Friday, October 29, 2010

The Great Pumpkin

Halloween time evokes thoughts of sweets, of course, candy and and clever cupcakes and candied apples, sugar galore! Pumpkins turn into sweet breads, muffins and pies; it's a time for decadence. But October can also be a time for savory foods as well, such as the roasted acorn squash with sage brown butter I made this week, or my experimentation with the classic Halloween favorite: the pumpkin. Now I might not be Charlie, but this was a Great Pumpkin!

Here's the pumpkin process:

1) I carved out the pumpkin, scooping out and reserving the seeds. I toasted the seeds on a sheet pan at 350 degrees, sprinkled with salt, ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to taste, shaking the seeds every few minutes to toast them evenly. I added pine nuts and almonds for an extra nutty crunch.

2) I put half the pumpkin seeds and nuts in a serving dish with extra salt for a savory snack (note pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of iron!) and spread the other half on the pan with a bit of maple oat granola. I melted caramel and poured it over the pumpkin seed mixture, letting cool for 5 minutes. Then I broke the hardened mixture into pieces: pumpkin seed brittle!

3) The next night I decided to use the hollowed pumpkin as a vessel for a hearty vegetarian dinner, my stuffed pumpkin creation. I started by cooking a cup of quinoa, grain-like seeds originating from the Andes, pairing the pumpkin flavor with an Incan staple to build a truly "New World" flavored dish. While the quinoa cooked I stirred in ground cumin, smoked paprika, and a pinch of curry to spice up the mild, nutty flavor. Once the water had boiled off I stirred in a spoonful of pumpkin butter to mirror the visual with the flavor, combining the spicy with a hint of sweet. I added diced hot red pepper and green onions and a bit of olive oil as I fluffed the quinoa with a fork. Then I added a dash of salt and squeezed half a lemon's fresh juice over top.

While cooking the quinoa I heated some olive oil in a heavy skillet on medium high and sauteed about half a diced onion until tender, adding minced garlic and drained garbanzo beans to the skillet. I added a little more cumin and a generous palmful of smoked paprika, stirring around to evenly distribute the spices. I tossed in crumbled walnuts to release their natural nut oils into the mixture and then a bag of baby spinach leaves, stirring to wilt the dark leafy greens into the spiced oil and proteins. *Fun fact: quinoa and spinach are both chenopods and thus closely related plant species. So are beets! (some of my personal veggie favorites) so they work well together in this dish.

For the pumpkin stuffing: I set the broiler on low and moved the oven rack down to the bottom third of the oven. Then I set the hollowed pumpkin in a shallow glass baking dish and filled it about half to 2/3 full with the spiced quinoa and topped it with the spinach mixture, surrounding the pumpkin with excess filling on the dish to create a nice presentation. I put the stuffed pumpkin in the oven about ten minutes, just to warm it through (note to not leave it in too long or the spinach becomes too crispy) and before serving I crumbled fresh feta cheese and a few parsley sprigs on top for garnish.

Not your typical ghoulish gourd ... but wonderfully delicious.

As quinoa is a complete protein and full of fiber, this is an incredibly nutritious meal. With the chickpeas and nuts this meal is filled with protein and vegetables, leaving you feeling nourished and satisfied (before the candy to come!)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Love What You Eat

Today (October 20th) is the National Organization for Women's "Love Your Body Day," and what better way to show your body love than take pride in what you eat? Here are my favorite "super foods" for superwomen:

  • Low-fat yogurt: let's begin with breakfast, which I NEVER skip! Yogurt has naturally occuring probiotics that really make a difference, trust me; not to mention calcium for strong bones. With the growing fad of frozen yogurt shops that freeze real yogurt rather than the processed fro-yo filled with chemical additives, you can turn this breakfast food into a delicious frozen treat, top with fresh fruit, and you've got a great healthy dessert.

  • Spinach: Popeyes had it right - this leafy green really energizes me and can be used in so many ways. From fresh spinach salads topped with fruit, nuts and blue cheese to sauteed spinach paired with any protein, really, spinach is my go-to vegetable for weeknight dinners that never fails to fill me up.

  • Fish: the claims that "fish makes you smart" and the good press for omega-3 fatty acids' benefits aside, I love fish because it's a tasty lean protein that leaves me feeling good. Unlike red meat or fried chicken that weighs down on the stomach (and the figure), a nice piece of salmon gives you that needed protein without the cholesterol, and when cooked right can taste down-right delicious. If you think you're not a fish person, start small by trying grilled teryaki salmon - tastes like chicken, I swear - and slowly try other white fish like cod and halibut. You'll be eating sushi in no time!

  • Berries: my longtime favorite foods have always been strawberries and raspberries, and add blackberries and blueberries to the mix and you have an incredible source of vitamin C and antioxidants that tastes like nature's candy. Fresh are the best but in winter you can get them frozen and even bake them into muffins and pies ...

  • Dark chocolate: Recent research has indicated a small amount of dark chocolate regularly aids the cardiovascular system, even lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. But for me what I love about chocolate is that it triggers endorphins, making you feel good, and contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressent. So give in to the chocolate craving with a small piece of dark chocolate, guilt free - loving yourself means feeling happy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Daily Planet

When looking for a restaurant for dinner in Burlington, Vermont I wanted to find a down-to-earth place serving the fresh organic produce of the New England sustainable agriculturists, which has a strong presence in the "crunchy granola-outdoorsy" town. What I found was the gourmet produce-filled menu, but not exactly the down-to-earth ...

The Daily Planet restaurant is a hush eatery, funky bar and chic solarium rolled into one. Tucked away on a non-descript sidestreet right off the main pedestrian walkway and commercial strip in downtown Burlington, The Daily Planet has a great atmosphere with "celestial surroundings and orb lamps" to pepper the trendy art deco decor and create a comfortable atmosphere for its diners.

The colorful alleyway eatery has an ever-evolving seasonal menu that the owners describe as "out of this world," and it's pretty tasty indeed. We began with a cheese tasting course (after all, when in ... Vermont):

From left: Vermont brie, "gor-dawn-zola" blue cheese, cellar-aged goat cheese and a bonne bouche hand-crafted cheese.

The brie was too acidic for our taste - overripe brie has an ammoniac aroma and bitter flavor, likely the culprit of this displeasing taste. (Underripe brie, in contrast, is chalky and flavorless; the perfect brie is creamy with a velvety "bloom.") The blue cheese was a surprisingly hard cheese compared to the softer Italian cow's milk cheese, while still retaining such blue mold veins that flavor this pungent cheese type. The aged goat cheese is a relatively recent venture for American agriculturists, compared to the French who mastered it centuries ago, no doubt why it lacked the perfection of depth of flavor that a French chevre attains. The bonne bouche, an ash-ripened cheese, was the favorite of the sampler, a true tasty morsel!

The rotating seasonal menu featured some classic fall favorites, including applewood smoked shrimp with apple butter and gouda, lamb rack with sweet potatoes and swiss chard and walnut-crusted salmon. The "Northern Lights" menu reflects that it really is where the locals dine, with grilled tofu - seitan crackling, honey crisp apple, and baby turnip greens - to cater to the herbivore clientele. For those who eat meat I recommend the pistachio-crusted pork schnitzel that we had, a nice thin crunchy crust with a hint of green, with a delightful pear-parsnip mash (with an unexpected hint of horseradish), celeriac remoulade, and topped with fresh cranberries. I ordered the butternut squash gnocchi:

Instead of a plate of gnocchi as one would expect, it was a halved baby butternut squash roasted with maple and nutmeg, topped with royal trumpet mushrooms, crispy sage, cauliflower florets and a balsamic reduction drizzled over top - a few gnocchi scattered amongst the flavorful veggies created for a rich and delightful healthy dish. So The Daily Planet hit the spot, fulfilling my desire to follow a seasonal diet (squash, apples, turnips, pears, parsnips and more throughout their wonderful fall menu) and eat fresh and local!

Vermonster Weekend

We took a weekend trip up to Vermont to see the New England fall foliage, hike the mountains, and of course taste some of the local fare. Here's the whirlwind Vermont culinary tour in a nutshell:
  • Cold Hollow Cider Mill: watch the cider press the apples into cider (see photo), and sample it fresh and cold or steaming hot on a nippy fall day. In addition to handpicked apples they have the gamut of local farm products including classic maple syrup, honey, homemade fruit jams and mustards, and of course the infamous apple cider donuts.
  • Cabot Creamery: here you can sample a extensive variety of Vermont cheddar cheese, from sharp to extra sharp to seriously sharp (my favorite), to the milder Colby and Muenster cheeses, to the flavored cheddars such as chipotle, jalapeno Monterey Jack, "Tuscan" herbs and garlic, and sage.
  • Lake Champlain Chocolates: from organic truffles to chocolate bars filled with nuts and berries, these Vermont chocolates are handcrafted to perfection with an all-natural gourmet seal. They have festive autumn chocolates and holiday samplers, but my favorite is the classic 5 Star chocolate bar, which Vogue calls "the ultimate chocolate bar" - and it is.
  • Ben and Jerry's: A trip to Vermont wouldn't be complete without a trip to the famed ice creamery. We stopped at the factory out in rural Waterbury to glimpse where the magic happens, and then visited the original Ben and Jerry's shop in downtown Burlington where I had to sample the decadent Chocolate Therapy ice cream flavor. (Chocolate really is therapy, isn't it, ladies? Don't deny.)

The theme of Vermont cuisine: dairy, dairy, dairy! From cheese to chocolate to ice cream (and a few apples and maple syrup thrown in for more sugar) Vermont is sure to give you a real sugar rush! Who can deny the holy combination of cheese and chocolate, the perfect combination of savory and sweet? It's enough to turn anyone into a food Vermonster ...

Friday, October 15, 2010

Scallops Two Ways

I decided to do some culinary experimentation and present a food face-off - secret ingredient: scallops. Here's what I came up with:

1.) Seared sea scallops with sauteed chanterelle and baby porcini mushrooms with a roasted red pepper coulis, served over mixed greens:

How to do it: Lightly salt and marinate scallops in good olive oil and minced garlic and shallots to taste, at least 30 min. in a ziploc bag in the fridge before cooking. Slice and saute mushrooms, with red pepper roasting in the broiler. Remove mushrooms from heat and take the red pepper out of the oven to cool, dice and mix into mushrooms. Add fresh thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Sear the scallops on high heat in the marinade oil until golden brown on each side, serving with mushrooms and sprig of fresh parsley on top.

2.) "South of the border" scallops in chili spice rub with tequila lime butter and pepper rings garnish:

How to do it: mix spices in a shallow bowl to create the spice rub - I used equal parts chili powder, cayenne, cumin and a dash of hot paprika for a spicy mixture - and coat scallops evenly with spice rub. Chill scallops, and create the tequila lime butter by pouring dash of tequila (I used Jose Cuervo gold) over about 1-2 tablespoons of butter with the juice of half a lime and grated lime zest to taste. Sear scallops on high heat - the spices will create a crusty blackened edge - and flip to other side, pouring tequila lime butter over top. *Be mindful to stand back from the hot pan when pouring alcohol in it!* Plate the scallops with thinly-sliced pepper rings (I used banana peppers but other varieties will do) and lime wedges with a spring of fresh cilantro.

Taste test these recipes and choose your favorite!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Love the 'Shrooms

At our trip to Russo's Market this weekend we splurged and got three types of mushrooms: portobello, porcini, and chanterelle. Though here in Boston we don't have the luxury of going "mushroom-seeking" in the forest as we do back in Tuscany, in my mind Russo's is the next best thing. Over the years I've grown to love good mushrooms (unlike my childhood response: "ick!"), but it was on our trip to Italy this summer that I came to appreciate them on a whole new level. A good, raw mushroom salad, when using the freshest best-quality mushrooms drizzled in olive oil and tossed with shaved parmesan and fresh herbs, can be a wondrously rich and flavorful dish, no cooking required. I had the privilege of tasting some of the rarest mushrooms there, X, which practically melted on the tongue, they were so delicate yet rich in flavor. As I've learned more about mushrooms in my culinary exploration I've come to discover a myriad of kinds, from fun little shiitakes to creamy creminis to traditional buttons to lobster mushrooms - we discovered these at Russo's and they actually smell like lobster! Add that to a seafood pasta dish and let the flavors fly! Experiment and try cooking with oyster mushrooms, morefan-shaped oyster mushrooms, earthy morels, or go bold with black trumpets!

Of the mushrooms we selected this time, they each have different characteristics to contribute to a dish. The portobello mushrooms are the "meatiest," with both their larger shape and thicker texture and beefier flavor that bring a hearty taste to a meal. I often substitute portobello mushrooms for meat in my vegetarian cooking, such as in grilled burgers, and have even seen a vegetarian shephard's pie that uses portobellos instead of ground beef!

Porcini mushrooms, though smaller than portobello caps, have a rich, almost musty flavor. These were our real "splurge" of the day as they were the most expensive, but even two of these bulbous babies go a long way. We also selected a bunch of fresh chanterelles, which look like little gold trumpets. They are soft and delicate in flavor, for some even evoking the smell of apricots. Here is a photo of our fresh chanterelles before we sliced them:

We decided to make a three-mushroom risotto, using each kind to build a depth of flavor. After soaking the mushrooms in water to remove the grit and sauteeing them with garlic, sweet onions and olive oil, we started the risotto base (keep adding stock to arborio rice and stir to keep from sticking) and added the mushrooms halfway through the cooking process to infuse the risotto with their flavor. The combination of the meaty portobello, rich porcini, and delicate chanterelles melded to create a pot of mouth-watering goodness:

The meal was hearty enough to satisfy even an avid meat-eater, laden with earthy flavors from the mushrooms and finished with fresh thyme and fontina cheese stirred in to give it a creamy texture. We paired the dinner with a nice Malbec, as the portobellos can stand up to red wine, and topped the risotto with some shaved pecorino for natural salt - note this meal uses very little butter or salt in our case, so the richness comes from the mushrooms themselves.

Next I used a few of the little porcinis and chanterelles for a seafood dinner, sauteeing them with a red pepper coulis to top seared sea scallops served over mixed greens:

These 'shrooms sent us into a nice psychadelic trip ... of food ecstasy.

Fall Fare

As I like to cook and eat seasonally and locally-grown produce as much as possible, we've transitioned from the summertime meals (of grilled fish, corn and tomatoes, etc.) to the fall meal season in my kitchen. Here are some fresh ideas for fall that I've whipped up that I recommend you try:
  • Roasted pear and fig salad over fresh arugula with walnuts and gorgonzola: pears are a great fall fruit that taste lovely fresh and cooked, if you haven't tried it. For this salad I sliced Bosc pears (Asian pears or Anjous also work well in salads) and gave them a quick roasting to caramelize the sides, so the fruit juices dripped on to the greens to flavor the plate. A nice quick dressing for this salad is to whisk olive oil with apple cider vinegar and a bit of Dijon mustard for a nice fall flavor drizzled over every bite.

  • Brussel sprouts sauteed with green apple, pumpkin butter and raisins: this side dish combines autumn vegetables and fruits with the nutty-sweet pumpkin undertone and smattering of raisins like plump little nuggets of sweetness throughout the savory sprouts. I added some red pepper flakes to this to give it an extra kick, as I'm a spicy girl, but it stands alone either way. Brussel sprouts pair well with proteins like pork chops, but I served it with crispy baked tofu topped with applewood barbeque sauce. Delish.

  • Mashed sweet potatoes topped with sauteed baby bok choy, maple-glazed carrots, and dried cranberries: this dish celebrates the colors of fall with the bright orange sweet potatoes and carrots mixed with the dark leafy greens, and fuses the flavors of savory and sweet. I mashed the sweet potatoes with some cayenne and cumin to spice up the natural sweetness, with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg and roasted turnips to add another healthy veggie to the meal. This meal would work just as well with kale or swiss chard, whatever you find at your local farmer's market that day. Be creative and see what you create!

Next concept I'm excited to try:

  • Pumpkin kibbeh: sauteed spinach with chickpeas and walnuts served inside of a pumpkin - the gourd doubles as a festive bowl!

Autumn Produce Fest

We went for our fall trip to Russo's and stocked up on all the fabulous autumn produce, getting pumpkins, three kinds of squash, apple cider, leeks, walnuts (as we are squirrels stocking up for the winter, or so it would seem), an assortment of rare mushrooms and peppers, and at the deli exquisite meats and cheeses, and more ...

My festive autumnal centerpiece for our kitchen table, with leaves I collected outside:

The squash, now decorating our dining room, to experiment with by cooking in fantastic ways:

An assortment of cheeses (clockwise from left: gouda, goat cheese, gorgonzola, scamorza, pecorino romana, fontina - center ):

We even got a star fruit! Went a little wild at the market again, as always had a fabulous time.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fun with Butternut Squash

In the spirit of fall, here are some of my favorite butternut squash recipes:

Butternut Squash Soup

8 servings 1 hr 40 min


1 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 sage leaves

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 medium butternut squash, peeled and roughly diced

3 cups peeled and roughly diced apples

2 teaspoons Toasted Spice Rub, recipe follows

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water

Sea salt, Freshly ground black pepper


Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, and cook until it turns nut brown. Add the onion and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute briefly to release its fragrance, add sage, 1 teaspoon of the salt and season with pepper, to taste.

Add the squash and apples, raise the heat to high, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Stir in the Toasted Spice Rub and cook briefly to toast it, about 1 minute.

Add the broth-water mixture, bring to a simmer, and partially cover. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the squash and apples are tender, about 40 minutes.

Transfer in batches to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Return to the pot, reheat to serving temperature, and season with salt.

Divide the soup among warmed bowls and garnish each portion with some walnuts, parmesan, green onions. Serve immediately.

Toasted Spice Rub:

1/4 cup fennel seeds

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup pure California chili powder (about 1-ounce)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

In a small heavy pan over medium heat, combine the fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns. When the fennel turns light brown, work quickly. Turn on the exhaust fan, add the red pepper flakes, and toss, toss, toss, always under the fan. Immediately turn the spice mixture out onto a plate to cool. Put in a blender with the chili powder, salt, and cinnamon and blend until the spices are evenly ground. If you have a small spice mill or a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices, grind only the fennel, coriander, pepper, and chili flakes. Pour into a bowl and toss with the remaining ingredients.


Butternut Squash with Apples and Maple Syrup

This is a lovely side dish with roasted pork, braised chicken thighs, or lamb: the sweetness of the vegetables complements the rich flavors of the meat.... and it’s super easy to make! Leftovers reheat well.

½ c fresh parsley
4 large shallots
1 large leek, incl. green parts
1 medium butternut squash, peeled
1/4 c unsalted butter
1 Mutsu or Granny Smith apple, peeled
1 ½ T maple syrup
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Mince parsley and set aside. Mince shallots. Quarter leek lengthwise, wash well, and slice thinly. Quarter squash and cut into ½-inch slices. Peel and quarter apple, slice thinly.
Melt butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, saute shallots and leek for a minute or so, till beginning to soften. Add sliced squash and stir; cover skillet and cook until crisp-tender, about 8 minutes. Add apple, maple syrup, and nutmeg to skillet, season with salt and pepper. Toss lightly to combine and cook, stirring now and then, until apples have softened slightly.
Stir in parsley, adjust seasoning, and serve.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sunday Night Dinner

We hosted a Sunday night dinner party for some friends in town and decided to do an authentic Italian meal with the proper courses:

Antipasto: homemade herb flatbread pizza with mozzarella, broccoli and mushrooms.

Primo piatto: the pasta course (of course) - spaghetti al frutti di mare, which means in a seafood sauce; we used scallops, shrimp, and cherry tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, and finished with white wine.

Secondo piatto: the fish course - we did fresh New England cod two ways: 1) baccala fritto, lightly battered in flour and pan-fried with diced tomatoes, capers, black olives and fresh parsley; and 2) baked in a lemon-mustard-dill sauce.

Insalata: a classic Greek salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and real feta, and my take on an "autumn harvest salad" with baby spinach leaves, chopped Granny Smith apple, almonds, and gorgonzola drizzled with an apple cider-mustard vinaigrette.

Dolce: sweet and simple with fruit dipped in ganache (and a few homemade chocolate-covered oreos to indulge!)

A feast as always in Princess Peach's kitchen.