Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Frightful Holiday

The days of ghosts, ghouls and goblins are upon us. The decorations are up, treats bought, and costumes chosen. Halloween is only a week away. The rustling wind and long shadows take on double meaning and every echoing footstep causes me to look over my shoulder these days. Yet the fear that the spirit world inspires cannot compare to that of a parent's dread about the candy high that this week spawns.

Before I go any further, I have to say I'm no candy hater. When we crafted Purple Asparagus' mission statement, we intentionally left out any reference to the word "healthy," but instead talked about good eating. Good eating we felt was a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which left room for sometime foods, candy included. I certainly remember loving Halloween's post-trick-or-treating where I inspected my loot, organizing it and rationing it out. I think that the big difference is, like most everything these days, a matter of degree. I would travel a 3-4 block radius in a suburban neighborhood and come home with the same amount of candy that my son gathers in one small 1/2 city block. Back then, I got one piece a house. Nowadays, people throw handfuls of the stuff like beads off of Mardi Gras floats. Then there are the parties, school and otherwise with goodie bags stocked full of candy. Boxes of treats are sent from relatives near and far. I know that my son's body will recover from a jolt of sugar shock, it's just my sanity that seems to be damaged watching him bounce from wall to wall.

For some strategies against the sugar attack, check out this recent Mindful Metropolis article for which I served as a source.

Mindful Metropolis October 2009

For a healthy alternative to the sugar fest, come see Purple Asparagus at the Evanston Farmers' Market with Now We're Cookin' as we make Witches Brew (spiced apple cider) and Bug Salsa (black bean and peppers) with Creature Chips. If you want to stay in the city, the Green City Market has an exciting line-up for their annual Halloween Party. While you're there, consider supporting the Market by becoming a member.

Bug Salsa
For 4 servings

2 cups of cooked black beans
2 tablespoons sweet onion, chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 red pepper, chopped into squares
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro

Combine the lime juice, cumin, and salt in a large bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil while whisking to combine. Add black beans, onions, cilantro and peppers and mix to combine. For a more adult version, I add 1/2 serrano chile, seeded and chopped.

Whole Wheat Tortilla Spikes
For 4 servings

1 bag whole wheat flour tortillas
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 400º F. Slice the whole wheat tortillas into ½ inch slices. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray and place the tortilla spikes on top. Spray the spikes lightly with cooking spray. Bake for 20 minutes or until lightly browned and crispy.

Witches Brew

1 1/2 gallon of apple cider
1 cinnamon stick
5 cloves
2 strips of orange peel

Wrap the peel and spices in cheesecloth and tie at the top. Pour the cider in saucepan and add the cheesecloth package. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Our terrific volunteer, Gracie, who declared Bug Salsa delicious, with a friend that she recruited.

Evanston Farmers Market

Black beans from Three Sisters, IL
Red peppers and onion from Genesis Growers, WI
Cilantro from Smit's, IL
Apple cider from Seedling, MI
Spices from The Spice House, IL

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Field Trip: A is for Apple


Since our son started school, we’ve had a family tradition for the first day. While at the farmers’ market, he picks out an apple from our friend, Farmer Pete, to give to his teacher. Given that Pete raises more than a dozen different varieties of apples, my son has a lot to choose from. He has his speech memorized as it's been the same since we started. "This is an apple from my friend Farmer Pete." Next September, after today, we can add "whose farm I visit."

Pete Klein owns Seedling Orchards in South Haven, Michigan where he grows a dizzying array of fruits starting the season with rhubarb, ending with apples with berries, pears and melons in between. Within this realm, he's introduced a number of heirloom and uncommon varieties, including the fraise des bois, a tiny, wild Alpine strawberry.


Today, Pete, wife, Stephanie and his two daughters, hosted their annual harvest party. It was a mix of chefs, customers, friends of the couple and friends of the children. Young and old came to pick apples, to throw apples, drink beer, eat lamb and cook s'mores over an applewood fired blaze. Thor particularly enjoyed playing football with the staff of May Street Market and his hay ride with the daughters' friends and with Gale Gand, pastry chef extraordinaire.


Thanks to our gracious hosts, we returned home with a pumpkin, a bushel basket of apples, a bag full of fraises, an armful of applewood, full bellies, dirty pants, and a bunch of pictures, which I want to share here.


The splendor of autumn in Michigan


A windmill and an old barber shop on Pete's orchard.


Bins waiting to be filled


We see a touch of nature: a bird's nest among the apples.


Ripe for the picking


Thor ready to get some apples


Now some fraises


Fun on the swings


And with the football

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Plateful of Politics: The Ghosts in the Garden

Halloween may not be until next week, but I've already seen a ghost. A garden full of ghosts to be exact. But before I tell my ghost story, allow me to provide a little background.

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It wasn’t until mid-summer this year that I made it down to the 61st Street Farmers’ Market for the first time. In July, Purple Asparagus took part in the Market’s education program, the Market School. Since it was a little slow to start and we had some extra volunteers, I took the Market's manager, Dennis Ryan, up on his offer of a tour.

The Market is located on 61st Street in Woodlawn on Chicago's south side. Despite its proximity to the President's Chicago home and the University of Chicago, Woodlawn is a neighborhood with many needs. While it has made recent strides, it still suffers from higher poverty levels and lower access to fresh and healthy foods.

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Experimental Station, a community organization determined to develop independent cultural infrastructure to Woodlawn, founded the Market with the intent of providing the community access to buy fresh, local farm products, supporting farmers and artisans, and promoting sustainable and organic agriculture. The 61st Street Market is outside from the beginning of May until the end of October. It moves inside to the Experimental Station’s event space during November and December and is looking to establish a year-round grocery to sell kitchen staples and Midwestern farm products.

The 61st Street Market isn’t a terribly large market, but definitely one on the rise. Last year was the market’s first. Within a year, it has doubled the number of vendors and has seen a steady growth of shoppers. Ryan estimated that it had about an average of 300 committed shoppers each week during the height of this year’s season. The market has a good selection of vendors including Tomato Mountain, Genesis Growers, Growing Power and Mint Creek. While small, it feels complete. You can buy bread, beef, chicken, eggs, cheese, lamb, and of course lots of fruit and vegetables. Ryan explained that when they designed the Market, the started with the farmers in mind and created a great market for them to sell their product. Their theory was that if the farmers come, the shoppers will follow.

This is not to suggest that the Market doesn’t have a lot to offer its shoppers. The Market leadership realized that, especially in an underserved neighborhood like Woodlawn, just locating the Market there was not going to be enough. It also needed to provide education for its shoppers. The Market has accomplished this through a couple different initiatives. The Market hosts chef demos, arranges for seasonal food tastings, and organizes a Market School, in-school workshops and weekly educational programming focusing on nutrition, healthy eating and sustainability.

Since its founding, the 61st Street Farmers’ Market has been determined to make fresh, clean produce more accessible and so it has actively publicized that it accepts WIC, food stamps, and the Farmers Market Senior Nutrition Program. Recently, the Market found a way to make it even more accessible to its low income customers. With funding from the Wholesome Wave Foundation, the 61st Street Farmers’ Market is the first Midwestern farmers’ market to offer a double value coupon to its shoppers. The program will double LINK benefits up to $25 per LINK cardholder per market when they shop at the Market. The Market’s press release quoted Experimental Station co-founder and Executive Director, Connie Spreen, as saying how excited she was “to be able to bridge the gap between the higher cost of organic and sustainably grown foods and the lower incomes of may of our local residents.”

Experimental Station runs a number of different projects to help solve other problems in the community. The Blackstone Bicycle Works is a youth education program that allows boys and girls age 9-16 to work in a bike shop, learning how to repair bikes and then earn their own once they’ve worked for 25 hours in the shop. It also provides space for Backstory, a women-owned coffee/tea house and operates a kitchen with a wood-fired oven that allows for community bread baking. Experimental Station also hosts a variety of cultural events. You can sign up for their mailing list, by visiting http://www.experimentalstation.org/contact. By doing so, you’ll receive a weekly email plus an invitation to the Market’s annual fundraiser. I didn’t attend this year, but after checking out the menu, which included Pork Liver Sausage from Avec, Pickled Lamb’s Tongue on Rye Crostini from Publican and Flora’s Confections, I won’t make that mistake again.

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A great appeal to the Market is its setting. Just to the east of it is community garden giving the Market a semi-pastoral setting. The garden hosts row after row of individual plots, stocked with carrots, herbs, basil, chard and strawberries. Each patch reflects the personality of the keeper, some are wild, others tidy, a few incorporate ornamentation, others lawn chairs. In an open part of it, the garden has a small vine-covered pergola, seemingly perfect for coffee, lunch or an early evening glass of wine.

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The University of Chicago had lent the property to the community with the understanding that the University would get it back when it wanted to build upon it. Earlier this year, the University announced its intention to reclaim the land despite the fact that it does not plan to erect anything on the site. Instead, the land will serve as temporary staging area for construction of the Chicago Theological Seminary building. A University spokesperson has suggested that, after construction, the land may become a parking lot.

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According to Connie Spreen, Executive Director of Experimental Station, the University has claimed that allowing the garden to remain during construction would create a safety risk. Spreen questions the University’s rationale given that the garden remained open during the construction of the Helmut Jahn-designed chiller plant adjacent to the University’s Steam Plant on 61st Street and Dorchester. Spreen has asked the University to engage in a dialogue about a broader view of sustainability to discuss how its decision to destroy the garden will impact the community and how, if it were to allow the garden to remain, the garden could ultimately be part of a sustainable plan that would connect the community and the University. According to Spreen, the University has yet to agree to participate in such a conversation and instead has set October 30 as the deadline for all 135 households who garden on the site to vacate their plots.

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While Spreen is working in the 11th hour to facilitate a conversation or summon a miracle, some gardeners are contemplating how to move their plants. Others are talking about their experience with The Invisible Institute in the Garden Conversations. According to writer, interviewer and soon-to-be-displaced gardener, Jamie Kalven:

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"We see this as an exercise in hope as well as grief. Although we have been unable to dissuade the University from its course, we hold fast to the hope that we, and perhaps others, can learn from this situation. Amid promising developments elsewhere--from the White House vegetable garden to innovative composting operations at elite universities to the proliferation of community gardens and farmers markets across the country--we should not underestimate the potential contribution of a well-documented negative example. That, it appears, will be the final harvest from this lovely urban space that has enriched the lives of so many."

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I'm quite certain that the University of Chicago has not seen the irony of requiring vacation of the garden the day before Halloween. The garden will be empty on All Hallow's Eve. The graves of garden plots ripped open and exposed. I imagine a host of ghosts consoling each other and reminiscing in whispers about a decade of growing and dying, all the while wishing to see another season of rebirth that under current circumstances will not occur.

Click here for a video of Purple Asparagus' session at the Market School.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Cook the Squash Electric


Today, Chicago hosted Indian summer with its endless blue skies, 70 degree temperature and an electric landscape. It doesn’t make sense, but the sudden burst of warmth seems to draw my attention to the dramatic change in scenery. The trees, bushes, even the hostas have suddenly changed into their showy autumn attire. Shades of highlighter yellow, safety cone orange, and fuschia red dot the streets. How is it that the leaves seem most vibrant just before plunging to their death?

As I drove by the umpteenth blazing tree, I thought of the squash that I cooked on Sunday.

Have you tried a Red Kuri? Before Sunday, I hadn’t. In year’s past, I’ve stayed within a regular squash rotation – pumpkins, Acorn, and Butternut. Recently, I’d expanded the repertoire to include Delicata and Carnival. I love them so, and thus I’ve found it hard to move away from the favorites. Winter squash require a commitment – they aren’t the casual love of summer. They need love and coaxing to meet your needs, so it’s hard to move away from what you know.

Well, now I know the Red Kuri. With a firm, pumpkin like texture, it can be substituted easily for the sugar or pie pumpkin. The difference that it will impart is in taste and color, glorious color. The Red Kuri isn’t red, but bright fiery orange. A friend today described it as neon. The flavor, on the other hand, is mellow, with a touch of chestnut, which is what inspired the following recipe.

Red Kuri Squash Stew with Chestnut Crepes
4 servings

½ Red Kuri squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 ½ tablespoons butter
1 cup medium dice of yellow onion
2 small stalks of celery, cut into small dice
1 tablespoon minced garlic
¼ teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon coriander
1 yellow carrot, cut into 1/8-inch thick half moons
2/3 cup tomato puree
1 1/3 cup chicken stock
½ bay leaf
1 small sprig of thyme
1/2 pint tiny brussels sprouts or medium sprouts halved

Heat 1½ tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven. Add the cubed squash and cook undisturbed lightly browned. Stir and repeat. Remove from the pan to a small bowl. Heat the remaining butter in the same pan. Add onion, celery, and carrot and sauté until softened about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, coriander, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt stirring for 1 minute until the garlic and spices are fragrant. Return the squash to the pan and cover the vegetables with tomato puree and chicken stock. Add bay leaf and thyme and reduce the heat to very low. Cover and cook for 1 1/2 hours. Uncover and add the brussel sprouts. Return the lid and cook for an additional 1/2 hour or until the sprouts are tender.

Chestnut Crepes
Between 8-10 crepes, depending on how careful you are with the batter

1 cup cold water
1 cup cold 2% milk
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup chestnut flour
4 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
4 tablespoons clarified butter

Blend water, milk, eggs and salt in a blender. Add flours and butter and blend for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate the batter for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. When the batter is ready, heat a crepe pan or a non-stick saute pan over high heat. Brush a bit of clarified butter on the pan and add ¼ cup of batter, swirling to coat the bottom with a pan. Cook for 1 minute to a 1½ minute. I flip the crepes by easing it onto a salad plate, then covering the plate with the pan and flipping it over. Brown the other side for about 30 seconds. Crepes can be wrapped between sheets of wax or parchment paper and then frozen.

Kids' Cooking Tips
Kids help prepare the vegetables and in the stirring of the stew. The can mix the crepe batter. Older kids can help cook the crepes.

Squash, carrots, onions, and celery from Genesis Growers (IL)
Garlic from Growing Home (Chicago, IL)
Tomato puree from Tomato Mountain (WI)
Brussel sprouts from Green Acres (IN)
Chestnut flour from Hillside (MI)
Eggs from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm (IL)
Milk and butter from Organic Valley (WI)

And forgive me Walt Whitman for bastardizing your language.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far


I still remember the first great meal that I made for my husband. It was on a cold, wet, October Saturday - a day suitable for only a few activities: cleaning, slow cooking and, from Mike's perspective, watching college football. I had scoured through my cookbook collection to find just the right recipe for the day, considering and then rejecting beef stews, pork chili and long braised lamb shanks. The recipe that finally piqued my interest was from The Tribeca Grill Cookbook: Beet Gnocchi with Oxtails and Horseradish Sauce.

Although we'd been dating only a short while, I was fully aware of Mike's unquenchable love of gnocchi. He had grown up in an Italian neighborhood on Chicago's south side and would wax poetically about the virtues of the little boiled dumpling. I knew that it was likely that any potato gnocchi I made would pale in comparison to those in his memory. An untraditional recipe that didn't have to stand up to the past was ideal.

The Tribeca Grill recipe spanned four pages, involving 16 steps, at least 3 of which took an hour or longer. I started mid-morning and still I'm pretty sure that ate at 10:30pm, both of us starving and a little soused, having started the wine a few hours earlier. Good thing that the result was worth waiting for. The rich, beefy oxtails complimented the earthy beet-iness of the gnocchi. The horseradish cream was a velvety, piquant touch that almost gilded the lily. Mike speaks wistfully of that meal to this day and I feel quite certain that the beet gnocchi was the catalyst for his proposal to me only 2 months later, merely six months after we met.

Given our history with the gnocchi, it makes perfect sense that Thor would share his father's obsession. He too orders it whenever he sees it on a menu. But it wasn't until last week that I found Thor's beet gnocchi. Fortunately, this recipe takes substantially less time to make and Thor can help with most of the recipe's steps.

Delicata Squash

The delicata squash, also known as the sweet potato squash, is relatively small, about 6 to 8 inches in length. The flesh is yellowish and drier than pumpkin or butternut squash, which makes it ideal for gnocchi.

Delicata Squash Gnocchi with Sage Butter Sauce
6 Servings

1 delicata squash, roasted until tender
1 cup ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
1 large egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sage leaves
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

Mash the squash in a medium bowl. Mix in the ricotta, parmesan, egg, flour and salt and stir until combined. If the mixture is very wet, add more flour a little at a time.


Lightly knead the dough on a floured board. It will be moist. Return to a clean, oiled bowl. Cover with a clean dish towel and refrigerate for an hour.


Roll chunks of the dough with your hands on a floured board into ropes 1-inch thick. Cut into 1-inch pieces and set on a silpat, wax or parchment paper lined baking sheet.


Heat the butter over low heat in a small skillet. Add the garlic and sage and cook slowly until the butter is browned and smells nutty. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they rise to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon to a large skillet. Strain the butter over the top and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Sprinkle parmesan cheese and coarse sea salt over the gnocchi and divide evenly into 6 bowls. Sprinkle chopped sage on top. Serve immediately.

Any unused gnocchi can be frozen.

Kids' Cooking Tips
Kids can mash the squash, mix and knead the dough, roll and cut the gnocchi.

Delicata squash from Genesis Growers
Sarvecchio parmesan
Eggs from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm
Butter from Organic Valley
Garlic from Growing Home
Sage from my garden

Friday, October 16, 2009

Eating Like Squirrels


I was chatting with Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers at Green City Market on Wednesday. Apparently, even though she sells some of the best squash at the market, her guys don't eat it. Or more accurately, they will only eat it when it's been doused with brown sugar. As a result, they make pretty terrible salesmen when it comes to a large percentage of her autumn inventory.

We were talking about squash recipes for squash-hating, farm workers when the idea of squash and sausage, together, came to me. I won't suggest that this was an original idea, but it certainly was the first time that I'd given it any thought. So sausage and squash - what would complement these two? Certainly, onions. Garlic too. I'd need some herbs too - to give the dish a fresh taste, fresh parsley and thyme sounded right. Now the mixture had flavors that were rich, sweet, and fresh. It needed a counterpoint. Rummaging through my crisper, I found a tart apple and a bit of fresh celery for crunch. For sparkle, I added a touch of apple wine. Acorn squash served as the vessel. I didn't want to overcook the sausage and vegetables, but I wanted the squash to be tender so I pre-roasted the squash at 350 F with about 2 cups of apple cider and 1/4 cup of apple wine in the base of the pan. The vegetable and sausage mixture was cooked on the stove top in a saute pan. When the acorn squash was about 1/2 hour away from being done, I stuffed the sausage and vegetables into its cavity, basted it with the apple cider, and returned to the oven. When the squash was tender, the dish was done and ready to serve. With a green salad, it was a simple and satisfying Friday night supper.

Sausage-Stuffed Acorn Squash
4 servings

1 acorn squash
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups apple cider
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup apple wine or other semi-dry white wine
1 1/2 Tropea onions or 1 small red onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove minced
2 small celery stalks, finely chopped
3/4 pound bulk pork sausage
1/2 large tart green apple, diced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons apple wine or semi-dry white wine
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish, drained

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Slice off the top 1 1/2-inch of the acorn squash. Remove the seeds, reserve for toasting if desired. Peel the top piece and cut into large dice. Slice off a small piece off the bottom of the squash to allow it to sit levelly in the baking pan. Set it into the baking pan and pour the cider and 1/4 cup of apple wine around it. Cut 2 tablespoons of the butter into small pieces and add to the squash cavity with the thyme sprigs. Ladle 1 cup of liquid into the cavity and put the pan into the oven. Bake covered with aluminum foil for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the squash is almost completely tender.

In the meantime, melt the remaining butter over medium heat in a saute pan. Add the onion and cook until softened, approximately 5 minutes. Add garlic, sausage and celery and cook for an another 10 minutes. Add apple and herbs and cook for 5 minutes or until the apple is slightly softened. Add wine and horseradish and cook, stirring for one minute. Add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Turn off the heat. When the squash is almost tender, remove it from the oven. Stuff the squah with the sausage and vegetables. Baste with apple cider and return to the oven. Bake for a an additional 30 minutes or until the squash is tender. Serve.

Kids' Cooking Tips
Kids can help peeling the squash, preparing the ingredients and stirring the sausage and vegetables.

Acorn squash, onions, celery and herbs from Genesis Growers
Butter from Organic Valley
Sausage from Black Earth Meats
Apple cider from Hy's Cider Mill
Mutsu apple from Seedling
Apple wine from Illinois Cellars
Horseradish from Brede Farmers, Michigan

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Days of Squash and Pumpkins


Every year, it seems to happen overnight. One day, we’re enjoying the last of the corn and savoring the fall crop of raspberries and then the next the season changes for good and autumn settles in. Although the days have been gradually getting shorter, the night abruptly feels long when we first fire our home’s heater and harvest the last of the obstinately green tomatoes.

As we pull out the corduroys and fuzzy wool sweaters, track down our gloves and coats, it finally feels right to turn to the steady and sturdy hard-skinned squash. Having spent months with the easy, yet elusive, flavors of summer, it’s comforting to spend the time to peel away the squash’s resilient rind and then melt away the rigidity of its flesh. These are the days of squash and pumpkins.

The squash that makes its way to the farmers’ markets of autumn is a warm-season vegetable that can be grown in most parts of the country. Unlike “summer” squash, hard-skinned squash are harvested when the seeds have matured and the skin hardened. At this stage of maturity, the squash can be stored throughout the winter, earning the designation “winter” squash. Another botanical oddity is that although the squash is a fruit of the vine, usually sweet and often used for dessert, we consider it to be a vegetable.

I’ll be spending a lot of time with the locavore’s thick skinned friend having picked up my squash sampler from Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers on Saturday, a box full with varieties beyond the pie pumpkin and butternut squash. In addition to those and the acorn, we’ve got delicata (sweet potato squash), buttercup, red kuri, green and scarlet kabocha, dumpling and spaghetti. My mind is bustling with visions of lamb and pumpkin stew, sausage and apple stuffed acorn squash, pies and gratins. Check back here frequently to see where each variety ends up.

Spiced Pumpkin Muffins

I used to make this recipe with golden raisins instead of chocolate chips. Thor suggested the switch and we’ve never gone back. I have an oddity bottle of Austrian pumpkinseed oil in my fridge. I use a tablespoon of it in my batter. I add the tablespoon to the measuring cup and measure up to ½ cup with canola oil. For these pictures, I used my adorable Williams-Sonoma acorn cake pan - buttering and flouring left a bit of a residue on the cakes, so I glazed them with maple syrup thinned with water and reduced in saucepan over medium heat.


Makes 18 muffins

+ large eggs
½ cup canola oil
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350° F. Fill 2 standard muffin tin with 18 paper or silicone cups. Whisk together the eggs, oil, pumpkin puree, and ¼ cup water. Mix together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients. Stir in the chocolate chips. Scoop batter into the prepared muffin tins equally. Bake for approximately 30 minutes or until a tester comes out with only a few crumbs.

This site is a great guide to unusual squash varieties.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Family Feast Days: Octoberfest

(My grandmother’s plate, a hand-painted ceramic made by a Long Island artist, with the beer stein from which I drank little shots of beer with my German grandfather to wash down our sauerbraten.)

As the story goes, I first started cooking when I was four. My mom charged with me planning for and “cooking” dinner once a week. In the beginning, dinner was pretty Spartan – PB&J on Ritz crackers and English muffin pizza, as I have been told. While they’ve never admitted it, I’m quite certain that my parents ordered Chinese when I went to bed.

Despite a fair number of extra-curricular activities, this responsibility carried through elementary school, junior high and even high school. My recollection is that I felt somewhat ambivalent towards my assignment. Obviously, I didn’t hate it, but I don’t seem to remember much of what I cooked, so I must not have loved it either. The strangest happening of the matter was how the chore did ultimately turn to passion.

A few weeks before my high school graduation, I got a case of (oh how shall I put it?) the runs. Turns out that somewhere I had picked up a pretty bad case of salmonella. It’s still a matter of controversy, but the theory is that it came from the mayo dressing on a fast food hamburger. Suffice to say, anything that went in my mouth went out the other end and fast. To make matters worse, our family doctor misdiagnosed me and, in my weak condition, I would up contracting mono.

While my high school buddies were enjoying there last days in our home town, I was convalescing on my couch. Not being much of television watcher, I started with books. After five of the books on my college reading list, I'd had enough. Then puzzles, 1000 piece puzzles – the appeal wore off. Finally, and ironically given my lack of appetite, I started on my mother’s cookbook collection. I poured over the Julia Child, underlined her Craig Claibourne and starved over the Gourmets. This, ironically, is what made me a cook.

The book that inspired this series of posts is the one that went untouched. Dusty and a bit smelly, chartreuse in that kitchenette color in vogue back in the 1960’s, Roy Andries de Groot’s Feasts for All Seasons remained on the shelf, pushed aside for more modern pleasures. It seemed old-fashioned, certainly nothing that even a starving 18-year old would give a second look to. But this was early in my cookbook obsession.

About halfway into my college junior year, I signed up for the Cookbook of the Month. In my first order, I got Julia Child’s The Way to Cook and The New Basics by Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins. Both still sit on my small kitchen cookbook shelf. I would travel and buy more cookbooks. I worked at the Smithsonian one summer and bought more cookbooks still. Then I began to raid my mother’s collection. By this time, I had begun to read the literary stars of gastronomy: MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David and Brillat-Savarin, which led me to Recipes from The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth.

Roy Andries de Groot was a British-born American culinary writer, born in London, the son of a Dutch artist and a French noblewoman. During World War II, de Groot was employed by the British Ministry of Information and worked for the BBC, where, during the Blitz of London, he suffered eye injuries that would ultimately leave him completely blind. He moved to New York City where he married a British actress, had two daughters and lived on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.

I adored his Recipes from The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, the story of how de Groot went to France to seek out the history of the liqueur Chartreuse but instead discovered the world of two Alpine women who owned an inn or auberge where they cooked with the seasons and from the heart. So, of course, when I excavated his Feasts for All Seasons, I “borrowed” it.

Feasts for All Seasons is a cookbook, a wine guide and an explanation of how to become a gourmet. Most poignantly, however, it is a diary of how a food-loving family lived on a budget in the early 1960s. I could go on for paragraphs, but the feature that I loved best, and found most inspiring, was the family’s celebration of the Feast Days of the World. In the Introduction, de Groot wrote that:

“[t]he second rule of our family gastronomy has been the exploration of the peoples and cultures of foreign nations through foods . . . . At home, while our girls were in school, we thought we might add to their studies on world civilization by celebrating some of the foreign feast days at our own table; with traditional menus, the proper wines, serving customs, often the music of the country and sometimes even a study of the festive costumes. “

The de Groot’s celebrated Chinese New Year, Russian Easter, Bastille Day, and Indian Independence Day.

Starting our own tradition, we enjoyed our first Family Feast Day on Thursday. My mom was in town so in honor of our German family heritage, we celebrated Octoberfest. With a slightly Alsatian twist, we served Soft Pretzels with Mustard, Saurkraut and Sausages and a Black Forest Cake with a twist. With the exception of the baking staples, the meal was sourced from the farmers’ market.


Soft Pretzels
Makes 16

1 cup water
1 ¼-ounce package yeast
½ teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon white wine
¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour plus more for rolling out the dough
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Pretzel salt

Heat the water in a microwave for approximately 30 seconds until 110° F. Sprinkle yeast on top and add honey, stir to combine. Let the yeast mixture sit for 5 minutes while it foams. In the bowl of stand mixer, mix together yeast, white wine, the flours and oil and salt. Mix with a dough hook until the water is absorbed. Knead with the dough hook for approximately 2 more minutes. Add salt and knead for another minute. Remove from the bowl before the dough is completely smooth and knead by hand for a few minutes or until smooth and elastic, but slightly tacky. Put the dough into a large bowl coated with oil and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise for 1hour.

Preheat the oven to 350° F and bring a large pot of water to a boil.


Cut the dough into 16 pieces. Roll a piece into a eight-inch rope. Shape into a pretzel. Repeat. Boil each pretzel for 1 minute. Set on a baking sheet lined with Silpat or parchment. Sprinkle with pretzel salt and bake until lightly browned, approximately 7 minutes.


Sauerkraut with Sausages
4 Servings

9 peppercorns
1 clove
5 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
5 coriander seeds
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs parsley
2 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large clove garlic, minced
6 small carrots, sliced on the bias about 1-inch thick
4 bratwursts
½ ham steak, thickly sliced
3 slices thick cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups sauerkraut
1 pint tiny new potatoes or regular new potatoes, quartered

Tie the first seven ingredients in a small piece of cheesecloth. Heat the chicken fat or oil in a medium Dutch oven over medium heat. Saute the onions until softened, but not browned. Add garlic, carrots, bratwursts, ham slices, and bacon. Pour the wine and stock over the meat. Cover with sauerkraut. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook for 1 ½ hour. Uncover and add the potatoes and cook for another ½ hour or until the potatoes are tender.

To honor the passing of a beloved family friend, I made our unconstructed Black Forest Cake using a recipe for chocolate-almond torte from Gourmet Magazine.


Chocolate Almond Torte
10 servings

4 ounces blanched almonds, lightly toasted and cooled
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs, separated
½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 tablespoon kirsch
6 ounces finely ground bittersweet chocolate.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with a parchment circle. Butter the parchment.

Finely grind the almonds with 1 tablespoon sugar until ground fine. Do not let it become a paste.

Cream together the butter and ¼ cup sugar until light. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Beat in zest, kirsch and chocolate.

Beat whites in a second bowl until foamy. Add 3 tablespoons and a pinch of salt to the whites while the mixer is on in a gradual stream. Beat until the whites just hold a stick peak. Fold in one third of the whites into the chocolate-almond mixture to lighten. Add remaining whites gently, but thoroughly. Pour batter into the pan, smoothing the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 45-55 minutes or until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan. Cool completely on a rack.

Serve with brandied cherries and whipped cream.

Kids' Cooking Tips
Just like I had done when I was little, Thor helped his grandmother with every step of the pretzels. Kids can also help make the cake and whip the cream.

Honey from the City of Chicago Rooftop available at the Downtown Farmstand
Pork from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm
Carrots from Green Grocer
Onion and new potatoes from Green Acres
Garlic from Growing Home
Sauerkraut from the Downtown Farmstand
Butter from Organic Valley

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Field Trip: A Community on the Rise - A Garden in Decline

I’m not much of a gardener so I’m in awe of those who do it well. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to tour four equally inspiring, yet very different gardens. This is the first of my reports on these visits.

My initial trip to the Gary Comer Youth Center was back in April. Hidden Valley hired my catering company as their Chicago caterer for their Love Your Veggies retreat. Hidden Valley created the Love Your Veggies campaign as a way to help parents and educators get children eating and enjoying their vegetables. The company had a contest associated with the program in which moms submitted an essay about kids loving vegetables. The winners, about 20 of them, were awarded a trip to Chicago during which they were treated to a gardening demonstration by my friend Jeanne Pinsof Nolan, The Organic Gardner, and a cooking demonstration by celebrity chef and cookbook author Art Smith at the Center.

While borrowing the Center’s wonderful kitchen, I got to talking with Executive Chef Karen Armijo and Chef Stephen Meynhart where we discussed the possibility of collaboration between the Center and Purple Asparagus. Karen asked that I circle back in September when the kids were back in school and the chaotic period of summer camps over.

In the meantime, I was speaking with my friend Lisa Gershonson, the L behind J&L Catering, now a cooking teacher and consultant. I learned that she had become involved with Center teaching cooking classes to the students there. She offered to arrange a visit to see the Center, in particular the wonderful rooftop garden, the heart of its food program. Nina Winston of Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand joined us on a soggy day, which couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for what we saw.

Lisa explained that the Center is located in a small section of Englewood, known as “The Pocket.” While I can’t find that neighborhood on my Chicago map, it certainly is a pocket of hope for the neighborhood’s children. Gary Comer, who made his fortune on catalog retailer, Land’s End, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and went to Paul Revere Elementary School in the 1930s. While visiting his old neighborhood in 1998, he stopped into his old school. When seeing the conditions, he decided to use some of his considerable fortune to help the school and the community. This commitment led to the development of the Center, an enormous and distinctive fixture on 72d Street, which offers a broad variety of programs in technology, performing arts, sports, culinary arts and gardening.

The garden is clearly a labor of love for Marji Hess, its Garden Manager, and even on a wet, gray October day when the garden is in decline, its beauty was evident. We began our visit is Hess’ office where an assortment of peppers had been set out, harvested that morning for a class that Lisa was teaching in the afternoon about jerk kitchen.

Tabasco Peppers

A Thai variety of peppers

I snapped pictures while Hess discussed the programs in which the students sell their products to restaurants, including Frontera Grill, West Town Tavern and Table 52, and to the general public through their Harvest Table program. The Harvest Table program is associated with After School Matters where high school students set up a farmers’ market onsite to sell to local residents.

Drying sunflowers


Our tour began in the “snack garden” where they grow mint and peanuts to show the students popular snacks in their pure form. Hess explained that in a large part of the garden she plants foods that have a culinary significance to the community but with a twist. For example, they plant a variety of mustard greens including ones with a ruby red hue.


The garden has a beautiful aesthetic with distinctive stakes and other design elements.

A dying sunflower.

Tomatoes harvested before the frost.

The rain began to come down heavier as we walked back to Marjii office’s and said our good-byes. I look forward to seeing the garden as it rises again in the Spring.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mama Lena's Marvelously Luscious Peppers

I live on what has got to be one of the friendliest streets in Chicago's friendliest neighborhoods. The connected rowhouses have for the most part created a communal setting where people share stories, meals and, of course, adult beverages. Every so often, the close-knit, yet loosely organized street organization hosts a Progressive Dinner. Families divide into groups, and in each group, one family takes the lead as a host house. Scheduled during the summer, it's a parade of comestibles starting with appetizers and travelling to dessert, each course at a different home. Most groups organize themselves around a culinary theme: BBQ, Italian, Asian . . . you get the drift.

It was at one of these dinners that I'd first tasted Mama Lena's Marvelously Luscious Peppers. They were abundantly displayed in an enormous bowl, glistening and flecked with garlic. I took a small heaping to pair with a grilled flank steak. The steak tasted feeble in comparison. I went for another, slightly larger, heaping, topping it onto golden brown garlic crostini. The crunch was the ideal companion to the silkiness of the peppers. Prepared to beg for the recipe, I identified their maker. Turns out it was a good friend of mine, Don Tomei. Don comes from a southern Italian family with a mother who is an amazing cook. Almost everything that comes out of Mama Lena's kitchen is made from scratch - pasta, pastries and long-simmered sauces. I was sure that there was some great secret to these bewitching peppers.

Don shattered my illusions when informing me that the recipe could be described in these short lines, grill, peel, cover with extra virgin oil and mix with a ton of garlic. Then you wait. Really? It couldn't be. I've roasted and grilled peppers on numerous occasions, something more had to be at play. This couldn’t be this easy.

I went home and bought a mess of multi-colored peppers from Green City Market. And then I grilled, peeled, covered with olive oil and mixed with a ton of garlic. Not being able to help myself, I added a touch of sherry vinegar. Then I waited. The next day, I peeled back the plastic wrap from the bowl and was greeted with a deliciously sweet, garlicky aroma. Scraping them into a bowl, I oiled and toasted a few slices of baguette. Heaping them on top of the warm toasts and sprinkling a bit of goat cheese, I remembered why some of the simplest pleasures are the best.

During pepper season, which we are in the midst of, I will throw peppers onto an oiled grill any time that I have the chance. The dish is a great side dish for grilled or sautéed chicken and an easy sauce for fresh pasta with a bit of fresh goat cheese crumbled on top. This is a terrific dish for busy families: delicious, easy and made ahead of time.

Genesis Peppers
Peppers on the Farm, Photo Credit: David Thompson

Here's the more explicative recipe.

Mama Lena’s Roasted and Marinated Bell Peppers
6 Servings

6 bell peppers of various colors
6 garlic cloves
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon good sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Grill, broil or roast the peppers over an open flame. Put the peppers into bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap until cool to the touch. Remove the skins, stems and the seeds from the peppers. Slice into ¼-inch slices. Very thinly slice garlic cloves. Mix together the peppers, sliced garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar and salt in a medium-size bowl and marinate overnight.
DO-AHEAD NOTES: The peppers should be made the day before and can be kept for two days in the refrigerator.


Kids Cooking Tips
Kids will have fun peeling these and slicing them with a dull knive.

Peppers from Genesis Growers
Garlic from Growing Home
Pasta from Pasta Puttana
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