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Days of watermelon and roses

frozen watermelon slices

We spent much of August getting my daughter ready for her first year of college in upstate New York, about as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in the lower 48. Last-minute saves in the kitchen this time around included about a quarter of a small watermelon–5 or 6 inch-thick slices that I stuck in the freezer in a bag with the air squeezed out, hoping they wouldn’t be completely awful to use up somehow once we got home. I assumed it would be as hot when we came back as it was before we left, and that frozen watermelon in any form would be just about right.

Of course, today Pasadena is in the 80s and Boston and points north are in the 90s for a massive heatwave. Everything seems a bit topsy-turvy in this country to tell the truth, and as I’ve remarked more pointedly before, has for some time.

But at this moment, a world without Aretha Franklin in it– daring, flashy, cantankerous, exuberant, frank, funky, ambitious and endlessly talented–doesn’t seem right.

I have a treasure of hers that I picked up from the local Goodwill’s vinyl bins a couple of years ago: a red-labeled 45 whose B side was in perfect, untouched, glossy condition–“Prove It,” a number I only realized later that I had heard before, because honestly it was unremarkable even with her singing it.

The A side, on the other hand–scratched, worn down, dusty grooves, battle-hardened, loved to death and beyond, deservedly so. I quickly snatched it up for $1.99 and took it home, protected inside the cover of a hardback. Would it still play, was there any magic left? I stuck it on the turntable, nudged the needle arm over and lowered it as gently as possible.

Even though our speakers are o-l-d and not that great to begin with, the music just leaped out at me. Hearing the classic twang of the guitar intro and Aretha’s intricate runs on Chain of Fools puts shivers up my spine anyway, but this was the real thing. Vinyl, even old scratched vinyl from the ’60s, when I was three or four years old, is so much more evocative than the sound you can get from an mp3 it’s a sin.

Red is always how I’m going to think of Chain of Fools and Aretha Franklin, but looking back, she often chose a light pink for herself–one of her outfits on Soul Train for a live performance of Rock Steady, several of her later appearances too. I’ve never been a big fan of pale pink or Cadillacs, but I still love her exuberance and a song that full of juice and humor.

And that brings me back to the frozen slices of watermelon and what I did with them yesterday.

I knew that once it was frozen, the watermelon would probably have to stay frozen, because thawing it out would almost certainly cause it to collapse into limp mush, and what a shame (although I didn’t actually test that out, I would put good money on it).

snaplock container of watermelon sherbet

You can’t really buy watermelon ice cream or sorbet in this country, not at the supermarket anyhow, and I’ve never actually eaten any, not even as gelato in Italy, where (at least 25 years ago, when the artisanal gelaterie were still making it traditionally instead of from powdered mixes) they had just about everything you could put in gelato form and all the flavors came out really specific and vibrant and fresh.

I wasn’t sure a watermelon ice I could make at home would actually taste good on its own, and I had something a little more offbeat in mind for the flavor since watermelon is kind of subtle. But it’s popular world-wide, from Africa to east Asia as well as throughout the western hemisphere, which gave me a few ideas.

Right before we left for New York I’d interviewed someone who was born in Iran about his father’s legacy, and then while we were traveling I saw David Lebovitz‘s blog post on “booza”–the Lebanese version of Turkish dondurma or “stretchy” ice creams in exotic flavors. So I was thinking maybe rosewater and a pinch of clove with the watermelon. And maybe a dollop of yogurt in there somewhere for body so it wouldn’t be too much like a granità. And maybe…

Well, it could either be good, inedible or just plain strange–and it turned out something between good and a little strange, so I’m counting it as a good rough draft, and we’ll call it unusual, exotic, still a bit subtle but flavorful, specifically watermelon with rose. And pink.

My experimental ices tend to be low in sugar and fat, so the texture is a bit icy, sherbety or snow-cone-y rather than creamy. They’re still refreshing and I try not to let anything be cloying–rosewater can be, so I kept it to a teaspoon for what made about a quart in volume, and I added lemon juice, which helps a lot and keeps it from becoming “soapy.”

I don’t know–maybe this would be better as popsicles or paletas, but I like the snowiness, and the watermelon flesh definitely contributes that delicacy even without an ice cream maker.

And this one was pretty encouraging–cool, smooth, both down to earth and exotic, unexpected. Maybe a little like the Queen herself.

 

cup of watermelon rosewater sherbet

Watermelon Rosewater Sherbet

makes about 1 quart

  • 1-1 1/4 pounds (500ish grams) watermelon slices without rind or seeds, sliced and frozen all the way
  • 3-4 T sugar or to taste
  • squeeze of lemon juice and/or pinch of citric acid, sparingly, just to taste
  • 3-4 T nonfat milk-and-cultures only Greek yogurt
  • 1/2-1 c. skim milk, just as needed
  • 1 t. rosewater
  • pinch of ground cloves, optional–this was the part I’m not sure I’d repeat; it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite ideal either in combination with the watermelon, the rosewater and the tartness. So probably leave it out.

Microwave the frozen watermelon slices 30 seconds on an open plate, just enough to thaw a tiny bit so you can cut them into inch-or-so chunks for the blender or food processor and not break the blade. Add the lemon juice or citric acid, the sugar, the yogurt and rosewater (and pinch of clove? leave it out?) and a splash of milk, pulse to start it blending. Pour just enough extra milk through the processor spout to create a smooth thick icy milkshake-like blend, then pour the mixture into a 2.5 quart snaplock container with a lid and still-freeze, stirring briefly with a whisk after half an hour and returning it to the freezer.

If you want an actual sorbet with no dairy, make a simple syrup by boiling equal amounts of water and sugar for a few minutes to dissolve and thicken slightly, cool it to room temperature and blend it with the frozen watermelon and flavorings, leaving out the yogurt and milk and regular sugar. The usual sorbet proportions are about 3/4 cup of sugar (so about 3/4 c sugar, 3/4 c water, boiled up to a syrup and cooled) for a quart of finished sorbet. I find that a bit much sweet-wise and not as refreshing but it will deliver the kind of standard texture and cohesiveness you get in commercial sorbets.

Saving summer

Between the continuous stream of political, humanitarian, economic and diplomatic firestorms set by the Trump administration and the actual forest fires here, it’s been a long, hard, hot summer in California and much more stressful than summer should be. I water cautiously, keep moving forward, and try to keep my family healthy and myself from letting it take over.

I’m also looking for an effective civil rights and humanitarian aid group to contribute to–the Southern Poverty Law Center is one; there are also several mothers’ groups raising funds for legal representation for immigrants separated from their children. As I discovered last year during hurricanes Harvey and Maria, making donations for humanitarian aid is an important way to help yourself as well–it’s something concrete you can do that will actually make a difference, and it makes you feel less overwhelmed and powerless as an individual.

Whenever I step back from the newspapers for a bit, though, I look around me and see the brighter side. I consider that my daughter has finished high school with both honors and friends, and for a change doesn’t have summer homework. She’s working in a job she loves, is learning to drive and is nearly on her way to college, which we are all looking forward to. She’s ready and I’m proud of her (although I’m still not quite ready to see Ladybird).

I’m working for a community book festival this fall that promises some fun and challenging authors, I have some interesting new freelance assignments, and my first e-book project is nearly ready for publication. And I’ve started experimenting again in the kitchen–something I really didn’t have the time or concentration for during graduation and its immediate aftermath.

The heat wave is a big factor in my cooking; Pasadena tends to get over 90 F most days of summer (and plenty of times from September to April too), and the past few weeks have seen temperatures in the 100s midday. So the freezer and microwave are essentials in my book. So is eating or preserving enough of the bounty of summer produce while it’s at its best to keep it from going to waste even in the fridge. Because I always tend to go overboard at the greengrocer’s–last year or the year before it was nectarines (this year too). This year it’s plums, strawberries, any other berries I can get at a good price.

Instant Frozen Yogurt

Most berries are good if you just wash and freeze them while they’re still in decent shape. Mix three or so ounces of frozen blueberries or blackberries with a 4-ounce/half-cup dollop of plain nonfat Greek yogurt and a teaspoon of sugar in a small plastic cup or snaplock container (the plastic is a better insulator than ceramic cups or glass) and you have nearly instant all-real and nicely purple frogurt–the small berries get the yogurt freezing the right way, right in the cup, within about 30 seconds as you stir.

But what if the berries are going a bit ugly and soft–like strawberries?

There’s nearly no point in trying for homemade strawberry frogurt or ice cream unless you really personally like it. Sorbet, I can definitely see, but for my money, strawberry ice cream is generally an insultingly pale pink, not terribly fresh, and tastes duller than plain vanilla. It would be a lot better to stick some actual fresh strawberries or a not-too-sweet fresh strawberry purée on the side of some good-quality plain vanilla because you’d have a real contrast between two actual flavors, not one mediocre pink in-between.

Well, what about jam?

Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits—fresh and raw or else frozen, unsweetened. But I actively dislike most strawberry jam—the cooked, oversweetened blandness bears no resemblance to the fresh, tart wild-tasting fruit I love.

Commercial strawberry jam is not only unbearably sticky-sweet and gluey but the fruit itself, when you encounter it, is usually a slimy dull gray lumpette with five o’clock shadow, something to pick out cautiously rather than savor. It’s not the best of the fruit to start with, and it’s now overcooked and showing it.

But there are still some really heavenly strawberries out there going overripe on the market produce shelves, and I had about half a pound left just a little too long in my fridge after a party. I discovered by fooling around that strawberry jam or at least compote that still tastes like strawberries is  possible to do at home if you microwave it lightly instead of cooking it to death. And I even liked it.

 

microwave fresh strawberry jam

 

Could I keep the tartness intact? Could I keep it lightly cooked enough to still taste fresh and like strawberries to me? Could I keep it from being slimy?

Based on a few of my other impromptu microwave fruit spreads (peach, plum, apricot, kumquat) and fruit-rescue attempts (faux sour cherry, nectarine sorbet) I decided I’d give it a quick try in the microwave Continue reading

Take two on pears

pear almond torte

When pears are good, at the peak of ripeness and aromaticity, they’re very very good, and biting into one will see the juice roll down your chin. When they’re not at their peak, or even when they’re frankly over the hill, you can still use them to advantage.

Slightly underripe pears slice thin and stay crisp in salads or on a cheese platter, something like jicama or underripe watermelon. They’re just barely sweet, not unctuous enough to upset the balance with a sharp vinaigrette or an aged cheese.

Ripe pears can substitute well in a variety of desserts for either apples (when still firm) or bananas (when very ripe, or even overripe and getting mushy).

And they lend a note of European sophistication to many desserts (and salads, and even main dishes) thanks to a dry aromatic twist to their sweetness–not exactly bitterness, more like something that plays well with the bitter notes of almonds, hazelnuts, bittersweet chocolate and dry red wine. These are flavors that don’t mesh as well with most apples due to their more overt sweetness and higher acidity, and probably not so well with bananas either due to the novocaine factor. (Although I’ve never actually tried to pair bananas with cabernet, I can just imagine it. Not promising.)

So even if you’re not a big fan of raw pears, the occasional bargain bag may be worth considering for desserts. If you can get them organic at a decent price, do, because pears are on the “dirty dozen” list for absorbing pesticides. Trader Joe’s sells bags of 6-8 small to medium (3.5-4 oz.) organic pears for about $3 at this writing. But what if, as happens occasionally, the child who insisted she wanted them instead of apples yet again has eaten two, and the rest have sat neglected in the fridge for long enough to turn?

Overripe pears don’t look very nice on the outside and may have gone bland and/or brown, but they’ve still got what it takes if you peel them and cut away actual bad spots. If they’re only a little overripe and still flavorful, use them for a sorbet or microwave them for a minute or so to turn them “micro-poached.” If they’re really soft and going brown, peel and core them, remove all the brown bits and then mash or blend them as you would ripe bananas to give body and moisture to a cake or torte.

Here are two easy microwaveable desserts that use ripe to overripe pears and are Passover-worthy but can work anytime.

microwaved pear with chocolate

Micro-Poached Pears with Chocolate

This one’s very fast and impromptu–make just one pear or a few at a time and add a little time just as needed.

It can be hard to find chocolate that’s labeled kosher for Passover. Depending on your level of observance, consult the Orthodox Union’s Passover Guide, which changes year to year but  lists brands with kosher certification or acceptability even without a mark. If you eat kitniyot (beans, legumes, corn and peas, some spices, seeds and nuts) you can probably eat most chocolate that contains soy lecithin and vanilla. If not, look for the specially marked Elite chocolate bars that are kosher certified for Passover–for the Orthodox Union in the US, it’s the regular OU symbol (a capital U in a circle) but with a capital P superscript at the right. Other kosher certification at the Orthodox level is most likely to be the Hebrew letter kaf and/or a paragraph of Hebrew text naming the certifying rabbinical authority and location, sometimes with a circular seal containing the text (usually this is if it’s an Israeli product). There may be other certified or acceptable chocolates made with vanilla beans rather than extract (or without vanilla at all) and without lecithin–some of the high-end organic brands, for example.

  • Ripe to very ripe pears
  • Dark chocolate, your preference for cocoa percentage, brand, etc.
  • optional: turbinado or regular granulated sugar, cinnamon, powdered ginger etc. for sprinkling (check the OU site if you need to; regular granulated sugar is certified as-is but brown sugars aren’t always, and ground spices need to be certified for Passover)

Wash the pears, split in half and trim out the seed core and stem threads.

Lay the halves face up on a dish or plate that can go in the microwave. Place a square of chocolate on each half about where the core was.

Microwave 1-2 minutes per pear, just until the chocolate starts to melt and bubble and the pears are tender. Sprinkle with turbinado or other sugar and spices as desired before or after microwaving.

Eat with a knife and fork–add blackberries or a dollop of yogurt on the side if you want. Let it cool a little before digging in–I’m never that good and the roof of my mouth sometimes suffers for it.

Making the best of bad pears

The second recipe is yesterday’s riff on the Banana Ginger Almond Torte (from the I can haz cake?! Passover breakfast menu scheme…) crossed with my lightened-up version of Nigella Lawson’s “Damp Apple Almond Cake.”

five overripe pearstrimmed pears

Only, obviously, I had 5 small way-overripe pears to deal with. Brownish to quite brown on the outsides. But good enough inside to yield about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of pear once they were trimmed. And the result was seriously delicious.

pear almond torte slice

Continue reading

Passover mid-week: what’s for lunch?

With the best will in the world, there is only so much matzah anyone really wants to eat in a day. Even whole wheat. Yes, it’s crunchy. No, you don’t have to run the toaster oven. Yes, you should eat something else, and not just macaroons or gefilte fish from a jar. Or more hard-boiled eggs. Yeesh. Something lighter, please.

Salad

If you can get tomatoes of worth yet (it’s been a pretty long winter across much of the US), cut up some tomatoes and cucumbers, some red bell pepper, splash a bit of olive oil and vinegar on, maybe some Greek yogurt, some dill or basil, a bit of scallion and some feta or an olive, If good salad veg is scant but you can get cabbage, shred it and toss with some fresh or dried dill, thyme or oregano, maybe mint, oil and vinegar, a bit of lemon juice if you’ve got it, a couple of Greek-style olives. Or make a mix of oranges–slice them and serve with vinaigrette and lettuce or chopped cabbage, maybe a scallion and an olive or so, to brighten the last of winter and the first of spring.

Microwave melts and other vegetable and cheese combos

My standard eggplant microwave “melt” combo, with peppers and/or artichoke hearts and mozzarella/feta sandwiched between two slices of microwave-steamed eggplant. Salsa or shakshouka or even plain tomato sauce if you’ve got it, but jazz it up with hot pepper flakes and/or smoked paprika, or if you don’t have sauce then at least some hot pepper flakes, paprika, and basil or oregano–something.

Fish

Tuna salad is pretty classic, obviously, even though if you keep kosher it means scouting out kosher-for-Passover mayonnaise, making your own, or using plain yogurt instead (my current preference; my experience making mayo from scratch is more vast than I care to admit, and I don’t even like the stuff).

But if you have leftover cooked fish, especially tilapia or salmon, or you’re willing to cook a pound of it specifically for a batch of quick fake-smoked-whitefish-style fish spread, go ahead and microwave it a couple of minutes until cooked through, then drain off the liquid and mix with fat-free plain (!!!) Greek yogurt (add cautiously by spoonfuls so you don’t get too much and make it gloppy), plus or minus tehina if you eat it at Passover and like it, plus some lemon juice and grated or finely chopped onion or scallion, a bit of garlic and dill, and either a couple of drops of liquid smoke or a good dash of smoked paprika, with salt just to taste at the very end. Let it chill and it’ll solidify a bit overnight in the fridge. Good again with Greek olives and some salad (and okay, a little–but only a little–matzah). If you’re going for a meat meal and want to keep it nondairy, do a little more lemon juice and some olive oil as the binder and leave out the yogurt.

Fake-smoked tilapia salad on matzah

Fish Salad Rellenos?

But you can take it further, as I discovered. I’ve never actually loved gefilte fish, and even though Joan Nathan swears that fresh homemade gefilte fish is much better, I have chosen all these years not to believe her because it’s a big to-do and an even bigger mess, plus all the matzah meal and eggs mixed in–it’s basically a fish meatloaf full of stretchers. No. In my book, if you can get real fish, you should eat real fish as a main course and treat it with respect.

Leftovers, maybe, if you don’t just want to eat them straight–but not with yet more matzah and eggs. For crying out loud.

And all leftovers have to be good enough to eat on their own merits. Whatever you do to them should improve them or at least not degrade them.

I live in warm–sometimes way too warm–territory near Los Angeles, so the Armenian and Latino corner greengrocers always have good veg for cheap. Both are into peppers of varying shapes, sizes, colors and burn factor, a plus in my book. Passover can really use a hit of ta’am (flavor) and some vegetabalia to go with it.

A bag of Hungarian peppers–pale green, mostly-mild, thin-walled, good for quick-pickling–was going for 50 cents a pound this week, and they’re long like Anaheims but nice and boxy at the stem end, not flat, so they’re easy to core and stuff without parcooking first. Fill them with the fish salad, I discovered, and you can microwave them a couple of minutes on an open plate or in a snaplock container with a lid until the peppers are cooked just to tenderness on both sides. I sliced one of them crosswise into inch-thick pieces and got this:

salmon-stuffed peppers

A decorative sprinkle of smoked paprika over it and not only was it good for a hot lunch, it would also be a quick and pretty southwestern take on gefilte fish as an appetizer, one or two slices per person, without all the traditional filler or grating and boiling and carp in the bathtub and so on, but with some actual flavor and freshness.

B’te’avon (bon appétit, mangia bene, eat nice) and Chag Sameach (happy Passover)!

Chocolate Quickie: Unromantic but Reliable

It’s Valentine’s Day again–midweek, busy, too many items still on the list from last week to want a lot of fuss–or even be able to guarantee that my husband and I will both get home a reasonable time for dinner in a reasonable frame of mind to celebrate romance by cooking, or eating, something fancy. Last night I spied way too many people at the Trader Joe’s heaving large bars of chocolate and multiple bouquets of hothouse roses toward the cash registers. That’s okay–I’m not raining on anyone’s actual romance, but I have to admit I’m not feelin’ the official holiday symbols this week. Chocolate is good, don’t get me wrong. Flowers are pretty but require a vase and a pair of shears–usually right when I’m trying to cook dinner.

Last year we actually managed éclairs, and it was fun if a bit much–even though I managed to strip it down considerably with the microwave. Microwaveable ganache truffles are also easy, quick and fun if you’ve got the time to feed them to someone you love.

But with a kid who’s now waiting for college acceptances (and us parents anxiously figuring out both taxes and how to get around the outrageous Estimated Family Contribution)–well, we could all use a smallish midweek-style treat that doesn’t involve even that much effort to make–or work off afterward.

Lately I’ve been digging around in my cooking “blank books” from the last couple of decades. Part diary, part notes to self with or without illustrations in scratchy pen and occasional bragging, political satire, or outright swearing as the situation demands–when you’re writing cooking instructions for yourself, why not? I started these books long before the era of the blog, and hunting through them takes me back to what I was doing at the time.

Half the recipes I came up with are from before I figured out how to work a microwave, but I seem to have gone overboard as soon as I got enough of an introduction. One of the more unusual finds that worked really well a couple of years ago in a birthday dessert emergency (why do I tend to have these?) was a small but rich-tasting dessert halfway between cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake. The best parts:

  1. A limited and very simple ingredient list and
  2. You microwave it in 3 minutes. Seriously. Also,
  3. It’s small, and there are no leftovers. Sometimes that’s a plus.

This would probably be a decent rescue option if you had to make dessert with whatever’s in the cupboard and the fridge, and you’d left things till the last minute…or even a little later than that. As slapdash as this quickie is, it’s got big, big advantages over anything storebought–time, taste AND chocolate. Also, modest calorie and carb counts.

Not everyone has a grocery that carries labaneh, which is kind of a Middle Eastern cross between sour cream and yogurt cheese. Nowadays, though, a lot of mainstream supermarkets are carrying plain Greek yogurt, which also works pretty well, even nonfat. And not every doctor approves of cheesecake in any quantity, much less huge. Damn, as I’ve said before, my cholesterol-packin’ genes (also jeans, but that’s another matter). The completely nonfat version of this dessert works fine and tastes good too, now that I’ve retried it, and all the ingredients are real.

So–whomp the ingredients together in a bowl, nuke it about 3 minutes, cool it, stick it in the fridge. Serve it with raspberries, peaches, cherries, whatever goes with chocolate in your book. Or jam (raspberry, apricot or sour cherry would be great on this, and so would marmalade…).

Chocolate Quickie

Serves 3-4 in smallish wedges if you don’t care how it looks–otherwise (probably smarter) pour it into small single-serving ceramic cups before microwaving. If you double the ingredients, it’ll need another minute or so in the microwave. Definitely serve with fruit.

  • 4 T cocoa powder (20 g by weight; 8 g carb)
  • 4 T sugar (60 g, all of it carb)
  • 1 lg egg
  • 1/2 c. (112 g by weight) labaneh, preferably 1/2 the fat, or else fat-free or 2% plain Greek yogurt. (about 3-5 g carb for any of them; about 7 g saturated fat and 10 g total fat for the full-fat labaneh, much less for the yogurt)
  • 1/4 c. water (yes, really. It’s 60 grams or mL if you’re weighing it out)

Whisk everything together until smooth in a microwaveable ceramic dish (big soupbowl is fine), or else mix and then pour into small microwaveable coffee or flan cups for individual servings (more attractive and probably less prone to serving mishaps where it falls apart when you cut it and lift it out). Microwave uncovered on HIGH 3 minutes for the big bowl, maybe 2 minutes for the individual cups, checking progress and adding extra time in 20-second increments just as needed so you don’t overdo it. When it’s done it’ll be a little dry around the edges and just pulling away from the bowl or edges of the cups. Cool to room temperature, cover and chill until it’s time to serve. Cut in wedges with a sharp knife if you went with the single bowl version. A pie server would probably help it keep its shape long enough to dish up.

Variations–add some grated orange peel or marmalade to the mixture; add a spoonful of almond extract, vanilla, amaretto, or hazelnut liqueur; add espresso instead of water…?

Carb counts: about 17 g apiece for 4 servings, 23 g each for 3 servings, all of it in the form of sugars.

This Thanksgiving, give something to be thankful for

This time of year is fraught with newspaper, food mag, blog, and Twitter advice about how to set the perfect iconic Thanksgiving table with all the right stuff. If you’re carb-conscious, weight-conscious, health-conscious,  or just worried you don’t have the classics down fashionably enough, it can be more nervewracking than calling the Butterball hotline while your turkey (or Tofurky–is there a Tofurky hotline?) sags on the counter waiting for expert advice.

So…

I was going to do my usual roundup of microwave-friendly vegetable (and pie) recipes for Thanksgiving–things that can help green the table (the only real remedy for huge stodgy menus) at the last minute with relatively little fuss and expense. If you want that, I’ve got it–hit the new, updated-for-2017 Thanksgiving roundup link in the sidebar. Or you can just search “Thanksgiving” in the little box and find more posts than I realized I had–it’s kind of tedious scrolling through all of that and wondering whether there’s anything amusing in them (answer: yes, and sometimes it involves turkey-wrestling). Hence, the new link in the sidebar.

But then again, this morning I caught sight of an email from Vroman’s, my local independent bookstore, which was hosting a food drive for one of Pasadena’s innovative food pantries and homeless services organizations, Friends In Deed. I missed the drive last week, but I had heard the retiring director speak last March and the new director is a friend (and my former rabbi). And I thought, this is what we forget in all the babble of newspaper articles on stuffing and how to make more of it, use cauliflower rice instead, or avoid it altogether.

You can do any or none of those things. But while you’re thinking about the shopping list of the century, there is one way to stop panicking and get real about how many potato and sweet potato dishes your guests need on the table and how hard it will be to fit in the extra one your sister-in-law always carps about when you skip it.

Find your local food pantry or homeless shelter online or in the old-fashioned phone book.  They have a list of most-needed grocery and toiletry items, and if they don’t, use the list below and just add “new toothbrushes, toothpaste, bars of soap and shampoo.”

When you do the frenzied last-minute shop, add at least one item–and if you can, a bag of 5-10–to your shopping list, and bring it over to your shelter. Or send a cash donation online or by mail–keep it local, you know your town almost certainly has or needs a food bank, and your cash donations can go far. It doesn’t have to be big to help, and it all adds up.

The people you help will have something to be thankful for. And you will too.

And there’s that side benefit–if someone at your table complains that you didn’t make their version of whatever dish it is, you’ll have the perfect, righteous response.

Here’s the list from my local food pantry and homeless services organization. Take a visit online and see some of what they’re doing–it’s innovative and might inspire you.

Friends In Deed, an interfaith collaborative, is dedicated to meeting the many needs of the most vulnerable residents of greater Pasadena-homeless and at-risk individuals including women and children. Celebrating more than 120 years of service, we meet the needs of our clients by leveraging our small, but dedicated staff, with many volunteers. Friends In Deed meets people where they are, without judgment or restrictions that deny people the help they need.

The Pantry’s Most Needed Shelf-stable Items:
“Gold” Items – these items are extremely popular and are the most difficult to keep in stock:
Peanut Butter, Canned Tuna/Chicken, Cereal, Rice, Cooking Oil, Sugar, Flour, & CAN OPENERS

Other Non-Perishable Foods
Proteins: Chili, Beef Stew, Dry Beans
Whole Grains: Pasta, Oats, Sliced Bread
Milk: Shelf Stable or Powder
Other: Jelly, Tomato & Spaghetti Sauces, Soups

A different take on pumpkin “spice”

It’s just past Halloween and soon to be Thanksgiving. The pumpkin bins at the Trader Joe’s will probably disappear next Tuesday morning, very convenient. The worst of it is, the only edible-grade pumpkins they sell are the little pie pumpkins. The gorgeous Cinderella’s carriage ones, a dusky pale orange-gray, are a staple of Mediterranean cooking from soups to couscous to filled fillo spirals and beyond. Even candied pumpkin as a spoon sweet. But the ones the supermarkets here sell are grown for looks only with questionable water, fertilizers and pesticides, and are presumably just for decorating your lawn and attracting rodents.

It would be so nice if they sold edible larger pumpkins like the Cinderella kind–organic ones? even in wedges, as they do in European and North African farmers’ markets. It’s a shame to see so much food potential wasted like that.

Meanwhile, Starbucks, Cinnabon and other mall favorites will no doubt be assaulting the national palate once again with an overload of nutmeg and cinnamon extracts–the gastronomic equivalent of “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree” and “Feliz Navidad” played endlessly over the PA system wherever you go shopping. Taste is no object.

So my grumbling has resulted in a couple of searches for pumpkin with spices that don’t threaten anyone’s latte. I’ve been cruising my ever-growing collection of Mediterranean and Near Eastern cookbooks in search of good vegetarian and vegetable dishes that I can speed up with the help of a microwave without losing flavor.

Just by starting with a microwaved butternut or other whole red squash, you can cut the roasting, peeling and chopping time and effort (and danger of self-inflicted wounds) way down. Some decent savory recipe ideas can be done with ordinary cans of plain packed pumpkin too.

Then my preference is to go savory rather than sweet. It’s more interesting, for one thing, and it’s more versatile too. Finally, I look to see if I can make some of the recipes I find faster, svelter–and preferably both.

I see little benefit to using heavy cream, full sticks of butter, and extra egg yolks for “richness,” which mostly means as bulking ingredients more than for actual flavor. My head, my heart, my doctor and my hips are all in accord with me on this one. Besides, I’m a cheese freak. In my world, you need to save up your limited saturated fat allowance for stilton or chevre or camembert–something with funk and flash and that lightningy je ne sais quoi.

My lineup of adaptations so far:

Kolokithopita

Like spanakopita triangles or fillo rolls but instead of spinach and feta, use cooked and fairly dry pumpkin (or in this case butternut squash) mashed with feta, oregano and/or thyme (or fresh za’atar if you can get it), hot pepper flakes, a little tehina sauce or some garlic and lemon.

Butternut squash fryup–just add a little feta and some hot pepper flakes

If you’re only making 4-8 rolls or triangles, you can stick them on a length of foil that fits your toaster oven. Use a sandwich baggie over your hand to dab very sparing amounts of olive or expeller-pressed grapeseed oil or other light vegetable oil on each individual fillo sheet before folding in thirds, putting the filling on and rolling or folding. Brush the tops very lightly with a little more oil, turn down your toaster oven settings to about 400F and bake for about 10 minutes. When the tops are golden brown, turn the pastries over very gently and bake the whitish bottoms a little longer.

Pumpkin Gorgonzola Flans with Toasted Walnuts

 

Butternut squash savory flan, slimmed down

adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table

This one has to be microwaveable–it’s a custard base, after all. It also, and I mean this, has to be svelte-able. Really. Greenspan uses 3 eggs plus 2 yolks and half a cup of heavy cream for only one 15-ounce can of packed pumpkin. That’s pretty obscenely rich, especially with 4 ounces or so of crumbled gorgonzola and some toasted walnuts sprinkled over the 6 individual ramekins before baking in a water bath in a conventional oven. And she suggests creme fraiche or sour cream as a garnish? Yikes.

Flan in quarters

Microwave-safe ceramic ramekins are pretty inexpensive if you shop Ross for Less or Target.  I didn’t have gorgonzola or any kind of bleu on hand, so I winged it for concept with some feta.  I will say I’ve noticed that at least Stella gorgonzola melts into a runny sauce in a microwave–good if you want a smooth gorgonzola salad dressing, not so good for a recipe like this where you don’t want it to disappear into the flan. Maybe a more solid bleu like Stilton will melt and run but I’m hoping it stays together better.  Also, nuts in the microwave–maybe not a good idea, at least for big chunks. Even with the moisture from the flan taking the brunt of the energy, I kind of think you’re at risk of scorching them from the inside out, particularly if they’re on top of the flan. Better to roast them separately on a lowered heat in the toaster oven–200-250F for 5 minutes or so while the flan is going in the microwave, then sprinkle them on afterward as a garnish.

My half-recipe test came out pretty delicious on its own merits and I’m going to buy a small wedge of Stilton to try next. Because I mashed the butternut squash with a fork rather than using a purée, it’s a little rougher and less refined but the fresh taste is noticeable and lighter. Using plain nonfat yogurt in place of the heavy cream also made it obviously lighter and played up the tang that gorgonzola and bleu normally contribute. The acidic yogurt  may be counterintuitive if you’re thinking conventional cooking, but the small addition of flour plus the egg plus the starch and fiber in the squash prevent it from separating and curdling under heat.

Half-recipe pumpkin flan for lunch (serves 1-3 for lunch or an appetizer/side dish)

  • 6-7 oz/185 g chunk of butternut squash
  • 1 lg egg
  • 1/4 c or large heaping soupspoon of plain nonfat milk-and-cultures-only yogurt (not even Greek! just the cheap regular!)
  • small clove of garlic, mashed/minced/grated
  • pinch or stem worth of thyme
  • 1 t flour
  • 1 oz crumbled feta
  • sprinkle of smoked paprika, grind of black pepper to taste
  • toasted walnuts, optional

Mash everything up to the feta together in a microwaveable soup bowl, sprinkle on a little paprika and/or pepper, cover the bowl lightly with a lid or saucer, microwave 3 minutes on HIGH. Lift the lid carefully to check–it may still be liquidy in the center but cooked towards the outside rim. If the bowl’s very hot, let it sit covered another couple of minutes, jiggle again to see if the center’s cooked. If not, give it another 30 seconds and let sit again to cool down enough to handle. Cut into 3-4 pieces and serve–garnish as desired.

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