Posts filed under ‘autumn’

Market season: Not done yet

Chanterelles

Chanterelles

Our little farmers’ market traditionally closes the weekend before Thanksgiving, and while the number of vendors has dropped sharply, there’s still wonderful autumn food to be had. Yesterday it was wild mushrooms – one vendor literally had bushel baskets full of chanterelles, and another was offering more unusual varieties. I should have brought more cash. But at $15 a pound, I did score two pounds of lovely, orange-fleshed chanterelles, my favorite autumn mushroom. And I had enough money for a pound of ground lamb.

The mushrooms got spread out on newspapers to dry out enough so I could brush away the pine needles and forest duff, then separated into paper bags: One containing the largest mushrooms, which I’ll slice and dry in my food dehydrator tomorrow night; one to make a batch of pan-roasted mushrooms*, and one, along with the lamb, for tonight’s dinner (and this week’s lunches): A white-sauced lasagna of mushrooms, lamb and pumpkin. Which in the oven as I type this, and filling the house with savory autumn smells.

Pumpkin and wild mushrooms – or stronger flavored tame ones, such as Crimini or Portobello – are gorgeous together. Think of a pumpkin-mushroom soup with lots of garlic, or a creamy pumpkin-mushroom risotto. Adding lamb might be considered gilding the lily (and indeed, there’s no reason you couldn’t convert this to a vegetarian dish by omitting the lamb and using more mushrooms ), but I’ve had Morroccan and Afghan dishes that combine pumpkin and lamb to wonderful effect. So, feeling experimental and having a long Sunday evening to play in the kitchen, I came up with this.

Lasagna with pumpkin, lamb and wild mushrooms

Lasagna with pumpkin, lamb and chanterelles

Lasagne with pumpkin, lamb and wild mushrooms

Ingredients

  • 1 small pumpkin (edible variety) or large butternut squash
  • 1 lb lean ground lamb
  • 3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 stick), divided
  • 1/2 pound chanterelles or other flavorful, meaty mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed of any bad spots and sliced lengthwise
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp fresh sage, minced
  • 2 Tbsp fresh thyme, minced
  • 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
  • 1 15-ounce container whole-milk ricotta (2 cups)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
  • 20 oz. fresh mozarella cheese,
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 cups flavorful vegetable stock
  • Olive oil
  • 1 package no-boil lasagna noodles

Method

Preheat oven to 350F

Cut pumpkin in half and scoop out fibers and seeds (you are saving your pumpkin seeds to toast, right?) Oil the cut edges, and place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, until flesh is tender but not too soft. Remove from oven and allow to cool until you can handle it without burning your fingers. (Do not turn the oven off unless you plan to wait a while to finish the dish).

Meanwhile:

In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the ground lamb, breaking it up as you go. Stir in half the fresh herbs. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cooked lamb from the skillet and set aside.

To the juices in the skillet, add 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter and allow it to melt. Add mushrooms, onion and garlic, stir well and reduce heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and the mushrooms are cooked. Stir the cooked lamb into the mushrooms and remove from heat.

Mix ricotta, eggs and half the parmesan. Slice the mozarella on the diagonal into pieces about a third of an inch thick.

In a small pan over medium heat, melt the remaining stick of butter and whisk in the flour to make a smooth roux. Gradually add the stock, whisking all the while, and the rest of the herbs. Simmer until it is thickened (This is a sauce velouté, the non-dairy version of a bechamel), remove from heat.

When the pumpkin is cool enough to work with, use a paring knife to cut around the stem and blossom ends, then grasp the peel and pull it off; it should come away easily. Slice the pumpkin radially into half-inch-thick crescents.

Assembly:

Brush a little olive oil in the bottom of a 9x13x2-inch baking dish, and layer as follows:

  • The ricotta mixture
  • Layer of noodles
  • The pumpkin pieces, arranged to cover the noodles
  • Half of the sauce velouté
  • Layer of noodles
  • The lamb and mushroom mixture
  • The ovals of mozarella, distributed evenly over the lamb.
  • Layer of noodles
  • Spoon the rest of the sauce velouté over the final layer of noodles and spread evenly. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Cover with oiled foil.

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Remove foil, and continue baking for 25 minutes, or until top is nicely puffed and browned. Remove from the oven and let stand 10 minutes to firm up before serving.

Like all lasagnas, this one can be assembled a day in advance and then refrigerated until time to bake.

Makes 8 servings.

*I’ll blog the pan-roasted mushrooms recipe in the next day or two, when I make it. It’s a little fiddly, but produces delicious results.

November 9, 2008 at 9:39 pm Leave a comment

Brussels sprouts even (my) mother could love

Roasted Brussels sprouts

Nutty roasted Brussels sprouts

I’ve been thinking about my mother, and how she evolved from a feed-four-kids-and-a-picky-husband cook to a downright adventurous – and highly skilled – one over the course of her life.

The signs were there early: She was still in her 20s when, as a young military wife, she hauled 5-year-old me and my 3-year-old brother off Itazuke Air Force base and the neighboring Japanese town, Fukuoka, to explore a world that must have been downright alien to a girl who was reared by her grandmother on a north Texas dirt farm in the Great Depression. But explore she did, every mom-and-pop restaurant she could find, leafing through her Japanese-English dictionary and pointing to to order interesting-looking dishes, even when she wasn’t sure what they contained. And anything she sampled, we clamored to sample, too.

Thus it was that before I started school, I was gobbling raw fish and pickled daikon and wasabi and hot pink ginger and savory noodle soups and just about anything else put in front of me – while at home we adhered to a comfortably predictable routine of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, southern fried chicken and frozen fish sticks on Fridays.

In those days (the mid 1950s), military commissaries stocked a limited range of fresh vegetables – carrots, green beans, occasional fresh peas or exotic cauliflower – and my mother treated them all pretty much the way her grandmother had: Boiling them to into submission, usually with a hunk of salt pork. Little wonder I was no great fan of vegetables, since they all turned out more or less the same, faded, mushy and tasting of nothing much beyond salt. Pretty much like canned vegetables, come to think of it.

At Thanksgiving, her repertoire expanded to include items not normally part of our menu, but demanded by the Better Homes & Gardens holiday sections, which substituted for the traditions mom had not grown up with. Among them, Brussels sprouts – cooked the same predictable way. She made them every year, and every year none of us – including her or my dad – did more than shove them around on the plate. Personally, I thought they were the grossest things I’d ever tasted, and didn’t understand why I should waste valuable capacity better spent on perfectly good turkey and yams and pecan pie.

And that’s pretty much how I felt about Brussels sprouts all my life. Until several years back, when the oven-roasted vegetables boom hit, and I came across a recipe for sprouts roasted with pine nuts. And went “hmmmm…”

It turns out that roasted Brussels sprouts have almost nothing in common with the watery, limp, bitter-fetal-cabbage sprouts of my childhood. They’re nutty, toasty, sweet and crisp around the edges, and (to my tastes) absolutely delicious.

Now, I’m not the kind of cook who, faced with a dinner guest’s food aversion, says “Oh, but if you just try my take on (whatever-it-is), I know you’ll love them. Here, have just one bite…” I think that’s rude. But I can tell you this: I’ve put these sprouts on the table in front of some real sprout-haters – including my beloved – and some of them have not only tasted the dish of their own free will, but later confessed having bought Brussels sprouts to roast for themselves.

I suspect everyone reading this knows about oven-roasted vegetables. But a sprout aversion has kept you from trying this one, give it a second thought. If worst comes to worst, what the heck: It’s just one more dish of uneaten Brussels sprouts, which is kind of a holiday tradition of its own.

Nutty Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Ingredients:

  • Fresh Brussels sprouts (if you can find a local source, buy them on the stalk; they stay fresher that way) at least 6-8 per person
  • Pine nuts (or coarsely chopped pecans, filberts or blanched almonds)
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Sea salt

Method

Preheat oven to 350F. Rinse the sprouts well, pull off any wilted or bruised outer leaves. Cut small ones in half, larger ones in quarters. Place in a bowl with chopped nuts (about a tablespoon per serving. Drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss to coat. Spread out on a baking sheet, sprinkle very lightly with sea salt and roast for 20-25 minutes; midway through the roasting, turn sprouts over. They’re done when they’re tender but not limp, with caramelized bits on the cut surfaces.

I usually serve them right away, hot, but if you’re making a big Thanksgiving dinner you can set the roasted sprouts aside, get on with the turkey, etc., and return them to the oven for perhaps five minutes while you carve the bird.

November 6, 2008 at 8:53 pm Leave a comment

Confession: I hate pumpkin pie

Roasted pumpkin

Roasted pumpkin

I know, it’s almost un-American. And a little illogical, since I’m a huge fan of pies in general, pumpkin and other winter squashes, and the usual pumpkin pie spices – cinnamon, nutmug, cloves, ginger.

But so many of the pumpkin pies I’ve encountered – and even made – have turned out heavy and wet and so sweet as to disguise the subtle flavors of the squash. Not very appetizing, frankly.

I blame canned pumpkin, in part. It always seems so high in water content, no wonder the pie filling so often winds up turning even a perfectly good pie crust into sodden mush. Using whole pumpkin helps, as long as you get a variety that’s bred for eating, not carving, cook it simply and blend it to a puree. But pumpkin pie still isn’t high on my list of favorite desserts.

Still: Pumpkin, spices – nothing to dislike there. So every year when pumpkin season rolls around, I experiment with other ways of combining them in not-pie form. I’ve made pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin custard, pumpkin fudge and cute little puff pastry turnovers folded around diced cooked pumpkin and drizzled with caramel sauce. All tasty.

This year it’s ice cream. I have a second-hand Donvier ice-cream maker, the sort with the metal cylinder you keep in the freezer and then pop into its plastic housing whenever the urge for ice cream strikes. It’s very handy, and way less fuss than traditional churn-till-your-arm-falls-off freezers.

As usual, I looked at a bunch of recipes, borrowed a bit from this and a bit from that, and came up with what a rich, flavorful ice cream that has all the good qualities of pumpkin pie, and none of the objectionable ones. I chose an eggless ice cream base, because it makes a slightly softer ice cream that doesn’t fight back when you’re trying to scoop it, doubled the spices other recipes called for and reduced the sugar, because I wanted the pumpkin to shine through. And to give it added texture interest, added nuggets of pralined pecan for a little sweet, nutty crunch – and turned the pumpkin seeds into a spicy garnish. The resulting ice cream is rich and spicy, not too sweet and very pumpkin-y, and would make a great Thanksgiving dessert. Even alongside pumpkin pie.

Spicy pumpkin ice cream

Ingredients

  • 1 small pie pumpkin
  • Light-flavored oil (I used peanut oil)
  • 6 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground allspice (optional)
  • 1 tsp powdered ginger
  • 1 Tbsp bourbon (or good vanilla)
  • 2 cups heavy cream

For praline

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 1 cup pecan pieces

Method

Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare the pumpkin by removing the stem and quartering the squash. Use a big spoon or ice cream scoop to remove the seeds and fibrous material; set aside. Lightly oil the cut surfaces, place on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes or until flesh is very soft and edges have begun to brown, turning the pieces once during cooking.

While the pumpkin is cooking, make the praline:

In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup sugar and 2 Tbsp water. Stir to blend and bring to a boil. Without stirring, continue cooking over medium-high heat until the sugar melts and turns dark golden-brown, about 5-7 minutes. Watch carefully at the end, and when done, remove from heat. Add pecans, stir to coat and turn out onto a piece of buttered foil or a silicon banking sheet. Let cool completely, then peel off the foil/baking sheet and break into nuggets . A rubber mallet or the handle of a heavy tableknife is useful for this task. Set aside.

When pumpkin is very tender, remove from oven, allow to cool, and remove the peel (it should come off the flesh easily; if not, use a spoon to scrape all the good pumpkin from the skin. Allow pumpkin to finish cooling to room temperature.

Using a wand blender or food processor, puree pumpkin flesh until smooth. Add the sugars, spices and bourbon, and stir well to blend. Whisk in the cream and pour the mixture into your ice cream maker. Chill according to manufacturer’s recommendations.*

When the ice cream is almost firm, stir in the praline pieces. Spoon the finished dessert out of the ice cream maker and into a lidded freezer container; return to freezer overnight to allow it to “cure.”

Pumpkin ice cream

Spicy pumpkin ice cream

Serve with a garnish of spiced pumpkin seeds (see below). Makes about 1 quart.

* If you don’t have an ice cream maker, it’s possible to make ice cream in a steel mixing bowl or even a baking pan: Just pour the mixture into the metal container, put it in the freezer and every 15 minutes or so take it out and use a rubber spatula to scrape the frozen bits from the side and bottom into the center of the mixture to break up the ice crystals. Continue this procedure until thoroughly frozen. The texture won’t be as smooth, but it’ll still taste good.

Spiced pumpkin seeds

Ingredients

  • Pumpkin seeds (however many your pumpkin holds
  • Oil
  • A couple of teaspoons of sugar
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger (any or all of these)

I never throw pumpkin seeds away. Cleaned and toasted, they make tasty snacks and garnishes. The only difficult part is cleaning them completely of the fibrous material that they grow in. I dump them into my big colander, set it in a bowl of water and go them with both hands, squeezing the seeds from the stringy stuff and tossing it into the garbage disposal as I go. Once you get most of the orange stuff out, you can rub the rest out through a coarse strainer. Lay the seeds out on a dish towel, pat dry with another.

Preheat oven to 250F. Toss the seeds with a small amount of oil to coat, then toss with sugar and spices. Spread the mixture out on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the seeds are crisp, dry and golden brown. Cool, then store in an air-tight container until ready for use.

October 27, 2008 at 9:42 pm Leave a comment

The last of the tomatoes

The last of the harvest

Green tomatoes

Last weekend, belatedly, I found time to get out to the garden and strip the last tomatoes from the vines. For all my complaining about the late ripening – and for all my desultory gardening habits – it was a good year for tomatoes; once they finally got around to ripening, my six heirloom plants kept me in ripe tomatoes for nearly two months before they succumbed to the advancing autumn. Lots of BLTs, salads, and just plain sun-ripened, sliced tomatoes, and a few interesting experiments in stuffing the Pepper Tom variety (a tomato that ripens like a bell pepper, with sturdy outer walls and an almost-hollow center.

Two weeks ago, a surplus of very ripe tomatoes heading toward over-ripe prompted me to make a couple of pans of my infamous Tomato Goo: tomatoes, onion and garlic, flavored with the last of the basil from my herb garden, slow-roasted until nearly all the liquid is gone and shoveled into serving-sized freezer bags for the winter.

This week it was time to deal with the remaining, unripe tomatoes. In other years, I’ve wrapped them lovingly in newspaper, put them in a box and set them down in the cool of my unheated basement/garage; stored that way, unblemished tomatoes will continue to ripen right into winter, a few at a time. I’ve had ripe tomatoes for Christmas, some years. Not quite as luscious as sun-ripened, but miles better than anything you can buy in a supermarket.

This year’s green tomato harvest was modest, though, with lots of smallish fruit, so I decided to deal with them immediately, and make food for what promises to be a busy weekend: A green tomato salsa, and a delicious tart-and-savory curried tomato soup.

Does anyone invent recipes from thin air? I rarely do. Rather, I read cookbooks (and other people’s foodblogs) avidly, consider what ingredients I have on hand and what flavors I like together, and improvise, taking notes as I go. What results may or may not be recognizable as the original recipe.

That’s almost certainly true of this soup, which started out as a found-on-the-Internet recipe for a chilled summer soup. The basic elements are still there – green tomatoes, potatoes, loads of onion and garlic, curry powder – but I wanted a something warm and hearty for fall. The original called for lots of cilantro and mint; I don’t much like cilantro, but I still had lots of aromatic basil on hand, and my Italian parsley is coming back strong after the summer bolt. The original directed me to peel the tomatoes and potatoes – not a bad idea if you buy them from the supermarket, to eliminate pesticide residues, but mine were grown organically, and there’s a lot of nutrition in those peels, so I left them on. It also called for sugar – rather a lot of it – to balance the tartness of the tomatoes. Why cook with sugar when you’ve got a couple of nice, sweet-tart heirloom apples on hand? And so it went, an adjustment here, another there, until my soup barely resembles the original at all. You can do the same, and make the recipe your own.

Curried green tomato soup

Curried Green Tomato Soup

Curried Green Tomato Soup
(Makes 4-6 servings)

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3-6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium union, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp good curry powder
  • 1 large (or 2 medium) potatoes, cubed
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 cups chopped green tomatoes (4-6 large tomatoes or a bunch of small ones
  • 1 large (or 2 small) apples, cored and chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh Italian parlsey
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Additional parsley and curry powder for garnish

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic, onion and curry powder. Cook, stirring often, until onion begins to soften, about five minutes. Add potatoes, stir to blend, and brown slightly. Add stock. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes until potatoes are tender.

Stir in the tomatoes, apple, basil and parsley; cover, and continue simmering for 10-15 minutes more.

Remove from heat and use a wand blender or food processor to blend until fairly smooth. If you want a silky soup free of bits of peel, pass it through a coarse strainer and return to burner if necessary to reheat. I didn’t bother; the peel is tender and adds some texture. Stir in cream. Taste; add salt and pepper if you like.

To serve, ladle into bowls, and garnish with a drizzle of cream, a sprinkle of curry powder and a sprig of parsley. Serve hot.


Even easier:

 

Green tomato salsa

Green Tomato Salsa

Green Tomato salsa
Makes 3-4 cups

Ingredients (measurements are approximate and not critical. Use what you have):

  • 1 pound green tomatoes
  • 1-2 ripe tomatoes
  • 1 seranno (or other) pepper, minced (seeds and all); use two if you like your salsa fiery
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne (or more, as above)
  • 1 small onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 1-2 tsp salt, to taste

Cut the fruits/vegetables into chunks; mince the chiles. Dump everything but the salt into a food processor and pulse until it’s chopped fine, but not pureed. Taste, correct seasoning. Transfer to a lidded bowl and allow to ripen at room temperature for an hour or so, then refrigerate. Keeps several days in the fridge.

Besides making a great dipping salsa (I like it with flour tortilla chips, but use what you prefer), this stuff would be fabulous with fresh seafood…


Oven Roasted Tomatoes (aka Tomato Goo)

 

A method. Make as much or as little as you like. I often make two pans at once, rotating them between the upper and lower shelves of my oven a couple of times during the cooking.

Ingredients:

Per batch:

  • 8-10 Garden-ripe tomatoes, quartered (cut off any green stem bits and or bad spots)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled cut in wedges
  • One head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled and slightly crushed with the flat of a knife
  • A generous handful of fresh basil
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 250F. In a large roasting pan, spread the tomatoes, onion and garlic in a single layer. Scatter with basil and drizzle with olive oil.

Roast in oven for 2-4 hours or longer*, stirring every half hour or so, until almost all of the liquid is gone, the onion and garlic have caramelized and the tomatoes have taken on a deep red hue. Cool; spoon into serving-sized freezer bags, squeeze out the excess air and freeze.

* If your tomatoes are especially juicy, or you pack too many into the pan, it can take an entire afternoon to reduce the liquid down. This is a fine project for a lazy fall afternoon, and will fill your whole house with the aromas of tomato, onion and garlic.

The result is a frozen slab of a rich, chunky paste/sauce, slightly sweet from the caramelized onion and garlic and with the same intense flavor as sun-dried tomatoes. Thaw to use, or simply cut off frozen chunks. Use as a basis for a home-made tomato sauce, toss it with pasta, spread it on toasted Italian bread rounds, add it by the spoonful to home-made soups and stews – anywhere you want a jolt of garden tomato in the deep of winter. Best. Stuff. Ever.

October 17, 2008 at 12:37 pm 1 comment

Fall harvest: Put some away for later

Market haul

Autumn market haul

Thanks to a packed schedule of work and theater, I haven’t been keeping this blog up the way I’d hoped to, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting the height of the harvest season. Far from it: at this time of year, practically every meal I eat (well, except the occasional hit-and-run “meal” of cheese and crackers or storebought hummus) is packed with local goodness: Tomatoes (yes, mine finally ripened). sweet corn, tomatoes (so did my next-door neighbor’s), eggplant, tomatoes, late-season berries, tomatoes …

Now the fall fruits are coming in. There were so many apple vendors at the market today that I went a little nuts, coming home with probably 20 pounds of gorgeous, crisp apples: Big, juicy Gravensteins, crisp little Daveys, Cox’s orange pippins, the quintessential English apple, and several heirloom varieties I can’t even remember.

I also picked up some perfectly ripe red Bartlett pears, a half-dozen late-season peaches, three beautiful little globe eggplants, an assortment of hot peppers, a nice big pork shoulder roast (I see slow-cooked pulled pork in my future), a dozen ears of yellow corn, two winter squash (a sugar pumpkin and a French heirloom variety, Galeux d’Eysines), and a pound of green beans.

A lot of food for one person, to be sure – but  I’m putting some away now for the months ahead, when fresh local produce will be hard to find and dear when you can find it.

I don’t can. I know how, but I have neither the equipment, the storage space nor the patience to stand over a hot canning kettle on a fine fall afternoon. I do, however, have a large freezer in the basement, and an ample collection of freezer containers. So I came home from the market, hauled out my trusty Applemaster and my big enameled cast-iron kettle, and set to work.

Four hours later, I’ve got several quarts of easy home-made applesauce, one of rosy-pink apple-pear sauce with dried cranberries, and some fabulously aromatic  peach chutney just off the stove and ready to spoon  into containers. Tomorrow, I’ll blanch the corn and cut it off the cob to freeze in meal-sized bags, and cook up a batch of eggplant curry to eat with some of that chutney. The squash will keep till next weekend, when I’ll roast and peel it and freeze the chunks for curries, soups and pies.

It’s getting late for local peaches, so you may want to squirrel this recipe away for next summer. It works best with slightly underripe fruit that’s still firm enough to stand up to the long cooking without completely disintegrating:

Autumn peach chutney

Peach Chutney

Autumn Peach Chutney

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 large peaches, peeled, pitted and cut in chunks
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 Serrano (or other hot pepper) seeded and minced
  • 1/4 of a red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 3-4 Tbsp crystallized ginger, chopped fine
  • 2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 5-6 whole peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes (more if you like a very spicy chutney)
  • 1 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil while stirring. Turn heat very low and simmer 45 minutes-1 hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and brown (if the peaches are very juicy, it may take longer for the liquid to evaporate).

Cool and spoon into half-pint freezer containers, leaving some head-room for expansion as it freezes. Keeps well in the freezer for up to 6 months; thawed and refrigerated, it will keep for a few weeks. Goes great with curries, or as a sweet-sour-and-spicy condiment for pork, lamb or fowl.

September 27, 2008 at 5:47 pm 2 comments

Strange fruit

Quince“What is that?”

The question, from a woman in a green windbreaker, was directed at the vendor, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“It’s a quince – it’s like the essence of apple, multiplied by 10, only you have to cook it before you can eat it. They’re fabulous!”

I do that when I’m at the farmers’ market: Engage in conversations with total strangers about food, and the preparation thereof. It’s part of what makes a local market so much more enjoyable than, say, a quick trip to Safeway. Strangers talk to each other; community happens over a bin of ripe, red tomatoes, a mountain of sweet corn – or a basket full of quinces.

The green windbreaker lady was interested but skeptical; she walked away with a bag of pears but no quinces. But the vendor seemed pleased. She should be; she’s the one who introduced me to the joys of quinces, and I’ve become one of a cadre of quince-lovers who snatch up the hard, golden fruits each autumn when she brings them to market.

“Quince” is one of those words I first encountered in literature (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and in my mother’s dog-eared copy of the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School cookbook, handed down from the grandmother who raised her. I had no idea what a quince actually was, mind you. In my mind’s eye, I imagined it as a small, round fruit, something like a kumquat, probably because of the “qu-” sound they shared. And knew that one could make jelly from it, as well as something called quince paste. It sounded genteel, ladylike and vaguely Victorian.

Imagine my surprise, during a stroll through the market two autumns ago, at encountering the real thing: A hard, yellow-gold fruit the size of a man’s fist, slightly pear-shaped and covered with a soft, waxy down that rubs off on your fingertips. And the fragrance! Quince has an intense perfume reminiscent of apples and honey, only more so.
I bought two on the spot, having no idea what I’d do with them. And then, like any good foodblogger, sat down at the computer to do a little research.

What the heck is a quince, anyway? Cydonia oblonga, botanically speaking: one of the most venerable fruits of the rose family, probably older than apples – and, many scholars believe, the fruit that got mistranslated as “apple” from many ancient writings, from the Greek mythologies to the Christian Bible. Given the quince’s origins in the temperate climate of the Caucasus and Mediterranean fertile crescent, it may well have been the fruit that tempted Eve, and the apple Paris handed Aphrodite.

In practice, quince is one of those Difficult Fruits. You can’t eat it raw – it’s too hard and too astringent, as anyone who’s tried to nibble its flesh will tell you (can you say “pucker”?) But those very qualities, caused by an abundance of natural pectins, also make cooked quince a natural for jellies and preserves (marmalade, now mostly made with oranges and other citrus fruits, originated in the Middle Ages as a way preserving quinces in honey).

Popular among colonial American gardeners, the quince has fallen out of favor in North America, replaced by fruits that are easier to eat and cultivate. Fireblight, a bacterial orchard disease, has wiped out many old stands of quince in the United States.
But some growers, particularly those who cultivate heirloom tree fruit, still grow quince, and now and then the fruit turns up in farm or specialty markets. Around here, First Fruits Farms grows beautiful quince, big and heavy and golden-ripe, and when I see them, I snatch them up.

What to do with all that quince? Most often, I simple cut them up and add them to applesauce for an extra boost of flavor. Lately, though, I’ve been branching out.
Google, my personal cybernetic brain enhancement, leads to all manner of lovely things to do with quince:

What really caught my attention this week, though, were recipes for Greek and Middle Eastern meals that combine quince with lamb to make a fragrant, fruity stew. I already had tender lamb rib chops from Wood Family Farm, but they’re better grilled or pan-fried than stewed. It seemed as if there ought to be a way to treat the meat the way it deserved to be treated and still enjoy the complex, fruity flavors of those stews and tagines.

And so, after poring over a few dozen recipes and rummaging through my pantry to see what I had on hand, I set out to improvise and deconstruct. What I wound up with was both easy and terrific: Succulent, spicy lambchops and tender, fragrant fruit; perfect fare for a chilly fall evening.

Stewed quince Moroccan-spiced lamb with stewed quince and couscous

Ingredients:

  • 1 large quince, peeled, cored and sliced into half-inch-thick pieces
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tsp culinary rosewater (you could substitute vanilla)

Combine water, sugar, honey and lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add quince, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until quince is tender and rosy-hued. Stir in rosewater, if you have it. This much can be made ahead; if you do, return it briefly to the burner to reheat while the lamb is cooking.

  • 4-6 small lamb rib chops, trimmed of excess fat
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1Tbsp olive oil
  • Juice of the other half lemon

Rinse the lamb chops and pat them dry. Mix spices and rub them all over the chops. Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Add chops and cook 4 minutes, then turn and cook 3 minutes on the other side. Remove meat to a warmed plate.

Ladle 1/2 cup of the syrup from the cooked quinces into the skillet; stir to scrape up the browned spices and meat drippings. Boil until the liquid is reduced by half; add lemon juice and salt, if needed, to taste.
Serve the chops alongside the quince (strained from the cooking syrup with a slotted spoon; reserve the syrup for some other use), and with couscous tossed with chopped dried apricots and toasted almonds. Spoon the pan sauce over all. Serves 2.

Lamb, quince and couscous

Postscript: Not long after falling in love with quinces, I was heading out for a coffee break at work when I stopped in my tracks across the street from my office. The ground was absolutely littered with quinces. Glancing up, I discovered that an unassuming tree I’d never really noticed among the landscaping was, in fact, a quince.

When I got back to work, I called the groundskeeping office. Would they object, I asked,if I collected some of the quinces that fell on the ground? Far from it, came the reply – they’d be glad to have some help clearing them off the walk.

So it is that each October I find myself toting plastic grocery sacks to work, and spending my breaks gleaning fallen quinces. Here’s where the fruit’s hard texture is a plus; the ones that land in the flower beds suffer barely a bruise. My co-workers (who think I’m nuts, anyway) are used to those few weeks each fall when my office reeks of quince.

November 4, 2007 at 9:53 pm 1 comment

Wild mushrooms

ChanterellesThe temperate rainforest climate of the hills to the east and west make Oregon’s Willamette Valley wild mushroom heaven. Springtime brings morels, and autumn – oh, autumn brings everything, from Boletus edulis (cepes) to matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) to my very favorites, the orange-fleshed, trumpet-shaped chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius ) and their creamy, white-fleshed cousins, Cantharellus subalbidus .

When I first moved to Oregon, nearly 30 years ago, I was lucky enough to fall in with some experienced mushroom hunters and fellow gourmands, Karen and Frank Evans, who occasionally took me mushrooming – around Mother’s Day, over the Cascades to central Oregon in search of morels, and in the fall, to the slopes of Marys Peak to find chanterelles. Along the way they often discovered and fed me other fungal treats, including the splendid Oregon white truffle (Tuber gibbosum), but morels and chanterelles are the ones I learned to recognize with enough confidence to pick and eat them myself.

I no longer go to the woods to forage for mushrooms; a cranky sciatic nerve makes it hard for me to spend a day trekking uphill and down in what can often be an elusive quest, and the competition from other pickers means it’s harder to find what’s there.

Fortunately, some of those pickers bring their harvest to market, where I’m more than happy to pay the price for these delectable fruits of the woods, when I can afford it.

This fall, sufficient rain has made for a bountiful mushroom harvest, and on a rare foray to the Corvallis farmers’ market last weekend I was thrilled to discover vendors selling chanterelles for just $7 a pound. Score!!! I brought home a couple of pounds, cleaned them up* and sliced half of them for immediate use; the rest went into my cheap little food dehydrator, where a few hours of constant air and gentle heat dried them to thin, leathery slices that will flavor winter soups and sauces.

Drying chanterelles* Wild mushrooms need careful cleaning, and when the weather’s been wet, damp varieties such as chanterelles can benefit from a bit of air-drying, too. I use a pastry brush to dust off bits of duff, dirt and the occasional hitch-hiking insect, a sharp knife to trim away any signs of decay or insect damage, and then spread the mushrooms out on a couple of layers of newspaper on the table in my breakfast nook (which has the advantage of being fairly chilly at this time of year) . Over a few hours, with occasional turning of the ‘shrooms, the paper absorbs excess moisture from the mushrooms, rendering them easier to cook and, in my opinion, concentrating the flavor. Refrigerate in an open bag with a paper towel tucked inside to help absorb extra moisture, and use within a few days. Or dry them.

Wild mushrooms can improve any dish that would normally be made with the supermarket sort, from pizzas to soups, but I think they’re best in recipes that show off their flavors and textures. Two of my favorite things to do with wild mushrooms came to me, as is so often the case, from Internet cooking communities where people share their own recipes and preparation tips. Both are fabulous ways to enjoy these woodsy treasures.

Pan Roasted Mushrooms

(Recipe originated with Van Donegal, originally posted in the LiveJournal food_porn community, with some minor tinkering by me)

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil (while I use extra-virgin olive oil for most recipes, a lighter variety works better for this recipe, because it has a higher smoking point.)
  • Any quantity of good quality mushroom, wild or otherwise (if you can’t find chanterelles, this is a tasty way to prepare brown Crimini mushrooms)
  • One clove of garlic per pan of mushrooms, peeled and smashed or coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 stick of unsalted butter (1/4 cup) per pan of mushrooms
  • coarse Kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh Italian parsley (optional, but I have so much in my garden that I never skip it) chopped, 1/2 cup per pan
  • Equipment: One large, heavy bottomed skillet. Or two, if you have them – you can keep two pans going at once this way

Preparation

Clean and thickly slice the mushrooms

Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the frying pan; heat over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers but does not smoke

Add only enough mushrooms to cover the pan without touching each other. Add a liberal pinch of kosher salt and several cranks of pepper

After 60 seconds, reduce heat to medium low. Do not move the mushrooms about. Cook them for about 4 minutes then turn individually. They should be caramelized and brown when turned, and beginning to dry out a bit.

Two minutes after turning, add the garlic. One minute later, add the butter. Once it has melted, use a wooden spoon to move the mushrooms about in the pan so the butter and garlic cover them.

Add parsley, stir and remove from heat.

I often make several pans of these at a shot; simply wipe out the skillet with a paper towel, turn up the heat, and repeat the process.

You can eat these just as they are, as a hearty and delicious accompaniment to a meal, or scatter them on top of a home-made pizza crust, on pasta, or on toasted bread as an appetizer. Sometimes I just gobble them by the forkfull of buttery, garlicky mushroom goodness.

Mushroom pieMushroom Pie

I got this recipe from my on-line foodie friend, Whit, and it’s terrific: A vegetarian (and potentially vegan) pie that’s hearty and satisfying enough for meat-lovers, flavorful and filling enough that I’ve served it as the main course in an unconventional Christmas dinner, and nobody complained that the table lacked a roasted bird.

It also lends itself to improvisation. Try different dried combinations of mushroom, different dried fruits (or none at all, although they add a wonderful and unexpected flavor to the dish).

Ingredients

  • Crust for a two-crust pie. Use whatever crust you prefer; Whit makes a whole-wheat crust from scratch, but I’ve been known to cheat and use frozen, store-bought piecrust.
  • 3-4 small potatoes sliced very thin
  • 1 medium white onion, diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic chopped (at least – I’m a garlic lover, and have used as much as an entire head)
  • Two cups of coarsely chopped mushrooms, whatever varieties you have on hand. If you’re only using ‘shrooms from the store, try a combination of portabello, crimini, oyster and shiitake. I like to use both fresh and dried (reconstituted in a little stock) mushrooms. Set aside a nice-looking mushroom or two to garnish the pie.
  • 1/2 bell pepper, sliced thin (whatever color you prefer. The original recipe called for green, but I prefer red
  • 1 cup good vegetable stock. I keep vegetable trimmings and peels (from no-spray vegetables), along with onion ends and skins, in the freezer; when I have enough, I make up a batch of stock and freeze it. If you can’t be bothered, Safeway’s “O” organics line is a decent commercial version. Just for heaven’s sake don’t use bouillon cubes – they’re way too salty and contain MSG.
  • Vegetable oil, or (as I prefer) half oil and half butter
  • Salt (I often omit it) and pepper
  • fresh oregano (I use at least a teaspoon)
  • fresh chives (ditto)
  • A handfull each of dried currants, golden raisins, dried sour cherries (or other dried fruit of your choice – I’ve used chopped, dried apricots, dried cranberries and even chopped figs), and almonds

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375F. Line a deep-dished pie pan with half the crust. Reserve the other half to cover.

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or saucepan, heat oil to medium hot. Sautee onions, garlic and potatoes until onions are translucent but not browning. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Add more oil and sautee the mushrooms and fresh herbs until they’re soft. Add the pepper, and as soon as they’re warmed through, return the onion, garlic and potatoes to the pan and let it cook down a bit.

Pour in the broth, and let the mixture simmer for a bit. Taste, add salt and pepper if you like, and then strain everything out of the stock (reserve the stock!)

Mix in the dried fruit and almonds, and fill the pie crust to overbrimming. Pour a bit of the stock – just enough to moisten, over the filling (save the rest to make soup!)

Cover the pie with the other crust, crimp edges and cut holes – decorative or not – to vent.

Place the pie on a baking sheet (it may bubble over during cooking) and bake at 375 for 30 minutes, or until filling begins to bubble up through the vents. If the crust starts to brown too much at the edges, wrap some foil loosely around it. Add garnish mushroom to the top and continue backing for 5-10 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

Let it sit for 10 minutes or so before slicing and serving. A green salad and a glass of hearty red wine go wonderfully with this. And the leftovers (refrigerated, of course) can be reheated or eaten cold the next day.

Serves anywhere from 2-8 people, depending on how hungry they are, what else is on the menu and how much you want for leftovers.

One final but important note about wild mushrooms: Don’t be stupid. If you’ve never hunted mushrooms before, don’t go out looking for them without an expert by your side – and I don’t mean a book. Some of the tastiest wild mushrooms are barely distinguishable from some of the most poisonous ones unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and photographs can be deceiving. People die from making those kinds of mistakes. Buy wild mushrooms from trusted harvesters, stick to varieties you know, and the first time you eat them, try just a little – even perfectly edible mushrooms can cause minor tummy upsets in people who aren’t used to them.

October 28, 2007 at 11:12 am Leave a comment

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