Monday, October 29, 2007

Pumpkin Tricks and Treats for the Cook

It's not quite as bad as Thanksgiving, when a turkey has to get a presidential pardon to protect him or her from the dinner table, but it does seem to be a trend of cooks preparing pumpkin (or other winter squash) for starter, main course and/or dessert at Halloween.

Blog Appetit yields it's love of orange winter squash to no one and I have very happily served pumpkin dishes for dinner at Halloween since I graduated college and from a hot plate to a real stove.

Here is a kind of pumpkin boot camp, complete with recipes to help you prepare for your Halloween feast.

Here's some tips for cooking with pumpkin:
  • Don't choose a big field or jack-o-lantern pumpkin for cooking, the flesh is too watery. See the post on the first link above for what to buy and how to choose.
  • If I am starting with cooked pumpkin, I prefer to bake my pumpkin and then scoop the flesh away from the peel. It concentrates the squash's flavor and makes peeling it a much easier job.

  • If you need or chose to use canned pumpkin puree, start with the kind that is NOT labled pumpkin pie filling. That type is already spiced to the manufacturer's taste not yours.

  • Be careful whacking into any hard winter squash with a sharp object. Make sure the squash is stablized on your cutting board (slice a bit from the bottom or side if need to be to help it stay in place) and make sure you are focused and your cutting board is placed on a solid enough surface. I use my heaviest Chinese cleaver, but a strong, full-size chef's knife would work well. Focus on where you want to cleave the squash, take a few practice swings, raise your arm up high, check your fingers and children are safe and then, bam! If the knife doesn't go all the way through, don't worry. With the knife still "engaged" in the body of the squash, whack the knife and pumpkin down on the cutting board a time or two and the vegetable should split cleanly in half. More prep info is in that first link.
I have an idea for mac and cheese with winter squash, but I don't have the kinks worked out yet. I'll post after I test it. (Update 9.30.12 - it took awhile but here it is!)
Please add your own pumpkin tips, tricks, treats and links in the comments below.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors in San Diego

The haze, as one would expect, hangs over San Diego from the fires. The weather,the wind, and the air are all gradually improving and soon the news story will move on. My family and friends here are fine, some evacuated, others just inconvenienced, but life is going on. The newspaper is filled with the local horrors and miracles which I can not ignore, having had the experience of the 1991 Oakland wildfire.

I logged in to write about a few meals I've had here while visiting my in-laws. But that seems frivolous with the loss of life, livelihood and property that I know is all around although not at all visible in the areas I've been in.

The plane down was only two-thirds full, a rarity. The freeway seems almost empty. The atmosphere seems subdued down here. The restaurant I had planned to write about that we went to in the Hillcrest neighborhood was only half full last night and although it was still early (only 9 p.m.) the Halloween revels that were just down the block seemed quiet and uncrowded. Maybe it revved up later. Maybe after the horrors of the last week, people didn't find skeleton masks and devils that frightening or a fantasy world that appealing. Maybe they've had enough with face masks, what with having to use them to cover their noses and mouths from the smoke and pollution from the fires. Also, it could have just been way too early for revelers. I don't know. I do know that ever since the 1991 fire (we were evacuated but okay, our best friends lost their house), I don't take having a home for granted and I am always aware of what would need to be taken or left behind in an emergency.

Please donate to the American Red Cross for all they do to help the victims of natural disasters here and abroad.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Spice of Life -- Berkeley CA

I love neighborhood and city festivals, but to be truthful many are starting to seem interchangeable. The Cherry Festival could be the Zucchini Festival except for the color scheme and the graphics. The same food vendors, often selling reheated or fried food, the same craft imports for sale, the same insurance, bank, wireless, real estate and roofing company giveaways and come ons. I miss a sense of place.

That's why when I hit a festival that has a there there, I am a sucker for it. No midways with games offering prizes of doubtful quality blow-up guitars or overstuffed bears for me. I take a chance on the ethnic and local food booths. The higher the quality and the more localized the food choices, the happier I am.

One of the best local festivals for this is the annual Berkeley, CA., Spice of Life Festival based on Shattuck Street, literally right in the heart of the famed "Gourmet Ghetto." I wasn't so much taking notes or taking note as I was just going from sizzle (barbecued oysters) to sizzle (grilled chicken sates and teriyakis ranging from the organic to the gigantic) and munching on every good thing that came my way from El Salvadorean pupusas to potato spinach knishes. From Italian peppers to burritos to corned beef sandwiches this festival had it all, even a mini-organic farmer's market.

Besides the food, the festival offered all the gritty, quirky, political correct Berkeley attitude you could hope for. The real estate agents gave out reusable grocery bags, there were homeless just out side the festival area looking for handouts of leftover food or change, people were recruiting for volunteers and signatures to run Al Gore for president, massage therapists were doing a brisk business as were natural healers. Festival goers had a wide range of art, jewelry and other crafts to choose from. There was music, too, and cooking demonstrations. The one thing there wasn't was parking. Maybe the plan was for people to take transit, but instead the surrounding neighborhood filled up with cars. But perhaps that was okay if all those drivers circling and circling picked up a reusable grocery bag to help save the environment once they finally found a spot and walked to the fair.

Don't get me wrong, but a well-signed remote parking lot with a shuttle might have been a more realistic approach.
About the photos. These came from the borrowed Olympus. I still don't have the ones from the Sony I also borrowed. I really like the Olympus except for its capturing anything with an intense red, it just isn't doing it for me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Apple Cider Vinegar Chicken

Here's the recipe I mentioned in the Cooking Marathon post, which has more details on the meal. The chicken was tender, tasty and had a bit of a zing. The apple cider vinegar and the smoked flavor really complemented each other.

I think I have a photo in the borrowed camera, when I get it I'll post it.


Apple Cider Vinegar Chicken
Makes a lot because I had a lot of people to feed that night!
Serves 6-8

Grape seed or other vegetable oil
3-4 strips of turkey bacon (I like Willie Bird all thigh meat)
4 pounds chicken parts (I used breasts, drumsticks and thighs), bone in, skin on
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 small (or 1 medium) leeks, white part only, chopped
¼ to ½ tsp red pepper flakes
¼ tsp lemon pepper
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into quarters
2-3 cups of chicken stock
Dash each of dried ground rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, mustard and mint (I use an Italian seasoning mix called Queen Victoria Giusti Aromi per Pollo by Drogheria & Alimentari, which if you can find it I highly recommend – and if you can find it, let me know I’m almost out and I can’t find it anywhere. This mix of seasonings along with the lemon pepper approximates the mix.)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, divided
Black Pepper
2 tbsp butter
Chopped parsley

Heat a very large fry pan or dutch oven over medium high heat and add 1 tbsp of grape seed or other vegetable oil. Add turkey bacon and fry until crisp. Remove bacon strips and reserve. Working in batches if need be, brown chicken pieces. Remove and reserve. Add 1 tbsp of oil if needed and add onions, sautéing until just softened. Add leeks, red pepper flakes, ¼ tsp of black pepper and garlic, sautéing until garlic just begins to color. Toss in carrots and celery and sauté a few minutes more, then add the tomato pieces. Add chicken parts back to pan, mixing well. Add chicken stock until the chicken pieces are about ¾ of the way submerged in the liquid. Sprinkle in Italian seasoning mix. Chop the reserved bacon into ½ inch pieces and add to pan. Stir well. Add 1 tbsp of apple cider vinegar. Cover and simmer over medium heat, turning chicken pieces occasionally, until chicken is just cooked through. Remove chicken and vegetables from the pan and keep warm. Raise heat to high and keep lid off, reducing pan juices and stirring any browned bits up from the bottom, and adding additional 1 tbsp of vinegar. Cook until liquid is reduced to about half, taste. Add salt and pepper if needed. Turn heat to low and stir in butter until sauce has thickened. Remove skin from chicken pieces if desired and return chicken and vegetables to pan and mix well with sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cooking Marathon

For reasons I no longer remember after washing the sixth (or was it the seventh) sinkful of dishes, pots and pans in four days, I had arranged to have dinner guests Saturday and Sunday nights and told my husband I really felt like cooking and eating in on Friday. To top it off on Monday night I tested a recipe destined to be published in a food magazine to be named later (more on that when it happens).

Friday night was whole wheat pasta with feta cheese, garlic, red onions, kale, rapini (a green), carrots. It felt wholesome and was yummy and provided quick lunch sustenance for the cooking marathon ahead of me.

Saturday night I served cider vinegar chicken (a recipe I came up with based on the taste I had a taste for, click on the link for the recipe), mashed potatoes (made with olive oil and chicken stock), asparagus, green salad, fresh bread (which I didn't bake) and homemade pumpkin pie (which I did, even the crust).

Sunday night I used recipes from The New Spanish Table Cookbook which I basically liked but had some quibbles. The Roasted Vegetable Soup was very similar in taste to the one I made from Super Natural Cooking, but was a lot more work. Because I didn't know if my guests were anchovy lovers, I skipped the anchovy paste topping for the croutons served with the soup and substituted olive tapenade, which worked well. The main course was a paella that I adapted. I am a fairly experienced paella maker and I thought the recipe had a lot of extra steps that didn't particularly add to the flavor or impact of the dish. It was fine and was enjoyed by all, even me, but I wouldn't make it again. I've used this cookbook before and have been very happy with the results, so my most recent experience with the cookbook is not typical of the results I've gotten with it. Oh, and we had pumpkin pie for desert (I made two on Saturday.)

Tonight, well, I made (censored).

What's on the menu for the rest of the week? Leftovers.

In other news, pop on over to Sugar Savvy and read my post about the most incredible rose sorbet.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tea and Me

Several years ago the now no-longer published Veggie Life magazine asked its readers what childhood books inspired their imaginations, particularly if there was a connection to food. It seems I was the only reader that responded and they excerpted a large chunk of my letter and created some recipes to go with my remembrances.

I received pride of quasi-authorship and a few copies of the magazine. Not much, but I was out of the closet with my passion for teas.

Earlier today, I was channel surfing when I caught a bit of the 1994 movie version of A Little Princess and it reminded me of my letter to Veggie Life and I thought I would share it with you.

If you have a tea memory (or a recipe using tea or to accompany tea, please feel free to leave a comment below with the info and/or links).

Edited excerpts from my letter:

Thanks to an English cousin, I developed quite a thirst for English literature and tea, both the beverage and the meal. One birthday she gave me copies of Jane Eyre and A Little Princess. The books were different than any others I had read and the people in them different than those in my suburban experience. My fascination began with the simple, nourishing teas of Jane Eyre and the tea and suppers that appeared as if by magic in the attic of Sara, the Little Princess.

The affection for and restorative powers of tea intrigued me and as I read more of English literature and contemporary British novels, I began to be fixate on what the characters had at tea. I felt let down if it was just beans on toast, which, if you ask me, the characters wouldn’t want either, if you could ask them.

I have to admit in the beginning I didn’t quite “get” tea. One memorable teen-age attempt at sophistication ended up with me curdling my own tea after adding both lemon and cream. Unfortunately there were witnesses.

But tea soon became a way of life for me. At college in New York City I discovered “loose” teas and a world of tea flavors other than Lipton’s. With a tea ball, mug and an illegal heating coil to boil the water in my dorm room I felt quite the sophisticate and discovered the delights of Russian caravan, fine oolongs and herbal blends.

My mother and I also began a tradition of having teas wherever we traveled. With her I had some memorable “cream teas” at Harrods and other British institutions as well as throughout America. Tea became another way to bond with my mother and later my mother-in-law.

Return visitors to my house know better than to ask what kind of tea I have. They just go to the cupboard and make their own selection -- caffeinated to the right and herbal to the left.

I’ve also begun to use tea as an ingredient in other recipes. Some favorites: Moroccan Mint sorbet, herbal tea spritzers, tea “gelee” and recipes using an infusion of tea for flavoring.

I even celebrated more than one important birthday with tea at local cafes. I’ve been trying my best to interest my two sons in my passion for the beverage. The older one seems immune, but younger one has on more than one occasion asked me to buy him his own tin of a favorite tea. Now if I can only get him to read Charlotte Bronte and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Note: To read Jane Eyre or A Little Princess on line for free from the wonderful non-profit Project Gutenberg, please click on the links.

About the photo: At the last Fancy Food Show in San Francisco I met the owners of TeaSpot, a tea distributor and manufacturer of this nifty tea brewing cup. No bag needed, put your loose tea in the ceramic basket and brew. When the tea is ready, you can rest the basket on top of the upside down lid to prevent a dripping mess. Or use the lid to help keep the tea warm. TeaSpot gave me one on the spot and I use it all the time. The company refers to this product line as "steepware" and also offers covered mugs and teapots. I especially liked their Meditative Mind tea (white tea with rosebuds and green jasmine pearls). The company donates a percentage of its profits to various causes and buyers can select where the money is to be donated.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Super Natural Tomato Soup

I recently reviewed 101 Cookbooks food blogger Heidi Swanson's new cookbook Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking (published by the Celestial Arts imprint of Ten Speed Press.)

My overall impression in my Paper Palate review was very favorable although as is my way I had a few quibbles. I also discuss some of the non-recipe attributes of the cookbook (including the wonderful photos by Heidi). Here's a link to the review itself.

I really enjoyed the recipe I tried, Roasted Tomato and Paprika Soup.

Roasted Tomato and Paprika Soup
(Adapted from Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson)

Olive oil
5 tomatoes, cored and quartered (I used a medium-sized ripe heirloom, beefsteak/slicing variety. If using plum tomatoes, use about 8-10 depending on size)
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and quartered
3 yellow onions (I used medium sized onions), peeled, quartered
5 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
Fine-grain sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups vegetable stock or water (I used a very light vegetable stock.)
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Grease two baking sheets with rims with some of the olive oil. On one sheet put the quartered tomatoes, skin side down. Coat the bell pepper, onion and garlic with olive oil and place on second baking sheet. Sprinkle both baking pans with salt and pepper.

Have two oven racks positioned in center of oven. Place one pan on each rack. Cook until tomatoes are softened and onions have become golden brown (about 45 minutes). Turn onions if they start to get very brown on the bottom. Pull garlic if it looks like it will burn. When the vegetables are roasted, remove from oven. Peel garlic and then put garlic and the other vegetables in a tall pot. Add a bit of your stock and use a hand blender to puree to the desired consistency. (If you don't have a hand blender, process in batches in your food processor of blender and then return to the pot.) Add the rest of the stock and the paprika. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Heat if desired. Can be served cold, room temperature or hot. (Note, seasonings lose a bit of their punch if served cold and you'll need to add more than if you serve the soup hot, so correct the seasonings at the temperature you plan to serve it at. If you are like me and serve it both hot and cold, correct for hot. You can always add more seasonings by the bowl when you serve it cold.)

I think the soup would be great with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt and/or with a bit of very dry Spanish sherry swirled in and maybe a bit of chopped parsley, fennel frond or cilantro sprinkled on top. A cheese-topped crouton would be a nice way to dress it up as well. One wonderful lunch was half of a grilled brie sandwich with a bowl of the soup. My husband enjoyed pouring some cold into a small glass and slurping it as a kind of tapas or starter.

This recipe was a hit in my house and I plan on making it again soon. I love to make tomato soup, I often use roasted vegetables as a base for other dishes and smoked paprika is one of my favorite seasonings, but I never thought to combine them all, so for me this dish was perfect. I did have some quibbles. For example, the recipe was not originally written with enough direction as to the size of some of the ingredients and directions were not given for those who might not own a hand blender. I have to say if these were complaints I had about a recipe written for a blog I wouldn't have even commented, but somehow when a recipe is printed in a cookbook, I look for a different standard. But in the end, it does come down to how a dish tastes, and this recipe came out just wonderful, so these are just nitpicks on my part and I look forward to using this cookbook often, especially for everyday family meals, and as a resource for natural/superfood ingredients.

Update: Jumbo Empandas wrote about her experience with Heidi's Espresso Banana Muffins here.

Happy Belated Two-Year Blog- O-Versary

Yesterday the California Golden Bear football team blew its first chance at being ranked number one since 1951. I blew my chance to celebrate my second anniversary of blogging by going to the University of California at Berkeley homecoming celebrations and the game (won all too handily by Oregon State).

I wish I could say that that's the way I planned it, but no I just kind of spaced out on it and by the time we walked in the door after a long day of celebration and lamentation, I just watched an old movie and went to bed never once thinking of how my life changed with the creation of this blog.

Well, belated happy blog birthday to me. Some time yesterday my counter clicked to 45,000 page views. Since my counter was installed almost three months after the blog started, my actual page views are probably a bit higher than that. That's all the present I need, to know my words have been read by so many of you.

Here's what I wrote on my first blog-o-versary -- the sentiments still are very applicable.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Where in the World has FJK Been?

I’ve been on the go so much this year that I seem to be permanently behind in writing up my experiences.

In the last year I have:

Cruised with Holland America to Mexico with extended family
Went to Las Vegas for business (twice)
Visited family in San Diego
Visited family in New York (Long Island with a day trip into Manhattan)
Stayed at a family camp in the Sierras here in California (twice)
Explored Chicago for a week
Checked out Denver (for business) and the Rocky Mountains
Spent a long weekend in Napa Valley at a reunion of work colleagues
Traveled to Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungry

And I am probably forgetting some trip somewhere.

Of course while I ate on all these trips, some of the experiences were not food blogging “worthy” so I don’t have resources, photos, recipes and write ups to share on all of them, but I am trying to get caught up on sharing as much as I can.

The only ones I’ve really written up are my Las Vegas trips, which you can read about by clicking the link above. I hope to write up my notes and share photos about Chicago, Denver, cooking class on the cruise and my recent Eastern Europe adventure soon. But if you ever wonder why I get so behind sometimes, my wanderlust is certainly part of the reason.

Photo Info: Play with Your Food -- at the Chicago History Museum, kids can take apart this giant hot dog and reassemble it with the "condiments" of their choice. The favorite way young Chicagoans played with the exhibit? Using their kid brothers or sisters for the hot dog and covering them with all the "trimmings."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ten Slow Cook Soup Recipes

Over at MSN, the front page is featuring a link with 10 recipes from Better Homes and Gardens for hearty soups and stews made in a slow cooker. I haven't made any of these, but I like the premise (as well as the promise of coming home to a comforting hot meal full of vegetables and grains that are good for me).

If you want to check the recipes out, click on over to the link from MSN.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Last of Olympus

My faithful Olympus is no more. After a last performance of taking 700 or so photos in Eastern Europe it mysteriously stopped working.

I could rail about our disposable culture, but the truth is that I was thinking of retiring this three year old or so camera anyway. It was no longer the best camera out there for me, but it worked and I knew how to use it. Ironically, the day it refused to work was the day I brought home the new Consumer Reports November issue on digital cameras.

If you have a digital camera that is fairly small (not necessarily an ultracompact), has a good zoom and good close up capability, please leave a comment and let me know.
Update 11.13.07 -- I bought a Panasonic Lumnix TZ3 with lots of scene modes, a wide angle lens and 10X optical zoom. I have been playing with it for a week and I'm very happy with it. One digression --do you enjoy going to your local camera store to try out all the cameras and get advice and recommendations? Consider buying the camera there. You might pay a bit more than at the big box store or on line, but if you like having local resources like this you can't just click, you need to support your local merchants. Try negotiating, but maybe give yourself permission to say it's okay to pay a few bucks more for the service. (FYI - As it so happens, the camera was priced the same there as at Best Buy.)