Archive for October, 2010

Squash without end, amen

I love winter squash, and they can be hard to grow here in central New Mexico because of our thriving population of squash borers. The vine grows beautifully and sets baby squash in a responsible fashion, then one day it wilts, then it dies. I have tried all the organic “remedies” listed in the books, and don’t think that any of them are worth my time, in that the vine may survive (barely) but the chance of a good crop is nil. So this year I tried to beat the borers genetically. I grew only squash varieties of the species Cucurbita moschata, which is rumored to be borer-resistant. All I can say is, there are no guarantees in gardening, but I didn’t lose a single vine and my garage shelves are heaped with squash.
To use this method, you have to find a catalog that identifies squash by species as well as varietal name. I got mine from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They are a great source for interesting heirlooms. I chose five varieties: Waltham Butternut, Musquee de Provence, Kikuza, Chiriman, and Sucrine du berry. All bore fairly well, although the sucrine du berry were the clear winners in terms of total pounds of squash. So far, the Kikuza are the best in flavor and texture, but I’ve only tasted three of the five varieties so far.
My favorite way to eat squash is halved,seeded, and roasted, with maple syrup or agave nectar and a pat of butter in the hollow. They will roast nicely at any temperature from 350 to 425 degrees, although of course they need more oven time at lower temps. Be sure to roast them long enough, by the way. The flesh should be soft and the syrup well sunken into the flesh. My preference in squash is a sweet dry flesh with no stringiness about it. To let any squash reach its best potential, it’s important to leave them on the vine as long as possible. Often the vines will die back in late fall, signaling harvest time, but if they don’t, harvest the evening that your first frost is predicted. It’s tempting to harvest them earlier when the skin hardens and they look mature, but this is the road to stringy watery flesh. Let the vine do its work. Once harvested, be careful not to bump or bruise them and set them on shelves in a cool place, not touching each other. I like to set several of mine on one end of my dining room table, where they look opulent and festive, but be sure to cook them within a month, since storage conditions in the average dining room are not ideal. The ones kept in a cooler (but not refrigerated) place will often keep well until January or February, but they do lose quality if kept too long. If you suspect that they are past their peak, roast them as described above and freeze the flesh.
I see a lot of recipes for squash that involve steaming the flesh, but I would never bother with them steamed. Roasting brings out the lovely caramelly notes and gives a rich flavor. Whenever I have something baking that doesn’t fill up the whole oven, I roast a split squash in the remaining space, and since the halves keep well in the refrigerator and are even better warmed up a day or two later, I have a handy adjunct to a meal waiting. If you have chickens, don’t forget to give them the stuff you scooped out when preparing the squash. They relish the nutrient-rich seeds. I also give the scooped-out shells to the chickens after dinner, and they enjoy those too.

Cooking in Clay: cazuela apple crisp

In my new home my apple trees are infants about five feet high, but the day will come when I’m eating apples from my own trees, all heirlooms chosen for superb flavor. In the meantime the farmers’ markets are full of apples, and in a moment of impulse I bought an enormous bag of Winesaps. After eating all that I could fresh, I indulged my passion for fruit crisps. Desserts are seldom justifiable on purely nutritional grounds, but this one is a lot healthier than most, particularly because the peel is left on the apples. Try it. As long as you follow the directions, the peel won’t bother you a bit, and it adds fiber and antioxidants and saves time. Use organic, unwaxed apples. Ask to taste them first, because any apple is affected by its immediate conditions and the season. Don’t ever bother cooking with an insipid or mealy apple. Your time and effort will not be rewarded.

I strongly advise cooking in a clay pan for best flavor. I keep a 10″ Spanish cazuela from The Spanish Table in Santa Fe, and find that it’s the most used pan in my kitchen, because I can use it on the stovetop or in the oven. I strongly advise reading Paula Wolfert’s “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” for the ins and outs of using clay pots. Season the cazuela according to the directions that come with it, and follow the temperature and timing directions below closely. This dessert takes a few hours to make, but 90% or more of the time is unattended oven-cooking time, so you’ll get a lot of other things done at the same time.

The whole beauty of this dessert is the pure flavor of the slow-cooked, semicaramelized apples, made a little richer by the vanilla. I definitely don’t recommend adding spices.
You will need:
a seasoned 10″ cazuela
Fruit layer:
8 large flavorful apples such as Winesap or Granny Smith, each at least 3″ in diameter, or a dozen or more smaller apples
juice of half a small lemon
1/2 cup (or more) light agave nectar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla
a pinch of salt
Crisp layer:
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup sugar
8 tablespoons good grass-fed butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
Wash, halve, and core the apples, then slice into very thin slices lengthwise. Aim for slices 1/8″ thick, but if a few are a little thicker it won’t matter much. A food processor or mandoline is helpful, but I just use a good sharp knife. Don’t leave any really thick slices in, because the peels will be tough in the finished dessert, while very thin slices of peel become unnoticeable during the long slow cooking. In a large bowl, toss the apple slices with the cornstarch, lemon juice, agave nectar, vanilla, and salt. Pile them into the cazuela. They will probably have to be stacked up a little inn order to fit. Don’t worry, they cook down a lot. Pop the cazuela in the oven, set it for 300 degrees, and bake about 90 minutes. Stir once or twice during that time. If the apples seem to be browning on the bottom, turn the oven down some and stir a little more frequently.

To make the topping, combine the oats, flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Cut the cold butter in chunks, then work it into the mixture with your fingers, making sure that it is “smooshed” well into the dry ingredients and no large chunks remain. Toss in the vanilla with a fork, then check the baking apples. After about 90 minutes they should be well cooked down. Pile the crumble mixture on top, return to the slow oven, and bake another hour. At that point you can turn up the heat to brown the top a little, or turn on the broiler for a minute or two, but don’t let it get darker than medium gold and watch carefully to avoid burning. Remove from the oven, let cool a little, and serve with vanilla ice cream on top, or cool it completely to rewarm at another time. It keeps at least a few days.

The desert is not terribly sweet, and I love it that way. If you prefer, you can add a little more sweetener to both the apple mixture and the topping. This topping is very crumbly and crispy. If you want something more like a cake topping, you can add an egg and a little milk and a pinch of baking powder to the dry mixture, but keep it on the dry clumpy side and don’t stir it too much, or you’ll develop the gluten in the flour and make it tough. This version doesn’t reheat nearly as well as the crumbly version.
Viva Fall! I love summer and hate to see it go, but the end of the harvest season has its own pleasures. Besides, it inspires me to dig more planting holes for more apple trees next spring.

Vegetable Dinners: Black Bean Cakes, and notes on cornmeal

The famous nutritionist Marion Nestle once claimed that she could tell anyone in a sentence how to improve their health and nutritional status: “Eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables.” Around my house we love to fill our plates with vegetables, so no problem there, but lately I’ve been experimenting with ways to add more dried beans to our diet. This coincides with my aquisition of a solar oven, but in this recipe the beans don’t even have to be cooked. You can soak them for 24 hours, or you can use drained cooked black beans if you have some handy. These patties make a substantial main course and are a good main dish for occasions when you have vegetarians and/or vegans over for dinner.

Black Bean Cakes

Start with one cup dried black beans. Soak in a quart of soft or filtered water at room temperature for 24 hours. If you can’t give them the full soaking time, use 2 cups of cooked drained black beans instead.
About a cup of fine cornmeal (I like finely ground blue cornmeal, which helps keep the color dark)
1 small bunch each of epazote and cilantro, or 1 large bunch cilantro
1 teaspoon lightly roasted ground cumin
2 medium or three small shallots, very finely chopped
2 limes, one juiced, one cut in wedges or slices
salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chiles
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
about half a cup of olive oil

Drain the soaked beans very thoroughly. They should now be about 2 cups in volume. If using cooked beans, drain very thoroughly. Whichever kind of beans you are using, let them sit in the strainer for at least half an hour, because you want them as dry as you can get them. Now grind them finely in a food processor. MIx in a small handful of chopped epazote or, if you couldn’t find epazote, a large handful of chopped cilantro. Mix in the chopped shallots, cumin, chipotle, the juice of one lime, and about half a teaspoon of salt, and taste for salt. Add more if needed to make the mixture taste properly seasoned. Make it a little tiny bit on the salty side, because you are still going to add more dry ingredients. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When almost ready to cook, process in half a cup of cornmeal mixed with the baking powder. Check the consistency; if it’s possible to mold it into cakes, you’re ready to go. Otherwise, add more cornmeal until it can be molded (with difficulty) but is still very soft. Sprinkle cornmeal on a piece of waxed paper and scoop out heaping tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the paper. When the oil is good and hot, carefully lay the cakes in the hot oil, patting a little with fingers or a spatula to make them no more than 1/2 inch in diameter. Be careful, they’re fragile, but you don’t want to add more cornmeal unless strictly necessary because they can get dry and tough if you add too much. You can also skip the waxed-paper step and spoon the mixture directly into the hot skillet, spreading it out with the back of a damp spoon to make the cakes about 3/8″ thick. Let them sizzle at least 3-4 minutes, then when you’re sure that a good brown crust has formed on the bottom side to hold them together, carefully turn with a narrow spatula and cook on the other side until done. You can keep them warm in a 200 degree oven while you fry the second batch. The main “secrets” are to keep the dough on the moist and fragile side, get the oil hot enough, don’t omit the baking powder because it does improve the texture, and wield your spatula with caution to turn them without breaking the cakes around them. .

Once cooked, you can decide how to serve them. They are fine naked on a warmed platter, garnished with a large handful of cilantro leaves and wedges of lime as shown above. A squeeze of the fresh lime juice is important to the flavor, in my opinion, and I pick up a few cilantro leaves to add to each bite. My favorite garnish (vegetarian but not vegan) is some very good olive oil mayonnaise with a little extra lime juice and a lot of chopped cilantro stirred in. They can also be served with warmed small corn tortillas and guacamole, and a little heap of crumbled cotija cheese on top is a delicious tangy addition; the vegans at the table can just omit it.

The beans and blue cornmeal are both full of antioxidants, blue cornmeal is a whole-grain product, and beans have beneficial phytosterols as well as lots of fiber and other desirable nutritional factors. But I only eat things that taste good, and these cakes taste good.

Notes on cornmeal: a lot of cornmeal on the market is very uneven in grind, and any meal containing large particles will leave unpleasant hard fragments in your finished cakes. I buy a blue cornmeal made locally and ground to flour fineness. If you buy yours at the store, I suggest sifting it to get the largest chunks out, or whir it in the blender for a few minutes to grind it more finely. I would avoid the Bob’s Red Mill “medium grind” cornmeal: it seems to be a mix of the company’s fine grind and polenta grind, and can leave tooth-cracking particles in your bean cakes or cornbread. Seek out a better product.