Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pumpkin: After Pie, Beyond the U.S.

Pumpkins 3 vRaised under my grandmother’s tutelage in the waste not, want not school of cooking, after Thanksgiving I feel as if I should do something with those pumpkins that have been decorating the sideboard. I’ve already made pies—and I confess, that after decades of experimentation, I prefer solid-pack canned pumpkin to home-cooked for those. So what’s a frugal kitchen maid to do?
When I was in college, we used to stuff whole small pumpkins with mashed potatoes and seasoned ground beef, and roast them until the flesh was soft and the outsides glazed and mahogany brown—cheap, hearty, and initially impressive, but ultimately rather dull, in the shepherd’s pie tradition. Some years I just roast and mash them, or make soup. Ho-hum. Not that these aren’t good, but really, what’s so pumpkin-y about them? They may just as well have been made with butternut or acorn squash. Pumpkin is a little sweeter and denser, and seems to ask for something that showcases their difference. The Italians of course make the wonderful ravioli de zucca, bathed in sage butter; it’s fabulous, and I have made it, but I’m happy to use canned pumpkin for that purpose as well—or to save eating them for dining out, and let the restaurant do the work. The Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latino and Hispanic cultures use pumpkin a lot too, both in main dishes and desserts, particularly custards. But again, canned is fine. How to really showcase the taste and texture of the fresh item had eluded me.
Then about five years ago during a conference in Baltimore, our large group ordered a pumpkin appetizer at an Afghan restaurant run by a member of Hamid Karzai’s family. It was the house specialty, but arrived looking astoundingly uninteresting— chunks of ostensibly plain cooked pumpkin sitting unadorned in a big bowl (for our crowd it was served home-style, with a another big bowl, this one of yogurt, alongside). Looks were deceiving: it was exotically sweet and tender, with a true pumpkin taste. I asked our waiter how it was made, and he said it was just pumpkin cooked in the oven with water and honey, served with a savory seasoned yogurt. There is a well known Afghan pumpkin dish made with tomato sauce and served with yogurt, but this was not it, but rather something altogether different and delicious.
As I think these fritters are—inspired by that Afghani appetizer but pushed into the dessert category with New England ingredients, and fried (thinking about Mexico made me do it, but fritters are classic New England fare). For me, they capture the sweet, fruity taste of pumpkin as pumpkin, not pumpkin as squash. Be sure to use a nice hard specimen, and if you like the seeds, clean, dry, and roast them with salt: they’re full of minerals. Pumpkin itself is an extremely low-cal, low-fat food, high in vitamin A, calcium, and potassium.
New England Pumpkin Fritters via Afghanistan
These are a bit of work, but as I always say when rationalizing excesses during the holidays, whether of the pecuniary or laborious kind, “It’s only once a year.” And you can spread it out over two days, preparing the pumpkin on one and frying them on the next; extra hands, of course, make preparation light. These are a nice dessert, and a better breakfast. Even a small pumpkin makes a lot, so if you don’t fry it all, you can eat any leftover sweetened pumpkin pieces plain with the yogurt, or mash them up as a side dish. As fritters, serves 15-20.Cut pumpkin 1
Preparing the Pumpkin (see safety note below)
1 small sugar pumpkin, about 7” in diameter
1 cup fresh sweet apple cider
¼ cup honey
½ tea Vietnamese cinnamon
2 T unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut the pumpkin into quarters and, with a large spoon, remove as much of the pulp and seeds as possible. Cut each quarter in half lengthwise, then further trim the flesh of all remaining fiber. Peel the rind with a vegetable Pumpkin for oven 2peeler or paring knife. Cut each of the now eight pieces in half crosswise, then cut into 4 or 5 pieces of ½” each, taking care not to break them as they are curved. As you cut them, put them into a non-metal baking dish (a 15x10 “lasagna pan” is good) into which you have blended the cider, honey, and cinnamon, giving them a toss. Dot with the butter. Cover with a sheet of foil and oven-stew them for about 35 minutes, until they can be pierced with a knife and the smaller pieces are starting to turn translucent. You are looking for what might be called al dente—tender, but definitely holding shape; they will cook further when fried. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the juices. If frying the next day, refrigerate, covered.
Fritters—Batter and Frying
2 cups a-p flour
1 ¾ cups sparkling sweet cider
¼ cup strained cooking liquid from pumpkin
2 eggs, separated
Pinch salt
Mixture of corn oil and lard for frying
Heat 2” of oil and lard to 375 F. A deep, heavy frying pan of at least 12” is good for this.
Combine the flour and salt. Separate the eggs and beat the whites until just stiff; drop the yolks into the flour. Strain the juices from the pumpkin into a 2-cup measure; you should have about 1/3 cup. Remove 2 T and reserve for the yogurt sauce, below. Fill the measure to the 2-cup line with the sparkling cider. Gradually add about 1 ½ cups of the liquid to the flour, first stirring with a wooden spoon and then whisking to remove lumps; I don’t bother to strain for this. When reasonably smooth, gently fold in the remaining liquid and the beaten egg whites. With this amount of liquid, the batter will make a relatively light coating; if you want it heavier, cut the liquid by ¼ to ½ cup.
Drop a half-dozen pumpkin pieces into the batter at a time to coat, then lower them into the hot fat. Cook, turning once, until they are a uniform golden brown. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve as you go, or keep them warm in a 200 F oven while you fry the rest. The pumpkin will now be perfectly tender. After it has cooled, strain the fat into a large spouted cup or bowl, pour it into a bottle or jar, and save it in the refrigerator for another use.
Yogurt Sauce and Serving
8 oz Greek-style plain yogurt
¼ cup 100% maple syrup
2 T strained cooking juices
Powdered (10x) sugar mixed with cinnamon-sugar for dusting
Blend the yogurt with the maple syrup and reserved cooking juices in a small bowl; garnish with a dash of cinnamon. Sprinkle the fritters generously with the 10x-sugar-cinnamon mixture, and serve with the yogurt sauce and some good, strong coffee.
Pump fritters 1
Safety Note: Pumpkins are hard and unwieldy, so take great care when cutting. Use a small, sharp knife with a rigid blade such as a good-quality 4” parer or an inflexible 6” boning knife; a chef’s knife or cleaver, while perhaps your first instinct, is dangerous for this. Cut the top out first, making small connecting cuts all around; remove, then cut down each side until you can pop it apart. Rinse/dry your hands frequently while cutting; they get slippery. When peeling, be sure to direct the peeler or knife away from you while holding the pumpkin firmly, flesh-side down, on a cutting board.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving: Don’t Forget the Succotash!

Of course you have your own traditions. But I’d like to make a pitch for a dish that surely was part of that first feast at Plymouth Plantation, where the settlers who survived the first brutal winter of famine, disease, and cold ate, thanks to the generosity and pity of the American Indians, their first harvested crops. My grandmother insisted on this each year, and I never, ever ate it. Actually, she could not get anyone else to eat it either, except for my mother.
Now I do eat my succotash, and I love it. There is something wonderfully simple about this dish—nothing but veggies, butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg—but nevertheless sweet, creamy, tenderly meaty, and satisfying. I use the local lima beans and sweet corn, blanched in a blink and frozen just last month, but quality commercially frozen baby limas and corn do nicely. There’s no recipe per se: just slowly heat the vegetables straight from the freezer in lots of unsalted butter and seasoning until tender. Pop in a splash of heavy cream from time to time—cream improves everything, doesn’t it?—and experience, alongside your turkey, cranberry, and pumpkin pie, the honest pleasure of a truly American meal. And don’t forget to raise a glass of Zinfandel, one of our oldest wines, and say, “thanks.” We are lucky indeed.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Cranberries, like blueberries, are native to North America. They grow on hearty, shrubby, long-lived vines—some in Massachusetts are said to be 150 years old—and have been cultivated since the early 19th century. Today farmers harvest about 40,000 acres a year for sale, 14,000 of them in Massachusetts alone. Being from New Jersey (another major growing area) and then spending most of adulthood in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, I’ve pretty much lived in cranberry country all my life. In the fall (usually early October), if you live near the bogs, it is quite a beautiful sight to see them flooded and ready for gathering.
The association of cranberries with Massachusetts, particularly Cape Cod, is historical as well as geographical. They were first cultivated there, and for nearly two centuries the state has been the site of most advances in methods and equipment used to grow and harvest them. As a source of nourishment, and a useful medicine and dye, they were one of the important wild plants introduced to the Pilgrims by Native Americans.
The Pilgrim connection may be why many people have traditionally thought of cranberries only at Thanksgiving, but thanks to both science and the availability of more ways to eat cranberries, that is changing. While it has long been known that cranberries were high in vitamin C (even before the scientific basis was understood, sailors used cranberries to prevent scurvy), more recent research suggests that cranberries may have promising antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties. In part for these reasons, cranberries in one form or another—dried, juiced, or baked into cakes and muffins—are becoming a year-round habit. I particularly like 100% cranberry juice cut with water, and use it to make mixed drinks and in cooking.
While many, many cultivars of cranberry have been developed, some exclusively for commercial juicing or other purposes, when you buy your cranberries at the market you are likely to be buying something very close to the original. These early varieties, including Early Blacks, Early Reds, and Howes (the very first cultivar, named after the Dennis, Massachusetts man who figured it all out), are still favorites for the table. Cranberries freeze well, so buy an extra bag or two for the freezer; they should not have been previously frozen when you buy them at this time of year—one of the true really fresh native products that are widely available. You can use them straight from the freezer well into the spring and early summer with no loss of quality.
Cranberry Chutney
I make a cranberry chutney every year, for serving with the turkey, but also with other meats and poultry, cheeses, on sandwiches, or as an ingredient in assembled appetizers and desserts. I have a few variations that I like, including this one. If you haven’t discovered the many uses of caraway powder (or caraway generally), here’s your chance. Don’t stop here: try it in chili or shortbread, as a few favorite examples.

2 generous cups fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 hard pear or apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
¾ cup chopped onion
2 T finely minced fresh peeled gingerroot
Zest of a large navel orange
¼ cup fresh sweet apple cider
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 tea chocolate extract (optional)
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
¼ tea salt
¼ tea red pepper flakes
1/3 cup walnut meats, broken into small pieces by hand
Combine all ingredients except the nuts in an open, preferably slope-sided, stainless steel pan. Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce the heat to the point that it is bubbling but not rapidly boiling—a medium-low to medium heat. Cook 15 minutes only; avoid the temptation to stir. Remove from the heat and gently fold in the nuts. Transfer to a serving dish to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Cranberry Cheese Cannolis
I like cheese with cranberry (in part because cheese balances the acid in the fruit), and these “cannolis” (really a stuffed frico) offer an easy, flavorful appetizer that suits the season. The chutney can be made days or even weeks ahead (put in a canning jar to store), and the frico shells can be made a day ahead, although they are best the same day. In making the fricos, I depart from tradition out of laziness: I grate the cheese coarsely rather than fine, and use the oven to avoid the tedious cooking on the stove-top. You’d think these would be fragile (like their finely grated counterparts) or drippy when filled, but they’re not. Actually, they’re delicious. Makes about 10.

10 oz very sharp, well-aged white cheddar
1 T flour
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
2/3 cup cranberry chutney, approximately
Preheat oven to 425 F. Grate the cheese on the largest holes of a box grater. Mix with the flour and ground caraway. Place a Silpat® mat on a sheet pan, and drop handfuls of the cheese into little mounds, well separated, onto the sheet—no more than 6 for a half-sheet pan or standard size cookie sheet, as they will spread. Press them lightly with the palm of your hand; they should be about 3” in diameter. Place them in the oven and cook for 6-8 minutes; you might check them after 5. Timing takes a bit of experimentation. You want to remove them from the oven when they are well browned at the edges and the bubbling white centers look melted but uncooked. Set the pan on the counter and let them cool until the bubbles subside—when you will see that the centers, too, are brown. After they have cooled about 2 minutes, but while they are still warm, gently roll them around a cannoli mold or, if you don’t have one (I don’t) another cylindrical form: I use one end of my tapered French rolling pin. You can do it with them still sitting on the sheet, loosening them if necessary with a spatula; if they are still too warm when you roll them, they will collapse a bit, but if they are just right, they will hold their round shape. Eat any that collapse. With a teaspoon or, preferably, a long-handled iced-tea spoon, fill the cannolis with about a tablespoon of chutney each, working from both sides and carefully pushing it into the tube. Serve. As with the Italian dessert cannolis, these are best filled as close to serving time as possible, all things considered. Of course, you can serve the shells plain, too, as lacey crackers.

Photo of cranberry harvest in NJ by Keith Weller, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Visual Feast: Farewell to the Growing Season

We knew it couldn’t last. Warm days begat cool nights and finally, inevitably, one morning you walk out to find your thumping-hard pumpkin collapsed on the deck: first frost. So comes the end of late-fall lettuce and tomatoes, tender beans. It’s over. Not that there won't be some brocolli, or a few root vegetables. But the thrill is gone.

I’ve been traveling this past week, and have been nowhere near a kitchen. I’ve eaten quite well, though: fat pancakes, the kind I don’t usually care for, fluffy, tender, and good. A mess o’ pork barbecue with greens, slaw, spicy beans, corn cakes, potato salad; we happened by when the owner was there, and because I was from out of town, I got a free sampler plate of every smoked meat the house made: large pork ribs, pulled pork, short ribs, chicken, kielbasa, and pigs feet. It was dandy. On from Nashville to Louisville, I had, hands down, the best steak I have ever had, with the best classic sides I’ve ever had (including a pristine iceberg wedge with Maytag blue cheese dressing and flavorful little red and yellow tomatoes), at the amazing Jeff Ruby’s. The place bears no physical resemblance to traditional New York houses Peter Luger, Keen's, or the original Smith & Wollensky. It’s glitzy, even shiny. But the steaks, house-aged like Luger’s, are better. They come to table looking charred and black; sitting at the bar, I could see them arriving all around me, wondering if people had ordered them well done, perhaps "burnt." My strip arrived looking the same. Under that blackened crust—an edge, really—was the most perfectly, evenly cooked steak of my long steak-eating experience. It had been placed on a generous amount of absolutely fresh and sweet Worcestershire butter, which had melted across the plate and offered the ideal sauce to every rich and flavorful bite. The meat was so well seasoned it didn’t need a speck of salt. Truly, you could live anywhere as long as they had steak like this, and a good bakery.

And it makes the passing of summer sweet sorrow; we know there are other, soul-warming pleasures ahead. Nevertheless, in tribute to the gifts of summer, here is a final salute, a visual if not veritable feast, of the Rhode Island growing season. Each photo was taken the day of harvest, and each item was eaten at peak flavor, a taste memory that will tide me over through a winter that, carried on the shoulders of a great steak, need not be one of discontent.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Coffee Syrup: Native Rhode Island

In the 60s when I went away to college, the ice cream menus everywhere read: vanilla, chocolate, coffee. Coffee? Where am I?
Rhode Island, of course. Coffee is the third flavor here. Coffee milk is the official state drink (the winner in a bitter legislative contest between coffee milk and Del's Lemonade in 1994). You can make your own by stirring a few tablespoons of coffee syrup into milk (or blending it with a bit of ice, which makes it frothy), but it is also available bottled from local dairies or at most restaurants. Then there is the coffee cabinet. That is not a place where you keep your coffee, but what the rest of the world (meaning, at least, those of us who grew up in New Jersey) calls a milkshake, and in some places they call a frappe: a thick shake made with coffee ice cream and coffee syrup. These are the most common uses for coffee syrup. But you can use it the same way you would chocolate syrup: over ice cream or pound cake, as a rich flavoring in cakes and cookies, and in pan sauces made after cooking lamb, pork, or beef.
Coffee syrup, originally made from coffee grounds, has been around since the 1920s; the two major brands, Autocrat and Eclipse, once rivals but both owned and produced now by Autocrat, have been available almost as long. In recent years, as with everything else, artisanal versions of coffee syrup, such as Morning Glory, have begun to appear on the market, and the regionally famous Gray’s Ice Cream in my neighborhood now sells their own as well. They all taste slightly different—some are significantly sweeter or more viscous or more intensely coffee-tasting than others--and have their own followings. If you are a Rhode Islander, you will certainly want to have a taste test. I suggest tasting plain, in small shots, and in coffee milk; your preference may change when the syrup is combined with other ingredients.
Coffee Cabinet a la Gray’s

When it comes to making a thick cabinet or other kind of frappe, blenders are wimps and are simply not up to the task. If you really like ice cream drinks, bite the bullet and invest in a Hamilton Beach Commercial spindle drink mixer. It’s one of those things for which there is really no substitute. Obviously, the coffee cabinet is not for low-fat diets. But it can be thought of as a meal if you like. Serves 2, theoretically.
3 parts coffee ice cream; I use Gray’s unsweetened
1 part whole milk
2 ½ T coffee syrup per cup of milk (Gray’s)
Ice cream should be soft enough to scoop but still very firm (not hard); milk should be ice cold. Put the milk and coffee syrup into the drink container and taste; correct the syrup if you like. Add the ice cream (it will be about ¾ of a pint for 1 cup milk). Run the mixer for 4 minutes; if you ever have thought a counter person “forgot” your milkshake, the answer is no, the elapsed time is intentional. Enjoy.

Coffee Cardamom Pudding

This is an old-fashioned pudding scented with cardamom, my favorite spice as you know by now—but you could leave it out, of course. I used Eclipse, which has a somewhat raisiny sweetness, so it required almost no sugar; the tablespoon of brown sugar simply rounds out the flavor. Be sure to use whole milk. Makes 4 generous servings.
2 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup coffee syrup
1 T light brown sugar
Pinch salt
¼ tea cardamom
4 large egg yolks
3 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
½ tea vanilla (optional)
Whipped cream for garnish
Additional cardamom for garnish
Heat 2 cups of the milk until steaming. Remove from the heat and add the coffee syrup, the pinch of salt, and the sugar. Whisk the egg yolks and cornstarch into the remaining ½ of cold milk. Whisking constantly, pour it into the warm milk mixture and bring it to a boil; pudding has a tendency to be volcanic so once it is boiling reduce the heat so that it is bubbling but not so explosive. Whisk steadily for a full two to three minutes; remove and strain through a fine sieve into a small bowl. Immediately stir in the butter and the vanilla if using. Press a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap onto the top of the pudding and refrigerate until cold. Serve with lightly sweetened, lightly whipped cream to which you’ve added a dash or cardamom.