Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cranberry Emergency

Friends, this post is meant to stave off a very dire emergency. Diane, who writes a wonderful design blog called Frivolous Necessities, is in need of a cranberry recipe. But not just any cranberry recipe. She needs the cranberry chutney recipe I got her hooked on last Christmas. It just so happens that last Christmas when I was a family-less waif stuck in Idaho for the holidays Diane roasted a delightful organic turkey and invited me over to share it. I brought something that may have changed Diane's life for the better. Cranberry, Ginger, Lemon Chutney. This recipe is so good it cannot even be considered within the same species of that gelatinous blob of reddish stuff marketed as canned cranberry sauce. Nor is this recipe the type of recipe that you'd see on the Food Network, say a recipe that is predictable in its flavor profiles like pairing cranberry with orange zest. (It seems like every cranberry recipe on the Food Network this year has had orange.) My recipe requires a bit of thinking outside the box. For instance, one doesn't usually think of onion as the perfect partner for fresh cranberries. But this chutney has layers of flavor that ranging from tart, sweet, and spicy heat balanced with the perfect amount of acid from the lemon zest and juice. And ultimately, the reason one needs such a tart, spicy accompaniment to the standard turkey, dressing, and mash potatoes with gravy, is because it gives your palate a break from the creamy, starchy laden dishes. It wakes your tongue back up, refreshes it for the next bite. It is the equivalent of drinking an assertive complex Zindfindel with a slab of richly marbled prime rib.

This recipe also has a history with my family. For years, I worked as a server at Johnny's Cafe in Omaha every Thanksgiving. I would eat a full Thanksgiving meal at 10am and then serve families that same dinner non-stop until 5pm. When I'd get home, Kent would have round two of Thanksgiving ready--which always included cranberry chutney. The exact origins of this recipe are unknown. But, Kent's mom, Karen first introduced us to it. She even gave me a copy of the famed recipe at my wedding shower. I don't know of a truer sign that you've been accepted by your mother-in-law. Once you taste this, you'll see why. And, you'll never go back to the safe status quo of cranberry sauce again.

Cranberry, Ginger, Lemon Chutney

1 medium lemon
12 oz fresh cranberries
1/2 cup crystallized ginger*
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups sugar
1/2 t. dry mustard
1/2 t. salt

Grate yellow zest from lemon. Cut away and discard white pith. Halve lemon crosswise; pick out seeds. Cut into 1/4 inch dice.

In stainless steel or glass pan, combine all ingredients. Bring to boil stirring to help dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer until sauce is thick and cranberries have burst, about 30 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick and serve at room temperature.

*crystallized ginger can be found in the bulk aisle of large supermarkets, or check the holiday baking aisle--I found crystallized ginger next to the fruit cake fruit.

Admittedly, this recipe takes some hands-on time. There's a lot of knife work here, but it is worth every minute of it. I promise. Plus, it can be made ahead, and it is probably better if it is because the flavors meld. So, after I drive out to Luginbill Farms to pick up our grass-fed turkey, this chutney will be the first thing I make ahead. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Feeling Posh while Impoverished

We're all tightening our belts. As grocery prices rise, cutting corners on your household's food budget is imperative. But what about all those luscious, luxurious, and decadent foods you miss? I propose a solution. Liver Pate.

Now before you roll your eyes and flare your nose in disgust, please, hear me out. I'm guessing that few would argue with me that foie gras is the upper echelon of expensive, elite food. Now, think about all the things to love about foie gras. It's unctuous, melty-quality. It's smooth texture. It's rich layers of earthy flavor that are strong, but not aggressive. Humble liver pate has these same qualities, without the inhumanely force-fed goose.

I'm going to admit it, I used to be part of the liver pate uninitiated. For years, I lived with my ignorance. When I waited tables at Johnny's Cafe, the first weekend of every month was a two-day event of complementary liver pate served to every guest. I would use an ice cream scoop to plop a glop of cat food-like pate on a serving dish and bring it to guests with their bread and crackers. In all this time, I never tired the liver pate. Not even once. What I did observe though, was how polarizing pate is. Those that loved it had such a positive explosion on their palate that it sometimes made their eyes roll back in their head! Many guests came in expressly FOR Liver Pate weekend. For the ignorantly uninitiated, I found that if I did not tell people that it was liver, they would try it and enjoy it. But sadly, it took me nearly seven years (I am ashamed to admit how much delicious, liver based joy I missed out during that time) to try, to enjoy, and to fall utterly in love with liver pate.

It started two summers ago when my husband was out of town. When Kent's gone, I see it as a license to cook incredibly strange food. That summer I had several yellow summer squash plants that were as reproductive as a large colony of rabbits. I decided the only thing to do was to begin aborting squash fetus by eating as many squash blossoms as I could. (Squash plants have both male and female blossoms. It's important if you want to do reproductive damage to eat as many of the female blossoms as possible because only the females turn into squash). The only recipe I had for squash blossoms was from Fannie Farmer, and it involved stuffing the blossoms with a mixture of parsley, bread crumbs, chicken liver, and onions bound together by a beaten egg. All in all it was a perfect gateway recipe for liver. I found the novelty of eating squash blossoms, the beauty of their orangey color out-weighed any hesitation I had toward liver. I could only buy chicken livers in 1 lbs tubs, and I couldn't bring myself to throw out the rest. Again I turned to Fannie Farmer and made her liver pate. (Also while Kent was out of town.) It was quite addictive. I made several meals out of liver pate on Saltines with yellow mustard and a glass of red wine.

The most fearful thing about new foods is unrealistic aversion to the unknown. I think many people equate chicken liver with the shoe leathery slabs of beef liver fried in onions (which when prepared correctly, are delicious in their own right). Chicken livers are much milder than beef livers, and when made into pate, the texture is heavenly smooth.

Now, the great thing about chicken liver pate, aside from how decadent, elegant, and luscious it is is the fact that chicken livers are ridiculously cheap. A pound of chicken livers is usually about $1.00!

After I began making liver pate, I found that I sometimes I would get intense cravings for it. Particularly, when my body was telling me I need to bulk up on iron, like when I'm premenstrual. (My friends report craving hamburgers when their PMSing, not me, give me the chicken livers.) Chicken livers are incredible high in iron, so if you need to get more iron in your diet because of health reasons chicken livers are a great way to medicate through nourishing food, weather you're anemic or undergoing chemotherapy.

Honestly, I'm completely unbiased toward liver pate recipes. I like how dark and slightly spicy Fannie Farmer's recipe for pate is, but I also adore the lighter, creamier, and less butter laden version from Bon Appetit (September 1999) which you can find here. I also like how the garnish of a few wine-soaked figs and walnuts or pistachios really elevates this food to quite elegant proportions.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

2 More Ways of Looking at Pumpkin

I'll admit it, I've been sitting on these two recipes for far too long. October has been over for how long? But isn't that how it goes? Sometimes life rushes at you. Sometimes you get preoccupied (with politics, perhaps?). Sometimes you just don't realize where all the time has went (recouping from Daylight Savings time ending possibly?)

The benefits of eating locally and seasonally are many. But one of the reasons it's so delightful eating with the seasons has nothing to do with the myriad of health benefits--and there are a myriad of health benefits for you, for the local economy, and for the environment. Never mind those incredibly important benefits, I want to talk about the psychological benefits of eating with the seasons. It's comforting eating the same foods year after year for only those few weeks that they're best both taste wise and nutrition wise. Rather than blurring my days, weeks, years together into an unvarying, year round nosh of fast food, microwaved dinners, and hothouse grown tomatoes and cucumbers I want my meals to be meaningful. For me, this means eating pumpkins when pumpkins are beautiful and ripe in October and November. This gives me a tangible measure of who I am, where I'm at in this world, and who I'm with. It allows me to contemplate other Octobers, other feasts of pumpkins, other times both better and worse than the present. It frees me to think about how I've changed in the past year, what I've learned, what I've accomplished, and what I still need to work on.

Eating seasonally is a way for me to build reflection into my busy life, and that's almost as satisfying as a golden, earthy bit of fresh pumpkin flesh. Almost.

So, before it's too late and pumpkin season is over, here's what I did with the rest of Penelope the Pumpkin. First, I made
Pumpkin Saute with Caramelized Onions, Green Beans and Sweet Balsamic Glaze and then I baked a batch of Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Quick Bread.

Both of these recipes are significant because they remind me of the last two autumns I spent in Boise. In the fall of 2006, I worked at Tapas Estrella, a trendy little Spanish tapas bar in downtown Boise. I used to go to my grad classes during the day and ride the city bus from school to work in the late afternoon. Those afternoons the sun would dance the way it only seems to in the fall, and you could tell soaking up the last brilliance of sun before the darker winter months descended was important. Many afternoons I'd order the Pumpkin Saute plate for a quick, early supper before customers started to arrive. Pumpkin Saute was a big hit because it was a perfect tango of sweet/salt/acid. Tapas Estrella closed that following spring. But in the fall, I find myself missing the food and friends from Estrella, so I replicated the recipe as best as I could from my taste memories.

The great thing about this recipe is the prep work can be done in advance and then sauteed at the last minute, which makes it a great recipe for dinner parties.

Pumpkin Saute with Caramelized Onions, Green Beans and Sweet Balsamic Glaze

about 1/2 a large pumpkin (again this is a recipe in which the amounts are flexible--I'm guessing I used about 7 cups of cubed, roasted pumpkin)

2 red onions, thinly sliced
3 T. butter
2 T. fresh thyme leaves
4 cups green beans, trimmed
3 T. olive oil, divided
2 T. brown sugar, or to taste
2 T. balsamic vinegar, or to taste
salt and pepper


Preheat oven to 400. Cut half of pumpkin into manageable pieces--about 5 inches by 5 inches and place in baking pan, skin side down. Drizzle with olive oil. Roast in oven until soft, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat butter in heavy bottomed skillet. Add onions and thyme. Cook over medium-low heat stirring occasionally until onions are caramelized, adding more butter if onions become dry. Don't rush this process or you'll burn the onions--you want to cook them very gently, for a long period of time to bring out their natural sugars.

Meanwhile, bring large pot of salted water to boil. Cook green beans until just barely al dente. Do not over cook! Plunge beans in ice water. Drain and set aside.

When pumpkin is roasted and cool enough to handle, skin pumpkin and cut into 1 inch cubes.

At this point all items can be kept refrigerated, separately up to two days before assembling the final dish.


Heat about 2 T. olive oil over high heat. Add pumpkin, stirring well to coat with oil. Cook until heated thoroughly. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Add green beans and onions, sauteing until heated through. Add balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and cook for one more minute. Taste adjust seasonings as necessary. Serve immediately.

Last fall, I babysat three-year-old twin boys to supplement my graduate stipend, and their mom gave me this recipe for Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread, adapted from Cooking Light, December 2004. It is everything one could hope for in a quick bread recipe. It's dense, moist, and full of flavor, the pumpkin undertone allows the cinnamon and chocolate chips to compliment each other without overpowering one another. The thing that this recipe reminds me of most, though, is the way it was the twins' first "mixed" food that they would eat. They were notoriously picky eaters, who were finally won over (at least once) by the tempting combination of chocolate, pumpkin, and spice.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

2 cups sugar
2 cups pumpkin puree (boil pumpkin until soft, about twenty minutes. Drain. Then puree with blender, food processor, or immersion blender. If pumpkin puree seems too watery, continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until thickened to desired consistency.)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup vanilla yogurt
2 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
2 t. ground cinnamon
1 1/4 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour loaf pans (either 2, 8 by 4 in or 3, mini loaf pans). Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Combine flour, cinnamon,
salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture, stirring just until moist. Stir in chocolate chips.

Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pans on wire rack, and remove from pans. Cool completely on wire rack--or for as long as you can hold out. Slices of this bread still warm from the oven are amazingly delicious slathered with cream cheese.