Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pumpkins with a story to tell...

We like backstory around here.  I don't know if it's just because Kent and I both have degrees in creative writing, or if it's just a way to be playful, either way, we like to tell stories around here.  Mostly, the backstory involves the chickens or Mattie, Kent's cat.  For instance, before Mattie came to us, she was a lounge singer in New York City.  She had a bit of a problem with drinking too many martinis, so when she hit rock bottom --she doesn't like to talk about it--she somehow made it to the Omaha Nebraska Humane Society where Kent adopted her.
Mattie after her lounge singer days.

I guess backstory is a way of making sense of things and a way of letting your imagination run wild.  For local foodists, for people that care about where their food comes from and if animals or people or the environment were harmed along the way, then backstory becomes important, an inextricable part of the eating experience.

We made pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving that had quite a backstory.  The organic, heirloom sugar pie pumpkin seeds I bought in spring of 2009 online from Heirloom Seeds. But in 2009 the pumpkins all succumbed to squash vine borers.  This year, I planted the squash in a new location, slightly sandier soil on the south side of my garden.  We dug out a new garden bed in the spring, and had to dig out huge chunks of limestone and add lots of compost and horse manure to make the area friable. I wised up to the vine borers, too.  I squelched the glutinous little worms with an organic canola oil based bug spray.  While I was on the road teaching reading classes all summer, Kent watered the squash, keeping them alive.  In the early fall, the new neighbor kids, the four-year-old and I in particular, had a lot of conversations about pumpkins.  Finally in late October, harvest 2010: 7 gorgeous pie pumpkins.

Pumpkin Pie making is chaotic.
These pumpkins had to make our obligatory Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.  Since I was out of town the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Kent was also put on the job as sole pumpkin puree-er.  The problem was that Kent was a little too over zealous in his pumpkin pureeing.  We made two lovely pumpkins, one a traditional, the other based off of this recipe from Bon Appetit, but we still had pumpkin puree left. 
On left: Pumpkin Pie with Pepita, Nut, and Ginger Topping
But this blog post is not about pie, it's about what to do with 3 1/2 cups of pumpkin puree that has a backstory, and therefore is too precious to just feed to the chickens.  Perhaps you have a can of pumpkin puree moldering about your cupboard that you don't know what to to with.  This soup would put it too perfect use.
Pumpkin Curry Soup with Mark Bittman's Chickpea Flatbread

Pumpkin Curry Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 T. brown sugar
1 can full-fat coconut milk (15 oz.)
3 1/2 cups pumpkin puree
1 to 2 cups vegetable broth (if you use sodium-free broth, you'll need to add about a teaspoon of salt)
1 Tablespoon lime juice

Heat olive oil in large soup pot over medium heat.  Add onion and saute until soft and translucent.  Add garlic and cook for several minutes.  Have coconut milk close at hand.  Add spices, quickly, and saute until they begin to release their fragrance.  Cook for just a minute or so, you want them to be slightly toasted, but not burnt.  Then quickly pour in coconut milk to deglaze the pot.  Add pumpkin puree.  Add vegetable broth, starting with a cup, until soup is desired consistency.  Simmer for about 20 minutes.  Taste, adjust seasonings.  Finish with lime juice.  Serve with chopped cilantro on top, if desired.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Leftovers: Henry's Last Meal

Friday morning we buried our cat Henry under the forsythia bush on the south side of our house.  I cried a lot. 

Henry had simple, but fine tastes.  He couldn't resist roast chicken of any kind, and he loved a good head cheese. 

 And when I cooked pissy beef kidneys for an authentic medieval feast, that turned out inedible to humans, Henry was the only one that would touch them.

He also, Kent argues, had good taste in beer, as well as a bit of sweet tooth for fresh pears.

In his last few days, he was so weak and sick that he could barely eat, so we nursed him with syringes full of homemade chicken stock and maple syrup.

If there was ever an important reason to make chicken stock, this was it.  Luckily, I had a chicken carcass in the freezer, which I had froze several weeks ago when I didn't have time to make stock.   More than anything I wanted this food to heal my dear, feline companion of eight years.  But sadly, he was just too sick.  Now that he's gone, I am left with an empty spot on the comfy chair that was Henry's favorite napping spot, and 2 quarts of homemade, organic, free range chicken stock.

I also understand now why it's a cultural practice to bring casseroles and pies to the bereaved.  While I didn't expect any condolences, friends leaving messages on Facebook have been incredibly kind. I know the next time someone in my life has a major upheaval, I'll be the first to bring food.  I went nearly a whole five days without cooking a single thing except Henry's chicken stock.  There were nights of greasy General Tso's Tofu, nights of even greasier leftover General Tso's Tofu and even a night when, after spending several hours at the vet, we stopped by Kroger on our way home for hotdogs, buns, and a can of chili for dinner.  We have not had a pleasant week.

But finally, yesterday, I picked up my chef's knife and a few pots and pans and got back into the rhythm of the kitchen.  I wanted to do something with the leftovers from Henry's last meal.  Grief makes me feel like I'm moving through my life in slow motion, but the routine of cooking was a relief, a familiar pattern that I could lose myself in.

Every time I roast a chicken, I make a stock, and then soup.  While chicken noodle or chicken dumpling is a traditional standby, it seemed too much like sick food.  Instead, I made Thai Coconut Soup.  This soup is rich and complex, and overall, deeply satisfying.  I think that this is in part because of the contrast of flavors.  The sweetness of the coconut milk hits the front of your tongue, while the sourness from the lime tickles the sides, and deeper in your throat you feel the power of the chiles.  The fish sauce and mushrooms add unami to contrast with the sharp, bright zing of fresh cilantro.  This soup has a lot going on, but it's incredibly simple to make.

Thai Coconut Soup

A couple of notes. First, I am not picky about stock making techniques as long as it's homemade and is a true stock, which means it must be made with bones.  I just covered the entire chicken carcass with water (which I did not salt), brought it to a boil, and simmered for about an hour or so.  Then I removed the carcass, chilled the stock, and skimmed some of the solidified fat off the top.  If you boil the stock hard, it will become cloudy, but here that doesn't matter as the coconut milk hides any imperfection in the stock.

Second, I used dried lemongrass, which I found in a specialty Asian market. It is worth seeking out because it is so much cheaper than fresh lemongrass, and it's easier to work with. If you can't find it though, a 4-inch  piece of fresh lemongrass would work.  Simmer it whole, and then remove before serving.

Finally, do not even think about substituting light coconut milk here.  If you do, you'll be terribly disappointed in the flat flavor.

2 quarts chicken stock
1 t. dried lemongrass
3 (1-inch) pieces lime peel
4 (1-inch diameter) pieces thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 hot chiles (thai chilis, serrano, or similar), seeded and halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15 oz.) can coconut milk
4 to 5 thinly sliced crimini (baby bella) mushrooms
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into 1 inch strips
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1 inch strips
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup diced cook chicken
4 limes, juiced
handful of chopped, fresh cilantro

Bring the stock to a boil in a large soup pot.  Add the lemongrass, lime peel, ginger, chiles, and garlic. Simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, mushrooms, bell peppers, fish sauce, sugar, and chicken and continue to simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until mushrooms are cooked through.

Remove from heat stir in lime juice.  Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more sugar or lime juice as needed.
Garnish with cilantro.  Warn diners of the lime peel and ginger coins, as they won't want to eat them.