Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘pumpkin’

img_8964

Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

IMG_7273

Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

Read Full Post »

I’m one of those irritating tree-huggers who loves every season (at least at the beginning), but Fall and I go way back. Birthday and all. Piles of apples and squash at the farm. There will be cooking, my friends. Lots of it. This is how I get ready.

IMG_3650

On the wall rack:

Saigon cinnamon (there is no other), allspice, nutmeg (the whole little guys), cloves, ground ginger, hot red pepper flakes, cardamom, almond extract.

IMG_4781

I posted this last year on Facebook with a caption: ‘My pumpkin is going under the knife today. Please keep it in your prayers at this difficult time.’ For all of you who did, thank you. It was delicious.

In the fridge:

Local apples, grains, all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flours, Grade B pure maple syrup, almonds, walnuts, crab apple schnapps, bottle of vodka containing vanilla beans at mid-steep (in a couple of months it will be a killer, and far less expensive, extract than the teeny Foodtown bottles).

IMG_4688

Long-cooking tomato sauce from local, organic plum tomatoes. You can see it has cooked down by an inch—getting richer than Scrooge McDuck.

In the freezer:

Bread, whatever I baked for breakfast this week, preserves (right now mulberry, on the horizon crab apple), chicken stock, butter, tomato sauce, quince syrup, yeast, bread crumb bag (all of the crusts I don’t eat, blitzed for toppings), Parmigiano-Reggiano.

IMG_5654

Red quinoa, drying at the farm.

On top of the fridge:

Sugars (granulated, confectioner’s, dark brown).

IMG_5902

Quinces from a super-secret tree I found last year.

In the bottom of the armoire that I keep in my kitchen because doesn’t everyone:

Onions, garlic, potatoes. I keep them in a three-divided wooden unit that I found at the antiques shop downtown.

IMG_5438

Garlic.

In the closet I call ‘the garage’:

This is the coolest spot in my place. It houses winter squash. All kinds. Cheese, Luna, butternut, Cinderella. I line them up on the floor.

IMG_6063

Cinderella and cheese pumpkins, fantastic for pie.

Equinox, I’m ready.

Read Full Post »

No preliminaries from Little Miss Chatterbox this time. Let’s go:

1) Be skeptical of any dessert served with an amorphous heap on top—whipped cream, raspberry sauce, spark plugs, whatever. It usually means the kitchen is trying to distract you. Remember: if the dessert could stand on its own, it would.

2) Smile at your restaurant server even if he or she doesn’t smile back.

3) If you loved your meal, send your thanks to the kitchen. It’s not pretentious or old-fashioned; expressing appreciation will never be thus.

4) If your Filipino friend invites you to an authentic Filipino meal made by her mom, say yes.

IMG_6144

Lumpiang shanghai—homemade spring rolls filled with ground pork, carrots, and onions. Piping hot and crisp. I couldn’t stop eating them, which was rude because my hosts and friends kept trying to engage me in conversation, but I got a little delirious with these.

IMG_6147

This is is monggo, and lovely comfort food. Beans, broth, shrimp, and vegetables. Again, I needed to exercise better portion control and likely didn’t.

5) If a friend who grew up in Wisconsin tells you that a local ice cream place is fantastic, go.

6) Never refuse a cookie made from scratch.

7) When in a burger joint or chain restaurant, don’t order the pasta. Doesn’t matter if the place has an Italian-sounding name.

8) It’s okay to hate marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs. Get in line with me. We’ll hang out.

9) Always pull over to buy lemonade from kids selling it in front of their houses.

10) When trying an exotic dish for the first time, make sure the people preparing it know it like they know how to inhale and exhale.

11) Own a copy of The Joy of Cooking. Every single standard dish is in there, and it’s plainly written.

12) Eat fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and you’ll find out how they’re really supposed to taste. Watermelon delivered to New Jersey in March is, for example, a disgrace. In August, purchased locally, it’s celestial.

IMG_3520

Organic Sugar Baby.

13) Shop at farmers’ markets. Ask questions. The guy behind the fold-out table most likely grew those sweet grilling peppers himself and loves talking about them.

14) Recognize that your tastes can change. Something you used to hate might taste very differently to you today—or you simply might learn that you hate broccoli when roasted, but love it when steamed.

15) Put your hands in soft bread dough at least once. Making bread is easy. Really really.

IMG_4307

Babka dough…on the rise.

16) Just because a recipe looks difficult to make doesn’t mean it is, or that you won’t enjoy every second of making it.

17) When traveling, eat where the locals eat for the best value and flavor. If you want fancy, ask a local butcher where to eat; he or she will know which restaurants buy the best cuts. If you want simple and hearty, ask a policeman where to eat.

18) Along the same lines, try foods that the place is known for. Taste an artichoke in Rome, heather honey in Scotland, flying fish on Barbados, sharp white cheddar in Vermont.

19) Go strawberry picking. Go anything picking. Wear decent shoes. Flip flops aren’t.

IMG_5269

20) Own a proper set of knives. They should be weighted evenly, with the metal running straight through the handle. I firmly maintain that if you own cooking equipment that you don’t have to fight, you’ll enjoy cooking far more.

21) On the other hand, don’t spend much for ordinary things. An aluminum muffin tin has a design that’s hard to foul up. I bought a few sets for something like $7 at an ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale in 2006. I also bought a hand mixer for five bucks. Both were at least 10 years old when I got them and they’re still chugging along fine.

22) Try different ingredients together, different textures together. If you don’t like it, so what? You can always chuck it if it doesn’t work out. Or you might come up with something wildly groovy.

IMG_5570

This was a weirdo idea I had for a breakfast sandwich: roasted local peaches with my fresh ricotta, basil leaves, and a drizzle of honey. It was too sweet. Next time I’m going to try balsamic vinegar instead of the honey.

IMG_5343

My honeysuckle syrup. One to one with plain vodka over ice was OUT of this world.

23) Eat with your hands. Not at a posh spot with your district manager, but as often as you can. It will taste differently. It’s grounding.

24) Find out what’s growing wild in your backyard, research it, and be clear on it. I’d bet there’s something edible there you can throw into your salad.

25) Eat good-quality chocolate, pure maple syrup (Grade B!), fresh garlic. Spread Irish butter on your English muffin. (Sure, they’ll be fighting in spirit, but in your mouth it’ll be divine.)

26) Try making pumpkin muffins with fresh-baked pumpkin at least once.

IMG_6063

Above: Cinderella pumpkins; below, cheese pumpkins. Highly recommended.

27) When at a Jewish deli, order the hot pastrami sandwich.

28) If you ever come across a cold bottle of sarsaparilla, try it.

29) Ditto for homemade hot chocolate. Ix-nay on the blue packets.

30) Adding a little sprinkle of sea salt to the top of homemade brownies, truffles, chocolate-dipped figs, and peanut butter fudge gives them a happy little punch.

IMG_4574

Read Full Post »

IMG_4696

When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

Read Full Post »

IMG_3264

My black bottom pumpkin pie.

It’s happened twice in the past couple of weeks and I’m grinning like Christmas morning just thinking about it. The first time: a pair of college-aged girls was standing rapt at the display of pumpkins in my local health food store. The pumpkins were pinkish and large and squat like cheese pumpkins, so I knew they’d make great pies.

Girl 1: ‘Oh, LOOK at them! We have to get one!’

Girl 2: ‘But…what do we do with it?’

This is when I swooped in like a miniature superhero in Simple brand sneakers. ‘They’re baking pumpkins. You slice them in half, put them cut side down on a cookie sheet, put them in the oven at 375 or 400 for a half hour or 45 minutes until you can pierce them easily with a knife. Then you take them out, let them cool, scoop out the goo, puree it and drain it in a sieve over a bowl, and then you bake with it. Makes AWESOME pies.’

They squealed. College girls do this.

Girl 1: ‘Omigod we HAVE to make one!’

Girl 2: ‘Thank you so much for your advice!’

This made my day…not even kidding. Then it happened again today at an apple orchard.

20-something-or close-enough guy reading the sign: ‘Whaaaaaaat the hell is a CHEESE pumpkin?’

I swooped in again, this time rocking Eastern Mountain Sports hiking boots.* ‘It’s named that because it looks like a cheese wheel. Have you ever seen a big wheel of cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano? Someone thought these looked like a whole cheese.’ ‘Wow…!’

Then I gave him the same instructions, ending with the requisite, ‘…And they’re AWESOME for pie.’ He grinned and said thanks. I saw him a few minutes later with a cheese pumpkin teetering on one shoulder, heading for the checkout.

All of which got me thinking about the chronology of cooking.

Here in the U.S., from the mid-century back, people (usually women) were in the kitchen every day making three squares for their families. Some enjoyed it and some didn’t, but it had be done either way. Prepared foods and restaurants weren’t commonplace, so if you wanted to eat, you cooked.

War-time brought many women out of the kitchen and into the workforce; someone had to take over the jobs the boys serving overseas had left behind. Convenience foods saved working women time, and was a boon to those who’d never liked cooking. I think of a friend’s grandmother who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania in the 1920s, which translates to limited or no plumbing or electricity, a gaggle of animals to take care of, a similar gaggle of siblings to take care of, and oh right, cooking 100% from scratch every single day, all year.** She became a mother in the early 1940s, moved to the suburbs, and worked as a beautician while her husband served in World War II. I looked through her recipe file and let me tell you—once convenience foods became available, she jumped on them and never looked back.

Then the women’s movement happened in the ’60s and ’70s. And for all its virtues and heaps of blessings, it had a bastard child: some mothers who associated cooking with being chained to the stove deliberately didn’t teach their daughters how to cook. They didn’t want their daughters to suffer the same lot they had, and instead told them to go to work and never again to give a glance back into the kitchen.

I am not blaming those mothers; they thought they were protecting their children. But they threw the baby out with the bathwater, because many, many girls in that generation don’t know a peach from a nectarine. So while those girls may have been spared one fate, they suffered another. For what is more basic than real food, and what is more grievous than being distanced from it, and thus crippled? We’re talking about what we live on here.

Things are changing in the food industry; we read about new developments every day in the world of organics, GMOs, farm to fork and more. But the most rewarding, for my money, is what’s changing in kitchens. People are beginning to occupy them again, and not just to twirl a bowl of Spaghetti-Os in the nuker. They are becoming curious again. In some families, daughters are teaching their mothers how to cook, those same women who were chased out of the kitchen and told to go to work. Usually the learning goes one way, forward. But lovely, isn’t it, the learning going the other way?

I’d fallen for the young ‘un stereotype, that they subsist entirely on Ramen noodles and Taco Bell. I’m wrong. They want to learn. They want to farm—I’m reading and seeing more of this every day. They want to cook. Maybe they’ll be the generation that can find balance between work and proper cooking. They were fascinated, and I was fascinated right back.

(I’d also like a 30% kickback from the health food store and apple orchard. After all, it was my sweet talking that sold two pumpkins for them.)

IMG_4740

*I vary the shoes during my superhero workday. Kind of a calling-card thing. Crap, now I’m giving away all my secrets.

**And remember that in those days and in that time, if you wanted chicken for supper, you started on it at noon. With a hatchet.

Read Full Post »

IMG_4635

For a change, here’s a tale of redemption preceded by really breathtaking incompetence. I had one All-Clad pan, a quart of olive oil, and a dream. And the result was I chased a good 97% of the oxygen out of my house. Man, I wish I were kidding.

I’ve never written about deep-frying because I’ve never done it before Wednesday night, when I made fried zucchini blossoms. I’ve always wanted to try them, and I was so excited when one of my readers submitted her recipe for my cooking project. When a native Roman offers you a recipe for this, you take it. Here it is, lightly edited.

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

3 or 4 squash flowers per person, very fresh and without the pistils. Flowers are extremely delicate so open them carefully and stuff with a little cube of mozzarella cheese and a piece of anchovy. Then prepare a thick batter with flour, sparkly cold water (or beer). Dip the stuffed flower into the batter and fry in lots of oil, very hot. Remove them when light-brown colored and dry the excess oil with a paper towel. It comes out like a cloud, with inside….the surprise!

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

gourmetaly.com

First I went to my favorite organic farm to pick some flowers, male ones. Males are just flowers; they won’t have a little tiny zucchini on the stem, or a little tiny pumpkin*. They’re both in the same Curcubit family and so the flowers look very similar. Either will work. Took a peek to make sure there weren’t any bugs inside the flowers, taking a breather from the heat. There were. Shook them out.

Then I went home and got started on this very simple recipe. Daniela doesn’t give amounts, so I winged it, and it still worked fine. That part, anyway. I pulled apart fresh mozzarella into pieces about the size of a grape, but I could have made them bigger. For the batter, I combined 1/2 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 cup cold filtered water** and stirred it with a fork. The batter wasn’t as thick as she suggested it should be, but this worked for me. I lined a plate with a napkin so the flowers could drain on it as I took them out of the oil.

Don’t I sound so on-the-ball so far? What a superhero!

Now for the smoke part…

1) I should have washed the flowers and removed the pistils before heating up the oil. I’ll rephrase: The oil got way overheated and started puffing smoke. So when I put the flowers in they cooked within three seconds and in the fourth turned black, emitting several uncomfortable-looking bits of charred flour or cheese or anchovy for all I know. Unless oil can solidify and burn? Lord knows it was hot enough, so this is entirely possible.

2) I set the oil on high. Newsflash, Maris: oil will get as hot as Daniela says it needs to be if you have it on medium or medium-low and wait a little. Then it won’t, you know, smoke up the place so much that you expect Bela Lugosi to pop by.

Result: It smoked up the place, Bela Lugosi summarily ran for his life, the fire alarm in my hallway went off, I grabbed a chair to stand on, yanked the contraption apart with one hand and held a battered, cheesed, anchovied flower in the other. Then I opened every single window and my back door.

But I kept going. So the oil sort of shone in a lurid way! So the house was thick as pea soup! I had flowers to fry. One by one I dropped them in, and after every other breath (read: cough) I took them out.

I didn’t expect them to taste good—look at the picture below, they’re not exactly the picture of health—but I was knocked out.  It sounded a lot like this: ‘COUGHCOUGHCOUGHCOUGHcrunchoooooohnotbad! Pretty freaking amazing, actually. Crunch. Oh my…God. WOW!’

IMG_4686

Exhausted.

I ate every single one within 30 seconds and while standing at my counter. It was impossible to stop.

When you make these—and I hope you will, because they are RIDICULOUSLY delicious—do as I say and not as I do: do your prep work in advance, have the oil on medium or medium-low heat and make sure it doesn’t smoke. It will get hot enough soon enough. Olive oil has a high smoke point, too. Use canola for a better shot. Then work quickly and serve immediately.

IMG_4684

Daniela, thank you for the recipe. Next time I’ll do right by it.

And as has become the custom when I foul up, I’m entertaining suggestions on how to remove the burnt oil from the sides of the pan. No, really.

IMG_4687

Pouting.

*I’m sure there’s a more scientific or at the very least educated way of describing this. It will not be found on this blog.

**Didn’t use sparkling because I don’t like it as a drink, and didn’t want to waste it. Same goes for beer. If any of you make the recipe Daniela’s way, please write in and let me know how it tastes. I’m curious.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »