Sunday, November 25, 2007
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.
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 peeler 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
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.
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
Friday, November 16, 2007
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
10 oz very sharp, well-aged white cheddar
1 T flour
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
2/3 cup cranberry chutney, approximately
Photo of cranberry harvest in NJ by Keith Weller, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service
Sunday, November 11, 2007
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
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.
1 part whole milk
2 ½ T coffee syrup per cup of milk (Gray’s)
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.
½ cup coffee syrup
1 T light brown sugar
¼ tea cardamom
4 large egg yolks
3 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
½ tea vanilla (optional)
Additional cardamom for garnish