Sunday, October 31, 2010

Scary Things for Halloween

I hate being scared.  The thought of sitting through a horror movie makes my skin crawl and those little hairs on the back on my neck cringe.  The last thing I want to do as recreation is feel tense and anxious about seeing violent, gory things.  However, I like Halloween because I love coming up with creative costumes and eating fun size candy bars.  I also realize that scary is a relative term.  There is gross-scary, politically correct-scary, and just plain nail biting-scary.  Here are some scary things from today that are horrifying for completely different reasons.
Gnarly mold attacking 50% of my heirloom Potimarrion squash harvest. (Squash Vine Boers attacked the other half.)
My Halloween costume, which is the scariest food I know, factory farmed ground beef, tainted with e.coli.

A very sick (possibly diabetic) Henry Miller cat on heavy sedatives.

Approximately 50 lbs. of winter squash from Friendship Farms' CSA Program this season.
 Okay, so the last thing isn't really that scary unless you have a serious phobia regarding pumpkins, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and butternut squash.  So for the next few weeks, I'll need to try to use these beauties up before they go the way of the gnarly mold.

Here's a round up of some of the recipes I may be using:

Squash Boats with Quinoa from Sprouted Kitchen.  With a filling that has basil, spinach, and pears to complement the nutty, earthy flavor of quinoa, this is at the top of my to-make list.

 Adzuki Butternut Squash Soup from 101 Cookbooks.  This hearty soup calls for one of my favorite flavor boosters: chipotle peppers in adobe sauce.  These little babies pack spice and smokiness.

Pumpkin Soup in a Pumpkin from Savuer.  I'm a sucker for lavish presentations, and this one, as soup baked and served in the pumpkin shell is no doubt impressive. The last time I tried this, however, we used a jack-o-lantern pumpkin and NOT a pie pumpkin--and in this case bigger was not better.  Big pumpkins are watery and flavorless.  So, if I make this it will be redemption.

So as I plot my squash attack plan and nurse my cat back to health, please let me know, what's your favorite way to use winter squash?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tomato Season: The Twilight Days

If tomato soup were an article of my wardrobe, it would be like a ratty T-shirt from college that I keep only for sentimental value.  Tomato soup held a special place in my life in my early twenties, particularly when I lived off of a college meal plan.  Tomato soup--the generic Campbell's kind straight from a number 10 can with a side of grilled cheese--was one of the most consistent and reliable meals offered at the cafeteria.  Even after I moved out of the dorms, canned tomato soup was in heavy rotation during my undergrad years.  And, then I forgot about, figuratively shoved it to the back of the closet.

But October tomatoes got me thinking about tomato soup again because these are exactly the type of tomatoes that need to be simmered slowly because fall tomatoes are ugly.  They crack and wrinkle.  Their bottoms get soggy, and their shoulders stay green.  These aren't the gorgeous slicers of August. October tomatoes are not trendy now at the farmers market by any means.  In the local food scheme of things, they should be shoved aside this time of year for butternut squash and sage and hearty fall brassicas like brussel sprouts and cabbage.  Yet my 24 tomato plants keep on slowly producing fruit, too little to justify canning but too many for straight eating, and I can't bear to euthanize them before the first killing frost.  By now, though, the tomatoes are cantankerous geriatrics, they have all the intense wisdom of the taste of a tomato, but they've lost the beauty of youth with its firm, unblemished wrinkle free skin and firm, hard bodies.  These are soup tomatoes.

I took 8 lbs. of ugly, cracked tomatoes and made a lovely simple soup, and I realize I've come a long way since my Campbell soup days, just as these tomato plants have come a long way since May.  And, I'm still not willing to throw out any memorabilia, ratty or otherwise.

Simple Tomato Soup

This recipe calls for Better than Bouillon Vegetable Base, but feel free to substitute your favorite bouillon or even straight table salt. I like Better than Bouillon because it doesn't contain any MSG, and it's cheaper than buying straight vegetable stock.  It yields a quality flavor, and it lasts indefinitely in the refrigerator.  In my dream world, bouillon concentrate wouldn't be necessary because I'd have a troop of Ommpa Loompa kitchen helpers (but without that whole indentured servant thing) that would make stock for me from scratch while I slept at night.  But I don't feel too guilty because many of the upscale kitchens I've worked at over the years have "cheated" with commercial soup bases from time to time.  Here, the bouillon actually works to boost flavor without diluting the tomato essence like a straight vegetable stock would.

8 lbs of geratric tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 t. dried oregano (or more to taste)
1 t. dried basil (or more to taste)
1 t. Better than Bullion Vegetable Base

To peel tomatoes, in batches of two or three, blanch in boiling water until skins loosen (about 30 seconds), and then plunge in cold water.  After this, skins should slip right off.  To seed, cut tomatoes around their equator and squeeze seeds out into a fine mesh strainer, reserving the liquid for the soup pot.

In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium high heat and saute onion until translucent.

Add tomatoes, oregano, basil, and Better than Bullion, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until tomatoes are cooked down.

Puree with immersion blender for a smooth soup or leave chunky for a more rustic style.

Makes One Big Pot of Soup (ample for several days of lunches)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Simplicity Itself: Rice and Lentils

Life has gotten more complicated than I would like.  School started, and six weeks passed in a flurry of lesson plans, lecture notes, and term papers to grade.  The last two days, I've been on fall break and recovering from a previous week of 90 individual student conferences and grading 90 essays, not to mention a week chock full of obligations: individual reading tutoring, gardening tending, and dinner making.

Now midterms are done.  I look up and life has gone by fast.  Too quickly to savor, too quickly to be calm, grounded, or centered.  So swiftly, that it felt like I wasn't even present.

My bookshelf is littered with books like The Simple Living Guide and The 50 Best Ways to Simplify Your LifeAlthough I read them, and they do make a lot of sense, I have trouble executing a truly simple life.  It's because I just want to DO so much.  The piles of books to read, the piles of fabrics to sew, the piles of vegetables to cook sitting at the bottom of the fridge.  How does it become too much so quickly?

Systematically weeding the categories of my life down to the essential seems to be the best way for me to balance.  So lately, I've been thinking about the complexity and chaos of my kitchen.  The piles of veggies get canned or frozen or turned into vegetable soups and eaten.  But the urgency of it all is stressful.  I have to remind myself that it is okay of some of those piles of veggies get turned into eggs.  The chickens don't mind eating wilted, soggy-around-the-edges lettuce.  I also remind myself that this vegetable anxiety is seasonal.  This week is the last week we'll receive our CSA box for the year, so the stream of local veggies will ebb to a trickle.  We haven't had a frost yet, so my garden is still producing, but as the days get shorter, it takes the tomatoes longer to ripen. I welcome the slower pace the winter will bring.

My other problem with kitchen complexity is in what I choose to cook in the first place.  Somehow my cooking repertoire has revolved around the 2 hour, 20 ingredient recipe for far too long.  Now I'm concentrating on simpler, easier recipes for awhile.  I don't want to dabble in the occultish realm of recipes requiring frozen tater tots, Miracle Whip, and cream of mushroom soup though.  Instead, I want to focus on quality ingredients (not too many) prepared in just a few simple steps.

The simplest dish that I make on a regular basis is mujadara.  Mujadara came on my radar in two different places last winter.  First, a local coffee shop served it on its lunch menu, and second, Orangette wrote about it here.  While I like the Orangette version just fine, I've simplified it even further.  Rather than cook the onions, then the lentils, and then the rice, clocking in at about an hour and a half of attentive stove time, I cook it all at once in three separate pans.  This dirties more dishes.  (But like Kent says, my greatest talent is dirtying a large amount of dishes in a short amount of time.)  The problem with cooking it all in one pot is that it becomes a finicky, nearly risotto like dish.  And, I have had issues with risotto trying my patience in the past.

I'm not going to give you a recipe here because you don't even need one.  Cook a pot of basmati rice.  Cook a pot of lentils.  (You'll be fine following the directions on the packages of both.)  And, then caramelize 3 or 4 large onions in olive oil.  Mix all together and salt to taste.

Do not be deceived by the simplicity of this dish.  With only 5 ingredients including salt and oil, it seems as if the flavor would be blah, but it's not. The secret is in the onions.  Caramelized onions make this dish spectacular because they are the perfect fall flavor: rich and hearty but still sweet, with a calm mellowness.  Sort of like the weather right now, sunny but punctuated by a chill in the air.  The caramelized onions also play off of the other flavors here: the bright, slightly fruity, nuttiness of the basmati rice, and the deeper, earthier taste of the lentils.

Caramelized Onions

4 to 5 large onions, chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Chop onions and cook in oil over medium heat until they begin to brown.  The goal is to brown them to a deep caramel color without burning them.  So, if they start to brown too quickly, or blacken around the edges, you need to turn the heat down.  Stir occasionally.  Depending on the natural sugar level in your onions this could take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.

I have come to enjoy the soothing patience that these onions require.  They don't need as much attention as a risotto, (I can still do dishes while caramelizing onions without disaster, which is important in my household!)  I only have to focus on one pan, while the rice and lentils cook away on their own.   

Here's the finished dish, which is great eaten hot, cold, or even at room temperature.  The caramelized onions are incredibly versatile as well.  They are great on sandwiches or tossed with pasta.