Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spiced Pumpkin and Apple Soup

“So, what are you going to wear to Thanksgiving?” my sister asked as she sucked in her rounded cheeks to make model faces in the mirror. I glared back at her in annoyance. “I don’t know and honestly, I really don’t care!” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so pissy but honestly, she had her priorities all wrong. How could she be concerned with what to wear? Who the hell cared? What she should have asked was, “What do you think they will have for dinner?”

Every year we spend Thanksgiving with my Aunt Sissy’s family. As my Uncle Jon’s wife, her clan was a bit removed for our direct blood line which automatically made them far more fun. The Bishops were a family of 5 strikingly tall, square-jawed children and always seemed to be busting at the seams with more uncles, aunts and cousins. Our sit-down Thanksgiving meal was easily 45 people with everyone in attendance. “AAAHHHH, Jamie-girl it’s so good to see you!!,” Mary, my Aunt’s sister and hostess, would scream as we walked in. Mary never talked. In fact, she screamed and laughed through every interaction which was both startling and infectious. Truly, at Thanksgiving we all talked like we were on an airport runway. My sister and I weaved in and out of the throngs of family members saying our hellos and how are yous, all the while sneaking bottles of Martinelli’s apple cider for the kids table. (Thinking about it now, the cider was already for the kids table. What can I say, my scarcity mentality has always been strong).

As the ladies bustled in the kitchen, picking at crispy turkey skin and getting the buffet ready, the rest of the party reconnected over multiple games of pool and a bit too much crab and spinach dip. Though I liked watching my older cousins lovingly scream and yell over missed or made shots, it was always the kitchen that held my attention. Mary’s kitchen was a thing of beauty. Shiny copper pots hung over the 8-burner wolf range which led to a deep white porcelain sink that looked out over Malibu’s coastline. Her two sturdy ovens produced such devastatingly delicious smells that every once in a while an uncle would stumble in and cry, “Is dinner ready yet?” Naturally the Thanksgiving staples were on the menu but as a family of foodies they loved to spice things up. One year there was tortilla soup with chunks of avocado. Another year, Bibb lettuce with pomegranates and champagne vinaigrette. And who could forget the curried sweet potato medallions with maple syrup glaze? For dessert, in addition to the requisite pumpkin pie with homemade whipped cream, there was always at least one pumpkin cheesecake and some sort of chocolate mousse thingy. (I recently asked my sister what she remembers of the dessert table. Her reply: “They never had pecan pie. It’s my favorite. What were they thinking?” So, I guess Thanksgiving attire wasn’t her only concern.) Yes, the Bishops were certainly a big family in size, stature, and, most importantly, in appetite.

When it was time for carving the three 20-pound birds, my father was summoned from his nap on the couch to do the honors. Do not ask me why my Dad, the least sociable, least related guy in the house was the bird carving man. Perhaps it was because he was the only man not glued to the football game or maybe because he was, again, the only man constantly hanging around the bird. Whatever the reason, when Mary wrapped a white apron around my Dad’s protruding belly, it was go time! In my Dad went, without a plan or specific direction, tearing up the birds and placing entire joints on the platter. And as if to sing out, “one for you, one for me”, with every steaming piece put on the platter, another one was thrown directly in my Dad’s mouth. He probably ate a good 3 pounds of turkey just carving it. And thank goodness for that safety net of an apron which caught all the flying juice, meat and skin that fell from his mouth. “Dad, stop eating the bird. There won’t be anything left!” I screamed. Now I knew there was no way my father could eat it all, but I promise you he made a significant dent. “Jamie, don’t tell me what to do! I’ve got it handled,” he sternly replied. “Handled straight into your stomach,” I continued to push. And here we come flying back to my fears of scarcity. But if we are all being honest, the man’s mouth was a Hoover and I was just certain he was minutes away from sucking up each entire turkey, bones and all.

Once the carving was complete and the saved carcasses wrapped in white trash bags as my father’s “soon to be soup” reward, it was turkey time. Kids and adults alike jockeyed for position in the buffet line, ogling the many hot, bubbling dishes that crowded the table. As we settled into our chairs in the large sunken living room watching the California sun set into the ocean, we gave thanks for each other, the amazing food, and for the generous chefs who made it all happen. Sometimes there were announcements of college acceptances, engagements, or babies but mostly we just sat together eating, drinking, and laughing way too loud.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Thanksgiving. Ultimately it’s a holiday centered on food, family, and consuming way too much of both. Not much has changed around my family’s Thanksgiving, though now Aunt Sissy herself, rather than Mary, hosts it and the Bishop children’s children have children. (Did you get that?) My sister still queries every year as to what I’m going to wear for turkey day and just as I did 15 years ago I shoot back, “I have no idea, Laura. I’m just thinking about the food!”

Spiced Pumpkin and Apple Soup

Serves 4

So truth be told I actually didn't spend Thanksgiving with my family this year. After 7 years together I finally conceded to go to Gray's family's house for turkey day...and I was not looking forward to it. Don't get me wrong, Gray's family are lovely people and I definitely wanted to see them. I just didn't want to miss MY family's Thanksgiving. Well as you know, marriage is all about compromise and so it was about time I made an appearance at the in-laws. The festivities were held at Gray's uncle and aunt's beautiful ranch style home in San Diego. Their backyard literally wraps around the entire house and on the left side is an amazing kitchen garden; A garden, in fact, that supplied the large Cinderella pumpkin centerpieces. Well, one look at the huge pumpkin on my table and I had to have it. I couldn't help myself. Gray's aunt graciously said yes and I immediately began laying out all of my cooking options.

Originally I thought to turn half the pumpkin into soup and throw the rest into a winter salad but the flesh was simply too soft to hold up. So, a giant soup it was! The pumpkin was also not as sweet as I had imaged, which is how the apples and honey made their way into the pot. I made this soup the day after Thanksgiving as a thank you to Gray's cousins who housed us for the weekend. When Gray's 6 year old cousin took a bite he said, "Wow, this is yummy. You are a really good cook!" Though I know he genuinely enjoyed the soup by his quickly emptied mug, it may have also been a ploy to get me down there next year. Well, it worked.

4 cups roasted pumpkin**

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 gala or fuji apples, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon butter, optional

2 tsp. cinnamon

½-1 tsp. curry powder

¼ tsp. nutmeg

A dash of chipotle pepper powder (if you are a spice lover, add more)

1 ½ tbs. organic honey

4 cups organic chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Tamari roasted sunflower seeds, for garnish

**To roast the pumpkin, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Chop the pumpkin into large quarters and scoop out the seeds. Peel the pumpkin quarters and cut into 1 ½- 2 inch pieces for roasting. Mix the pumpkin pieces with a bit of olive oil and salt and roast for 30 minutes, until the pieces are softened and a bit brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a large stock pot over low-medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the pumpkin, garlic, apples, butter, and pinch of salt and cook for another 5 minutes until the apples begin to soften. Add the cinnamon, curry powder, nutmeg, chipotle, and honey and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken stock and bring to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and with a hand immersion blender or in batches with a regular blender, puree the soup. Once puréed, return to the heat and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper if needed. Ladle the soup into your favorite mugs and top with tamari sunflower seeds. Enjoy!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Apple Cider Braised Squash with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

You've gotta love how literal I used to take things. When I was 10 and had my first bowl of Pho in Seattle, I thought Vietnam's Pearl on Rainier Avenue was the only place in the world to get those giant bowls of steaming, spiced noodle soup. I honestly believed Vietnamese cuisine was indigenous to Washington state. How was I to know? There are countless stories from my childhood of me taking things at face value. Fine, I admit it. I wasn't so much of a critical thinker. It also took me 22 years to realize my parents were just winging the entire parental thing. It's therefore not surprising that I used to think the only farmer's market in the world was in Santa Barbara.

My paternal grandmother was the first person to ever take me to a farmer's market. In fact, every time I visited her beach house we got up early on Saturday morning to get the best pickings at the downtown market. She was notoriously more "visual artist" than "cook" and so always filled her huge wicker basket with fresh flowers and orchids for the dining table and fruit for the big bowl that sat in the middle of the kitchen island while I wandered in and out of the stalls looking at avocados, oranges, and freshly baked breads. "This is the best market in the world!", she said while examining a delicate orchid bud. "And this is the best orchid stand, " she sang while giving the stand owner an approving smile.

Everything and everyone in my grandmother's life is "the best". She has the best housekeeper, the best flower vendor, the best orthopedist. "Oh, he's the best in the country!", she praises. "People travel from around the world to see him." Let me add that not only are these particular people the best, they are hers and I often wonder if they agree with her self-entitled ownership rights. Now, whether or not any of the bests are true is completely irrelevant. My grandmother deeply believes that her world consists solely of bests and I, with my painfully literal interpretations, always believed her. I don't think I questioned anything she said until I was about 20. My favorite "best" was why to dress well on an airplane. "Jamie, remember to always dress your best while traveling," she so frequently reminded me. "I've met the best, most gorgeous, most glamorous people while traveling. You never know who you are going to meet!" From what I can gather, this recommendation all stemmed from her chance meeting and subsequent dinner with the Marchioness of Bath. No joke! Of course, with a story like that you might think I'd wear something other than sweatpants and my coke-bottle glasses on the plane. But no. That is serious dedication to comfort, my friends.

So let me admit right now that Santa Barbara is the best farmer's market...in Southern California. It was the first place I ever ate sugar snap peas (and quickly learned you CAN have too much of a good thing) and where my grandmother asked her favorite farmers what they thought was the best of their bounty. I often think about my grandmother's conversations with her farmers when I am talking to my own. That's right, my farmers. Turns out I might have a small ownership problem myself. The farmer's market was our little ritual and I cherished strolling down the aisles with my grandmother in an environment so rich and beautiful to us both. We recently went back and, just like old times, she headed for her orchid lady and I quickly OD'd on sugar snap peas. It was a great morning and ended just like so many outings with my grandmother had. "Jamie," she said, hold my chin in her tanned yet aged hand. "Honey, you need a facial. I'm taking you to see my girl immediately. She is the best!"

Apple Cider Braised Squash with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

This is a recipe I made last week at the San Francisco Farmer's Market Food Wise booth. Every Tuesday they have guest chefs make a seasonal dish for the public to taste. I had one gentleman come up to me and exclaim, "This is absolutely perfect!" I was on cloud 9 for the rest of the day. Squash cooked in cider is a lovely combination of starchy and sweet while the nuts and pomegranates give it a great fatty and sour crunch. Think of this as a potential replacement for the traditional marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Enjoy!

Serves 4-6


2 kabocha squash (about 2 pounds) or other firm winter squash such as acorn or butternut
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee
1 garlic clove, minced
1 inch piece freshly grated ginger or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 1/2 cups fresh unfiltered apple cider or juice
1 cup water
2 teaspoons brown rice or apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Walnuts or almonds, toasted and chopped
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

If using kabocha squash, cut off the stem and split lengthwise. Peel it with a vegetable peeler and scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each piece lengthwise in half again, then crosswise into 1/2-inch -thick slices. If using an acorn squash use the same method however you do not have to peel it.

Melt the butter in a large (12-inch) skillet over low heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not brown the garlic.

Add the squash to the skillet, then the apple cider, water, vinegar, and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat at an even boil until the cider has boiled down to a glaze and the squash is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and season with pepper, and additional salt if needed. Top with fresh cilantro, toasted nuts, and pomegranate seeds and serve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Soy Marinated Rock Cod

The restaurant smelled a little funky, a mix between the much-needed-to-be-cleaned lobster and crab tanks to the left and Buster's BBQ on my right. It was less of a restaurant to be honest, and more of a 10 seater bar in the middle of an incandescently lit food court, the same "court", you will recall, that my family regularly patronized for frozen yogurt. But this time the trip had nothing to do with dessert. We we were on a sushi mission. I was 7 years old at the time and only knew two things sushi: one was that my Dad loved it and two, that it was special...very special. With my limited knowledge of what lay before me we strolled up to the bar with its two sticks as eating utensils and laminated menus with pictures of brightly colored slabs of fish. As you can imagine my child self was justifiably concerned. I should mention there was a third thing that made this event special, the only thing in fact that kept me from grabbing frozen yogurt for lunch and heading to the car. This outing was just me and my Dad. Such an occurrence had never happened before and looking back I have no idea where my mother and sister were. I now imagine my mother lecturing my father for his lack of one-on-one time with me and him acquiescing with one line, " OK, I'll take her to sushi."

So there we sat at the sushi bar next to a couple that was deeply engaged in their glazed eel. It looked kind of like chicken which helped calm me a bit. "Is this your first time eating sushi?" said the woman, taking a quick swig of sake. I nodded. "You are in for a treat!" My Dad took care of the ordering and I have to give him credit: he started us off with a soft shell crab roll. Simply put, if you want to get a kid to eat something, throw it in a deep fryer! He quickly handed me an inside piece of the roll, fearing I'd be too scared to eat a piece with a large crab leg hanging from it. Though I was unfamiliar with what lay before me I tried to mentally break it down into things I understood. I recognized white rice. Check. The white flaky stuff in the middle kind of looked like the baked fish my mom made. That's cool. I was a bit baffled by the seaweed but that wasn't enough to keep me from cramming the entire piece swiftly into my small child-sized mouth. Imagine stuffed chipmunk cheeks and that was me, trying to keep bits of rice and crab from flying out of my mouth. My first thought was, "I don't think I did this right" which was quickly followed by, "Aw, this is freakin' good!"

First I was hit by the sweet, slightly sour sticky rice then by the crispy fried crab and last by the creamy mayo that brought the entire bite together. Heaven! My eyes rolled back into my head with pure food ecstasy and I soon heard my Dad say with a smirk, "So I guess you like it, huh?" YES, more please! After that first bite I was all in and tasted everything my Dad put in from of me. California roll, eel roll, yellowtail and salmon all made the list. I even tried the salmon eggs and octopus, neither of which I liked but hey, I tried it. The chef was so impressed with the little white girl eating sushi that he gave me a green tea ice cream, on the house. "Good eater!" he praised. "Don't I know it!", my father replied. From that day forward sushi was my favorite food. I loved its clean and fresh taste, how the food was pristinely presented and delivered in bite-sized pieces, and most of all, that it was something my Dad and I could agree upon.

As I got older sushi became my go-to date option. I mean come on, what better way to a free sushi dinner?! It was also helpful in screening potential suitors. If they weren't down for sushi, I was not interested. In retrospect, I wonder what those boys must have thought when I suggested sushi as our first date. Presumptuous, expensive tastes, culinarily-adventurous princess? All I know is that I never got any complains. In fact, I first fell in love over sushi. I had been dating this guy for a month or two and things were going well. I wasn't that into him but he was older and drove a convertible so those improved his score. One night he invited me over for dinner. We had only ever gone out to eat and I kept replaying horror stories from girlfriends about cooking dates gone awry. "Please dear Lord don't let it be Refrigerator Surprise Meat Casserole," I prayed. Much to my delight I walked into his house to find him julienning carrots, cucumbers and fresh ahi tuna. "I like to make sushi at least once a week," he said, staring directly at me. Was this man looking straight into my soul? How did he know my deepest food desires? Well, that was it. I loved him. I had too!! When he ripped my heart out 6 months later I was devastated. "I love you, but I'm not in love with you," was the only answer I received. It took me an entire year to get over him, partly because every time I passed a sushi restaurant I burst into tears.

The revelation came, as many good ones do, in my therapist's office. We were recounting againmy feelings of loss and pain over my lack of a sushi-eating boyfriend when she said, "Is it possible that you don't miss your boyfriend at all but rather are mourning the loss of the attention and connection you never got from your father?" Oh my goodness, thank you Ms. Freud!!! Yes, I had just realized that the only time I'd ever felt connected to my Dad was over sushi and that my ex-boyfriend had become, dare I say it?, the perfect Dad substitute. The realization was simultaneously fantastic and horrific. Fantastic because I was immediately free of any emotions associated with my ex-boyfriend and horrific because I now had to work on my relationship with my father. OY!

Thanks to a heavy stint in therapy and way too much hippie soul searching, things with my Dad are good now. OK, not good, but definitely better. We can talk about work or music and can walk away from an argument without screaming or slamming doors. Most importantly, we no longer need a piece of raw fish to bring us together. Though, it never hurts.

Soy Marinated Rock Cod
Sushi, though delicious, take a decent amount of time to prep. This is my current favorite "de-constructed" sushi inspired dish that comes together in no time. OK, so it's not really sushi since the fish is cooked but it certainly does have similar flavors. Serve it along side rice and toasted nori to make your own open-faced sushi rolls. YUM!

Serves 2-3

3 pieces rock cod or other white fish, about 1 pound total
2-3 tablespoons tamari or shoyu (natural soy sauce)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey or brown rice syrup
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 inch ginger, freshly grated
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the fish from its packaging and dry it with paper towels. Please in an shallow baking dish and set aside.

In a small bowl add the tamari, balsamic vinegar, brown rice vinegar, and honey and whisk together. Add in the minced garlic and grated ginger and combine. Add the marinade to the fish in the baking dish and let sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Remove the fish from the fridge and place it in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the fish is white and flaky. Top with fresh cilantro and serve with a green salad, rice and toasted nori. Enjoy!