Pumpkin Bread

The pumpkins are here! I love the festive orange dots scattered everywhere; when I see one, happiness bubbles up in me. If the pumpkins could talk, they’d say “PARTY”! And then I think of pumpkin pie, cookies, and bread. I often wonder why a person would buy a can of pumpkin when it is so easy to chop up a pie pumpkin, pop it in the oven, and then purée it. The lovely aroma of pumpkin wafts through the kitchen and you know that something good to eat is on its way. If you can find an heirloom pie pumpkin, that’s even better.

The following recipe is for my favorite quick bread. It’s an un-recipe because you can make it with pumpkin, bananas, or zucchini. I love to eat this in the morning, toasted with lots of butter. Eating something this delicious —and nourishing —makes me happy to be alive. The quality of one’s life can be measured in the number of simple little pleasures that occur throughout the day. You don’t even need a mixer to make this – just a mixing bowl, spoon, and some elbow grease. I like to use my hands cuz’ then I get to lick my fingers when I’m done. Yum!

The Very Best Quick Bread or Muffins

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
¾ to 1 cup sugar
Spices: ½ tsp each cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger or, 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie or chai spices or any other combination of warm spices
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup pumpkin, bananas, or shredded zucchini
Chopped nuts and/or raisins, figs, dates

Combine the dry ingredients. Combine the moist ingredients then thoroughly mix the dry with the moist. Pour into a greased loaf or muffin pan. You can vary the size of the loaf or muffin pans– just make sure they are filled about ⅔ of the way. Bake in a 350⁰ oven for 35-40 minutes or until it starts to pull away from the edges of the pan and cracks appear on the surface. Cool in pan. This bread freezes well, too.

I like to make this via the “assembly line” method. You can make multiple batches of the dry ingredients and store each batch in one quart mason jars. Then all you have to do is round up the moist ingredients and whip a loaf together in just a matter of minutes. I did this one time with my friend Rachel.  We gave some of them away with the recipe written on a tag that was tied to the jar with a ribbon.

So there you go – another “un-recipe” recipe just in time for Halloween.

Porcini Power

In 2014, my friend Eve gave me access to her wholesale account at a fancy foods Indo-European importer. The company supplies high-end restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, and wineries with a treasure chest of all things gourmet. Their catalog roared with mouthwatering descriptions and photographs of foods I had never seen or heard of before. Five pages of chocolate and four pages of salt blew me away! Full of glee, I went berserk and ordered about twenty things, among them smoked sea salt, aged sherry vinegar, pomegranate molasses, and porcini mushroom powder. I felt like a culinary wizard who had a collection of magical potions that transformed recipes into enchanting masterpieces. That’s when my cooking went from ordinary to extraordinary and I coined the words “flavor bursts”, my term for concentrated flavorings that elevate cooking to five-star restaurant status.

One of my favorite flavor bursts is porcini mushroom powder. The powder adds intense savory and earthy flavor of unparalleled depth to culinary creations. Have you ever taken a bite of something and wondered “Wow, what’s in this”? Porcini definitely adds that full, mysterious, and unidentifiable flavor. I add a heaping teaspoon or two to soups, stews, pasta sauces, barley, lentils, and marinades. I cook rice in broth along with some porcini powder and suddenly that simple staple ingredient becomes a luxurious and aromatic dish fit for a king or a queen. Porcini powder explodes with the umami flavor – a taste that some describe as “delicious meaty savory”.

I make a lovely creamy porcini mushroom gravy, perfect for drizzling over meats, mashed potatoes, and pasta. I even put it on cauliflower the other day. Porcini gravy turns almost any food into an instant comfort food. Yum!

Porcini Mushroom Gravy

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon porcini powder
Salt and pepper to taste

In a sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the flour. Add the porcini powder and cook until it bubbles and turns a deep golden color. Add the broth and milk and whisk constantly until it thickens. You may need to add more liquid. Easy!

Porcini powder seems to last indefinitely since I store it in a swing-top-bale jar – a jar with a metal clamp and a rubber gasket. My Italian porcini powder is seven years old and still remarkably potent. A one pound package that costs less than thirty dollars and lasts for years and years – I’d say that goes in the category of “lots of cluck for your buck”. Some say porcini mushrooms are the king of wild mushrooms and I definitely agree. Try some! It’s fun!

Peaches and Cream . . . and Porcini

Last week, I wrote about flavor pairings that are so remarkable they seem like matches made in heaven. The memory of them may even linger for years. I vividly remember one such flavor pairing.

Awhile back, I toured the Piedmont region of Italy. Parmesan Reggianno (the original Parmesan cheese), balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto (dry cured Italian ham) originated there. For a couple of days, I visited the small town of Parma, the Parmesan cheese capitol of the world. Parmesan Reggianno is unlike any other Parmesan cheese. It’s crumbly with little crystals in it and has a rich, nutty, and savory flavor because it’s aged for one to two years.

One evening, I attended a dinner party hosted by a local chef. A few minutes after I was seated at the long table, another guest told me that the dinner was a special occasion. It was? Yes, we were about to experience a rare event. Peaches and porcini mushrooms were being harvested at the same time. Normally, their growing seasons do not overlap. But this year perfect environmental conditions brought them together. This rare and precious treat was soon to arrive on my plate. I was so excited!

The chef prepared a lovely pasta dish and the earthy flavor of the porcinis mingled perfectly with the sweet peaches. The next morning the produce market overflowed with piles of peaches, porcini, and black truffles, a beautiful sight that I could now truly understand and appreciate.  

This vivid memory stayed with me until . . . my friend Julie just happened to stop by with a big bag of tree ripened peaches. Now I wanted to go play in the kitchen! I didn’t have porcini mushrooms, but I had porcini powder. In a moment of inspiration, I made a quick pasta sauce that was culinary ecstasy. Porcini powder is a handy umami-packed flavor to include in your pantry; it’s available on Amazon. I imagine frozen peaches would work just fine in this dish.

First, heat two tablespoons of olive oil or butter in a skillet. Then sauté two shallots along with about a dozen sliced brown mushrooms until they are crispy on the edges. Add one cup vegetable or chicken broth and a tablespoon of porcini powder and simmer until reduced slightly, about ten minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add ¼ cup heavy cream. Simmer until thickened. Add a handful of sliced peaches and heat through. Toss the sauce with pasta (I used penne) and serve with grated Parmesan. The measurements are estimates only – trust your senses to know how much to add.

Who said that heaven is somewhere else? It’s here right now, in the divine flavor combination of peaches, cream, and porcini. Try it, you’ll like it!

The Flavor Marriage

Last week, I wrote about the New York Time’s most requested recipe ever – “Marian Burros Plum Torte”. That recipe is the ultimate “un-recipe” because you can easily switch up the ingredients to make it your own. Play a little and have fun! Adults can do that, you know.

The torte was so easy and delicious that I wanted to make it again. But this time I wanted to use almond flour and almond extract. Almond flour makes baked goods nutritionally more substantial and adds lovely flavor and texture. Almond extract would intensify the flavor. I had about a dozen miniature peaches but they wouldn’t cover the top if I was going to use my 10” springform pan. What to do? I went about my day then forgot all about my peach conundrum until my friend Don called and told me to look on the front porch. I opened the door and almost tripped over a box of fresh figs. Yay! Problem solved. I get so excited when surprise solutions arrive without any effort from me.

That evening, I made the torte with half tiny peaches and half figs. The torte was incredibly beautiful with its rainbow of ruby red, orange, and yellow hues. For a moment, I felt as if I had jumped off my chair and straight into a Monet painting, the colors were so extraordinary. The torte went into the oven after I sprinkled demerara sugar – big, chunky golden crystals – all over the top. 

Then the Anticipated Moment came. I took a bite of the figs and what a surprise – the flavor combination of fig and almond was pure perfection. Clearly, those flavors love each other. The crust tasted like marzipan (almond candy) and when combined with the figs – well, my world screeched to a halt for a few seconds. If perfect harmony had a taste, this would be it. Next, I tried the peaches. They were good, but not exceptional. Why, I wondered?  Then I remembered one of my favorite books, “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.

The Flavor Bible is a four inch thick dictionary-like book. You can look up almost any food and get a list of foods that compliment it. This book is the perfect culinary reference guide for anyone who wants to cook or bake with un-recipes because it removes the guesswork. After I bought the book, I read it like it was a good mystery novel and couldn’t put it down. Yes, almonds love figs. Peaches, well, not so much. Maybe in a week or two I will get some inspiration and play matchmaker for peaches. After all, I wouldn’t want the peaches to feel lonely, or left out. Stay tuned!

The Best Five Dollars

Did you know that a well-stocked pantry is like a good work horse? Your pantry can help you whip up something delicious to eat without too much effort. You only need a handful of ingredients and thirty minutes. That’s all! Think of it like this: there are 26 letters in the alphabet but those letters combine to make 275,000 words. I often wonder what a person could make with only 10 or 11 foods in their pantry.

Even if you keep a well-stocked pantry, I imagine that sometimes you wander into the kitchen feeling lost, and ask yourself “What shall I make for dinner?” This can happen even if your pantry and fridge are stuffed full. There is a cure for the “What’s for dinner syndrome”. Subscribe to New York Times Cooking.

For only five dollars a month, I get access to their incredibly well-organized website. I also get a daily email packed with recipes. Often the recipes inspire me and suddenly I will know what to cook. Though many of their recipes are geared for those fancy sorts of people who live in “hip” urban areas, they are still fun to read. Then there are those recipes that would seem to take forever to make. Well, if it takes longer than 30 minutes, I’ll pass, thank you very much. All that being said, NYT Cooking is a superb resource because there’s something for everyone.

Let’s say you have a pound of chicken breasts in the fridge and your mind goes blank. Tap on the “Ingredients” tab and on the drop down menu, click “chicken breasts”. All the recipes have pictures and some are marked “easy”. You can also use the search bar at the top of the page that asks “What would you like to cook?” Are you in the mood for cauliflower? Type that in and you’ll get so many recipes your head will spin.

Another wonderful feature is that below the recipes, there is space for comments. I love to scroll through them and read all the different versions cooks invent; the creative variations are endless. I get so many new ideas when I read these comments. Sometimes the ideas are just tiny twists, but those little ideas can pack big punches.

So you see, you get a lot of inspiration and creativity for your five dollars a month. My subscription is now the most essential ingredient in my pantry. It goes in the category of “Good Ideas”. Just as I finished writing this, I got a new email with the subject line “100 Quick Dinners”. There you go! Now food can whirl around, jump off the shelves and cook itself for you – well, almost!

A Famous Plum Torte 9.21.23

A Famous Plum Torte

For several years I have subscribed to the New York Times Cooking website. Every day I wake up to an email packed full of recipes. Last week, the NYT sent me their All Time Most Requested Recipe – Marian Burro’s Plum Torte. The recipe first appeared in 1983 and the NYT reprints it every September. This popular recipe uses just a handful of ingredients, takes under 30 minutes to make, requires no special gadgets, and there are few pots, pans, and dishes to wash. I love that this recipe meets my criteria for simplicity. It’s the perfect “un-recipe”.

After my look-see, I couldn’t wait to make it. But wait! I didn’t have any plums, and since I live in a rural area, couldn’t figure out how to get any. Oh-oh, a conundrum. But I read the reader’s comments and saw that some switched out the plums for almost any seasonal fruit: berries, apricots, apples, nectarines, peaches, pears, and cranberries and some used canned fruit too. They also experimented with extracts, spices, and herbs: vanilla and almond, nutmeg, cardamom, and rosemary. They played with flours, adding almond, gluten free, and whole wheat. Some added cornmeal. They switched up the pans, using almost any oven-safe dish that is 8, 9, or 10 inches in diameter. Use this recipe as a base and add additional flavors. I sprinkled candied ginger on mine just a few minutes before I pulled it out of the oven.

Later that day I was out and about on foot and stopped to chat with Tony and Carla Hornbrook of Fossil. Suddenly I noticed that I was standing next to a beautiful tree laden with plump emerald and crimson apples. Tempted, I asked if I could try one. What incredible taste sensations exploded in my mouth! Their sweet tartness and crisp texture would make a delicious apple torte. Inspired, I asked if I could take a few. I did and on my way home, picked up some blueberries. I flew into the kitchen and after whirling around a few times, popped the apple blueberry torte into the oven.

Marian Burros Plum Torte

¾ to 1 cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ tsp salt
2 eggs
24 halves pitted purple plums
Lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon

Cream the sugar and butter. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, and eggs and beat well. Spoon the batter into an 8” – 10” springform pan. Place the plums skin side up. Sprinkle with lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon. Bake for about one hour at 350⁰.

I didn’t peel the apples, forgot to sift the flour, and used salted butter. We ate it warm with ice cream. This recipe will certainly become a favorite and maybe someday, it will be your favorite too. Play with it and have fun!

Carrot Love

In January of 2018 I had a mad crush on a carrot. Yes, I am not kidding! And five years later, I still have a crush on that particular carrot. That’s a long time to be infatuated, isn’t it?

At the time, I was living in the Portland area and was a member of a CSA program. That is the acronym for “Community Supported Agriculture”. That’s when a person purchases a share of a local farm’s production at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for getting “farm to table” produce every week or two. Picking up that week’s vegetables was always a highlight of my week. The pickup location was in a big white dairy barn that was on the historical register. When I went through the wide double doors and inhaled the damp, musty air, I was bounced back to a different era. The colorful patchwork of vegetables mounded on tables looked like eye candy. Often the vegetables were unusual, such as black radish and kohlrabi.

The carrots. There they were, piled high in a big wicker basket, freshly dug, squeaky clean, and the color of the sun in a smoky sky.  I couldn’t resist the temptation to try one then and there. Wow! This exquisite carrot was like no other I had ever tasted. Suddenly the world stopped as this sweet carrot catapulted me into a total being experience. All my senses were filled with excitement and joy. What a surprise! Later that night, I felt sorry for all the people in the world who could never taste a carrot like this. Then I wished everyone could. If I had a dollar for every time I thought about that awesome carrot, I would have a lot of money by now!

Laura, the farmer, mentions that the variety is Hercules. Oh. That explains it. A divine, God-like carrot. A perfect infusion of firm, strong flesh, smooth skin, and indescribable taste mingled with spirit. If paradise had a flavor, this would definitely be it. 

The carrot’s sweetness, Laura tells me, comes from the winter’s cold. Do they sit in the soil trembling? Is this why I felt a shiver go up and down my spine with the first bite? Do they store the summer sun and, in their resting state, concentrate energy? Yes! Every cell of my body knows this.

Now that I moved out of the city and live in a rural area, I can finally plant carrots. Last month, I ordered some Hercules seeds in anticipation of a winter harvest. In a few months, my body will delight in this incredible gift of nourishment and bounty of blissful sensations. And I will have a crush on a carrot all over again.

Dirt Cake

Last week, I wrote about my lively conversation with a precocious 12 year old boy named Anthony. He had just finished a week long cooking camp and I was curious to know what he made. His two favorite things were Cowboy Caviar and Dirt Cake.

I had never heard of dirt cake. Suddenly I remembered being a toddler and eating some dirt when I was in the greenhouse with my father. The dirt had a lovely, sweet earthy fragrance and I wanted to eat it. So I did! I remember the grainy texture more than the flavor now.

Dirt cake is a delicious, deceptive dessert that looks like a pot of dirt but tastes like heaven. Making dirt cake is a perfect way to spend time with children. As you make this whimsical treat, you will teach them some basic cooking skills and provide many sensory and tactile pleasures. These desserts are “cup desserts” because they are made individually in clear plastic cups or glasses. You simply layer crushed Oreo cookies (the dirt) with instant chocolate pudding (the mud) and top with gummy worms and artificial flowers or bugs.

To crush the cookies, place them in a Ziploc bag and smash them with a rolling pin until they are finely crushed. Mix the pudding and then assemble the desserts; alternate layers of pudding and cookies. Cover and chill for a couple of hours. But don’t chill them for too long or the cookies will get soggy.

If you want to fancy it up a bit, you can make the chocolate pudding from a recipe. This was the very first thing I learned to make from scratch ingredients and I whipped it up with my sister. My mother usually kept a box of Droste unsweetened cocoa powder from Holland in the cupboard. To this day, it’s the same cocoa powder I use and it’s still in the exact same package – a bright red box with a picture of a Dutch lady wearing a big, funny white hat. I’ve tried other cocoa powders but this one is still my favorite (of course, you can get it on Amazon, $6.99 for 8 ounces).You can make a whipped cream frosting to top off your dirt cake: mix ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa , ⅓ cup powdered sugar, one cup whipping cream and a pinch of salt. Whip the cream first until it forms stiff peaks and fold in the rest. Yum!

I asked Anthony about the next thing he was going to make and he replied “Dessert Cake”. That made me laugh and I’ve been laughing about it ever since. Maybe I can get him on the phone soon and he can tell me all about it.

Cowboy Caviar

A couple of columns ago, I wrote about a lovely multi-generation dinner party I attended. It was so much fun! Twenty-two of us dined at a long rectangular table. I sat next to an articulate 12 year old boy named Anthony. My first impression was that he had jumped straight out of the Renaissance era and into the twenty-first century. He looked the part with his long blond hair and handsome, poetic features. We struck up a conversation and he told me about a week long cooking camp he had just attended. As you know, food is one of my favorite topics so the conversation was quite lively.

I was curious about cooking camp and peppered him with questions. “Anthony, what did you make?” “One thing a day: dirt cake, cowboy caviar, lemonade, cheesecake, muffins, and biscuits”, he replied. “What was your favorite”? “There were two; cheesecake and cowboy caviar.” In all my years of cooking I had never heard of Cowboy Caviar and I wanted to know all about it. His colorful description of this vegetarian dish made my mouth water, and suddenly I felt very hungry. Cowboy Caviar is definitely an “un-recipe”, lending itself to a versatile mix and match of ingredients. I kicked it up a notch and made the dish with heirloom red and black beans that I purchased from Rancho Gordo in Napa Valley.

For the Salad:

Beans, cooked or canned such as black, kidney, or pinto
2 bell peppers, any color
Small red onion
2-3 tomatoes, diced
1-2 jalapeno peppers
Green onions

For the dressing:

⅓ cup olive oil
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp honey or sugar
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the salad ingredients. Whisk together the dressing. Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss. Cover and let marinate for at least two hours. Before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed, such as adding a dash of hot sauce if you like it spicy. This is a versatile dish; you can eat it as a dip with tortilla chips, a side salad, or a topping for grilled meats, or in tacos and burritos. Anthony said the salad was left to marinate overnight and that was too long. I drained the excess dressing after a couple of hours, and added it just before serving.

I asked Anthony about his number one take-away from the camp and his answer surprised me. He was alarmed that so many of the students had no cooking skills. One student even cut cheese with a breadknife. Oh my! Maybe someday I can go to cooking camp too. That would surely be like vacation.

Zucchini Overload

In last week’s column, I mentioned the lone zucchini plant in our garden. What a workhorse that plant is! If that plant was a person, it would be an Olympic gold medalist or on an all-star team. Or, the plant would be the queen of the vegetable garden who wears a beautiful robe of flowers.

Prolific as they are, zucchinis are also slightly problematic. I call good problems “champagne problems” and the overabundance of zucchini definitely fits into that category. I love to peer into the plant every few days and feel surprise about what I see. Zucchinis that only a few days ago were just a few inches long suddenly become the size of a foot long subway sandwich. How’d that happen? Now we have too many and they are way too big.

Sometimes a zucchini plant will produce so much that it can even be difficult to give it away. My mind runs down a list of nearby friends who may or may not want some. Or, maybe neighbors. I could put them in a basket and go door-to-door. This would definitely be a good way to win friends and influence people, wouldn’t it? When tossing this idea around with a friend, he sheepishly admitted that someone offered him overgrown zucchini and he put them in the compost pile. Oh dear. Don’t tell anyone!

Just as I was immersed in the door-to-door fantasy and almost ready to go knockin’, reader David Hudson texted me and said that the Italians pick zucchinis very small and then they have more flavor. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Generally speaking, the smaller the fruit or vegetable, the more intense the flavor is. If I pick them small, I may regret that we did not plant more. Imagine that.

Or, I could get organized and freeze them. I typed the question “How to freeze zucchini” into the Artificial Intelligence chat bot “Open AI” and it gave me a detailed set of instructions. Sounds easy! Wash, slice or cube, blanch, cool in an ice bath, drain and dry, portion and pack, remove the air, label and date, then freeze. All you need is a knife, cutting board, large pot, strainer, big bowl, freezer bags, and a permanent marker. You can check the instructions out at “chat.openai.com” and ask “Uncle It” (my nickname for AI) “How to freeze zucchini”. The Italians go one step further; they pick the blossoms, stuff them with ricotta and mozzarella cheese and fry them. Sounds delicious! That could definitely nip in the bud the overabundant zucchini problem. Why didn’t I think of stuffing zucchini blossoms sooner? Now I can pretend I am a five-star chef in a fancy Italian restaurant. Oh, life – and a zucchini – is good.