Saturday, October 18, 2008

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds to the 3rd power

The first week I saw pumpkins for sale at the Perrysburg Farmer's Market, I bought one immediately and named her Penelope. Penelope was huge, easily a 25 pound-er, perfect for a jack-o-lantern. I, however, was not going to waste my time in such impractical absurdity. (Although, if we ever have kids, or little nieces and nephews, I'm sure pumpkin carving will become a necessary tradition.)

I should have waited until the pie pumpkins were harvested as they are smaller and tastier than jack-o-lantern pumpkins, which don't have reliably flavorful flesh. Gigantic jack-o-lantern pumpkins are better know for their ability to splatter into orange chunks of shrapnel when rambunctious teenagers steal them off your front porch and hurl them into the street.

The first order of business once I slaughtered Penelope (and it did feel like a slaughter this pumpkin was that big, and I had grown a bit fond of her) was to gut her. I got over this quickly though because, honestly, the visceral pleasures of pumpkin goop did take me back to my childhood and scooping out, preparing, and eating the pumpkin seeds are my favorite part of October's culinary rituals.

Admittedly, separating the seeds from the pulp can be a tedious endeavor, but this year, I took the easy way out and soaked the seeds in water to loosen them from the pumpkin guts. While this method is easy and reduces hands-on time in making roasted seeds, it has two drawbacks. First, it washes away some of the seeds' flavor. Second, it will make roasting time a bit longer, about 15 to 20 minutes longer. Ultimately, I think there are two kinds of people in this world: those that have the patience for picking pumpkin guck off of seeds by hand, and those that don't. You'll have to decide which one you are.

Then the seeds get tossed with a sweet, salty, spicy mixture of spices, creating the 3 powers that be as far as toasted pumpkin seeds are concerned.

Sweet, Salty, Spicy Pumpkin Seeds

Note: The amounts given here are a guideline, as the yield of pumpkin seeds varies from pumpkin to pumpkin. Keep the ratios the same, but adjust amounts as necessary. Penelope yielded about 2 cups of seeds.

4 T. sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper
pumpkin seeds from 1 pumpkin, cleaned of guck

Mix first 5 ingredients in bowl, add pumpkin seeds and toss to coat evenly with spice mixture. Spread in a single layer on a greased cookie sheet and toast at 350 degrees for about 30 to 45 minutes. Stir the seeds about every five minutes to prevent burning. As you stir, be sure to scrape the bottom of the cookie sheet, as some of the sugar mixture may stick. Bake until the seeds are slightly caramelized on the outside and completely crisp to the bite.
Store in air tight container, if they last that long. These are incredibly addictive seeds.

Now, I have the rest of this pumpkin flesh to deal with. If anyone has ideas of how to use it, let me know. I'm reluctant to boil and puree it for baked good because it isn't technically a pie pumpkin, so I'm thinking roasting will be the best cooking method. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Book Review: "Last Chance to Eat"

Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World (2004) by Gina Mallet is an incredibly snarky British depiction of how good old fashioned British food used to be (even during the war!) and how all modern food is terrible and is only getting worse.

While Mallet, who grew up in Britain but now resides in Toronto, is extremely critical of the United States food system, for plausible reasons, that is not the what raised my hackles. The biggest problem with this book is how it whines without offering any solutions to the problems to the current food system.

The problems that Mallet covers are vast. Here is a breakdown, by chapter of the nearly extinct quality foods Mallet covers: "the imperiled egg," "the last Brie," "the ox is gored," "the lost kitchen garden," and "a good fish is hard to find." It is clear that Mallet takes an apocalyptical doom and gloom tone in her message. Yet, at the same time, she buffers this doom and gloom with nostalgic musings of taste memories.

Exalting the quality of food products before they were mass produced is laudable, but this information is inchoate without context. For instance, if anyone has had a egg from a chicken allowed to eat grass and insects, you KNOW how superior it is in taste, nutrients, and humane practice to an egg laid by a beakless, stressed out hen in a CAFO, who spends her entire life in a cage so small she can't stretch her wings. What Mallet does is sing the praises of the natural egg without so much as mentioning the recent revival in small, community-based farms sprouting up all over North America where one can buy such eggs!

What kept me reading Mallet, though was the way her nostalgic longing for foods from her childhood was relatable. The memoir-esqe portions of the book flowed with vivid memories, antidotes, and humor. Also, Mallet was able to trace how these epicuric delights were demonized, rejected, and nearly made extinct by government regulations and industry. The food history portions of the book are well researched and enjoyable to read, which is not an easy feat when one is explaining how the USDA confirmed the dangers of consuming more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day, while an egg contains 278 milligrams of cholesterol.

While overall, I was frustrated by the books utter lack of hope for epicures to ever find delicious, quality food again, it has made me aware of how bureaucratically ridiculous many food regulations are, and how most of the USDA and FDA's regulations are in place to support the factory farmer and big agribusiness. The most enlightening chapter of Mallet's book was "the last Brie." In this chapter Mallet exposes why raw milk and young, raw milk cheeses have been banned in the United States resulting in the lose of centuries old artisanal cheese making practices and the proliferation of pasteurized milk without the flavor or nutritional virtue.

All in all, this book only tells half the story of these lost foods. I want to search out the other half of the story, the story of how to get this food back. Mallet has made a convincing case of the virtues of these "lost" foods, but ultimately she has left me hungry, with no way to fulfill this hunger for the foods she writes of, and this is a grave oversight.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Crepe Happy

I haven't made crepes in years because they are laboriously time consuming, they stink up your house like it's the local greasy spoon diner, and the results are sort of a rubbery, limp leather glove texture.

I am pleased to announce that I've overcome every last one of these problems, thanks to dear, dear Julia Child.

I honestly had never given Child much consideration until about a year ago when I read Julie Powell's memoir, Julie and Julia (2005), about Powell's attempt to cook through the entire Mastering the Art of French Cooking Cookbook (1961). The Julie and Julia project started as blog. Once I read about Powell's disastrous Potage Parmentier, I was compelled to look up the original recipe. Luckily, at the time Boise State's library had a first edition of MtAoFC, which I had checked out continuously from August of 2007 to May of 2008. Luckily, this summer I found a pristine 1st edition of MtAoFC, at Jackson Street Booksellers for a paltry $8.50. (Kent and I hold the belief that Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha is one of the best used books store in the country.)

MtAoFC is my go-to cookbook now. Although severely outdated, it provides such a fundamental basis for from-scratch cooking that I would be lost without it. Many food writers have speculated why America has such an enduring affection for Child, and I join the chorus when I mention her lack of pretense, her distillation of French technique for the layperson, her straightforward double-column formatted recipes, and her down-to-earth charm. I've also been working my way through the 6-disc DVD collection of The French Chef. Once you watch Child on The French Chef you fall in love with her. The early shows were taped live and are a bit rough around the edges: she loses her reading glasses, or mis-speaks and gets tongue tied, or she whacks the head off a whole fish without warning. She's a far cry from the cocky celebrity chefs on the Food Network now.

Last week, I happened to watch a French Chef episode on crepes. Buoyed by Child's effortless and lilting example, I suddenly had not only a deep primal urge for fresh crepes but the determined confidence to produce DAMN good crepes.

Crepes are essentially impossibly thin pancakes, and they are extremely versatile. You can serve them like pancakes, fill them with sweet or savory fillings to make blintzes, or use them like mannicotti stuffed with a savory filling, doused with a good sauce and baked like a casserole, or you can even layer and bake them like a lasagna.

Previously, I had used a recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which isn't as good as Child's because the batter is thicker as it calls for no water, resulting in the leathery glove consistency. The crepes are also fried in butter, which burns easily at the high heat necessary for crepes, resulting in the greasy spoon aroma. As for the laborious part, Child recommends using a blender to mix the ingredients (I used my food processor, and it worked fantastic). Child also insists that with a little practice, "it is no problem at all" to get two pans of crepes going at once, thus cutting your work time in half. Lo and behold, I was able to churn out 20 crepes in about 10 minutes!

Crepes (adapted from MtAoFC)
makes about 18 to 20 crepes

1 cup cold water
1 cup cold milk
4 eggs
1/2 t. salt
2 cups a.p. flour, sifted
4 T. butter, melted

Combine all ingredients in bender or food processor and blend at top speed for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate so that the flour can soften and absorb the liquid. This results in a softer, lighter, practically ethereal crepe. Child recommends letting it chill for 2 hours. I only managed to give my batter a 1 hour rest, and the results were still quite good. You could also chill it overnight.

When ready to make, heat two skillets (with about 6 inch diameter bottoms), and grease with a vegetable saturated paper towel. Heat should be very high. As soon as oil begins to smoke, grab pan of off heat, and ladle in about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of batter. Using your wrist action to swirl the batter around. You want just enough batter to completely coat the bottom of the pan and stick. If there's more than that, pour the excess back into the batter bowl, and adjust the amount of batter for the next crepe.

Cook over high heat for about a minute or until the edges of the crepe are dry, and it releases easily from the bottom of the pan. If you're as talented as Child, you'll be able to flip the crepe with a flick of your wrist or lightly grab the dry edges of the crepe with your fingers and turn it with your hands. If you're a mere mortal in the kitchen, like me, you'll need to use a pancake turner, which works just fine. Cook other side about 30 seconds or until small brown spots emerge that look, like Child says, "look almost like the spots of a baby dalmatian."

When cooked, remove to plate. It is helpful to put the growing stack of crepes in a warm oven if you're going to serve them like pancakes, but if you're going to make blintzes or stuffed crepes it is not necessary, and keeping them warm in the oven dries them out a bit.

Crepes freeze and refrigerate beautifully, so save any leftovers for other dishes.

The first night I made blintzes with a ricotta cheese filling. (My apologies for the photo styling. My Ohio kitchen is sorely lacking in the natural light my Idaho kitchen had, and I'm still trying to figure out the necessary adjustments to remedy this problem.)

Blintz Filling adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen (1982).

7 oz part-skim ricotta
1 T. sugar
1 1/2 T. a.p. flour
dash of salt

Mix ingredients well.

To assemble blintzes, place a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of one crepe and roll like a burrito. The blintz will resemble an egg roll.

Then, carefully saute blintzes over medium-high heat in a small amount of butter until golden brown, using tongs to gently turn the blintzes so each side cooks.

Top with fruit and whip cream, or if you're ambitious, make an recipe of Brandied Baked Pears as a topping and dust with cinnamon and powdered sugar before serving.

I was inspired to make Brandied Baked Pears because of these delicious beauties. When was the last time you saw such beautiful, golden blemish-free Bartlett pears in the supermarket? My guess is never. They just are too fragile to transport long distances. I got these at the Perrysberg Farmer's Market, and the are by far the most amazing pears I have ever eaten. They exploded with a sweetly tart perfume flavor and with chin dribbling juice at each bite.

They were so good, in fact, that even Henry Miller liked them.