Roasted Pumpkin Salad

I get excited every year when I see pumpkins at the farmer’s market or grocery and try to think of new ways to get them to the table.  The past few years I’ve made either pumpkin cheesecake or ravioli, but I wanted something different.  The following is a combination of a few recipes.  Since I tend to adjust flavors as I go, I’ve put par amounts on the ingredients marked with TT so they can be adjusted.

1 small cooking pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1” squares (about 3 cups)
Kosher salt
8-10 mission figs
12 tiny red onions /shallots or quarter 3 medium red onions
2 cups quinoa
1/3 cup roasted pecans or walnuts
1/3 cup EVOO
2 TBs lemon juice TT†
1 TB balsamic vinegar TT
¼ tsp kosher salt TT
1 TB maple syrup TT
2 TB warm water
1 tsp fresh thyme TT

Toss the pumpkin in olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, and roast using high heat (450F).  Roasting at high heat allows for browning without turning the pumpkin to mush.   Try 8-10 minutes, or until browning.

Roast the onions till visibly brown (caramelize).

Roast the figs separately at 325F in a Pyrex pan, or glass oven-proof pan.  Be sure to spray lightly with non-stick spray.  Roast the figs until juices seep into the pan.   The lower heat allows the figs to express moisture without hardening.  Save the liquid.

Prepare quinoa and set aside.

Roast pecans (walnuts).

In a bowl, mix wet ingredients (olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, ¼ tsp kosher salt, maple syrup, and warm water).   Adjust taste (TT) to your preference.  Add quinoa, fresh thyme, and roasted ingredients.  Toss.

Can be served either warm or cold.  Warm brings out the flavors.

† to taste

Airline Cookies! A New Guilty Pleasure

The first time I ever tried a Biscoff cookies was while flying on Delta Airlines. It was either cookies or peanuts. At the time, I had a headache from not eating breakfast and needed something sweet and quick. I opted for the cookies. Though I expected a dry, crumbly vanilla cookie, that’s not what I received. It was a yummy spice cookie that complemented my coffee.

I didn’t realize that these cookies were available for retail until a recent trip to Kroger. We were having a food day at the office for a co-worker’s birthday, and I was desperately running around trying to find something to contribute. Normally, I make something from scratch, but it had been unusually hectic and I had no time to prepare a grocery list, much less cook that night. While pondering deli bar dolmas and gargantuan Greek olives, I saw what looked like peanut butter next to minimally wrapped cookies. I was intrigued, so I began reading the ingredient lists (No BHT, hydrogenated fats, HFCS, synthetic dyes, or artificial flavors), and while doing so, another customer commented, “Oh, those are really good.”  I tossed the spread and the cookies into the cart and off I went.

It wasn’t until I got back to the office that I realized that these were the “airplane cookies”. In fact, it says, “The Airline Cookie!” on the packaging. I almost didn’t want to share them. I began thinking of substitutes, scanning my food drawer: a box of crackers, a can of vegetarian vegetable soup, instant oatmeal, and Susan Link’s community candy jar, which was brimming with Almond Joys. Guilt soon settled in, and I reluctantly shared.

Biscoff Gourmet Cookies are made by Lotus Bakeries, which opened in Belgium in 1932. This company also makes Anna’s, the brand that provides those wonderfully thin ginger snaps that Susan Link referenced when she posted her haiku about goat cheese. Apparently, Lotus Bakeries isn’t a huge company—only 1,245 employees—but it has distribution in the US (San Francisco) and Canada, and it sells its delicious baked products in 25 countries.

The spread is actually made with Biscoff cookies. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. It’s not only a good companion for the cookies, but it’s also great with apples and as a peanut butter substitute on sandwiches.

For those with allergies, both the cookies and the spread are nut-free and dairy-free. However, they do contain soy and wheat.

UPDATE: These are now available at Whole Health Center in Abingdon, VA.

Queen Beet

Seems like I fall in love with a different food each year and 2010 was the Year of the Beet. I’ve always eaten beets, but it wasn’t until last year that I really went crazy for them.  Apparently I’m not the only one digging beets these days; the New York Times called them, “the new spinach.” And on a recent episode of The Office, beet farmer Dwight Shrute said, “We made some inroads in salads, but heirloom tomatoes are really pushing back.” (Success never rests, especially in a troubled economy.)

Schrute Farms

No other vegetable can add color to a plate the way beets can. High in potassium, manganese, and folate, their deep purple or rich gold color is an easy clue to the nutritional punch they pack. Beets are at their most tender from June-October, but you can find them year-round in most places.

Buttered or sliced and diced in salads, beets rule, although I hear they’re also delicious (and easy) roasted or tossed with simple vinaigrette. Typically, I just boil mine until tender, then slip the skins off and keep them in the refrigerator until I’m ready to use them.

One of the most delicious beet dishes I’ve had recently was this chilled beet and cilantro soup at Oddfella’s Cantina in Floyd, Virginia. Yum! (Sorry it’s blurry. There was either an earthquake or a second glass of wine; I can’t remember which.)

Chilled Beet & Cilantro Soup

In short, beets are so good that they not only deserve a mention on this blog, but I think they also merit a haiku, so here you go:

Hail the regal beet!

Royalty of root veggies,

Purple majesty.

The Fortune that Failed in Bed.

As long as I can remember, I have always had a thing for fortune cookies.  I eat them, I moisten and chill them so I can unfold or reshape them, and I even feed them to my dogs.  I think my dogs love them more than I do.  Max, my oldest dog, a pit-lab mix, gets what I call “Maximum Crunchage” out of a fortune cookie.  Most food he swallows whole.  But when it comes to a fortune cookie or potato chip, he can chew one for five minutes and exploit it for every crunch available.  I have been tempted to take a translator with me to my favorite Chinese food take-out counter to see what they are saying when I ask for a few extra cookies for my dogs.  But I am worried the translator would engage in a conversation with the chef and begin laughing hysterically while glancing in my direction.

After removing the fortunes from all but one of the cookies last night, I applied the old “in bed” addendum to each and commented on how it always works.  I then noticed I had one cookie left, and I decided it would be for my oldest cat, Sam.  Of course, he did not eat the cookie, but I didn’t want him to feel left out.  To my surprise and amusement, the fortune read “About time I got out of that cookie.”  I have always thought how much fun it would be to get a job with a fortune cookie manufacturer just so I could go rogue one day with some twisted fortunes of my own. 

That was the first time I ever got a fortune that was outside the norm of usual fortunes.  And, the timing was perfect.  I had just made my comment about how “in bed” always works with the fortunes.  But, for the sake of being thorough, I gave it a try.  “About time I got out of that cookie in bed.”  Although it made me snicker, it did not work.  Sigh.

Versatile and Aromatic Rosemary

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub that can grow up to 6’ tall. It’s versatile and aromatic, making it popular for use in savory recipes, breads, compound butters, spreads, and desserts. Just remember that a little goes a long way when you’re using it while cooking.

Generally, people think of herbs as “pretty accents” that complement dishes, but herbs are really just as nutritious as vegetables.  For example, rosemary is abundant in folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, iron, and calcium.

Rosemary tea and tinctures are used by herbalists to treat depression, fatigue, and as an aid for digestive problems.  

Interesting facts from Lisa: Because rosemary is high in vitamins C, E, and A, it has been used to create a stable antioxidant called rosmaridiphenol, which is used in food and cosmetic preservation. It’s also used in cosmetics because its potent essential oil is known to strengthen capillaries, which provides a rejuvenating effect on skin. (Note that essential oils should never be placed directly on the skin. A carrier is necessary, such as an oil, butter, cream, or lotion.)

Always consult your physician before taking herbal remedies.

Have You Seen the Beaver?

Last December, after years of dreaming, I finally visited Colorado.  I left the confines of the dead, brown landscape of Oklahoma and headed west.  Although I have done plenty of snowboarding, I had never experienced the acclaimed slopes of Colorado.  As with any journey to a vacation destination, the trip there seemed twice as long as the drive back home.  After a night in Denver, I headed out early to Beaver Creek, Colorado in hopes of beating the blizzard that was rapidly approaching. 

In my usual, extensive research of my vacation destination, I uncovered a “must see” destination in Avon, Colorado.  Beaver Liquors.  I have to admit that upon seeing the name, I began snickering uncontrollably.  My inner Beavis and Butthead emerged after ten years of dormancy.  On a side note, Beavis and Butthead are returning to the airwaves with all new episodes on October 27, 2011.  If you’re reading this Mike Judge, feel free to send me a monetary donation for the plug. 

Now, back to the Beaver.  In 1977, a slightly inebriated Rick Cuny entered a contest for “Best New Store Name” in Avon, Colorado.  Not knowing how this would change his life, he sat back amused with his submission.  To his delight, “Beaver Liquors” was selected as the winner.  This was three years before the opening of the now thriving Beaver Creek ski resort.  However, Rick immediately realized he may be on to something. He purchased the name and location where he would later open his world famous liquor store. 

During the 1980’s, Rick began to brainstorm on ways to capitalize on his brand.  Over the years, he has continued to design thousands of items touting the famous play on words after which his store is named.  Tee shirts, coffee mugs, calendars, hats, golf balls, post cards, and everything in between have been emblazoned with themes based on his store name.  The items range from a simple logo, to tongue-in-cheek, to R-rated.  Now, when you enter his multi-level liquor store, you will find a very large section is dedicated to the apparel and branded merchandise.  Conveniently located on the main road leading into Beaver Creek, it is an easy destination to find and a convenient stop for the souvenir minded traveler. 

Needless to say, I stopped by and loaded up on souvenirs to send to family and friends.  As for a matching pair of coffee mugs?  I kept them.  Now, every morning as I enjoy my coffee, I am reminded of the time I spent with the Beaver Liquors.  Cheers.

Esso Tiger Coffee Mug

What is a sustainability specialist doing with a coffee mug that features an oil company mascot? I have no idea. I don’t recall where I picked it up, but my guess is that it was a thrift shop find. I can’t help it–I love Fire-King.  

In the 1960s, Esso Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon *devil horns*) used the slogan “Put a tiger in your tank”. Sure, the tiger looks benign enough, but I’m certain that there’s malevolence behind that boastful smile.

Apparently, there were several pieces to this set, including bowls, a tray, and a water pitcher (which was clear glass).  I am not sure why anyone would purchase dishes that advertised a gas station. The only reason I can formulate is that these were promotional pieces that were given away with gas purchases.

Savory Turnips

Turnips aren’t overly popular, but perhaps it’s because many people aren’t sure how to prepare them. They’re usually roasted with other root vegetables—a punch of kosher salt, some rosemary, and a little olive oil–but rarely do turnips have a dish to themselves.

But why shouldn’t they? They’re low calorie and a good source of vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and other minerals.  Turnips are also very inexpensive.

Here’s one way to prepare them:

Savory Turnips

I loosely measure, and I’m usually heavy on the herbs. Adjust recipe as needed.

4 turnips, peeled and cubed into 1”-2″ pieces
3 Tbsp. EVOO
3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
7 springs of thyme, leaves stripped
2-3 leaves of sage, finely chopped
Sea salt
Balsamic reduction

Preheat oven to 450. In a mixing bowl, whisk together EVOO and balsamic vinegar. Toss in cubed turnips, making sure to coat them evenly.

In a roasting pan, spread in a single layer and roast for about 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and add herbs, tossing with a large spoon.

Return to oven for a few more minutes—just long enough for the herbs to release their oils.

Remove from the oven and toss with sea salt. Just before serving, drizzle with balsamic reduction.

The Funky Looking Squash with the Green Stripes (aka Cushaws)

Someone once asked me, “What is that big funky looking squash with the green stripes? Can you eat those?”  Those questions inspired me to write this blog post. The big funky squash in question is the cushaw [kuh-shaw] squash.

Unfortunately, they’re often used in fall decorations, demeaningly placed alongside cute miniature hay bales and smiling scarecrows whose vapid eyes are trained on arriving guests and passersby. This type of embarrassing display has perpetuated the pervading thought that cushaws are ornamental. They’re not. They belong in pies, butters, and soups. Let’s show some respect, folks. After all, we’re talking about a vegetable that’s been eaten since around 3000 BC, when it was first domesticated in Mesoamerica.

This interesting heirloom was also a favorite of Native American cultures because it provided vitamin C throughout the winter months due to its very long “shelf life”.  Easy to grow, it’s a very hardy plant, as it is able to withstand high heat and vine borers, which kill other squash plants, including pumpkin.

Though it’s not in imminent danger of becoming extinct, cushaw is grown in small batches, so it’s not always readily available in grocery stores, but you can find them at farmers’ markets. I found mine at the Abingdon Farmers’ Market for $3.00.

Here’s how I usually prepare mine:

With a large chef knife, cut the “neck” off. Then, split the round end in half. Scoop out the innards with a large metal spoon, reserving the seeds for planting or eating later. †

Lightly spray a large baking sheet and place the halves on it, rind side up. Bake at 400 for 45-50 minutes.

Cushaw is fibrous like spaghetti squash, so with a fork, scratch out strands into a large bowl and top with salt, pepper, and butter or make it sweet by adding butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Either way, it’s delicious.

You can also use in pies instead of–or with–pumpkin. Southern cooks have been using cushaw in pies since the late 1800s/early 1900s.

†Cushaws are large! They weigh between 10-20 lbs. and are about 18” long. The round part of the squash is 10” or more in diameter. That being said, it’s more than likely that you’ll want to save half of it for cooking later.  Just remove the seeds, cube, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will keep for about a week.

Addendum: Found a good vegan recipe for cushaw pie on Leaning Towards the Sunlight. It’s very easy and very good!

Strange Love

Our friend Waylon is obsessed with McDonald’s on again, off again McRib sandwich. Yesterday I was looking for him and a co-worker offered, “I don’t know where he is.  I just mentioned that the McRib was back and he stood up and walked out the door.” I immediately knew where he was.

When I asked him what, exactly, is so great about the McRib his eyes glazed over and he challenged me: “Have you ever TASTED one?? It’s f%&*@n# AMAZING!!!” We should probably stage an intervention, ’cause he’s definitely “lovin’ it” a little too much. Anyhow, here’s Waylon’s McRib haiku:

Delicious fake pork

Barbecue sauce on my sleeve

Regret comes so fast

A man and his McRib (and yes ladies, he's single!)