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.
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.