Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stuffed Delicata Squash with Ground Turkey, Greens and Garlic

This week, at the natural foods store where I cook, I prepared a Harvest Dinner featuring the best of summer’s cornucopia.

…The Menu…
Simple Heirloom Tomato and Sea Salt Bruschetta
Green Goddess Soup with Fresh Peas and Mint
Delicata Squash stuffed with Ground Turkey, Greens and Garlic
Sweet Corn Spoon Bread
Tender Lettuces with Raspberry Viniagrette and Toasted Almonds
Stone Fruit Crisp with Maple Whipped Cream

I am lucky to be able to work with beautiful organic produce. Most of the time my Thursday Night Dinner menus are ethnically inspired, but this kind of menu is inspired by the produce, and limited only by the product I have to work with. In late August, my palette is full of colors: Ruby red pluots, bright orange peaches, deep green chard with magenta stems, butter yellow corn, golden beets, ripe tomatoes in a sunset-hued array, burlap-colored potatoes, and eggplant in a shade of it’s own name.

Some menus excite me more than others, and I felt especially happy with this one. Seeing it all set up on the buffet was like looking at a rainbow—how appropriate considering the name of the store (Rainbow Foods). I liked to think about the customers filling their bellies with those colors. This week, I was just a sous chef to Mother Nature, a conduit between her wares and the people.

The recipe below was a fortunate accident. I had planned on doing a stuffed summer squash (patty pan, zucchini, or crookneck), but the produce department was short, so at the last minute I opted to use Delicata squash. Most people think of hard squashes as winter fare, and it’s true that they do last a loooooong time (hence the “winter” classification), but I think the best time to eat them is now and into early fall, just as they’re coming from the fields. Freshly picked produce is often higher in sugar, and as time elapses, those sugars turn into starch. Corn on the cob is a great example of this. It seems to me that winter squashes are especially sweet and moist early in the season.

Of the entire menu, this dish received the most enthusiastic reviews:

Apologies for the fluorescent lighting in the photo—it doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the finished product. This is how they looked before I topped them with cheese.

Stuffed Delicata Squash with Ground Turkey, Greens, and Garlic
(makes 10 stuffed squash halves)

I played off the natural sweetness of the squash here by doing an especially savory filling with lots of rubbed sage, roasted garlic, and nutty cheeses like parmesan and gruyere. Delicata is an heirloom squash variety, and has a thin edible skin (if you so choose). I think ground turkey sausage would make a great stand-in for the ground turkey, but you can also make this vegetarian by substituting a ground meat substitute like “Gimme Lean”. Recipe can be prepared through step 4 up to 1 day in advance.

1/3 cup peeled garlic cloves (whole)
1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
5 delicata squash
1 large yellow onion, diced small
1 pound ground turkey (see other options above)
1 ½ teaspoons rubbed sage
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 bunch chard or Lacinato kale, stems removed*(see note), and finely chopped
½ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 ½ cups grated gruyere or gouda cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350. Combine the garlic cloves and the oil in a small ramekin or oven-safe dish. Place in oven and bake 30 to 45 minutes or until the cloves are starting to turn golden brown in spots. This is an easy way to roast garlic and at the same time make a garlic-infused oil. Remove from oven and set aside.

2. Wash the squash and cut it lengthwise, through the middle. Use care here, this can be a little difficult. Place the squash halves cut side down onto an oiled baking sheet and place in oven, 25 to 30 minutes or until the squash gives a little when squeezed. Remove from oven, flip the squash so they’re cut side up, and set aside until cool enough to handle.

3. Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a large soup pot (with a tight fitting lid) over medium high heat. Add diced onion and sauté about 3 minutes or until onion has softened a bit. Add ground turkey (or sausage or ground meat substitute), herbs, and seasonings and cook, stirring until browned. Add greens to the pot and stir until they begin to wilt. You may need to add about ¼ cup water to the pot (for steam) if the mixture is too dry, but the meat and greens should release some liquid as they cooked. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pot, and cook until greens are tender, stirring occasionally (kale will take longer than chard, so taste for doneness). Remove from heat and stir in parmesan cheese. Remove roasted garlic from oil with a slotted spoon and add to mixture. Taste the filling and adjust seasonings. It should be pretty robust, so add salt to taste. The filling will be a little bit wet, but that’s good—it will help keep the squash moist when baking.

4. Gently scrape the seeds from the squash and discard. Arrange on baking sheet, cut side up, and brush the cavity with a light coating of the roasted garlic oil. Divide the filling evenly among the halves. Top with grated gruyere.

5. Cover and return to oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and everything is heated through (this will take longer if they’ve been refrigerated overnight). Enjoy!

*After cooking with a LOT of hearty greens at Rainbow Foods, I’ve learned a trick for removing the tender leaves from the tough stems. With one hand grasp the stem end of the leaf, and use the other hand to grasp the leaf at the base. Pull upwards along the central rib. The tender part of the leaf should come right off, ready to be chopped and cooked up. Once you get a feel for it this goes super fast and works well with both chard and Lacinato Kale.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Vietnamese Banh Mi

If you had to choose the cuisine of just one country to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Me? Vietnam. Hands down, no contest. The reasons for this are many, and include things like summer rolls stuffed with shrimp, a well-made fish sauce, green papaya salad, pickled carrot, lemongrass, and the meaty essence of Pho broth. It’s about the way I feel after I eat Vietnamese cuisine, and the fact that when I don’t feel well Vietnamese food makes me feel better. It’s the balance of sweet, sour, salt, and spice in a bowl of chilled rice noodles, with fresh vegetables, and grilled meat. It’s the way they use fresh mint, basil, and cilantro so liberally, and so well. And it’s the fact that Vietnamese food is revered as one of the healthiest of cuisines, using things like fresh citrus juice, herbs, vinegar, and fish sauce for flavor, rather than lots of fat or dairy. I echo the words of Tony Bourdain (if I humbly may) in saying that, “I’m in love. I am absolutely over-the-top gonzo for this country.”

When I was in culinary school in SF, if we ever had the chance to leave school for lunch, this is what we would eat:

Vietnamese Banh Mi. Pickled carrot, liver paté, sliced pork (usually), cucumber, cilantro, and fiery jalapeño coins tucked into a crackly mayonnaise-smeared baguette. Certainly not the lightest of Vietnamese specialties but boy is it good. There was a place a couple blocks over from the old California Culinary building on Polk St., a dingy little hole in the wall in the heart of the Tenderloin (pretty much the worst part of town), where an old Vietnamese couple made and sold Banh Mi for five bucks a piece. I don’t think the place had a name, but it wasn’t very hard to find; just look for a handful of culinary students in hounds tooth checked pants and chef’s whites, standing on the sidewalk eating baguette sandwiches, smoking cigarettes, and drinking guava nectar from a can.

I suppose in a way we were applying our education. See we learned in school about how the presence of French colonists in Vietnam showed up in their food. Baguettes? Mayonnaise? Paté? All French. Pickled carrot? Cilantro? Fresh jalapeño? All Vietnamese. So Banh Mi is a shining example of the fusion of these two cuisines.

I live a long way from the Tenderloin now, so when I get a hankering for Banh Mi I have to make it myself. Once you’ve got all the toppings, it’s actually pretty simple, and totally worth it. Taste for yourself. Here’s the recipe:
Vietnamese Steak Sandwich or Banh Mi (serves 4)

Pork is more traditional than steak here, but I like to grill up a bunch of flank for dinner one night, and use the leftovers for this sandwich the next. You can also use marinated and grilled pork loin, deli ham, chicken, or even bologna (might be pretty rich with the paté). Although the paté is optional, I highly recommend using it. It adds an irreplaceable base note to the overall flavor. This makes a great picnic sandwich.

1 long baguette, sliced lengthwise through the middle
1 lb. marinated and grilled flank steak, thinly sliced (recipe below)
½ cup mayonnaise (I used light)
½ to 1 teaspoon Chili-garlic sauce, Sriracha, or hot sauce
3 ounces liver paté (pork, duck, goose, whatever) optional
1 – 5 inch section cucumber, very thinly sliced
2 cups pickled carrot (recipe below)
1 ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, washed, dried, and loosely packed
1 jalapeño, sliced thinly into coins

1. Combine the mayonnaise and Chili-garlic, Sriracha, or hot sauce in a small bowl, and smear both sides of the sliced baguette.

2. Thinly slice the paté and layer it evenly along the top half of the bread. On the bottom half of baguette, layer the sliced flank steak, followed by the cucumber, pickled carrot, and cilantro. Finally, add the jalapeño coins to taste—they add a LOT of heat.

3. With a serrated bread knife cut the sandwich into four portions and serve. If wrapped and refrigerated sandwich will keep for up to 1 day.

Marinated Flank Steak

Use up to 2 lbs. of meat in this marinade. I grilled this up the night before and used half the meat on a Thai Beef Salad, saving the rest for Banh Mi. The pineapple juice is important because it will really help tenderize an otherwise tough cut of meat. Lightly score flank steak in a cross-hatch pattern before grilling to prevent the meat from “curling”. Let the meat rest 5 to 10 minutes after removing from grill, and always slice across the grain when serving.

6 ounces pineapple juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 lime, zest and juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced

Combine all ingredients and add meat. Marinate 4 to 6 hours before grilling over medium high heat, 4 to 6 minutes per side.

Quick Pickled Carrots (makes 2 cups)

Used in chilled rice noodle bowls, in summer rolls, on salads, or in sandwiches, these are a staple of the Vietnamese kitchen. Make double if you like and keep them in the fridge for up to 5 days.

1 ½ cups water
½ cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups grated carrots

Combine first four ingredients and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Add grated carrot and let sit at least 15 minutes or up to 5 days (refrigerated). Drain before serving.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wild Berries: Not-so-Slim Pickin's

Freshly picked salmonberries and blueberries.

Last weekend, while trying to figure out where to go berry picking, my friend Tess had the brilliant idea of kayaking out to one of the islands with our berry pails. As we were gliding along, berry pails in tow, sun shimmering on the water, glacier glowing in front of the Mendenhall Towers, I had a moment—a Juneau moment, where life here feels almost surreal—and it was all I could do not to burst into Julie Andrews-style song.

Here's Tess paddling on Fritz Cove with the Mendenhall Glacier in the distance.

We've had an uncommonly good summer here, and the berries are popping. Berry picking one of those Zen activities that you just lose yourself in. When I start picking I can feel the eons of hardwired gathering instincts all come to peace within me. You simply can't compare those energy-sucking shopping trips to the satisfaction of gathering your own food.

Tess and I found so much food in the forest that day. Check out this Chicken of the Woods mushroom!

It had a blueberry stalk growing right up through the middle. So much abundance! We harvested some, but before cooking it up I did my research (like a good little wild crafter) and found that Chicken of the Woods, although easily identifiable, should not be eaten if it’s growing on a conifer tree. Since our forests here are made up primarily of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock trees, I was pretty sure that was the case for this stunning mushroom. Oh well. The moral of the story is to use caution when foraging. There is a LOT to learn and you’re better off safe than sorry.

When it comes to wild berries, the surly forager in me wants to be alright with the little worms common to Juneau berries, but alas, the culinarian in me is not. Maybe I’m berrynoid, but the first thing I do when I get my berries home is give them a 1-hour soak in cool, well-salted water (about 1 tablespoon per pint) to draw out any worms.

Here’s some more Berry Tips:
• Tess and I found that berries picked in open meadows were less wormy than berries picked under forest canopy.
• Bears love berries too. If you live in bear country, pick with a friend, make noise, sing, wear bells, carry bear spray, and stay alert. Bears have right-of-way in berry patches. If you see one, calmly vacate the area (don't run!).
• Freeze berries on baking sheets in a single, spread-out layer, before packing them into a sealed bag or container. That way you'll have individually separated berries that are easier to portion out when you're ready to use them.
• Don’t take all the berries from the bush. Leave about 2/3 for the birds, bears, and other critters that depend on them.
• Don't eat poison berries by mistake! Do your research. Get a thorough and reliable reference book on wild berry picking, and use it. You should be 100% sure a berry (or any wild food) is edible before putting it in your mouth.

Tess used her berry booty for a mean berry rhubarb crisp, with a coconut crust (brilliant!). The orange berries on the plate are cloud berries that she picked in the muskeg.

Here’s her recipe if you want to try it out. Thanks for sharing Tess!

Tess’s Jewel Berry Crisp

3 cups of wildberries (salmon berries, cloudberries, blueberries)
1 cup of rhubarb, diced
3 tablespoons of all purpose flour
3 tablespoons of granulated sugar


½ cup rolled oats
¼ cup all purpose flour
1 generous tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup shredded coconut
½ cup packed brown sugar

Gently mix the berries, rhubarb, flour, and sugar until evenly coated. Lick spoon.
Scoop the mix into a brownie pan and top with crisp. Lick bowl.

For the topping, mix all dry ingredients and cut in butter with a pastry mixer until it becomes pea-sized crumbs. Sample a pinch to see if you need more pumpkin pie spice.
Sprinkle the topping over the berries. Ideally you want an even ratio of berries to topping. That’s the best part, after all!

Bake until golden brown and slightly firm.

Enjoy with coffee, or a nice dessert wine.

*Adapted from a fruit crisp recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book, 12th edition.

Click here to see my recipes for Wild Berry Basil Panna Cotta and Wild Berry Muscat Granita in the Juneau Empire. Here's what they look like (Granita in foreground) :

Thanks for stopping by Food-G, and happy foraging!
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