Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Plan B

Look! I made a pie crust!

Every road trip for us seems to start an hour later than we planned to leave.  No matter if we pack up the night before, set the alarms, have the best intentions.  Thanksgiving morning this year was no different.  I somehow managed to sleep until 8:30, which is rare for me and should have been my first clue that something was awry.  We were planning to leave at 9!  After showering and getting dressed, we packed the van: vegetarian Shepherd's Pie for our main meal, portable DVD player, selection of movies, bag of knitting, pillows (were planning on heading back later that night), blankets (there's suddenly no heat in the back of the van), and two dog crates (couldn't bring ourselves to pay to board the dogs, since we had two emergency vet bills this past month!), two sets of wrist bands for car-sickness that both Owen and I are prone to.

And therein lies the story. 

Kira pulled out her book, Flyte, and started reading, Owen popped in The Dark Knight (which Will let him watch against my better judgment), I pulled out my knitting (a hat for my brother-in-law).

The back roads out of Bennington are quite windy, so after about 20 minutes on the road, I thought I'd better put away the knitting, since the wrist bands weren't feeling very effective.  In no time, I was overcome with the worst nausea since having to drive 2 hours to the airport wickedly hung over after my friend Mike & Katherine's wedding.  I seriously had it that bad! We had to pull over three separate times, my eyes were tearing up and I really thought I would yack.

Meanwhile, the beagle had also thrown up in his crate, turns out he's car sick too, and my daughter was already complaining about the lack of heat in the back, and I'm standing on the side of Route 112 not even out of Vermont yet, doing deep breathing.  Will just looked at me and said, "I think we should turn around and go home."  

So we did.  Enter Thanksgiving Day Plan B.

We had the main meal prepared already, so that was good.  Quickly looked around the house for side dishes and made a list for Will to hit the grocery.  Luckily there was still plenty of goodness from the CSA, so we pulled together a quick menu.  I rested on the couch about an hour and a half (watched this episode of the Daily Show, freaking brilliant).  Will called three times from the grocery store.  Don't know if that shows just how picky I am, or how clueless he can be, or both!

I threw the pumpkin in the oven to roast while I was resting, and once Will was back with the groceries I went upstairs and slept a full 2 hours, another thing I never do.  Kept the headache at bay, but it was still there in the background the whole meal preparation, so I'm still amazed the meal turned out so well. (I felt so guilty about disappointing my aunt in CT, but it was the best choice. I think I would have had a horrible, horrible day, and triggered a worse headache than I have today still.)

First, a word about the pumpkin I roasted.  The last blog post I showed a sugar pumpkin, but this time I used a Cinderella pumpkin, and what an interesting difference.  So much thicker, much less watery, great for pie! According to, they are "a unique French heirloom whose correct name is Rouge vif D'Etampes. The source of their nickname it that they resemble the pumpkin that Cinderella's fairy godmother transformed into a carriage. This pumpkin is recorded as having been the variety cultivated by the Pilgrims and served at the second Thanksgiving dinner."  A little history and a little oo la la, how can you beat it?

I used a recipe that Lisa at the MFF distributed last year, from Rebecca Wood, the filling only.  The only change is I used 1/2 and 1/2 instead of cream, and I love cinnamon so I put in almost 2 tsp.  In my headachey stupor, I actually had CUMIN in my hand, open over the bowl, before my sense of smell quickly alerted me to the near disaster!!! phew!  Read here on Epicurious about why cook without the can.  Also, my friend (whose hangover after her awesome wedding I was reliving without having had any of the fun) Katherine blogged about her pie baking from scratch experience too (tip: don't start late at night!). 

As for the pie crust, I've always had trouble with them.  I think part of it is that my mom makes such amazing pie crust, how do you live up to it?  It reminds me of my problem making spaghetti sauce for years, it just wouldn't compare.  Now that I don't eat meat, I can have a marinara sauce all my own (my mom's best secret is slow cooking the meatballs in the sauce).  So this year I was determined to try my hand at pie crust, using a recipe different from mom's.  (There's a great piece on Slate about mother/daughter recipe/traditions, pressures and joys!)

Spectrum Naturals Organic Shortening, All Vegetable, 24-Ounce Containers (Pack of 4)My friend Chris raved about using Spectrum organic shortening, so I looked for a recipe and found one here.

The first time I tried it, I left out the butter. duh.  And, this time, I used the Kitchen Aid to mix it.  The other key is being careful when adding the water to the dough.  (My mom uses orange juice instead, which I forgot and didn't have in the house.)  There's a great VPR show all about pies that features a baker from King Arthur Flour, located here in VT (nice links to recipes too).  She makes a point to use a spray bottle for the water, I'm going to try that next!

I was so amazed at how well this rolled out. And since last time it didn't even roll out to a full pie, I neglected to roll this one out all the way.  That was the only error: the crust was way too thick.  But delicious!

I also made a vegetarian stuffing from Pepperidge Farm mix that featured my favorite new veg, leeks!

My sister had sent me a link to Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef's blog that used raw Brussels sprouts shredded in a salad, and since it has nuts and cheese in it, two of my favorite cold salad combos, I had to give it a try. I made it with the added maple syrup and used gruyere, but I did roast the walnuts first, which isn't mentioned in the recipe. This was fabulous, but made so much we'll be eating it for days!
Gotta love these fresh from the farm, on the stalk! more recipes for brussels here

When I went to set the table, I had to smile at our fancy centerpiece. The kids had created this "village" and wanted to leave it set up on the table.  We never seem to be able to clear the center of it from collecting random items anyway (current collection: twine, lego pieces, band aids, mini-stapler, pin cushion, earrings, etc.).  The "Village of Happiness" was a perfect Plan B centerpiece, actually.

The dinner itself was wonderful, though Owen chose, rather excitedly so I said yes, to "invite the General" to dinner.  As in, leftover General Tso's take out.  (I know, I just said we weren't ordering out, but we did, Wednesday after I cooked the shepherd's pie I didn't have it in me to cook another meal!)

I actually didn't really like the pie last night--it was too warm.  I'm a huge fan of cold pumpkin pie.  Here's the piece I just had for breakfast.
Will you look at all that crust?  What can I say, I'm not a great baker!
Probably the best part of the whole day dealing with a headache was the fact that my kids didn't fight.  In fact, they played "Hogwarts" for hours.  Here they with their makeshift wands.
Plan B Thanksgiving had a little magic in it after all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

More November Meals as Thanksgiving Approaches...

November Brambles. Like my Brain! (But beautiful too.)

During the week, I am running on empty. Between a regular teaching load, professional development consulting, and teaching a graduate class, the prospect of preparing a meal is just one more exhausting effort.   
When it's busy, it's especially hard to want to cook, but time and again, if we get Chinese it's mediocre at best, and pizza is never consistent in this town.  There's only one place for Chinese, and while there are several places for pizza, it's never the same on any given night.  In the end, I eat too much of it even though it's not even that good.  So the other night after grocery shopping, I was extremely tempted to call in pizza.  There's nothing worse than doing all the shopping, coming home and unpacking all the darn items, and THEN having to make dinner! 

But I resisted, and we made our own instead.  We had tried this whole wheat dough from Hannaford that was pretty decent.  It's from Portland, Maine.  I got toppings I thought everyone would like, and busted out some frozen pesto from summer basil.  Everyone had fun making their own, and they turned out delicious.  But I still miss good old NY Italian pizza!
Bove's is my go-to jar sauce

Fresh Maple Brook Farm Mozzarella made right here in Bennington!

Another night I was going to make my traditional taco dip go-to recipe, but turned out I didn't have sour cream, which really makes it.  So I scratched my head, took a look at a bowl of potatoes from the CSA, and though...mashed....carrots...veggie crumbles...VEGETARIAN SHEPHERD'S PIE!  It's super easy, the key really is the yummy organic carrots and potatoes.  Here's a recipe, though I like to put about 1/2 a cup of shredded cheddar under the mashed.

Kira helped cook it, and was so excited, she even insisted on serving it.  Then she at an entire bowl!!  So that's what I'm bringing to our Thanksgiving meal with relatives. 

It's funny, the whole Thanksgiving meal thing just doesn't have much allure if there's not a focus on fresh, local, organic, and veggie.  I'm thinking we may have to start some kind of new tradition with the day, because really, I'm anti-Turkey industry.  Read why here!  There are some good ideas about humane meats here, and mail order humane meats in the NY area.  Why not take a look for a local farm that has fresh turkeys?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November Melancholia

November chicken coop at Mighty Food Farm

What pensive beauty autumn shows,
Before she hears the sound
Of winter rushing in, to close
The emblematic round!
--William Wordsworth

October is so filled with harvest, and an abundance that culminates in the frivolity of Halloween, with all its myriad of candy colors.  But immediately after, the very next morning, November arrives.  It's like an instant downer.  Is it the candy hangover, the change in temperature, the loss of the glorious autumn leaves?  It's like my spirits are instantly dampened. The rush of the beginning of the school year is winding down also, we're settling into our routines.  My parents, like the flocks of geese, head south to Florida. There's a sense of loss, yet, as Wordsworth said, November has its own pensive beauty.  My heart is filled with melancholia when I look at the shot above, taken when I picked up the first winter CSA order.  Those sad, beautiful chickens.  The starkness of the environs. The red of the coop.  It just embodies November to me!

Actually, there are lots of great poems about November.  My all time favorite, "Spring and Fall," by Gerard Manly Hopkins, is dense with words.  Boy, just that embodies November to me!  The poet is speaking to Margaret, a young child, who is sad about Fall:
Margaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
He is writing about the archetypal seasons--spring is youth and vitality, Fall is older age, Winter, alas, death.  It ends:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
It's so damn beautiful and sad!

Indulge me a moment, and check out a few others:  
  • Walter de la Mere,  "November" (oh, the heartbreak! Cold wind where your voice was/ Tears, tears where my heart was)
  • Adrienne Rich, "November 1968" (this one's really dark and intense: You’re what the autumn knew would happen/after the last collapse/of primary color)
  • Cindy Gregg, "Monday," featured on The Writer's Almanac on Nov. 1st!  This one is a perfect segueway to the cooking blog, since she's writing about making a soup!
She writes: 
Knife against carrot
again and again
sends a plop of pennies
into the pan.
These cents,
when held to the gray light,
hold no noble president,
only stills
of some kaleidoscope
caught being pensive...
and beautiful,
in the eye of this beholder

She even uses the word pensive! This is why I'm an English teacher. I love words as much as I love food.

Okay, so on to my Roasted Butternut Squash Soup recipe!!  Soups are definitely my favorite, and my specialty, and Autumn is just MADE for soups.  When we first joined the CSA, I used to make stock with a lot of the veggies, but my brother, a trained chef  told me that saving all the scraps from veggies was a better way to go about it.  I keep a huge supply of Pacific Vegetable Broth in my pantry because I certainly don't have time to do this for all the soups I make!

Over the last few months, I've saved up this bag of scraps in the freezer, till I was ready to boil them down into a home made stock.  This one had lots of leek tops, carrot ends, onion skins, celery ends.  I added a few parsnips that never made it into anything, some smashed cloves of garlic, and a big bunch of peppercorns.  I probably added a few too many because it had a pretty big zing of spiciness to it, which I love, but if you try it and don't like pepper, you may want to use fewer peppercorns!  You just bring it to a boil, then simmer it for about an hour.  Your house will smell divine!  (Here's a recipe for a stock that looks pretty good.)  Once it's cooked down, I pour it into a wire mesh strainer, and press down the veggies with a potato masher.You don't get as clear a stock, but I don't care since it tastes too amazing!

The CSA had a bounty of squashes, so I snagged about 3 lbs and cooked all but a small one in the oven at a high temperature--425?  I drizzle the bottom of the pan with olive oil so they don't stick.  Once they get all sunken in, like you can pierce them easily with a fork, they're done.  Let them cool, and then just scoop the flesh out of the skin.  I puree them in the blender, with a little of the stock to make it smooth.
Here's the best part.  For the soup, all you do is add the puree to the stock, reheat, and add salt! Use the immersion blender if you want it to be a little smoother, and add in about a cup or so of half and half (Organic Valley, of course!).  It adds really very little fat to the soup, and pulls all the flavors together.  You do need lots of kosher or sea salt too.  Many people think they shouldn't add salt to their cooking, but when you make it all from whole ingredients, you can!  Processed and prepared foods have way more salt in them then you'd be putting into your dish!

I did not take a picture of the finished product to post, and actually, I should have taken a picture of all the empty bowls and the bottom of the soup pot!  The kids didn't like it of course, but I think it's because of too much pepper.  My sister commented that it had such a lovely squash taste that wasn't sweet, and I think that's because many people combine the squash with apple or cider.  That's a nice soup too, but it masks the roasted goodness!

For some good looking Butternut Squash soup recipes, check these out.
And dare you think I cook like this during the week, I'm ending this blog with a few pics of all the casual, quick, weeknight meals we pull together at my house!
Make your own burritos: store bought rice mix, black beans w/some seasonings, avocado, olives, sour cream, cheese, sauteed onions and peppers with cumin & chili powder, tortillas, and a good beer!

SmartLinks Chili Cheese Veggie Dogs (Amy's canned chili!), homemade potato chip fries
Grilled cheese on good, locally baked bread, Pacific Organic Creamy Tomato Soup!

For a final, final note, even Guns N' Roses contemplated November!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Overlook Farm--Global Villages

This year, we've made the move from public education for our kids to private.  It was a difficult choice, made for a myriad of reasons, and was only possible because of the existence of Hiland Hall School, right in our own town.  It's a "progressive" school, which basically means it's way cool. The curriculum is based on the students' interest, and a lot of what we've seen so far really adheres to many of the beliefs my husband and I try to live by.  One of the cool things the kids have learned about already is Heifer International.  I had always wanted to take a trip to their learning center in central Massachusetts with my own students, so when I found out HH was going, I basically insisted that I be able to come along!

Overlook Farm is one of five learning centers located around the U.S. that serve to educate visitors about poverty and hunger around the world by recreating global villages on its land.  Overlook Farm is in Rutland, Mass, about an hour from Boston.  It's open to the public, and you can visit without a formal group tour.  The kids watched a movie featuring Heifer's work around the globe, and then traveled through different areas of the farm that represented parts of the world--Thailand, Guatemala, Kenya, Peru, Tibet, the US/Mexican borderlands, and Appalachia. At each place, the guide discussed issues effecting the region, and spoke about Heifer's work in the area.

Lunch was the most interactive part of the visit, which is why I'm highlighting the trip on this blog!  Our group lunched in the Andes of Peru, which meant that the kids prepared a meal representative of the culture and their local crops.  They built a fire, grabbed the veggies out of the nearby garden, and cooked stew while llamas and alpacas oversaw the whole operation.

Carrot Tops in the Garden
Amaranth (purple); Quinoa (green)
The Peru abode (right); the Peruvian garden
Lunch was Quinoa stew.  The ingredients were simple:  water, garlic, green onions, carrots, purple potatoes, mote and quinoa!  Holly, our guide, explained to the kids what staple crops are, and even how some people eat the same meal every day three times a day!  The most shocking bit of lunch discussion was that in Peru, guinea pigs are not pets, but perfect single serving meals.  She pointed out that in some cultures, one would not eat cows or pigs the way we do here!
Lunch companion!

Quinoa is an interesting grain. It's iron rich, and gluten free. I've never really been gaga over it, but I do enjoy it from time to time, and this dish was really tasty.  A Vegan blog I read has a nice a quinoa salad recipe! For some other ways to cook quinoa check out this set of recipes! 
The white pieces are MOTE.

Another interesting ingredient in the stew was mote.  It's a corn that's been boiled and puffed up, and cured with lime powder.  I guess it's similar to hominy.  It had such a lovely flavor, corn tasting but mellow!
Owen got to serve the stew!
I was so impressed with the thoughtful responses the kids all gave to the guide's questions. They were delighted to be eating lunch in Peru and be able to see Thailand and Guatemala from where we sat.

A plaque said "From Overlook Farm, you can see a better world."The kids of Hiland Hall are sure to make it so!