January 31, 2011

What to do with a 10-pound pumpkin…

This is the first post in a series: “what to do with a ten-pound pumpkin.”

Come January, when you find yourself with a large pumpkin or winter squash that’s been hanging around since fall but without a particular plan of action, you can roast and puree the pumpkin – either to use immediately or to freeze for later use.

My next few posts will cover just a few of the many wonderful things you can do with fresh pumpkin.  For more ideas, check out some of my past posts:
Mashed Winter Squash
Pumpkin Bread
Pumpkin Ravioli

Fresh Pumpkin Puree
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Preheat oven to 400°F.

Cut pumpkin into manageable sections (4 to 8 pieces, depending on pumpkin’s size).  Scoop out seeds and fibers and reserve for later use (if making soup, see here for broth recipe).


Brush or rub pumpkin with oil and place flesh down in a large roasting pan or half sheet pan. 


Roast until pumpkin is fork-tender (30 to 45 minutes, depending on size of pieces).  Once pumpkin has finished roasting, set aside to cool.  

When roasted pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh from skin using a spoon.  Use a knife to remove any remaining skin. 

Puree pumpkin in a food processor until smooth, in batches if necessary.  (Pumpkin will keep in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for several months.)

January 23, 2011

still nothing like the real thing: yet another post on Nutella

My bias towards all things Italian is no secret, and when I decided not to buy the U.S.-market version of Nutella (made in Canada), I claimed that it was for the taste just as much as for the fact that American Nutella once contained partially hydrogenated oil.   To be honest though, I had never actually tasted them side by side.  It was more of a feeling than an objective assessment.  When American Nutella switched from partially-hydrogenated to “modified” palm oil, I was still suspicious.  After an arguably botched attempt at making it myself, I found a U.S.-based retailer of Italian Nutella, and my Nutella cravings have been satisfied ever since. 

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At Target a few weeks ago, I picked up a jar of Nutella on a whim.  When I turned it over to look at the ingredients list,  I was surprised and delighted to find that “modified palm oil” is no longer listed as an ingredient.  It simply reads “palm oil.”  Eager to compare it to its Italian cousin, I bought a small jar.  When I got home, I compared the ingredients once again.  Still the same ingredients listed in the same order (minus the “modified”).  I had high hopes.

Then came the moment of truth.  How would they measure up in a side-by-side taste test?

The results were shocking, even to a confirmed Italian Nutella devotee like myself.  The Italian Nutella received high marks for its rich and satisfying chocolaty, hazelnutty flavor.  The American version, on the other hand, had a flavor that can best be described as saccharinely sweet and lacking all but the smallest hint of chocolate and hazelnut flavors.  I was taken aback by how vastly different the two spreads really are.  I had always known that domestic Nutella was not as good as the imported one, but I had thought it would at least come close.  Sadly, the direct comparison made the American version taste like nothing but sugar.  

How could they have the same ingredients and taste so different?  A closer look was required.

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ingredients: sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, reduced minerals whey (milk), lecithin as emulsifier (soy), vanillin: an artificial flavor.

ingredienti: zucchero, olio vegetale, nocciole (13%), cacao magro, latte scremato in polvere (5%), siero di latte in polvere, emulsionante: lecitina (soia), aromi.

translated from the Italian with notes in italics:
sugar, vegetable oil, hazelnuts (13%), lean cocoa (unsweetened cocoa powder), powdered skim milk (5%), powdered milk whey, emulsifier: lecithin (soy), flavors (I assume vanilla flavoring).

There are a couple of things to note about these nutrition/ingredients lists.  First and most disconcerting,  the “serving size” on the American jar is two-and-a-half times larger than the Italian serving size.  This speaks volumes about our respective food cultures.  It reinforces the sad truth that Americans as a whole eat too much of the foods we should be eating sparingly and that we value quantity much more than quality.  Case in point: the fact that the American Nutella has so much less flavor than the Italian means that it takes 2.5 times as much to even taste it.  I’ll gladly pay twice as much for the imported Nutella if I can eat half as much and still get 10 times the flavor.

The second thing to note about the two spreads is that the ingredients are the same and are listed in the exact same order, from largest to smallest percentage.  It would stand to reason that they are contained in the same amounts in both products.  To determine if that’s true, let’s look at how the nutritional values compare per 100 grams of Nutella.

Nutrition facts per 100 grams:

Italian Nutella

American Nutella


    Saturated Fat
Carbohydrates          Dietary Fiber 



The values are almost identical, with the American coming in with 10 more calories, 1.3g less total fat, 0.8g less saturated fat, 3.1g more carbs, 0.8g less fiber,  1.6 grams more sugar, and 7.5mg more sodium. 

To give you an idea of what this might mean on a practical level:  in a 13oz. jar of Nutella sold in a U.S. grocery store, there are about 1½ teaspoons more sugar and about 1 teaspoon less oil than in the same quantity of Nutella sold in an Italian store.  Of course that extra sugar could also come from milk (lactose) and the missing fat could mean fewer hazelnuts rather than oil.

Another possibility is that the amounts of the ingredients are exactly the same but the nutritional makeup of some of the ingredients is slightly different.  For example, different breeds of cattle raised on different types of grass or feed in different parts of the world produce milks with different nutritional makeups.  The same is true of any other raw material, such as hazelnuts, cocoa, or palm – depending on where and how they were grown, their nutritional values and flavor profiles will vary. 

Let’s look at something else that we know for sure.  According to the Nutella FAQs on the U.S. site, “Each 13 oz. jar [of Nutella] contains more than 50 hazelnuts.” At an average of 10 hazelnuts per 14g (0.5 oz.), fifty hazelnuts means that there are at least 2.5 oz. of hazelnuts per 13 oz. jar, or 19%.  The ingredients list of Italian Nutella states a minimum of 13% hazelnuts (or 1.69 oz. per 13 oz. jar) – quite a significant difference and a confusing one given that the imported spread tastes more like hazelnuts but contains fewer.  Once again, this points to greater quality in the Italian version, rather than greater quantity. 

It’s not a surprising conclusion given the value Italians place on simple, quality ingredients when cooking from scratch.  It is evident that the principle carries over from the produce market to the processed foods aisle.  Italians won’t stand for less than the best, whether in a midsummer tomato, store-bought cookies, or chocolate-hazelnut spread.  And I think it’s high time we Americans do the same!

January 22, 2011

I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.

I love vegetables.  LOVE them.  I love vegetables of any color, shape, size, texture.  I love them whole, peeled, chopped, sliced, diced, grated, shredded, minced, mashed.  I love them raw, blanched, steamed, boiled, roasted, broiled, slow-cooked, glazed, baked, fried, juiced, puréed, stir-fried, sautéed.  In the 10 to 15 years since I outgrew my childhood aversions to raw tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms (now three of my favorites),  I have eaten and will eat any vegetable put in front of me.  I will eat them here or there.  I will eat them anywhere!

Part of our dinner last night was a new vegetable we had gotten at the farmers market: Sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), which are from a plant related to the sunflower.  (The theory is that Italian settlers called them girasole (gee-rah-soh-lay), meaning sunflower, which eventually turned into “Jerusalem.”)  DSC_0269

I was excited to try the sunchokes and prepared them according to a recipe from a trusted website:  oven-roasting them tossed with olive oil, fresh garlic, and salt. 


While roasting, they filled our kitchen with a really interesting smell – like a spicy potato or, as the name suggests, similar to an artichoke heart.  Once cooked, they looked delicious and had a perfect texture: crispy edges and soft in the center, just like a roasted potato.


Then the seemingly impossible happened.  I didn’t like them!  I could hardly believe it.  I really tried to give them a chance.  I am loathe to admit, however, that I didn’t clean my plate.  They were bitter and metallic tasting, even when I avoided the skin. 

I can see how they may be okay mixed with something else (for example, in a soup or root vegetable puree),   but alone they were unacceptable.  There seem to be plenty of people out there who like sunchokes.  Brian found them less offensive than I, but he certainly didn’t love them.  Give them a try if you have the chance, but be forewarned that in addition to their potentially off-putting flavor, they also contain the carbohydrate inulin (not to be confused with insulin), which is indigestible by many people and can wreak havoc on the system.  We were lucky that we only took a few bites each.

White potatoes have an almost identical nutritional content and texture, a much more pleasing flavor, and none of the negative side effects that sunchokes have.  I’ll take the potatoes, please.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love foods that are a challenge:  give me bitter, sharp, strong, acidic, clashing flavors.  Give me kale, dandelion greens, and the stinkiest cheese you can find.  But do not give me sunchokes.  

January 16, 2011

the bleak midwinter

… is not so bleak with a little work and planning in the height of summer.  Even though we arrived too late to buy greens at the Dupont Farmers’ Market this morning, we had our fair share of local produce for dinner tonight.

At the farmers’ market we got a yellow onion, and from the freezer we pulled some Italian sausage, bought at the U Street Farmers’ Market in October. 

Then, we opened the very first jar of my very first batch of home-canned tomatoes!  All the effort of that long August evening was worth getting to open a jar of tomatoes in mid-January and smell their fresh sweetness and sunny acidity redolent of a summer afternoon.DSC_0231DSC_0243 

Midwinter Pasta with Sausage and Tomatoes

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Serves 4.

6-7 ounces sweet Italian sausage (2 links)
½ yellow tomato, chopped
1 pint jar of whole tomatoes
2 gloves garlic, minced or pressed
2-3 pinches of salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
fresh parsley, chopped fine (optional)
2 ounces freshly grated parmesan cheese
8 ounces whole wheat penne (or other short pasta)

Set water to boil in a medium size pot. 

Meanwhile, remove sausage from casings.  In a large sauté pan, cook sausage over medium heat, breaking up with a wooden spoon as you go.  When sausage is almost cooked, add onion.  When onion is translucent, add garlic and tomatoes (with liquid).  Bring sauce to a simmer and allow to cook for 20-30 minutes; stirring occasionally.  Add water as needed.


When water comes to a boil, salt generously, add pasta,  and cook until al dente.  Drain.

Season sauce with salt, pepper, and parsley.  Add 1 ounce parmesan and cooked pasta to sauce and toss over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. 


Serve with remaining parmesan.


January 14, 2011

Blue Hubbard Squash

This lovely little squash graced our countertop for many weeks before it finally graced our dinner plates.  As a squash I had neither seen nor heard of before, it possessed an air of mystery from the start.  When I saw it at the market, I knew it was special.  Blue hubbard. A sophisticated bluish greenish gray unlike any I had seen on a squash before.  When I heard its name, only the “blue” part really stuck with me, and I decided that it must be blue on the inside, too.  I could just imagine all the blue pies and casseroles and risottos.   Of course the rational part of me knew that I was being silly, but a part of me hoped that it would actually be blue inside.   I didn’t bother looking online to find out the truth.  I wanted to be surprised when it finally came time to cook the squash.

So how does one cook a blue hubbard squash?  Much like any other winter squash.  I chose to roast and mash the squash to serve alongside sautéed catalogna rossa greens and dijon-thyme baked chicken breast.
Even though it wasn’t blue inside, the squash was exceptionally good and particularly sweet and creamy.  At half the carbs and calories and 1½ times the potassium and fiber, this mashed winter squash makes an excellent substitute for mashed potatoes.
Mashed Blue Hubbard Squash

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Serves 2.  Recipe can easily be multiplied for larger squash.

12 ounces hubbard squash
grapeseed or olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons milk
4-5 leaves fresh sage, minced (optional)

Preheat oven to 375°F. 

Cut squash into large pieces.  Scoop out seeds and fibers. (Discard or reserved for another use.)  Brush a thin coat of oil on the cut sides of the squash. 

Bake, cut side down, until squash is soft and can be pierced easily with a fork.  (This took 20 minutes for the squash pictured, but time will vary depending on the size/thickness of the squash.)

When squash is cool enough to handle, use a spoon to scoop out the flesh.

In a saucepan, combine milk and butter over medium heat.  When butter has melted and milk is hot, add squash and mash with a potato masher or fork until desired consistency is reached.  Season with salt.  When squash is heated through, stir in minced sage leaves and serve. 

January 10, 2011

100% Whole Wheat Bread

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Except for the occasional artisan loaf (when I lack the foresight to start making it two days before we need/want it), we haven’t bought bread in over a year. 

My reasons for making bread at home are many:

- it’s cheaper
- it usually tastes better 
- it’s nostalgic
- it smells heavenly
- it’s a nice upper-body workout*
- it’s therapeutic*
- I get to control exactly what goes doesn’t go into it

*I enjoy kneading dough by hand; it’s one of my favorite aspects of the bread-baking process.  However, when I’m extra busy or just don’t have the energy, my stand mixer comes in handy (and makes it possible to whip up a couple loaves of the following bread in less than half an hour of active time).

For our everyday sandwich loaf, I use the following relatively quick and easy recipe, which I’ve adapted from a King Arthur Flour recipe.  Brian will attest that this bread is anything but everyday.

100% Whole Wheat Bread

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Yield 2 loaves, approximately 28 ounces each. 

32 ounces whole wheat flour (about 7 cups)
2 ½ cups warm water (about 105°F)
3 ½ teaspoons instant yeast**
2 ¼ teaspoons (sea) salt 
1/3 cup honey (raw or processed)
1/3 cup vegetable oil

**Instant can be purchased in bulk much more cheaply than in the supermarket at places like King Arthur Flour and Amazon.


In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), combine all ingredients.  Using a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula, stir to combine.  When ingredients begin to come together, turn onto a floured work surface and knead for 6 to 8 minutes, until smooth and elastic.  (Alternatively, knead for 6 to 8 minutes in a stand mixer on its lowest setting, using the dough hook attachment.)  The dough should be fairly firm.  If it’s too sticky or dry during kneading, add additional flour or water, as needed.


Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl.  Turn to coat all sides and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until almost doubled in size. (I like to let mine rise in the oven, with just the oven light on.) 


Once dough is risen, divide into two equal pieces, shape into loaves (see below, Shaping a Sandwich Loaf).  Place each piece of dough into a lightly oiled loaf pan. 


Cover with lightly oiled plastic  wrap and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.  (Dough should crest about ½ to 1 inch above top of the pan.)

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A few minutes before the dough has finished rising, preheat oven to 350°F.  (If the dough is rising in the oven, be sure to take it out before you preheat!)

Remove plastic wrap and bake loaves for 40 minutes.  Cover loosely with aluminum foil halfway through baking to avoid over-browning the tops.


Allow to cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before slicing.  Allow to cool completely before storing.  (This bread also freezes very well.)



Shaping a Sandwich Loaf

I have tried several different methods for shaping sandwich loaves over the past decade or two, including that described by Peter Reinhart in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  My favorite and most consistently successful method remains that which my mother taught me when I was young.  I am not sure I can explain it properly, but I’ll give it a whirl:

Lift the dough and hold it with both hands, palms and fingers facing one another. 


Lightly roll the dough back and forth between the heels of your hands, gently pulling the sides under, stretching the dough across the top, and tucking the excess under as you go.  This creates the surface tension that aids a shapely rise.


Continue this “stretching and tucking” motion down the length of the dough until the surface is tight (but not ripping) and the dough is the length of the pan.




Pinch the loose ends together on the bottom of the dough to help maintain the shape and surface tension.