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Archive for November, 2010

The Last Pumpkins (For a While…)

I’ve been having a great fall teaching classes and testing out endless  butternut squash/apple/turnip/pear/carrot/sweet potato/parsnip/pumpkin combinations in soups, gratins, purees, and stew-like creations. I had a hard time deciding what to share with you before TurkeyDay, the biggest food event of the year.

But the other day I cracked open Dorie Greenspan’s brilliant new cookbook Around My French Table for the first time. This is exactly the book I wish I’d written. Like her perfect Baking from my Home to Yours, the recipes are simple, versatile and flavorful, and the pages are saturated with spectacular pictures and peppered with “bonne idées” – good ideas to make each recipe your own. She takes the mystery out of fabulous French cooking from the simplest home meal to the most intimidating pastries. And so many of her recipes have blunt, adorable names – Spur-of-the Moment Vegetable Soup, Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar.

But once I saw “Pumpkins Stuffed With Everything Good,” I knew I’d found my starting point. The concept, taken from generations of French home cooking, is sheer perfection: so cozy, beautiful, and delicious. As Dorie says, “an outline is about the best you can do with this dish” – because there’s so many ways you can, and often must, vary it. She says she never makes it the same way twice.

It’s sort of like a fondue, only you spoon out the contents not skewer them. The concepts all depend on what you like, and the best thing about it is that you can serve it as an appetizer or a side dish on the Thanksgiving table, perfect for all friends and family. You can even easily make it vegetarian if that’s what makes you happy.

Here’s what you have to do:

You take a bake-able pumpkin, like sugar or Cinderella and cut off the top

scoop out the stringy stuff and the seeds (to toast) (or caramelize)

then crush some garlic, and maybe chop some herbs

fill it with your favorite chunks of bread, cheeses, herbs and a bit of bacon or pancetta or similar if you like

Pour in some cream

And bake it!

That’s it! And this is what you get in the end…

Then you scoop this with some of the pumpkin meat on to small plates. Together with a good glass of white wine and you’re in heaven after one taste. I’m not exaggerating.

Full, concise recipe after the jump!

Read the rest of this entry »

Back to Basics, with Bénédict Beaugé

The culinary world is quite confused right now. Between the organic locavore movement and the liquid nitrogen movement, it’s hard to say where food is going. Who are the true innovators? That’s a question I’d been trying to answer for weeks, especially as more and more famous chefs combine the two. But, last Friday afternoon, by sheer, last minute luck, my friend Theresa barged into my room and informed me, “There’s a French man giving a speech on food at the Maison Française at four.” And that, somewhat indirectly, is how I found the answer.

The French man in question was renowned French food author Benedict Beaugé, who was on his way to speak at the James Beard Foundation (fancy, I know).  M. Beaugé has the thickest, most wonderful, most perfectly French accent I have ever heard. But while he might sound a bit, dare I say, like Inspector Jacques Clouseau, he actually has all the simple, sensible answers we need.

To understand innovation today we need to have a little history lesson. You see, the innovations today are directly connected to innovations of the past. And unsurprisingly, they all originated in France. This all began in 1651, with the publication of what Beaugé calls “the first book of French modern cuisine.” Le Cuisinier François was written by Pierre François La Varenne, as a way of departing from the “spectacular” cuisine of the Middle Ages. “People are not so fond of spices now and they try to find the real taste of the produce,” explains Beaugé of the Renaissance attitude. Food became fresher and tastier ­– they didn’t have to do weird things to it to make it taste edible – and so La Varenne called for chefs to highlight le goût naturel – the natural taste of the ingredients they used. Three years later, Nicolas de Bonnefons wrote Les Délices de la Campagne, a book with the same principle, meant not for the aristocracy but the bourgeoisie. “If it is cabbage soup, it must taste cabbage, when you have turnip soup, it must taste turnip, and that’s something really new,” says Beaugé. This is where the true innovation in cooking was then, and, at least as a starting point, where it is today.

While Molecular gastronomy has a place in the kitchen, it is destined to become another technique chefs use to express natural flavor. Molecular gastronomy itself is not particularly innovative. In fact, it’s really just backtracking. “it is quite similar with the cuisine of the Middle Ages or of antiquity, of the Romans, or something like that,” Beaugé says. “Really it’s much more the appearance which is important than the taste.”  “I don’t think molecular gastronomy is the future of cuisine,” he continues, “it’s something which will be integrated with cuisine in a general way, as every new technique is integrated into cuisine – those of 18th century, those of 19th century. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to cook with nitrogen.”

His message is helpful and optimistic. Chefs like René Redzepi and Ferran Adrià will be the most inventive, expressing goût naturel through molecular tools, but to a degree we all have an opportunity to be innovators here. With the rise of farmers markets, and the near constant availability of fresh produce, we can all highlight our weekly finds when we cook. I’ve included these pictures from the local farmers market as inspiration. These are the flavors we want to preserve. If we want to be innovative we are so lucky, because even as home chefs we have everything we need.

 

Seeds of Sincerity

Fall break finally arrived this past weekend and, while I could have stayed in the city exploring six star restaurants and interviewing famous chefs, like a good, loving little daughter I hopped on the 6:39 to New Haven on Friday evening, and spent four glorious days [eating candy] with my family.

You see, Francesca really wanted to trick or treat with me. And you know how I hate to disappoint her…

This weekend was a like dream. The moment I got home I opened the fridge, out of instinct, but instead of reaching for something I just stood and stared. I couldn’t believe the freshness, the variety, and the general edibility of everything I saw. When I returned to school, I talked with my friend Mia about her trip home and she said she’d experienced the same Fridge-Shock I had. (Unsurprisingly, the very base of our friendship was founded on Dark Chocolate-Sea Salted Almonds and Magnolia banana pudding.) Four soups – pumpkin, broccoli, carrot-ginger and a vibrant pea – met me at the refrigerator door, and as the weekend progressed we added homemade chili, a boeuf en daube, and a plum-vanilla crisp, to the mix. I was able to choose between two apple ciders, spiced and regular, and I could even heat them up if I wanted. In all honesty, and I say this without a hint of irony, I was so overwhelmed by my refrigerator that by Halloween night I’d almost forgotten about candy.

I certainly miss the pumpkins the most (after the sisters I carved them with, of course). There was not a moment when I wasn’t painting, carving, eating, or watching a movie about one. Francesca, Isabella and I spent several hours on the front lawn, freezing our hands off, while mommy scoured the house for melon ballers, 10-inch kitchen knives, awls, cookie cutters, and mini saws.

Francesca instructed me as I carved my first dictated pumpkin (eyes and nose like closed bananas, mouth like an open banana) and she stirred the seeds for the “pumpkin seed stew” while Isabella and I poked, sawed and pared “The Old House in Paris,” a tree, and various unidentifiable swirly things.

When Francesca had finished preparing the seeds (as everyone knows, stirring them is the most important part), we took them inside and began searching high and low for pumpkin seed recipes. But to my shock and dismay, all I could find, no matter how hard I looked, were recipes that called for nothing more than olive oil and sea salt. Yummy, I suppose, but I wasn’t looking to make gourmet potato chips. After a taxing day of carving and playing I needed something sweet as well as salty, and something unmistakably autumn-y.

And so the cinnamon-caramel pumpkin seeds were born. In this recipe, salt and toasty sugar melt with butter and cinnamon to form a new fall classic. They’re cooked first on the stove, to soften the seeds and melt the sugar, and then spread on parchment paper to bake to a crisp. They tend to stick together into a kind of pumpkin brittle, which I like, although you are free to spend the time making sure they are spread out. Of course, they’re very simple (as all good things should be), and very addictive. So as you’re carving your Thanksgiving pumpkins, as I’m sure you plan to do, make sure you save some time to make this modern fall candy. I know you’ll love it and you’ll make me, and the Great Pumpkin, very proud.

Cinnamon-Caramel Pumpkin Seeds

2 Cups of Fresh, Rinsed Pumpkin Seeds, well stirred by any 5-year-olds you have lying around
3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
3/4 Teaspoon Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
1/2 Tablespoon Butter

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F
  2. Mix cinnamon, sugar and salt together in a small bowl
  3. Melt butter in medium-small non-stick skillet over medium-high heat
  4. Add pumpkin seeds, and 1/3 of sugar mixture, and sautee for 8 minutes, gradually adding the remaining sugar mixture over the course of the first 4 minutes. Make sure to stir constantly or the seeds may burn
  5. Pour seeds onto a baking sheet coated with parchment paper and spread evenly
  6. Roast for 15 minutes, cool, and enjoy!
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