Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Sweet Meat of Pumpkins

Courtesy Shannon Graven

It’s probably an overstatement to say that fall is my favorite time of year, because I’m sure I say that with the arrival of every new season.  But, it is a pretty amazing time in the Pacific Northwest ―especially this year, with the absolutely spectacular display of fall colors awash everywhere you look.
Out in the fields, farmers are busy taking advantage of the warm sunny days and chilly nights; this perfect scenario has set them scrambling to take full advantage of optimum harvest conditions. 

A recent visit to support local Herrick’s Farm inspired me to take a step beyond selecting my usual generic pumpkin carving variety and to venture into lesser known heirloom territory. The farm was abuzz with the activity of screaming school kids all in the throes of Halloween excitement. Their holiday spirit was so infectious I joined in the clamor and proceeded to wrestle down my own gnomish looking pumpkin. 

Based on its sheer ugliness―and high baking praises―I trundled off with a 10-pound prize, a warty blue/green affair affectionately called Sweet Meat (a gourd in some circles).  Only at Halloween would something this creepy appear even vaguely edible.    

By early the next day I had serious plans for this pumpkin.  Armed with my largest chef’s knife and a  glint in my eye, I tackled the gnarly behemoth.  I stabbed through its thick reptilian-like skin and hazily hacked it into manageable pieces.  I pulled out its slimy seeding system and set it aside.   Then I placed its meat in a deep roasting pan, poured in a thick layer of steaming hot water, sealed it with foil, and baked it until fork tender, about 1-1/2 hours.   

 Meanwhile, I sorted through the plump seeds, gave them a good cleaning and dispatched them to a solitary brining solution for later roasting.  Finally, I gathered up the assorted pumpkin detritus and stealthy eliminated it ―all into that vast pumpkin graveyard. 

 Once out of the oven and cooled, the meat easily peeled away from its skin and was ready for a quick turn in the food processor.   In short order, the processor’s pulsing rhythm had this mass whipped into an astonishingly elegant, creamy, deep golden elegant puree.  Did I mention elegant?    

 Verily, thou art true to thy name. O, great pumpkin, thy meat is sweet. 


Pumpkin Bread

Most pumpkin breads can require up to 1 cup or more oil or butter.  With the addition of the moist Sweet Meat pumpkin pulp, I’ve used decisively less fat here.  If necessary you can even reduce the amount of granulated sugar. 

The agave nectar provides a sweet caramel flavor that enhances the pumpkin, but honey will work, too.  After it cools, wrap it well.   If you can let this tender loaf rest a few hours before cutting, it will slice like a dream.   As a variation, I sprinkled about 2 tablespoons streusel between the layers of batter and added a bit more on top of the loaf before baking. 

1/4 cup softened butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. agave nectar (or honey)
1 cup Sweet Meat pumpkin pulp (or other)
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. each ginger and allspice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line and spray a 9x5” loaf pan.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter and sugars until light; beat in the agave syrup, then the pumpkin; when combined beat in the eggs one at a time.

In small bowl, combine the dry ingredients and gently stir into the pumpkin mixture.Spread into prepared pan and bake for 60 minutes or longer; until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and the center is cooked.
Cool on rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan. 
**Stay tuned for possibly unfolding episodes of Pumpkin Passion.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Case of the Mysterious Tapioca

The other day I was blindly pawing through a cupboard and tipped over a long-forgotten box of tapioca.  Fortunately, the potential mess was averted as it was confined to a zip-lock storage bag, so I set it to the back of the counter for later consideration.   That’s the thing about tapioca.  It’s not a staple that I regularly use and it is packaged in a fairly small box that tends to get lost and forgotten.  Even if it’s in line for rotation it is easily squeezed out by the bigger players, unwittingly benched to the back of the shelf.    

Unless you are a slave to old-fashioned tapioca pudding or inclined to pie baking, tapioca may carry with it very little value or significance.   I had no clear recollection of why or when I last used it and wondered if it was still good. Later, I took a closer look at the slim classic red and white box, on the top of the box was stamped Nov. 08, 2010.  Hmmm.  I also noted it was microwaveable ‘minute’ tapioca, not the original pearl variety.  Beyond that, I recalled that it’s advisable to soak the larger pearl tapioca first.  Why? What’s the difference? I puzzled.

I did a little further digging and thanks to Ellen at Ellen’s Kitchen, I found a helpful explanation of tapioca in its various incarnations.   Fact is, it’s a pretty powerful thickening agent known to out-match flour in many sauces and long cooking dishes.  Tapioca comes from the cassava plant’s root system, of which some portions are highly poisonous.  This is a point worth fully researching if you are considering a future in tapioca markets.

It’s a complicated process.  Their preferred roots are ground into a pulp, and then liquefied into a starch that is dried and pulverized again before becoming tapioca flour.   To make pre-cooked pearls, the tapioca flour and water is slowly simmered until it reaches the dried flake stage.  At this point the flakes are milled into recognizable uniform pearl shapes―of which the smallest is the instant or minute tapioca, with its noticeably small pearls. The larger pearls need to be soaked again to soften them for cooking purposes.       

Along the way, I also read that tapioca can lose its thickening power if it has been opened too long.  Oops. I decided to ignore the warning, jump right in, and continue my investigation into the mysteries of tapioca.  I passed on the pie idea; I was interested in something a little more outside the box.  I knew I was onto something good when I discovered Judith Fertig’s Lemony Baked Apple Tapioca in All-American Desserts. This is an invaluable resource that celebrates a wide swath of regional sweets, all owning a particular spot in the American landscape of desserts.

Unlike the average tapioca pudding which requires tedious stirring, here apples and tapioca simmer unattended in the oven.  As usual, I made a few adjustments along the way, like substituting ¾ cup brown sugar  for 1 cup granulated sugar and a hint of vanilla in lieu of fresh lemon juice. 

This cleverly comes together in a charming pudding with bites of baked apple adrift in nubby tapioca all mysteriously tucked under a golden brown meringue dome.  Best of all,  time did not seem to alter tapioca’s amazing ability to manifest into a thick and tasty pudding.  Now, that’s deliciously entertaining. 
Baked Apple Tapioca 
Inspired by All-American Desserts, Judith M. Fertig

2 tart apples, such a Granny Smith or Jonathan, peeled, cored, and cut up
1 lemon, zest
1/3 cup quick-cooking tapioca
1 tsp. vanilla
4 cups milk
¾ cup brown sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 Tbsp. cinnamon-sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter the bottom of a 2-qt baking dish.  Arrange the apple pieces over the bottom and sprinkle with lemon zest.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the tapioca, vanilla, milk, sugar, and egg yolks.  In a medium bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff.  Whisk the whites into the tapioca-milk mixture until lightly blended. 

Sprinkle the apples with the cinnamon-sugar and pour the tapioca-milk mixture over the fruit.

Bake until the tapioca has firmed and apples are soft, approximately 30-40 minutes. (Allow the pudding to cook about 10 minutes after it begins to bubble.)  It will thicken and set as it cools, serve warm.   Yield:   6 or more servings. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Conflicted by Crumpets

What is it about crumpets that makes them so endearing?  For the longest time these stodgy stepsisters of the elegant English muffin were hard to find, even unavailable in many American markets.  Perhaps the food marketers theorized, "Why bother, we have English muffins, don't we?" 

Crumpets from
Once sampled, I was completely charmed by crumpets’ dense satisfying yeastiness. They evoke in me a peculiar primal yearning that must harken back to ancient days of yore and early gobs of comfort food.  Best described as a spongy cross between a pancake and a biscuit, these heavy lumps of air-specked dough surely lodge in the intestinal tract for days ―maybe years. 

Crumpets' air of mystery could come from the special props required to make them.  As with the luminous pan for the lofty kugelhopf, or the shell-shaped molds for classic madeleines, special metal rings hold the batter/dough in place on a griddle until crumpets are set and firm enough to cook on their own. 

I toted a set of rings around for years and finally sold them at a yard sale - in their original box.  Truth be told, I was more than a little intimidated by the cooking process. 

My fears were quelled recently when the cheeky video, “The Great British Crumpet” from Titli’s Busy Kitchen, popped up on YouTube.  In her version, Titli manages to de-mystify the formidable art of British crumpet making. 


It looks like fun, I mused, but what about the rings?  In my pantry, I eyed two cans of tuna fish and sensed I had a close enough match.  Why did I need six anyway?  Titli gets by quite nicely with only two rings. 
Forewarned:  the tuna cans did not work.  Bumblebee has re-engineered their cans with a curved bottom edge, making them far too difficult to cut open with a manual can-opener.  Fortunately, Dole pineapple has not seen the need to do so.  I moved on―with one ring. 

The batter-like dough came together in a bubbly gooey mass and filled the ring mold, just like Titli's.  That’s where the similarities ended.   Even with adjustments to burner heat, the interior of the crumpets lacked their characteristic large holes and remained soggy when sliced.    

Of course, that didn’t stop me; I finished the cooking process in the microwave.  While steaming hot, I slathered a slightly shrunken version with butter, and proceeded to burn the roof of my mouth devouring it―but ready to test the next. One ring worked well with this method.  Unfortunately, my rhythm did not allow time to document my findings. 

Who knows when next I will be tempted to try again? I’m still digesting the last batch.    For future reference, here's my working copy of Titli's recipe: 

The Great British Crumpet
From Titli's Busy Kitchen

1 cup warm milk
¾ cup warm water, divided
1 teaspoon each active yeast and granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt (my addition)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder 

Proof the yeast with ½ cup warm water and sugar until it bubbles, about 10 minutes.  (My option; Titli combines all liquids here and proofing was very slow.)  

In a large bowl combine the yeast mixture, the milk, remaining water, and the salt.  Whisk in the flour until the mixture is smooth.  Cover and let rise in warm place until light, about 1 hour.

When ready, in a small bowl combine the baking power with about 2 tablespoons warm water and stir into the dough. 

Preheat non-stick pan with flat bottom over medium heat and spread the muffin rings thoroughly with butter.  When hot place, butter the pan, place the rings in pan and fill each with ½” to 3/4” full.  Reduce heat to medium low to avoid burning.  Allow to cook undisturbed until the muffin rises and surface is filled with bubbles (like pancakes), about 10 minutes.  Run knife around the edge to release and turn to toast second side, 1 minute or longer.  Wash the rings, butter again, and repeat.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey: The Dish

Today my joy knows no bounds because my mind and body are still reverberating from last night’s dinner.   I realize that chicken livers do not have that delirious affect on everyone, but they certainly can make me crazy when they are presented in a deeply satisfying, succulent, piping hot package. 

These guys, in fifty shades of grey, are not knock-out gorgeous and will not likely dazzle you with their hunky-chunky visual charm.  Let’s face it; chicken livers of this magnitude are not much to look at, but they are real sleepers and deliver a powerful complement of earth-shaking nutritional revitalization that will surely rock your world.  If you are looking for robust flavors and rip-roaring atavistic satisfaction, look no further. 

This is a riff on Vivian Howard’s Dirty Farro, prepared at her highly regarded restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, in Kinston, North Carolina. In her outstanding treatment, she combines a few chicken livers, breakfast sausage, and semi-pearled farro (a whole wheat grain) into an unctuous variation of the old southern favorite, dirty rice.   

I have taken Vivian’s concept and substituted cremini mushrooms, sage, savory, and allspice for the sausage; of course I increased the chicken livers, and added a healthy bunch of tender rainbow kale from the garden (the last of the season!).  So, if you aren’t big on chicken livers and love breakfast sausage, I urge you to try her excellent dish, which can be found at  

Dirty Farro
Inspired by Vivian Howard, Chef & The Farmer, Kinston, NC.  Courtesy of  Epicurious. com and Bon Appétit | February 2012

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 cups semi-pearled faro
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoons kosher salt plus more
1/2 pound chicken livers, trimmed, large chop
1- ½ cups cremini mushrooms, large chop
1 medium onion, fine chop
1 stalk celery, fine chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
1 teaspoon sage leaves, minced
1 teaspoon savory leaves, minced
¼ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 bunch kale, clean: about ¾ cup stems, chop; 6 cups leaves, large chop
1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions (dark-green parts only)
1/3 cup celery leaves from inner stalks


In medium sized pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add farro; stir until toasted, about 2 minutes. Add thyme, bay leaf and2 ½  cups water. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover, add ½ teaspoon salt, and simmer until farro is tender but still firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. Remove from pot and let cool.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in same pot over medium heat. Add the livers; cook, about 4 minutes, until they begin to color on the outside. Add the mushrooms and cook until they begin to release liquid.  Add onions, garlic, the herbs and spices, the kale stems, and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 2 minutes.

Add the kale leaves and approximately ½ cup water; bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, until liquid is reduced by about half, about 8 minutes. Stir in cooked farro; simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Stir in scallions; garnish with celery leaves. Yield:  4 servings.   


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