Sunday, October 18, 2009

Crazy about pumpkin?

What a coincidence that the Food & Wine section of the Chronicle today was all about pumpkins in the middle of a few weeks of being crazy about pumpkins. I have always loved pumpkin pie. I mean LOVE pumpkin pie. To give an example, when I was in college I would reward myself with a slice from the cafeteria every time I aced an exam. I graduated summa cum laude. Was it the pie? Is pumpkin brain food?

We love our winter squashes, particularly the brilliant orange dumpling squash and the faithful butternut. We like to roast our squash and then make a soup or serve the flesh mashed as a side dish. It occurred to me last year that a pumpkin is just another variety of winter squash that I should be able to treat in much the same way in the kitchen and vice versa. As the pumpkins started making their appearance at the Farmer’s Market a couple of weeks ago I have been experimenting with them.

I started with the classic treatments for pumpkin by making a pumpkin bread and then a pumpkin pie, both started from a sugar pie pumpkin. My pumpkin pie was so good that I ate the entire pie in three days save a forkful that Stacy stole before I devoured the tasty treat. It was the best pumpkin pie I have ever eaten. It probably benefited some from being the first pumpkin pie this season, although I give credit to poaching a fresh sugar pie pumpkin and grinding fresh spices to making the pie light, fresh and sublime. I also made a pumpkin bread that I steamed like an English pudding. It was good, seriously good. Again, I started with a fresh sugar pie pumpkin and then used fresh, organic ingredients to make the best bread I could. Stacy took the finished bread to work which received accolades from her co-workers. Seriously good indeed. Here’s the recipe which can be made in a simple loaf pan, a fluted tube pan, or a traditional English pudding pan (a fluted tube pan with a lid to contain the steam).

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons fresh ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon fresh ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups sugar (granulated definitely works. I plan to try brown sugar in the next bread)
1 cup vegetable oil (I used canola for the pie last week. I plan to try ½ cup vegetable oil and ½ cup melted butter in the next bread)
3 eggs
2 cups fresh pumpkin puree (I poached a sugar pie pumpkin)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped raisins (I used some dried red flame raisins from a farmer on the plaza)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and soda, spices and salt
In a mixing bowl, combine sugar, oil and eggs whisk to blend well.
Stir pumpkin into the egg mixture.

Gradually add the dry ingredients about ½ cup at a time stirring after each addition. Fold in the raisins and walnuts. Prepare tube pan with butter and flour. Spoon batter into tube pan. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 or 20 minutes until a knife inserted in thickest part of bread comes out clean.
Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan. And cool completely on rack before slicing.
This loaf serves a large dinner party of 12 easily for dessert with seconds.

Market Report:
What else? Pumpkins are all over the market. Lots of stalls have sugar pie pumpkins and the Balakian Farm stall also has several heirloom varieties. I plan to try one of the Musquee de Provenance which is also known as the Fairy Tale pumpkin. If you like eggplant there are many varieties available now from several stalls at the market. I plan to use some as a stuffing for poultry using the recipe in the Café Beaujolais cookbook. We arrived at 9:30 AM and already Marin Sun Farms had sold out of their eggs from pasture-raised chicken. Bummer. The best news for us was that Mountain Home Ranch had chickens that weighed about 2 pounds each. We found the small birds to be delectable last spring before the farmer starting growing the birds too large (over 6 pounds each). He is being rewarded with bringing smaller fowl as some upscale restaurants around the City have discovered him. I hope that keeps him motivated to continue to harvest his flocks while the birds are young and tender.

There are still some tomatoes available, which are pretty much all early girl variety. Still sweet and firm, they make an excellent caprese with the fresh mozzarella from Cow Girl Creamery and some basil from the garden. It is the last gasp of summer as we get into the cooler and blustery fall season.

Stacy and I rounded out our trip to the market with a stop at Sur La Table to buy four Emille Henry 2-cup terrines. The vessels are perfect for my chicken pot pie with a butter crust. Stacy liked the one I made for her on Tuesday of last week so much that she wanted to serve the dish as the entrée for dinner with our weekend guests and good friends Jim and Kristin. The ceramic terrines were perfect for the dish as the shape distributed the heat evenly to the filling and the smaller opening in the top allowed me to make four perfect caps from one 9-inch butter pie crust. Our meal was simple and comforting. Kristin brought a shrimp-stuffed jalapeno wrapped in bacon as our spicy appetizer that we enjoyed on our deck with a flute of champagne. We then went into our dining room to dig into the piping hot chicken pot pies. The yellow terrine was beautifully presented with a golden brown crust on a multi-colored Kate Spade dinner plate that had yellow accenting a red and black rim and white center. It was a simple meal with gourmet flavors. We drank some wonderful wines grown and made by a mutual friend on their vineyard in El Dorado. We finished the meal with Kristin’s homemade carrot cake cupcakes. It was divine.

We are all booked up for the Thanksgiving Prelude meetup coming up November 7. It promises to be a fun day with some interesting and enthusiastic cooks.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Peas and Carrots yin yang soup

Carrots are ubiquitous in my cooking usually as one of the trilogy of mire pois aromatics that create the canvas of flavors in stocks, soups, salads, braises, and on and on. I am a big fan of soups especially vegetable or fruit soups. This dish is a combination of two delicious soups that complement one another in flavor, texture and color. When served together in a single bowl the presentation is spectacular.
Be careful to prepare the soups with the same hearty textures so that they flow together to form the yin yang design without being too runny.

Prepare carrot soup and pea soup separately

1/2 cup crème fraiche

To Serve:
Simultaneously pour both soups from opposite sides of serving glass and offset to form a Yin-Yang design. Slide the bowl back and forth to bring the soups to the same level.

Place a dollop of crème fraiche in individual sauce boat and serve alongside or drizzle on top.

Carrot Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds carrots, peeled, sliced
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, brunoise
2 whole cloves
4 cups (about) chicken stock (vegetable stock may also be used)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
dash of nutmeg

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add carrots, onion, garlic, and cloves and sauté until onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Add 3 cups broth. Cover and simmer until carrots are very soft, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Remove cloves from broth and discard. Puree soup in batches in blender. Return soup to same saucepan. Mix in lemon juice and nutmeg. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Thin to desired consistency with more broth. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

May be served cold or reheated.

Green Pea Soup with Tarragon

2 lb fresh shucked peas (weight after shucking)
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup sliced shallots
4 cups (or more) chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon, divided

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and sauté until golden and almost tender, about 7 minutes. Add peas, 3 cups broth, and 1 teaspoon tarragon; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and boil until flavors blend and peas are tender, about 7 minutes. Cool slightly. Working in batches, puree remaining soup in blender until completely smooth. Return soup to same saucepan. Bring to simmer and thin with more broth by 1/4 cupfuls, if desired. Stir in remaining tarragon. Season with pepper.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scratch pumpkin pie

The Ferry Plaza was packed on Saturday when Stacy and went to do our weekly shopping and to meet our friend Crosby for lunch. Crosby had invited us to watch the air show from the roof of his building on Telegraph hill so we invited him to join us for lunch to make a full day together. I enjoy how the changing of the seasons affects our diet as we try to eat seasonally from the farmer’s market as much as possible. As we are moving into the cooler and wetter months, we are craving comfort foods and our taste for white wine wanes as our enjoyment of full bodied red wines increases.

This week I am experimenting with making pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread starting from fresh sugar pie pumpkins instead of opening a can. Several vendors at the market offer the small orange gourds for sale. I bought one last week that I cleaned, quartered and roasted. This week I bought another pumpkin to try poaching to see if it works better. The roasting method caused a tough skin to form on the inside of the pumpkin. I am sure poaching the pumpkin will prevent that from happening, although I am concerned about having too much moisture content in finished product.

Why go to all that trouble when canned pumpkin is so widely available and so inexpensive? For me there are three reasons:

1) Taste: Starting from fresh produce always produces a fresher tasting final dish. It also lets me control all of the seasonings that get added to the produce.

2) Source: When I start from fresh produce that I buy directly from the grower I know where the plant that bore the fruit grew and how it was tended by the farmer. I get to know the farmers that I buy from so that I know that we are eating produce that is grown using protocols that do not include chemicals or manipulation of the produce (like hot housing).

3) Satisfaction: Making a dish all the way from fresh produce to finished product is a satisfying and fulfilling journey. The simpler the better for me too.

Here’s the recipe for pumpkin pie:

2 cups pumpkin puree:
To make the puree, get a sugar pie pumpkin and cut off the top. Cut the pumpkin in half from stem to bloom. Scrape out the seeds and the stringy innards. Clean and toast the seeds for a nice snack. I like mine with sea salt and a bit of pepper.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Place the pumpkin halves skin side up in a baking dish with 2 inches of water (This is the poaching method). Bake for about 45 minutes until the pumpkin flesh is soft. If the water gets nearly all evaporated, add boiling water to keep the poaching process going. Cool, remove the skin and puree the flesh of the pumpkin.

¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
12 oz unsweetened evaporated milk

Mix the ingredients together well.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Pour mix into a 9 inch baked pie shell (blind bake a nice flour and butter crust). Protect the exposed crust edges with aluminum foil so they don’t burn.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes then reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 45 minutes until a knife inserted in the center of the pie comes out clean. You may remove the crust protection in the last 10 minutes of baking to crisp up the crust edges.

I like my pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream (not the stuff from a can!). I sometimes whip my cream flavored with a bit of almond liqueur.

This pie is always a hit at Thanksgiving. We will make the pie at the November 7th meetup. There are still four spots available.