Friday, January 29, 2016

Ww - Winter Squash

Summer Squash - yes you'll find them in your produce section, but it's really not their season.
Ww – Winter Squash versus Summer Squash.  Though I’ve never considered munching on summer squash poolside it does have its draws.  For example, Summer Squash can make a splash by entering  the ring dressed in a bright, yellow-fringed tutu-like skirt.  The scalloped trim on this rather snappy, sometimes greenish-hued vegetable is thrilled to be eaten as part of veritable parade of colour in your favourite salad or sautéed with a mixture of like minded squash in a skillet of unsalted butter and fresh garlic or simply eaten raw as a crudité with more eye appeal than your average carrot or celery stick.  Look for the name Pattypan Squash and you’ve found it!
In mid-June you’re also likely to find Cousa Squash nestled nearby the Pattypan.  Some people mistake Cousa for green zucchini.  I can see why they might assume Cousa to resemble a kind of runt of the  litter, since it is shorter and squattier than your average zucchini.  Adorned with the same various shades of green stripes running the length of this summer squash, Cousa boast a sweeter flavor than its relatives.  The other two Summer Squash worth mentioning is the Eight Ball and the Zepher.  The Eight Ball looks like a zucchini, same green colouring but the shape is exactly round, like a ball.  But the real beauty among our summer time gourds is the Zepher.  Don’t confuse her with Yellow Crookneck, Zephers are a bit longer than Crookneck, to whom they are related, as they are to Delicata and Yellow Acorn, but the long cylindrical shape is highlighted by the green tips at both ends capping off the yellow body.  What I find so startling, is the colour differentials are so neatly separated!  There isn’t any muddling of colours.  Mother Nature is certainly talented. 
But how do these thin-skinned, high water content squash with soft edible seeds stack up against our current in season Winter Squash?  Well our hearty winter gourds, with their thick, tough rinds and usually large, inedible seeds, range in colour from dark forest green to deep yellow and orange, but all require cooking.  Roast them, stuff them, puree them and add to your soups, stews or serve as a satisfying side dish, the possibilities in methods of preparation and service are limited only by your imagination. 
Winter Squash - just a sampling.
 I could almost do an entire alphabet of squash what with the wide variety of options available during these cold months.  Beginning with Acorn all the way to those Zephers (which will likely be my Zz food item for this Blog) with Butternut, Hubbard, Kabocha and Spaghetti in between.  But this week I’d like to focus on the beautifully accommodating Acorn Squash. 
First off, when purchasing Acorn Squash, look for those that are mostly dark green in colour.  Too much orange, as pretty as it is, means the flesh inside will be tough and fibrous.  The squash should feel heavier than it looks when you pick it up.  This is actually a trait you should look for when buying any type of squash. 
I happen to home sick with a serious head cold today so I have soup on my mind.  And Acorn Squash Soup is one of my favourites.  Rich and creamy, spiced with Garam Masala and a dollop of crème fraiche, served right in the hollowed out shell of the squash, it’s a healing antidote I yearn for right now.  And I might just cook some for myself when I’ve finished writing, but the recipe I’d like to share with you is an adaptation of our friend Dave’s old family recipe.  Now Dave grew up on the Eastern Seaboard and for those of you who grew up on the outskirts of the big cities know that maple syrup is either a staple ingredient in any recipe or is placed on the table as a condiment.  It goes without saying maple syrup is a star ingredient in Dave’s Roasted Acorn Squash.  He introduced me and the other members of our Supper Club group the Friends Amid Food to this hearty side dish about five years ago.  Mark and Dave were the hosts for that month’s gathering and they went all out in sending invites, arranging the Tablescape and ensuring we were all committed to preparing dishes that played off their food theme.

Mark - Isn't he cute?  Look how happy he is with that Acorn Squash on his plate!

 Here's the adapted recipe, as I remember it.  Dave if you see something terribly wrong let me know!

Roasted Acorn Squash With Maple Syrup

2 medium-sized acorn squash – cut top portion off and remove seeds
Olive oil to prepare pan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons good maple syrup
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped walnuts                                                

Preparation                                                                Preheat oven to 450 degrees                                                             
1)       Line cookie sheet with foil.  Using your hands, rub olive oil over foil to prevent squash from sticking during roasting.
2)      Set four squash halves on baking sheet and top each with ½ tablespoon of the butter, ½ tablespoon of the brown sugar, ¼ teaspoon of the nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt.
3)      Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes until fork tender but not so soft shells might collapse.
4)      When done, remove pulp and spoon into a large mixing bowl.  Taste for additional seasoning, if needed.  Once seasoning has been adjusted, spoon mixture back into the individual squash.
5)      Drizzle 1 tablespoon (or two or three) of the maple syrup over each and return to oven baking for another 10-15 minutes until squash are golden brown. 

Garnish each squash with chopped walnuts before serving.  

                                                                                       Makes 4  4-ounce servings
Me, Dave and Mark - Miss you guys!!!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Vv ~ Vanilla

Splitting a fresh Vanilla bean to extract flavorful seeds. 
     Vanilla(Spanish for little pod) is a bit of a seasonal stretch this week.  Seeing as we can purchase this flavor enhancer pretty much year round.  But I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, stretching I mean. 
     I’m not a New Year’s resolution maker, but I do enjoy the feeling of waking to a clean slate and a fresh start every January 1st.    I know some of you have renewed your commitment to working out regularly.  My gym is always more crowded for the first few months of the New Year.  Some of my friends kicked off 2016 by engaging in a cleanse just as they did last year.  Still others focus on being kinder towards others.  I’m hoping they can hold to that self-promise for more than three trips in the car.  It can be quite annoying to drive around here. 
     As for me, I plan on stretching myself throughout 2016 in areas of my life that could use increased attention while simultaneously bringing some of my projects (many of which have been progressing  for years) to completion. 
     The first of those would include publishing, printing and selling my cookbook
One 4-Ounce Serving – A Collection of Food Stories and Recipes by end of February.  Another area I plan on extending myself in this year is Travel.  Many of you know my dear friends, Nancy, Brenda, and I will be going to Umbria, Italy to hike the Franciscan Trail in May.  We have a Blog for that:  Of course, I will make my annual trip to Palo Alto to visit with Mother, my brother Kirk and friends.  El Dorado Hills is a regular stop for me, love hanging out with my little sis and her kids.  Arizona needs to be on the list and absolutely Seattle to visit my darling grandson.  All that travel includes plenty of Family time, another important component worthy of my attention.  Other areas of focus for me this year is my Financial standing, would like to be on more solid ground with that one.  My Health, nothing like a little strokey-stroke to get your attention and set you straight on pacing yourself, making healthy food choices and acknowledging life’s real priorities.  Cooking, teaching, gardening with improvements and updates for the house, all segments of my life I wish to bring into sharper focus. 
     My list is common, nothing earth shattering really.   I attribute this to acknowledgment of my current abundance of blessings and good stuff.  Honestly, my cupboards are stocked, I exercise daily I have regular contact with my children.  I write, cook and teach at least five times per week.  And most of those trips are already on my calendar.  So what’s with wanting more?  Am I never really satisfied?  Is the grass always greener on the other side?  What gives?  And what does all this have to do with Vanilla? 

     I see the connection as embracing opportunity.  Reminding ourselves that once we have spent the day, it’s done.  No do-overs.  We can’t go back and ask to have that day returned for bad judgment or poor choices, nor can we change what we did, said or thought.  So Carpe dium!  And do it right, with thought and feeling. 
Vanilla Bean Vine - Wish we Smell-a-Vision! 
     The vanilla pod, as we know it, grows on the vine of one specific Orchid of the genus Vanilla, whose origins are in Mexico.  There exist a symbiotic relationship between this choosy flower and her natural pollinator, the Melipona Bee, which also is found solely in Mexico.   What’s more, there is only a 1% chance of successful pollination.  Once pollination is complete, if successful, the flower dies within hours and a single vanilla pod will grow from it. 
     All these “perfect storm” conditions and brief windows of opportunity seem to align with my personal realization that I better get myself ready for all those good things I want out of life.  How can I be that authentic and best version of myself as intended?
   I start by Preparing my Soil, doing my personal work, getting my mind straight and showing up.  Pruning, I do this by staying fit and healthy.  Pollination (well obviously that’s already happened – I have four children)  I’m referring to pollination as it relates to connecting myself to the right people, places and things so my goals and dreams can indeed come to fruition. 
     Vanilla is now hand harvested, thanks to the ingenious efforts of a twelve year old slave boy who figured out what a Belgian botanist couldn’t, and is grown in greenhouses in Madagascar, Réunion, and the Cormoros Islands.  But the cultivating and harvesting of Vanilla is still such a labor intensive endeavor, it remains the second most expensive spice in the entire world.  Saffron is the most expensive and cardamom is third. 
      Taking a page from Vanilla’s precarious beginnings and laborious processes ending with a much sought-after and seductive aromatic is akin to what I aspire to.  I too want to be a woman who is prized and appreciated for my ability to enhance both sweet and savory dishes, or in my case, situations.   I too yearn for a journey that is both dependent upon nature’s gifts with a particular set of circumstances that when everything is as it should be, allows me to thrive permeating the lives of others in a most pleasant and tasteful manner. 

    Here is a healthful and delicious recipe for Vanilla Granola Bars I hope you’ll enjoy!

I didn't actually use the coconut chips this time, I used coconut oil as directed in my recipe.


   2 ½   cups rolled oats (can use gluten-free oats)          ½ oat flour ( grind your oats in mini processor)
   ½ teaspoon salt                                                                   ½ cup brown sugar
   ½ teaspoon cinnamon                                                        ½ cup vanilla whey protein powder
   3 cups mixture of your choice of nuts, seeds, dried fruits  (cut dried fruit into small pieces)
   ½ vanilla Greek yogurt                                                        1/3 cup peanut or almond butter
   1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste                                        4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
   2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted                                    ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons, light corn syrup                                 

Procedure                                                                                          Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Line a 13x9” pan with parchment paper that extends a bit over the edges, then lightly grease parchment  with non-stick spray.

    In a large mixing bowl combine all dry ingredients, including nuts, seeds and dried fruits.  Set aside.

In a separate, medium bowl, stir together, yogurt, peanut or almond butter, vanilla paste, butter, coconut oil and corn syrup.  Using a rubber/silicone spatula, stir wet ingredients into large bowl of dry ingredients.  Spread the mixture into prepared/lined pan, using the spatula to help press the mixture firmly into pan.

Bake for 15-25 minutes, until edges are golden brown.  The mixture may feel somewhat soft in the center when you touch it, but will firm up while cooling.  When cool enough to handle, lift mixture out of pan by holding onto edges of the parchment.  Set on top of cutting board and cut into individual bars.  Allow to completely cool, then wrap and store in refrigerator. 

If you like your bars less chewy and more crunchy, place cut bars back onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake another 10-15 minutes before wrapping and storing.   
Sticky, Gooey, Chewy - just like Mom used to make.  Oh wait . . . 
Notice the rich amount of Vanilla seeds in the paste.  Lots of sweet flavor!
I don't usually do this, but I'm going to give my store, Sur La Table a plug here, as that's where you can purchase Vanilla Bean Paste.