20 November 2011

A Squash by Any Other Name

The basement is lined with dozens of squash.  Although pleased by the plentiful supply, I'm daunted by the task of finding another variation on a squash theme.  One Wednesday afternoon while exhausting my resourcefulness for an inspirational dinner, I came up with something.  It is not original in the grander world of dinners, but it is original for our home.  If a meal isn't born in garlic and olive oil or an alternative herb in butter, it isn't our standard fare.  I routinely use our garden-grown herbs for flavor, but couldn't have been more bored by an onion or garlic let alone the rosemary and sage that have made appearances in more than a few meals over the past several weeks.  After testing our fair share of pumpkin pies for The Paisana's Patisserie, it occurred to me: pumpkin pie soup.  I have a freshly-stocked spice rack full of ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon begging for experimentation outside the pastry crust.

a small portion of our Butternut Squash harvest

To call it pumpkin pie soup is slightly deceptive as there is no pumpkin in the dish. However, it is a much more appetizing title than any that came to mind containing the word squash.  According to Romeo, 'that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'.  Although romantic when applied to adolescent love, the theme isn't as relevant in regards to the Cucurbitaceae family.  Squash, though a true culinary delight, was not named accordingly.  At best, it conjures images of peasant or Native American cuisine--not that both categories lack delicious highlights, but neither immediately points to them either.  

1 gallon of farm-fresh milk
I wanted something redolent of the holidays--something that perfectly defines these transitional weeks of November into the official holiday season.  It had to be creamy, satisfying, and slightly exotic, but common enough to be a comfort food, just like pumpkin pie.

roasted and cooled squash halves
The ingredient list is simple: Butternut squash, milk, pumpkin pie spices, maple syrup or flavoring, brown sugar, kosher salt.  One of the purposes of this blog is to explore the gastronomic opportunities of Midwest gardening.  I point this out because my recipes are not always the most time or labor efficient.  In our effort to produce as much of our food as our sanity allows, I've reclaimed certain steps typically done by a factory.  So for this soup, I split, roasted, skinned, and pureed the squash.  If we are not cut from the same cloth in the kitchen, you are welcome to buy pure pumpkin puree from the store if trying this recipe.  You'll save time and effort; your kitchen will remain much tidier than mine as well.  

Pumpkin Pie soup makes a cozy winter lunch, puts the abundance of garden squash to good use, and is an anticipated respite from our standard meal equation: x + olive oil + garlic + parmesan = repast.  I think it may be the perfect tree-decorating companion lunch and certainly makes more room in the basement.  I only wish it were as delicious with a more virtuous name.

Pumpkin Pie Soup
serves about 8 

2 medium butternut squash 
5-6 cups milk
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp ginger
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp allspice
1/2 Tbsp kosher salt
3 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp maple flavoring (or 3 Tbsp maple syrup and eliminate brown sugar)

Halve squash and place faced down on a foil-lined and oiled baking sheet.  Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes in 350 degree oven.  The squash should be slightly caramelized on the outside and very soft.  Remove flesh and blend in batches in food processor or blender with enough milk to make a smooth puree.  Add squash, spices, and enough milk for a creamy, but not too thick consistency to a large stockpot (I use an 8 qt stainless steel).  Cook on a low heat until it's very hot, but not boiling.  The milk will form a skin if you bring to a boil.  I find this soup is much better on the second day because it allows enough time for the spices to infuse.  The texture is better after it sits a day or two as well.  

Please note that the amount of spice in the ingredient list is a suggested starting point.  Often, pumpkin pie recipes use more cinnamon than the other spices, but I really like the kick that the extra ginger gives.  Next time I may even add a little cayenne. I usually don't list my recipes because there aren't any, but this is my best attempt to estimate how much of each ingredient went into this dish.  Feel free to adjust according to your liking.  Were I serving this as a lunch or first course for a dinner, I might garnish with some creme fraiche and candied pecans along with a nice crusty baguette.  It's just fine with a dash of nutmeg and sea salt for a meal of less decorum.  I enjoyed it most by the light of my Christmas decorations with a side of silence provided by Vivienne's nap.  

15 November 2011

It All Begins with Garlic

You can never have enough garlic. With enough garlic, you can eat The New York Times. 
-Morley Safer

garlic in raised beds this past spring

In a way, we just celebrated our one-year gardening anniversary.  We haven't lived on the farm for a full year yet and we've barely completed our first gardening season, but the year has come in full in that it was last November that we broke ground on our future garden spot and planted garlic.  I wouldn't have realized it except that Nick tilled the raised beds and has already planted our garlic for next year.

It was last fall that we realized that we were indeed quite serious about moving to the country. We didn't know if and how the relocation would materialize, but we had faith that it would.  With that faith came the vision of a garden, and in that garden was sure to grow garlic, one of the cornerstones of our family cuisine.
garlic curing in the haymow over the summer

We came out to the farm one weekend to mark our garden beds, plant grass seed and a cover crop of clover, and build 8' x 8' raised beds for the garlic and herbs that require more drainage. We raced from the suburbs to the farm on a very autumnal Friday afternoon after work because we wanted to get all the seed in the ground before the anticipated rain the next day.

The first step was to till the ground.  My Father-in-law was generous enough to disk the dry ground first, but we still needed to till it further so he let us use his four-wheeler with a plow-type attachment on the back.  Nick suggested that I ride with him for a few passes until I was comfortable and then continue on my own so he could move onto other necessary activities in the spirit of saving time.  This made me very nervous: one, I am a bad driver in general; two, if anyone's gonna make a mistake with my father-in-laws stuff, it ain't gonna be me.  Additionally, his dog, Tilly, who is quite an obedient dog has one very annoying character flaw:  she loses her mind when anyone drives the four wheeler.  She bites at the wheels, runs in front of it, and barks her Blue Heeler head off.  Despite my requests to possibly have a different gardening assignment and the subsequent requests to put the dog in the shed, I was left to drive the four-wheeler with the dog practically having an aneurism from barking and biting at the wheels.  We all know this isn't headed anywhere good.

Before I get to the point, I have to make one important digression.  I make it a point not to annoy my Father-in-law, particularly during harvest season.  Nick, the middle-child, has absolutely no problem irritating him, in fact, they make a sport of antagonism together.  So, before we started on our gardening adventure, I established one rule.  One rule!  Don't irritate Dad.  My first-born fiber can't handle it.  Now, I've never really been a rule follower, but I set out with every intention of not breaking this one.  To make a long story short, I popped one of the back tires with the blade of the plow.  And if I have ever considered ending it all, it was at that moment.  I broke my own rule before the completion of our first gardening hour.

The whole incident occurred, basically, because I thought I was going to hit the dog.  In farm country, however, that is not the catastrophe that it is in the suburbs.  Nick's response to my explanation was something to the tune of, "Who cares?!"  My Father-in-law's was more practical: "Giana, you couldn't kill that dog if you tried."  Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.  

My plan was to never go into my in-laws house again in order to avoid the shame.  It would have been a perfect evening to spend my first farm-night outdoors too.  There was a full moon against a perfectly clear blue-black sky.  And the weather was almost temperate--a day which one can't decipher is fall or spring because of the combination of crispness and warm humidity in the breeze.  We continued planting grass and clover seeds by the light of the moon.  We were giddy. It was certainly a new breed of romance.

All in all, the event was not such a disaster.  Luckily, my Father-in-law is a very forgiving man, we replaced the tire the next day, and we learned early on that I would not be driving any machinery.

Our next season's garlic crop is already bundled in its winter coat of mulch.  Our first gardening season is bundled in its nostalgic coat of our family history.  And really, what could be a better crop to mark the passing of seasons?  It is the first in the ground each season and it's almost always the first ingredient in my pan shimmering with olive oil.  Garlic is an important cornerstone of our cuisine because it's part of me, a part of my heritage, a part of the cooking I grew up with.  We're raising our family in the glorified setting of Nick's youth, but I've brought a big part of mine in the kitchen.

05 November 2011

A Deliciously Redneck Autumn

End of September: Violet on Orange

The seasons are turning. Just when I thought nothing could be more beautiful than summer on the farm, autumn proves me wrong.  Our scenery was just green and lush and moist and overnight turned brown and dry.  The air is crisp, even biting in the morning when Viv and I take our walks down to the creek, which is also showcasing its fall outfit of orange and goldenrod wildflowers.  We walk down the waterway through the gold and burnt orange patchwork of the corn and soy quilt.  The corn talks to us in its crunchy, rustling voice and we might respond if we weren’t so busy singing Old McDonalds Farm, Viv’s new song of choice, which is quite the feat since I’m singing it while walking a with a 30-pound two-year-old strapped to my back.  It feels like I have a baby goat in the backpack.  I’m definitely winded by the time we get to the creek and have sung about every farm animal I know (which is like four that I’ve set on repeat), but like the turning of the seasons, I know she, too, will be turning, turning into a little girl that soon won’t fit on my back.  So I savor the moments she sits in that backpack, now bundled in her fleece and bunny hat while rubbing her dirty blankie on her nose and singing her E-I-E-I-Ohs with a binkie hanging out the side of her mouth like a little colorful cigar.

Despite the turn in season, our tomatoes are still producing.  And the hornworms are still destroying.  First frost has yet to hit and the cooler weather seems to have benefitted the tomatoes that now appear to be in perfect condition—no splits, no bruises, no funky smells looming underneath the plants as I pick.  More tomatoes does mean more canning (sigh), but I’m grateful considering our low yield in the hotter months.  It also means I have to watch Viv every second around the tomato harvest.  I came in from the garden one morning to find her eating her breakfast—a large Italian heirloom tomato that had to have weighed at least a pound.  She was sitting at our picnic table eating it as one would eat an apple.  Although I had been reserving that perfect tomato for canning, I was so impressed with the precision in which she devoured it, I sat and watched her eat the whole thing.  It also spared me the preparation of her eggs or oatmeal.

The new chill in the air brought the eggplant production to a screeching halt and I was actually thankful.  After grilling, frying, braising, roasting, drying, and even preserving a batch under oil, I’ve had my fill.  However, the peppers are troopers.  I’m still bringing in baskets of sweet, bell, and hot peppers.  And we’ve officially harvested thirteen Fatali Peppers.  They rank as one of the hottest peppers in the world and clearly are not native to this area, which makes it a wonder that we can raise these plants, but not corn and beans.  We will not be consuming the Fatalis as the Hungarian Hot peppers, which rank much lower on the Scoville scale, are hot enough for the both of us.  These are for my brother-in-law, Andy, who has a penchant for piquante and can pop one of the Hungarian Peppers in his mouth as though it were a piece of candy.  I hope he breaks a sweat as Nick had to start about fifty plants to get the handful that produced.  The Hungarian hot peppers are prolific and have provided pepper relish, hot pepper jelly, smoked paprika, and even our house hot sauce.  Come over on hot sauce makin’ day if you need your sinuses cleared.  The kitchen is like Bikram for your nose.

Now that the weather has cooled, it’s exciting to prepare end-of-summer crops in fall fashion.  I avoided the oven during steamy August, but September (ah, I love September) allows for all of the cozier, warmer dishes one can prepare with the nightshades.  After canning a bunch of tomatoes, the leftover puree gave way to a rich tomato Parmesan risotto.  That remaining risotto was stuffed into red bell peppers along with some Italian sausage.   And the sausage that didn’t go into the peppers ended up in the final--I swear to god the final--eggplant dish: stuffed eggplants.  We have lots of sweet Italian peppers.  They made a lovely Calabrian chicken along with onions, garlic, potatoes and pepperoncini.  Roasted and paired with feta we enjoyed some great crostini and rustic sandwiches along.  And on a Sunday night on which we were all very tired, they made a humble but pungent garlic red pepper pesto lightly tossed in capellini with generous Parmesan and ground pepperoncini.  We ate our fill and then couldn’t kiss for at least twenty-four hours due to the awful garlic dragon breath.  Worth it.

We have pounds and pounds and more pounds of squash: Delicata, Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard.  I have to practically go on safari to retrieve them from the jungle of vines in the squash beds.  We’ve had butternut bisque with sage, butternut bisque with peppers and kale, butternut bisque with fingerling potatoes and bacon.  All in all, we’ve already had our share of butternut bisque. 

The potatoes have all found a humid home in boxes of dirt in the root cellar.  When the cupboard is looking bare, it’s a nice surprise to remember the inventory of potatoes in the basement.  The blue potatoes are beautiful. Sliced, they look like cross-sections of amethyst geodes.  I make the yellow ones in the cast iron skillet, but to add some decadence, I crack eggs over the top and baked them for ten minutes.  When sliced and served, the yolks yield a rich sauce that nicely compliments the crispy potato base.  The gourmet French fingerling is everything they were advertised to be in the Seed Savers Exchange order form description.  They are silky and firm with a delicious buttery flavor.  And one evening when we had very few ingredients in the pantry, I fetched a good amount of them from the root cellar and after the millennia it takes to wash and peel them, fried them with bacon and garlic and poured in a half gallon of our creamy, local milk for a very basic but savory chowder garnished with plenty of fresh parsley.

Speaking of parsley, our herb bed is in full swing—a fragrant medley of rosemary, coriander, parsley, and sage.  The rosemary has been particularly enticing with its Christmas-y smell and inspired a series of braising experiments, most notably the rosemary-maple short ribs braised in a porter sauce and the rosemary-pear whole chicken braised in a white wine butter sauce.  I spent a Friday night engulfed in Molly Stevens book, All About Braising, and have become a braising fool.  Our freshly picked herbs really added excellent flavor to the experiments, but as the temperature has plummeted, we’ve pulled in most of the herbs and now have numerous strands of coriander, rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley, and sage hanging in the basement to dry before we package them for winter.  They made a nice addition to the onions and garlic we pulled in from the haymow weeks ago.  Our formerly Blair Witch basement is now the perfect venue for a Wiccan ceremony.  Not sure which is scarier. 

The autumn garden is a pleasant change from the barely manageable summer garden.  The falling leaves have saved me mulching efforts.  The fall crops are approaching their peak as the summer crops slowly decline. Each time I step outside, I think ‘violet on orange’.  The burnt soybeans, camel-colored corn, and golden leaves are vibrant against a violet-grey autumn sky.  The vista from my kitchen window is a Van Gogh painting of swirling browns, golds, and oranges, topped with dancing purples and thick greys.  When I squint, it turns into a Rothko— just violet on orange.  Who would have known I would have world-class artwork above my kitchen sink on the modest salaries of a teacher and a stay-at-home mom/gardener? 


End of October: Blue on Yellow

Just weeks ago Vivienne and I made our way to the creek each morning among the browned corn and soy.  As the industrial farming harvest season comes to an end, the corn and soy ocean surrounding our rural island is gone.  It’s as though the tide went out.  In the weeks it took for them to disappear, the wildflowers by the creek have also gone, and the baby I carried on my back turned into a big girl who can lead me to the creek on her own.  She’s not quite two and has a better sense of direction than her mother, although that’s not saying much.    

Now that the corn and beans have been harvested, we have visitors.  The bugs that lost their homes in the surrounding fields are trying to take residence in ours.  The primary invaders are the lady bugs, which are harmless, which does not mean they belong in the house, the shower, or the bed.  Any bug in my bed is completely unnerving and adds fuel to my irrational bug behavior.  So, I feel my daily vacuuming of the ceiling during those first few weeks after the advent of harvest was completely warranted.   I love feeling like a deranged housewife.

The squash is still producing, but not as heavily as a month ago.  After many squash taste-tests, we’ve decided that the acorn has superior flavor while the butternut has superior texture.  The butternut is an excellent candidate for soups, muffins, and pies (you can use butternut squash in pumpkin recipes).  The acorn, roasted and mashed with butter, brown sugar, and kosher salt makes a killer side dish. 

We had a quintessentially fall pasta with squash and sausage in a brown-butter sage sauce, which is definitely my go-to fall sauce.  The squash must be peeled and sautéed in oil before it can be added to the pasta with the other ingredients.  Learn from my mistake—it’s easier to peel a butternut squash with a vegetable peeler than the ridged acorn squash.  I realize that should have been apparent to me without having to commit the error. 

Our favorite use for squash is gnocchi.  Traditionally, gnocchi are small dumplings made with potato.  While I’ll take the occasional bite of someone else’s gnocchi, it isn’t a dish I typically order, let alone make at home.  I think my sister was genetically assigned all the appreciation for gnocchi. And sleeping. That girl loves gnocchi almost as much as a good nap.  But when made with roasted squash, gnocchi speaks to me.  And when covered in the brown butter sage sauce, it sings.  I’ve made them with both butternut and acorn squash.  The color is definitely prettier with the butternut, but I’m still partial to the flavor of the acorn.  They only require two ingredients: flour and cooked squash.  I’ve experimented with the ratio of flour to squash.  It varies from a 1:1 ratio of cups of squash to cups of flour to a 1:2 ratio.  The acorn squash requires more flour, the butternut less.  Too much flour creates tough gnocchi, but too little makes the dough very difficult to handle and a mushy gnocchi. And nobody wants a mushy gnocchi.  I create the gnocchi in small batches adding just enough flour to make quarter-sized dumplings, then roll it in flour, place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet so they don’t stick, and make ridges on the top with the tines of a fork.  They do take a little work, but if you are on a tight budget and are a foodie at heart, it’s worth it.  They keep their shape best in the refrigerator until boiled in salted water for 10-15 minutes, removed from the water with a slotted spoon, and gently placed in a colander to drain—they’re delicate.  Then after plating, a drizzle of the brown-butter sage sauce, a dusting of parmesan, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and they’re ready to go.  Pillows of flavor. 

The brown-butter sage sauce is easy: brown the butter with a handful of halved sage leaves.  The butter browns right as the sage becomes crispy, which is a lovely garnish.  The entire flavor has been infused into the butter, but the crispiness is a nice contrast to the chewy gnocchi. And, well,  it just looks pretty.         

While I expected the tomato production to halt weeks ago, it didn’t and the vines were heavy with fruit after neglect.  Late in October my mother-in-law, in her generous nature, offered to can the late harvest on her days off.  In several days she basically doubled the efforts of my couple months—and much more gracefully, may I add.  She makes up in finesse what I have in ambition.  I skinned and quartered a few last quarts and threw them in the freezer for a quick sauce and said good-bye to the tomatoes and their mockery for a while. 

In addition to the late tomatoes, I found a dozen or so late eggplant.  While part of me wanted to walk by and leave them on the vines, my heart just wouldn’t let me.  As sick as I was of eggplant, my love runs too deep.  Nick was pleased with my decision as he came home to eggplant parm for dinner layered with fresh ricotta made that day with our extra milk.  It’s always a winner—even after the eggplant deluge of August.

Our greens are in abundance: a variety of lettuces and arugula, chard, and kale.  The lettuces are tender and crisp and range in color from bright mint green to deep burgundy.  The salads are beautiful.  When you only eat fresh salads in season, it truly is a treat.  We have a large salad every night with dinner dressed with a roasted red pepper dressing made from the remaining Jimmy Nardellos and Marconis.  The pepper plants are looking sad, but the sweet Italian red peppers are still producing by the handful.  And amazingly enough, the Fatalis, a tropical plant, have yielded dozens and dozens of peculiar little orange hot peppers.  And from the few who were brave enough to try them, I was told they are hot. Dangerously hot. 

I enjoy the kale, probably more than most people.  It’s texture really holds up when sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and pepperoncini, unlike spinach that typically turns into a wet lump.  It’s a great accompaniment to Italian sausage, tossed with pasta, or thrown into soups.  I like to use it in place of escarole for the traditional Italian meal of sausage, escarole, and beans. 

When Nick and I daydream of our future homestead, we envision small livestock and fruit and nut trees.  However, the planting or transplanting of fruit and nut trees is not in accordance with our landlord/tenant agreement—or what I like to call, the ‘Nick, don’t piss off your dad’ agreement.  While we wait on the reworking of our contract, Nick found a walnut spot for us to forage.  A little note about foraging:  if like me, you were raised in the affluent suburbs by middle-class educated parents who worked hard to put you through college and travel the world, perhaps don’t tell them that you went walnut foraging. Or any kind of foraging.  That is unless you want them to look at you like you have two heads.  Again, this is probably apparent to most people without having to make that mistake.  Although having committed the error, I can now write down the word foraging on the until-now blank list of things that make my mother speechless.  And I’m not sure forage is even the right word anyways since it wasn’t technically wilderness in which we were collecting walnuts; it was my father-in-law’s best friend’s yard.  Although as far as my upbringing is concerned, his wooded lot would fall more in the wilderness category than yard.  Either way, he was generous enough to allow us to collect walnuts on his property, which is quite the process because the nut is encased in a husk.  The husk removal is very messy because the walnut juice gets all over your hands and clothes.  We actually had a lot of fun collecting them and removing the husks.  The juice and occasional maggot-infested nut didn’t even bother me, but that may have been because I was already half in the walnut bag. 

After the collection and husk removal, they must cure for a few weeks in the sun before storing, which is the real fun—dragging them out of the garage and onto the lawn every morning and packing them up every night.  Ironically, the same visit in which I mentioned foraging to my mother, she had brought me a trunk full of groceries consisting of my favorite things: chips, salsa, hummus, cheese, wine, pepperoni, breads, and walnuts.  She’s wonderful.  Walnuts that were already collected, husked, cured, and shelled. For $5.  Maybe she’s onto something.

As October comes to a close, most of the fall crops are proving successful.  The tender lettuces and kales are delicious.  We’ve harvested at least one hundred squash.  The packet of small, French pumpkins did not germinate well, but I have three Cinderella pumpkins that have grown and are about to turn from their deep green to deep orange.  We have our own brand of fairytales here on the farm.  I even have one Marina di Chioggia squash, which I probably shouldn’t consider a victory, but had already given up on them early in the season.  Then, one day I was out collecting squash and there in the middle of the garden bed was a fully-grown, very lumpy, green-grey pumpkin-shaped squash that is the Marina di Chioggia.  It’s so ugly it’s beautiful.  I squealed in delight and immediately sent Nick a picture message.  I wonder if other wives send sexy squash pictures to their husbands.   

The turnip and rutabaga are just beginning to pop out of the ground—let the root vegetable experiments begin!  The multiple carrot cultivars, beets, and radishes are right on schedule.  And it’s a race to see if our flowering fall peas produce.  As we head into November, the garden has reduced greatly in size from the massive and unruly July beast.  It is a small, verdant patch among the dunes of sand-colored bare fields.  I would expect a caravan of camels in the distance if it weren’t for the green waterways and standard midwestern farmhouses and buildings in view.  My swirling Van Gogh painting above the sink now showcases brushstrokes of sandy browns and yellows and icy grey-blues.  And when I squint, I no longer see the September Rothko: Violet on Orange, but the October replacement: Blue on Yellow.