Vegetables go vertical

Carolyn Black of Arlington has made edible Christmas trees for more than 25 years now.

But we’re not talking about tiny holiday cookies decorated with icing and sugar sprinkles.

We’re talking about a 3-foot-tall homage to vegetables.

“I like to do creative things,” said Black, 66. “It’s pretty spectacular.

“This is such a wonderful way to get away from the sweets and high-calorie stuff for Christmas.”

It’s not only that. This is a way to take your holiday veggie tray to the next level, quite literally.

Though edible produce arrangements and centerpieces have been in vogue in recent years, they’ve focused primarily on fruit.

Black, whose friends know her better as Kari, made her first vegetable tree in the early 1980s after her now-late husband, Donald, bought her a garnishing kit at the Puyallup Fair.

It came with tools and a book, “Gourmet Bouquet” by Julia Weinberg, circa 1978, full of interesting, edible centerpieces.

With a special holiday party coming up at her church, Black decided to duplicate the Christmas tree in the book — at three times the recommended size.

“I think it was maybe a foot high,” Black said. “I thought, ‘Let’s make this a big one.’ “

Using rigid insulation foam that her husband had on hand, Black cut out a series of progressively larger circles and stacked them to create a tree shape. She covered the stack tightly in cheesecloth to hold it all in place.

Pulling together a wide variety of vegetables and nearly 1,000 toothpicks, Black created a healthy, one-of-a-kind Christmas treat.

“The biggest problem with the whole thing is getting people to eat it,” Black said. “The best group to do this for is families with preteen kids. If they like vegetables, they devour it.”

Over the years, Black has turned her Christmas tree art into a tradition, often making edible trees for the engineering department with the city of Everett, where she worked for 20 years.

“Men would come in and they just did not want to touch it because it was too pretty,” Black said. “Women are a little more likely to eat it and touch it.”

Though vegetable trees may seem highly artistic, Black said the process actually takes more time and patience than creativity.

Prepping the vegetables can take two to three hours. In addition to cutting nearly everything into bite-size pieces, Black usually scores and then soaks radishes, carrots and green onions in an ice water bath for about five hours or overnight to make them “bloom” like flowers.

The work of assembling the tree the next day usually takes another three hours of work, if she does it alone.

“Creative energy is fun, not work,” Black said.

Decorating a vegetable tree is much like decorating a real Christmas tree.

“There’s a definite order,” she said. “You don’t hang the delicate ornaments until the very end.”

Black starts with a base of ruffle-leafed lettuce. She asks her local produce department for their free lettuce trimmings.

She follows with a string of LED lights and a garland of daikon radish, shaved into long strands with a potato peeler, revealing the beautiful grain of the root.

“Isn’t the texture great?” Black said. “It’s like a damask ribbon.”

Next comes a bevy of canned and fresh veggies, including what Black likes to call “stickery” — green beans, snow peas, asparagus spears, baby sweet corn and carrot spears that can be arranged to point out and away from the tree like branches.

Black adds three types of garnish.

First, she peels a turnip and cuts it on a mandolin slicer. Then, using a small cookie cutter, she cuts out intricate snowflakes, which she paints around the edges with blue food coloring, a hue not available in the vegetable world.

Second, using another cookie cutter, she cuts snowmen out of lunch meat and decorates them with faces and buttons using a packet of mustard, cut open on one corner.

Finally, she lines the entire base of the tree with clementines or satsumas, for a boost of color.

Black has shared her vertical vegetable crafts with numerous employers, organizations and stores, including Central Market in Mill Creek, where her creation a few years ago had everyone snapping pictures with their cell-phone cameras.

Next year during the holidays, Black will teach a class at J. Matheson Kitchen &Gourmet in Everett for people who want to create edible centerpieces.

Black’s friends seem to appreciate her trees the most.

When her neighbors, Ken and Sue Baker, were planning a Christmas party for 80 guests in Port Ludlow, they brought in a caterer, but also had Black create an edible tree.

“We were in for a big surprise,” Ken Baker said. “As the focal point of the room, it not only provided a point of interest and awe, it was just fun to pick from the many assortments of food.

“The presentation created a memory among many of our friends that still today refer it to as a work of art. … (It) made our gathering just that much more special.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@heraldnet.com.

Carolyn Black of Arlington recommends these supplies and ingredients for a 3-foot edible Christmas tree.

The 3-foot tree should serve about 50 people as a side dish or veggie “tray.” You can scale down the recipe by using a smaller foam cone.

Vary the recipe with fruit, such as grapes, star fruit or melon balls.

“Anything anyone likes to eat that can be affixed to the tree with a toothpick works,” Black said. “We have made garlands with cranberries, strung on dental floss, about 8 feet long.”

Black does not recommend tomatoes or other soft fruit or vegetables because they “slump” so quickly in a warm room.

Expect to spend at least $75 on produce and canned goods to make a 3-foot tree.

Supplies

1 3-foot homemade form of rigid foam insulation, wrapped in cheesecloth

1string 100 LED holiday lights

1,000toothpicks

Ornaments

1large produce box of green- or red-leaf lettuce scraps, donated by your favorite grocery store produce department

1daikon radish, shaved into long garlands with a potato peeler

1head purple cauliflower, cut into bite-size pieces

1head broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces

3bell peppers, cut into bite-size pieces

4ounces of fresh mushrooms

2bunches round red radishes, scored and bloomed

1bunch green onions, cut short, scored and bloomed

1bag fancy-sliced fresh carrots

1bunch fresh asparagus spears, cut to about 4 inches long

1small bag snow peas

1small bag green beans, with one end cut off each bean

16-ounce can black extra large pitted olives

18-ounce can baby sweet corn

17-ounce can stuffed Spanish olives

116-ounce jar hot banana wax peppers

116-ounce jar whole honey ginger sweet pickles

116-ounce jar whole tiny dill pickles

Optional garnish

1box satsumas

1turnip, peeled and sliced, for cutout stars

1small star cookie cutter

1tablespoon blue food coloring for stars

1small paintbrush for decorated turnip stars

4slices of lunch meat for snowman cutouts

1small snowman cookie cutter

1mustard packet for snowman decoration

1small green zucchini, sliced (to reinforce snowman cutouts)

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