Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cooking my niche pumpkin

In a long ago and far away post, I mentioned that I won a niche pumpkin at the Penn's Corner Farm Alliance CSA picnic. The gregarious giant was donated by Pam at Pucker Brush Farm in Shelocta, PA, less than fifty miles from my apartment!

So what is a niche pumpkin?

It's yellow and orange and covered in knobbly worts. When I got it almost 2 months ago, it was much greener - half of it was a dark green speckled with yellow worts. It was quite pretty and very mysterious so I let it decorate the table for a couple of months, but I assumed the absense of the green meant it was time to cook this sucker. 

Before starting out, I had been told only two things about the niche pumpkin:

1. It is a squash/pumpkin hybrid.
2. The more worts it has, the sweeter it is. 

I observed a few more:
1. It's heavy.
2. It has a hard rind.
3. It's weird looking, but I think it's kind of cute anyway.

I made several assumptions:

1. It will be delicious.
2. It will be the consistency of a pumpkin, butternut, or acorn squash.
3. It will be sweet since it has lots of worts.
4. It will take at least 2 hours to cook.

With only that to go on, I turned my oven to 350 degrees, sliced about a dozen vent holes in the gourd, put it in a casserole dish and stuck it in the oven. After about an hour, it was much more tender than I expected. Assumption #4 turned out wrong, it took just under an hour and a half until I deemed it ready to come out of the oven. 

I left it on the counter to cool for a couple of hours. It took longer to cool than it did to cook! And I didn't even let it cool completely. I was very inpatient and spent most of that time fidgeting around my apartment, doing a bit of cleaning, and repeatedly coming back to poke the pumpkin to test it's temperature.
I even cut the top off to speed the cooling process:

I was excited to cut it open. I was imagining loaves of pumpkin bread for the freezer, mashed squash with butter and pepper, maybe even some muffins or a coffee cake or a dessert of some sort. Perhaps a pie!

But when I finally got to hack it open I was a bit surprised:

It looked and tasted like a spaghetti squash!! Fibrous, stringy, like spaghetti, sweet, but not sugary just not savory...

At first, I was disappointed. So much for that pumpkin biscotti recipe I've been working on. But then I remembered that the spaghetti squash is one of my all-time favorite vegetables!  I immediately made a bowl with butter, salt, pepper, and a little grated cheese, just like Mom used to serve it. 

I've got to reevaluate my menu planning...but I have a feeling there's going to be some deliciousness coming from this niche pumpkin.

Monday, November 29, 2010

After the CSA - What's left?

Above you see my kitchen table filled with all the containers of what I have left from my CSA. I picked up my last box just under 2 weeks ago, but between things that I froze and things that have naturally long shelf-lives, I've got quite a bit left.

Here's the full list of what's on the table:

½ c blueberries
1.5 c rhubarb
6 bell peppers
6 Hungarian wax peppers
2 jalapenos
1 Carmen sweet pepper
2 c snap beans
2 eggs
½ gallon apple cider
just under ½ gallon apple cider vinegar
1.5 pounds sweet potatoes
1 pound white potatoes
1 butternut squash
2 delicata squash
1 niche pumpkin
3 onions (2 red, 1 white)
8 oz Boltonfeta cheese
1 bunch fresh parsley
2.5 cloves of garlic

Many of these items will need to be used soon, preferably before the end of the year. Since I’m heading home to my parents house for the last couple weeks of 2010, I’ll probably be bringing a few of these items with me. I’m thinking the squashes and the garlic will need to come along. The potatoes and the cider will be gone as will the cheese and eggs. But most of the frozen items will be good until at least February, if not longer.

All in all, the CSA was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. I’ve made tons of dishes that I never would have otherwise. I even figured out how to eat beets in a way I can enjoy them (which is nice because they are pretty and healthy).

Mostly, though, I’ve just enjoyed discovering what grows in Western Pennsylvania and the best ways to eat it. My interest in local, seasonal food is higher than it’s ever been – it’s gone from passing interest to obsession – and I intend to keep eating locally as best I can during these winters months before the CSA begins again. The farmers around here just grow stuff that’s too delicious not to gobble it up all year long.

I hope you’ll keep coming back to see what I cook next.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Simple Cauliflower

For the last day of the countdown, something simple: lightly cooked cauliflower.

Cooking up the cauliflower

Sauteed cauliflower with red pepper flakes and  Parmigiano-Reggiano is another family favorite. It's easy enough for a weeknight (which is usually when my mother would make it as a side with pork cutlets), but delicious enough for your Thanksgiving table. You can put it together on the stovetop while your turkey is resting.

This is one of my all-time favorite side dishes so I was very excited when some cauliflower ended up in my CSA box. I'd been hoping for it for awhile since I knew it was in season, but cauliflower is a temperamental crop and therefore less abundant than other members of the Brassicaceae family, which includes cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and kale.

Cauliflower has its roots in Asia Minor, but has been popular in Italy and Turkey for centuries. (What is it with me and vegetables that are popular in Italy?) Anyhow, I could see this cauliflower being an Italian recipe…I need to ask Mom where she got it. But here it is for you:

Simple Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite sized pieces
3 T olive oil
red pepper flakes to taste
Parmigiano-Reggiano (or other hard cheese) to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add cauliflower and red pepper flakes. Cook until cauliflower is tender. (If the cauliflower starts to brown up before it becomes tender, cover the skillet to help the tenderizing process along.) Serve topped with grated cheese.

Well, folks, that’s the last recipe of the series because Thanksgiving is TOMORROW! Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed the Countdown to Thanksgiving and will return for more recipes after the holiday. If you make any of these recipes for Thanksgiving or just a weeknight dinner, please leave comments with your results. Let me know what you like! This is a great time of year for sharing experiences in the kitchen as well as favorite recipes. Feel free to treat this as a forum to do so.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Spicy Cabbage Soup

Cabbage Soup is an easy dish with origins as a peasant food and a modern history of being used for the Cabbage Soup Diet. Recipes vary from a mostly cabbage, low-calorie version for the diet, to ones that include pasta, eggs, meat, or even cream depending on the heritage of the cook.

This isn’t a recipe my family usually makes for Thanksgiving, although there was usually cabbage on the table. Dad would make red cabbage sautéed with bacon every year. If I’d gotten a red cabbage in my CSA box, I probably would have made some myself because it’s delicious! However, I ended up with a green cabbage so had to come up with something else.

Prepped veggies in the Crock-Pot

It’s starting to get cold, so I will begin to eat a lot of soup. I love it in the winter and after making an initial batch, it’s an easy whole meal or part of a meal with a sandwich on the side. This particular soup doesn’t create much of a meal on its own. I top mine with lots of cheese and crackers. I’ve also cooked an egg into the soup when reheating it.

I have to warn you also, that this soup is very spicy. It would be too spicy for me to eat without some crackers in it. Next time, I think I’ll make it with just one chile. It is delicious and I’ve been happily eating it, but it’s easier to add heat at the table than take it away. If you cook this soup as written, you shouldn’t need to add any Tabasco at the table.

Spicy Cabbage Soup

1 cabbage, shredded or sliced
1 bunch carrots, peeled and chopped
3 bell peppers, seeds removed, chopped into slices
1 medium sweet onion, peeled and diced
2 T parsley, chopped fine
½ T frozen thyme leaves (fresh or dried are fine, too, I had some frozen from early in the CSA seaon)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 chiles, stems removed
6 cups water
3 cups chicken broth.

Combine all ingredients in Crock-Pot. Cook on high for 5-7 hours. Remove the chiles before serving. Garnish with cheese, oyster crackers, herbs, and/or microgreens if desired.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Bruschetta

Bruschetta (pronounced brus-ketta), from the Italian bruscare meaning to toast over coals. In Italy, the season for new olive oil is getting underway now and a simple bruschetta is a favorite way to celebrate the new flavors. The traditional bruschetta is just a slice of toasted bread rubbed with raw garlic and drizzled with olived oil. Simple and delicious (and local if you happen to be going to Italy this winter).

You can dress up bruschetta any way you like. The options are nearly endless. My Mom makes Mario Batali's White Bean Bruschetta, which is a personal favorite of mine. My brother, Ryan, also makes another favorite, a simple garlic, tomato, and basil bruschetta, which I duplicated below, though not nearly as well as he makes it.

Tomato and Basil Bruschetta

Remove seeds from tomatoes. Salt insides and let drain while preparing toasts. Toast slices of thick Italian bread under the broiler until crispy (or use a toaster if you must, not quite the same and takes longer, but your oven might be a little overused on Thanksgiving. I understand.) Rub each slice with raw garlic. Chop tomatoes and basil. Spoon mixture onto toasts. Serve.

Even though tomatoes grown outdoors aren't in season right now, a lot of people are growing greenhouse or hydroponic tomatoes locally because they are so popular. Chances are, you'll be able to find some at the farmer's market.

Roasted Red Pepper Bruschetta

The method is the same as above: toast, rub with garlic, add topping. If you roasted and jarred red peppers over the summer use those, if not, you can probably find some jarred, roasted ones at the farmer's market.

Other bruschetta topping options:
Apple or pear slices and cheese
Roasted garlic
Carrot Top Pesto
Mozzarella and herbs

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Butternut Squash Risotto

Risotto. An Italian rice dish that is so much more than just rice. It’s rich, creamy, and one of my favorite foods. It’s simple to make, but all-consuming. You have to be ready to commit yourself to half an hour or more at the stove alone stirring in broth. And it’s best served immediately.

I picture this being the perfect side dish for someone who desperately wants an hour away from the family to prepare. Tell them you have to concentrate so you don’t burn the rice and that you’re sure everyone will love the dish when you’re done. Then pour a glass of wine and commune with the ingredients while everyone else stirs up the family drama without you. Sounds nice doesn’t it?

I combined a bunch of my favorite ingredients for this wonderful fall dish: rice, squash, garlic, and red wine. It’s comfort food, plain and simple, which is the best kind of dish for Thanksgiving.

Butternut Squash Risotto

I adapted this recipe from  ones by Mario Batali and Giada de Laurentiis, two fantastic Italian chefs.

3 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash, par-cooked, peeled, diced
2 ¼ c. Arborio rice
½ c. semi sweet red wine
4-6 cups vegetable broth
3 T butter
¼ c. grana padano, grated (plus more for garnish)

Heat vegetable broth in a small pot on a back burner of the stove and allow to simmer while making the risotto.

Heat olive oil in a tall skillet or wide mouthed pot. Sauté garlic and squash for about 5 minutes. Add Arborio rice and toast for about 2 minutes. Add wine and stir in until absorbed. Add vegetable broth about ½ cup at a time, stirring continuously until each addition has dissolved. Continue to do this until rice is al dente, about 15-20 minutes. Taste it starting around 12 minutes and cook until rice reaches desired consistency. Stir in grana padano and butter. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated grana padano.

4 days to go…

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Unabandoning the beet

Beets. I've been fighting with them for the entire growing season. I fell in love with beet greens in one of my first CSA boxes, those have been flying out of my fridge and into a skillet with garlic and an egg within a day or two of arrival in my apartment. But the roots at the bottom? Those dark red orbs? I just couldn't find a way to like them...and I tried a lot of things...

Roasted for use on salads
Sauteed with onions
Mixed into dip
Raw on salads

All of them rejects until I decided to bake with my beets. There were lots of recipes for chocolate beet cakes, but mixed reviews as to whether or not one could taste beets in the cake. So I nixed that before I even got out of the gate. I needed a trial run on some other baked good before I was willing to risk ruining perfectly good chocolate.

So I made bread. In the spirit of zucchini, pumpkin, potato and other vegetable breads, I mixed up some bread with beets. It made a beautiful pink dough.

It baked up brown...

But I liked loved the bread anyway!! It doesn't taste like beets. Well, okay...I could've pureed the beets better because a few chunks snuck in and those tasted like beets, but if you spend a couple more minutes blending it should be problem solved.

So without further ado, a new veggie bread for your Thanksgiving table:

Beet Bread

1 c. cooked, peeled beets
½ c. butter, partially melted
2 T maple syrup
½ T lemon juice
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ c. all-purpose flour

Puree beets with butter (to partially melt, I just put a stick of butter in the microwave for about a minute, it’s not exact, just helps to have a little of both, I found) – this is best done in a food processor or blender. 

Mix in maple syrup and lemon juice. Fold in remaining ingredients to form a soft dough.

Place dough in greased loaf pan. Bake in preheated oven at 375 degrees Farenheit for 25-35 minutes (until knife inserted in the center comes out clean).

Thick, dense beet bread. Enjoy!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: Broccoli Casserole

Broccoli Casserole is a favorite dish for me and my mom. We don't make it for Thanksgiving, but it'd be worth doing some year. The recipe is from Mom's grandmother Ella. I only made one change and used fresh instead of frozen broccoli. You can use either, but, at least in this area, broccoli is in season right now so I say get the fresh stuff!  

This casserole does use the oven but you can make it a day or two ahead and just reheat it after you pull out your turkey. Just be careful...if you make it too soon, it may not last until Thanksgiving because it looks so delicious fresh out of the oven!

Broccoli Casserole
Ingredient line-up

1 head of broccoli, chopped and cooked
1 cup mayonnaise
1 can cream of mushroom soup (11 oz.)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup grated cheddar
1 cup Ritz crackers, crushed (approx. 20 crackers)
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Steam broccoli until fork tender (about 5 minutes). Mix mayonnaise, mushroom soup, and eggs with broccoli. Pour into 2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese. Mix crushed crackers and butter. Sprinkle over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.

Fresh, hot broccoli casserole

I'm curious if this recipe was originally from Ritz because of the crackers. I found a recipe up from Kraft foods that is pretty different except for the broccoli and Ritz combo, it features Velveeta as well and doesn't sound nearly as satisfying. The recipe I shared seems pretty popular, though with many variations. Even Paula Deen has a nearly identical version. If anyone knows more of the history of this mysterious green casserole - please comment!

6 days to Thanksgiving...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Countdown to Thanksgiving: 7 days, 7 recipes

Thanksgiving is one week from today. Are you ready? I am. Mostly for the few days break it will provide right before finals. I'm not cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year. Last year, I cooked my first solo turkey for my boyfriend and I. It came out well, but my favorite part was still the stuffing. It always is...

Side dishes and desserts are my favorite Thanksgiving foods to cook and to eat. So, each day for the next 7 days I'll be sharing a recipe for a side dish or dessert with fresh, seasonal ingredients to spice up any holiday (or any day) meal. Some of the recipes will be family favorites, others will be new ones I've put together over the past couple of weeks. All will feature ingredients from my CSA boxes (I picked up my last one yesterday *sniffle*).

Dark, leafy greens are in season once again as the growing season winds down in western PA.  The health benefits of these greens are tremendous so there's no better time than to eat them right now as we're entering a season marked by delicious sweets. They're full of fiber, which can temper how quickly carbohydrates are absorbed in the bloodstream, thus reducing big spikes and dips in blood sugar levels, which can mess with our appetites and moods. And with the days getting shorter and darker, we don't need any other potential mood dampeners. Luckily, the folate in greens also contributes to serotonin production and serotonin is good for moods! Yay! :) So if you can't get out in the sun, you can at least make some Southern style greens to warm up your body and mind.

Bowl of fresh greens: spinach, kale, carrot, and radish

With that in mind, I bring you the first side dish of the series: Slow Southern Greens. You can put these in the Crock-Pot on Thanksgiving morning and they'll be ready with the turkey (if they're ready early just switch to the warm setting and they'll be fine until dinner time). I used all my dark greens from my CSA box last week and I've been enjoying these dense cooked greens with sausage for lunch either as a side dish or on their own.
Greens and sausage in the crock

Slow Southern Greens

1.5 pounds (24 oz.) of fresh greens (whatever you like and that's local...collards and kale are both very good)
8-12 oz. sausage (sweet or hot, you choose)
2 T apple cider vinegar
½ c water
1 small chile, halved (optional)
1 tsp. sugar

Wash, de-stem, and chop greens. Prepared greens will nearly fill a 6 quart slow cooker, but will shrink to about a 1/5 of the original level. Add to greens: sausage (chopped or crumbled), cider vinegar, water, chile, and sugar. Cook for 5-7 hours on low or until greens are tender. Remove the chile halves before serving.

The greens shrank a lot and created a dense, spicy dish. If you're not into spicy, skip the chile. I used a sweet chicken sausage in a pork casing from Trader Joe's and the sweet and spicy combo suited my tastes well. You could easily go all sweet or all spicy with your choice of sausage and deciding whether or not to use the chile. Also, if you use the chile, you really do want to pick it out to avoid surprises. I put in a red chile so the two halves were easy to find.

Finished product...not pretty, but delicious. Promise.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fettucine with Broccoli and Walnuts

Broccoli, walnuts, and garlic

I think this is my first broccoli post. I'm not sure how that happened. I really like broccoli. It's delicious (when properly cooked) and full of nutrients. It's an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. And...it's an Italian vegetable, first cultivated in Italy.

Fettucine with Broccoli and Walnuts

2 cups fresh broccoli, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful walnuts
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Cooked fettucine

You can easily make the sauce while the pasta is cooking. This is a very easy dish for two:
 Prepare the broccoli and garlic. Put in skillet with walnuts and olive oil. Saute 7-10 minutes, until broccoli is al dente. It should still be bright green and tender (not mushy) with a bite of bite left to it. Toss with pasta. Serve with grated cheese if desired.

I have to admit though, that while delicious...it's not the healthiest way to eat your broccoli. The saute processes eliminates some of the nutrients from the broccoli, however, according to WHFoods, if you saute it for less than 3 minutes more nutrients will remain in each pretty floret, so this may be a worthwhile adaptation of the recipe depending on your broccoli preferences. Steaming and eating it raw are the healthiest options. Still, I think this is worth enjoying as above...nutrients or not...it's just yummy.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

MGP goes out to eat: Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar

With my CSA coming to an end in a couple of weeks, I want to try a few new things around here while keeping the focus on local, in season, and delicious but not being driven by the contents of my CSA boxes. I'll be checking out the farmer's market, restaurants, and still creating lots of new recipes. But I digress...

Last weekend, my parents came to visit. We checked out lots of Pittsburgh favorites like Church Brew Works, Make Your Mark, and Primanti Brothers, but our adventurous choice for something new to all of us was Casbah. It's just a few blocks from my apartment in Shadyside. Casbah is part of the big Burrito Restaurant Group, which includes several restaurants in Pittsburgh, each one features local food.

The menu at Casbah changes daily to reflect locally available ingredients. When I opened my menu in the low lit dining room, I was delighted at how quickly I knew which vegetables were in season by having seen them in my CSA box: beets, brussels sprouts, greens, squash, pears, potatoes... Even more delightful was the note at the bottom about the farmer's they buy from, including the Penn's Corner Farm Alliance (that's right...the group that runs my beloved CSA). I knew it was going to be good before we even ordered.

Mom and Dad both embraced the local greens in their appetizers. One had prosciutto with arugula (and also some fresh figs) and the other chose the arugula salad with potatoes, mushrooms, and goat cheese (all, I suspect, local). I aimed for a small plate of pasta with the gnudi (a ricotta and flour pasta similar to gnocchi) served on top of squash with fried brussels sprouts.

We departed slightly from the local after the appetizers with plates of cioppino, Alaskan halibut, and duck, though the extensive list of farmers on the big Burrito website leads me to believe that all the vegetables and dairy on the plates were local and the fish is probably all American...but don't quote me on that...I'm just impressed.

The dessert menu kept amazingly to the local as well with options like sweet potato tart and almond cake with pears. We all opted for things with chocolate...but I think I'm going to have to try making a sweet potato dessert soon...I've got a couple in the pantry and if the chocolate hadn't been served with espresso ice cream there would've been a larger argument for that sweet potato tart...just saying.

All in all? I give this place 4 stars on the locally delicious meter.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crock-Pot Cider Chicken with Root Vegetables

I LOVE my Crock-Pot. It is an undying love that grows more each time I cook in it. It’s the easiest way to make dinner. It really doesn’t get much better than this. My apartment smells like good food all day and when I’m done working, I can just wander into the kitchen and fix myself a plate of something delicious. It’s like someone else made dinner for me.

Last Friday, my parents arrived in Pittsburgh for a visit. Knowing that they’d be tired after their drive, I wanted to make dinner for them. Also knowing that they might like to chat with me upon their arrival and/or go out for coffee, I didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen for an hour or two. I looked through my cookbooks, pantry, fridge, and freezer, and came up with cider chicken with root vegetables.

I put all the ingredients in the Crock-Pot and had plenty of time to clean the kitchen before Mom and Dad arrived. By the time they did, the apartment smelled like apples and onions. 

Root veggies relaxin' in the crock

Crock-Pot Cider Chicken

6 medium turnips, peeled
8 fingerling sweet potatoes, peeled
Bunch of small carrots (or 3 large carrots), peeled
Small sweet onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 ½ c. apple cider
2 large (or 4 small) boneless, skinless chicken breasts (I used frozen ones from Trader Joe's and didn’t thaw them before cooking)

Layer all vegetables in the bottom of the crock. Place chicken breasts on top. Pour cider over all. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. Serves 4. (This made lots of extra sauce. It may be a good idea to use less cider next time, although this time I’m planning to use the leftover as a base for soup.)

All done...everything is moist and falling apart (but not mushy). Didn't even need a knife for the chicken.

Wine pairing: I served the chicken with Pinot Gris from Bet the Farm Winery and Gourmet Market (in the town where I went to college). The Pinot Gris is dry and fruity, matching the cider flavors and cutting the mild sweetness of the dish. With or without the Cider Chicken, I bet you'll love this wine.