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And one more…

Butternut squash salad with tehina

Butternut, kabocha, red kuri, Hubbard, turban, pumpkin (and acorn, and delicata, and all the rest)–if you’re microwaving a large red squash, you may as well have another easy recipe in your back pocket.

This is one from my gourmet cousin up north, something she served us as a Friday-after lunch a couple of Thanksgivings ago, and it’s both beautiful and surprising with almost no effort.

Red Squash Slices on Arugula with Tehina

I know, I know. I’ll never get that chichi cookbook deal giving it away that fast. You wanted suspense. Obviously.

But really. If you have a couple of big chunks of leftover roast or preferably microwaved butternut squash, peel and slice it up–cold or hot, either is fine. Put down a bed of arugula or other salad greens, fan out the slices of butternut, mix up a little tehina (sesame paste) with lemon juice, a small clove of garlic and an optional pinch of salt, add just enough water to get it pourable and drizzle it over the squash.

[Note: if you’re making tehina sauce yourself, put a large dollop of the sesame paste in the bowl first, then add the juice of a lemon and stir slowly with a fork, then the garlic and salt, then water by spoonfuls. If you try to add tehina paste to water, you get murky, milky thin stuff that never really emulsifies and you waste your expensive ingredients. I learned this the hard way in a kibbutz kitchen while the two crazy ladies I worked for cackled at me and smoked inches of ash over the food, so take my advice to heart. I’d never want to put you through that humiliation.]

If you want color and glamour, go for the Trader Joe’s or similar smoked paprika and sprinkle it lightly over the platter. Roasted sunflower seeds (shelled, obviously) are nice too. As are hot pepper flakes if you like heat. Sumac (the purplish red sour spice, not the irritating weed) is also pretty if you can get it where you are, but smoked paprika really hits the spot.

If you’re being impressive at short notice and you have an organic kabocha squash, scrub it well, cut off the cap carefully with a very sharp knife and dig out all the seeds, put the cap back on, then stick it on a microwaveable plate (Corelle is probably the best) or in a microwave-safe casserole dish, with either Saran wrap or a big microwaveable bowl as a cover. Drizzle a quarter-inch or so of water around it on the plate, hit it for 8 minutes and see if it’s cooked through (depends on the size of the squash). Give it another 3-4 minutes if it’s not quite there, until you can poke a sharp knife through it easily at a thick point. Let it sit 10-15 more to steam further and/or cool a bit. The kabocha is thin-skinned enough to slice through and eat the skin if you want, and it’s a pretty contrast between the dryish, nutty orange flesh and the thin green skin. Drain and bring the whole thing to slice at the table if you feel like it, and pass the tehina sauce.

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.

How to fly with a pie

Happy Chanukah–tonight was the first night–and as per usual, a belated Happy Thanksgiving too. I hope everyone ate nice, had fun, enjoyed and helped do the dishes wherever you gathered.

Now that it’s over, I have a few more additions to the list of things I’ve learned–good or bad–about How To Travel With Food ™. Because my in-laws, who usually host Thanksgiving, are traveling in Africa (!!!–think elephants coming up to their cabin porch), my ex-brother-in-law invited all the rest of us to join him for the weekend instead. In Sonoma. At what turned out to be not a cabin with or without elephants, but a luxurious private residence he’d booked for the group as a vacation rental. And it was out and out marvelous. If a little weird and unsettling in its own way.

Sonoma-Kenwood.jpg

When we were still deciding how to reach Sonoma from Pasadena, we realized with dismay that it’s about 10 or 11 hours by car at the best of times, and Thanksgiving week is not the best of times. When we lived on the east coast, a trip like that would have us thinking airplane automatically, but out here we usually just suffer. My niece and her boyfriend drove up from San Luis Obispo, usually 4 hours north of us, and it took them 9 hours instead of 5 or 6. So I was really grateful to my husband for finding affordable plane tickets for an hour’s flight into Oakland. So far, so good, and it took a lot of the strain out.

But all those airline rules. And we were the ones bringing pumpkin pie. In carry-on. My ex-BIL offered to pick up a couple of big stalks of brussels sprouts for me up there (I don’t think we even had any more at down here by this time; Trader Joe’s was out of them by weeks) as well as a green cabbage for Greek cabbage salad. These are big heavy scary-looking items you just don’t want to schlep on a plane unless you’re auditioning for the live version of Shrek. As the shopping list got longer, I decided to just bake the pies at home, cool them, freeze them as far as possible, and take them in a stiff box with some ice packs stuffed in the corners and hope for the best.

Continue reading

Cranberry Sauce Without the Fuss

Cranberry sauce in the microwaveI love homemade cranberry sauce, and not just at Thanksgiving. It makes a pretty good jam for breakfast and (should the need arise) a pretty good tisane for a congested sore throat if you heat a dollop in a mug of water and sip it hot, berries and all. Despite the fact that it’s tart, which you’d think would make your throat hurt more, the cranberries actually contain something soothing that will give you at least temporary relief when you’re in the throes of Los Angelitis and the Tylenol hasn’t kicked in yet (you can trust my expertise on this one, unfortunately). But hopefully you won’t need it for anything medicinal this winter and can just enjoy fresh-made cranberry sauce for its own sake.

A lot of people are convinced that just opening a can is the easiest and least scary way to go. They must have read the package directions and decided it was too much work to make the syrup first (very intimidating-sounding) or that adding the berries and letting them pop was likely to spatter the stove until it looks like a magenta Dalmatian.

But really, you can just microwave cranberry sauce and it works fine. Throw all the ingredients (berries, sugar, water) into a 3-cup pyrex bowl, slap a lid on partway, and nuke it for 5 minutes. That’s it. No preboiling. Don’t even bother mixing it. In five minutes, you’ve got standard fresh-made cranberry sauce in a bowl that can go straight to the fridge once it’s cool. And no saucepan or stove top to wash before your guests arrive.

You can dress it up with some orange peel or juice, or a pinch of clove and cinnamon. You could add a chopped, peeled granny smith apple or a well-scrubbed chopped organic seedless orange with the peel to the berries for cooking, or else stir in a spoonful of Cointreau or Triple Sec after the jam cools, and you’d have something a little more sophisticated, but the basic recipe is worth having as a first run.

And most helpfully, if you’re looking for something less sugared, you can cut the typical cup of sugar per 12-oz bag of cranberries in half and it’ll still gel decently. Or you can do it with no sugar at all, let all the berries pop and thicken up just in water, and sweeten it with your preferred artifice after it’s cooled. It won’t be completely carb-free per tablespoon or so even with no added sugar, but it’ll be pretty low.

Approximate carb counts (total and per tablespoon, counting 1 T as ~1/16th c.):

Cranberry-only version without apple or orange

  • With 1 cup of sugar: 242 g carb per 2.5-3 c. cranberry sauce  or 5-6 g/T.
  • With 1/2 c. sugar: 142 g carb/recipe or ~3 g/T.
  • Artificially sweetened only: 42 g carb/recipe or ~1 g/T.

Cranberry sauce with apple or orange

With a good-sized apple or orange chopped in, figure 25 extra grams of carb per recipe or 0.5 gram extra carb per tablespoon.

Any way you go with it, though, homemade cranberry sauce has a good deal less carb per spoonful than other kinds of commercial jams, and probably a good deal less than the stuff in a can. It’s a lot better tasting too.

Microwave Cranberry Sauce

  • 12-oz package fresh cranberries, washed well
  • 1 c. water
  • 1 c. sugar (standard Thanksgiving back-of-package recipe), 1/2 c. sugar (my version this week, which was plenty sweet enough for me), OR no sugar during cooking but artificial sweetener added afterward to taste

optional additions: chopped peeled apple, finely chopped whole scrubbed organic orange, pinch or so of powdered cloves and/or cinnamon, a little grated orange or lemon peel, or a spoonful of orange liqueur or brandy

Put the cranberries, sugar if using, water, and apple or orange if using in a 3-cup pyrex bowl, cover loosely with a microwaveable lid so steam can escape but it won’t spatter, and microwave on HIGH 5 minutes. (If you’ve added an apple or orange, you might need an extra minute to account for the extra fruit.) Keep an eye on it toward the end, but it probably won’t boil over.

The mixture should already be thickening to a sauce/jam consistency (it’ll thicken more as it cools), and most of the berries should be popped. Stir well and microwave a minute or so more with a vented lid if you want it thicker. Let cool to room temperature and, if using artificial sweetener, sweeten to taste. Other flavorings–you could add grated lemon or orange peel (sparingly) or clove or cinnamon before cooking, but save any alcohol-based flavorings for after the jam has cooked so they don’t just evaporate in the microwave.

Fastest Pie in Town

Pumpkin pie in the microwave

On the energy downswing from a departed sleepover guest, my daughter suddenly declared she wanted pumpkin pie, we had two cans of it and I’d said I would make it soon and I still hadn’t, why wasn’t I making it, it wasn’t fair, she hadn’t had any all year and it was past October so it was in season. This last argument was just for good measure, given the pumpkin was in a can, but still, give her points for it–it’s a new crop after all those shortages.

With ears ringing, I said, but it’s already 5:30. “So? I can help!” You’ve been there, I’m sure.

Pumpkin pie is a slow-food-slow kind of dish–not much way around it. Even with a premade crust and a can of “pumpkin pie mix” rather than just packed steamed pumpkin, the filling needs 45 minutes to an hour to bake. Then it needs another hour or more to cool enough to eat. And if you’ve got a tiny kitchen and your kid is helping, the elbows factor is bound to add some time and confusion.

Also, normally, with a diabetic kid, you don’t just think, “Hey! Let’s make pie for dessert!” Especially since the filling calls for 3/4 cup of sugar per pie.  But pumpkin pie, if it’s made from scratch and isn’t just a frozen ready-made version, is kind of reasonable on carbohydrates for a dessert–about 25 grams for 1/6 of an 8″ shallow pie, according to the ADA guidebook, or in our case, 35 grams for 1/8 of a standard 9.5″ deep-dish pie (calculated from the ingredients). And pumpkin may be a fruit and not a vegetable, but it’s still got a respectable serving of vitamin A and fiber. And I also like it, which helps.

Still, the time is a killer. But I had such a surprise success with spinach quiche in the microwave a while back that I started thinking. The standard filling for pumpkin pie is also based on a custard, more or less–a couple of eggs, a cup and a half of milk per deep dish pie. It’s half the eggs of a quiche, but it might well still work in a microwave. That part would take something like 5-7 minutes and leave enough time for the pie to cool while we got dinner together.

Actually, I’d wanted to try this for a while, and not with company in tow, just in case it flopped. The weather here was 97 degrees most of the week but dropped to the low 70s today and was promising an actual chill for evening. So doing the crust in the regular oven for 15 minutes or so wouldn’t actually make life miserable.

It was almost looking like a decent idea considering the fact that it was and still is totally nuts to make an entire pumpkin pie from scratch right before dinner (or at least everything from scratch short of hacking up a raw pumpkin and dealing with the seeds). So I decided to go for it, and I made my daughter deal with the filling while I made the crust and parbaked it. We just about managed not to step on each other or crowd into the same corner at the same time, but both parts went well. And then the real test came–time to nuke. Continue reading

Thanksgiving Vegetariots, or, How Can You Have Any Pudding If You Won’t Eat the Meat?

Newspapers all over the country are sweating to include vegetarian main dishes in their annual Thanksgiving features. But they’re not doing all that well. This week the LA Times food section proudly listed a whole bunch of Thanksgiving vegetable side dishes as if to say, “See how much there is for you vegetarians to eat without your hostess making any changes just for your special status?” Only, as readers quickly pointed out,  1) none of the dishes contained any noticeable protein, 2) most of them were overloaded with butter and salt and 3) two of them contained chicken broth or pancetta. Someone had forgotten to re-edit them for a vegetarian audience.

I pick on my local paper because we’re talking Los Angeles, with great produce available all year round and a very large vegetarian population–and a lot of ethnic groups with significant roles for vegetarian dishes in their traditional cuisines. We have less excuse for this kind of simple ignorance than most cities.

But it isn’t simple ignorance. Running very close to the surface of most food publications’ features on vegetarian fare at the big showdown holidays is a distinct tone of hysteria. How can anyone not want to eat meat? Nothing tastes like turkey, and nothing sells like it either! We don’t know anything about vegetarian proteins! they panic. Do vegetarians eat Durkee Fried Onions or Empress Yams? Do they eat marshmallows? They don’t even like pancetta! What’s wrong with them?

These are home questions for newspapers and food mags, because you know the real survival question is, “How are we going to sell advertising for chickpeas and lentils, for chrissakes?” That probably goes double or more for food shows on tv. If they don’t advertise, they don’t stay on the air.

It’s not like tofu has a big marketing presence in the nation’s newspapers or brand recognition outside of local markets. There are only so many brushed-steel and cherrywood designer kitchens anyone is willing to buy in a down economy, especially once they discover how badly brushed steel shows fingerprints. And cooking mags don’t get a lot of help from PepsiCo and CocaCola, Ralston-Purina or the many cigarette and pharmaceutical companies.

What’s left? Bacon, turkey, and processed food companies featuring starches and microwaveable tv dinners. This might not be such a problem for food pubs if they’d found a way to keep their features a little more independent of their ad base. Bacon is showing up these days as suddenly gourmet in so many inappropriate dishes–ice cream? chocolate bars? popcorn?–precisely because it’s relatively inexpensive, widely available in supermarkets, and sold by a few recognizable national namebrand companies that still advertise reliably in a down market. Young food bloggers who go for it think it’s something new and daring, but you have to wonder whether they realize how hard the commercial food media are pushing it and why.

In any case, the November and December issues or episodes really need to push meat for all they’re worth because American bacon is basically the same everywhere and straight-up turkey isn’t all that popular the rest of the year, and the companies know it. Meanwhile, vegetarianism in all its variations, and with a growing political undercurrent, is gaining ground among younger Americans, or at least those not too obsessed with bacon. What to do?

Apparently the answer is, panic and get mad at the vegetarians for wanting non-meat dishes that are worth something, but try hard not to admit it in front of the camera. Continue reading

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