November 30, 2009

End fall with one last pumpkin recipe...

It's that time of year...exams and papers are due (for those in school) and it is almost the start of winter. This year, winter officially begins on December 21, but it is starting to get cold! The only up side to the change of weather is that I won't feel as bad studying indoors all day--which is precisely what I'll be doing the next couple of weeks. So hang tight! I'll have many more blog posts as soon as I go to Arizona for winter break.

Since it is the last day in November, I thought I'd end with one of my absolute favorite pumpkin recipes: pumpkin oatmeal. Those who know me well, know that I eat oatmeal pretty much on a regular basis. But it's not just any ol' oatmeal concoctions are the products of years of trial and error, figuring out the precise combinations of nuts and fruits, amounts of milks and juice, and cooking times that work best. Some of my favorites include pistachio-apricot, PB-raisin-banana, cinnamon-dried apple-walnut, and date-pecan. I'll probably end up posting specific recipes in the future but for now, I give you my pumpkin oatmeal recipe. It is the perfect way to start off a cold morning--warm, hearty, and super nutritious.

Pumpkin Oatmeal

Serves 1

3/4 cup water
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant)
1/4 cup organic pumpkin puree (fresh or canned)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
2 Tbsp currants or raisins
2 Tbsp chopped walnuts, toasted
1/4 cup milk or soymilk
1 tsp blackstrap molasses
1-2 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 ripe banana, sliced (optional)

Bring water to a boil in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, then turn heat to low and add oats. Cook until water is nearly evaporated, stirring regularly. Stir in pumpkin, milk or soymilk, spices, currants or raisins, and walnuts. Continue to cook a few minutes longer, until thick and bubbly. Stir in sweeteners and vanilla. Add more milk if desired. Top with optional banana. Enjoy!

November 19, 2009

Double Cranberry Pie with Cornmeal Crust

I bet you didn’t know that the cranberry is one of only three fruits that are native to America (along with the blueberry and Concord grape). And that more than half of commercial cranberry production occurs right here in Massachusetts. It’s high season for cranberries and this, ladies and gentlemen, calls for a celebration. How about a deliciously tart cranberry pie?

But first a little history…

Native Americans have been enjoying cranberries for centuries, as a source of red dye for rugs and clothing, a healing agent to treat wounds, and of course food. They sweetened cranberries with honey or maple syrup and cooked up a sauce similar to the one we enjoy during Thanksgiving time. Another interesting preparation, which served as more of a survival food, was pemmican—a combination of crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and fat (Mmmmm...).

Settlers were quick to adopt the Native American uses for the fruit and by the beginning of the 18th century, cranberries were shipped and introduced to Europe. Many believe that the name “cranberry” comes from the early Dutch and German settlers who came up with the term “crane berry” to describe the plant’s flower that looked like the head and bill of a crane.

Source of photo: Food Safety Central

Cultivation in Massachusetts began in the early 1800s and really prospered due to favorable growing conditions: soil type, presence of sand, and a dormancy period during the winter. Interestingly, the cranberry vines can potentially survive indefinitely, and some of the vines used for production in Massachusetts are more than 150 years old! Back in the day, production was much slower as early growers would harvest the cranberries by hand. But innovative farmers came up with a technique known as wet harvesting, in which they flooded a cranberry bog with water, allowing the cranberries to float to the surface and be scooped up.

A note about my cranberry pie...

This recipe was inspired by an early 20th century traditional cranberry-raisin pie recipe I came across, however I did alter it quite a bit. I substituted the raisins for dried cranberries, creating a “double cranberry” effect. I also added a chopped up Cortland apple to be consistent with the New England theme, orange zest and cinnamon for spice, and a cornmeal double pie crust. The crust was especially delicious, slightly dense, yet flaky, with a subtle crunch from the cornmeal…a perfect pairing for the tart cranberry filling. I made the pie for a fall potluck and it was a huge hit. I can’t wait to recreate it again soon. After all, it does represent the unique flavors of the season, and as we all know, I am a sucker for anything seasonal.

Double Cranberry Pie with Cornmeal Crust


For the crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
6 to 9 tablespoons ice water

For the filling
12 ounces fresh cranberries
½ cup dried, unsweetened cranberries
1 large baking apple, peeled, cored and chopped into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the glaze
1 egg, lightly beaten
Turbinado sugar

Good-quality vanilla ice cream (optional)


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, blend butter pieces into flour until mixture resembles coarse meal with pea-sized lumps. Drizzle 4 tablespoons ice water over mixture and stir until incorporated. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until dough holds together. Knead gently and form two equal-sized disks. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Meanwhile, combine fresh and dried cranberries, apple, orange juice, zest and sugar in a medium bowl; mix well. Sprinkle with flour and cinnamon and stir to combine.

Make the bottom crust: Remove one disk of dough from refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll out into a 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. If necessary stretch, trim, or move small pieces around—the idea is to have an inch of overhanging dough.

Pour cranberry filling into pie crust and spread evenly. Refrigerate.

Make the top crust: Roll the second disk of dough into a roughly 11x8-inch rectangle. Cut lengthwise into 8 strips with a sharp knife. Remove pie from refrigerator. Arrange 4 strips across pie, spacing evenly. Place remaining 4 strips in the other direction, weaving into a lattice pattern. Fold dough overhang to form a crust. (Once again, you may have to trim, stretch or move pieces around to make the pie look nice) Decoratively crimp using fingers or a fork. Brush top crust with egg. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until bubbly and browned. If crust begins to get too brown, cover it loosely with foil. Let pie cool to warm before serving. (I highly recommend eating it à la mode)

November 15, 2009

Roasted Winter Vegetable Soup with Caraway Seeds

Many people spend this time of year reminiscing about sweet summer fruits and tender vegetables, which is fine and all…so long as it doesn’t detract from fully embracing and savoring delicious winter vegetables. Farmers markets are piled high with an array of winter squash, root vegetables, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, to name a few...

Root vegetables and hard-shell squash are particularly versatile; some common ways to prepare them include roasting, steaming, sautéing, boiling, mashing, and pureeing. Roasting is a particularly special way to enjoy these winter vegetables, which brings out rich, earthy, sweet flavors that doesn’t really compare to any other way of cooking them.

I recently went a little crazy at the farmers’ market and came home with way too many vegetables (after all, it's just me!). Pureed soups are a great way to use up fresh produce, especially because they can easily be frozen for a later use. Given my obsession for roasted vegetables, I figured that using them to make a soup would result in nothing but deliciousness.

The theme of root and other winter vegetables also got me thinking about colder-climate regions that have adapted traditional dishes that are based on nature’s bounty. Eastern European cuisine features countless dishes with potatoes, cabbage, beets, rutabagas, etc…..and more often than not, they are accompanied by the distinct flavors of caraway seeds in rye bread. Since I am always looking for ways to add a special touch to my recipes, I thought toasted caraway seeds would be a nice addition.

Caraway seeds come from an herb in the parsley family and, in fact, aren’t seeds at all but the small fruit of the caraway plant. They are commonly used to flavor Eastern European cabbage dishes, pork, sausages, breads and soups, but are probably most noted for their flavor contributions to rye bread.

My roasted winter vegetable soup recipe turned out to be just right—flavorful but not to rich, hearty, and perfect for a cool autumn day. The caraway seeds proved to be a great touch and rye bread was the perfect accompaniment. I admit…I slacked and didn’t make my own bread this time; but I did pick up some European-style dark rye bread at TJ's that is just fabulous.

Roasted Winter Vegetable Soup with Caraway Seeds

4 lbs assorted winter vegetables – I used carrots, turnips and cauliflower
10 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 ½ cups milk or cream
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Cut vegetables into 1¼ inch cubes (leave more delicate vegetables like cauliflower in larger pieces to prevent burning). Place them in a single layer on 1 to 2 baking sheets lined with foil. Drizzle them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast until caramelized and tender, about 30-45 minutes.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and celery and sauté 10 minutes. Add roasted vegetables, thyme and broth. Transfer to a food processor or blender and puree. Return to pot and stir in milk or cream. Bring to a simmer over low heat.

Meanwhile, set a small pan over medium heat. Add caraway seeds and toast until lightly browned and fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Season soup with salt and pepper. Divide among bowls and top with toasted caraway seeds. Serve with warm rye or other bread.

November 8, 2009

Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle

Oh the ever-addicting peanut brittle—you know, the treat you find everywhere during holiday months, often in special festive tins. There are good brittles and not-so-good brittles, and brittles made with ingredients other than peanuts: cashews, sesame seeds, almonds, toffee, to name a few.

Brittle as actually one of the oldest candies; one made with honey and sesame has been a favorite treat in the Middle East for millennia. Peanut brittle, as we know it today, likely comes from the 20th century American kitchen, at a time when there were many technological advancements and a variety of new foods becoming available (sugar, corn syrup, and shelled peanuts!)

Back then, peanuts were called groundnuts and earlier versions of brittle contained molasses, brown sugar and butter. (Next time, I will try adding molasses to mine!) By 1919, peanut brittle was prepared with sugar, corn syrup, Spanish shelled peanuts and baking soda. The purpose of the soda was so the “batch will be the same color on both sides, not yellow on one side and brown on the other.” (as reported on the Food Timeline website)

The holiday season always reminds me of my Aunt Mary’s spiced candied nuts, which we all devour at every family holiday gathering. I decided to incorporate the idea of spicy, salt and sweet into a brittle recipe, and what better ingredient to use than pumpkin spirit of autumn! I must warn you, this recipe is very delicious and very addicting. Proceed with caution.

Lesley’s Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 ½ cups shelled unsalted pumpkin seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/3 cups sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ cup water

Heat a sauté pan over medium and add oil. Add pumpkin seeds and stir constantly until they begin to brown and crackle, about 5 minutes. Immediately remove from heat; stir in spices and ½ teaspoon salt.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly oil the paper. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup and water. Bring to a boil and cook until a deep amber color forms, about 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in the pumpkin seed mixture and dissolved baking soda. Working quickly, poor the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading it into a thin layer (the mixture will harden very rapidly). Sprinkle with the remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Let cool until completely hardened, at least 1-2 hours, before breaking into shards.