Recipe du Jour: Homemade Pumpkin Puree

Just a quick sidenote to announce the creation of two more pages: The Recipe Index and the How-To Index. Of course, you can still use the tags or the search function to find things like this, but if you’d like to see a big list of everything without scrolling through the posts, these are the way to do it.

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As part of my real food project, I try to eat as seasonally as I can. I avoid strawberries in December, and apples in the spring. While we do live in a world with a global economy that allows us to have foods from all over the map at any given moment, this isn’t the way food was meant to be consumed. Also, most of the time, in order to look nice when it gets to you, the produce has been picked before it’s ripe. Varieties have been bred in order to survive the long abusive shipping time, not necessarily to taste good. So if you want the best taste out of your food (and want to save a little coin), it’s best to eat in season, when the plants would have given it to you.

This makes each season a special treat for me, and one of the things I love about fall and winter is that I get to use pumpkin. I love pumpkin, and I love baking with it. Now, the canned stuff is ok, but if you’re going to cook with pumpkin, why not go all out? Make your own homemade pumpkin puree.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pie pumpkin

You need a pie pumpkin because jack-o-lantern pumpkins are too tough and have very thin flesh. Not good for eating.

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the pumpkin in half, like you would a hamburger bun, with the stem on top of one piece. Clean out the seeds and strings. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Put a piece of parchment paper down on a cookie sheet. Place the pumpkin halves on the parchment paper, cut side down. Toss in the oven for about an hour, until you can tell the pumpkin is soft, either by appearance, or inserting a knife or fork. Pull out of the oven, let cool. Once you can handle the pumpkin, scoop out the flesh, into a blender or food processor. It should be very soft and you should be able to just scrape it off the inside of the skin. Puree until smooth. Store in an airtight container.

Notes:

In the fridge, this might last a week, depending on how wet your pumpkin is. In the freezer, it lasts a long time. I don’t know when it goes bad because I’ve always used it up before then. If you notice a liquid from your puree, just drain it off. It’s a side effect of the pumpkin cooking, and you don’t want it if you want your puree to behave like the canned stuff. Use in equal portions as you would canned pumpkin.

Also, I have heard of methods of boiling pumpkin, but that involved peeling it, cutting it small, and the end product was way too watery. I like the roasting method because it gives me a nice caramelized flavor, a not so wet puree, and it’s easier.

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Canning Broth: Easier than previously thought

6832048268_3c29ea55c4_oSo, back near Thanksgiving, I made some turkey broth.  At the time, I measured it out, put it in freezer bags, and froze it.  This has been the way that I’ve done my broth for a while now.  However, I can never get the bags to freeze flat and therefore they take up a lot of space in my freezer.  (What I would give for the space to have a chest freezer!)  A friend came into a pile of beef (her dad had bought half a cow) and she wanted to share.  So we needed to make room in the freezer.

Last summer, when we canned the cherries, I bought a bunch of jars and a pressure canner.  Now, a brief primer on canning.  Most canning can be done in a boiling water bath, with pots you already own, as long as they cover the top of the jars.  This is for things like jams, jellies, and tomatoes.  These foods have enough sugar or acid (or both) that they can be canned with boiling water.  Other foods, such as soups or pasta sauces, don’t have these properties, and so need a much higher heat in order to be safe.  This higher heat can only be acquired at home with a pressure canner.  For more specific info, I recommend checking out a basic canning book, like The Ball Blue Book.  This was the book that I started with.

Ever since I learned about home canning, I’ve dreamt about canning my own soups.  The idea of pulling a jar off the shelf and dumping it in a pot, easy as store-bought soup, but so much healthier!  I’ve since learned that dream is a little unrealistic; most soups can’t be canned in their finished form with everything already mixed together.  But broth can be, and that’s about halfway there.

I’m pleased to say that this experiment was successful.  You basically wash the jars, heat the broth, fill the jars, seal, put in the canner and process for as long as the directions say.  Much more straightforward than making jam or preserves.  In fact, I’m going to make some ham broth later this week and can that too!  I’m also looking forward to canning my grandma’s chicken soup (which is basically carrots, onions, celery and chicken broth).

Recipe Du Jour: Black Bean Soup

6903389797_9f9a7d38af_oSo as part of my real food lessons from GNOWFGLINS, I recently learned to soak and cook dry beans.  Most of the time when a recipe called for beans, I used canned beans.  They were convenient, but I’ve known for a while that cooking from dry beans is healthier (fewer preservatives, and reduces gas) and cheaper.  I think I overcooked them a little because I used a slow-cooker for the actual cooking, but that’s something to experiment with.  (Also, if you want to try this, make sure not to use a slow-cooker on kidney beans.  They have a toxin that needs to be boiled out, so only cook them in a stock pot or pressure cooker.)

In any case, I cooked a whole pound of dry black beans, and I needed something to use them in.  What better than my black bean soup?  It also gives me a chance to test out my new immersion blender.

Ingredients:

  • 2 (14.5 oz) cans black beans (or equivalent amount cooked)
  • 1 (8 oz) can Spanish style tomato sauce
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp gr. cumin
  • 3 cups chicken (or veggie) broth

Directions:

Heat all ingredients together in a pot.  When hot, use immersion blender to halfway puree the soup.  Don’t puree completely; you want to be able to see some whole beans still.  (If you don’t have an immersion blender, ladle about half the soup into a blender.  Blend, and then add back to the pot.  Be careful when pureeing hot liquids!)  Serve with a nice crusty bread, my favorite is sourdough.

Notes: 

This soup is something that would be great in a bread bowl.  It comes together really quickly and makes for an easy weeknight meal.  Watch out though, it can be a bit spicy.  The image above I was testing my new blender, and so I pureed the soup a bit too much.  The completely pureed soup is best as a dip and definitely needs bread.  Personally, the texture is better with some whole beans still left.

Book Review: Real Food on a Real Budget

I haven’t done one of these on this blog before, but I’ve been meaning to.  You see, I actually do read, and lately it’s been half fiction, and half non-fiction like this.  I make great use of the library, and my reading list is a mile long.  I figured some of you might want to know my thoughts on what I read.

So, first up is Real Food on a Real Budget by Stephanie Langford.  Stephanie Langford is the original writer of  Keeper of the Home, which I believe I’ve mentioned before.  I originally bought this when I first started getting into Real Food, because, well, Real Food tends to be more expensive.  So I was looking for a manageable way to convince myself and Andrew that changing completely over to Real Food would still be feasible.  (To be honest, it’s not that feasible on a grad student budget, at least with the way we eat meat.)

Most of the book is actually applicable even if you aren’t trying to eat Real Food.  Many of the tips I’ve seen on other websites about saving money.  Some of them are very common sense: plan meals, cook at home, buy in bulk.  Of course, some of them don’t make sense for just two people.  Andrew and I recently tried to see if it would be worth to get a warehouse membership, but we discovered that except for a few canned/dry goods, we wouldn’t be able to eat it fast enough, and the prices wouldn’t save us very much compared to the other local grocery stores.  However, I know that I would probably order some bulk goods for grains or flours, as things like whole-wheat pastry flour is not so easy to find, and expensive when you do find it.

Other suggestions that Stephanie makes are much different, and definitely something to think about.  Ever wonder why strawberries are cheaper in July than in December?  It’s because it’s actually strawberry season in July (in the northern hemisphere anyway.)  Eating seasonally can save a lot of money, and if you buy it from the farmers market, you’ll definitely know what’s in season or not.  You can also combine this with the buying in bulk to get discounts.  Remember those cherry preserves I put up last summer?  I made those from a bulk container of cherries I bought in the summer, right when cherries are at their cheapest.  Which brings me to another point Stephanie mentions in the book: growing your own food, and learning to preserve it.  Now, you don’t necessarily have to can it (though that’s one of the good old-fashioned ways).  You could freeze it, or dry it.  If you had a root cellar, you could store it.

She also makes suggestions on how to avoid wasting any food, and also on how to make it stretch longer.  Both are things that most people figure out they need to do, but don’t know exactly how to do it until someone gives them ideas.  She also has a whole section devoted to finding the time to cook things from scratch in our busy lives.

I only have two complaints about the book.  First, there’s some religious language.  Given Stephanie’s blog, I really don’t have a problem with this, but it makes it difficult to promote to a wider audience, I think.  Second, Stephanie is a stay-at-home mom, and it shows.  Aside from some comments in the back of the book from other people, she doesn’t really address how someone is supposed to be able to do this while working a full time job.  Sure, she makes suggestions about fitting in the time to cook and meal planning, but a lot of the passages still gave me that feeling of “Well, yeah, if you’re home all day.”

The best thing about the book is a section at the very beginning where she suggest that you write out what your priorities are with respect to real food.  So, for example, for me and Andrew it goes:

  1. LOCAL.
  2. “Real” meat (Grassfed, pastured, unprocessed).
  3. “Real” dairy (as unprocessed as possible).
  4. Managing Grains (soaking, sourdough)
  5. Other real foods (oils, vinegars).
  6. Buy Dirty Dozen fruits and veggies as organic.
Notice how organic isn’t really a priority for us?  It may be for other people.  For us, local food trumps everything (assuming it meets some other criteria too.  Local crap is still crap.)   We’ll take local grassfed meat over organic grassfed meat any day, because we want to support the local economy.  And we’re not going to stress about whether or not we’re eating organic frozen dinners, because we’re trying not to eat frozen dinners at all.  I should also note that Stephanie doesn’t tell you what eating Real Food is.  She assumes the reader has already decided what their version of Real Food is like, and just wants to give you tips to save money.

Overall, the book has some good ideas and certainly offers a variety of suggestions on different ways to save money.  Unfortunately, if you read the blogs that I do, there’s not really much new here.

2012 New Year’s Resolutions

Well, the end of 2011 is near, and that means time for New Year’s Resolutions.  This past year has been half productive and half not.  This last semester was particularly bad.  I’m beginning to feel burnout, after having been in school for 9 years (after high school) straight.  I’ve convinced myself to give it one more semester before I call it quits or not.  I currently have a pretty sweet situation, and having to look for a job is not something I want to think about right now.  It’s a complicated dilemma, because I’ve already invested a lot of time, but I never really wanted a Ph.D. or to do research anyway.

So that’s one resolution, I suppose.  To give this next semester a good strong go for my research.  But I don’t really count that.  This year I’ve decided to do two sets of resolutions, a year-long set, and a set that I’ll work on every few months, similar to what I did this past year.  So, here we go:

Year-Long Resolutions

  • Get down to 125 pounds – This goal has been off and on for the better part of my twenties.  I ignored it last year in favor of trying to eat healthier, and it seems my weight has stabilized at about 175.  However, that’s still overweight, and so I’m giving myself a whole year to try to lose the weight.  I’m using an iOS app called Fatwatch.  It’s a neat little program; instead of you dealing with the ups and downs of individual daily weights, it looks at an overall trend, and tells you how many calories you are over what you need to maintain and also how many calories you need to cut to stay on track with your goal.  It also has a built in “mini” exercise program, meant to be done in 15 minutes.  It’s based on the Hacker’s Diet, a book written by a programmer on how he lost weight.  He basically espouses a calorie counting, calorie restriction only diet, which I’m not interested in.  But I did like the idea of the trend line, and using your daily weights to help calculate if you’re maintaining, gaining, or losing weight.  The maintaining part is particularly important, because I don’t want to yo-yo.   The 125 number is based on being in the middle of the “healthy” weight range based on BMI (which I think is bunk in most cases), and I don’t know if I’ll actually reach it, but we’ll see how far I get.
  • Continue to follow the Real Food Lessons – I’ve still been following the lessons on GNOWFGLINS, albeit slowly.  I still think they’re a great learning tool and a great learning experience for me.  In fact, Wardeh is having a free webinar on how to transition to eating Real Food.  I’ve already registered.  I’m going to keep working through the lessons throughout the year, and hopefully slowly integrate them as habits.
  • Zazen – During Ango, I was great at first about doing zazen every day.  Toward the end I trailed off, and then I tried a two-day retreat in December.  I didn’t get through the whole two days, but it is important to my spiritual practice that I develop this habit.

Tri-Monthly Goals

  • Fashion Makeover – I recently purchased a mini-makeover pdf from Sally at Already Pretty.  I’ve been unhappy with my fashion/style for a while now, and while I’ve done a couple closet purges, I still don’t feel like I have a cohesive style.  It feels like it jumps around from super casual to super formal.  I’d like to get it a little more together, especially if I might be looking for jobs in the not so near future.
  • Crafting – This was a goal last year that didn’t happen.  While I need to do some crafting in the first three months for my juggling club, those aren’t personal projects.  I’m hoping to work on carving out some time for this, as I have a lot of hobbies.
  • Piano – This is another goal from last year that didn’t happen.  I got an electric piano as a graduation present , 5 years ago now.  I took piano lessons once upon a time, but it’s been a long time since I played.  I’d like to get back in the habit, especially if I have to give up some of my other hobbies in the future due to research or jobs.
  • Getting back in touch – I’m horrible about keeping in touch with friends.  I’ve gotten better, using Facebook and Google+, but lurking and reading other people’s posts and making the occasional post myself isn’t really communication.  I’d like to get back into a regular email or chat habit with friends who I used to be close to.
I think that’s more than enough on my plate for 2012.  I might add in a workout habit, but I want to wait and see how I feel about that.  And that’s not counting all the other things that might happen to completely change my plans.  What are your resolutions for the coming year?  Or do you not believe in making resolutions?

Post-Turkey Day Broth

So yesterday was Thanksgiving.  I had a few friends over, made a turkey, dressing, gravy, the whole big deal.  There, as there are every year, were a few hiccups.  My turkey ended up being done a whole two hours earlier than I expected, so I had to scramble to pull together the side dishes.  Thankfully (har har), my friends were understanding.

Now it’s the day after, which for me means cleanup and dealing with leftovers.  Now, I’m actually a big fan of Thanksgiving leftovers.  Eating the same thing for 3 or 4 days in a row may sound boring, but I don’t really eat this stuff any other time of year, so it’s a treat.  I have convinced Andrew that maybe we should attempt turkey more often so I can try some of those other “Thanksgiving Leftover” recipes.

But one tradition that I’ve never done before that I’m doing right now is making Turkey Broth the day after.  I do this with chickens all the time, and my method is pretty much the same.  So it made no sense for me to not do it with a turkey.  If you haven’t already thrown your carcass away, I totally recommend this.

Recipe: Turkey Broth

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Ingredients:

  • Turkey carcass, preferably not completely cleaned (or add raw meat)
  • Celery, chopped
  • Onion, chopped
  • Carrots, chopped
  • Flavorings: I use a bay leaf, some thyme, some parsley, and a parmesan rind.

Directions:

Making a broth isn’t too hard.  You put everything in a stock pot, cover with water, and simmer until everything falls apart.  It normally takes a least a couple hours with a bone broth like this, just to get everything cooked.  Some people like to skim any nasty bits off the top, but I normally only worry about that after it’s all done.

My secret to easy clean up is using a steamer basket in the bottom of the pot.  Then, when I’m done, I grab the handle with tongs and pull it out and place it in a bowl.  No fiddly chopped veggie bits to give me problems.

When it’s done, let it cool.  If you want to remove the fat, put it in the fridge so the fat all rises to the top and solidifies.  It doesn’t bother me, I like having that extra flavor.  I also like to divide it up into freezer bags and then freeze it.  That way, if I need broth for a recipe, all I have to do is pull it out of the freezer.

Musings: Cooking Style

So I found an interesting article at Lifehacker about the Four Stages of Teaching Yourself to Cook.  Since Real Food involves a lot of cooking at home, I thought it was an interesting topic.  I don’t exactly agree with the Four Stages as presented there.  In fact, I’d probably cut it back to three.

  1. Following recipes meticulously.  Never a deviation, and never a substitution.  Never throwing a dish together on the fly.
  2. Following recipes as guidelines, or following recipes for some dishes and throwing a dish together for others.
  3. Coming up with your own recipes without using someone else’s as a guideline, or always throwing a dish together.
I’m pretty sure that I am solidly in Stage 2 now, but I used to be very much in Stage 1.  You see, I left for a boarding school at 16, and I didn’t get a chance to practice cooking at home much.  I mean, I helped bake from when I was  little kid, in exchange for licking the spoon.  I helped with the chaos that was Thanksgiving dinner.  But as for cooking on my own, every day, planning meals, and such, I didn’t really start doing that until my second year of college.
I had a few cookbooks to start with, and copies of my grandmother’s recipes.  I also picked up a few of the things that weren’t written down, like my mom’s chili recipe, which is never the same way twice.  And for the longest time, I was in Stage 1.  I had to measure everything, never cut corners, and followed cooking times exactly.  This is great for baking, but gets tedious for making everyday meals.
I’ve gradually gotten to the point where I know what a tablespoon of spices looks like in my hand, that oregano and marjoram have similar flavor profiles, and that it really is ok to leave out or add ingredients to a recipe.  Occasionally I’ll just look in the pantry and throw something together.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get to Stage 3.  I don’t feel like I’m creative enough in the kitchen to be able to come up with my own recipes.  I know some people can be, I follow the blogs of several of them.  But I don’t think it will be me.
What about you?  Which stage are you in?  Do you think you will get to one of the later stages?  Do you even want to?