Pumpkin Apple Bread

I hope it’s not too late to wave the flag for pumpkin spice one more time before we head into peppermint and eggnog season.

yo-dawg-pumpkin

Sounds good to me. 🙂

I recently discovered the joys of making my own pumpkin purée, which has gotten me busy finding new recipes in which to use it. My Pumpkin Spice Bars have gone from excellent to ethereal, and now I have added Pumpkin Apple Bread to my repertoire as well. I have to say, I wish there were a county fair contest going on somewhere that I could enter this bread into because it is surely worthy of a blue ribbon and maybe a grand prize.

This is adapted from Libby’s own recipe, which makes two loaves. I halved the recipe, except for the apple (I had a smallish Golden Delicious on hand so I used the whole thing, cut up into 1/4″ dice), and added more spices. Cardamom is my latest favorite taste, so I had to have that. If you don’t have all these spices on hand, substitute two or three teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice.

Pumpkin Apple Bread

Ingredients
1-1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 c sugar
1 c pumpkin purée
2 large eggs
1/2 c vegetable oil (I used avocado oil)
1/4 c apple juice or water (I used water)
1 apple, peeled, cored and diced

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9″ x 5″ loaf pan.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, spices, baking soda and salt.
  3. In a large mixer bowl, combine sugar, pumpkin, eggs, oil and juice (or water) and beat until just blended.
  4. Add pumpkin mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until moistened. Fold in the apple.
  5. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan and bake for 65 to 70 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes; remove to wire rack to cool completely.

I appreciate this recipe for three other reasons besides how wonderfully good it tastes: 1) it requires only two bowls and a whisk, 2) it uses oil instead of butter, which simplifies things because I don’t have to wait for the butter to soften or cream it with the sugar, and 3) it contains both a fruit and a vegetable so that makes it health food in my book. 😉

If you want to make your own pumpkin puree, here’s a quick and somewhat amusing tutorial. The only thing I would add is that the purée will be slightly watery when it’s first made, so place it in a cheesecloth-lined strainer over a bowl for a few hours or in the fridge overnight to drain before using. Compared to any canned pumpkin, homemade is the clear winner in both taste and texture, so it is definitely worth the extra effort.

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Mirepoix Soup

Winter seems to have passed us by altogether this year. After a couple of weeks of snow and ice in early November, it’s been pretty much spring ever since. Everything is budding and blooming and greening up earlier than I’ve ever seen it. But today, after several sunny days in a row, was overcast, which put me in a mood for soup.

Inspired by a recipe from Food 52 for Jane Grigson’s Celery Soup, I decided to clean out the last of the hardy veggies from my fridge and counter tops. I had all I needed for mirepoix, plus a few potatoes and some garlic, and that right there is a fine soup base. Add an outrageous amount of butter and soon all will be right with the world.

chopped-veggies

Mirepoix Soup

Ingredients
1 stick butter
3-4 c each onion, carrots, celery and potatoes, cut in 1/2″ dice
6-8 garlic cloves (or to taste), thinly sliced
4 c mushroom or chicken stock (I use Better Than Bouillon)
1 Tbs dried thyme
2 Tbs Tarragon Pepper Blend
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Preparation
  1. Melt the butter in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion, carrots, celery, potatoes and garlic and stir well to coat.
  3. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook about 10 minutes.
  4. Add stock, herbs, salt and bay leaves and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove bay leaves and blend to desired level of smoothness with a stick blender.
  6. Just before serving, stir in 1 tsp of any kind of flavored vinegar you like, such as tarragon, golden balsamic, sherry, or apple cider. It only takes a little to add a tremendous depth of flavor.

A bowl or two of that warmed me up nicely, and I shared the rest with my neighbors who are in various stages of a winter cold.

The sun is expected to come out again tomorrow, so I can go back to thinking about washing the car and mowing the lawn.

La cucina dell’amore

Finally, I have found a recipe that I would, without hesitation, employ to seduce someone with a home-cooked meal. Didn’t get the chance to use it this Valentine’s Day, but maybe next year!

Amid all the online clamor about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie premiere this weekend, I came across a cookbook called “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Truly, it redefines the “food porn” genre with both its language and its photography. It is intended to be a parody of the best-selling book, so the overwrought writing style is similar (or so I understand; I haven’t read any of the books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and don’t plan to see any of the movies made from same).

50-shades-chicken

Its Amazon listing includes a sample recipe for Dripping Thighs (if this and other highly suggestive language offends you, don’t click any of the links in this post and definitely do not watch the video on the book’s website), which I made tonight.

The chicken thighs are baked after being bathed in a sticky, sweet, savory sauce of onions in reduced white wine seasoned with cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, enriched with butter, and sweetened with honey. This unusual flavor combination is an over-the-fence home run. I regret that I had but a single stomach to devote to the meal, it was so very good. My reaction while eating it was not unlike Julia Child’s when she first tasted Sole Meunière.

If you’re nervous about clicking through to Amazon or the book’s website, here is the recipe. We can call it “Seduction Chicken,” if you prefer.

Ingredients
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry with paper towels
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp plus pinch coarse kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 c white wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs honey

Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and pepper together.
  3. In a small saucepan, simmer together onion, wine, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Add honey and butter and stir until butter is melted.
  4. Spoon the mixture over the chicken and toss well. Spread thighs, onion mixture, and any juices onto a baking sheet. Bake until chicken is no longer pink and onions are meltingly tender and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

I had a 2-pound package of chicken thighs, so I doubled the recipe, but otherwise made it as written. I found that “simmering” the sauce on low heat won’t get the job done in 15 or 20 minutes; you’ll need to either raise the temp to medium-high or wait a whole lot longer for the wine to reduce. Also, I was a little worried about the onions burning at 450 degrees, so I turned the oven down to 400 halfway through and they were not really caramelized but were definitely “meltingly tender.”

I’ve made some mighty tasty dishes in my day, but this one is miles ahead of all the rest. I can hardly wait to start working my way through the entire cookbook.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

I got several plump zucchini in my CSA basket this week and, as some of you know, I cannot abide squash of any kind. I considered whether to give them away or throw them away before deciding to get some use out of them, so I used them for knife practice. I julienned them, then brunoised them. I focused on keeping my fingers away from the blade (100% success), making uniform pieces (eh, not so much, but I’m getting better), and increasing my working speed (really no success at all there; I’m a plodder, but at least I never cut myself).

Once the zucchini were all so nicely (if not perfectly uniformly) diced, I thought that I ought to do something with them. If that something involved butter and garlic, I was pretty sure I would be able to eat it and like it. So I made this, which is the first recipe I have ever created and written, all by myself, from scratch, start to finish.

Rotini Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Ingredients
2 Tbs olive or avocado oil
1 Tbs butter
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 medium zucchini, diced (about 4-5 cups)
1 large sweet onion, diced (about 2-3 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
16 oz rotini pasta, cooked according to package directions
1/2 c basil pesto
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c fresh basil chiffonade
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high for 5 minutes. Add oil and butter and heat until butter foams.
  2. Add minced garlic and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant but not browned.
  3. Add diced zucchini and onion, stirring well to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every several minutes and lowering heat as needed to prevent scorching, until all the water evaporates and the mixture begins to brown. You can keep cooking it until it’s dark brown and fully caramelized, or stop when it’s just partially browned. Up to you.
  4. Boil the pasta to your preferred softness. Scoop out a cup or so of the pasta water before draining. Drain the pasta and place in a large warmed serving dish.
  5. Add the zucchini-onion mixture, pesto, Parmesan and basil to the pasta and stir to combine. Add reserved pasta water as needed to loosen the mixture.

I topped this with some small shrimp, which I sautéed in butter for a few minutes and sprinkled with garlic salt while cooking. I poured the leftover butter in the pan into the bowl of pasta before serving, which gave it a nice, glossy finish.

I thought it tasted absolutely amazing—if you cook zucchini long enough, it essentially disappears, and that is fine by me!

I’ve never really cared for turkey, anyway

I dialed my Thanksgiving cooking ambitions all the way back this year, not feeling any desire to cook turkey in any form and not the least bit sorry about that. I mean, it’s a fine bird and all, but it has never been my favorite poultry. So I can add to my list of things to be thankful for that I don’t have to eat it if I don’t want to! I also am grateful that I don’t have to travel anywhere this weekend. Our icy winter weather of earlier this month has cleared up to almost unseasonable warmth, but that doesn’t motivate me to hit the road on the worst travel weekend of the year.

Instead, it was me and the dogs here at home as usual, and a small dinner that was all about great flavors rather than great quantity.

First, I marinated overnight a whole cut-up chicken in Finger-Licking Marinade from KitchMe, which I modified as follows:

1/2 c avocado oil
1/2 c Super Tonic (apple cider vinegar can substitute)
2 Tbs mayonnaise
3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 Tbs salt, to taste
1 Tbs black pepper
1 Tbs dried thyme
1 Tbs dried tarragon
1 Tbs garlic powder

I baked the chicken for 45 minutes at 350°F, and it was amazing!

My side dish was a variation on colcannon, using fennel instead of cabbage. Also very good, even made with slightly less butter than the recipe calls for.

I didn’t get around to making a dessert today, but I got it started for tomorrow. I received a bag of fresh cranberries in my Bountiful Basket this week, so I ran those through the juicer along with an orange and an apple, strained the juice thoroughly, then simmered it with sugar, orange zest and a few cloves into a simple syrup. Tomorrow I plan to bake a from-scratch yellow cake and drizzle this syrup over it, then share it with my neighbors. I have made a couple of cakes this month with standard buttercream frosting (also shared with the neighbors) and have decided that frosting is just overkill. This syrup will add some fat-free sweetness, along with moisture and holiday flavor. I’m eager to see how it comes out.

Speaking of cakes, my first one was made from a boxed mix that had been sitting in the back of my cupboard for more than year, and it was just okay. It had a nice light texture, if a tad dry. After looking at the ingredients list on the box, I decided it was absurd to pay Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker to put this together for me when I have all the ingredients on hand. It’s only flour, sugar and baking powder, after all, plus artificial colors and flavors and all the chemicals they have to add to stabilize it on the shelf, which can hardly do a body good. Mixing up the same ingredients from the pantry takes about one minute longer than dumping out a box, but it makes all the difference in the final product. My second cake was an order of magnitude better than the first!

I don’t recall which site I snagged this recipe from, but here is the one I used. Give it a try, and if you’re at all like me, you’ll never make cake from a box again. (This recipe replaces a standard 18.25 oz boxed mix.)

Yellow Cake

Ingredients
2 c all-purpose flour
1-1/2 c sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
3/4 c milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 c (1 stick) butter, softened
3 eggs

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour cake pan(s).
Sift the flour into a bowl and thoroughly whisk the dry ingredients together before adding the wet ingredients.
Combine with an electric mixer at low speed for 1 minute, then beat at medium-high speed for 4 more minutes.
Pour batter into cake pans. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Err on the side of undercooking to avoid drying out the cake.)

Baking Times
8″ or 9″ cake rounds — 20-25 minutes
13″ x 9″ pan — 35-40 minutes
Cupcakes — 12-15 minutes
Tube/bundt pan — 45-50 minutes

today-i-am-thankful

Today and every day, I am grateful for good food and the tools, time and knowledge to prepare great meals at home. Also, I’m grateful for my family, friends and neighbors, and of course, my dogs. Happy Thanksgiving, from our house to yours!

 

Edible bounty

I recently signed up to join a produce-buying cooperative called Bountiful Baskets, which operates in most states. I’m not exactly sure what their structure is, but it seems to work: they buy produce at rock-bottom prices and allow people to make a contribution each week in exchange for a (ahem) healthy portion of that produce.

Eager to pick up my first basket, I headed out into the frosty dawn this morning to a slightly seedy industrial section of town not far from my house, down a street along the railroad tracks that I’ve never traveled in my more than six years of living here. As I approached the facility from which the food would be distributed, I noted several cars parked along the road, filled with individuals and families, engines running to ward off the single-digit chill. I turned around and found myself a place to park, and waited. Before too long, an invisible signal apparently came from somewhere, because as if on cue, engines switched off and car doors opened all up and down the street. I didn’t know what the protocol was, so I just followed the lady in front of me through the ice-clogged parking lot and took my place in line. We waited 15 shivering minutes or so before finally the door swung open and a volunteer cheerfully called “come on in!”

The line began to move slowly forward, and I took the time to look around behind me. The crowd had grown considerably, stretching out the better part of a city block. Everyone carried a handful of reusable grocery bags and the occasional laundry basket. I was amazed to see how popular this service is in a small town in the frozen heart of winter.

After a few minutes, I got my turn to go inside and found an industrial shop turned into an enormous temporary pantry. Rows and rows of white plastic baskets filled with fruits and vegetables were set out neatly over every inch of free floor space. I initialed next to my name on the list, showed my printed order confirmation email, and was directed to pick up two of the baskets—one of fruits, the other of veggies. I quickly transferred everything into my reusable bags and was on my way in minutes. Quite a pleasant experience, all in all, despite the wait in the cold.

I got my bags home and unpacked them with great anticipation of meals to be made! Here is what I received:

bountiful-basket

  • 2 English cucumbers
  • 2 bunches of green onions
  • 2 bunches of red radishes
  • 1 bunch of baby asparagus
  • A 1-lb plastic bag of carrots, plus 3 unattached stragglers
  • 11 red potatoes
  • 3 huge Jonagold apples
  • 7 Fuji apples
  • 6 navel oranges
  • 2 Asian pears
  • 1 personal-size watermelon
  • 9 exceedingly green bananas

I don’t know how many pounds that all adds up to, but probably around 15, and the total price for the lot of it was only $15. So I think I made out like a bandit! I have already devoured an orange, some of the watermelon, and a couple of carrots. I gifted the asparagus, some green onions, a few potatoes and two bananas to my neighbor Sue, who teased me that I turned her down when she offered to go halves with me on one of these baskets several months ago because “you were in your butter phase then.” Well, I guess I’m in my veggie phase now, and looking forward to making some great meals from all this bounty!

Oh, also, I want to mention that the impetus for my interest in fresh produce and recently intensified interest in cooking is this presentation by food activist and author Michael Pollan.

I am currently reading his latest book, Cooked, and am finding it fascinating. Highly recommended.

 

Sweet fall treats

It’s October, which means the pumpkin spice mania is in full swing. You can find it in Oreos, M&Ms, Kahlua, and a few other things you might not have thought of, such as this, this, this and, um, these (for real?).

pumpkin-spice-everywhere

I’m happy to get on that bandwagon in my own kitchen, so here’s my contribution. I would love to give credit for this recipe to the creator of it, but I’ve had it in my files for years and don’t recall where I found it. I like it because it actually contains both pumpkin and spice. The texture of the bars is moist and dense like a brownie, but since these contain no chocolate, it doesn’t seem right to call them pumpkin brownies.

Pumpkin Spice Bars with Salted Caramel Sauce

pumpkin-bar-with-caramel-sauce

Ingredients

1/2 c (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 c sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 c pumpkin puree
3/4 c all-purpose flour
Chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an 8″ x 8″ baking dish.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in spices, salt, egg and pumpkin.
  3. Sift the flour into the bowl and stir mixture until just combined. Add nuts if using and stir to distribute evenly.
  4. Pour batter into baking dish and spread into an even layer.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the edges are lightly browned and the center is set. Cool in pan before slicing.

For the sauce, I used this recipe from the Cooking Channel. It’s very simple.

Ingredients

1 c sugar
1/4 c water
3/4 c heavy cream
3-1/2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 tsp gray sea salt, crushed or kosher salt

Preparation
  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, without stirring. If necessary, use a wet pastry brush to wash down any crystals on the side of the pan. Boil until the syrup is a deep amber color, about 5 to 6 minutes.
  2. Remove the sugar from the heat and carefully whisk in the heavy cream. The mixture will bubble. Stir in the unsalted butter, and salt. Transfer the caramel to a dish and cool.

My first batch of caramel seized as I was stirring in the cream, and most of it hardened around the edges of the pan and into a candy ball inside the whisk that took quite a bit of work to untangle. I think this was because I added cold cream gradually to the hot sugar mixture. On my second round, which was successful, I heated the cream slightly in the microwave first, and poured it into the sugar mixture all at once (it foams up like soda when you do this, so be careful and stand back).

If you are a little bit nervous about cooking sugar to super-high temperatures, as I was, watch this short video to see how to do it just right. She recommends swirling the pan occasionally to even things out. I found that if you mix the sugar and water together thoroughly before pouring it into the pan, you won’t have to stir it or swirl it to make an even layer.

The pumpkin spice season will soon be over, so enjoy it while it lasts!

pumpkin