Saturday, October 26, 2013

Savory Pumpkin Side Dish

Our grocery offers three types of pumpkins at this time of the year.  He labels them “cooking”, “baking” and “carving”.  Of course these are not the actual varieties but what he feels they are best used for.  I've discussed pie pumpkins for baking in the prior posting and as the variety is limited you can trust that your grocer has them labeled correctly.  But what about ‘cooking’ pumpkins?  They do have several varieties all of which look quite different.

I used Kakai pumpkins as that is what he had labeled for cooking.  Better yet, he offered them sliced into halves and quarters which was perfect for a side dish for 2-4 persons.   For a full description with photos check out “All About Pumpkins” to find the perfect variety for your use or just go with your grocer’s recommendation.

1/2 (about 3 pounds) fresh pumpkin
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar (or other vinegar variety)
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
1/2 cup water
green onions, cilantro or parsley for garnish

Wash the outsides and slice off the stem.  Using a heavy ice cream scoop, scrape out the seeds and strings leaving the lighter orange flesh intact with the shell.  (You may wish to save the seeds for later roasting.) Slice the pumpkin into wedges about 2 inches thick at their widest center.  Using a sharp knife, cut off the skin and discard it.

Heat a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat with the olive oil.  Add the onions and cook 3-4 minutes until tender.  Add the garlic and stir to combine. Add the pumpkin and stir to coat in the mixture. Sprinkle with the vinegar, cinnamon and salt and pepper. Stir to combine flavors.  Turn the mixture every minute or two to encourage cooking on all sides, for about five minutes.

Add water to the pumpkin and cover with a lid.  Reduce heat to a simmer and let cook for about 20 minutes more, until the pumpkin is tender yet still firm enough to maintain its shape.  Serve as a side dish,

 I you prefer, cook it longer until it is soft and then serve it mashed like potatoes.  Garnish the dish with slices green onions, cilantro or parsley.  A delicious taste of autumn that is quick and easy to prepare!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

FRESH Pumpkin Pie and Savory Side

With autumn in high gear and Thanksgiving approaching, nothing sounds more delightful than foods made with pumpkin.  So today I wanted to share both a pumpkin pie and a savory pumpkin side dish recipe with you.  I made both dishes from fresh pumpkins of differing varieties and find that two different techniques make for the best results.

Sugar "Pie" Pumpkins

Pumpkin Pie History

Recipes for pumpkins cooked with sugar, spices and cream wrapped in pastry trace their roots to European cuisine. The Columbian Exchange [16th century] shipped the "old world" foods found in the "new world" (the Americas). These new foods (pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, corn etc.) were incorporated into traditional cuisines. Pumpkins were similar to "old world" squash and superior in flavor. They were also just as easy to grow and as such, were quickly popular.  They were even made into pies if you were lucky enough to be in a household that could afford the expensive ingredients (sugar and spices) and equipment (sieves, ovens, etc.) that were used to make pies.  The ‘less fortunate’ generally just cut off the top, cleaned out the insides and filled it with other fruits, then placed it in hot embers to slowly roast much like the native American Indians.  This was probably equally good but certainly not a ‘finely prepared’ dish in the classic French tradition.  In 1651 the famous French chef and author published “Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois” (The True French Cook) that contained his recipe for pompion (French for pumpkin) tourte.  It was translated and published in England as The French Cook in 1653. It contains what is thought to be the first published recipe for a pumpkin pie that included the pastry:
Tourte of pumpkin - Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.
But was pumpkin pie served at the first American Thanksgiving?  Historians believe that the earliest American settlers (Plimoth Plantation 1620-1692) might have made pumpkin by stewing or by filling a hollowed out shell with milk, honey and spices, and then baking it in hot ashes similar to their ‘less fortunate’ European counterparts and techniques learned from the Indians.  Ovens to bake pies were not available in the colony at that time. About 50 years after the first Thanksgiving in America they likely ate what we think of as pumpkin pie.

From Steamed Fresh Pumpkin
However, it was not until 1796 that the first American cookbook was published (American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons) that contained her recipes for pumpkin puddings that were baked in a crust and similar to present day pumpkin pies:
Pompkin Pudding No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross Pompkin Pudding No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

Fresh Pumpkin Pie – Libby’s vs. Homemade?

In a recent small survey I found that only 25% of people had ever tasted a truly fresh pumpkin pie that started with making the pumpkin puree.  Everyone else reported only have ever tasted Libby’s pumpkin puree from the can.

Fresh Pumpkin Puree from Steamed Pumpkin
The Libby’s puree is usually good and reliable, and they dominate the market.  90% of the pumpkins grown in the United States are farmed within an 80 mile radius of Morton, Illinois not far from my home here in Chicago.  Libby contracts with private farmers and supplies their proprietary seed and the equipment to grow their patented pumpkins.  About 5,000 acres of farm land is devoted to producing the Dickinson pumpkins for Libby.  Libby´s Select Dickinson Pumpkins are a special variety of pie pumpkin.  They are larger than your typical pie pumpkins that weigh 2.5 – 5 pounds. The Dickinson’s weigh 10 to 14 pounds, are oblong and tan in color with much thicker orange flesh and less open space in the center.  The danger in all this is, of course, that if disease strikes it takes out the entire supply.  Recently there have also been reports of ‘sandy grit’ in the puree which is not noticeable until you eat the pie.  Libby’s admits this sometimes happens and provides coupons upon complaint for replacement cans.  They do nothing for the embarrassment it causes you at your table.

So this year I decided to prepare my fall pumpkin desserts from fresh pumpkin.  The question before me was, what’s the best method to cook pumpkins for puree?  Over at, probably the most popular site for this topic, they give guidance in that any of the usual methods will yield good results.  These are steaming, boiling, roasting and microwaving.  I tried all of them and while they all do cook the pumpkin, there is a definite preferred method that yielded the most favorable results with the best texture:  roasting. Once you make this puree, you can freeze it in containers or zippered storage bags and use it in all baking recipes where it calls for pumpkin puree.

Making Pumpkin Puree

Purchase small pie pumpkins (sometimes called sugar pumpkins).  One 2-3 pound pumpkin will provide sufficient puree for one deep dish pie.  A five pound pumpkin is sufficient for two standard pies.  Pie pumpkins are the modern baking pumpkin. The skin is more thin, the flesh is sweeter and dryer, and they have a substantially finer grain than a jack-o-lantern type pumpkin, which were bred for thick rinds and stability when carved.

Preheat your oven to 400F degrees. Wash the outsides and slice off the top leaving as much pumpkin as possible.  Cut the pumpkin in half as shown.  Using a heavy ice cream scoop, scrape out the seeds and strings leaving the lighter orange flesh intact with the shell.  (You may wish to save the seeds for later roasting.) Lightly oil the pumpkins on all sides and sprinkle with a little powdered cinnamon.   Using a baking sheet or dish with sides, cover it in foil and spray with food release or some additional oil.  Add water until it is approximately one quarter of an inch deep.  Place the pumpkins cut side down onto the prepared baking sheet and place in the oven for one hour, until the pumpkins are tender and the shells beginning to brown. Prepare the pie crust while the pumpkin is roasting.

Pumpkins and Acorn Squash Roasting
Remove from the oven and turn over to release steam and allow to cool until they can be handled comfortably with your bare hands.

Skin Peels Off by Hand
Peel off the pumpkin skin from the flesh.  They typically come apart quite easily although you could run a knife between the flesh and the skin if necessary.  Discard the skins and place the flesh into a bowl and mash it with a spoon or your hand.  Puree the pumpkin by using a stick blender, a food processor or a traditional drink blender.  I prefer the stick blender as it is convenient to use in the bowl, ensures a good smooth blend and cleans up quickly.  The other equipment gives equally good results.

Pureed with a Stick Blender
The pumpkin should resemble that you get from the can.  It may be slightly lighter or a different consistency. If it is too watery, place it into a pot and simmer over low heat to evaporate excess moisture.  If it is too tight, stir in a little water or apple cider.  I did not have to do this with any of the pumpkins I tested when using the roasting method, although pumpkins from the same batch required me to remove extra moisture when steamed or boiled.  Use the puree for the pumpkin pie recipe below or store it for later use by freezing or refrigerating.

Winner - Roasted Pumpkin with Recipe Below
I also tested numerous pumpkin pie recipes and below is the one that was judged best overall by my several tasting panels, especially when made with fresh roasted pumpkin.  It yields a very flavorful pumpkin pie that has a nice consistency similar to what your guests expect from one prepared with canned pumpkin.

Pumpkin Pie Ingredients

1 pie pastry for 9 inch pie, deep dish or standard glass pie plate.
1/4 - 1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup Splenda sugar blend (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground almonds (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2-3 cups of fresh pumpkin puree, room temperature
1 12 ounce can evaporated milk

Whipped cream for topping (optional)

Pumpkin Pie Instructions

Preheat oven to 425F degrees and place a baking sheet (cookie sheet) on the lowest rack.  Prepare or purchase fresh pie pastry.  Place it in a glass pie dish (for the best possible crisp crust).  Prick the sides and bottom with a fork.  Lay a sheet of parchment into on top of the pastry and weight it down with pie weights or beans.  Place in the oven to bake for 3-4 minutes.  Remove and let sit with weights while you prepare the filling.

Crust with Pie Weights
Stir 1/4 cup brown sugar and spices together in a small mixing bowl.  In a large mixing bowl lightly beat (with an electric hand mixer or wire whisk) the wet ingredients (vanilla, eggs, pumpkin puree and evaporated milk.) Stir in the dry mixture.  As fresh pumpkin can be sweet on its own, I recommend you taste the uncooked batter to determine if it needs more sugar.  Alternatively you can cook a small amount (1/3 cup) in an oven proof ramekin for tasting.  If it does, you can add the addition 1/4 cup of brown sugar or Splenda sugar blend if you are watching your sugar intake.  Stir in the optional ground almonds if using.  They add nice flavor but do change the consistency enough that your guests will notice their addition.

The Dry Ingredients without Optional Nuts
Remove the weights and parchment from the crust.  Open the oven and pull out the rack. Set the partially baked shell on the hot baking sheet.  Pour in your pumpkin filling.  Place any remaining filling into individual ramekins and add to oven alongside the pie.
Bake for 15 minutes at 425F, then reduce temperature to 350F degrees.  Bake for an additional 45-60 minutes, just until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Do not over bake.  Check pie frequently and cover the crust edge with a pie crust guard or aluminum foil to prevent over-browning.

The Winning Recipe
Remove from oven and let cool.  When ready to serve, cut and top each piece with sweetened whipped cream.  Sprinkle a little ground cinnamon on the whipped cream and you are ready for serving.

See next week's posting on Savory Pumpkin Sides

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Italian-Style Brussels Sprouts

Trying to feed the family more vegetables?  Brussels sprouts turning up noses all around the table?  Try this preparation which I  always call 'Italian-style' although I have no idea why. I suppose it's because of the garlic and Parmesan cheese.  In any case, once you make these little cabbage-like vegetables this way, your family will consume them with pleasure.

Italian-Style 'Sprouts' Ready for the Oven

If you follow this blog, you know I use Brussels sprouts in many ways.  The are great around a roasted chicken or pot roast, and my Autumn version with ham and pecans is always popular.  But year-around I make these for two important reasons:  they are very simple and quick to prepare and they taste and smell so good.

I don't follow any specific recipe and measure none of the ingredients.  You don't need to either, but I give you some basic pointers on how to make this your 'go to' dish when you need a good weeknight vegetable dish.

Removed from the oven and ready to serve

When selecting the Brussels sprouts, look for the smaller more tender specimens.  Start by cutting off the stem ends that are dry and unappealing. Preheat your oven to 350F degrees.

Remove any loose or dark outer leaves and cut each one in half.  Coat the bottom of a baking dish lightly with olive oil.  Add the sprouts and sprinkle lightly with additional olive oil.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Sprinkle with fresh grated Parmesan cheese, but not the very fine grate you use on pasta. Rather grate your own or look for somewhat larger pieces as shown in the photos here.  Mince a clove or two of garlic and sprinkle over the sprouts.

Melt butter (I use about 3 tablespoons for a full 9" x 12" baking dish as shown above) and stir in bread crumbs until they are moist.  The buttered crumbs will brown somewhat during cooking, unlike plain breadcrumbs.  Sprinkle over the sprouts, top with a little more Parmesan cheese and cover with foil.

Bake covered for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue baking uncovered for another 15-20 minutes, or until fork tender.

Served along side a seasoned piece of Alaskan halibut, it is enough for a meal.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Stuffed Shells Florentine ~ Perfect for Meatless Monday

Here at the Martin-Su household we're trying to follow the 'meatless Monday' idea, although it's frequently on other days of the week.  At first I thought it would be difficult but it turns out it really is pretty easy and there are many great meals that do not include meat.  This is not however, a new idea.

Julian's Stuffed Shells Ready for Sauce and Baking
I had thought First Lady, Michelle Obama, had come up with it.  Turns out it dates way back to World World I when the U.S. Food Administration (USFA) urged families to reduce consumption of key staples to help the war effort.  Conserving food at home meant more food available to ship abroad, both for our troops and to war-ravaged Europeans.  To encourage voluntary rationing, the USFA created the slogan “Food Will Win the War” and coined the terms "Meatless Monday" and "Wheatless Wednesday” to remind Americans to reduce intake of those products.  To support the effort, the USFA even provided recipe booklets and menus in magazines.

The campaign returned with the onset of World War II, calling upon women on the home front to play a role in supporting the war effort. During this time, meat was being rationed, along with other commodities like sugar.  Meatless Monday was restarted again in 2003 as a public health awareness program by the Center for a Livable Future (a division of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) as well as over 20 public health schools.

So, if you're doing 'meatless Mondays' as well, consider these Stuffed Shells Florentine.  And don't tell me people in your family won't eat spinach.  In this recipe they will never even know it's there.  The cheese certainly carries the flavor and the spinach lightens up what would otherwise be a meal that is too rich and heavy.

Stuffed Shells Florentine  (serves 4, three shells per person)


12 uncooked jumbo pasta shells
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
1/2 cup shredded Asiago cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
1 package (9 ounce) frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 cups meatless red pasta sauce (about one jar if store bought)

Cook pasta according to package directions until just al dente (with a bit of a firm chew).  Make one or two extra shells for tasting and to deal with any breakage that occurs during boiling.  Thaw the spinach in advance or in the microwave when ready for use.  Squeeze out the water and place in a colander to continue draining.  Chop the chives and shred any cheese that you didn't purchase already prepared.

Ready for the Oven
In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, Asiago cheese, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, chives and the spinach.

Spread 1 cup red pasta sauce into a shallow baking dish (9" x 12" for the full recipe) coated with cooking spray or olive oil.  Drain pasta and let dry on paper towels.  Stuff cooked shells with cheese mixture using a spoon. Arrange in prepared dish. Top with remaining pasta sauce and mozzarella cheese.  (You can freeze portions that you will not need at this stage, for baking at a later time.)

Four Cheese Stuffed Shells ~ A Meatless Monday Treat!
Cover and bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes or until heated through.