Chipotle and Cinnamon Sweet Potato Soufflés

I realize it might be a bit late for me to convince you, at this point, to make significant changes to your Thanksgiving menu.  If you are anything like me, you’ve had the whole meal planned out for several weeks now, including possibly which serving dishes you’ll be using for which dish (speaking of which, have you seen this?).

But if you are undecided, or if you still aren’t sure what you are doing with sweet potatoes, may I make a humble suggestion?  Put down the marshmallows.  Okay, give them one final squeeze and then put them down.  You don’t need that stuff.  Instead, may I offer you the promise of spiced velvet? Puffy, smooth, decadent-but-light velvet, spicy and sweet, rising up from its dish like some gravity-defying magic trick.

Food Blog November 2013-2841Yes, I’m talking about soufflé

Food Blog November 2013-2843I know, I know. Just want you want to worry about on one of the biggest food days of the year is the notoriously fussy, egg white driven glorious strangeness that is soufflé. You don’t want to worry about whisking, or folding, or, heaven forbid, fallen puffs that are competing with the turkey for oven space anyway.

Food Blog November 2013-2818But as it turns out, at least in my experience, soufflé isn’t really that hard if you are a tiny bit patient and a tiny bit brave. And this one, with the beautiful pumpkin color of the sweet potatoes mellowed and enriched with heavy cream, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and lent a bit of extra pizzazz from a sparing dose of chipotle pepper and a fizz of lime juice, is a delightful choice. The base, lightened with three egg whites, climbs determinedly into large mushrooming domes, and the mixture conveniently uses three egg yolks as well, so you aren’t left with any extra yolks hanging around (though if you are, this is a great resource).

Food Blog November 2013-2819Food Blog November 2013-2821The thing about soufflés is, they depend on the expansion power of aerated egg whites. That’s what you are doing when you beat them to soft or even medium peaks: filling them with air. Bubbles form and stabilize, and so long as you aren’t too rough with them, they continue to expand in the oven, creating that otherwordly dome of perfect, velvety lightness. This is why soufflé recipes are so fussy about being sure you fold the whites into the flavor base: you don’t want to deflate them. This tutorial gives some helpful suggestions about this process, if you need a refresher or you’ve never been sure. And even that thing about not opening the oven door lest they collapse mid-bake is an exaggeration; though you don’t want to be swinging open and slamming shut the door every five minutes, I tentatively peeked inside once during my baking process, and no holiday-destroying collapse resulted.

Food Blog November 2013-2825When you dig tentatively into these delicate, reality-bending puffs, they sigh and fold inward just a touch, the dry, slightly meringue toasted tops crease slightly, and you are free to dig out piping hot, fluffy forkfuls and jam them into your mouth with no further ceremony. Or, if you feel fancy (or if you have more than one gravy boat and you’re dying to take multiples for a spin), make some cinnamon cream to drizzle over the top: whisk about ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into a ½ cup or so of heavy cream (estimate 2 tablespoons of cream per diner), and you’ve got a simple and luscious sauce to add to your fluffy masterpieces. This also cools the heat, if you have diners with delicate tongues or you’ve gone a little heavy on the chipotle.

Food Blog November 2013-2827Soufflés may sound scary, and you may think Thanksgiving is no time to experiment, but I’ve got faith. I think you can do it. And when your mother-in-law, or your best friend, or your fussy aunt looks impressed, you can lie and say it was really hard but you’re so glad it came together as beautifully as it did. I won’t tell a soul. You can save the marshmallows for some hot cocoa, where they belong.

Food Blog November 2013-2839* Alternatives: if you don’t like spicy, take out the chipotle and add a few generous grinds of black pepper instead.  If you want this for dessert, add an extra 2 tablespoons of sugar to the souffle base itself, and maybe a teaspoon of vanilla, and top the baked soufflés with a sweeter version of the cinnamon cream referenced above: 1/2 cup heavy cream (estimate about 2 tablespoons per person), 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 2 teaspoons sugar, lightly, lightly whipped until only just barely thickened. If you want to booze it up, add a tablespoon or two of rum or bourbon.

If soufflé is just not going to happen but you still want marshmallow-free sweet potatoes, may I humbly suggest this as another option?

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Cinnamon and Chipotle Sweet Potato Soufflé
Hugely adapted from Cooking Light
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons butter, for ramekins
2 tablespoons brown sugar, for ramekins
2 cups sweet potato cubes, from 1 large peeled, orange-fleshed sweet potato
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons lime juice
½ a chipotle pepper from a can of chipotles in adobo (or more, if you like it spicy)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F.
  • Butter and sugar six single-serving ramekins (mine fit a little more than ½ a cup), then stow in the freezer. The sugar sanding creates texture to help the soufflé climb the walls of the container, and freezing it makes it take longer to dissolve in the heat of the oven, so you’re giving your puff a head start.
  • Drop your peeled sweet potato cubes in boiling salted water and cook until they are very tender but not yet falling apart. Drain and set aside to cool.
  • In a large bowl (or the same pot you used to cook the sweet potatoes), combine the heavy cream, ¼ cup brown sugar, lime juice, chipotle pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Add the sweet potato cubes and mash, whisk, or otherwise blend into a smooth, thick soup. I used my immersion blender, which worked very well. You could also use a regular blender or a food processor. The key here is that you want a scrupulously smooth mixture.
  • Separate the three eggs, dropping the whites into a clean, dry, medium mixing bowl and the yolks into the sweet potato mixture. Take care not to get even a trace of yolk into the whites, or they will not whip into peaks. Whisk or blend the yolks into the sweet potato mixture until no streaks of yellow remain.
  • Add the cream of tartar to the egg whites. Using a handheld electric mixture (or a whisk, if you need to work on your arms), beat the whites at first over medium, then high speed until medium peaks form. The whites will foam, and then become pure white, and finally begin to stiffen like a good whipped cream. To determine the stiffness of your peaks, turn off the beaters and lift them straight out of the whites. If you get little hills that collapse back into the mixture, you have soft peaks. If you get little tips that fold over just a bit when you pull the beaters away, you are looking at medium to stiff peaks, which is what we want.
  • Using a rubber spatula, deposit ⅓ of your whites into the sweet potato and egg yolk mixture and stir until no white streaks remain. No need to be careful with this part – full integration is just fine.
  • Now, slide the other 2/3 of the whites into the sweet potato mixture and fold in gently until just combined – some white streaks may remain and that’s fine. I like to fold by drawing my spatula around the edge of the bowl in a horseshoe shape, then pulling it back toward me in a straight line.
  • Retrieve your frozen ramekins and fill each with the soufflé mixture, being careful not to let it plop from too high (in case of deflation). When each cup is full, smooth off the top – this seems fussy, but it will aid in even rising.
  • Bake in a preheated 375F oven for 25-30 minutes, until the soufflés have puffed up at least an inch or two above the top rim of the ramekins. Nearly half an hour seems like a long time, and indeed, I was worried mine were overcooked because some of the edges took on a toasty golden color, but I found this contributed a delightful flavor, and was reminiscent of a perfect campfire marshmallow.
  • Serve immediately, plain or topped with cinnamon cream.

Happy New Year!

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Oh friends, it happened.  I made it.  Yesterday I made the last two Bittmans on my list and completed, albeit a year later than I’d originally intended, my project.  I have reflections to share, certainly, and I have changes and excitement and promises for the new year, but first, I think, let’s work with the program.  Two Bittmans.  Two reports:

“14. Steam or poach 2 cups of pumpkin cubes until tender. Meanwhile, sauté 1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps in vegetable oil with a few drops of sesame oil. Boil 4 cups water and whisk some of it with ⅓ to ½ cup of miso. Stir miso mixture, pumpkin and mushrooms into water and heat everything through, then serve, drizzled with more sesame oil.”

Because we were planning to reach midnight by eating as many snacks as possible eating our way to midnight snacking, I wanted a light dinner to precede the countdown.  This seemed to fit the bill.  And it had to, after all, since it was the only soup left and the calendar was screaming December 31st.

2 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash (I had some in the fridge, and suspected pumpkin would be hard to find)

1 1 oz. package dried shiitake mushrooms

1 TB vegetable oil

¼ tsp (or to taste) toasted sesame oil, plus some for drizzling

3 packets instant tofu miso soup mix (all I could find at my grocery store)

water

white wine

To reconstitute my shiitake mushrooms, I soaked them in a mixture of white wine and almost boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until they were plump and soft.

While the mushrooms soaked, I cubed up my butternut squash and submerged the pieces in a pan of salted water.  I brought this to a bare simmer and cooked it just until the squash pieces were tender – 10-15 minutes – then drained the pieces in a colander.  Don’t overcook them, because they will start to fall apart.  Set the squash pieces aside.

When the mushrooms were tender, I scooped them out of their bath and decided the remnants shouldn’t go to waste.  I poured the soaking broth into a little pot to bring to a boil, so I could use this already flavored liquid as the base for my soup.  While it heated, I stemmed and sliced the mushrooms.

Since the shiitakes were now basically cooked, I probably could have skipped Bittman’s sautéing step.  But honestly, I’m not one to pass up the opportunity to ingest sesame oil, so I dutifully dribbled vegetable oil with a few (or a few more than a few) drops of sesame oil in the (drained and dried) pan I’d used to simmer my squash and sautéed the mushroom slices over medium heat until they dried out a bit and started to take on some color.

While this colorization happened, slowly and so aromatically, I made the broth.  I poured all three miso soup seasoning packets – tofu and seaweed and all – into a small dish, then mixed in about ½ cup of my heated mushroom soaking liquid and whisked gently to dissolve the powdery soup mix.  This created a slightly thickened slurry, which I poured with the rest of the liquid and the butternut squash cubes into the mushroom pan.

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After a few moments of reheating, we dipped up bowlfuls and ate.

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N. wasn’t sure (he sometimes takes issue with the texture of reconstituted mushrooms), but I inhaled it with devotion.  I love the flavor of miso soup, and the mild sweetness of butternut squash against the salty umami and fleshy squish of the mushrooms was lovely.

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It was light but still satisfying, and the tofu and vegetables from the soup mix were so welcome that I’d advise you, if you are using straight miso rather than a pre-mixed, additive laden packet, to consider adding some tofu or seaweed or green onion just to contribute a little substance and contrast to the soup.

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Dinner done, we moved on to the second stage of the evening.

“89. Vegetable crackers: Slice beets, sweet potatoes, plantains or parsnips or all of the above into 1/8-inch disks (a mandoline is helpful) and toss lightly in olive oil. Spread the slices on baking sheets, sprinkle with salt, pepper and, if you like, other seasonings and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. When browned, flip the chips over and bake for another 10 minutes or so.”

This sounded tasty, and I’d always intended to make it for a party.  With a dear friend coming over to ring in the new year with us, and since hunks of cheese alone might be deemed a slightly imbalanced offering (though so, so delicious…), this seemed like a perfect opportunity.  Beets were out of the question (N.’s nemeses since childhood), and I couldn’t find plantains in my grocery store’s produce section, so we were left with the nutty herbiness of parsnips and the always dependable earthy sweetness of sweet potato.

3 medium parsnips, peeled

½ large sweet potato, peeled

generous dose of olive oil (maybe ¼ cup?), plus more to grease the cookie sheets

1 tsp each (or to taste) salt, pepper, and garam masala

To prepare for roasting, preheat the oven to 400F and line two cookie sheets with aluminum foil.  Drizzle with olive oil and spread to cover the surface of the foil evenly.

While the oven preheats, tackle the vegetables.  I don’t have a mandoline, but I do have a ruler, and I must confess I did bring it to the kitchen to give myself a better idea of what 1/8 inch looks like.  My slices were not quite even, but they did verge on passable.  I tossed them – big coins of harvest orange and speckled white – in a glass bowl with the olive oil and the spices until they were evenly coated.

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Spread the vegetable coins across the cookie sheets in a single layer, not overlapping, not in piles.  If they cook in a stack, they will soften but not brown or crisp.  Stow them in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until they are just beginning to brown.

This next step is a true exercise in patience.  Unless you are far more talented with a spatula than I, you will have to flip each piece over individually.  You have to, because otherwise one side will burn and the other side will flutter limply into cooked-but-not-crisp status.  Trust me on this one.  When you have laboriously flipped each coin, shove the tray back into the oven for another 10-12 minutes.

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At this point, you’ll have to use your judgment.  My offerings were, after this additional time, cooked through but not remotely cracker-like in texture.  Another five minutes in the oven might have done the trick.  Putting them back in, failing to set a timer, and heading to the couch to eat dinner (I was trying to multitask) is not advisable.  I didn’t remember them until I smelled the slightly spicy aroma of parsnips, and by then it was too late – many of the little coins had gone from crackers to briquets.

I decided to pick out the worst offenders – Lucy reports that she didn’t mind a bit of charred flavor – and eat the salvageable ones anyway.

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To make them a bit more exciting (and disguise any lingering burned taste) I made a little dipping sauce.  You’ll need:

juice from 1 lime

2 TB honey

1 tsp garam masala

½ – 1 cup Greek yogurt

Whisk the first three ingredients together with a fork until they are smooth.  In increments, add Greek yogurt until your sauce reaches the desired thickness.  Mine was about the consistency of ranch dressing, but much more interesting in flavor.

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These crackers (with and without the sauce) were – if you were able to overlook the overcooking – a nice alternative to crudites or store-bought crackers.  They weren’t quite as crispy (except the ones that were too crispy), but they had a lovely deep flavor and none of the powdery, processed taste some crackers can have.  They are also a gluten-free offering and, minus the yogurt and honey sauce, vegan as well.

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I served them alongside a cheese platter,

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Joy the Baker’s chili spiced sharp cheddar cheese crackers,

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assorted sweets,

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and my appetizer version of Bittman’s “Marshmallow Topping for Adults” dish: thick discs of sweet potato roasted until tender, topped with a dollop of cream cheese and sprinkled with a pecan brown sugar blend before being broiled until the sugar bubbles and the cheese slackens toward melting.

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And champagne, of course.

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Happy New Year.  I hope you celebrate your achievements, meet your goals, and find happiness in your own self.  I’ll be checking in again later this week with some reflections and announcements.  Welcome to 2013.

Fading light. And bourbon.

My home office – the room where grading, blogging, photo editing, and general work happens – has the most wonderful light in our house.  A huge sliding glass door lets sunlight pour in during the morning hours, and in the afternoon I get brightness mediated by the roof of the house.  Even when it’s overcast, there is still so much natural light that it makes for wonderful food shots.

But winter is a problem.  I’m discovering that if I make a dish for dinner, I’m not going to be able to photograph it from my office because it’s too dark by 5pm.  And wedded to this blog and this project as I am, there’s no way we’re having dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon just so I can get the best light in the house.  So I’m trying out new angles, and new placement, and new adjustments.  I’m learning more about artificial light: which arrangements I find glaring and which I find acceptable.  Bear with me, and look forward to the return of Daylight Savings Time!

“17. Sauté chopped onion in butter, then chunks of sweet potato and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the sweet potatoes can be pierced with a knife, then add chopped kale and cook until wilted.”

This was easy, and quick, and tasty.  I made a few additions to Bittman’s recommendations and think the soup really benefited from them.  I used:

4 TB butter Food blog 2011-0133

½ a medium onion (mine was yellow)

1 big sweet potato, peeled and cut into small chunks (the smaller the chunks, the faster they will cook, so make your decision based on how much time you have and what size is most pleasing to you)

 

Salt, pepper, ground nutmeg to taste

4 cups broth – vegetable or chicken, depending on your preference

6 oz. kale

1 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat.  When it has melted, add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent but not bronzed.

Add the sweet potatoes and seasoning, stir to combine for a minute or two, then add the broth.  The quantity of liquid you need will depend entirely upon the size of your sweet potato.  You may need more or less than the 4 cups listed here.

Let the soup simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Mine took about 15 minutes.

Add the kale and stir to combine.  You will be bewildered by how quickly it collapses on itself, wilting from smoky green to a brighter, more vibrant hue as it is immersed in the liquid.  Cook just until it reaches the texture you like against your tongue – I let it simmer for about 5 minutes, because I like my kale to still put up some resistance and retain its bright color.

I tasted and thought this needed something.  Extra salt to heighten the flavor of the kale, certainly, but there was a kind of dullness about the whole concoction.  Remembering my soup lessons from Alton Brown, I sprinkled in just a hint of red wine vinegar, and the difference was amazing.  The whole thing was brighter, somehow, even though you couldn’t taste anything harsh or stringent.

We consumed this happily with freshly toasted, garlic-rubbed slices of pugliese.  It was good, but could have been stuffed with even more flavor: I’d consider adding garlic, ginger, maybe even rice or ramen noodles.

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“4. Onion jam with bacon and bourbon: Thinly slice red onions and cook in olive oil with chopped bacon until soft. Add a little bourbon and brown sugar to taste and cook until the jam thickens.”

Bourbon is new for me.  N. has been enjoying the occasional scotch for a few years now, but we recently acquired a bottle of Knob Creek and I’ve been appreciating the floral notes of it – so much less musty and boggy than its British cousin.

4 slices thick-cut bacon, halved lengthwise into long strips, then sliced into small rectangles

½ large red onion, thinly sliced

¼ cup bourbon

2 TB brown sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small sprig rosemary

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I used about a tablespoon of olive oil to start the pan, but I don’t think you really need it.  Just toss in the bacon slices over medium heat and let them work for about 5 minutes.  You will get a shimmer of fat across the bottom of the pan that is more than enough to start the onions sizzling in.

Add the onions and cook over medium or medium-low for at least ten minutes, until the onions soften and the bacon is mostly cooked.  Stir with some frequency to ensure even cooking.

Off the heat (especially if you are using a gas stove) add the bourbon and the brown sugar.  Stir to combine, then return to medium heat and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes, to let the flavors mingle and the bourbon soak into the onions and bacon.

After a few minutes of cooking, I added pepper and rosemary for additional flavor components, and I think they were a good choice.  The rosemary’s woodsy flavor was a nice contrast to the fatty bacon and sweet onions.  Everything cooked down into a sticky, caramelized jam that I draped across some baked rounds of polenta.

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This was delicious, but misplaced.  The meaty, smoky bacon was intensified by the bourbon, and the brown sugar and onions had a nice note of molasses.  It didn’t belong on polenta.  It belonged, I think, on a freshly toasted piece of crostini, possibly smeared with a thick slice of brie.  The funkiness of the cheese could stand up nicely to the sweet smoky strength of this jam.

We paired our misguided polenta with green beans, lightly blanched and then seared in a hot pan and deglazed with a bit of red wine.  These, too, were delicious, but not the ideal pairing for the sweet saltiness of my jam.  Apples, maybe, or red grapes would make better pairings.  Regardless, we ate with joy and returned to the pan once or twice for a final sweet chunk of sticky, gooey jammy bacon to sweeten our palates, even though dessert was still to come.

 

“91. Pears in Red Wine: Simmer 2 cups red wine with ½ cup sugar, 2 cloves, a cinnamon stick and a few slices of ginger in a pot for a few minutes, then gently poach peeled and cored pears (use a spoon to hollow them from bottom), until soft. Cool or chill, and serve with a bit of the poaching liquid.”

This is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated desserts you can offer: not overly sweet, laden with mulled flavor, perfect for a gourmet adult party in celebration of autumn.  Pears, with their temperamental habits and signature grainy texture, are perhaps the same kind of acquired taste as wine or coffee or any of those other “adult” tastes.  As dessert for our onion-jam-crusted dinner, I decided to attempt these.

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I used 2 pears, but followed the rest of Bittman’s quantities exactly.

Food blog 2011-0142Well, one exception to note: I thought about getting fancy and adding things like citrus peel or rosemary (apparently I’m hooked on the stuff these days).  But in the end, I just splashed in a bit of bourbon to link the flavor profile back to our dinner: red wine from the beans, bourbon from the jam, and this dessert would fit right in.

After the first simmer, in which I stirred gently to let the sugar dissolve and the spices mull gently into the wine, I prepared the pears.

The issue with pears is that inside their tender skins they are slippery little beasts.  You can’t grasp them too firmly or they sigh into bruises.  You can’t hold them too delicately or they slide out of your hands and threaten to slip from the edge of the kitchen counter.

I dove into my attempt to core the pears only after peeling them.  This, and the attempt to do so with a spoon, may have been a mistake.  The spoon tore through the tender flesh of the pear but was too wide to remove only the core.  Further, I wasn’t sure how much core I was supposed to be removing, so I ended up with two pale, naked, slightly mutilated pears, which I slid into their (hopefully) healing bath of alcohol.

I let them simmer, turning them occasionally to dye all sides a lovely burgundy, for about 15 minutes.  Then I turned off the heat and let them sit a further 20 minutes until we were ready for dessert.

Surrounded by a moat of spiced wine, these were achingly tender and nicely flavored.  I would choose pears that were less ripe if I attempted this dessert again, because a bit of additional texture might have done them good.  As it was, though, much of the graininess disappeared in the poaching, and the soft floral flavor was really nice against the wine and assertive spices.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side would have made this a richer endeavor, but I think the creaminess would have matched well with the fruit and the wine.   Or maybe I just need the extra comfort as we roll into December…

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Last salad

I think Fall has finally found Los Angeles, and only a week and a half to go before Thanksgiving.  Within a week, we went from temperatures in the mid-80s to a high of barely 70F.  My living room went from a comfortable lounging 75F to barely hitting 70 despite blinds wide open to catch the sun all day.  Thankfully, the items I have left on my Bittman list accommodate this weather change.  Today I have to report the last salad of the list, and a foray back into desserts.  Both have decidedly autumnal collections of flavors (I wrote “flavor profile” first, and then I thought, “who do you think you are?”).  Many of the food blogs I read have been reporting for the past week or two on Thanksgiving recipes, and I thought about doing that too.  But then I remember that Bittman’s entire list is conceived as Thanksgiving sides, so if you’ve been following this little blog for any length of time, you’ve been seeing Thanksgiving options – with only a few disruptions – for the past two years!

“67. Sprinkle shelled pumpkin or squash seeds with a little chili powder; roast, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned. Combine with grated sweet potatoes (raw or lightly sautéed in butter or oil), raisins and a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, a touch of honey and maybe a little more chili powder.

I gathered:

1 small sweet potato

1 TB pumpkin seeds

chili powder to taste (mine is really mild – I probably used about a teaspoon)

2 TB butter

2-3 TB raisins

These measurements look small, but I was planning this for just the two of us and didn’t want any leftovers.

We were having this “salad” with spanakopita, so I decided to capitalize on the heat of its baking.  I popped the pumpkin seeds onto a baking tray, drenched them with chili powder, and tucked them into the oven for a few minutes.  When you hear the first couple of pops, they are done.  Don’t leave them too long – not only will they burn, they will propel themselves all over your oven.

I set aside the lightly toasted seeds and turned to the sweet potato.  N. and I proved in earlier experiments that we don’t like it raw – the starchy feel when you chew is just too much – so I was glad Bittman allowed for a cooked option.  I melted the butter while I grated the sweet potato, and tossed the shreds of bright orange onto the fizzing fat.  If you have more patience than I do, you might wait for the butter to brown a bit to add nuttier, deeper flavor to the sweet potatoes.

I let the little ribbons of sweet potato cook for a few minutes over medium heat.  The goal was not to brown them, just to lightly cook them through.  When I estimated them to be two minutes from done, I tossed in the raisins and folded the mix together.  This gave the raisins time to match the sweet potatoes in temperature, and it allowed them to plump up and take in some buttery flavor.

Heat off, I turned to the dressing.  Whisk together:

1 TB red wine vinegar

1 tsp honey

1 tsp dijon mustard

sprinkle of chili powder

2 TB olive oil

I tossed this lightly with the sweet potatoes and raisins, then topped them with the pumpkin seeds (which I almost forgot AGAIN!  What is it with me and missing the crunch?) and it was ready for tasting.

We liked this.  I’m not sure it read as a salad – in fact I’m not sure what it read as at all.  At once, it was not quite a salad, but also not quite a vegetable side, and not quite a chutney.  But it was tasty.  The red wine vinegar was acidic enough to counter the sweetness of the potato and raisins nicely.  It was a refreshing bite against the richness of our spanakopita.  The crumbling cubes of feta hidden in the spinach blend imparted the final necessary taste: a briny saltiness so welcome to the rest of this sweet and butter-drenched meal.

I took my next choice (partly made because it sounded delicious, but partly to use up the phyllo) to an election party.

“93. Pumpkin-Raisin-Ginger Turnovers: Mix pureed cooked pumpkin, raisins, chopped crystallized ginger and sugar.  Brush a sheet of phyllo with melted butter and cut lengthwise into thirds. Put a spoonful of the filling at the top of each strip. Fold down to make a triangle and repeat, like folding a flag. Repeat with remaining filling. Brush the tops with butter and bake 20 to 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.

Whether you are elated, distraught, or ambivalent about the results of the vote, these little turnovers were worth celebrating over.

1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree

½ cup sugar

½ cup raisins

¼ cup finely minced crystallized ginger (or you could try grating this on your microplane.  I’m not sure how that would work, but since candied ginger is gummy and hard to chop, it might be helpful)

butter

phyllo dough

I couldn’t resist adding about a teaspoon of cinnamon.

First, I preheated my oven to 375F and put the butter into a small pan, which I set over low heat so it would melt but not brown.

I shlooped the pumpkin from the can to a bowl and whisked in the sugar and fruit.  I suggest you use a fork for this, not a traditional whisk.  The mixture clumps and sticks in the slender spokes and results, if you are at all like me, in cranky frustration.

When everything is well mixed, turn to the phyllo.  If you’ve never worked with it before, don’t be afraid.  The amazing way it changes from dry papery sheets to flaky, buttery pastry is worth the challenge.  Here’s what I do:

Set up an assembly line on your counter.  At one end, unroll the phyllo and set a just-damp kitchen towel (or couple of paper towels) over the top.  This will help, if you are a slow worker, to prevent it from drying out and breaking.  Next to that, you need a board big enough to accommodate one sheet of phyllo.  Next to that, place your butter, followed by your filling, followed by the final resting place for your wrapped confections.

Carefully peel off one sheet of phyllo and place it on your board with the shorter end facing you.  Recover the remaining stack with the damp towel.  Using a pastry brush, brush the whole sheet with butter.  Cut it in long thirds (you’ll begin your cuts on the short edge of the rectangle, so that you create three long, thin strips, as opposed to three short, squat strips).  Then, place about two tablespoons of filling at the top of each strip, and begin to fold in triangles.

To make the first fold, bring one corner down to the opposite edge of the strip.  Don’t press too hard, or the filling will ooze out everywhere.  The second fold will be straight down: the remaining corner (now doubled because you’ve folded over your first triangle) folded down onto the same edge.  Continue to fold, keeping your filling in the center of a triangle, until you reach the end of the strip of phyllo.

Place that on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and brush the top with a little more melted butter.  Repeat until you run out of filling.  Since these won’t rise or spread, you can place them quite close to one another on the baking sheet.  Don’t overlap them, though, because only the dough exposed to the air will brown.

This sounds complicated, but once you get into a rhythm it’s relatively easy and quite satisfying.  You end up with two trays of sweet little parcels that you can stow in the oven for 20-30 minutes until they become magically golden and flaky.

When they were done, I dusted them liberally with powdered sugar and tented them with aluminum foil to take to the party.  I brought home an empty, sugar dusted tray with a lone raisin abandoned in one corner.

They were so tasty.  The pumpkin-raisin-ginger combo was insane: earthy and sweet and, with the addition of the cinnamon, warmly spiced.  Inside the phyllo, it was a contest of texture too: unremittingly soft pumpkin with the occasional chewy juicy punch of raisin, against sharp flaky crunch of sugar-dusted pastry.  We couldn’t resist tasting a few before dinner, and then we had to revisit them again for dessert.  These will, I suspect, make repeat appearances in my kitchen.  They could probably be made a few hours ahead as well, or transported and baked on location: wrap them up, dredge them with butter, and store them under a damp towel or some plastic wrap until ready to bake.  If you don’t like pumpkin pie, or you’re tired of it (I know, heresy!), these might be a fun alternative Thanksgiving dessert option.

Trick or Treat

Halloween is easily in my top three holidays.  I have to give the prize to Christmas, because it means family and love and sweaters, but Thanksgiving and Halloween chase each other in circles to gain second place.  Despite that love (overwhelming in some cases, especially if you, like N., are not invested in costuming yourself at every possible occasion), this is the first year in almost a decade that I’ve done nothing to celebrate.  No costume.  No party.  No decorations.  We bought candy for the six kids that showed up (only six!  The whole evening!  Was it just because it was a Wednesday, or do kids not trick or treat like they once did?) and I definitely listened to the Halloween party mix my friend D. made for me a few years ago, but it felt a bit like a lost holiday.

I did embrace the season, though, the following day.  Having Thursdays off gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years: pillage Target’s day after Halloween sale for leftover clearance items (read: treats!).

The tricks began when I began work on the evening’s dinner.  It was, I realize in retrospect, a bit of a Chopped style enterprise: appetizer, entree, and dessert, each made with ingredients I’d not expected to meld.  In each case, however, the “trick” aspect of the dish was my doing, not the recipe’s.

“12. Garlic-Rosemary Figs: Soak dried figs, stems removed, in warm water until plump; drain and halve. Heat rosemary and lightly smashed (and peeled) garlic with olive oil on medium-low heat, until softened. Add figs, along with some fresh orange juice. Cook until saucy.

Pairing figs, garlic, and orange juice seemed odd.  Nevertheless, I collected enough for one portion (this was not N.’s kind of dish):

6 dried black mission figs

1-2 tsp fresh rosemary

2 smashed, peeled garlic cloves

1 TB olive oil

juice from 1 small orange (⅓ – ½ cup juice)

I heated some water in my teakettle and poured it over the figs (which I’d halved prematurely.  Apparently paying attention to the directions is kind of important), which I let stew on the counter for half an hour.

Figs vaguely plumped, I drained them and set them aside, then put the garlic cloves, rosemary, and oil into a cold pan.  I heated it over medium for five minutes or so – just until the rosemary started to sizzle and the garlic turned a little blonde.  Then I added the figs and orange juice, and simmered for fifteen minutes or so, until the orange juice had reduced considerably.

I plated, I ate, and I considered.  This didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t marry absurdly well either.  The rosemary and the figs were lovely.  The orange juice and figs were fine (though the orange was a bit overpowering).  The garlic and figs were… unobjectionable.  They just weren’t my favorite.

I must say, though, I recalled while I was cleaning up after dinner that this entry was in the “Sauces and Relishes” category.  I had eaten it straight.  This was, perhaps, why I wasn’t enamored of it.  Therefore, I’d recommend spooning this over lamb chops, or pork tenderloin, either of which would add some savory notes to make the garlic feel less anomalous.

Though this “appetizer” wasn’t fantastic, I ate it with a fantastic grain-salad-turned-hash inspired by Smitten Kitchen.  I want to revisit this hash, because I think it could use some additions, but here are the basics:

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Set it in the oven and preheat to 400F.  Yes, you are preheating the pan along with the oven.

Peel and halve a butternut squash.  Seed half of it and cut that half into small cubes.  In a bowl, toss the cubes with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then tumble onto the baking sheet (where they will sizzle immediately – this is a good thing) and stow back in the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until they have golden edges and creamy soft middles. 

During the last ten minutes of squash roasting, push the squash to the sides of the pan (or just grab another pan, if you aren’t invested in avoiding dishes, like me) and stack 4 cups or so of trimmed, cut kale that has also been tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper.  The kale and squash will cook down a little more together, and you will be left with something not quite like kale chips, but a bit more textured than if you’d boiled or steamed it.

While the squash and kale roast, cook 1 cup of bulgur wheat in chicken (or vegetable) broth.  When done, fluff gently with a fork and toss with squash and kale.

During the last few minutes of roasting time, toast 2 TB pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they begin to snap and crack.*  Be careful not to burn them.  Toss with bulgur and vegetable mixture.

In the pumpkin seed pan (again, avoiding dishes), heat an egregious quantity of butter until foamy and crack in an egg to fry until the edges frizzle and brown and crackle.  Despite a few careful taps, on this egg of all eggs – the egg I wanted to photograph quivering atop my hash, the egg I wanted to show just cut and lusciously runny – I somehow shoved my thumb through the yolk and it broke all over the pan.  Nasty trick, egg.

Nevertheless, I piled my hash up on my plate, carefully laid the fried egg over it, and dug in.  It was a hearty, pretty, perfectly autumnal dish.  It needs some tweaking before I’m thrilled with it – perhaps some sautéed leeks folded into the bulgur, or some light spices on the butternut squash – but this was a delightful start.

I turned to dessert:

“96. Sweet Autumn Gratin: Combine cubed pumpkin or sweet potato with cranberries and hazelnuts in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and toss. Drizzle cream all over, dot with butter and bake until soft, bubbly and browned, 50 to 60 minutes. Re-warm before serving if you like.

I’m going to give you a list not of my ingredients and procedure, but of what I should have used and done.

1 big sweet potato, peeled and diced

½ cup dried cranberries (I didn’t have fresh, so I don’t know what they would be like.  Presumably more successful because they would emit, not swallow, liquid)

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere – who would have thought this would be the food item I would miss most from Oregon?!)

¼ – ½ cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet you like it

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup butter

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Butter a 9×13 inch pan (my round, much smaller dish was a poor choice).

Toss the sweet potato chunks, cranberries, and walnuts with brown sugar.  Spread them out in the pan in an even layer.  Pour on the cream, then pinch off pieces of butter and dot them over the top.

Bake for an hour, or until the sweet potato pieces are fully cooked.

I did few of these things.  My sweet potatoes were in bigger-than-they-should-have-been chunks, piled up in a small casserole dish, starving for cream (I only had a tablespoon or two) and shorted on sugar.  As a result, at the end of an hour they were hot but still resistant in texture.  I think what you want is melting, creamy softness.

Tricked again.

To remedy this problem, I tried several things.  First, I made a bourbon hard sauce (equal parts sugar and water, stir to melt.  Add ¼ cup butter, stir carefully until it melts.  Add a shot or two of bourbon, cook just a minute or two to take the edge off) to pour over the top.  This helped, and I willingly ate a serving, but it was lacking whipped cream or ice cream or, bizarrely, pie crust.

 

I didn’t figure out the pie crust thing until the next day when I was making empanadas for dinner.  As I pressed my fork into the edge of the dough to crimp it, I was flooded with the right answer: tiny hand pies stuffed with my sweet potato mixture!

This was clearly the right thing to do.  Saturday afternoon, I unrolled a pie crust on my counter, cut out 3 inch circles, and proceeded to fill them with a teaspoon or two each of the gratin, which I’d mashed with a fork to make smoother and therefore more manageable.

Once filled, fold in half, press and then crimp with a fork, and brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 TB water).  Sprinkle with turbinado or other raw, chunky sugar, and bake in a preheated 400F oven for 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the dough is flaky.

These make lovely, tiny snacks.  The craisins give a punch of tartness to the sweet, earthy, almost heavy sweet potato and walnut pairing.  There are subtle floral hints in there, because before putting it away that first night I admit to dumping the bourbon sauce over the whole thing, but this adds a flavor I wouldn’t change.  The dough is buttery and flaky and collapses easily around the filling, and it’s difficult to prevent yourself from standing over the pan as it comes steaming out of the oven and eating four or five in a row, scalding your tongue and not caring at all.

Perfect November treat.

 

* You could, I suppose, use butternut squash seeds, if you are the sort of person with the forethought to save, rinse, and dry the seeds while you clean your squash.  I, clearly, am not.

Food from Fiction Potluck

So what does one do, you might ask, as a newly minted Doctor of Literature, unfettered from the everyday proletariat academic concerns?  Well, one grades, and one line edits, and one revises frantically, and frankly, one feels completely different and not different at all.  The school year isn’t over, even though (as of Tuesday, when I upload my “completed” dissertation to our Graduate School’s website) my degree is.  So my daily duties no longer include anxious preparing for the big day, but they still include student emails and lesson planning and reading.

But because they don’t include anxious preparation and last minute rethinking and nail biting about what the committee will think, these days can also include celebrations.  Last night was one such celebration: a party I’ve wanted to have for several years now.  The style: potluck.  The theme: “Food in Fiction.”  Interpretation: bring a dish inspired by or mentioned in a book.  That’s it.  There are so many vivid options in novel, drama and film, and our guests had only to choose one and recreate it in the material, taste-bud-bearing world.

We had tremendous fun, in brainstorming, in cooking, and in sharing the variety of dishes from books we love.  As I mentioned to one friend who thanked N. and I for the great party on his way out the door, this is a party we had to have before parting ways as many of us graduate this June, because only in this company could we feel so self-congratulatory and so excited about immersing ourselves in something so nerdy.

Here are a few of the dishes we enjoyed.  I suggested to folks that they provide the description of the food in question from its source text so guests would know what they were eating and which world it was taking them to.  We had Victorian sandwiches and High Modernism Stew nestling next to a magical realist chutney and a warm wassail of fantasy.  What wandering, all in one house…

Cucumber sandwiches from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Rorschach’s beans from the graphic novel “Watchmen.”

Boeuf en daube from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

A trio of deviled eggs to breathe life into Hemingway’s thoughts on being hard boiled in The Sun Also Rises.

A wonderfully smoky molasses cake inspired by the molasses-drenched dinner scene in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

Well spiked butterbeer (you drop in a few marshmallows which, as they melt, mimic the foamy head on the beer) from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Not pictured: (more!) deviled eggs, from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, sautéed marinated mushrooms inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, raspberry cordial from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and a few sourceless delights: meatballs (Cloudy with a chance of, perhaps?), and a bread, cheese, and hard salami platter.  These were justified by their authors with the claims that “surely there must be moments of literary eating that include these items,” which I was quite willing, given their deliciousness, to accept.  And of course, wine.  If we were picky, we could call this an homage to Hemingway, whose characters “get tight” with abandon, or to Carroll’s Alice, who does imbibe from the mysterious bottle demanding she “drink me.”

I made two offerings: a take on the “green as grasshoppers” chutney so adored by Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and a pork pie stuffed with hard boiled eggs from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.  Both turned out extremely well, but I want to talk about the pie first.

Danny the Champion of the World is the story of a boy and his father.  Without giving too much away, I will only say that Danny’s father suffers an injury almost halfway into the book, and when Doc Spencer, the family physician, brings him home from the hospital to the gypsy caravan in which he and Danny live, Doc also brings Danny a package from his wife:

“Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world.  It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry.  I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge.  I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up.  It was a cold meat pie.  The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places.  The taste was absolutely fabulous.  When I had finished the first slice, I cut another and ate that, too.  God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought.  And God bless Mrs. Spencer as well” (Dahl 85-86).

Since my first trip through Danny, I salivated over this savory pie Danny enjoys.  And this party was the perfect excuse to attempt my own.

I found a perfect (and much prettier) base recipe for my pie in the archives of the blog Married… With Dinner.  Though I followed their basic instructions, I made a few amendments for ease and expense.  The key points are as follows:

Use a springform pan.  That way the pie is tall and regal and can sit magically outside a pie plate all on its own.

Roll the bottom crust out large enough to come almost all the way up the sides of the springform (I used storebought crust and it work out just fine), so you can connect top and bottom more easily.

I squashed together a mixture of ground pork, pork sausage, finely chopped ham from a ham slice, salt, cayenne pepper, ground cloves, and black pepper.  I pressed a thin layer of the meat mixture onto the bottom of the pie crust, then laid six hard boiled eggs in a circle through the middle of the pie (regrettably, with ham-covered hands, I did not get a photo of this).  Then I lightly packed the rest of the meat mixture around and over the eggs and sank a bay leaf deep into the very center of the pie.

A traditional English pork pie has warm pork stock poured into a hole in the crust just after baking, which turns into a thick jelly as the pie cools.  This did not sound particularly delicious to me, though I did like the idea of a rich layer of something atop my pork.  I decided on cheese.  I grated about a cup of sharp cheddar and sprinkled it lightly on top of the meat before draping the top pie crust over it.  I cut a little hole in the center of the crust and sliced some steam vents for additional release before baking.

It’s a long baking process (almost two hours), but you are dealing with raw pork, so the cooking time needs to be sufficient.  When the pie is almost done, Married… With Dinner recommends you carefully release the spring on the pan and brush an egg wash all over the top and sides of the pie.  Fifteen minutes more in the oven and this results in a beautiful, shiny golden glaze all over the pie.  It also, in case you are lazy like me and didn’t brush an egg wash over the top edge of the bottom crust to help the lid adhere, creates an after-the-fact glue to hold base and lid together.

I let my pie cool on the counter for an hour or so, then tented it with aluminum foil and stowed it in the fridge until the party started.  It did, after all, have to be a cold meat pie.

It was fabulous.  The meat was nicely spiced and the ham bits shredded in added some smoky, salty variety.  The hard boiled eggs were, indeed, delightful treasures to find, though I admit to over-boiling them slightly so their yolks were not as bright as they could have been.  Still, this is hardly a complaint.  It was like a meatloaf wrapped in flaky, buttery crust, and the cheese was a nice additional flavor and richness.  I suspect this could have been just as good warm as it was cold, but the pie might not have held together quite as nicely.

My second offering was a cilantro coconut chutney.  Saleem, as Midnight’s Children comes to a close, receives a meal from a blind waitress.  He lists:

“On the thali of victory: samosas, pakoras, rice, dal, puris; and green chutney.  Yes, a little aluminum bowl of chutney, green, my God, green as grasshoppers… and before long a puri was in my hand; and chutney was on the puri; and then I had tasted it, and almost imitated the fainting act of Picture Singh, because it had carried me back to a day when I emerged nine-fingered from a hospital and went into exile at the home of Hanif Aziz, and was given the best chutney in the world… the taste of the chutney was more than just an echo of that long-ago taste – it was the old taste itself, the very same, with the power of bringing back the past as if it had never been away…” (Rushdie 525).

I found a recipe for a coriander chutney replete with tart lemon juice, lip puckering spice from serrano chiles, and bright, bright green cilantro, tempered by shredded coconut.  The recipe called for unsweetened coconut but I, in my haste, having only sweetened, forgot to rinse it to get some of the sugar off before dropping it into my food processor.  As a result, my chutney was lightly sweetened, but no one seemed to mind that, especially when it was spread onto the pakoras I made.

I searched around online and made a master recipe from a combination of ideas for these pakoras.  Mine included:

4 cloves garlic, smashed and finely minced

2 tsp. each:

Garam masala

Turmeric

Chili powder

Salt

2 cups Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose flour (pakoras are made with garbanzo bean flour, and though the Bob’s Red Mill mix is a blend including potato starch, it is composed mostly of garbanzo and fava bean flours, so since I had it, I decided a little break from tradition would be okay.  This is literature, after all.  It’s all interpretation anyway!)

1 ½ cups water

½ head cauliflower, diced

¾ large onion, diced

1 small sweet potato, diced

1 quart vegetable oil

Heat the vegetable oil to 375F in a large, sturdy pot.  I used my dutch oven.

While the oil heats, whisk together the dry ingredients and garlic until well combined, then slowly whisk in the water to form a thick, smooth batter.

Add the diced vegetables and stir to combine.

Drop spoonfuls of the batter (ever so carefully!  Watch out for splashes!) into the hot oil and fry for 5-6 minutes, or until the batter is deeply golden and the vegetables inside have magically cooked.

I got to taste one of these.  It was crunchy and starchy and slightly spicy and wholesome and delicious.  It was vegan.  It was gluten-free.  Topped with the chutney it was fresh and springy and spicy and then gone.  By the time I went back to have another, the giant platter I’d made was empty, and only a spoonful or two of chutney remained.  Pride overwhelms disappointment, in moments like these.  My little experiment was so successful it prohibited me from tasting further.  So I had another deviled egg instead.

Full and happy, we fell into bed at midnight with a sinkful of dishes and a fridge-full of leftovers to look forward to.  It’s like reopening a book to your favorite chapter: whose world will I lunch from, dine from, be returned to today?