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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Squash Pasta: An Autumn Delight

This is the time of year that our gardens and grocery stores are displaying a bounty of winter squash. Acorn. Butternut. Pumpkin. Spaghetti. And heirloom varieties of all kinds.

Our solution to this wealth of Cucurbita maxima from Central America used to be the tried and true Baked Squash with Butter and Maple Syrup. We got tired of it and, frankly, never like it THAT much. Last week we gave you a wonderful recipe for Pumpkin Soup.

Here's an idea that Tim's brother Ron picked up at a cooking class. It sounds weird, and looks a little boring. But it is very complex and works as either a vegetarian main dish or as a main if you add shredded poulty: Pasta with Squash Sauce.

Cut a large (3 lbs.) squash of any winter variety in half lengthwise, spoon out the seeds and bake cut side down in a 350-degree oven with a sprig of Thyme and a clove of garlic underneath and a drizzle of olive oil over the top. Test for doneness by spearing with a knife. It might take about 30-45 minutes depending upon the size and shape of the squash.

Spoon the squash meat and the garlic cloves into a food processor (remove the thyme sprigs). Add 3/4 cup of vegetable stock (you could use chicken stock), 2 Tablespoons of cream, a teaspoon of curry powder, a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves (1/3 teaspoon of dried) a half-teaspoon of dried pepper flakes and salt and pepper to taste. You don't need much pepper, but you should start with a teaspoon of salt, and you can adjust again later if it's not enough.

Meanwhile, cook 1 lb. pasta (we used linguini) in boiling water. Drain the pasta and immediately mix in the squash sauce. (Taste the sauce again for salt, curry and pepper flakes before mixing.) Top with shredded chicken, if you're inclined. Either way, garnish with some thyme leaves and sprigs and parmesan cheese.

Serve with more grated parmesan at the table.

The curry and faint hint of heat from the pepper flakes give the otherwise mono-tasting squash a depth and complexity that is very fulfilling.

This recipe would taste great with a crisp and un-oakey Chardonnay, but we served it with a Zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma, which nicely complemented the spice in the dish.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Celebrate the Harvest with Curried Pumpkin Soup

Our friends Chuck and Sandy put in a big garden every year, and this year we really appreciated it, as our own garden consisted solely of an inadvertently massive herb bed and, thanks to the Evil Stalker Groundhog, three pots of lackluster tomatoes. Not only did we get to taste lots of good food at Chuck and Sandy's house, they generously shared their bounty. A couple of weeks ago, Chuck presented us with a sugar pumpkin, a bag of herbs and chili peppers, and a considerately printed-out recipe.

Though we're always sad to see the summer go, we love the harvest, and this soup makes good use of it.

One suggestion: Thrifty though we are, we try not to cook with those big Halloween pumpkins, which tend to be very fibrous. (Still, a friend of ours tells a great story about her extremely frugal mother, who used to drive through her neighborhood on November 1, make her humiliated children scoop up the smashed pumpkins, and then turn the road-kill vegetables into pies. We can't help admiring that.)

If you can, use a sugar pumpkin; butternut squash would also work well.

Curried Pumpkin Soup

4 cups puréed pumpkin*
2 T. olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 t. fresh thyme leaves
2 T. chopped parsley
1 t. curry powder
1 small hot pepper, minced (optional)**
1/2 cup cream or 3/4 cup whole milk

1. To prepare the pumpkin, cut it in half, extract the seeds and strings, then bake upside-down in a pan with about an inch of water in a 350-degree oven for about 50 minutes, or until you can easily remove the pumpkin from the skin.

2. In a large pan, heat the oil, then sauté the onion and garlic until soft and golden.

3. Add the stock, thyme, parsley, curry powder, and hot pepper.  Bring to a boil, the simmer for about 30 minutes.

4. Using an immersion blender, stationary blender, or food processor, purée the soup until it is smooth and creamy. Put it back in the pan (if you removed it to purée it) and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Before serving, add the cream or milk and heat for a minute or two.

Though the soup is good served plain, a dollop of sour cream or a few toasted pumpkin seeds finish it nicely.

*If you can't get four cups out of the pumpkin, adjust the recipe proportionately.

** Chuck added a finely chopped, tiny habanero pepper to give the soup a kick; we used a couple of very small but deadly Thai peppers, which provided a nice afterglow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Favorite Things: Food Processor

We're still on the road, and won't be back in the kitchen until Thursday. But we've been meaning to write an ode to our beloved Cuisinart, and today Mark Bittman beat us to it. His column has a lot of tips for making the best use of this device, which we still find miraculous after 30 years of several-times-weekly use.

A lot of people own food processors but let them gather dust in cupboards because they're a pain to drag out and (people think) a pain to clean. Maybe today's Bittman column will liberate some of those forgotten pieces of equipment so they can do the jobs they were meant to do.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Road Food: Visit Farmers' Markets to Avoid Junky Restaurants

We've written quite a bit about eating on the road—basically, how to avoid junky fast food. This past week we've
been traveling around Boulder, Colorado, and the city's splendid
farmer's market has allowed us to eat particularly well.

Boulder's residents love both food and the environment, so the local market features almost exclusively organic produce and baked goods. We loaded up on tomatoes, peaches, bread, and cheese, confident that we would have some great picnics.

For the next few days we ate lunch in local parks, tearing apart our crusty bread to make impromptu sandwiches as we gawked at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The September air was clear and crisp, and the peaches were the juiciest we have ever eaten; afterward, we had to douse ourselves with bottled water to keep the yellow jackets at bay.

Our lunches here have ranked among our best lunches ever  . . . and proved yet again that road food can be delicious and life-affirming, especially when it's eaten outdoors. If you find yourself traveling through a city with a farmer's market and have time to stop and shop, you're guaranteed of getting a better lunch than any fast-food or chain restaurant can provide. (The Local Harvest website will tell you if there's a market in the area you'll be visiting.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sweet-Savory Fruit Preserve Tastes Good on Everything

Guest blogger Amy Friedman shares a recipe that turns blah leftover fruit into an amazingly flexible preserve that works great on everything from meat to ice cream. 

Sweet-Savory Fruit Preserve

Do you love summer sausage? I do. I especially love it with mustard and fruit preserves. Lingonberries work well, but I recently found I wanted something a little sweeter.

So I made up my own sweet-savory fruit preserve. 

As always with me, it's another "clean the fridge" recipe. I initially did it as an experiment, throwing all sorts of shleppy fruit I had around the fridge into it. 

When the fruit mix was ready to come off the stove, I realized it couldn't decide if it was a spread or a fruit butter. I've tried it hot on blintzes, cheese pierogi, and ice cream, and cold on toast, and it's just fine. Today I discovered that cold, and mixed with a little mustard, it's the perfect accompaniment for summer sausage. 

Here's how to make it: 
Pull out your glass or plastic liquid cup measurer. Into it, cut up whatever fruit you've got in the house, until you've got two to four cups. In my mix, I had an apple, a pear, a peach, about half a cup of shleppy red grapes, a handful of dying blueberries, and about an inch or two of finely chopped ginger. Other fruits that can go in there are gooseberries, nectarines, and plums.

Always make sure you've got an apple or a peach in whatever fruit mix you're making—the natural pectin means you won't need Sure-Jell or other commercial jellers. 

Dump the fruit into a bowl (or even into the pot in which you intend to boil the fruit—less cleanup! Just don't use an aluminum pot).  Add an equal amount of sugar. That is, if you've got four cups of fruit, add four cups of sugar. Put in less if the fruit is quite sweet.

Add lemon juice. To four cups of fruit, I generally add the juice of a whole lemon. That's about a tablespoon and a half to two tablespoons. 

This is important: LET IT SIT for two hours. The sugar has to do some digestive work on the fruit. Cover it up and head out of the house or something. When you come back, give it a stir, stick it on the burner, bring it to a boil, and then lower the heat as much as you can. (The sugars mean it can scorch easily, so you really want the heat low.) Cover it, and leave it there for two to three hours. Shorter if you want something more like a sauce, and longer if you want something thick and robust. Come back once in a while and give it a stir, to see how the consistency is maturing. I left mine on the burner for three hours. It came out nice and thick and very tasty, with the ginger giving it a lovely piquancy. 

Next time, I might sliver some of the lemon rind into it, and put in a bit more ginger. 

While your preserve is fone, go slice up some summer sausage, put a few spoonfuls of this on a plate, mix in some mustard, and dip in. Yum!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Make It Yourself: Yogurt

For a long time, we resisted making our own yogurt. True, we ate it every morning of our lives, and those quart containers added up, both in cost and in recycling waste. But we didn't want to invest in a machine. We were loath to accumulate any more large kitchen gadgets, and we'd heard that homemade yogurt could never match the creaminess of its supermarket or health-food-store counterpart.

Then milk prices shot up, taking yogurt prices with them, and we began to experiment.

First we tried making yogurt without a machine, because so many people swore we could do it using nothing more than a deep dish, a dishtowel, and a warm counter. We just ended up with big bowls of spoiled milk.

Then we borrowed a friend's machine, with almost equally unsatisfying results. It only held six-ounce containers, which hardly justified the effort of homemade yogurt. And the machine didn't work that great.

Then we discovered the Waring Professional Yogurt Maker, which allowed us to make four 16-ounce containers at a time. We bought one a couple of years ago and have not looked back. Not only is our homemade yogurt much cheaper than the store's, it tastes much better, being almost as creamy as super-rich and super-expensive Greek yogurt.

Once you've bought the right machine, the trick to homemade yogurt is boosting the creaminess of the milk you use. We do this by adding a cup of nonfat dry milk to every half-gallon batch we make. Also, we use 1 or 2 percent milk; although you can use skim milk, we're happy to trade taste for extra fat. 

The other tricky part is finding the dry yogurt culture you need to turn hot milk into yogurt. You can find it at health-food stores; Whole Foods also carries it for a good price (in startling contrast to everything else Whole Foods sells).

Once you've got your machine, your dry milk, your yogurt culture, and a candy thermometer, all you need is an hour to get everything going.

All of this may seem complicated, but it doesn't take that long to master.  For anyone who eats a lot of yogurt, it will quickly pay off.

Homemade Yogurt

1/2 gallon milk
1 cup nonfat dry milk
1 packet yogurt starter

1. Add the milk to a nonstick pot and whisk in the dry milk. Heat until the milk is almost boiling, then remove from heat and let cool.

2. When the milk has cooled to a temperature of between 110 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit, whisk a few tablespoons of it into the yogurt starter (we use a custard cup for this). Then whisk this mixture into the warm milk. Be sure to work quickly, because you don't want the milk to cool down much.

3. Pour the yogurt-cultured milk into your containers, place in your machine, and set it for nine to ten hours.

4. When the time is up, refrigerate the yogurt, and bask in the pleasure of knowing you've saved a whole lot of money.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Peach Cobbler: The Internets to the Rescue

It's been a glorious peach season, but now we're starting to encounter dubious peaches—mushy and mealy despite their exterior perfection. The season is coming to an end. What better time to make peach cobbler, a dish that turns questionable fruit into a wonderful end-of-summer dessert?

We've tried many recipes for cobbler over the years but have always particularly loved a recipe from an old Sunset magazine that used a rolled-out cream-cheese crust. Alas, when we looked for it yesterday, we realized that the recipe had been inadvertently purged during our move last year.

Surely we'd be able to find it online, we thought. But it was nowhere to be found—not even in the Sunset recipe archives. There were lots of cobbler recipes online that mixed cream cheese with the peaches before baking, but that wasn't what we wanted.

Finally, we came upon a recipe with a wacky-sounding crust that featured boiling water in place of  the usual milk or buttermilk. We might have rejected it out of hand, but it was overwhelmingly popular with the readers of; in fact, an astonishing 22,000 people had saved it. So we decided to try it.

The resulting cobbler was delicious: fruit-heavy, the way we like it, with a sweet but not cloying crust. We would definitely make it again . . . even though we're still going to search for that elusive recipe for the cream-cheese crust.