Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Great Pumpkin

One of the sadder aftershocks of Hurricane Irene has been news that New England is short of pumpkins this year. Most of those in the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys drowned at the end of August. So it's seems fitting to salute the pumpkins that are making it to market, and now is the time those small, sweet sugar pies show up to liven stands with that intensely bright hunter's orange.

These volley ball sized pumpkins coming off the vine right now are actually squash, so you can cook them like a vegetable, if you don't want to bother making mousse or pie. You can chunk and braise the 'meat' with South Asian spices: cumin and fenugreek seeds, fresh ginger root, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, and chili for a hearty side dish. You can grate the flesh and combine about 4 cups of it with a cup of soft ricotta, 2 eggs, a bunch of chopped dill, a diced onion, a cup of flour and a pinch of cayenne to make the most delicious pancakes. (If you're gluten averse, you can use chickpea or corn flour.)

Most easily, you can stick the whole pumpkin in the oven and bake/roast it at 350 until it collapses. Then you scoop out the flesh and puree it with a 2 or 3 tbsp coconut cream or creme fraiche or thick yogurt into mashed pumpkin you can spice up with nutmeg, allspice and a pinch of clove--or just cardamom, if you prefer. You can cook it any way you would cook a butternut squash.

You can clean out the seed cavity and stuff it with, say, the kale mushroom stuffing in How to Fix a Leek and Other Food from your Farmers' Market, baking the pumpkin until it's soft enough to slice. Or stuff it Thai style, with a coconut milk pudding that you steam by placing the filled pumpkin in the steamer and cooking until it softens and the pudding firms up. You can even pre-soften in in the microwave or oven, hollow it out and stuff the cavity with a butter, cheesy polenta and finish cooking in the oven until the pumpkin's soft enough to cut in wedges. This is really colorful, especially garnished with lots of chopped cilantro.

Best of all, you can clean and dry all those pumpkin seeds you took out of the cavity and turn them into a profoundly nutritious snack. Nothing could be easier--once they're cleaned and dried. Combine 2 cups of them with 1 tbsp corn oil, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp arbol chili powder, 1 tsp chipotle chili powder, 1/4 tsp ground cumin, 1/8 tsp ground coriander, 1/8 tsp ground allspice and a pinch of nutmeg. Mix everything together really well and spread the seeds out on a cookie sheet. Bake them at 300 degrees about 30 minutes, until they start to turn color. They should snap and crackle as they cool. You can store these in tins and/or give as gifts. They're great scarfed up alone or lightly sprinkled on a green salad or an avocado, added to chicken salad, sprinkled on whipped cream atop your pumpkin pie, tossed into your oatmeal. Remember, seeds are where the source of life is stored, so they're very rich in vital nutrients. And they come free with the pumpkin.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Getting a fix on the leek

I just did another event, this one outdoors at a food and plant festival. Since the featured book was How to Fix a Leek and Other Food from Your Farmers Market, the organizers, owners of a new organic farm, thought they should garnish my table with fresh leeks. I cleaned the most beautiful of their gift and set it out as a bookmarker--although when kids came by, I must confess, I waved it and claimed it was my special wizard wand.

That, of course, stopped the kids in their tracks. But more unexpectedly, the sight of that leek stopped almost every passerby, and I was treated to a continual counterpoint of: "Oh, I love leeks!" and "I've never eaten one of those." As with the current political system, there was nobody in the middle. Nobody who maybe just a little bit liked leeks or had just tasted maybe a little once. I've never encountered that with any other vegetable but then, twenty years ago, as I was picking up a leek from the supermarket's grocery collection in Bath, Maine, an elderly woman stopped in her tracks, screwed up her nose and said bluntly: "My God, what is that nasty thing?"

Mellow is more the word I'd use. Leeks are cousins in the onion family, the ones without the pungent bite and with textural softness. They're too polite to overpower, say, expensive mushrooms so they're perfect to sauté in butter with that precious fungus, as I did last week when I found black trumpets and hen of the woods at the farmers' market. And they're very sweet with ham and eggs, in an omelet or frittata.

Now that they're plentiful, I use leeks to make risotto--with mushrooms, of course, or perhaps with those other autumn wonders, Brussels sprouts and Jerusalem artichokes, which are not from Jerusalem and not artichokes but the tuber from which our sunflower grows. I've also chopped them up and sautéed them in olive oil with celery, bits of smoked ham or bacon, and a pile of minced flat leaf parsley, stirred in some soft ricotta cheese to hold everything together and spread the mixture on the underside of a portabello mushroom to bake as a yummy no gluten/no bread pizza.

Venerable is another word for the leek. "Eat leeks in March and ramps in May, And all the year after the physicians may play," is an old English proverb. The stalk has always been prized for its medicinal magic. Hippocrates, the so called father of Western medicine, supposedly prescribed it for nosebleeds. During medieval times, it was thought to cure a sore throat, to be an antidote for certain poisons, and a diagnostic tool.

The hardscrabble people of the British Isles actually revered the leek. It's not only still the national symbol of Wales, key ingredient in the infamous Scottish cockaleekie soup. It's given names to many an English town. Leighton, Leyton, Laughton, Leckhampton, Loughrigg and Lawkland all mean something like "land of the leek." It's also endowed that far more pungent bulb with the name we English speakers recognize: garlic--as gar-leek.

Aristocratic is another good description, since the leek stands tall and elegantly straight above ground. Then too, it is not so coarse and smelly as the onion or garlic down under. The moneyed Romans ate leeks many ways while the hoi polloi had to make due with onions. Nowadays at fancy supermarkets, they cost three to four times more than onions. But right now while they're in the harvest spotlight, leeks are value priced.

And right now while the weather vacillates from chilly to sweaty is the perfect time to make the famed French vichyssoise: leek and potato soup with cream. You can serve either hot or cold. There really is a lot of magic in that wand.

P.S. If you want to read more about the leek in history, try the newly published Words to Eat By, written by Ina Lipkowitz.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


My other food book, Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, was just released by Wisdom Publications in greater Boston, so I've been doing book events here and there for both books, which I am thrilled to report, have been very enthusiastically received. Interestingly, the food most questioned by buyers of both books continues to be kale. "What do I do with it?" "It's so tough I can't seem to cook it right." "What is it anyway?"

Kale is a gift to people in cold climates: a seriously nutritious green that thrives in chill. So it comes early to farmers' markets and stays late. For centuries, kale's been a mainstay of European diets from Ireland where it's the whole point of colcannan down through Germany and Portugal where it's commonly stewed into a soup with sausage and potatoes. Recently I've come upon farmers who've either sun or oven dried it into a crisp, profoundly healthy snack, one of them with chilies included for an unusual bite.

There are actually several kinds of kale: the curly leaf just called kale, the long, slender bluish green leaf sometimes known as Lacinto or Tuscan kale, and a slightly curly purplish split leaf sometimes called Russian kale. They are all sturdy greens whose toughness makes them ideal for deep frying. Wash, carefully dry (no water should be on them when they hit the hot oil) and drop in for a minute or two. The kale will come out black and crunchy and wholly in tact. You just have to be sure to get the excess oil off the curly leaves before serving them up with a pinch of salt.

No matter which type of kale you use, you'll probably have to remove the leaf from its stubbornly tough stalk. that's the part that doesn't soften so easily and becomes stringy and tough to the teeth. Its best uses are pickling, or mincing and throwing into long cooking soups/stews, or compost. You can however chop the leaves and the stems and saute the whole mess in olive oil, garlic and red onion. After five minutes you add a bit of broth, cover and braised until the kale is soft--maybe 5-7 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar to serve.

Lately, I've been cutting up the bluish Tuscan kale to add to yellow split peas flavored with cinnamon, ginger and cardamom--the recipe is in Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking. By first sautéeing it in oil and then finishing it in the soupy split peas, it gets tender yet keeps that gorgeous blue-green hue. With those golden peas all around it, this becomes a colorful eyeful that invites the stomach to dig in.

You can finely chop curly kale leaves into a raw kale salad right now with dried cranberries, toasted pine nuts and lemon peel--great beside grilled chicken or a bowl of polenta. If you feel lazy and want a quick, nourishing vegetarian supper, you can loosely chop and throw them into the pot with pasta you boil and then dress the combo with lots of fresh lemon juice, fruity olive oil, fresh black pepper, salt and grated cheese. It will be rich. If you feel more energetic, you can saute up some onions, garlic and pine nuts in olive oil, chop up the kale leaves and toss them in with fresh black pepper and the juice of half a lemon and braise until they're tender. Then put freshly cooked pasta into that, add cheese and enjoy.

Kale cooked with potatoes is a common German combination, and sausage can be added. A great autumn supper!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Seeing Red

Now is the time for red bell peppers. Market stalls are piled so high, you can walk away with huge ones for $1 apiece. That's a mammoth savings over the always high supermarket price of $4.50 a lb because for, say, $3 you can get three very large peppers that weigh at least that. So now is the time to buy up red peppers and savor them.

I so badly lose control when I see them at $1 each, I grab at least six, sometimes even a dozen. I've been making that red pepper sauce recipe in How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market for years now and know how perfectly it will freeze and later brighten a winter meal. Make it healthier too because this is just packed solid with vitamin C, something you can really use in wintertime.

And it has so many wonderful uses right now. I can put it on cavatelli or ditalini or any small pasta with fresh shell beans as a vibrant, vivid sauce. Nothing beats it on steaks including flank steak or hamburgers: forget ketchup. Forget the butter for your baked potato too and slather this on. Ditto corn on the cob. It's great with scrambled eggs and vegetable omelets, and is a perfect mate for cornmeal pancakes. And how it makes even tofu tasty!

The other joy of red peppers right now is that you can roast at high heat (475) or grill them about 15 minutes until they char and soften. Pop them in a brown paper bag, close it and wait another 10-15 minutes. This will help you peel off that colorless outer skin very easily. When the peppers are cool enough, you can cut them in halves or thirds or quarters, depending on their size, seed them, salt them and lay them out on a plate. If you like the daisy petal pattern, go for it. At this point, you can do whatever you want: put a dollop of soft cheese (fromage blanc, goat cheese, ricotta salada) on each one, smear a thin coat of black olive paste or just sprinkle a bit of olive oil over them and serve. Or you can smear on soft cheese, lay on a small thin strip of salami and roll them up to serve with a toothpick. You can also do the same with a thin coating of egg salad on them.

Another option is to just lay one on top of egg, tuna or chicken salad in your sandwich. Put it inside grilled cheese, or as I sometimes do, lay one on top of an open faced toasted cheese sandwich for a great breakfast.
But whatever you want to do for this healthy and picturesque vegetable, hurry up. Red peppers are the end of summer: frost will take them away and you'll be back to paying dearly for them in the supermarket.