Playing with my food

Pumpkin love

I’ve been playing, enjoying a stretch of nesting. I can’t really get into cooking if I’m only passing through my kitchen. I need a little time to dig in and be inspired. Usually that involves a craving that needs satisfying or curiosity about a new recipe. I have to have enough time at home to justify the effort of shopping and cooking. Because, let’s face it, if we’re only passing through, leftovers are going to be a problem. You can’t fully engage in the kitchen and be on the run at the same time. The weeks we’re living in out-of-town clinic apartments do not inspire experiments; those weeks demand convenience. But home plus time equals satisfaction. And this week satisfaction is stirring a sauce and baking goodness.

I just made a delicious butternut squash lasagna. Yes, I’m continuing my affair with the butternut. It’s versatile and tasty. Who knew this would be my new favorite base for soups and hearty casseroles? The more I work with squash (should that be squashes? not sure about the plural form) the more I find to do with them. You can cook them almost any way…roast in the oven, simmer in water, steam, microwave.

And here’s my latest trick: you don’t have to de-seed before cooking. (If you’re simmering squash on the stove top for a soup, it’s probably best to de-seed and cube the squash first.) The minimalist method works well for oven roasting or microwaving. You can literally put a whole squash in the oven, crank the temp to 400 degrees, and bake away. Baking time will vary depending on size of squash. Check for tenderness after about 45 minutes. Cook longer if the squash does NOT pierce easily with a sharp knife. When the squash is tender, remove from heat, cool, then peel and remove seeds, reserving the cooked squash for your recipe.

I haven’t tried microwaving a butternut or acorn squash, but it works like a charm for the spaghetti variety. Just pierce the spaghetti squash a few times with a sharp knife to release steam during cooking. I microwave in increments of 3 to 4 minutes so I don’t over-cook. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the squash and the power of the microwave. The intricacies of prepping spaghetti squash are for another post, but I thought I’d throw in this cooking method as a freebie since I’m on the general subject.

Let me just add that if you’re looking to entertain yourself on a slow night, cook up one of these babies and then cut it open and begin to shred the squash with a fork. I’m probably going to regret admitting this, but I am fascinated with the process of turning spaghetti squash into something that looks just like pasta. Now you’re either going to feel sorry for me and wonder how spaghetti squash can be so exciting…or you’re going to check it out and be equally enthralled by the pasta-look-alike squash. Whichever it is, it can be your little secret.

Roasted lasagna beauty

Roasted lasagna beauty

Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna

Ingredients:

1 3-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into 1-inch chunks.
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
4 tablespoons butter
4 cloves garlic
1 small onion, diced
1 small yellow or orange bell pepper, diced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup chicken broth
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh snipped rosemary
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 cup shredded Parmesan Cheese
8 oz Ricotta
Shredded Mozzarella, about 2 cups
Fresh lasagna noodles or no-boil lasagna noodles
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Instructions:

Pre-heat oven to 400.
Lightly grease a baking sheet and set aside.
Combine chopped squash, olive oil, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl and toss to coat.
Spread the squash in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet.
Roast the squash in the oven for 40 minutes, stirring once or twice, until soft.

(OR…just cook the squash whole in the oven as described above, and then peel and cube for the sauce after squash is baked.)

While the squash bakes, make the sauce.

Heat butter over in a large saucepan over medium heat.
Add garlic, onion and bell pepper and cook until veggies are tender.
Whisk in flour.
Slowly add broth and milk and season with salt and pepper.
Cook and stir frequently until thickened and bubbly, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove squash from oven and reduce oven temperature to 375.

Add chopped butternut squash, rosemary and nutmeg into sauce. You can blend with an immersion blender if you want a smoother texture for the filling.

Butter a 3-quart casserole dish.
Spoon sauce over the bottom of prepared baking dish.
Layer three or four noodles on top of sauce.
Top noodles with a layer of Ricotta and shredded Mozzarella. Top with 1/3 of the Parmesan.
Ladle sauce on top of the noodles.
Repeat layering of noodles, sauce, Ricotta, Mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses two more times.
Pour whipping cream over entire dish.
Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese.
Cover dish with foil.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until bubbly.
Uncover and continue to bake for 10 more minutes, or until top is lightly browned.
Let stand 15 minutes before serving.
Cut and serve.

Ah, my new favorite comfort. So beautiful, so filling, so satisfying. This is a dish to look forward to all Monday long!

My dinner

October dinner

What’s a yummy dinner without a little sweet treat to finish? This recipe for brownies is tried and true. I just adapted a favorite dessert to make individual bites. I made 1/2 recipe of Hershey’s Fudge Pie, then scooped spoonfuls of batter into a silicone pan. Little tastes of heaven! I have ideas for this little jewel. I can think of lots of recipes that would be perfect to make with this shape. I’m not always a fan of silicone baking, but this is a winner.

I’ve shared this recipe before, but in case you missed it, here it is, in all its glorious chocolatey-ness.

Hershey’s Fudge Brownie Pie, or “Brownies Bites”

Reward for a Monday

Reward for a Monday

Ingredients:

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup Hershey’s Cocoa
1⁄4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)

Instructions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch pie pan.
Beat eggs; blend in sugar and melted butter. Stir in flour, cocoa and salt. Stir in vanilla and nuts.
Pour into prepared pie pan.
Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until almost set. (Pie will not test done in center). Cool; cut into wedges.
Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

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Fall into pumpkin

October is more than half done and I’m moving ever more swiftly into fall. Late summer has faded. My small flower bed is cleaned and tucked away under fresh bark chips to wait out the months till spring. Pumpkins and gourds are the centerpiece for my dining room table, and my taste has turned to hearty foods. Sweaters have come out of storage and back into my drawers. Flannel sheets are on my bed.

Pumpkins!

Pumpkins!

The light fades pretty quickly this far north. Just a few weeks ago the sun rose way too early. Now it’s tempting to stay snuggled in past the call of my alarm. It’s so dark out at 5:00 am. Definitely not time to get up.

In honor of the month, and the iconic pumpkin, in all its orange glory, I’m celebrating the color in food.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” ~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I was late to appreciate the value of squash in my life. I grew up with yellow squash and zucchini, as a Southern girl should. But other varieties did not grace my mother’s table. Gradually, curiosity overcame timidity, and I began buying unknown squashes to see what I might be missing. I tried acorn and butternut and spaghetti, the deep greens and variegated and lemon yellows adding a charming and rustic touch to my kitchen display, the squashes doing double duty, first as still life, and then, after a run in the oven, making a second appearance as star of dinner.

The focus of this post is butternut. It’s the right color (!) and one medium size squash makes a lovely pot of soup, enough to serve six people with normal appetites, or four quite hungry people, or one or two ravenous souls.

I began, as much of my recipe searching does these days, by scouring the internet to see what’s out there already. I had an autumn squash soup recently at Panera‘s, and it inspired me to create my own version, since the closest Panera’s is in Seattle, an expensive flight away from Ketchikan. I found several knock-off recipes. The one I chose is good, but different than the one I had at the restaurant…not as thick, and not quite as sweet. But of course you can easily adjust to your own taste. I would bet the Panera soup includes a touch of sugar, and probably has a roux base. This soup is just a hearty rendition of squash, onion, seasonings, broth, and cream. It’s tasty and couldn’t be easier. And my favorite thing is that it needs to simmer on the stove….a perfect fall afternoon activity! I put my soup on and just come back to check it now and then.

Butternut Squash Soup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary (1 teaspoon dried)
1 small butternut squash, peeled and chopped
6 1/3 cups chicken stock (50.4 ounces)
1 1/4 cups heavy cream (or use half and half, or milk)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Hot pepper sauce to taste

Melt butter over moderate heat in large saucepan. Add the onion and rosemary and cook until soft (approximately 5 minutes).

Add chopped squash, chicken stock, heavy cream, salt, white pepper and hot sauce. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer for approximately 2 hours – or until squash is tender.

Chop and peel the butternut

Chop and peel the butternut

Rough chop, all the good stuff

Rough chop, all the good stuff

Use blender (or immersion hand blender) to puree the hot soup. Toast walnuts to use for garnish. 

Taste of fall in a cream soup

Taste of fall in a cream soup

Note: you can puree the soup to a creamy consistency, or blend minimally  for a more rustic dish. (I used an immersion blender. This makes the job much easier than pouring hot soup into a blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, I highly recommend buying one; you’ll find lots of uses for it to justify space in your kitchen.)

Soup in a crock

Soup in a crock

Serve with a hearty bread or grilled cheese. Mmmmm!

In keeping with my orange theme, I tried another recipe this week, this one a no-bake pumpkin dessert.

No Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake

Dessert in a glass!

Dessert in a glass!

For the crust 

1 sleeve graham crackers (about 9 crackers)
½ stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar

For the filling 

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 3.4 ounce package vanilla flavored instant pudding mix
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Whipped cream, (in place of 12 oz container of Cool Whip) how to make your own whipped cream here 

Instructions

Place the graham crackers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse the crackers into fine crumbs. Add the melted butter, sugar and brown sugar and pulse until combined.

Spoon the crumbs into individual dishes for serving. Place in the refrigerator to set while you are preparing the filling.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until light and creamy.

Add the pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, and pudding mix and beat until completely mixed, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure that all ingredients are well combined.

Add the sweetened condensed milk and mix again until well combined.

Change your stand mixture attachment to the wire whisk. On slow speed, fold in whipped cream until well combined.

Allow the mixture to sit in the fridge for about an hour to firm up.

Using a large pastry bag with a large tip, or a spoon, top the graham cracker crust in each dish with the pumpkin mixture and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Garnish with additional whipped topping if desired.

Note: Feel free to use Cool Whip…I prefer real cream, and it holds up well. I find that this is one area that I’m a bit of a food snob. Notice I’m perfectly happy to use a pudding mix for this recipe. If you really want to be a purist, you could make a recipe of homemade vanilla pudding and use that in place of the instant mix. I might try that next time, but it was a busy day, and I had a mix in the pantry, so I was content to go with that.

I couldn’t resist trying this little treat. Any recipe that combines cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk is not to be missed. And this one is delicious.

I will also admit…an astonishing amount of the filling did not make it to the finished dessert. I tasted my way through a couple of servings, and will be required (!) to put in an extra session or two at the gym to offset my calorie intake for the day. But this is a price I’m willing to pay to enjoy a yummy treat and still be able to wear the new jeans I just bought 🙂

Happy stirring, tasting, and nesting!

Fresh from California

Biscoff spread. Has 5g of sugar so it's out of...

Biscoff spread. (Photo credit: programwitch)

So here I am, back in Ketchikan on Labor Day Monday, ready to work the rest of the week. My end-of-August flirtation with California sun and big beach hats is done, and I’m moving into work mode.

I got home today to find that summer is still here. That was a surprise. I haven’t seen the weather forecast for Ketchikan the past ten days, and I figured we’d used up all the available sunny days we’d be allotted for the season. But not true, there are several more on tap this week. I rode across on the airport ferry standing outside the cabin…that doesn’t happen often. My car was delicious, the warmth causing it to release its lingering new car smell (after 4 1/2 years…that should tell you how much this vehicle is used!) My house was roasty and welcoming in the afternoon light streaming in the big front windows.

And to add to the summer temps lingering a little longer, I imported seasonal flavors to enjoy the next few days. We took frozen salmon down with us to grill while we were camping, and I made use of my emptied fish box to bring back tomatoes, corn, squash, peaches, and a jar or two of Biscoff Spread. (No, no, that’s not produce…just an item I can’t find in the local market.)Would you believe the last time I bought a jar of this delight and tried to bring it back with me in my carry-on luggage, TSA took it from me?!  This stuff is definitely not a liquid. I was assured that the staff can’t consume anything they confiscate, they’re required to dispose of food. That’s almost worse than thinking of some stranger eating my Biscoff. Seems like a waste all around!

Of course I can buy all the fresh produce in Ketchikan. But the charming thing was that I bought it yesterday at a farm stand in California. Whenever I have the option of buying produce from a roadside stand, I’m drawn like a moth to flame. What is it about the farming heritage that makes produce at a farm stand more alluring than neatly stacked fruits and vegetables in a lovely market setting? I always think it’s my grandmothers’ farming blood singing in my veins. Although I’ve grown little beyond tomatoes and rhubarb and flowers, I like the idea of farm fresh. Never mind that I have seen enough of the work side of gardening to know that it’s not the glamorous occupation it’s cracked up to be!

So, when it occurred to me that I could dine on home-grown tomato sandwiches all this week, I couldn’t resist the temptation to bring up just a few things. A couple of guys at the airport this morning saw my fish box and wondered aloud why I was taking fish to Alaska. You see these iconic cardboard boxes all summer as tourists and fishermen take home their catch, flash frozen and ready for travel. Well hey, I figured if the styrofoam-lined box can keep fish frozen on a trip down to the lower 48, it could keep veggies in good condition to travel back up. And I’m happy to report that I was right. All produce survived amateur transportation. My sandwich was delicious! I know I’ve waxed eloquent about my favorite summer feast before…just can’t help myself. A sign that I’ve had almost enough tomatoes is that I begin to get mouth ulcers from all the acidity after overindulging. But I’m not even close yet. Maybe after this week. It’s a painful condition for a day or two, and I’ve never been successful at timing…I only know I’ve had too many tomatoes when the little ulcers begin to appear. But this is my dedication: I’m willing to suffer for the mayonnaise-and-tomato-on-soft-white-bread symphony. Especially when the best flavor is only a summer treat.

We went to a huge flea market last week. Found a beautiful straw hat, very Audrey Hepburn style. I loved the hat so much I wanted to bring it home. But that seems a waste as it’s likely to get more wear when we’re RVing. Not really much occasion for Audrey big hats in Alaska.  Well, this is not exactly how my hat looks. But it is lovely, take my word for it, and big enough I could have sailed a small vessel with it. Very useful for shading small countries that are lounging at the pool and have forgotten sunscreen.

15 apr 1963

15 apr 1963 (Photo credit: fred baby)

I also found a couple of elegant glass bottles for holding sparkling water or juice…whatever…really the contents don’t matter. My clear glass fetish kicked in and I was compelled to buy these two lovelies. Rob just looks at me like I’ve grown a third eye or something equally hideous. He cannot understand my need for clear glass objects. Most of the time I control it very well. But let’s just say one day I’ll have a thing or two to leave some like-minded clear glass aficionado. You know who you are. I think I raised one of those people, so that will probably work out to be my son-in-law’s storage issue eventually.

So, home, treasures unpacked, and a few eaten, and on to next. September and pumpkins and all things fall. I had a maple latte at the airport this morning. Aaahhh, it begins!

My new favorite food

As I’ve mentioned recently, we’re having a real summer here in SE Alaska! This was from last week, but today’s weather looked just like this. (On my phone, anyway…it was a little less sunny in reality. But no rain!)  If you know the Pacific Northwest, and SE Alaska, Summertime!you know how rare it is to have a week of sunshine in the forecast. Even more rare to have multiple weeks like that. And while we’ve had a few rainy days here and there, this is a summer to celebrate!

With summer comes grilling, and we’ve done a lot of that this month. I’ve been trying new recipes and decided to experiment with pizza on the grill. I’ve read about it, thought about it, and now, I’ve tried it. Let me tell you, it’s my new favorite thing. Worth doing, and so easy I wonder why I haven’t tried it before.

So here’s the way to do it:

There are lots of recipes to choose from. Here’s one I like:

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 cups (11 ounces) all-purpose flour*
3/4 cup (6 ounces) lukewarm water
2 tablespoons (7/8 ounce) olive oil

*Substitute Whole Wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour, if desired.

Method:

Mix all of the ingredients to make a soft, supple dough. Knead for 5 minutes, divide the dough in half, cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let rest and relax for 15 minutes (or for up to an hour or so; work it into your schedule as you see fit).

Grease two 12″ squares of parchment paper. Use your greased fingers to press each piece of dough on the parchment into an 11″ to 12″ circle about 1/8″ thick. Brush or spray the crusts with olive oil, and let them rest for about 30 minutes, while you pre-heat your grill.

To make grilled pizza: Be prepared to grill your pizza within 15 minutes of shaping it; you don’t want it to rise too much. So, make sure your barbecue grill is heated (or cooled) to medium-hot by the time the dough is ready to grill.

Set the rack 3″ to 4″ above the fire. Take one circle of dough, on its parchment, and swiftly but carefully turn it (dough down, parchment on top) onto the grill. Peel off the parchment.

After 1 minute, turn it over; it should be stiff enough to turn quite easily (if not, your grill isn’t hot enough). Layer with toppings. This is not the time to pile on the meat, cheese, veggies, etc. Since the pizza will be cooking very briefly, it’s better to top with just a minimal amount of stuff: thinly sliced veggies, a thin layer of cheese, etc.

Bake an additional 5 minutes or so, with the cover on (if your grill has a cover), or until the filling is hot and the cheese is melting. Adjust the temperature of the grill if the bottom is browning too quickly. And, move the pizza around on the grill if one side or the other starts to get too brown on the bottom. Repeat the grilling process with the other pizza.

We like veggie pizza. Marinated artichoke hearts, fresh sliced tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, peppers, red onion, salt and pepper over all, and top with a blend of shredded mozzarella and shaved parmesan…perfection! The pizza dough “bakes” up so light and airy on the grill it’s like eating something from a gourmet wood-fired pizzeria. The veggies get just slightly cooked so they taste incredibly fresh and keep a little of their crunchiness. The whole thing is warm and satisfying to eat, and so fast. I’m seriously thinking of making this again for the third time this week. Haven’t had my fill yet!

Kid foods

Kid stuff for dinner

Stephanie was taking care of a friend’s kids recently, and for dinner they had fish sticks and mac and cheese from the blue box. You know, the classic Kraft mac and cheese, food of kids everywhere (and secret weakness of some adults I know). Made me think about some of my kids’ favorite foods. Let’s see…when they were little, they used to eat:

  • Sloppy joes and tater tots
  • Spaghetti
  • chicken fingers
  • the classic grilled cheese
  • Fairy Cake (recipe here)
  • Animal crackers
  • Goldfish
  • Gummy bears
  • String cheese
  • Applesauce
  • Rice Crispy treats (homemade, the only way to go)
  • Oatmeal
  • Kid pizza (mostly cheese)
  • Fruit leather
  • Ketchup (a food group to my daughter)
  • Milk (needed a cow in the back yard for my two milk-a-holics)
  • Potato soup
  • Pop-tarts
  • Hot pockets (Alex loved these. I was probably a terrible mom for buying them for him, but looks like he survived that abuse)
  • Pizza Rolls (see above confession)
  • Beef stew
  • Orange sherbet push ups
  • Chocolate chip cookies, the original recipe from the chocolate chip bag
  • Tiny green peas
  • carrots (see, they did eat some good stuff!)
  • Bacon and eggs
  • Waffles and pancakes
  • Strawberries
  • Breakfast cereals (shall be nameless here…what can I say, they wore me down)
  • French fries
  • Chicken noodle soup

The above items were some of their regular and favorite foods. They ate other things too, some of it healthy. I’m usually in the camp of “all things in moderation,” so while I’ve tried to make good choices at the grocery, I’m not fanatical about avoiding sugar or fat. I’m happy to say that they did not grow up on a diet of fast food. That’s one gift we gave to them, mostly by accident of where we bought a house: too far from fast food restaurants to be even remotely desirable for a dinner option. 

Well, maybe that list isn’t so bad. You’re only a kid once you know. And that old blue box mac and cheese…it isn’t gourmet, but it is tasty, especially if you’re a little kid who’s just learned how to open the pantry door and point. And what do you think that kid wanted for breakfast? That’s right! Kraft Mac and cheese. Long live kids! They like what they like, and they don’t get hung up on time of day to eat the right kind of food. 

Ginger Peach tea and other finds

Rosemary scented water is popular.

Rosemary

Found some fun new things this week. Mind you, when I say new, I mean new to me…my discoveries may not be cutting edge. But in case I’m not the only one…

Favorite new tea: Republic of Tea Longevity Ginger Peach. This is wonderful as a hot or iced beverage. The flavor is amazing, refreshing, and the tea comes in individual bags with no messy string or paper tag to fuss with.

Google Chrome web browser: thank you Rob! He introduced me to this browser and I like  it better than Internet Explorer…seems faster and offers some great new features.

Amazon Windowshop Beta App: A new way to shop Amazon…this is an app from the  Google Apps site. Easy to navigate through the page and lots of links to explore…Amazon just gets better and better.

Rosemary scented wash cloths: Place a lightweight wash cloth and a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary in a bowl and cover with water. Microwave one to two minutes until water is very hot. Let the cloth steep in the herb infused water. The longer the cloth steeps in the scented water, the stronger the fragrance will become. I like to reheat the bowl in the microwave just before using so the cloth is a perfect temperature…warm but not too hot. Find the Goldilocks spot for your taste. This is a refreshing way to revive after a busy day or a calming wind-down before bed. Check out the baby department for small perfect sized cloths. This also works well with a few basil leaves or any herb you prefer to substitute for the rosemary.

The best part of these finds is that they add fun, variety and functionality to routine. What’s new with you?