Swing

Summer into fall into summer.  Salads and grilled vegetables into casseroles dabbled with cream into fresh raw dips.  Luxurious stretches into curled legs under blankets into stressed grading sessions into sampling new half-fizzed white wine.

Sometimes this is called Indian Summer.  I like to think of it as Swing Season.

Two Bittmans for you this week.

77. Trim and dice fresh tomatillos; peel and julienne jicama (or daikon or kohlrabi). For dressing, combine lemon and lime juices, olive oil and chopped cilantro. Pour over salad, top with toasted sesame seeds.

This sounded like a good late summer/early fall salad.  I found tomatillos at the grocery store, but no jicama, no daikon, and no kohlrabi.  And then we went to our Farmers’ Market, and I found all three!  Huge daikons, alien baseball sized kohlrabis and, hidden between stacks of beets and the tiniest fingerling potatoes I’ve ever seen, a pile of grubby little tubers with vine-y stems still attached.  Eureka, jicama!  Back at home, I assembled the troops:

1 TB toasted sesame seeds

2 small jicama

6 medium tomatillos

(really, the number of jicama and tomatillos isn’t super important as long as the quantities are roughly equal once you’ve cut them up.  Start with maybe 1 cup of each, see what you think, and then add more if that’s what makes you happy)

2 TB chopped cilantro

1 lemon

1 lime

Olive oil

Salt

I’ve tasted jicama, but it has been a long time.  And I’ve certainly had tomatillos, but mostly only after they were roasted and processed into salsa.  I wasn’t sure how they would be raw.  This – a lovely fresh slaw/salsa/salad hybrid – sounded so bright and tart and lovely that I wasn’t too nervous.

Before anything else, I toasted the sesame seeds and set them aside.  They give off such a lovely roasty scent when they are just browned and starting to release some oils.

I peeled, then sliced the jicama into rounds.  Then I stacked up the rounds and made thin slices across until my two little aliens were a pile of matchsticks across my board.  Into the bowl with you.

Next I quartered and diced the tomatillo.  Because they are still underripe when green (apparently they can turn purple and get very sweet when they ripen, but I’ve never seen them in that state), their skins were quite resilient – it took some pressure to get my knife through them.  Carefully chunked into miniscule cubes, they joined the white confetti in my bowl.

A quick squeeze of lemon and lime, a whisking pour of olive oil, and a handful of chopped cilantro feathers later, and the dressing was done.  And then a sprinkle of salt, and it was perfect.  It was a little more than needed to moisten the salad, but it’s hard to know how much juice citrus will have secreted away inside it, so it’s always going to be a guessing game.

I mounded the white and green on my plate, then added a generous scoop of Mexican rice and a quartered cheddar cheese quesadilla.  Simple simple.  At this point, you should ideally sprinkle the sesame seeds you so carefully toasted atop the salad, but I forgot until after I’d already subjected it to a photo shoot.

I was surprised and pleased by the flavor of this dish.  I can’t imagine eating it as a Thanksgiving side dish, but it was a bright burst of summer on a day that began in drizzly autumnal terms.  Jicama is crisp and juicy with the barest hint of starchiness, and its flavor reminds me most closely of an Asian pear.  The tomatillos were very tart, but the pairing tamed them.  Imagine a granny smith apple crossed with an underripe tomato and you’re approaching the brightness we experienced.

This was good as a salad, though its tartness necessitates a small portion.  It was also good heaped atop our quesadillas, like a raw salsa.  It contrasted nicely against the melted cheddar and the just crisped corn tortillas.  But where it would really shine, N. and I agreed, would be as a kind of mirepoix for guacamole.  Dicing the jicama instead of leaving it in strips and folding the whole salad gently into chunks of ripe, buttery avocado would make for the perfect chip dip.  Tart, creamy, crunchy, with the right kind of salty sourness from the dressing, and all you’d need was a frosted Corona and a pool to dip your toes into.  Summer.

But things never end there.  At least we hope not!  Days of sweating and hiding inside and waiting till after sunset to go out always, inevitably (even if it’s taking FOREVER, Los Angeles…) relax and cool and crystallize into Autumn.

35. Pumpkin-Noodle Kugel: Cook a half-pound of egg noodles in salted water until not quite done; drain and put them into a buttered baking dish. Whisk together 4 cups milk, 4 eggs, 1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (canned is fine), ¼ cup melted butter and a pinch each of cinnamon and salt. Pour over the noodles and sprinkle with bread crumbs (or, for added kitsch, corn flake crumbs). Bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

I had no idea how to serve this dish.  I’ve heard of kugels, but I’ve never even eaten one, let alone made one.  I wasn’t sure, as usual, what to serve it with, so I asked a few friends and did some research on the good ol’ internet.  At the point that I read Smitten Kitchen’s version (okay, so this one is written by her mom, but seriously, that woman has cooked everything, and all of it sounds and looks outrageously delicious), this sounded more like a dessert than a dinner side dish.  It would be, I decided, dessert and weekend breakfast.  Sweet, autumnal, nicely spiced, and custardy.  “It’s going to be like a rice pudding but with noodles.  And pumpkin,” I told N.  He still wasn’t sure.

8 oz. egg noodles 

4 cups milk

4 eggs

1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s)

¼ cup melted butter (I put this in, but I’m not sure it was really necessary)

¾ cups sugar

¾ cups golden raisins

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp salt

2 cups corn flakes, well crunched (who am I to pass up added kitsch?!)

It wasn’t until I had collected ingredients that I realized Bittman’s recipe doesn’t call for sugar.  But I was already on the dessert/breakfast kick, and I couldn’t quite envision this as a savory dish, so I dumped in my sugar estimation anyway, along with the golden raisins that aren’t part of the original.

I cooked my noodles for 5 minutes and then let them cool for 10.  They probably needed to be cooked for only 4 minutes, because they keep on cooking not only while they are in the oven, but on the counter as they cool as well.

Yes, I take these photos from the floor. But it’s a nice wood floor, and the light is so good, and I promise Lucy stayed on the other side of the room the whole time…

With the custard whisked together and the noodles evenly spread in a buttered 9×13” glass baking dish, I preheated my oven to 375F and assessed the corn flakes situation.  Whenever an ingredient needs to be crushed, crunched, or pulverized on Chopped, I yell at the chefs for using their hands, knives, or a rolling pin instead of just bringing over the food processor.  But they don’t have to wash all the dishes they make, and I do, so my pretty little scarlet processor stayed on its shelf.  I crushed up the cereal with my hands, feeling a kind of satisfaction as the flakes became bits and then powder.  I topped the noodly custard with a generous layer of crumbs and carefully slid it into the oven.

An hour later, the custard had set and the smell flashed me forward to Thanksgiving.  I’m convinced we as a society don’t really know what pumpkin tastes like, because what we experience is texture and spices.  If this kugel didn’t have a sprinkle of cinnamon in it, I’m not sure I would know it had pumpkin either.

Dinner came and went, the kugel cooled a bit, and I dug out a too-big portion for myself, and neglected to feel any kind of remorse about it.  It was too good for that.  The noodles had melded together as the pumpkin infused liquid cooked, making a solid, scoopable, sliceable custard.  The corn flakes on top were perfect: aggressively crunchy against the soft interior.  I wouldn’t omit the golden raisins either; they were a really nice textural contrast to both the softness of the noodles and the crunchy crumbs, and their complex sweetness added some depth to my dessert casserole.  It was warm, and sweet, and perfectly comforting as I tucked my feet under me on the couch and waiting for the approach of Project Runway (don’t judge, every girl needs a little reality TV now and then).

The leftovers are delicious too, though the dish does lose something in relinquishing its crunch to the microwave.  In another universe where I’m a Southern cook, I could see doing crazy things like frying squares of this in butter and then drizzling hot maple syrup over the top.  But I’ll refrain.  Because from my window, I can see my basil wilting beneath the curiously, cruelly hot-for-mid-October sun: back to summer, so it seems!  And here I was considering making soup…

Swing season indeed.

Three for One

Sometimes you are faced with not enough: not enough time, not enough money, not enough to do…

And sometimes you are faced with too much: too much bounty, too much responsibility, too much joy.  These are both their own kind of problem.  And if I have to choose, faced with these Januses, I will always go for too much.  Even if I fall short.

Last week I only managed one Bittman.  This week, in a startling display of ambition and motivation, I did three.

One of the biggest challenges of this project (aside from cooking, photographing, and writing about the food… you know… actually doing it…) has been deciding what to serve these dishes with.  I’m not up for roasting a chicken or a turkey every week to emulate the Thanksgiving spirit of the project, so I try to piece them together with other entrees.  As you’ve seen, if you’ve been following the project for any length of time, sometimes I choose well, and sometimes I decidedly don’t.

This week, riffling through the slowly diminishing options, it occurred to me for the first time that I could serve them as complements to each other.  They were all, after all, conceived for the same imagined table.  They should work together quite nicely.

“7. Cranberry-Orange Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with orange and lemon zest, cut up (peeled) orange segments, ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) and a bit of minced jalapeño or chipotle.”

This sounded good and, with the slightly cooler temperatures we’ve been privileged to receive lately, a nice symbol of our entry into Fall.  Cranberries and oranges are a frequent couple – almost too expected – but there’s a reason they appear together so frequently.  And with the addition of lemon juice and some spice, this seemed far enough from traditional to avoid being boring.

1 bag cranberries (probably 1 pound?)

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 large or two small oranges (mine were little Valencias from our Farmers’ Market)

Segments of 1 large or two small oranges

¼ – ½ cup sugar, depending on your taste and the tartness of your berries

Dash of spice, depending on your taste

I bounced the cranberries into a pot, zested the lemon and oranges over them, and then cut the peel from the orange and sliced out supremes.  For good measure, I squeezed as much juice from the wasted scraps of orange as I could, then topped the mix with sugar and a dusting of cayenne (I had neither jalapeno or chipotle available) and pushed it onto the back burner.

I let the pot come to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar evenly and prevent it from burning until the cranberries released some juice to protect the mixture.  Once it boiled, I lowered the heat and let the whole thing simmer for about 20 minutes.  At one point I tasted, decided there wasn’t enough sugar or cayenne, and added more of both.  The addition of sugar was a good thing.  The addition of more cayenne was less so.  I’d caution you to start with less than you think you will want.  The mixture does not taste at all spicy while it’s hot.  When it cools, though, it becomes fiery.  It was still tasty, though.  We ate it sticky and thick and room temperature, dabbing up popped clusters of ruby and letting it linger on our tongues – but not too long – enough to wake our taste buds from the spice.  As an autumnal side, this works very well and is a pleasant update to the traditional cranberry sauce.  It would also make a glorious topping for a baked brie, perhaps with some rosemary or red wine glugged in for good measure.

While the cranberry sauce was heating, I turned my attention to its companion.

“59. Blanch thinly sliced potato and leeks until tender but not mushy; drain well. Layer the vegetables in an oiled or buttered baking dish, then top with a mixture of bread crumbs and lightly sautéed chopped bacon (some cheese mixed in is pretty good, too). Broil until golden brown.”

Potatoes and leeks are a combination that, a mere year or so ago, I didn’t realize existed.  Now it’s such a natural pairing I can’t believe I never knew about it before.  Sliced blanched potatoes and sautéed leeks now fill every frittata I make.  I collected:

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 massive leek, tough tops and root ends removed, halved vertically (rinse it out well at this point) and sliced into slim, slim, oh-so-slim half moons

1 lb. bacon

½ – 1 cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned)

Knowing how good leeks can be when they are sweated and barely brown, and conscious that the beauty of bacon grease shouldn’t go to waste, I made a few changes to Bittman’s directions.

First I cooked the bacon.  You likely don’t need a whole pound of it, but this guaranteed an appetizer: one still sizzling slice each for N. and for me.  If you aren’t cooking for or with someone else, go wild and have two all by your lonesome.

While the bacon cooked and the cranberries simmered and popped, I put a pot of water on to boil.  When its aggressive bubbling demanded attention, I carefully lowered in the potato slices and gave them free reign for five or ten minutes.

When it was edging toward crisp, I set the bacon aside to cool and drain a bit on a paper towel lined plate.  I dumped the potatoes into a colander when they were barely cooked through.

Time for the leeks.  I scraped my board free of the slender, just green shards, capturing a satisfying fizz as the vegetation hit the pan.  You want to stir with some frequency here, and not raise the heat above medium; we’re looking for a light sauté, not a heavy brown.

The shards collapsed into resistant-less ribbons, and I pushed them to one side to add the drained, cooling potatoes.  With adept wooden spoon manipulation, I managed to achieve something like layering: half the potatoes flat on the bottom of the pan, the leeks draped across them, and the rest of the potato slices on top.

I turned on my broiler, and while it heated I crumbled the bacon, tossed it with bread crumbs, and dusted the potatoes with the mixture.  But dust wasn’t enough.  They required a landslide.  I drizzled the top with olive oil, knowing the bread crumbs would need it to brown, and slid the whole pan into the broiler (note: if you use a skillet or pan for this, rather than a casserole dish, be sure you wrap any plastic or rubber with aluminum foil before you put it into the broiler.  We don’t want your nice pan handles to melt…).

Five minutes later, the parts of the crumble I had oiled were beautiful brown (the other parts remained sandy and unaltered, much to my chagrin) and the dog was close by, nose moist with curiosity and the urge to assist.

We loaded our plates, completing the meal with a completely unnecessary slice of toasted jalapeno cheese bread, and ate.

As has proved often the case with Bittman’s layered vegetable dishes, I expected this one to be a gratin, and it just wasn’t.  Some cream, some cheddar cheese, some binding between the vegetables, would have been ideal.  But not crucial.  They weren’t supposed to be scalloped potatoes, after all.  The bacon and bread crumbs made them exciting, and the leeks were almost creamy nestled between the thick slices.  Honestly, forgetting to salt the water I boiled the potatoes in was the only real unfortunate mistake.  Two down, with only one mistake (two, I suppose, if you count the overly spicy cranberries, which I suppose I do), is pretty promising.

 

To make this a trifecta, on another night I chose another autumnal option.

“64. Mushroom Bread Pudding: Put 6 cups of good bread (day-old is best) cut into 1-inch chunks into a buttered baking dish. Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups of milk and ½ cup grated Parmesan and pour over the bread. Sauté 4 cups of sliced mushrooms until tender with a teaspoon or two fresh thyme leaves and mix into the bread. Bake until just set, about 40 minutes.”

Mushrooms and thyme are so nice together.  They are earthy and deep and musty, like the back of a dark pantry into which no anxious hands have reached for some time.  Since they were more precise than usual, I followed Bittman’s ingredient quantities almost to the letter.

I sautéed the mushrooms and thyme in butter, taking time to let the slices soak up the butter, then expel their own liquid.  Only after that, as the moisture from the mushrooms evaporates from the pan, can the mushrooms take on the same kind of crisp brown sear as a steak pressed into a screamingly hot pan.

While the mushrooms cooled, I tore up the crusts of a month’s worth of sourdough bread (I keep them in the freezer for just these sorts of occasions) and pressed them gently into a buttered square glass baking dish.  I grated cheese – swiss and parmesan – and cracked eggs from the Farmers’ Market into a bowl, marveling at the rich orange yolks you just can’t get in the grocery store.  I stabbed them, flooded them with milk, and whisked in the cheese.

I turned to assembly.  First, mushrooms must be tossed with bread.  Attempt even distribution.  Then, a careful, rich pour of the dairy component, taking care to attend to the corners, until the bread almost floated in a puddle of would-be custard.

 

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of bread pudding production is that pressure and soaking time yield the best results.  I carefully pressed a layer of plastic wrap over the top of my pudding and set it in the fridge for an hour, while N. and I answered the velvet brown eyes begging for “walkies.”

Upon our return, it was as simple as preheating the oven to 375F (pull the pudding out of the fridge and let it approach room temperature as your oven heats), sliding the baking dish onto a rack, and reluctantly grading a paper or two as 45 minutes ticked by (I like my bread pudding a little more than “just” set).

A puff in the center signifies doneness.  Mine levitated just barely in the middle, but the custard was set and the edges of bread not submerged were crisp and darkly golden.

The serving spoon broke sharply through the crisp top but then exhaled through the custard underneath.  Piled on our plates next to an amazing skillet casserole of deeply browned sautéed Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze, we accepted its golden softness.  With a higher ratio of eggs to milk than most bread puddings I’ve made, this had almost a soufflé quality, though vastly more substantial.  It was rich and earthy and savory, and I suspect it will be just as good for breakfast as it was for dinner. 

Three more down.  This can be done.  2012 has already been a year of many accomplishments.  Why not go for too many, rather than hesitating at not enough?

Emptying the Fridge

Big news, oh friends: come July, N. and I are moving.  We’re leaving Eugene, OR and heading south for Los Angeles, where N. landed a great job.

I’m sad about this, of course.  I love Eugene.  I love its beauty, and I’ve made some of the best friends and eaten some of the best food of my life here.  I don’t love the way the weather lately has been playing winter/spring/winter/spring/summer/winter on us, and I’m terrified it will pour on graduation day in a week or so.  But mostly I love it.

Yet this move presents the potential for plenty of new delights.  LA is a foodie paradise.  A quick search on Yelp for our new area revealed restaurants serving every kind of food I could possibly crave, and some I’ve never tried before.  Ethiopian will be new to me, as will Caribbean (outside of the ubiquitous and usually inauthentic jerk [insert your protein of choice here]).  The idea of being back in a place with excellent Chinese and Mexican food is overwhelming.  But it’s not just restaurant food that I’m looking forward to.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon boasts great growing conditions for lots of foods, including berries of all kinds, hazelnuts, and plenty of local produce.  But Southern California has so much, given its balmy temperatures year round, that buying and eating local food will suddenly become much easier – not even from farmers’ markets and farm stands, but even from the grocery store.  Avocados, citrus, grapes, all no longer destroy the locavore dream.  Even the backyard of the house we will be moving into has a lemon tree.  A lemon tree!  This excites me almost more than anything else about the whole situation!

Our upcoming relocation also presents a challenge.  N. and I have lived in our current home for four years.  We have lived in Eugene for six.  Over that much time, things accumulate.  Not just house things, like forgotten books and extra sweaters and skillets I shoved in the back of that cabinet N. hates when I replaced them with Circulon non-stick wonders.  Food things.  We have so many half-empty jars of condiments.  So many bags of frozen vegetables bought on a buy-one-get-one sale.  Blackberries from last summer and cranberries from Thanksgiving, carefully preserved on the shelves of my freezer.  Canisters of rice, and brown rice, and millet, and dried beans, and barley, and noodles in the pantry.  It’s a lot of stuff.

So here comes the challenge: interspersed with regular food posts and wedding cupcake practice and the occasional, still-kicking-because-I-can’t-bear-to-abandon-it Bittman dish, I will be instituting a new project.  I’m calling it “Emptying the Fridge.”  Each week when I make our menu plan, I’m going to try to incorporate at least one dish that requires the remnants – or a good quantity – of at least one refrigerator, freezer, or pantry item.  I’m not talking about things we use all the time, like yogurt or bread or eggs.  I’m talking about the minimal use items, like anchovy paste, or capers, or champagne honey mustard, or chili garlic paste.

This week, I have plans for several items, and though I may not eliminate them, I will at least make a dent in several jars.  After a barbeque a few weeks ago featuring a peanut noodle side dish, I decided I want to make Ina Garten’s Szechuan Noodles.  This requires a whole cadre of ingredients including peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and various vegetables.  It also, of importance to this project, requires hot chili sauce and tahini.  Both of these items currently languish on my refrigerator door, awaiting stir-fries and hummus.  But this week, they will shine and diminish simultaneously. 

Other plans include a white bean puree I will invent (and post the recipe for, if it turns out well) to work on using up the four cans (four?  How can I possibly have four?) of white beans in my pantry, and peanut butter energy bars, which will help eliminate the giant canister of oats I’ve gotten too stubborn to turn into oatmeal.  At a certain point, you have to eat like it’s summer, even if the sky says it isn’t, don’t you?  But snack bars are a worthy and not-un-spring-like application.

This project is, I think, a combination of homestyle Iron Chef and Chopped.  Not only are there feature or star ingredients, but after a while the pairings of available options will become unusual and require a certain amount of ingenuity to use up.  I like this, because it prepares me for the Food Network show I will never have, which I would call “Empty Fridge.” EF would consist of me trying to use limited pantry and refrigerator items to create something delicious without having to make an extra trip to the store, so in essence it’s Chopped-at-Home.  The difference with my current project, though, is that I am not prohibited from shopping, and am in fact planning ahead based on the contents of my condiment collection to determine our dinners.

Come August, you can expect an abundance (after a short hiatus, most likely – moving and blogging don’t necessarily mesh well) of drooling and groveling over our new location and its diverse and numerous highlights.  But until then, you can look forward to quarter jars of mustard, forgotten marinated artichoke hearts, and hidden canned peaches in various applications.  Hopefully, in this case, not in the same meal…

Spiking your stuffing

The one part of Thanksgiving dinner I refuse to make from scratch is the stuffing.  I don’t know why, but no stuffing has ever lived up to the Stove-top brand blend my mom puts together: one box of turkey stuffing, one box of cornbread stuffing, mixed up and tossed together and then, rather than just stirred into boiling water, baked in a casserole dish for twenty minutes or so right before serving, so the top is crusty and crunchy.  This is easy to do, since it takes my dad at least twenty minutes to get the turkey carved.  This is smart to do because it makes a texture contrast and provides a gravy sponge.  Other stuffing mixes I’ve tasted, and the homemade one I attempted this past year for A., who doesn’t like celery (have you ever tried to find a stuffing mix without celery?  Impossible!), just haven’t measured up.

And then, Bittman.

“26. Chop corn bread into cubes. Sauté cherry tomatoes, scallions and corn kernels in butter or oil. Deglaze the pan with beer, then empty the pan over the corn bread. Bake in an oiled dish or use as stuffing.”

You guys, this was amazing.  And given how you now know I feel about stuffing, that’s saying something.  Amazing.  Here’s what I used:

6 cups (roughly) corn bread cubes, toasted (use your favorite recipe)

4 TB butter

6-8 beefy green onions

1 pint red cherry tomatoes, rinsed and dried

1 cup corn, fresh or frozen (if frozen, defrost it first)

Salt and pepper

12 oz. beer (I used Drifter)

I made a pan of cornbread from my favorite recipe in a larger pan than usual; I thought this would result in a slightly drier bread, so it wouldn’t become mushy when the liquid was poured over it.  The cornbread was still pretty moist and springy, though, so after it had cooled for a while I cubed it, scuffed it around in the pan a bit to separate the clinging pieces, and tossed it back in the oven at 400F for fifteen minutes or so to get some toasty edges and dark golden spots on it, then set it aside to cool completely.  This worked beautifully and I’d recommend it, especially if your cornbread is moist and cakey.

While the oven was occupied by an herb-stuffed chicken (again, I know.  I can’t help it), I melted the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sliced the green onions, using the white and green portions.  I tossed these little rings into the sizzling butter along with the corn, and agitated them gently.  When the onions were soft and the corn just beginning to caramelize, I added the cherry tomatoes and seasoned the whole skillet with salt and pepper and, on a whim, a few shakes of garlic powder.

I turned the heat up to medium high for just a few minutes until the cherry tomatoes started to burst through their skins, spilling pulp into the mix, and the corn had browned delightfully, leaving the kitchen smelling like summer.

I then switched off the heat and poured in a full bottle of beer, nutty, yeasty, and brown (Drifter is a pale ale, so it has some body and depth – I wouldn’t go any lighter than pale ale, and might in fact prefer something darker: a brown ale like Newcastle, or even a porter if it’s not too strong).  The aroma changed from summer to fall harvest in an instant as the beer fizzed over the vegetables.

After scraping the bottom of the skillet gently with a spatula to remove any persistent browned bits, I poured the whole steaming bubbling mass over my pan of cornbread cubes and tossed gently to distribute the liquid evenly.  Then I stowed the pan in the oven: 350F for 25-30 minutes until the top is deeply golden and just crunchy.

We ate this with roasted chicken and creamed spinach.  Vegetarians shield your eyes, but the chicken just collapsed so beautifully across my carving board that I felt I had to show you:

But the stuffing!  The stuffing was incredible.  The cornbread soaked up the beer, and the sweetness of the bread plus the sourness of the ale created this yeasty glory I couldn’t stop eating.  And I don’t like beer.  It was just such a perfect liquid for this dish, contributing just the right amount of malty bitterness.  The tomatoes got richer and sweeter in the oven, as did the corn kernels, and they partnered with the green onions to make such a good accompaniment to the cornbread that I’m almost tempted to add them into the batter in my next pan.  Or maybe into a compound butter to spread on top.  That would be better, texture-wise.  Green onions, cherry tomatoes, and corn: three musketeers. 

This stuffing was gone in two days.  With only two of us eating.  It was that good.  If you’re in the Northwest, where Spring is shunning us, make this now while you still need your oven to keep warm.  Accompanying some baked sweet potatoes and leafy greens, this becomes a vegetarian meal.  If you use oil instead of butter and have a good egg replacement, it could be vegan.  If your cornbread is free of wheat flour and you use gluten-free beer, it could be gluten-free as well.  However you make it, make it.  This one is too good not to try.

Marshmallow Topping for Adults

To me, there is no better title for this entry than Bittman’s designation.  Sometimes things don’t need to be complicated or alliterated or made cleverer.  Sometimes all they need is a little story to get them started.

For the past five years or so, my family has been driving up to Oregon to spend Thanksgiving at our house.  Since we discovered a recipe for Chipotle Mashed Sweet Potatoes, which melds the flavors of autumn with the heat of adobo sauce, we haven’t needed any additional fixings for our tubers.  This was not always true.  When we used to share Thanksgiving with a very dear set of family friends, L. inevitably made sweet potato casserole.  You know the one.  The sweet potato casserole.  Boiled sweet potatoes, mashed or beaten smooth.  Sweetened – as she was always proud to proclaim – only with orange juice.  Smoothed into a square glass baking dish and then topped until no hint of orange could be seen with a careful and meticulous layer of miniature marshmallows.  Thieving hands were scowled at.  Broil to perfect, swollen, golden-brown puff.

I liked this.  Well, I liked the idea of it.  Mashed sweet potatoes are delicious, and toasted marshmallows are my favorite part about a campfire.  But together, especially next to turkey and dressing and tart wonderful cranberries, it was never my favorite.  Bittman offers a grown-up alternative:

“60. Marshmallow topping for adults: Roast or boil chunks of sweet potato, put them in an oiled baking dish, top with dots of cream cheese, and sprinkle with a mixture of brown sugar, chopped pecans and chopped fresh sage. Broil until lightly browned.”

In my imaginary food dictionary, this would appear under “decadence.”  It just sounds so rich and so perfect, without the chalky powdered sugar edge of marshmallows.  Here’s how it happened:

1 ½ huge sweet potatoes cut into 1 inch chunks (I think I used the kind marked as “garnet yams”)

2/3 cup chopped pecans

Scant ½ cup brown sugar, or perhaps less.  It was a bit sweet.

1 TB finely chopped sage

4 oz. cream cheese

About an hour before you intend to broil this, stow an 8 oz. block of cream cheese in the freezer. This is just enough time to allow it to firm up enough to cut into chunks without mushing all over your hands.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Toss the sweet potato chunks in olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast them on a baking sheet for 35 minutes or until soft and slightly caramelized.  While they roast, combine the pecans, brown sugar, and sage in a small bowl and toss together well.

When the sweet potatoes are tender, transfer them to a lightly oiled 9×9 inch glass baking dish.  Remove the cream cheese from the freezer and cut it into small chunks.  Scatter the chunks of cheese evenly across the surface of the sweet potatoes, then crumble the pecan mixture evenly over the beautiful field of orange and white you’ve created.

Broil the whole delectable mess until the sugar caramelizes and begins to melt, and the cream cheese goes a little weak in the knees.  Don’t let it go too long or the sugar will burn.

Eat.

We did just that.  There was very little left over for repeat meals, so I had no excuse to repurpose the leftovers.  But in this case I wouldn’t have needed to, because it was stellar.  A bit on the overly sweet side, perhaps, but that’s what made it such an accurate modernization of the marshmallow madness it mimics.  The cream cheese, broiled to the edge of melting, was a tangier, softer version of the marshmallows from the original, and its form in small chunks just losing their shape made it look similar too.  Pecans and sweet potatoes are great friends, and with the addition of the brown sugar they became the equivalent of that couple on Valentine’s Day.  You know the one I mean.  Except you get to eat this, so it’s much better than intruding within a 20 foot radius of that couple.  The sage was an earthy, herby warmth that I wouldn’t suggest omitting.

My only suggestion about this, aside from perhaps cutting back a bit on the quantity of brown sugar, would be to add a little salt into the topping mix.  It would be a nice extra bite to bring out the pecan flavor, and salt with brown sugar is just so darn tasty.

This was delicious with Brussels sprouts seared in a cast iron pan, but it would be equally good with stuffed pork chops, or roast chicken, or the big Thanksgiving bird itself.  Or just in a big bowl, with a big spoon, and a private table.  And no one looking.  Fanciest take on sweet potato casserole I’ve seen in a while.

If that’s not fancy enough for you, I thought of a way of making it even fancier.  For appetizers, cut the sweet potatoes into rounds instead of chunks.  Roast and mix topping as directed.

Instead of freezing the cream cheese, let it come to room temperature and put it in a piping bag with a star tip.  When the sweet potatoes are roasted and have cooled a bit, pipe the cream cheese in a pretty little whirl atop the sweet potato round, then sprinkle with the topping and broil as before.  Presto!  Brilliance in two little bites.  No marshmallows required.

Roots!

This is not a Bittman recipe.  But it is something I made.  It’s hearty, it’s autumnal, it’s colorful, and it’s easy.  Oh, and it allows you to turn your oven on for around an hour and thereby heat up your house a bit!

Roasted Root Vegetables

3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks

2 purple topped turnips, peeled and cut into chunks

2 rutabegas, peeled and cut into chunks (see a pattern here?)

1 sweet potato (or 1/2 of a mammoth yam), peeled and cut into chunks

1 tsp dried rosemary, or to taste

1 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

olive oil to coat

Preheat your oven to 400F.  Peel and cut all vegetables into equal, bite-sized chunks.  Toss them with seasonings and olive oil in a 9×13 inch glass baking dish.  Use enough olive oil so that all chunks of root vegetable get an even coating and glisten slightly.  Depending on size of vegetables, this might range from between 1/2 – 1 cup of oil.

Roast until all vegetables are tender and begin to brown on the outside, 45 minutes to an hour, depending on size.

As you can see, this is almost ridiculously easy.  You can substitute for any of these vegetables you don’t like – easy additions or change-outs would be regular or fingerling potatoes, beets, even celery root.  Choose what you love, mix them well, and enjoy!