Thursday, October 30, 2008

I say pumpkin, vous say potiron

I'm very fond of Ina Garten, as you know, but I must say this: she is wrong. At least about pumpkins in France. She said in her new book "Back to Basics" (Lord love the library!) that pumpkin isn't even sold in France. I couldn't believe that so I checked. It is. She said that while in Paris she had to make due with a squash called potiron instead. Not to be picky, but a pumpkin is a squash and the french word for pumpkin is potiron. I don't know what Ina's gourd looked like but it was likely a pumpkin.

Of course, for my research I didn't actually fly to France and check all the market stands but I did use my old friend Google and I found recipes a plenty from french folks using pumpkin. One thing I did discover though is that pumpkin is typically only a savory ingredient - pies, muffins, bread are probably not going to show up on a menu any time soon.

So Ina, dear favorite of celebrity chefs, you might want to scope out the markets next time you and Jeffrey are in Paris. Perhaps you'll want to try this Potiron rôti:

"Roasted pumpkin stuffed with bread and gruyère cheese, from The Great Little Pumpkin Book by Michael Krondl. I learned how to make this fabulous dish from Alain Senderens, one of France's renowned three-star chefs. If you can only find big pumpkins, increase the filling and cooking time proportionately. Recipe

1 cooking pumpkin of about 5 pounds

1/2 pound loaf of French or Italian country-style bread

1 cup crème fraîche

8 ounces grated Gruyère cheese

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Salt and black pepper

Rinse the outside of the pumpkin and wipe dry. Using a sharp knife and cutting at a slight angle so the tip of the knife is angled down into the vegetable, cut off the top quarter of the pumpkin to form a lid. Use a large spoon scrape out the seeds.

Cut the bread into thin slices and toast until golden brown. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line the pumpkin cavity with one layer of the bread, spread with 4 tablespoons of the crème fraîche, a quarter of the cheese and a generous sprinkle of salt and freshly ground pepper. Continue layering (4 layers in all), finishing with the Gruyère. Set the top back on the pumpkin.

Cut a piece of aluminum foil large enough to wrap the entire pumpkin. Brush the pumpkin lightly with the oil. Wrap the pumpkin with the foil and place on a baking pan. Set in the oven and bake about 1 hour, 40 minutes. The pumpkin will be done when the outside skin has softened and a very sharp knife can easily pierce through to the interior flesh.

Remove from the oven, take off the foil and place the pumpkin on a serving platter. Carefully remove the lid and, using a large spoon, stir the interior mixture, making sure to incorporate the pumpkin into the other ingredients. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What happens when you reach "good"

Most people who cook (or basket weave, or skydive, or what have you...) have at least one or two recipes that they consider "good". They've mastered making a good spaghetti sauce, or a pie recipe, or egg salad - whatever. Something that they are known for making or at least that they and their friends/families really like. That's as it should be. You do something long enough, you ought to do at least part of it pretty well.

So what happens when you reach "good"? Does that recipe stand still and never get changed? Do you never look for a better pie crust or tomato soup recipe or glazed ham when you find something you really like? For example, I found an interesting recipe in Cook's Country magazine for the best roast turkey. Now I'm not famous for my turkey but the good cooks in my family have made turkey the same way for awhile and it works really well. Knowing that Thanksgiving isn't filled with angst of "will it be dry", I still decided to try the turkey recipe - partly out of curiosity (just how would salt pork figure into the equation) and partly to see if there is something better than really good.

The turkey was good - exceptionally moist and really easy (no basting at all). Was it better than the older version? No, not better, but equally good. Can two turkeys both be really good but different? Yeah. Will I make it for Thanksgiving? Yes, I think so.

I guess the moral of this story is that even when you have reached good - in whatever you do, it is still worthwhile to see how far you can stretch that label. Maybe the end result will be equally good, just easier or quicker; maybe it will be worse and you will reaffirm your old methods; or maybe it will be good - but in a different way - and there is nothing wrong with having more than one way to skin a that pluck a turkey.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Random Recipe Monday - Apple Cupcakes

Ever buy an ingredient because you need one tablespoon and then you have a whole jar in the fridge, looking accusingly at you every time you get something out? Ok, maybe not looking at you, unless the ingredient was a fish head, but you get the idea. Mine is apple butter. I needed it for the apple cider doughnuts I made awhile back and unfortunately, it seems to only be sold in giant jars. Go figure. So I've tried to use it in my oatmeal but at that rate, it will be a moldy oldie before I go through it all.

I'm bound and determined to use up that apple butter. I don't want to waste the money and truthfully, it is pretty good stuff. Enter Apple cupcakes. Half a cup will be used in making these babies and heck, cream cheese frosting on an apply little cake sounds pretty darn good. Good for Halloween, good for Thanksgiving, whateva floats your apple boat.

Any other ideas for using apple butter? Mine is heavily spiced so I don't know how well it would work in something savory, but I'm willing to give things a try.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sugar, ah honey honey

Halloween is coming and candy is front and center, as it has always been with the second most popular holiday in the US (generating six billion in sales - that's a lot of candy corn folks).

Everybody has their favorites and we all have memories of going through our trick or treat bags, pulling out the good stuff and leaving the gum, dental floss and peppermint hard candies for siblings or parents. Me, I can't leave a Reese's peanut butter cup alone, though tootsie rolls are a good alternative. Almond Joy, Hershey's kisses,, I guess the connecting feature here is chocolate. Now that's a surprise (yeah, not really).

As tasty as these confections are, have you ever wanted to make them yourself? Probably not, huh. Because it is easier to just pick up the package at the check out stand for a buck when your sweet tooth is acting up. But where is your innovating spirit, I say. Where is the famous American pluck and ingenuity (if you are American, if not - I got nothing) of your foremothers? Would Betsy Ross have just gone down to Wal-Mart to pick out a flag? Would Dolly Madison have let Washington's portrait burn rather than rescue it because she could just order another one from Did Mimi Eisenhower tell Ike to get his fudge from the mall? I think not.

But how can I make peanut butter cups, you rightfully complain (really, the whining isn't necessary). Never fear. Ingenuity and a good internet link are here. Make your favorite candies with these recipes. Peanut butter cups, Almond Joy, Snickers....yeah, the good stuff. No hard candy or sweet tarts. Now go forth and create some candy magic of your own, my fellow American consumers.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is the spanish word for "coincidence"?

Paella isn't something that comes up often in conversation - unless you live in Spain, I suppose. As delicious as the dish is, it is something I rarely think about and even more rarely prepare. I'm not sure why that is because it does have something for everyone - seafood, sausage, chicken, saffron. Perhaps I don't make it because of the seafood; hubby just doesn't partake. I could omit it but that would be shame, so I guess that's why it doesn't come to mind. Until now.

Coincidentally, my sister and mother and I were talking paella just the other day. We talked about whether a special pan is needed, what we would substitute for chorizo, if we wanted to, and the price of saffron. Well, what should be front and center on today as I started a little search for something interesting?

Yep, paella. I think I'll give it a try this weekend and see if I can make "with and without" versions for hubby and me. I'm a big believer in coincidence and clearly the food elves (or whatever else is in charge of such things) are pointing me toward paella. A few tapas wouldn't hurt anything either, and maybe a small glass of rioja too...hmmm, I smell a theme coming on.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Reading, Righting and Arithmatic

Big decisions always seem to happen on weekends. Go figure. Over the weekend, I decided that the home schooling idea I've been considering finally needs to happen. NR, who has Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism), has been really struggling at school and it just isn't getting any better. But since he was starting a new (and better) school, I put the home school idea on hold and agreed to give them until October 20th (our conference date) to see if school could make it work. Unfortunately, it just isn't happening.

So, a new adventure begins - for all of us. I feel pretty comfortable with 3rd grade material but the trickier part will be getting his focus and keeping it. We're going to try some new ideas and abandon the school model of sitting in one place for hours at at time; it doesn't work there so why would it work at home? I think our day will be broken up into short segments and "teachable" moments as they come up. I'll have to learn all about documenting our work and quantifying what we are doing so we measure up to the state's standards, but I think this is something that we can do - at least for now.

Yep, a big adventure - as NR always says each morning "So, what kind of adventure are we going to have today?" Indeed, I hope this adventure will be righting some wrongs and helping him get back his sweet and loving disposition. Wish us luck; we'll be posting some stories from along the road.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Take the Long Road Home

Or alternatively titled "I'm a little bit country, I'm a little bit rock n' roll"

Our new house is in the rural suburbs. Not so very long ago, the area was all woods and farmlands. As the area has attracted more residents, outdoor shopping malls, drive-thru coffee stands and big box stores, the pockets of woods and meadow have dwindled but they are still nearby.

Dropping NR off at school today, I took a left instead of a right to go home. The long way loops through thickets of young trees changing colors, pastures with cattle grazing and houses dotted between acres of land. It's a far cry from the nearby enormous tracts of houses, in communities that could be named The Heathers at Golden River or Hidden Begonias or Spanish Bridle Trails or whathaveyou.

These mega-communities are all new construction, all painted in muted colors with faux stone fronts, with wide streets and sidewalks, carefully shrubbed common areas and bronzed lamp posts. I walked some of these neighborhoods yesterday, admiring the Halloween decorations and the neat planters of fall foliage that most everyone had displayed. None of the houses were shabby or ill-kept. The lawns were mowed and the driveways swept. It was a lovely, though homogeneous, neighborhood.

Unlike the long way home. Pastures saddled next to mobile home parks. Large homes surrounded by older trees and swaths of lawn. An espresso stand at the side of the road. There was nothing matching or planned on this route. Only the fall leaves and the pastures gave it continuity. The growth and development is ad hoc.

The new construction communities are the way of the future - at least out here in the burbs. And I can see why. It's comforting to see a community where all the homes are lovely and tended to. Nobody likes living next to the dumpy house painted bright green with the overflowing garbage bins and broken down cars. That's why people buy into planned communities in the first place - for that first-impression peace of mind, for stable property values, for trick or treaters and Christmas light displays.

I guess I'm lucky that I live at a cross-roads between planned perfection and country wild. Some days it is nice to put on my walking shoes and canvas the flat sidewalks and gently curbed roads. Some days it is nice to take a left instead of a right and watch bulls grazing on scrubby grass and piles of firewood stacked for winter heat. Each neighborhood has its downside, certainly, but on gloomy Fridays, it can be nice to have a choice on the journey home.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Show and Tell: Latest Crochet

I've been in full on crochet mode lately. I had put down the hook for much of the summer (too hot to hold wool) and I was focused on other things. But the cold weather has brought back the urge to hook and I've been working on some things - some old, some new. Some of my current WIP (works in progress, for the non-crafter) are related to Christmas, so I won't be showing them, but if I stick to my schedule, I should be done in plenty of time for the holidays.

I'm hoping to have my hook available for some new projects in November; I'm a member of a Jane Austen Book Club for knitters, spinners and crocheters. Our first book, Sense and Sensibility, begins in November and we get extra points for prize drawings if we complete Austen-style pieces during the reading. I'm hoping to make a spencer - you know, one of those cropped jacket thingies that show up in the Austen movies. I've found a good candidate but I'm not sure I have the oomph to take on something that complicated. We'll see.

Anyhook, back to the show and tell. Here are some things I've been working on lately.

This is a scarf done in the Bruges style - a type of lace done in Brussels. The yarn is made of Bamboo.

Bev's Kitten Pattern

I'm working on a blanket for Project Linus. This is a kitten pattern.

Gingerbread House

A gingerbread house for Christmas. I need to add a few more gum drops to finish it off.

For those who knit, crochet, spin or do just about anything else with yarn, I highly recommend joining This beta site is free and lets you track your projects, find great groups and forums, and access tons of patterns.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Substitute Blogger

I had one heck of a lousy weekend (or lousy Sunday, to be more precise). So lousy in fact that I have nothing to say today and I just don't want to "phone it in" as it were.

Luckily, I read blogs that have exceptional authors and interesting stories. Today, I found a wonderfully poignant story at Buck's blog and I thought I'd share it with you.

I'll be back tomorrow but I hope you enjoy reading about the Ken Kream. I know I sure did.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Of wigs and hooks and lemon chicken

Hubby and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary next week but sometimes inspiration just hits and I never look a gift blog post in the mouth. Love can be summed up neatly with a few examples:

a man who bravely dons a long blonde wig so I can work on creating a halloween costume like this:

a man who talks me down from the crochet ledge when my prized handcarved rosewood crochet hook snaps in the pursuit of the aforementioned wig.

a man who patches the aforementioned prized crochet hook with superglue

a man who already planned to give me two handcarved wooden crochet hooks to celebrate our fifth anniversary (wood, don't you know...)

a man who will brave lemon chicken when I make it, though citrus and chicken are not meant to be together in his world (Interestingly, I had chicken piccata on our first date...he should have known then.)

a man who will go out for take-out hamburgers when the flank steak didn't thaw for dinner

a man who will let me rant about politics and will help me see the humor when I'm raving mad at the current campaign

a man who tolerates (mostly) my yarn obsession and makes the right "oohs" and "aahs" over my in-progess Christmas gifts

a man who holds me up when I need it and doesn't hear "thank you" nearly often enough.

Thank you, hubby

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cook's Country

Depending on my mood, I'm one of those people who enjoy watching cooking shows (no surprise, I guess). I don't watch many and they are usually just for favorite chefs (Ina Garten usually) or subject matters (Ace of Cakes because I wish I were a pastry chef). Generally though, I'm not into cooking as a contact sport (Iron Chef) or reality shows set in kitchens.

But I've found a new show that I've added to my PVR - Cook's Country. This PBS show is from the folks behind America's Test Kitchen - the group that tells us the best way to make a souffle, what brand of skillet or coffee maker is the best, and why baking powder works. The Test Kitchen's goal is to give viewers the best version of something, be it pancakes, risotto, or snickerdoodles. The cooks make many many versions (30 batches of cookies, anyone?), get tasting feedback and come up with an "ultimate" recipe or technique.

Well, Cook's Country is the downhome or "American home cooking" version of this rigorous testing. I think the differences between the shows are slight but Cook's Country does have a great companion magazine. Check out the November issue - chock full of Thanksgiving advice.

Contrary to the idea that such shows are elitist, they aren't for the "arugula middle class" - whatever the heck that insult means; they help you improve both your skills and your kitchen purchases as well as making the most of your food budget. Nobody wants to waste money on ingredients only to make something that really isn't all that tasty.

You can check out Cook's Country online, in the magazine or on PBS. They are even looking for recipe tester volunteers, if that is your thing.

For me, I'll be doing a little testing of my own from the magazine - I'll let you know how the cider-braised pork chops and mashed potato casserole turn out.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Onions - better than ogres

For fans of the movie Shrek, you'll know that ogres are like onions (they have layers). And you'll also know that Shrek's pal, Donkey, would much prefer parfait layers to onion layers. But these days, I'm with Shrek; onions are just delicious.

Allodoxaphobia I don't have; I love onions in just about every form and variety. Cooked, raw, yellow, sweet, red, green. I also like them because you get a lot of flavor bang for your buck. Onions are typically inexpensive and can fill out a casserole, soup or meatloaf. But what about onions as the star attraction? Time for these wonders to take the spotlight, beyond the soup with the cheese and bread.

How about Sweet Onion Pie? True, cheddar and ham play a major supporting role here, but onions get top billing. Perhaps an Alsace Onion Tart, with bacon, cream and eggs would be better? Not exactly inexpensive. Ok, what about Sweet Onion Bread, using apple juice and ginger of all things? Maybe Sweet Onion Quesadillas would be more appealing. Me, I think I'm going with the Onion Muffuletta sandwich.

After all these onions, breath mints may be in order, but if you hang out with the right crowd, you can all be stinky together. Here's to having layers.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Random Recipe Monday - Sausage Manicotti

Me and Italian food - we go together like rama lama lama
ke ding a de dinga a dong. Forget Sandy and Danny, me and marinara are the best couple around. I'm kinda of the mind that even bad Italian food is good Italian food, so it isn't surprising that we tend to eat a lot of it around my house.

I'd like to say that my efforts are like Chef Mario Batali. Unfortunately, I have to admit they are closer to Chef Boyardee - but again, bad Italian is good Italian, so I soldier on. Spaghetti is far and away the most often prepared, but lasagne makes a good second showing. Italian meatball subs, polenta, baked ziti - all good stuff that shows up periodically on my table.

Well, Saturday night another dish joined the ranks - manicotti. I've made it before but for some reason I never think of it. Hubby mentioned having some at work and it sparked my brain into making it at home. I'm glad I did because it was easy and tasty, plus it made a nice change from the spaghetti. I made it with Italian sweet sausage, lots of onion and ricotta for the filling - but there are tons of variations. The one downfall was using an "on sale" marinara sauce. Man, the sauce does matter; don't just grab any old cheapie thing. Normally, manicotti takes tubular pasta but I like using the big shells.

Here's my version for your reading pleasure:

1 box large shell pasta (I used Barilla - my usual pasta)
Olive oil
One jar of marinara (get the best you can find)
1 package of Italian sweet sausage
1/2 large sweet onion, finely chopped
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Boil the pasta according to the package directions. Once they are done, drain and rinse in cool water.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, heat two tablespoons (or so) of olive oil in a large pan and saute the onions for about three minutes. Add the sausage, crumbling it up into small chunks as it cooks. Lightly pepper and salt the cooking sausage and onions. Cook until meat is no longer pink, remove from the heat.

Mix ricotta, beaten egg and parmesan in a large bowl. Add teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, and a couple dashes of nutmeg. Mix well. When the meat mixture has cooled slightly, add it to the ricotta mixture, blending well.

Pour approximately 1/3rd of the sauce onto the bottom of your baking dish, spread to coat. Using a large spoon, fill each cooked shell with a scoop of the sausage mixture. Place each shell in the dish, top the shells with the remaining sauce and mozzarella. Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.

Chang chang chang-it-ty chang
That's the way it should be
Wha oooh yeah!

Friday, October 3, 2008

A little oomph

Some days just take a little more oomph to get rolling. Whether it is the blahs, the blues or the I-just-don't-wanna-get-ups, there are days that make you want to give up on the world - at least for awhile.

For those days, sometimes I make a mental list of things I'm grateful for; not "big" things like NR or a roof over our heads, but little things - things that make life infinitely more pleasant or a rotten job slightly less unpleasant. Today is one of those days and here is one of those lists:

salted caramel hot cocoa - a new cocoa at Starbucks that is so delicious that I broke my sugar reduction plan to have it. Now, darn it, I need to figure out how to make it at home on the cheap and without sugar.

disposable latex gloves - when you have to do the bathroom cleaning and you have two males in the house - enough said.

a fresh mop for cleaning the tub and the glass shower doors - something that keeps me from kneeling into a wet tub or shower, sniffing cleaner fumes? Yeah, that's good.

a nearby library with online browsing - wow, has this saved me money from the bookstore. Just the place to feed my mania...err...passion for new topics.

new authors of good fiction - better yet when the books are at the library. Check out Brunonia Barry's "The Lace Reader" and Laura Dietz's "The Tenth House" - good ones for October.

earl grey tea - some days just need tea with bergamot.

casseroles - for when dinner has to be hot, easy and comforting.

favorite movies on dvd - some days just need a viewing of Almost Famous or Emma.

a clean kitchen, washed and folded laundry, new rolls of toilet paper - fresh starts can be very satisfying.

What's on your list?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The reality of economics in your stomach

We all know that prices are up for everything. Gas, heating oil, energy, the stuff traded on commodities boards. We all know (or at least have heard) that our economy is hanging by a thread, unless something is done. It's the something that has most people stymied.

I'm no economist but I've been noticing higher and higher grocery bills and I wondered just how much more I'm paying. Turns out, it is alot.

According to the Consumer Price Index (you can check it out at, everyday foods are up from last year. Here are a few eyeopeners from the August report:

bread: this staple is up 16% from August 2007.
eggs: up 7%, nothing to cluck about for sure.
chicken: up almost 5% - a wing's worth.
ground beef: is up almost 8%
apples: up almost 19%, that's a serious bite.
potatoes: 29% more for your spuds

The list goes on and on, just like the grocery bill. So, to eat the same foods you ate last year, you have to spend significantly more money.

Well, we can all go on diets based up on the CPI and look for low cost foods (oranges and bacon are good choices - doesn't that sound yummy...) or we can figure out how to get our food for less. Just like dieting, these ideas aren't news - we all know that menu planning, eating home, using leftovers, shopping coupons and avoiding convenience food saves money. But with the new CPI report coming out in October, we might have even more incentive to put those good ideas into practice.

Here's one way (more to come) that you can save some cash on a convenience food. Make your own Biscuit/Pancake mix*:

6 cups all purpose flour
3 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup instant nonfat dry milk
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup vegetable shortening

Combine flour, baking powder, powdered milk and salt and stir until well mixed. Blend in the shortening until the mix resembles coarse meal. Put the mix in a self sealing bag, label, date and refrigerate for up to six weeks.

Now, use that mix for casseroles and other dishes that serve up some leftovers. Here are a couple to get you started.

*Recipe found in the book "Homemade" - see the widget at the bottom of the page for a link to it. There are other versions with variations; check Google.