Orange, yellow, dark and pale green, red-orange, white and gray are the colors of fall, and they also make up the spectrum of colors representative of the varieties of a popular squash named Cucurbita, better known as pumpkin. We see the bright orange spheres of the most common American variety everywhere by now on porches and in windows, and I for one, welcome the fall for its colors and its flavors that signal for me the time for comfortable traditional recipes.
Native Americans first roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them very simply. But it was the early American colonists who took the first steps toward the Pumpkin pie we know today. They sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey; then baked them in hot ashes. Pumpkins are now grown everywhere in the world, and no surprise, Illinois leads the US production with over 4000 acres planted just for their local manufacturer of canned pumpkin, Libbyâ€™s.
The traditional pumpkin is used for its robust fruit and seeds toasted into pepitos, and both seeds and flesh is rich in potassium, fiber, and vitamin A. The flesh can be roasted, grilled, steamed, sautÃ©ed, baked, squeezed for juice, and pureed and such variety of uses is very appealing to us chefs. Savory or sweet, I have used the seeds for garnishes, brittles, and sauces, like Romesco, a Spanish style ground nut/seed condiment used with meat and chicken. I use pumpkin seed oil too made from the pressed and toasted seeds in gnocchi and a garnish for apple pie, and even vanilla ice cream. Young sugar pumpkins, peeled seeded, accompany any fall menu just as a steamed or sautÃ©ed vegetable side dish.
I would guess that most Americans still use canned pumpkin to make their Thanksgiving pies, because cooking the fresh meat by either roasting or steaming might seem like too much trouble for the results. Home steaming yields a much more delicate flavored puree than the canned counterpart. I still prefer the flavor of the canned pumpkin for pies and find that roasting rather than steaming produces a pretty close flavor profile. Going to the trouble of using fresh pumpkin, I usually make more than needed for pie, so I freeze some for later use. Pumpkin is over 90% water and once thawed it will need to be strained before using as a baking ingredient. I am more likely to use the pumpkin I freeze for pasta, breads, muffins, scones, soup, and ice cream than for pie.
Just remember anything you already do with other varieties of squash you can do with the pumpkin. I am such a fan of Libbyâ€™s pie recipe that I rarely stray far, but the recipe for Pumpkin cheese tarts here is worth it. I like chunky pumpkin risotto for a one dish vegetarian dinner, too. And the French toast recipe is Lenoreâ€™s that she serves only in the months of October and November! Enjoy!
ROMESCO SAUCE (Spanish topping for chicken or roasted meats)
4 TB EVOO
2 slices white bread, crust removed
3 dried Ancho peppers, soaked, seeded and minced
1 small fresh jalapeno pepper, split in half
3 whole cloves garlic
1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup roasted pumpkin seeds or pepitos
1/2 cup almonds, roasted
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 TB finely chopped fresh parsley leaves Method: In a large sautÃ© pan, over medium heat, add the oil; when the oil is hot, add the bread and fry until golden on each side, about 2 minutes; remove and set aside; in the same pan, add the peppers; sautÃ© for 1 minute and remove from the pan; reserve the oil; in a food processor, combine the peppers and garlic; process until a paste forms; add the reserved fried bread, tomatoes, pepitos, and nuts; process until smooth; add the vinegar, 2 to 3 tablespoons of the reserved oil and season with salt; process for 15 seconds add the parsley and process for 5 seconds; remove and store in an airtight container under refrigeration until ready to use.
PUMPKIN CHEESE TARTSCrust: 2 cups all purpose flour
1/8 tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp cinnamon
8 oz butter, cubed
Â½ cup sour cream
Filling: 6 oz cream cheese
Â¼ cup thick pumpkin puree
1 large egg
Â½ cup brown sugar or maple sugar
Â½ tsp orange zest, minced
Â½ cup powdered sugar, unsifted
Â½ tsp cinnamon
Â½ tsp ground coriander
Method: Place the flour, salt and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl; stir to blend; Cut in butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles split peas; stir in the sour cream with a fork; work the dough into a ball. Divide dough into 6 balls for tart size or 12-18 for miniature muffin pan tarts. Refrigerate for 4 hours before using.
Filling: process all of the filling ingredients in a food processor bowl until mixture is smooth and blended. Pat the pastry into bottom and sides of tart pans or muffin pans. Spoon filling into shells; refrigerate for 30 minutes. Adjust rack to lower third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Bake 12-18 minutes or until firm. Cool 10 minutes before removing to wire rack. Sift powdered sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle on tops. Serve room temperature.
PUMPKIN RISOTTO, a vegetarian dinner option
3 TBS EVOO, plus additional as needed
Â½ cup onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup Riesling
Â½ cup pumpkin puree
5 cups (approximately) pumpkin water, vegetable stock, hot or other favorite stock
1 tsp sea salt
Â½ tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
1 ea lemon zested
1 cup Romano cheese, shredded
4 TBS salted butter
SautÃ©ed sweet fresh pumpkin, see recipe Method: place oil in large sauce pan on moderate heat; add onions, garlic and rice â€“ cook till vegetables are aromatic and rice becomes slightly translucent; add wine and cook until it is almost absorbed; add the puree and Â½ cup of stock; stir to combine; continue adding Â½ cup of stock at a time, stirring to incorporate; wait until each stock addition is absorbed before adding more; when most of the stock has been added, add the salt, pepper, coriander and zest to the risotto with the remaining stock, stirring throughout; fold in the Romano, butter and cooked sugar pumpkin; adjust seasonings.
Pumpkin: 4 TBS salted butter, 2 small sugar pumpkins, peeled and diced (1/2 to 1 inch), dash nutmeg and cardamom â€“Method: heat butter until frothy; sautÃ© pumpkin till tender. Fold into risotto at last minute and season with more sea salt, pepper, coriander, if needed.
PUMPKIN FRENCH TOAST, a fall favorite of our Omelet 101 class.
1 egg yolk
Â¾ cup sugar
Â½ cup pumpkin puree, canned or fresh
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
Â½ tsp vanilla
Â½ cup milk
Â½ cup heavy cream
8 thick slices day-old bread
As needed powdered sugar
5 TBS butter
Method: place eggs, yolk and sugar, pumpkin and pie spice in large bowl, whisk to combine; add vanilla, milk and cream; mix to combine; soak bread slices thoroughly and remove to platter; dust with powdered sugar; place butter in sautÃ© pan and place bread, sugar side down in pan to brown and cook; dust each with additional sugar before turning; add additional butter as needed; serve with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sour cream.
Optional toppings; vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sour cream
It was our first night, before the others arrived, and we had arranged to stay with friends who moved from Seattle Tacoma area to Calistoga two years ago. The four of us walked from their house to Brannanâ€™s restaurant in downtown Calistoga. The dining room was air-conditioned against the day, and we were guided to a window seat. By the time our appetizers arrived, the floor to ceiling accordion hinged windows pushed open creating an almost sidewalk cafÃ© and before we knew it we were dining al fresco in the evening valley breeze. We grazed the appetizer menu with calamari fritto-misto, Ahi tuna tempura roll, Chipolte corn chowder, and potato-herb gnocchi with ratatouille. Our entrees included a beautifully grilled pork chop with seared pork belly and greens, a chili pepper crusted chicken with red quinoa with figs, Diver scallops with yellow corn risotto and a sautÃ©ed halibut with capers and an herb vinaigrette. Our wine choice: Summers Cellars Charbonoâ€”a relatively unknown grape variety being produced in limited qualities in California. It seems to love the hot regions where the swing between day/night temperatures are greatest, thus allowing for enough acid retention during ripening.
All dinners there after were eaten in our rented cottage with each couple taking a turn. It was done more for the fun and companionship than for a serious culinary effort, but despite our intention, all meals were better than most! Marty who I have written about before prepared his chicken piccata, a lemony favorite, and had enough that Alice made up lemon chicken and vegetable pasta with it next night. Alice has very creative culinary knack for putting flavors together. She and I are often compared for being a little out there when we pair flavors, but the difference is she does it from whatever she finds in the refrigerator, a skill I do not possess. And despite my admiration for it, I donâ€™t see myself cultivating the leftover skill.
Of the lunches we ate out, one memorable stop was at the new Napa Style location in Yountville where we tried the Panzanella salad that looked like it was made from canned tomatoes but tasted like fresh. Anyway, this establishment is owned by Food network star, Michael Chiarello, Lenoreâ€™s often quoted favorite show. We have a picture of Lenore as Michael in person passed us in the shop. You can read it all on in her face.
The big night we were waiting for was not a night after all. We had bid on the date and time, but the French Laundry could only deliver a Sunday afternoon on that weekend. Lunch at this world-famous North American eatery was as it turns out the same experience as dinner, just done in daylight. With our positive expectations in full force we woke up Sunday morning and dressed a little better than the previous days. We were glad it was cooler that morning, better for the women wearing panty hose and jackets for the men.
Arriving about twenty minutes early gave us time to collect ourselves and take a few pictures in the courtyard. Some of us used the restroom adjacent to the garden where our first impressions were forming: very understated, clean and friendly.
Our hostess offered to take a group picture before escorting us to a table upstairs in one of many small dining rooms. Ours consisted of five tables with crisply starched white linens that seated 18 guests in total. Our table for six was the only round one in the room. Some parties were already seated. A starched white napkin carefully creased in the laundryâ€™s signature fold marked each place setting. An ordinary clothespin sporting the restaurants name and phone number served as a napkin ring. Our headwaiter said his name and welcomed us, as he gathered the pins after we placed napkins on our laps. I thought he was taking them up before we slipped them for souvenirs into our pockets, but he carefully placed them around the small fresh herb bouquet in the center of the table, telling us to feel free to take them with us, as they are our business cards, he said. (And we did). It wasnâ€™t until after we left the restaurant that someone mention that no background music was playing. None of us missed it, and the dining room was quite, though completely full, our party might as well have been alone.
The menu consisted of two full nine-course prix fix options with some courses within each requiring us to choose. All of us wanted to get the first menu sporting several courses with meat and fish, so Lenore volunteered to order the vegetarian menu. Our team of waiters (4 altogether) remembered our choices with seemingly little effort. Before the first course we were given a very small â€˜biteâ€ to begin the experience. This full flavored morsel called a gougere is a like a cheese puff, crunch with buttery center that melted away in the mouth. In addition we received a tiny portion of a Gravlox of Scottish salmon with caviar in a petite savory-sesame cone. Lenoreâ€™s version was a sweet potato caviar (diced very small) in the same cone vessel. These offerings were designed to tease our palates, and tease they did.
First courses arrived with anticipated flare. The service plates themselves seemed to be designed for the particular item served. Square with a round depression in the center or maybe off center slightly to make more impact. In all our table experienced 18 courses plus a few more since we ordered at least one of every choice available. The entire menu is worth description, for now I will describe only those that were my favorites.
Cauliflower â€œPanna Cottaâ€ – a concentrate puree of fresh cauliflower bound slightly with cream and gelatin to help hold its shape on the plate. An oyster glaze or reduced liquor to be more accurate was drizzled around and white sturgeon caviar, with its briny nature brought out the earthiness of the entire dish.
Moulard Duck â€œFoie Gras Au Torchonâ€ â€“ breaking my PC rule to avoid foie gras, I sampled what was the best I have ever had. Creamy, buttery and yet distinct, the duck liver must have been passed through sieve after sieve to create a completely perfect mouth feel. The brioche, yeasty and toasted far enough to provide carmelization, kept my interest by complimenting each bite. Paired with a green apple relish and crisp radish, the flavor contrasts worked to fill in any gap my palette required to make each bite whole.
Bulgur Wheat Salad â€“ simple and elegant! Pickled pearl onion petals, soy beans, baby tomatoes slightly dried to raisin stage, red radish, garden blossoms and slivers of avocado rounded out this beautiful vegan salad.
â€œFricasseeâ€ of Hand Rolled Russet Potato â€œGnocchiâ€ â€“ anyone who has attempted gnocchi knows that the secret lies in not overworking the dough and knowing when enough flour is enough. These dumplings were slightly firm on the outside but quickly broke under the tooth revealing the creamy potato beneath. Foam of sweet corn, lovage and golden chanterelles created the finishing texture, which satisfied completely.
Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster â€œMittsâ€ â€“ a little disappointing that not all products were local, however as with all the dishes the execution allowed for forgiveness. Poaching in butter requires the butter to remain emulsified with perfect temperature control throughout the cooking. The food, in this case, lobster, gently cooks while maintaining juiciness and no fat is absorbed. Not as easy as it sounds and thereâ€™s a special piece of equipment used in kitchens that do this often. The lobster was served with a Tourne of turnips in light cream, white pomegranate seeds, Sicilian pistachios and cilantro micro greens. The seeds provided a slightly sour component, the turnips, slightly bitter and cilantro â€“ tang; a perfect compliment of flavors for me.
â€œBoudin Blanc De Poulardeâ€ â€“ a sausage of chicken fortified with cream and apple wood smoked bacon. Fingerling potatoes crispy fried in duck fat garnished the top along with local farm fresh figs and a summer truffle coulis. This was not your motherâ€™s breakfast sausage and potatoes!
Grilled Pave of Kuroge Beef From Shiga – Of the various qualities of beef in the world, ‘wagyu’ is one of the most famous and widely known. Ohmi Wagyu is created from Kuroge Wagyu, a breed of Japanese black hair cattle born and raised in the Shiga near Kyoto. Our waiter brought the raw beef to the table so we could witness the extreme marbling of this beef. It requires quick high heat cooking to provide an almost short rib like texture with steak firmness. This option was a supplement to the price-fixed menu, and each couple ordered it so everyone had some. The beef was paired with Akita Komachi rice, grilled hen of the wood mushrooms, sugar snap peas (served in their pods), and a sauce of light soy and ginger.
Dessert for Lenore was my favorite â€“ banana tempura with peanut butter mousse dusted with brut cocoa, two forms of ganache, one creamy and one dried using new age science that crumbled like cocoa puffs.
And just when we thought we were finished, a tired silver vessel was bought with house made candies, followed by a platter of chocolates, each as different as the last and with the instruction â€“ take as many as you like.
After coffee we awaited with trepidation for the checkâ€¦I wonâ€™t disclose the price but suffice to say the little to-go gift packages of homemade shortbread cookies and specially designed chocolates helped ease the pain. Without a doubt, our group agreed that this was the best food experience we had ever had.
As we began to collect ourselves for the journey back to Calistoga, I asked our waiter if it would it be possible to see the kitchen? As with everything this day, our waiterâ€™s attentive response was â€œyes.â€ In the kitchen there were at least twenty-five cooks. Since the shifts were passing, there may have been some overlap of day and night crew. The lab atmosphere of the kitchen was humming with orders from different chefs quietly commanding their departments. We saw the lobster poacher in action along with equipment for cooking sous vide style.
There was a wide screen monitor in the center of the kitchen with a live video feed from Per Se, Thomas Kellerâ€™s restaurant in NYC. On top of the monitor, a small camera moved slowly from side to side providing a return feed of the Laundryâ€™s kitchen, allowing Keller to view both kitchens at any time from his laptop.
And as one would expect the kitchen was immaculately clean, with every size shiny copper and stainless steel pot/pan lining the walls like culinary soldiers awaiting duty. The cooks paid no attention to our group so clearly our request to see the kitchen was not unique, but for me, the experience was truly special from start to finish and will provide culinary inspiration for many menus to come.
NAPA STYLE PANZANELLA SALAD (EVOO version)
2 lb. ripe local tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Â½ red onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
EVOO, as needed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 TBS each chopped fresh basil, tarragon, parsley
Sea salt TT
Several grinds of coriander seed & black pepper
3-4 cups croutons, see recipe
4 cups mixed greens, including at least 1 cup arugula
Fresh parmesan cheese
Blend tomatoes with onion, garlic, and moisten with EVOO and lemon juice (about 2:1). Add fresh herbs and seasonings. Adjust. Toss over croutons and serve atop a blend of mixed greens or arugula and garnish with fresh shaved Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately (4-6)
Croutons: Heat about 3-4 TBS of EVOO in saute pan; toss with day-old Â½â€bread cubes and coat well. Place onto baking sheet. Sprinkle on 2-3 TBS grated parmesan cheese and bake 350Â°F for 15 minutes until light brown and crisp outside and still soft inside. Cool then store in air tight container until needed.