Snowstorms and Squash

 

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Oy, 2016. There were many moments I (we? Most everyone?) would like to forget, although I am happy that this year brought me back to Western Mass. The last week of the year, for me, at least, was really lovely. My girls and I all had off from our schools so we spent the entire week together. When Beatrix wasn’t watching Frozen (“Elsa! Elsa!”) we squeezed in a few adventures.

We explored Great Barrington in the Berkshires (only about an hour from here) in search of the best grilled cheese in the Northeast. We had fun at Forbes Library, whose cookbook and media collection continues to impress me. (More on those in upcoming posts.) We made it to two children’s museums, including a New Year’s Eve Jr. celebration that allowed Bea endless rides on the carousel.

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One of Rich’s brothers gave us a gift card for Marshall’s/TJ Maxx/Home Goods for Christmas, and Lilli was quite pleased to find both dinosaur pasta and a cookie and cupcake decorating kit in the “Home” section. The design kit came in very handy during last week’s snowstorms, again between Frozen screenings.

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That decorating kit also brings us to today’s recipe. Because one cannot decorate cupcakes without frosting, and the only frosting worth making involves cream cheese. Which means I had cream cheese in the house, and that was the one ingredient I was missing to make this twice-baked butternut squash.

I knew it was a keeper as soon as I saw it, and, given its cheesiness, it was a good addition to our Chanukah table. I served it next to potato latkes, a salad of butter lettuce, dates, slivered red onion (soaked in ice cold water to take the snap out), sprinkles of blue cheese and a balsamic brown sugar dressing. Now that I think about it, there was also a lentil stew with rutabaga and kale to start things off.

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Grandparents, don’t panic. She got a haircut soon after this photo was taken.

The recipe actually calls for the squash to first get a steam in the microwave, so it moves the process along a bit quicker than if you did everything in the oven. Ditto with the sweet potatoes, which I know you can do in a microwave, as my old co-worker reminded me every day. I don’t own a 9×13 microwavable dish, so I used a glass pie pan and the squash ends hung over the sides. It still worked. I then transferred the squash halves to a large baking sheet.

This is not an everyday recipe, although it’s not as rich as the stuffed pumpkin that makes me giddy. I hope you’ll give it a shot. It’s actually very simple to make and tastes even better than you think it will.

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Learn from my mistakes. Don’t use parchment paper to bake and broil. It burns after a certain point.

Twice-Baked Butternut Squash from “Real Simple” December 2016

Ingredients

1 (3- to 3 ½-pound) butternut squash

¼ cup water

2 (8- to 9-ounce) sweet potatoes

3 ounces cream cheese, softened

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1½ teaspoons table salt

¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon black pepper

3 tablespoons shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives (optional – I skipped it.)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Remove and discard seeds. Place squash halves, cut sides down, in a microwave-safe 13- x 9-inch baking dish and add ¼ cup water. Cover dish with plastic wrap and pierce 3 to 4 times with a knife. Microwave on HIGH 10 minutes. Carefully drain water out of dish. Turn squash halves over, and bake in preheated oven until tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand about 5 minutes. Scoop flesh from squash, leaving a ¼-inch-thick shell and transfer to a medium bowl; reserve shells and return to baking dish.

Poke the sweet potatoes with a fork several times then microwave them on HIGH until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Peel potatoes and add flesh to bowl with squash along with cream cheese, butter, salt, nutmeg, and pepper; mash with a potato masher or a fork until mostly smooth.

Preheat broiler with oven rack 6 inches from heat. Scoop squash mixture into reserved squash shells and top with cheddar and Parmesan. Broil until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with chives.

 

Special Delivery

Jason and Lisa were married last October. It was outdoors, in a state park. But before you start to comment about how cold us guests must have been, Lisa nipped that one in the bud by having greeters pass out warm apple cider when we pulled up. Just charming. Jason is a Southern gentleman, so after the ceremony, as we walked into the reception, each guest was handed a mint julep to sip. Loved that. Oh, and Lisa and her mom had gone to the orchard and made pounds of apple sauce that they’d canned and topped with lace. Another perfectly lovely little detail.

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And about six weeks ago, Lisa and Jason had baby Emma. Considering that I may have left the wedding with more than one jar of her applesauce, it was time to pay it forward. I know there’s only so much cooking one can do with a newborn (can you believe that baby Miles is now walking?!?!), so last week I spent a little time in the kitchen making a meal for the new parents. Then we packed up the car and headed over to JP for a visit and snuggle with their little peanut.

Baby Emma

Pasta travels well, so I went with a favorite dish of mine from the Zuni Café cookbook. I’m surprised at how many times I’ve made this but hadn’t shared it here. It’s full of things I love, like well-fried broccoli and cauliflower, salty capers, chopped anchovies, and briny olives There’s crushed fennel seeds, though the recipe does suggest using minced fennel bulb if you have it on hand. They also suggest substituting pecorino romano if you don’t feel like bread crumbs, and trading out the black olives for green ones, or even skipping the olives and anchovies. But, they plead, “don’t sacrifice the 8 to 10 minutes of care it takes to cook the vegetables to the delicately frizzled crispiness that gives the dish its great texture and variety. The sautéed vegetables are great by themselves, or a side dish with grilled or roasted poultry or meat.”

Zuni Pasta

I also put together a fennel, orange and beet salad, which Lisa dubbed “the winter salad”, that I packed up in an old yogurt container and snapped a few rubber bands around for the car ride.

winter salad

Notes: My best advice for the pasta dish is to prep everything beforehand. Mise en place, people. Yes, there are some recipes that you can prep as you go, but it is much easier to have everything good to go for this one. I used whole wheat spaghetti as my pasta, and they say that this one works with all sorts of chewy pasta – penne, spaghetti, orecchiette, or shells.

Pasta with Spicy Broccoli & Cauliflower from The Zuni Café Cookbook

For 4 to 5 servings

Ingredients

About 1 cup fresh, soft bread crumbs (about 2 ounces) made from crustless, slightly stale, chewy, white peasant-style bread (optional)

About ¾ cup mild-tasting olive oil

About 12 ounces broccoli, trimmed, with a few inches of stem intact

About 12 ounces cauliflower, leaves removed and stem end trimmed flush

Salt

1 generous Tablespoon capers, rinsed, pressed dry between towels, and slightly chopped

1 pound penne, spaghetti, orecchiette, fusilli, or medium shells

1 Tablespoon chopped salt-packed anchovy fillets (4 to 6 fillets) (optional)

6 small garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

About ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly pounded in a mortar

4 to 8 pinches dried chili flakes

1 Tablespoon tightly packed, coarsely chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

4 to 5 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted black olives, such as Nicoise, Gaeta, or Nyons (rinsed first to rid them of excess brine)

Directions

If using bread crumbs, preheat the oven to 425.

Toss the bread crumbs with 2 teaspoons of the oil, spread on a baking sheet, and bake for about 5 minutes, until golden. Keep the crumbs on the stove top until needed.

Slice the broccoli and cauliflower about 1/8 inch thick, and generally length-wise. Most of the slices will break apart as you produce them, yielding a pile of smooth stem pieces, tiny green broccoli buds, loose cauliflower crumbs, and few delicate slabs with stem and flower both. Don’t worry if the slices are of uneven thickness; that will make for more textural variety.

Warm about ¼ cup of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add most of the sliced broccoli and cauliflower, conveniently leaving the smallest bits behind on the cutting board for the moment. (They’ll burn if you add them to soon.) The oil should sizzle quietly. Swirl the pan, and leave the vegetables to cook until you see the edge bits browning, about 3 minutes. Salt very lightly and toss or stir and fold gently. Add a few more spoonfuls of oil and scrape the remaining bits of broccoli and cauliflower into the pan. Add the capers and swirl gently. Continue cooking over medium heat until the edges begin to brown, another few minutes, then give the pan another stir or toss. Don’t stir too soon or too often, or you will get a homogenous, steamy pile of vegetables instead of a crispy, chewy one. Most of the capers and vegetable crumbs will shrink into crispy confetti-like bits.

Meanwhile, drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with a scant 2 tablespoons  salt (a little more if using kosher salt). Stir, and cook al dente. Set a wide bowl or platter on the stovetop (or in the still-warm oven if you made bread crumbs) to heat.

Once the mass of broccoli and cauliflower has shrunken by about one-third and is largely tender, reduce the heat, add another few spoonfuls of oil, and scatter the chopped anchovy, garlic, fennel, and chili over all. Give the vegetables a stir or toss to distribute. Cook for another few minutes, then add the parsley and olives. Taste – every flavor should be clamoring for dominance. Adjust as needed.

Toss with the well-drained pasta and garnish with the warm, toasted bread crumbs, if desired.

Winter Salad

Notes: For this salad, I used a mandolin to thinly slice the fennel. For the orange prep, using a serrated knife, I sliced off the top and bottom of a navel orange, then sliced the skin off the fruit by following the outside curve. Then I rolled the orange onto its side, and thinly sliced the orange. Each fruit yielded about 8 slices.

I had roasted the beet the day before by preheating the oven to 400, setting the beet in a small baking pan with sides, filling it water about halfway up, adding the beet, and tenting it all with tin foil. It took about an hour to roast. When it was time to peel, I simply ran the beet under cold water and rubbed the skin off into the sink.

My apologies for not measuring out exactly how much cumin I used in the dressing. I grind my cumin seeds in a coffee grinder I use specifically for spices. I was literally taking pinches of cumin for the dressing. The same goes for the brown sugar. My best advice for the dressing is to taste until it tastes right to you. That’s really the best way to handle homemade dressings, anyways.

Ingredients

For the salad:

1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced on a mandolin

2 oranges, sliced thin

1 beet, roasted, peeled and diced into ¼-inch cubes – make sure to prep the beet last, otherwise all your other ingredients will be stained magenta

5 black olives, sliced

Place all salad ingredients in a large bowl or lay out on a platter

For the dressing:

In a small glass jar, shake together:

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/8 teaspoon jarred mustard

2 teaspoons brown sugar

2 pinches cumin

Taste-test the salad dressing using a piece of fennel. If it’s to your liking, pour the remaining dressing over the vegetables.

Scone Cold Morning

I’ve always thought of herbs as seasonal. Basil and mint are summer herbs, while rosemary and sage are more wintery. Of course, the sage bush in front of my house, which flourishes in the summer sun, upends my theory. Many summer nights I would run from my kitchen, apron still tied around my waist, to pluck a few leaves off for dishes like sautéed cabbage and white bean dip.

Nonetheless, the sage bush was still hanging on well into January. There were still some thin, curled leaves clinging to life until last week. But with snow forecast, I knew that would be the last of my sage until late spring. I grabbed the last remaining leaves on Thursday night and stowed them away in the fridge.

I wanted those last leaves to have a fitting, wintery use, and this morning we made scones with them: walnut and sage scones with a brown butter maple glaze, to be exact. This recipe was the runner up in a Food52 contest for best use of sage and walnuts. To be honest, this recipe appealed to me more than the winner, a pumpkin rugelach with sage and walnut. (Pumpkin-flavored rugelach? If you’ve ever had Gus and Paul’s version of the cookie you’d most likely agree that squash is not necessary.)

I must confess that Rich helped me a great deal with the baking this morning: My herniated disc has been slowing my kitchen production to an almost stand-still. Rich had the wise idea to make eight scones instead of the four the recipe suggested. A mini version of the cookie proved much less of an irritant to my reflux. Although the original recipe calls for full fat Greek yogurt, we used a low-fat version, something that I now keep in the house as a mild snack for me. And we loved the grated frozen butter tip; we will definitely be utilizing that trick in other baked goods.

The scones were glorious, rich and extraordinarily delicious. A wonderful way to begin a Sunday morning.

And one last thing: If you could ask four questions of the Boston Globe‘s advice columnist, Meredith Goldstein, what would they be? Here are my four questions.

Walnut and Sage Scones with Brown Butter Maple Glaze, from Food52.com

Makes 4 normal-sized scones, or 8 mini-scones

Scone Ingredients
1 stick frozen butter, of which you will use 4 Tbs.
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

scant 1/8 cup sugar (2 Tbs.)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 teaspoon sage, minced or more to your taste

Brown Butter Maple Glaze Ingredients
1 Tbs. butter
1/8 cup maple syrup (which I find at a deep discount at Ocean State Job Lot)
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 Tbs. milk or cream, use enough to slightly thin the glaze

Directions
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees
2. Grate 4 Tbs. of butter and place in freezer until ready to use
3. Whisk milk and yogurt together, set aside. (If your kitchen is warm, place in fridge until needed.)
4. Mix together flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sage. Add frozen grated butter and toss until butter is well-coated. Gently stir in milk mixture with a spatula just to combine.
5. Place onto floured bench and knead a few times until it comes together. Gently press into a 1/4″ thick square, then fold up long sides in thirds (like folding a letter) then fold up short sides until you have a small tall square. Place in freezer for five minutes on a floured plate.
6. Place on floured bench and gently fold or roll into 1/4″ thick square. Place enough walnuts to generously cover the surface, then press walnuts into the dough so they stick. Gently roll dough into a log. With seam facing down, press into rectangle — it will be about 6×4 and an inch thick. Using floured knife, cut in half then cut each half into triangles.
7. Place on silicone lined (or parchment paper) baking sheet. Bake 18 — 20 minutes until browned. Let cool.

8. Make the glaze: Melt butter in small saucepan and lightly brown, add maple syrup. It will bubble vigorously. Once bubbles have subsided, whisk in confectioner’s sugar, add enough milk or cream to thin glaze slight (until it looks ‘spreadable’). Drizzle or brush over scones. *Note: If you end up with a thick glaze, just spread on with a spatula and call it icing, no one will be the wiser.

Silent Night

My bicycle, a 1960s English three-speed we bought for $60 at a tag sale in my hometown, lives in the front foyer from roughly mid-April to early October. It lives in the basement the rest of the year, easing access to the front hall closet for winter coats.

I’m writing this in mid-December, and my bicycle is still in the front hallway, where I put it on Friday after I rode it home from work. It’s dark by the time I leave my office, and the bike ride home along the river has become one of the most pleasurable moments of my week. There’s a stillness to the air, and no matter how many cars pass me to my left on Storrow Drive, the world seems silent.

I remark on this quietness because it’s the reverse of my morning commute, which is always cluttered by buses, cars and trucks all fighting their way to get to work on time. I plan my day on my ride in, and even before I get to the river and the safe bike path, I’ve decided on what to cook for dinner that night. But on these tranquil evening rides, my mind is as still as the chilled air, and I breathe in and out as I gaze across the river into Cambridge.  I’ve tried to remember if evening rides home in the summertime were this serene. I can’t say for certain, but there’s something so lively about a warm summer evening, when it doesn’t even get dark until long past 8PM, that leads to me to believe the answer is no.

The weather this weekend was more seasonal for Rich’s family Christmas party, and the temperature barely broke 30 today. It finally feels like December, but the forecast says it’s going to be in the 40s tomorrow. I don’t want to give up my evening ride of solitude along the river quite yet, so I’ve dug up my long johns to wear under tomorrow’s corduroys.

For dinner tonight, we are having some odds and ends in the fridge: some mustard greens and white beans, and this leftover mushroom and walnut pâté from that holiday party yesterday. This is one of those recipes I mull over during my morning ride.

Rich’s wonderful Aunt Nance, who I always look forward to visiting at family parties, asked me for the recipe just a few minutes after I’d set our offerings down on the counter. This recipe can definitely be made vegan, using olive oil, but that velvety richness that had Nance reaching for the knife was from the butter. It’s always the butter, isn’t it?

There might be a butter crisis in Norway, but there’s been a sale on it pretty regularly at the market around the corner. I can’t help but buy a box if it’s going to save me $1.77 and I know it can all be frozen until it’s needed; sorry Sven. Rich has started to complain about the 10 lbs. of butter that falls out of the freezer every time he opens it up for an ice cube (“Think of the Norwegians, Molly!”), but I’ve decided to ignore him.

The mushrooms I used in this version are crimini (aka “baby bellas”), but white button mushroom will work just as well. I clean mine by wiping them down with a barely moistened paper towel; I’m really just making sure all the dirt has been wiped away. Besides the butter, I keep my nuts, including these walnuts I bought from Ocean State Job Lot, in the freezer, as it keeps them from spoiling.

Mushroom Walnut Pâté

Ingredients

10 oz. (1 ¼ cups) chopped mushrooms

1/3 cup walnuts

7 large shallots (approximately 1/2 cup), peeled and chopped

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

Unsalted butter

Directions

Toast walnuts for 7 minutes in a 350 degree oven or toaster oven. (You can put them in while the oven is preheating)

In a medium sauté pan, melt 1 Tablespoon of butter over medium heat and add the chopped shallots. Slowly cook them until they have gone from pink to translucent to brown; about 10 minutes. Shallots crisp very quickly, so if yours hits that point, remove them immediately from the heat. But don’t worry if they do, this has not ruined the dish. At all. Remove and set aside.

(I have to grab a second skillet for this next step because my trusty sauté pan gets a little too brown too quickly, but I can’t stop using it. You should be able to do this all in one pan, but if things look like they’re heading from brown to black, grab a second pan.)

Melt 1 ½ Tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the mushrooms. Let them cook in the butter for a few minutes without disturbing them. After about three minutes, give everything a stir. The mushrooms are going to give off a lot of moisture, and just keep on cooking them in the butter. After a few more minutes, give them another stir. In about 8 minutes in, add in a little pat of butter, about ½ Tablespoon.

Cook the mushrooms for about 5 minutes more, by which time the mushrooms will have deepened in color and begun caramelizing. This is a good thing. Once the mushrooms are a deep brown, add a pinch of salt, the roasted walnuts, thyme and shallots. Cook about 1 minute more.

Transfer contents of the pan to a food processor, and press on. While everything is whirling, drizzle in enough olive oil to make the concoction moist, about 1/4 cup. Stop machine, give a taste, add more salt if necessary. This all should take about 15 seconds.

Serve immediately on toast, bread, crackers, etc. Or, refrigerate for up to 4 days — that’s a guess, I’ve never had leftovers of this around that long!