Butternut Squash Gratin

Winter is squash season. One of my favorites is butternut squash. It has a slightly sweet flavor and the texture is firm, not mealy or watery. It’s also a bargain this time of year. Added bonus: it keeps for at least a month in a cool spot in your kitchen.

Here’s a gratin that uses no dairy at all. No cheese. No milk or cream. Concentrated flavor comes from leeks, raisins, garlic, parsley, and lemon zest.

Leeks are a delicious member of the onion family. They are milder than yellow onions and are more tender when sautéed. Leeks often hide grit and dirt in their outer layers. To make sure you get them clean, cut them lengthwise from the dark green leaves to the root end, but not quite all the way through so the two halves remain attached. Rinse well under cold water, making sure to separate the layers to flush out the dirt. To slice, cut off the roots and finish the lengthwise cut to separate the two halves. Then slice crosswise thinly.

Butternut Squash Gratin with raisins and leeks

6 servings

1/4 cup raisins
1 butternut squash, 1 1/2 – 2 pounds
cooking spray
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
zest of 1 large lemon
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts, cleaned and thinly sliced
salt
black pepper
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, about 4 slices of bread (see Note)

Cover raisins with hot water in a small bowl and set aside to plump up for 10 minutes.

Cut top and bottom off squash. Peel and cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Slice 1/4″ thick crosswise.

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Coat a shallow large gratin dish (a 12″ quiche dish works well) with non-stick cooking spray.

Drain raisins and pat dry. Chop raisins and combine with parsley, lemon zest, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1/2 Tablespoon olive oil. Sauté leeks until wilted. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

To construct the gratin, layer 1/2 the squash slices in the bottom of the gratin dish. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the leeks over the squash. Spread 1/2 the raisin mixture over leeks. Drizzle lightly with about 1/2 Tablespoon olive oil. Layer on remaining squash slices. Season with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour, until squash is tender and is easily pierced with the tip of a knife.

Combine breadcrumbs with the rest of the raisin mixture and 1 Tablespoon olive oil. Spread breadcrumbs evenly over the top of the gratin. Return to the oven, uncovered. Bake for 15 minutes until top is golden.

Serve immediately.

Note: To make fresh breadcrumbs, cut off crusts, cut bread into small cubes and pulse in a food processor until crumbs.

Photo: Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Apple Cheddar Tarts for a Party

One of the best pre-made food basics out there is frozen puff pastry. No one makes puff pastry. OK, I did make it in culinary school. It’s wonderful, but you don’t want to make it from scratch, especially when Pepperidge Farms sells it frozen at  your local supermarket. It is the shortcut to so many wonderful things, from appetizers to desserts.

This is a not-very-sweet tart. It would be quite lovely at a cocktail or wine party. Apples and Cheddar cheese are a great combination. It goes nicely with a  hard cider, white wine, or beer.

One important tip when working with puff pastry: don’t let it get too warm. You need to thaw it until you can unfold it and roll it out but it should still be cold when you try this. If the pastry gets too warm, it gets sticky and it’s hard to deal with. If the pastry has warmed up too much, stick it in the fridge until it firms up.

Apple Cheddar Tart

(makes 2 tarts, serves 16, recipe can be halved)

2 sheets frozen puff pastry
5 large Granny Smith apples
5 tablespoons sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 cups shredded medium or sharp Cheddar cheese

Thaw puff pastry sheets 30-40 minutes, until still cold but pliable.

Preheat oven to 375˚F degrees.

Unfold puff pastry sheet carefully. Roll out into a 9″ x 14″ rectangle. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with 2nd sheet of puff pastry.

Score edges of puff pastry creating a ½ inch border all around the pastry. You don’t want to cut all the way through. Just make a score.

Peel, core, and thinly slice apples (about 3/8″). Because 5 apples are more than sufficient to fill in the tarts, you don’t need to use the little end slices. (I eat them right then or you can sauté them in a little butter to top your morning pancakes, or add them to oatmeal.) Toss apple slices with sugar and lemon juice.

Sprinkle the Cheddar cheese inside the scored border.

Arrange apples as desired over puff pastry making sure to keep them inside the scored border.

Bake at 30-35 minutes or until apples are tender and starting to brown on the edges, and pastry is golden brown.

Allow to cool for 5 minutes on a rack before cutting into serving pieces.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Hanukkah Brisket

You can make this for Hanukkah. Or you can make it whenever you like, though a crowd to eat it is probably wise. I made it to augment my Thanksgiving turkey. My family LOVES brisket and unlike that big ole bird, brisket can be made ahead. It’s even better reheated.

I think this recipe came from The Toronto Star. I have made a few tweaks. 

Barbecue Brisket with Garlic and Onions

Serves 8-10

5-6 pound brisket
6 onions, sliced
1 head garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 cup water
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 325˚F.

Place 1/2 the garlic and onions in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Place brisket on top, fat cap facing up. Spread remaining garlic and onions over meat. Combine remaining ingredients in a large measuring cup or bowl. Pour over brisket. Cover tightly with foil.

Bake for 4 – 6 hours, checking every hour to make sure there is still enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan. If it looks dry, add water to cover bottom of pan, 1-2 cups. At 4 hours, check for tenderness. If you can pierce it easily with a knife, it’s done. Otherwise, continue to cook, covered, until very tender.

Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes. Remove fat cap before cutting into thick slices. Place garlic and onions on a large platter. Skim off the fat before pouring it over the brisket.

Notes:

4 hours may be sufficient at sea level but 6 hours is necessary at a mile high to get a meltingly tender brisket.

As with most braises, this is even better if chilled, then reheated. It’s also easier to remove the fat from the sauce (it’s brisket; it’s gonna be fatty) if it’s all been chilled. Because it is a large hunk o’ meat, separate the meat from the onions/sauce and chill them separately. This assures that the meat will chill down more quickly, avoiding possible food poisoning situations.

Excellent over smashed boiled potatoes.

Spicy Sesame Cucumber Salad

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I made this salad for dinner with friends. It was a big hit. It’s quite simple and quite addictive. The original recipe is by Martha Rose Shulman for The New York Times.

I like cucumber salads because cucumbers are available year round. They are a nice change from lettuce. You could even serve these over some lettuce because there is enough dressing to coat the lettuce too.

The recipe calls for seedless cucumbers. These are the cukes that are sold wrapped in plastic. That’s because they are thin-skinned and unwaxed. The plastic keeps them from drying out. You can use regular cucumbers instead but peel them and scrape out the seeds. The seeds are often hard and the membrane around them is watery. It dilutes the dressing and the texture is rather slimy when covered in the dressing.

Japanese 7 spice seasoning is a combination of spicy red chile, orange peel, sesame seeds, and some other things like hemp seeds, ginger, nori, and sansho pepper. The key point is it is spicy. I’ve seen it labeled nanami togarashi or shichimi togarashi. It can be difficult to find. I get it at a massive Asian market near me. You can substitute cayenne pepper but it won’t be quite as interesting.

Spicy Sesame Cucumber Salad
(serves 4)

2 large seedless cucumbers (about 1 1/2 pounds), sliced thin
about 2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 small garlic clove, minced or pureed
1 tablespoon grated or minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon Japanese 7 spice seasoning or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
3 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil such as sunflower oil or grapeseed oil
1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts, sliced very thin

Sprinkle the cucumbers with salt. Toss to coat and let sit in a colander in the sink for 15 minutes. Rinse and dry on a kitchen towel. Transfer to a salad bowl.

Whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger, 7 spice seasoning, and pepper. Whisk in the sesame oil and the vegetable oil. Toss with the cucumbers and scallions. Chill until ready to serve.

Baked Tamale Pie

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This is cozy, homey, winter time fare. It’s quite easy to make. You cook the stew part in an oven-proof skillet, spread some cornbread batter on top, and bake. It’s not really a tamale, or like a tamale, but that’s what the original recipe called it.

The original recipe called for a pound of ground beef, which I didn’t have. I did have some vegetarian chorizo sausage. As vegetarian sausage goes, it’s not half bad, particularly in this application where there are lots of flavors and textures going on. It can be pricey though. If you want to stay vegetarian without tracking down vegetarian chorizo, use a drained can of black beans in place of the chorizo.

My preferred pan for cooking this is a 9″ cast iron skillet. Goes stove to oven to table. And you get a workout moving it.

Baked Tamale Pie
(serves 4-5)

Stew:
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 1/2 cups frozen corn or 1 12 oz. can corn
1 2.2 oz. can sliced ripe olives, drained
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
8 oz. diced vegetarian chorizo (there are a number of brands; I used Field Roast brand)

Cornbread:
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (see Note for altitude adjustment)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
2 tablespoons oil

Garnish:
1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese

In a 9-10″ ovenproof skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Sauté onions and pepper until tender. Stir in tomatoes, their liquid, tomato sauce, corn, olives, chili powder, and cumin. Heat to boiling, reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in chorizo and let it simmer while you prepare the cornbread.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

In a bowl, stir together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. In a 1 cup liquid measuring cup, mix together the milk, egg, and oil. Pour the milk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until moistened throughout. Don’t over mix.

Pour the cornbread batter over the stew and spread it evenly to cover the stew.

Bake for 20 minutes until cornbread is a light golden. Sprinkle the cheese over the cornbread and serve.

Note: For Denver/Boulder elevation, reduce baking powder to 1 teaspoon. For Colorado mountain elevations, reduce baking powder to 3/4 teaspoon.

I scream, you scream…for pumpkin ice cream!

pumpkin pie ice cream

It is ice cream season. And, if you have a can of pumpkin puree in your pantry, leftover from the holidays, this is a seriously delicious way to turn it into a summertime treat. I have served it to numerous guests to rave reviews.

This ice cream uses a custard, so the eggs are cooked. This is the trickiest part of the recipe, cooking the custard without scrambling it. Some recipes say cook the custard directly on the stovetop. If you haven’t done it before (or you have a hard time maintaining a low heat on your stove), there’s a good chance you will scramble your eggs and ruin the custard. I like to use a double boiler. It takes longer because the heat is gentler, but you are far less likely to ruin the custard this way. To make a double boiler, find a bowl that fits securely over any medium to large saucepan. You can buy a double boiler as a set, but it’s not really necessary.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream
(makes 7-8 cups)

1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
5 large egg yolks
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup half and half
1 15-oz. can solid pack pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix, just pumpkin puree)
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup crumbled ginger snaps, not crushed too much because you want chunks

In a medium mixing bowl that you can use as the top of a double boiler, beat together the brown sugar, corn syrup, and egg yolks until thick and pale yellow. Mix in the cornstarch and spices.

In a small saucepan, heat the half and half to a simmer. Slowly mix the hot half and half into the egg mixture. Bring water to a simmer in the bottom of the double boiler. Place the custard over the hot water and stir, stir, stir. You can use a whisk or a wooden spoon. The custard is cooked when it thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and beat in the pumpkin. Pour through fine mesh strainer into a large clean bowl. If there are any lumps of pumpkin, push them through the strainer. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream and vanilla extract. Cover and refrigerate until cold.

Stir the custard well before freezing. Freeze according to your machine’s instructions. The ice cream will be soft when finished. Add in the crumbled ginger snaps at the very end to maintain the cookie chunkiness. If you add them too early, they disappear. Still tastes good, but sub-optimal in my opinion. For firmer ice cream, transfer to a large container and put in the deep freeze (0ºF or less) for at least 2 hours.

This recipe makes a big batch, nearly 2 quarts. My ice cream maker, a Cuisinart, is not big enough to hold the whole thing in 1 batch. Make sure your machine can hold it all after it’s frozen – remember it expands as it freezes, or freeze it in 2 batches.

Based on a recipe from The Ultimate Ice Cream Book by Bruce Weinstein, William Morrow and Company, 1999.

Ranch Beans

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Summer BBQ weather means “baked” beans. In New England, they are actually baked. If you are traditionalist (or maybe if your family has handed down an heirloom), in a bean pot like in this photo.

beanpots

They are sweet, they include a hunk of salt pork, and did I say, they are really sweet? I love New England baked beans but sometimes I don’t want the sweet part. The answer is ranch beans. Which aren’t baked. They are braised. In this case, super-fast in my Instant Pot.

I imagine Ranch Beans cooking in a cast iron pot over a campfire for hours. Cowboys sitting around that campfire, eating beans and a lovely rare steak. Then Mel Brooks intrudes in my reverie. Wait, let’s just stop right there!

Back to the Instant Pot part: super fast way to cook beans. I’m a huge fan. Start them in the morning and they keep warm in the pot all day. It’s one of the best appliances to come along in years.

Ranch Beans
(makes a lot, 8-10 side dish servings)

1 pound navy beans, soaked overnight, drained, and rinsed
2 cups water
2 teaspoons Ham Stock (I like Penzeys Ham Soup Base if I don’t have homemade)
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (I like Mexican but you can use whatever you have)
3 cloves garlic, minced or 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 1/2 tablespoons onion powder
1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt (I like Penzeys 4/S Special Seasoned Sea Salt)
1/4 cup tomato puree

Place everything EXCEPT 1 teaspoon brown sugar, seasoned salt, and tomato puree in the Instant Pot. Stir to combine. Lock the lid in place. Press the bean/chili button and cook for 25 minutes (more if you are somewhere in Colorado; I cooked them for 35 minutes and I live at 8600 feet). Let pressure release naturally for at least 10 minutes. Open lid and stir in 1 teaspoon brown sugar and tomato puree. Taste. Add seasoned salt to your taste. The Ham Soup Base is pretty salty so I only added 1/4 teaspoon. You may need more. Or none.

Freezes well, so make a bunch and save it for the next BBQ.

Bean pot photo: By FiveRings at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons