Monday, October 25, 2010

Spiced Squash and Pear Soup

Here's my ultimate fall and winter comfort food.  And it's low-fat, high fiber and very easy to make - you can't say that about too many comfort foods!  For the soup pictured here, I actually used squash and about 1 cup of leftover canned pumpkin.  That's the great thing about it - you can vary the vegetables, the spices and the stock.  So whatever, your preferences are, jump in and make it the way you like it!

1 tablespoon olive oil
5-6 cups (about 2-3 pounds) peeled and seeded butternut squash chunks (or carrots or pumpkin)
1 pear, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1/4 sweet onion, peeled and chopped (optional and to taste)
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon of Kabsa spice, optional ( if no Kabsa spice is availabe, add a pinch of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and fennel - to equal 1 teaspoon)
5 cups low-salt chicken stock
fresh thyme stalks, for garnish

Place the oil in a large stockpot.  Add all o f the chopped vegetables, fruit and spices - except the ginger,  to the pot.  Turn the veggies in the oil so that everything is coated. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes to lightly glaze the vegetables.
Add the ginger, and cook for another 2 minutes.  In case  you've never used fresh ginger before, it's an ugly brown tuber that you find in the produce isle.  It doesn't keep very long, so I buy a knob, use what I need and then peel and chop the remainder and throw it into a jar full of dry Sherry.  It will keep for months like that.

Add the stock.  It should just about cover the vegetables.  If there isn't enough, you can add water or more stock.  Bring the stock to a simmer, cover the pot and cook for about 1 hour until the vegtables are
soft enough to mash completely.
 To puree the soup, use an immersible blender.  Blend completely smooth, or leave some chunks, however you prefer.

Alternatively, the vegetables can be transferred to a food process and processed until smooth.  Process first to a rough chop, and then add a little stock, if necessary, to blend the vegetables to your desired preference.
 Stir the blended vegetables back into the pot.  At this point the soup will be a little thin.

Simmer it, uncovered, for about 10 minutes to thicken it up. If you plan to eat it immediately, you can continue to simmer it to the desired thickness. If making the soup ahead, don't over-thicken it, because it will dramatically thicken as it cools, and will stay thicker even after it gets reheated.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the fresh thyme.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pea and Bean Stew

With the cooler weather coming in, it's great to have a hearty dish that can be whipped up in under 1/2 hour.  A few weeks ago I was given a jar of Feisty Mama Medium Salsa.  I had never tried the salsa before, because I don't eat raw onions and garlic, but the owner of Feisty Mama is a collegue of mine, and I use salsa sometimes to save time in cooking, so I was thrilled to receive a jar from her.  Before I put anything in my cooking, though, I always taste it straight out of the jar.  Let me say, that I was bowled over by the fresh taste of this jarred salsa, that tasted like someone had just made it.  Kudos to you, Debra, for coming up with a recipe and technique to make this salsa so refreshing and fresh-tasting.  If I ate salsa and chips, I would get on that website and order a case! 

You can see from the label that the salsa is all natural, and fat free.

If you plan on cooking with salsa, you need to use at least the medium hot kind, and even the hot, if you want the spice to shine through when you are done cooking.  I prefer, not spicy, so the medium worked fine for me. 

In this "chili" type stew, I used frozen baby peas, frozen baby lima beans and canned kidney beans.  I loved this mix because the canned kidney beans are soft and velvety, while the lima beans are firm and a little grainy, and the peas, which were barely cooked, sort of pop in your mouth.  The mix was terrific.   To make the stew spicier, you can add more salsa, use the hot salsa, or you can add the salsa just before serving to preserve the spicy taste.  These are all variations you can use to make the stew the way you like it, and after all, that's part of the point of cooking something yourself!

Here are all of my ingredients: 
For 6 servings
2 jars of tomato sauce
1/2 cup Feisty Mama Medium Salsa
1 cup canned kidney beans, drained
1/2 - 1 cup of canned pumpkin ( in the baking aisle, but make sure it isn't filling that contains brown sugar, etc)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup frozen baby lima beans
1 cup frozen baby peas
1/4 raisins
water, as needed

In a medium saucepan, combine the tomato sauce, salsa, kidney beans, pumpkin (adding the larger amount makes it thicker and sweeter) and spices. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.  Add the lima beans, cover and cook for 6 minutes.  Add the baby peas and raisins, and cook for 3 minutes.  Serve immediately, or refrigerate and serve within 5 days. If you want the stew to be thicker, you can always boil it uncovered until it is thick enough.  If you want it thinner, add some water.  The stew gets thicker as it sits, and up to 1/2 cup water may need to be added.  It also gets milder as it sits, so take that into consideration.  I like it best the day after I make it.

We like the stew served over brown rice, with cheese and sour cream, or in tortillas.  I thin it a little for the rice variation, and leave it thick when using for tortillas.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Best Apple Pie

I know I have unfinished business with my filled cupcakes, but it's been so long since I posted that it will take me quite awhile to figure out everything I did with the cupcakes.  In the meantime, it's apple picking time, and I wanted to re-post my recipe for apple pie, which I worked on last Fall.

This is a re-post from last Fall when we went to Boston to visit our daughter.
One of the trips she had planned was to a nearby apple orchard for an afternoon of apple picking. The farm had many different varieties of apples, and we came away with more than a bushel of Cortlands, Macintosh, Empire and Macoun apples. With so many apples, the logical thing to make was apple pie, so that’s what we did the next day. Expecting great things, we were disappointed when we tasted the pie, that evening. Why wasn’t this the best apple pie?

Let’s start with the apples. For an 8-inch pie, I usually use 10 cups of apples consisting of about 5 Granny Smith apples, 1 golden delicious and 2 Macintosh apples. It’s a blend that I’ve come up with over the years that satisfies my requirement for texture, moisture and taste.  Using the apples from the orchard instead of my usual mix, produced a pie that wasn’t sweet enough or juicy enough.  I decided to go back to the kitchen and write down what happens to each apple when it is cooked. For my experiment I used 2 ounces of each apple (about 1/2 apple, but I did it by weight for accuracy), 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and 1/6th tablespoon of butter. Each was covered with foil and baked in a 400 degree F. oven.

When I uncovered the apples there was a striking difference between the amount of liquid in each cup. The Macouns were gushers, giving off 6 teaspoons of juice, the Macintosh gave off 4 teaspoons (but the Macs I bought in the supermarket only gave off 1), the Empires 3 teaspoons (same for the store-bought Empires) and the Cortland only 1 teaspoon of juice. Since the pie we made in Boston was mostly Cortlands, I now knew why our pie was not as juicy as we would have liked. I also tested the apples that I normally use: Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious. The Granny Smiths gave off 3 teaspoons while the Goldens gave off 5. This would account for my pies almost always flooding into the plate when the first piece is removed.

Here's a chart showing my results:

Apple                   Texture        Juiciness               Sweetness

Macintosh------- Very soft-----Least------------Sweet/tart

Rome ----------- Very soft-----Least------------Sweet/tart

Cortland--------- Medium------Least------------Sweet/tart


Golden Delicious-Medium------Most------------Sweet


Granny Smith----Med-firm----Moderate--------Tart

Fuji--------------Extra Firm---Moderate--------Sweet/tart

Gala-------------Extra Firm--- Moderate--------Sweet/tart

So to start making YOUR perfect pie, you would decide whether you like your pie very moist, medium-moist or on the dryer side, and then you could choose the appropriate apples. If you wanted a very sweet pie, it wouldn’t be a good idea to use only Golden Delicious, though, because you’d have so much liquid, you’d never get it thick enough. Instead, you could add a little more sugar to the tarter apples and mix in only one or two of the very juicy, sweet apples. Because we wanted to use only the apples we picked (tarter , drier varieties) we should have added a little extra sugar, and could have added some fresh apple cider to make up for the lack of moisture. There’s also a question of tenderness with the filling and you’d want to combine apples that get pretty soft when cooked with those that are firmer. Some apples take forever to cook, and might not be a good choice for a pie in which the crust will be done in about 50-60 minutes. Romes and Macs tend to get very mushy – which I think gives a nice taste and texture when used in combination with firmer apples. Empires, Cortlands, Macouns, Goldens, etc. are medium-firm and Fujis and Galas tend to take longer than 60 minutes to get soft, unless sliced very thinly. Lastly, the amount and kind of thickener needs to be chosen. My mother always used tapioca to thicken her pies. But tapioca (cracked or pearls) leaves little gelatinous globules in the pie that I’m not fond of. Flour is really not a favorite of mine either because if it doesn’t get mixed well, it can be very unpleasant, and if the apples don’t heat up enough or for a long enough time, the flour will taste gritty or pasty. I usually use cornstarch, even though it doesn’t do that well with acidy foods like apple pie – another reason that my usual pie is on the runny side (maybe I should mix in some Cortlands next time). For a pie made with mostly Cortlands, I would cut way down on the amount of cornstarch used – maybe half as much. Yesterday, I tried tapioca starch, which actually gave me the absolute perfect thickness! I bought it in Earthfare, my local organic market. It looks exactly like cornstarch, and the box directions said to use the same quantity as cornstarch. I used the recipe you’ll find below, and have never been as happy with the results.

But back to Boston… Could more have gone wrong with my pie in Boston? You bet. The crust was really just mediocre. I knew from the get-go that I probably hadn’t used enough water in the dough. I was worried about the crust being tough – a problem I had had the last time I made flaky crust- and water is usually the culprit when crust gets tough. I thought it might be a little dry (it was), but was surprised that the crust was so tender that it barely had any texture in the mouth. As a bottom crust it was fine, but the top crust really didn’t work. So, of course, my challenge when I got home was to figure out exactly how to tell when you’ve added enough water. Here’s the answer: The dough should feel supple, but not sticky, and it should hold together. You should be able to pick up the dough ball and hold it above the counter without it falling apart.
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When you roll it, you should be able to fold it without it cracking.
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If any of these problems arise, add a little more ice water to the dough. If the dough is too sticky, it could be because it’s not cold enough, or it might need more flour. If it needs to be toughened a little, you can also fold it and then re-roll it. This works especially well for the top, because it makes it flakier. And so, here is MY Perfect Apple Pie

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Serves 6 - 8

Flaky Pie Crust
2-1/2 cups (325 grams) unbleached all- purpose flour, fluffed, scooped and leveled into measuring cups
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
10 tablespoons (5 ounces) shortening, frozen and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 tablespoons (2.5 ounces) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup (or more) ice water, divided

3-5 medium Granny Smith apples
1 medium golden Delicious apple
2 medium McIntosh apples
1 lemon or 1 tablespoon of Fruitfresh mixed 2 quarts with water
3/4- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup tapioca starch (or cornstarch)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon sugar

Place the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor bowl. Pulse-process to mix everything together. Place the shortening and butter on top of the dry ingredients. Pulse-process until the fats are cut into pea-size bits, about 5, three-second bursts. Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Sprinkle on 3 tablespoons ice water. Mix with a fork and then, using your hands, press the mixture into a solid mass. If necessary, add more water to bring the dough together. The dough should feel supple, but not sticky, and it should hold together. You should be able to pick up the dough ball and hold it above the counter without it falling apart. Divide the dough in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. with a rack in the middle of the oven. Grease and flour an 8-inch glass pie plate . (Flouring the plate is controversial, as there is a risk that the dough could shrink off of the pie plate rim. However, it’s so much easier to get the slices out of the pan when the plate is floured, that I do it anyway. )

For the filling, peel, core and cut the apples into 1/4-inch slices, using as many as necessary to have 10 cups of apples. Squeeze the lemon into a large bowl of water, or use the Fruitfresh. Place the apples into the bowl of water, drain, and then return the apples to the bowl along with the brown sugar, cinnamon and tapioca starch.
Transfer the dough to the pie plate using one of these techniques: Flip the dough over the rolling pin. Pick the whole dough piece off of the plastic and lay it into the pan.

Flour the dough, fold it in half or quarters, and then transfer it to the pan and unfold it .

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There should be several inches of overhang. Trim the dough to 1/2-inch beyond the rim ( I use my thumbnail as a guide).
pie crust1
Transfer the filling to the crust-lined pie plate, mounding it high in the pan. Dot with the butter.
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Brush the rim of the crust with water so that the top crust will adhere well.
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Roll out the remaining dough, making it larger than the bottom crust, so that it will fit over the mounded apples.
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Trim the top crust so it is the same size as the bottom crust. Squeeze the two edges together and then roll the edge up to make a nice border on the pan rim.
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Here you can see that I’ve rolled the right edge of the pie crust, but not the left side, yet. I also experimented with cutting out a diamond shape in the middle of the crust as a steam vent. It also gives me a good place to stick a knife into the apples to see if they are cooked. But I think I liked the round vent hole better (see opening photo). It was easier to get it in the center and it didn’t tend to rip the way the diamond did.
Flute the edge using one of the techniques from this post on Pies and Tarts:
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Make 4 or 5 slits in the pie with a sharp knife. Mix the sugar with the milk and brush this over the crust ( or brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar – your choice).

Place the pie on a baking sheet. Bake the pie for 25 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. and bake for another 30 - 40 minutes more until both the top and bottom crusts are golden. Shield the pie rim with aluminum foil if it is getting too brown. To make a simple shield, take 3 pieces of aluminum foil slightly large than the pie. Crimp the edges up to make it less square and to hold the pieces together. Cut a cross in the middle of the foil and bend back the foil, from the center outward, to reveal the pie below. Set the shield on top of the pie – it should leave the center open to brown but will shield the rim crust, which always cooks faster.
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Cool at least 30 minutes before eating.

For best results, the pie should not be made more than 8 hours in advance (leave uncovered at room temperature). Rewarm it at 350 degrees F. for 15 minutes. Leftover pie should be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. Heat at 350 degrees F. to re-crisp the top crust.