A Plethora Of Pumpkins

On Beyond Pie

Pumpkins are just plain beautiful. Round or elongated, warty or smooth skinned, tawny or palest cream, they stand out like glowing lanterns in the browning fields. Carving pumpkins has always been one of my favorite fall activities. Some years, I gently scratch patterns on my growing pumpkins in late summer, so the scar tissue makes images of flowers and foliage, birds and animals as well as the usual funky faces.

It always seems a shame to waste the pumpkin innards that get removed to make room for candles. Most of the slimy goop can go straight into the compost heap. In fact, I often clean pumpkins on a picnic table near my compost, so it’s easy to toss what I don’t want right onto the pile. I clean the inside of my pumpkins with a trowel or a huge serving spoon, getting all the stringy bits out. If the sides are scraped as clean as possible, the inevitable rot will be slowed down. I pick out as many large, ripe pumpkin seeds as possible, putting them in a bowl of water to rinse off the sticky stuff.

Home Grown Pepitos

Pepitos or pumpkin seeds are tasty and nutritious, and we use them often as snacks, in salads, as garnish for soups, and in rice or pasta dishes. I also use them in pestos, where they replace pinenuts, walnuts, or almonds. To make your own rinse the seeds well and dry in a single layer on parchment paper. When dry, toss with a little olive oil and sea salt, then place them on parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 325 F. until crisp (8-12 minutes). Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months.

Roasted Pumpkins

There are so many ways to enjoy eating pumpkins that pie is almost the least of them. For instance, you can roast chunks of pumpkin with potatoes and carrots, then toss in mild curry powder and sea salt and serve as a savory side with chicken or fish.

For a delicious entree, saute diced pumpkin with garlic, onions, and sliced kalamata olives, then toss with hot pasta. Sprinkle with soft goat cheese and lots of pepper and serve with a green salad garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds.

Baby Pumpkins

Cook mini pumpkins whole in the oven or microwave, poke a few holes with a fork, then cook until barely tender (about 20-30 minutes in the oven, and 3-4 minutes in the microwave). Cut off the top, remove the seeds and refill with something yummy for individual servings.

For a savory version, fill tiny pumpkins with spicy chili, topped with pepperjack cheese and fresh cilantro. For a sweet-hot treat, mash in a spoonful of orange juice concentrate and some chopped ancho peppers. For a totally cute dessert, fill little pumpkins (raw, and cleaned) with pumpkin pie filling and bake on a rimmed baking sheet until set (about 30 minutes).

Pureed Pulp

I use my Squeezo Strainer to remove the strings from cooked pumpkin, making a smooth pulp with lots of tasty uses. Adding pumpkin pulp to curried chicken boosts both flavor and richness as well as coconut milk without adding any fat. Stir pumpkin pulp into chili, adobo, or pork stew for a new take on old favorites.

You can also make lovely pumpkin soup, flavored in a dozen ways, by sauteeing onions and garlic, then adding pumpkin pulp and water or broth with various combinations of herbs and spices. Ginger, coriander, and cumin give an Indian flair, while chipote flakes, cumin, and oregano add a Southwestern twist. Rosemary, lemon zest, and fresh basil give it Italian overtones, while cilantro, ginger, soy sauce and hot chili oil give it Asian flavor qualities.

Sweet Treats Too

On the sweet side, you can add a cup each of pumpkin pulp and chocolate chips to your favorite bread pudding recipe with delightful results. Make pumpkin bread using a banana bread recipe and 1-1/2 cups of pumpkin pulp, adding ginger and nutmeg as well as chunks of crystalized ginger for extra zip.

Roasted Pumpkin Soup

A beautiful centerpiece, this rich, spicy soup makes any meal feel festive.

1 large (8-10 inch) pumpkin
1 head garlic, broken into cloves, not peeled
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1-2 teaspoons powdered ginger
2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth, hot
1 cup organic heavy cream, warmed
1/4 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Remove top inch of pumpkin with stem and scrape out seeds. Place pumpkin cut side up in a baking dish, tuck garlic cloves inside and bake at 425 until tender (about 30-45 minutes). When tender, gently scoop out pulp, taking care not to damage outer shell.  Mash pulp with peeled roasted garlic  and salt, pepper, and ginger to taste. Stir in broth (start with 1 quart and add to almost fill pumpkin shell). Stir in cream and serve at once, garnished with cheese. Serves 4-6.

Custard Cups

Gently sweet and softly spicy, this tender custard can be baked in small cups or one larger dish. To make it dairy free, use almond or hazelnut milk.

Pumpkin Custard

2 cups cooked pumpkin pulp
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1-1/2 cups whole milk OR almond milk
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extact

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Whisk together all ingredients and pour into a baking dish. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes (25-30 minutes for smaller cups) or until custard is set and a knife comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves at least one.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

Buttermilk gives these tender treats a delicate texture. If you don’t have any, add 1 teaspoon lemon juice to regular milk and let it clabber for 10 minutes before using. This is one of my family’s favorite treats, and they taste even better the second day (if any are left).

1 cup cooked pumpkin puree
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon double-acting baking soda
1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to bake 350 degrees F and line a muffin tin with paper muffin cups. In a bowl, stir together the pumpkin, brown sugar, egg, oil, and buttermilk, set aside. Sift dry ingredients together and stir quickly into the pumpkin mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and spoon into muffin cups. Bake until set and golden (about 20-25 minutes). Makes 12 muffins.

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Over-Wintering Edible Tropicals

Keep Those Tomatoes & Peppers Coming (Or Going)

A friend recently sent me a link to a hot pepper-grower’s site that offered suggestions on over-wintering your pepper plants. While I haven’t tried this with peppers myself, I have over-wintered tomatoes of various sizes. I’m fortunate in having both a glassed-in south-facing sunporch and a large, glassed-in west-facing bump-out in my kitchen. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a sentence with quite that many hyphens before. Huh.

Anyway, these sunny places allow me to grow temperamental tropicals indoors, where weather vagaries don’t harm the plants or diminish the harvest. Even during warm summers like this year’s, I keep basil indoors, where it flourishes better than on my sunny deck. After cooler summers, I often bring in a pot or two of cherry tomatoes loaded with unripe fruit at season’s end. Some years, the same plants have gone on to produce steadily for months. A few robust plants survived for several more years indoors.

Pruning Peppers

The hot pepper pros suggest cutting back pepper plants hard, leaving a framework of a main stem and one forked pair of side stems and removing all foliage as well. It’s obviously a lot easier to bring plants indoors if they are in pots, so they either pot or re-pot the pruned peppers, replacing spent potting soil in the latter case. Barring a sunny window, they keep their peppers under grow lights, watering monthly or just enough to keep them alive without forcing new growth.

The next suggestion is hugely important: spray each plant, soil, pot and all, with mild horticultural soap. Let stand for a few minutes, then rinse with luke warm water. That ought to take care of any pesky bugs that might otherwise sneak in past your guard. The last thing you want on any outdoor plant that’s coming inside is a cargo of whitefly, aphids, and so forth. When I bring in tomatoes, I give them a thorough shower first, but only prune lightly so I can keep as many of the unripe fruit as possible.

Or Just Bring The Bounty Within

When you have way too many plants to bring indoors, lots of unripe fruit can present a dilemma; do we pull the plants and lose the crop or leave the plants and (maybe) lose the crop anyway? In fact, both tomatoes and peppers will continue to ripen indoors if picked green. True, they won’t taste quite as terrific as those ripened outside, but they’ll definitely taste better than anything you can buy at the supermarket. Carefully gather as many unripe bell or sweet peppers and green tomatoes as you have room for indoors, where they will continue to ripen for several weeks.

I’d say now was a pretty good time, since night temperatures have been getting pretty low. A sharp frost will wipe out all tender tropicals overnight, leaving mushy, slushy compost material in place of those promising tomatoes and peppers. If you are bringing a few potted heat lovers in, give them a light, bright place. A south or west facing sunporch is ideal, especially if it has curtains to pull at night. (That minimizes heat loss.)

Let’s Take This Someplace More Comfortable

Though they flourish in summer heat, I never put my refugees in a super-heated situation. Given enough light and adequate warmth (60′s and up), cherry tomatoes will continue to crop well into winter. Thanks to my new ductless heat pump, my house now stays a cosy (for me, anyway) 66 degrees all the time, which suits basil and tomatoes (and presumably peppers) just fine.

If all your tomato plants are growing in the ground, pick over the lingering unripe, looking for good-sized, firm, and undamaged fruit. Green tomatoes that are mature enough to ripen will be a light, fresh green with a glossy skin. Any that are already starting to turn red will continue to do so indoors. Start hunting amongst the best looking, most healthy vines, taking the largest ones first. Smaller, dense or soft green fruit are better off composted. Avoid any tomatoes that have been damaged, investigated by bugs or birds, or look diseased.

Prepare For Ripening

Once you get your harvest to the kitchen, wash each piece carefully to remove dust or dirt, and trim any stems. When dry, the twiggy stems can easily jab holes into tender neighbors, a common cause of rot.  Another rot-inducer is moisture, so dry each one individually. It works best to place them on baking cooling racks to be sure they are completely dry on the bottom. Whatever you do, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. The cold will turn the stored sugars unto starch and they”ll lose their delicate flavor in no time. Instead, store ripening fruit and vegetables on several sheets of newspaper, which help keep them nice and dry.

If your haul is a big one, store it in berry boxes or the shallow plant boxes you got at the nursery. Line each with newspaper and carefully layer in your tomatoes and peppers, making sure they don’t touch. If you need to make two layers per box, add several sheets of newsprint between them. Smaller tomatoes and peppers can be stored in egg cartons as well.

Dim & Dry Works Best

Keep your harvest in a dim, fairly dry place with good air circulation, out of direct sunlight. A warm garage is fine, as is a kitchen or pantry shelf. A moist environment like a laundry room may encourage molding, while an overly warm, dry one can make tomatoes and peppers shrivel up. If you really want dried ones, use a real food drier; the results are a lot better.

You’ll notice that as the reddest tomatoes ripen, their neighbors do too. That’s because, like apples, tomatoes give off ethylene, a natural gas that promotes ripening in fruit. You can use this handy happening to encourage slower ripeners to catch up; just rotate your greenest ones closer to redder ones. Your most mature peppers and tomatoes will ripen over 2-3 weeks if your house stays between the mid 60′s and mid 70′s. Any cooler, and they’ll take another week or so (too cool–low 50′s–and they’ll taste lousy as well). If this sounds like too much trouble, simply slow roast the whole batch and freeze or can the results, which are fabulous in sauces, soups, and stews.

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Vegan Breakfasts & Snack Bars

Food For All Ages & Stages

Like so many of my peers, I thought that being semi-retired would mean lots of lovely leisure. Hmm. Between caring for my aging mom and my growing grandson, my life is as full as ever. Indeed, I find myself too busy for sit-down meals more often than I would ever have guessed a few years ago. That’s not a bad thing, because it means that I’m enjoying the company of my family, capturing a time  together that will never come again.

My mom recently observed that my grandson, now 15 months old, and her cat (a brisk 8 year old) are developmentally similar and interested in the same things: cupboard doors, open drawers, and anything shiny or easy to toss around. She mused that she, too, now has the attention span of a cockerspaniel, so that made three of them. She thinks I should write a book called The Kid, The Cat, and the GG (which is our family shorthand for great grandmother).

Pleasing All Ages

Mom also says that food has become increasingly important to her as the rest of her world has shrunk. My grandson is often indifferent to food, preferring the fascinating world of manipulable objects. They spend a lot of time sharing grapes, blueberries, and raspberries, the mastery of which now challenges both of them. They also love salmon, poached to velvety perfection in a lemon juice bath, which also makes a magnificent mess when eaten with fingers and enthusiasm. Bliss!

Start With Best Basic Granola

The rest of us are totally taken with new twists on granola bars. After spending a small fortune trying out the many new whole-foods, vegan, and organic versions, most of which were too sweet and/or gummy, I decided to make my own. I started with my favorite homemade granola, which is hearty, crisp, and very adaptable. This simple unsweetened granola is delicious for breakfast and makes a lovely topping for fruit crisps. Not surprisingly, it’s awesome in granola breakfast bars (see below), which also make a perfect fall snack. Change up the ingredients freely, trying different combinations of nut butters, nuts, and seeds. Dried fruit tends to get even drier if mixed into this toasted blend, so don’t add them until you fix breakfast.

Unsweetened Granola Mix

6 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1-2 cups raw almonds
1 cup raw hazelnuts
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1 cup raw sesame seeds
1 cup raw hulled sunflower seeds
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place each ingredient in a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted: about 20-30 minutes for oats, 12-15 minutes for larger nuts, 6-8 minutes for seeds and coconut flakes. Combine in a large bowl and toss to mix. Store in tightly sealed jars. Makes about 10 cups (all those seeds fill in between larger stuff).

Better Breakfast (and Snack) Bars

Slightly sweet, delectably rich, utterly crunchable, these wholesome and deeply satisfying breakfast bars combine homemade granola with the kind of nut butter that has just 2 ingredients; nuts and salt. Use chunky organic peanut butter, almond butter, or hazelnut butter,  or make your own walnut or pecan butter for an unusual treat. (To make nut butter, toast nuts until crisp, then grind in a food processor to desired chunkiness or smoothness.) Use your favorite dried fruit, and add yummy extras like chocolate chips and coconut flakes for extra energy when hiking or biking.

Vegan Breakfast Bars

1/2-2/3 cup brown rice syrup
1 cup nut butter
2-3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups unsweetened granola (see above)
2 cups puffed rice or millet
1/4 cup flax seeds
1-2 cups optional extras
(nuts, golden raisins, chocolate chips, toasted coconut flakes)

Loosely line a large baking pan (13 x 9 inch) with parchment paper, set aside. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large saucepan over lowest heat and stir until blended. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients; mix will be thick and sticky. Dump it on the parchment paper, wet your hands and firmly pat to flatten. Cover with waxed paper and chill in refrigerator for at least an hour. When cold, cut into squares or bars, wrap in waxed paper or foil and freeze. Serves at least one.

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Uncommon Basil Varieties With Savor & Snap

Harvesting Autumnal Bounty

This year, I’ve enjoyed a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes, and evidently so has everybody else. Home grown tomatoes used to disappear in minutes from staff tables or potlucks, but these days, even non-gardeners grow a tomato or two. Basil, America’s current favorite herb, also appears on an amazing number of decks and windowsills in places where garden ground is non-existant. Maybe their common popularity is because they partner so well, maybe it’s because they are both amazingly versatile. In any case, both have become indispensable for the gardener who loves to cook.

That natural affinity of flavor is paired with a similar desire for warmth and sunlight. These tropical beauties thrive when summer stays reliably hot and night temperatures remain in the 60s or even higher. In my cool maritime garden, a more typical pattern is for foggy grey mornings to keep chilly night air captive until the marine layer burns off around mid day.

Heat Lovers For Cool Climates

In maritime and cool climate gardens, tomatoes and basil may struggle when temperatures swing or simply fail to climb. For the past few years, I’ve finally had outstanding success with these temperamental tropicals, thanks not to wondrous weather but to the horticultural magic of grafting. When flavorful but cold-sensitive varieties of these veggies are grafted onto sturdy, disease-resistant root stock, good things happen even in my windy, often chilly garden.

Thanks to grafting, I’ve been enjoying tomatoes since early June (amazing for my garden). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but for salads, everybody loves the INDIGO Cherry Drops, rosy, black-tinged cherry toms with a sparkling sweet-tart balance. For a gorgeous garnish, I often use INDIGO Pear Drops, with dusky purple shoulders above a glowing golden base. When company’s coming, I decorate the table with trusses of super sweet INDIGO Gold Berries to nibble with a glass of whatever. Plump little INDIGO Blue Chocolate tomatoes are almost dessert like, their rich, juicy sweetness layered with just enough tang to make them mildly addictive.

Perpetual Caprese

Blue Chocolates make an incredible Caprese salad, sliced with tiny balls of fresh mozzarella and pretty little leaves of variegated Pesto Perpetual basil, which brings a citrusy sparkle to the classic combination. Here’s my current favorite version:

Blue Chocolate Caprese Salad

2 cups Blue Chocolate cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups half-inch fresh mozzarella balls
1/2 cup stemmed basil
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in a serving bowl, gently toss and serve at room temperature. Serves 2-4.

Perpetual Pesto?

Pesto Perpetual basil is a gorgeous plant, building into a statuesque bush that’s almost shrubby. Since it doesn’t bloom, fresh foliage never stops forming and the more you pinch, the bushier it gets. With its dainty, silver-tipped, soft jade green foliage, it looks delicate, yet a single plant can fill a half-barrel, towering 3-4 feet high, and will remain productive until frost cuts it down. Some of mine are still going strong on a sunny kitchen windowseat, now converted to a plant table. In cold years, I grow basil indoors in a sunny window, in 1-2 gallon pots, and often harvest through Thanksgiving.

Pesto Perpetual is a cross between sweet basil and lemon-scented basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum). The small leaves are tender-crisp, with a full, rich basil flavor brightened by the tang of citrusy snap. A form of lemon basil called Mrs Burns’ Lemon is one of my favorites, with small, pungent foliage that adds a lovely lemony scent and flavor to basil’s smooth richness. Both are especially resistant to fusarium wilt. This soilbourne fungal pathogen is the most common basil disorder and can devastate basil crops with scary speed. There’s no cure, so if your basil plants develop it, just pull them immediately, and don’t replant in the same bed for at least a few years.

Cross Humus With Pesto For Magical Mixtures

For the past few year, I’ve been creating ever-more versions of a cross between pesto and hummus. All involve grinding nuts or seeds with basil or another herb (such as cilantro, tarragon, lemon thyme), then adding chick peas or beans. You might combine cilantro with almonds and black beans, for instance, or pinto beans and pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts and mung beans…. All have some citrusy additions as well as fresh herbs, garlic or shallots, and sea salt. The other commonality is nutritional yeast, which adds protein as well as a bold umame flavor that gives these sauces surprising depth and body. Here’s my favorite:

Basil Pesto Spread

1 cup raw hazelnuts
2 cups stemmed basil leaves
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cooked white Italian cannellini beans
1 large lemon, juiced, rind grated
1/4-1/2 cup flaked nutritional yeast (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
1/2 cup water

In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to coarse meal. Add basil, garlic, and salt and process to a coarse paste. Add beans, lemon rind and 1 teaspoon lemon juice and process to a smooth paste. Add nutritional yeast and pepper and process briefly, then slowly add oil while machine is running, then thin with water to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning if desired and serve or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes about 2 cups.

Sandwiches, Spreads, Sauces…

Whether given a Tex-Mex spin, a Middle Eastern accent, or a Mediterranean makeover, this yummy stuff can be used in countless creative ways. Add a dollop to your usual vinaigrette and toss with greens or mix it into pasta or potato or tuna or egg salads. Offer it as a raw veggie or chip dip, smear it on crackers, or mash it with goat cheese, spread on crusty bread and toast to a bubbly finish. Spoon it over hot rice, steamed vegetables, or grilled fish or chicken. Use it instead of mayo on sandwiches and wraps.

Give the basic sauce a Thai twist and add it to a shrimp and vegetable stir fry or toss it with rice noodles and shredded chicken. Make a refreshing summer salad combining raw corn, sweet onions, sweet peppers and blueberries with a chipotle-infused sauce version. Any delicious partnership you can dream up can give this simple sauce a whole new flavor, suggesting a dozen new uses. I’ve made amazing deviled eggs using a basil and lime version. How about grilled eggplant slathered with a peanut, fresh ancho chili and lime version? Grilled nectarines with a lemon and tarragon Amazing Sauce? Sesame seeds, ginger and mint? Amaze yourself with these Amazing Sauces, all of which are healthy and wholesome as well as utterly toothsome.

Make Mine, Then Make Your Own

To get started, make smallish batches, keeping notes about what you did. To change it up, use different kinds of beans and/or nuts and seeds, try favorite herbal or spice combinations, or switch out various citrus fruits and oils. If you love the result, make a bigger batch; you’ll need it! The basic small batch makes about 1 cup of sauce, and leftovers, if any, can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. However, the sauce won’t last that long if anybody knows about it, because if your house is like mine, the sauce will mysteriously disappear….

Basic Amazing Spread

1/4 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup cooked chickpeas
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup flaked nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon oregano, stemmed
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/3 cup water

In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to coarse meal. Add chickpeas, seeds, lemon rind, garlic and sea salt and process to a smooth paste. Add nutritional yeast, oregano and smoked paprika, process briefly, then slowly add oil and lemon juice while machine is running. Thin with water to desired consistency, adjust seasoning if needed and serve or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.

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