, and alcohol collections… if you add global drink recipes to your around the world cooking adventure, be prepared to see your inventory grow… and grow.

* If you don’t have any power tools at home, measure the inside of your drawer and write down the number. Head to Home Depot and use the hand saw at their cutting station (over by the trim) to do the job. Make it a touch long and you can always hand sand it to wedge into place for a tighter fit.

4. World Map or Globe

World Map, with a gemstone on all the countries Sasha Martin's family ate on their Global Table Adventure.

A map or globe will be endlessly useful as you embark on your Global Table Adventure.  Once upon a time, before the age of GPS, maps were a utilitarian purchase. Today they can be an element of style. Make your statement by choosing an antique, modern, or scratch-off maps (yes, really)…. My husband even made the frame from a weathered bench.

Whatever you choose, make sure you like it. You’re going to be using the map for a while. At a rate of 1 country per week, it took us nearly four years to eat our way around the world … having a record of our culinary journey hanging near our dining table remains a source of pride and joy. We use it to identify countries, distances, and proximity to natural resources (like water, mountains, desert etc)… as well as to remember the places we’ve eaten.

5. Gemstones, thumbtacks, stickers

Speaking of a map or globe, find something to mark off the countries as you cook them. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your accomplishments pile up. We used simple gemstone stickers of varying sizes to mark countries. They sparkle, making the map a real conversation starter, especially in the evening when the lights are dim.

6. One good piece of cookware

Stirring pot from Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness

In all honesty there’s very little required specialty cookware when it comes to cooking the world. While many Americans have at least 4 small appliances (microwave, toaster, blender, hand mixer), many parts of the world keep their kitchens simple. Sure – it’s fun to add things like tagines to your collection. But if you only had one pot or pan, the most versatile would be a carbon steel wok. In a large wok you can boil noodles, make a stir-fry, braise meat, and even turn it upside down to grill flatbread on the domed surface. It can also go in the oven (with foil over the top) to make big rice dishes like Kabeli Palau from Afghanistan.

7. Steamer basket

Steamer Baskets choices - bamboo or stainless steel. Bamboo imparts flavor, stainless does not.

There were several times over the years of cooking the world that I had to steam food – as with fabulous coiled up pasta “Oromo” from Kyrgyzstan or vegetarian momos from Nepal. It’s worth investing in either a bamboo steamer or a tiered metal steamer for these types of meals. I found both at my local Asian market. The bamboo gives a nice woodsy flavor to steamed foods, while the stainless steel doesn’t impact taste at all.

A tip if the food is too big for a layered steamer, as with a stuffed artichoke? Use crumpled up foil at the bottom of a large pot.

8. A way to grind spices

Mortar and pestles are good for rough grinds, while an electric spice grinder is good for a fine powder.

Many recipes from around the world require spices to be ground, cracked, or chopped. For light jobs you can use a rolling pin but for finer results try a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder. I like a mortar and pestle for wet grinding (things like garlic, salt and hot peppers together to make green papaya salad), while I like the electric grinder to create fine powders for homemade seasoning blends (fresh ground has much more flavor than the stuff you’ll find at the supermarket).

9. Portable Stove

Now we’re getting into the luxury supplies for cooking the world. For about $20 at your local Asian market you can purchase a small portable 1-burner stove (with carrying case) to use at your dining table. This is not at all required, but perfect for what I like to call DIY meals – where everyone gets to control their own plate and cook a little while they’re at it. Examples include bibimbap, Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, and Lao Rice Noodle Soup. If you want to spend double the money, buy one online.

10. Just for fun

While a wok is the most versatile piece of cookware for your culinary adventure, my next favorite piece of cookware is my comal. I use it to char garlic and tomatoes for Laotian salsa or Mexican mole, toast whole spices for various spice blends, and to grill homemade corn tortillas, pupusas, naan, chapati, or coconut roti.

And no one is going to get mad if you own a paella pan …

… or a tagine

… especially if you make a Quick Paella or Moroccan lamb with honeyed figs for dinner.

Ready to start cooking the world?

No need to wait any longer. In my FREE “Global Table Adventure Starter Guide” you’ll find the resources you need to start cooking the world today.

Your 45-page guide includes:

  • Tips for Starting Your Adventure
  • Getting Everyone Involved
  • Ideas for Potlucks & Parties
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Suggested Reading
  • List of countries (by continent)
  • List of countries (A-Z)
  • Get Social! (How to Connect with other Global Table

Armed with my free online recipes and this guide, you’ll have everything you need to take your loved ones anywhere in the world you’d like… by dinnertime.

Get your Starter Guide now


P.S. Thanks to reader Andrea C. for asking about the essential tools and ingredients for cooking the world. Please email me with your questions – I’d love to help you out!


On being happy, even when life is cruddy

Is there something inherently different about people who maintain a positive attitude, even in the most trying circumstances? Happy souls can be found on every continent, in every culture – but when times get tough they become the minority. What keeps a person from constantly looking backwards, becoming a pillar of salt after everything they’ve ever known is destroyed?

Today we explore thoughts on happiness from around the world. These philosophers and authors provide joyful medicine for suffering souls.

1. Start with the truth.

“When suffering knocks at your door & you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.” - Chinua Achebe (Nigerian Author & Critic)

No matter how insular a life we live, suffering finds us. The question is what will we do when the bully crashes into our heart? The first, inevitable step? Sit with it a while. Understand it. We must face reality before we can ever hope to heal.

"The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian Author & Philosopher)

2. Change your perspective.

“Let us try to see things from their better side: You complain about seeing thorny rose bushes; Me, I rejoice and give thanks to the gods That thorns have roses.” ― Anonymous verse found in “Lettres écrites de mon jardin” by French journalist Alphonse Carr.

Even though grief sits in our hearts, it cannot be our only companion. Healing begins when we look around and begin to see the roses on the thorn bush. Those people who find happiness during cruddy times manage to also see the good around them – in the beginning it might be nothing more than recognizing a nice breeze while standing at the grave of a loved one.  Over time we might be able to reframe our circumstances.

Take my life, for example: Mine is a story of rebuilding.

Rebuilding after living in multiple foster homes. Rebuilding after being separated from my siblings. Rebuilding after losing my brother. Rebuilding after “family” became synonymous with “temporary.”  I could just as easily say my story is one of destruction; one cannot rebuild something that hasn’t been destroyed. But here’s the simple truth: Any time I’ve focused on destruction, I am destroyed.

I’d rather see the roses than the thorns. Speaking of which…

3. Blind spots are a gift.

"I've come to the conclusion that, to be unequivocally happy, you have to have some blind spots." - Bill Withers (American Musician speaking on NPR)

When times get tough truly happy people narrow their vision. This survival skill allows them to keep moving forward without getting distracted by possible emotional drop-offs.

I recently heard Bill Withers on NPR – he’s most known for recording several major hits including “Lean on Me“, “Ain’t No Sunshine“, “Just the Two of Us“, and “Lovely Day.” Most remarkable, Withers walked away from the music biz when the studio’s creative limitations no longer served him. He continues to make music for himself, but he is not interested in being a part of the machine. He doesn’t focus on the glitz and glam he might have missed. Blind spots prevented him from staying in a bad situation and keep him content with what he has.

4. Give light to others.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” ― Albert Camus (French Author & Philosopher)

Common advice after hardship is to “keep busy.” But I can keep busy on Facebook – and that does nothing but feed my depression. Instead, happy people often keep busy in some sort of service.

It’s impossible to feel sad or sorry for myself when I’m helping other people.

When we focus our efforts outside of ourselves it can rekindle a sense of purpose and meaning during trying times – which unlocks our inner summer.

5. Find comfort in community.

"A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so." - Excerpt from 'Things Fall Apart' by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

There is much we can do on our own, but happy people allow themselves to be fed by community when times get tough. The classic example is the meal served after a funeral, typically at the bereaved’s home. Rather than eat alone, the grieving eat surrounded by loved ones. Simple things, like a walk in the park or watching a movie, are also better with friends.

6. Honor the journey

"Step by step walk the thousand-mile road." — Excerpt from 'The Book of Five Rings' by Miyamoto Musashi (Japanese Author & Samurai)

Real talk? Some sad things stay with us forever, like the death of a loved one. But happy people know to live in the moment, one step at a time. In this way we can keep moving emotionally, even while honoring our loss.

7. Stubborn happiness.

"The heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past." — Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez (Colombian Author & Journalist)

Finding happiness is not a one-stop shopping experience. Being happy is more like tending a garden. Emotional weeds pop up occasionally and the toil of dealing with them can sometimes be a setback. But, years later, we look back and remember the amazing tomatoes we grew… without much thought to the thistles and dandelions… and how little control over them we really had.

Happiness is as simple – and as complicated – as that.

"Happiness is not a destination: Being happy takes constant weeding, a tending of emotions and circumstances as they arise. There’s no happily ever after, or any one person or place that can bring happiness. It takes work to be calm in the midst of turmoil. But releasing the need to control it – well, that’s a start." - Excerpt of 'Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness'' by Sasha Martin.

Collages & quotes assembled by Sasha Martin // Art credit goes to: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.


Recipe for Gingered Pineapple Sundae with Toasted Coconut Flakes

Gingered Pineapple Ice Cream Sundae with Toasted Coconut

Recipe for Gingered Pineapple Sundae with toasted coconut

Let’s travel to Sub-Saharan Africa, where the flavors of the tropics make an ordinary ice cream sundae outstanding.

Start by harvesting real vanilla beans from Madagascar to make the ice cream. Then head to Nigeria to pluck a heavy, sweet pineapple and a knob of ginger root. Nigeria is the world’s 8th largest producer of pineapple and the 4th largest producer of ginger.*

Recipe for Gingered Pineapple Sundae with toasted coconut flakes

Chunk up the golden fruit, then cook it with brown sugar and a whisper of the freshly grated ginger. Ten minutes on a flame will release the pineapple juices into the brown sugar, making a sticky, caramel-like sauce.

Recipe for Gingered Pineapple Ice Cream Sunday with Toasted Coconut

Look how tall my little girl is getting…


Sometime this fall she stopped using the step stool.

I always knew bringing the world into our kitchen was good nourishment, but she grew an inch over the summer.


Recipe for Gingered Pineapple Sundae with Toasted Coconut Flakes

When you’re done bemoaning how fast life flies, assemble your ice cream sundae.

First: Drop two fat scoops of vanilla ice cream into a shallow bowl.

Second: Spoon on the hot pineapple and sauce. Work quickly to sprinkle with lightly toasted coconut flakes (you can pick these up in Tanzania, the world’s 10th largest producer of coconut).

Even as the ice cream slumps into the pineapple, the coconut adds crunch.


This recipe was one of the biggest wins with my family – out of 650+ recipes from every country in the world this little treat stands out as one of the yummiest.



Keith barely got any…


…thanks to this little monkey.


He’s such a good sport.


Best of all, this isn’t just another sweet treat.

This sundae honors the flavors of sub-Saharan Africa… and provides an opportunity to discuss the regional importance of vanilla, pineapple, ginger, and coconut to locals. Try it as a quick and simple option for World Food Day – October 16. And while you’re at it, why not become a real-life superhero? Make your table larger by donating the cost of your sundaes to Hunger Free, an initiative of World Vision.


With your support, families all over the world will enjoy the relief that comes with food security.


* Food and Agriculture Organization, 2009

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Print Recipe
Inspired by a cooked fruit salad in Jessica B. Haris's "The Africa Cookbook" and an ice cream topper in Marcus Samuellsson's "A Taste of Africa." While this sundae is not specifically from any one country, we put together flavor profiles for the dessert that are very typical of sub-Saharah Africa - pineapple, coconut, ginger, and vanilla. In particular these crops are a big part of the economies of Nigeria, Tanzania, and Madagascar.Gingered Pineapple Ice Ceam Sundae with Toasted Coconut
Servings Prep Time
2-4people 5minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
2-4people 5minutes
Cook Time
  1. Add the pineapple, brown sugar, and ginger root to a small pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat (the pineapple will release its juices). Cook 5-10 minutes until the brown sugar dissolves and thickens into a syrup. Stir occasionally.
  2. Serve with vanilla ice cream and toasted coconut chips to make a sundae.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.

"Hipp hipp hurra! Konstnärsfest på Skagen - Peder Severin Krøyer" by UFA66 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -!_Konstn%C3%A4rsfest_p%C3%A5_Skagen_-_Peder_Severin_Kr%C3%B8yer.jpg#/media/File:Hipp_hipp_hurra!_Konstn%C3%A4rsfest_p%C3%A5_Skagen_-_Peder_Severin_Kr%C3%B8yer.jpg

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Hipp hipp hurra!” (1888) / Peder Severin Krøyer

World Food Day seems like a strange day to have a party:

This isn’t one of those holiday-non-holidays, like Moment of Frustration Day (October 12) or Punk for a Day Day (October 25). World Food Day is a day of action every October 16, when people all over the world make a commitment to eradicate hunger.

So why have a dinner party when so many are hungry?

Because you’re probably going to have a dinner party sometime soon anyway.

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Midday in Urgut” (1957) / Valentina Monakhova

Why not make it a meal with a cause?

This World Food Day make your table larger by donating the cost of your meal to help make the world hunger free. A World Food Day dinner party is a great way to sample new foods while raising awareness & funds for those most in need around the globe. This year I partnered with HungerFree, an initiative of World Vision, to do something really special – and you’re invited.

Imagine if we could fit the whole world around a single table?
We can start by making room in our hearts.

Here’s how it works:

1. Host a dinner party with your loved ones in honor of World Food Day.
2. Make your table larger by donating the cost of your meal through HungerFree’s interactive portal.
3. Share your plans & event photos on social media to help spread the #HungerFree movement.


5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Puebla Kitchen” (19th c.) / Unknown – Mexico

HungerFree is a new initiative by World Vision to unlock the full potential of young people to break the cycle of poverty and free communities around the world from hunger once and for all. By simply ‘doubling-up’ the cost of your meal, you will help grow their work with young people around the world.

5 Tips for hosting the Perfect World Food Day Dinner Party

1.  Create a themed menu

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“My First Egg” (1914) / José Maria Sousa de Moura Girão

Whether it’s a potluck or you’re flying solo, dinner parties are more fun when they have a theme. World Food Day is an ideal time to highlight food systems that help developing areas become self-sustaining. Here are a few thematic opportunities for on-point (but not overbearing) education:

  • Eggs – a couple of chickens can provide a consistent source of protein and nutrition for a small family. Make an all-vegetarian menu to honor the chicken’s role in feeding communities around the world.
  • Pineapple farms – a small pineapple farm can keep financial insecurity at bay, as with Marko’s case study. Highlight the tropical fruit in every course with several pineapple recipes.
  • Fish ponds – you know the old adage: give a man a fish, you feed him for a day – teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Fish ponds are another way communities are becoming self sustaining, as seen in this video. Celebrate this growing movement by creating a menu that features seafood recipes.
  • A special country – perhaps you want to honor a particular country that’s near and dear to your heart. Browse this list of countries A-Z to plan your menu by country.

2. Map it

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Map of the World” (17th c.) / Unknown – Japan

Use maps to connect your World Food Day dinner party to the communities you’re learning about. Easy solutions include hanging a map in your dining room or placing a globe on your tablecloth/picnic blanket. Kids of all ages will love the challenge of finding countries or calculating distances between their home and the featured community. You can also compare a modern map to one from antiquity and discuss how the mapmaker’s perspective and context changes how parts of the world are represented.

3. Tune in

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of Alcázar” (1851) / Alfred Dehodencq

Add ambiance by playing world music during your dinner party. Radiooooo is an amazing resource: Just click on a country and it will play music from that country. You can narrow by decade, too! They have an app if you prefer to stream music from your cellphone.

Speaking of cellphones, encourage your guests to tuck them far, far away. Tell them there’s no international phone plan for this dinner party. Without the dings and beeps and glowing screens, everyone will have an easier time tuning into each other.

4. Plan ahead

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“The Meal” (1891) / Paul Gauguin

Clean early in the week and decorate/set the table the night before. When you’re scrambling at the last minute with food prep and the doorbell rings, you’ll be glad to look up and see the table ready to go. If your dinner party will be outside you can still gather all needed items into a box or basket. Place it near the back door for easy setup. Don’t forget condiments and serving spoons.

You can also do a drink inventory the day before. Place any drinks that are meant to be enjoyed cold into the fridge. This is also a great time to make that gallon of ice tea (Vanilla Ginger Bissap, anyone?).

5. Smile

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Mercedes Batista and Valter Ribeiro” (1956) / José Medeiros

As host or hostess, you set the tone for your party. Take a cue from Julia Child: smile through your successes and your failures. If you keep a sense of humor, your guests will be more at ease should any mishaps (or debates) arise.

Oh, and there’s one more reason to smile: a World Food Day photo opp. Take a group picture, then share the photo on social media to help spread the movement. I’ll be tagging my photos #HungerFree #WorldFoodDay #GlobalTableAdventure – I invite you to join me as we build momentum for a well-fed world. Here’s a snapshot of all the people participating as of early October:

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

P.S. After all that effort, don’t forget to donate the cost of your meal on When we share our abundance, the world smiles.

Thank you for your giving heart.

Will you host a World Food Day dinner party? What will you make? Will it be for your family or for a crowd of friends? Feel free to brainstorm below!

5 Tips for hosting a World Food Day dinner party that matters

“Three African women with baskets” (21st c.) / Craft market purchase – unknown

Make Your Table Larger

Recipe for Thai Pumpkin Custard

Thai Pumpkin Custard | Sankaya

Recipe for Thai Coconut Custard steamed in a pumpkin

This fall put Thailand on the table: steam sweet coconut custard inside tiny gourds.

Let’s be real: Give someone a single tiny gourd filled with custard and a spoon and they’re guaranteed to smile (And possibly love you forever).

Whether you use a squash or a pumpkin, Sankaya eats like a deconstructed pumpkin pie. The center of the gourd is filled with coconut custard, rich with egg and vanilla extract. As the steam heats the custard, the palm sugar and coconut milk butters the gourd’s tender, orange flesh from the inside. But unlike chilled pie, Sankaya is at it’s best a few clicks above room temperature.

Sankaya earns an A+ in the “fun for kids” department.

Recipe for Thai Coconut Custard steamed in a pumpkin

My daughter and this tiger her nephew love helping in the kitchen.

The gourmet treat forgives wobbly hands and giggly attention spans. As long as most of the custard makes it into the pumpkin, this dessert is in good shape!

Recipe for Thai Coconut Custard steamed in a pumpkin

While the ingredient list is short, a few simple tips will keep you from a soggy pumpkin and raw custard. Here are the top 4 lessons I learned while experimenting with this steamed dessert.

Choosing the right gourd

Recipe for Thai coconut custard steamed in a pumpkin

Pumpkins are hard to cut.

I experienced pumpkin misery last year when I attempted to slice, carve, drop, slam my daughter’s pumpkin onto the cutting board to split it for roasting. I was sweating before I ever popped the four-pounder into the oven. Even then? It wasn’t pretty.

When it comes to ease of preparation, pumpkin doesn’t hold a candle to squash (unless it’s on the patio in which case pumpkin likely does hold a candle). But each has its benefits. I tried them all.

Recipe for Thai Pumpkin Custard

Clockwise from bird plate: long delicata squash, sweet dumpling squash, kabocha, and mini pumpkin.

Tiny pumpkins that fit in the palm of your hand have thinner shells, but even after steaming the outside remains challenging to slice (and often cracks under pressure). You can get away with it if you peel the shell away from your slice before serving. Otherwise, tiny pumpkins work best for single, self-contained portions. Just provide a spoon!

Kabocha squash is the traditional gourd the Thai use for this recipe. Kabocha slices much easier than pumpkin. But with tender flesh comes fragility – removing kabocha from the steam bath risks cracking unless you let the squash cool somewhat and have a plate at the ready before attempting the move. Don’t even bother with tongs – a cloth napkin and your hands are the best tools for this job.

Kabocha squash typically fill two palms and will take a good 15-20 minutes longer to cook than tiny pumpkins. To help the custard set quicker, cook the squash “lid” on the side.

Small squash, like sweet dumpling and delicata are even more tender than kabocha. Handle with care and wait to slice the dessert cools significantly. Bonus: the skin can be eaten.

50 Shades of sugar


Thai recipes use palm sugar shavings to make a creamy white custard. I realized too late that my palm sugar – long forgotten in the back of my spice drawer – had seen better days. I didn’t have time to run to the Asian market to pick up a new package. Good news: brown sugar makes a great substitute and doesn’t require dissolving in warm liquid. If you make your custard with brown sugar, expect a dusky caramel hue. Do 50-50 with granulated sugar for a color closer to tan.

Foil your plans


If you don’t have a specialty steamer basket that can accommodate multiple gourds, try lightly crumpled aluminum foil on the bottom of your pot. Magically, the crinkles don’t compress under the gourds, but rather keep them raised out of water.*

If the pumpkins are too tall to cover with a lid, use a second sheet of foil to seal the top and trap the steam.

As for trapped cats?

Place a chair by the door and they’re guaranteed to want out. Boom.

Recipe for Thai Coconut Custard steamed in a pumpkin

Recipe for Thai Coconut Custard steamed in a pumpkin

Stay cool, be cool

Keep your fingers from burning – let the gourds cool 10-20 minutes before attempting to move or slice them. This also allows any excess gourd juices to redistribute and reabsorb into the pumpkins.

Recipe for Thai Coconut Custard steamed in a pumpkin

While you wait, why not collect some hay for your next hay ride?

Since we’re cooking Thailand this week, let’s make it rice hay.

"Rice farmers Mae Wang Chiang Mai Province" by Takeaway - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Rice farmers in Thailand gather rice straw after the harvest” by Takeaway.

When you’re done, enjoy the Sankaya with gusto.

Yum, yum.

pumpkin-coconut-custard-recipe-01 pumpkin-coconut-custard-recipe-02

Thanks, Thailand.


* This also works great for artichokes.

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Sankaya makes a wonderful sweet treat in the autumn. Provide one small pumpkin per person or slice up a larger squash to serve up to 6 people. Thai Pumpkin Custard | Sankaya
Servings Prep Time
3-6people 5minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
45-60minutes 15minutes
Servings Prep Time
3-6people 5minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
45-60minutes 15minutes
For the custard
  1. Cut the top of your pumpkin or squash. Scoop out seeds and discard.
  2. Whisk together all custard ingredients and pour into the gourds. Fill just below the top. Place the tops on smaller gourds or cook on the side for larger gourds.
  3. Steam for 45 minutes to an hour. The custard may appear jiggly - check with a toothpick to ensure it has set.
  4. Serve a little warm or at room temperature, slicing into wedges if desired.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.


Build a bigger table, not a higher fence

When you have more than you need build a bigger table - not a higher fence.

Are you ready to stumble into the heartbeat of the world?

A little while back I shared this meme on Facebook:

If you have more than you need build a bigger table – not a higher fence. 

I went to bed and didn’t think much of it. Just a few days later and more than 1.75 million people had viewed it (and counting). It was clear that I’d stumbled onto the pulse of something enormous. What was happening? Why did so many people see, share and like this simple statement?

I have a few theories.

We’re tired of living in a boxed-in world.

Our fence is as tall as the rest of them. Presumably tall fences exist so that we can water our plants in our jammies. I’ll admit: There’s something freeing about lounging in my robe while sipping a cup of tea – secure in the knowledge that no one has to shield their children from my fuzzy slippers or towel turban.

But this comfort comes at a cost.

Tall fences interrupt casual encounters with our neighbors. Those fifteen-minute chats that start with trivial banter about the weather? They can end with impromptu barbecues and deep friendship. If it weren’t for the Bearded Boys – our old neighbors who insisted on lugging their dining table to the front yard and declared back yards and fences the worst – we probably would have never thought twice about the solitude our fences provide.


We are craving connection.

With our thumbs sore from scanning our phones and our necks stiff from Netflix, the very idea of filling an enormous table with food, friends, and lively chatter can feel overwhelming. So many people express their loneliness on social media but avoid making the phone call that could result in a meaningful gathering.

Why? Because it’s hard.

Risking rejection is scary.

My freshman year of college I did what all kids do: I called home to see what the family’s plans were for Thanksgiving. My guardians had taken care of me since I was 10. But during that phone call they told me that, now that I was 19, I no longer needed to stay with them.


None of us want to be rejected. Sometimes there’s a big rejection, other times it’s a series of smaller rejections. Either way the result is the same: we’re less willing to reach out and try. We simply burrow deeper into ourselves.

Sasha Martin as a little girl

Cultivating deep friendship takes time.

I moved to Tulsa in 2005.  As the new girl in town, I had to learn how to pick up the phone and invite people over and out. It’s scary and it doesn’t always work out. For a while my motorcycle hobby made it easier – we had a shared experience to fall back on. But once I had my daughter I sold my bike and with it went my go-to ice breaker.

I had to start all over with the moms I met at library play groups. Some people grew up in Tulsa and already had full calendars. Some people didn’t click with me – just like dating. But once in a blue moon I struck friendship gold.

It’s been ten years and I’m finally feeling more at ease with my friendships. Ten years.

These things take time.

Families are more spread out than ever.

As we spread out around the country and globe, we’re farther from our families than ever before. The meme’s vision of an enormous table full of laughter, conversation and chaos creates nostalgia for a family we may never have had – but always wanted – or for a family we once had but have since moved away from.

The idea of opening ourselves up to greater community appeals to the child inside of us who wanted to invite everyone to their birthday party.

Even the mailman.

What would it be like if we could recapture the open, trusting spirit of our inner child?

What if we took a leap from our lonely perch and once again invited everyone into our hearts?

Potsdam, Frühstückspause der Gerüstbauer

Potsdam, Frühstückspause der Gerüstbauer

Scary news gets old.

Some people shut down because of fear – after all, the media loves to share the sensational and the terrible. All that negative energy skips over the good and can clog a well-meaning heart. It can make us forget the good in the world.

And there is good in the world.

We all want to love and be loved. We all want to nourish ourselves and our families.  Some of us reject the curmudgeonly view of the world. We share a different vision. One of coming together. Of our world being an enormous family.

Reporters like to ask me who my dream dinner companion would be.

I have a hard time choosing just one person. I suppose that makes sense after cooking more than 650 recipes from every country.

I’d like to set an enormous global table and invite the entire world to join in. No food fights, no arguments. Just a giant helping of togetherness.

Oh, and one other thing: no fences.

We created a mini version of this dinner a couple of years ago, when we created the Global Table Experience – a feast with food from nearly every country in the world right here in Tulsa. The food was donated by a team of local chefs and the event was hosted at Philbrook, on the museum’s free day. People piled their plates high and enjoyed food from all over the world with a suggested donation of 1 can of food per person.

But there is more to do.

We need less isolation, more community, and greater feasts for all.

And we can start by making room in our hearts.

Go ahead. Risk rejection. Make a few calls. Tear down those fences. Build a bigger table.

It’s worth it.

Sending love to you and yours,


All of us, all over the world, are cells in the body of humanity. You are not separate from your fellow humans, and you cannot find harmony for yourself alone. You can only find harmony when you realize the oneness of all and work for the good of all." Peace Pilgrim

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

Aussie Twisted Vegemite Breadsticks

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

Homemade breadsticks are such a grown-up move.

Only the most organized adult takes the time to add homemade breadsticks to an already jam-packed dinner party menu.  More importantly, only an adult can resist eating all the breadsticks.

Aussie breadsticks do not apologize for their allure. These brash wands of dough smirk from their buttery throne – glistening with parmesan and Vegemite – daring you to show restraint before the main course arrives. Once you succumb? You’ll be too full for prime rib, too sleepy for Pavlova.

Forget about fitting into anything but elastic.

Unless, of course, you’re one of those adults who can take one trim nibble, lay down the breadstick and casually carry on a conversation for 20 minutes without the Medial Forebrain Bundle (that’s the pleasure seeking part of the brain for those who don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy) going into full on panic mode. I’ve always envied people with such restraint. Those are the real grown-ups.

I’m 36 years old and still waiting.

My husband and daughter? They don’t stand a chance.

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe


Uluru by Corey Leopold.

Uluru by Corey Leopold.

What is an Aussie breadstick?

Aussie breadsticks are the worst kind of best. These strips of twisted puff pastry will challenge your adulthood in less than 20 minutes in the oven – hardly enough time to make a realistic plan of resistance.  They’re crispy, buttery, and cheesy – but they wouldn’t be from down under if they didn’t have signature Aussie flair – a generous smear of Vegemite. The black, yeasty spread adds malty, salty smack as well as deep umami to the outer crust.

I added a bit of chopped rosemary to green up the flavor, but thyme would do nicely as well.

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

"Vegemite and Marmite" by AZAdam / AdamOriginal uploader was Scharks at en.wikipedia.Later version(s) were uploaded by Vanderdecken at en.wikipedia. - from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Vegemite and Marmite” by AZAdam.

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

Australian Vegemite Breadsticks Recipe

So, how good are Aussie breadsticks?

I ate three and skipped dinner.

Take that adulthood.

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These strips of twisted puff pastry will challenge your adulthood in less than 20 minutes in the oven - hardly enough time to make a realistic plan of resistance. They're crispy, buttery, and cheesy - but they wouldn't be from down under if they didn't have signature Aussie flair - a generous smear of Vegemite. The black, yeasty spread adds malty, salty smack as well as deep umami to the outside. I added a bit of chopped rosemary to green up the flavor, but thyme would do nicely as well. Aussie Twisted Vegemite Breadsticks
Servings Prep Time
10breadsticks 10minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
10breadsticks 10minutes
Cook Time
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Brush thawed puff pastry with vegetable oil. Mash together the butter, yeast extract, and rosemary. Spread on thawed puff pastry. Sprinkle liberally with Parmesan cheese. Cut in 10 strips (I used a ravioli wheel but a knife works well, too). Twist on a lined baking pan.
  3. Bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Let cool. Serve in jars or a cloth-lined bread basket.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.