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Refilled and refueled

Oh my. That was nice.

It may have swooped down suddenly upon me, but Thanksgiving landed with a gentle bump and the merest, softest sigh. It was quiet and slow, with plenty of time for cookies and wine and “Pass the Baby” (our favorite game when there’s an infant around, namely my niece Mia) and slices of pie for breakfast. Over the course of five days, some of us never even left the house, and those who did went only for important things like green beans, brownies, beer, and walks around the neighborhood. Brandon wore pajamas for two days straight. We slept on an egg crate mattress pad in the living room, and the flue in the fireplace wouldn’t shut, so cold air billowed through the room, but under two blankets and one fuzzy throw, we slept until almost eleven every morning. I don’t know the last time I slept that late, except maybe the morning after my senior prom. It was just what I needed.

Of course, there was also a roasted turkey with lemon slices tucked under its skin, which I needed too. And my mother’s stuffing with pork sausage and spinach and almonds and brandy, which I promise to tell you more about someday, because it really is the absolute best. Then there were Brandon’s trademark mashed potatoes moistened with a puree of caramelized onions and roasted garlic, and hashed Brussels sprouts with poppy seeds and lemon. There was also butternut squash roasted with chickpeas and curry, and cranberry sauce with red Zinfandel and orange peel, and cranberry chutney with crystallized ginger, and apple crisp and pecan pie. If you’ll believe it, we actually forgot(!) to buy shortening for the biscuits(!), so they had to wait a day, until Friday, but in the end, it worked out even better. They were just the thing to go with our day-after turkey soup, made with stock from the simmered carcass, carrots, celery, and cubes of butternut squash. I made two batches of biscuits, but I should have made more, because some of us - though I won’t say who - got a little snarly at the table, sparring for the last few.

I’m telling you, there’s nothing to settle a person back into herself like five days under her mother’s roof, some Lillet on the rocks, a lot of food, and a husband who spends the better part of two days reading her manuscript and even says nice things about it, bless him, when he’s through. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but I feel ready for the holidays, refilled and refueled, ready to put a pot of mulled cider on the stove and make the house smell like December.

And speaking of refueling, since you’ve been so kind to me lately - or, really, actually, all the time - I want to give you a recipe today that I’m especially pleased with. It’s a pasta dish with Brussels sprouts - ‘tis the season, you know; we’ve all got some knocking around the crisper drawer these days - and toasted pine nuts, bound together with the barest slip of cream. I think you’re going to like it. I sure do.

Those of you who subscribe to Gourmet might have noticed something similar in the November issue. That’s where I found the inspiration for this. It was tucked away in the “Ten Minute Mains” section: a pithy recipe for fettuccine with Brussels sprouts and pine nuts, an unassuming little ditty that, to tell you the truth, I almost completely skipped over. But my friend Olaiya made it, tweaking it slightly, and with all sorts of superlatives, told me how good it was. And she was right: it’s really terrific. A keeper, for sure. It’s my newest standby dinner. (The leftovers make a nice lunch too, but that’s just icing on the cake.)

It may not be much to look at, but the combination of Brussels sprouts and pine nuts is an inspired one, I assure you. They’re lovely on their own, but together, the fragrant, toasty nuts highlight and boost the sprouts’ naturally nutty qualities. They make for a flavor that’s almost addictive, which is a lot to say for a pasta dish. (I usually reserve that kind of praise for things involving chocolate.) In the original version of the recipe, the pine nuts were to be cooked with the Brussels sprouts, which made them a bit soggy for my taste, so I tweaked the method to toast the pine nuts separately, allowing them to hold onto their delicate crunch. I also added a dash of cream at the end for a dose of moisture, richness, and oomph. It’s the sort of thing you’ll want to make on many a chilly night, before you fire up a batch of apple butter or a batch of sablés. I know I will.

Pasta with Hashed Brussels Sprouts and Pine Nuts
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2007

¾ lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed
3 Tbsp. pine nuts
½ lb. dried pasta, preferably fettuccine or another long noodle
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. heavy cream
Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

In a food processor fitted with the slicing disk, slice the Brussels sprouts into a fine hash. Set aside.

Place a large pot of salted water over high heat.

While the water is heating, prepare the pine nuts. Place a large heavy skillet over medium heat. When the pan is warm, add the pine nuts and, shaking the pan frequently, toast until golden and fragrant. (Careful: they burn easily.) Transfer to a bowl or small plate, and set aside. Set the pan aside as well, but do not wash it: you’ll use it again in a minute.

When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until al dente.

While the pasta cooks, prepare the Brussels sprouts. Return the skillet to the stove, and place over medium-high heat. You want it to get quite hot. Add the olive oil and butter. When the butter has melted – it’s okay if it browns a little; mine did – add the Brussels sprouts and salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until bright green and just tender, about 4 minutes.

If the pasta is ready at this point, drain it, reserving ¼ cup cooking water, and add it to the skillet with the cooked Brussels sprouts. Alternatively, if the pasta is not yet ready, transfer the sprouts to a large bowl. (You don’t want them to sit in the hot pan too long.) Either way, when the pasta is ready, toss it with the sprouts. Add the pine nuts and cream, and toss again. If the pasta seems a bit dry, add a splash or two of the cooking water.

Serve immediately, with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and additional salt at the table.

Yield: 4 servings


Sudden, huge, gorgeous

Hi, guys.

I can’t believe Thanksgiving is only three days away. I don’t know how the heck that happened. I had a dream last night that the ocean was in our backyard, and that I was standing at the window, looking out at it. Above the water, the sky was overcast, thick with clouds. As I stood there watching, all of a sudden, one of the clouds shook loose and fell, just like that, dropping fast and heavy, straight out of the sky. It landed in the water with a huge, gorgeous splash, like Paul Bunyan doing a cannonball in the neighborhood swimming pool, like some exotic flower breaking into bloom. This year, Thanksgiving feels a little like that, I think. Like it fell out of the sky. It’s sudden, huge, gorgeous.

Tomorrow we fly to Oklahoma, and I can’t wait. I had wanted to give you a new recipe today, something fitting to the occasion, but here we are, and uh, I don’t have one. I do, however, have a manuscript that’s really coming along, and it has lots of recipes, and in only three weeks, it will be done. I hope that counts for something. To me, it feels like everything.

So I hope you’ll understand if I’m a little quieter than usual right now. You don’t need me, anyway. You’ve got lots of cooking and baking and eating to do. There are birds to be roasted and dishes to be filled. So hop to it.

But in case you need any last-minute nudges, any ideas in these last 72 hours, I’ve dredged up a few. What follows is a list of some of my cool-weather favorites. Any of them would be right at home on a holiday table, and some, come Thursday, will most certainly be on mine.

Sweet potato biscuits
Touch-of-Grace biscuits

Cheddar crisps
Cranberry chutney with crystallized ginger and dried cherries

Apple and butternut squash soup
Butternut squash soup with pear, cider, and vanilla bean
Puree of celery root soup

Ginger-pear upside-down cake
Roasted pears
Tarte Tatin

Braised fennel
Braised green cabbage with onions and carrots
Braised red cabbage with apples and caraway seeds
Butternut puree with maple syrup
Cream-braised Brussels sprouts
Hashed Brussels sprouts with poppy seeds and lemon
Radicchio and radish salad with pear and parmesan
Vinegar-roasted shallots

Vegetarian main dishes
Braised winter greens with chickpeas, onion, and garlic
Dreamy white beans
Warm butternut and chickpea salad with tahini

Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you, and you, and you, for everything.


A great relief

Oh guys.

It’s kind of hard for me to get my head in the game this fall - you know, for Thanksgiving and the holidays and all. I can hardly keep track of anything these days except the words on my computer screen, and even that’s touch-and-go. My brain is a wide-mesh sieve. The other day, I went out to breakfast with a friend, someone I’d lost touch with for a couple of years and ran into again only recently, and we were talking about my wedding. She wanted to know what time the ceremony took place, and - get this - I couldn’t remember. Could. Not. Remember. I was like, “Uhh, four? Or five? Or no, four-thirty?” The only good part is that later, when I told Brandon about my little memory lapse, he giggled and admitted that he can’t remember either. Heavens, he’s dreamy. We were meant for each other.

But all that notwithstanding, I really do want to talk about Thanksgiving today. I love Thanksgiving. It’s barely ten days away and approaching at lightning speed. I haven’t been cooking much these days, to be perfectly honest, but over the past few weeks, during lunches and in those late-night moments before my eyes cloud with sleep, I’ve come across some holiday recipes that made me itch to get to the stove. I don’t have much time to spare, but this weekend, feeling terribly decadent and devil-may-care about the manuscript and whatnot, I decided to do it anyway.

Oh ho ho. See that carrot soup up there? So pretty, right? So silky, so creamy, so delicious, it would seem, with white cheddar and a warm baguette? Oh, were it so. To tell you the truth, it was boring. Really boring. Like, I’ll-keep-eating-this-because-it’s-healthy-but-I’m-definitely-not-
going-to-enjoy-it-boring. It had tons of sweetly sauteed shallots, homemade chicken stock, and cream, and still, booooo-ring. I had it for lunch today and almost fell asleep.

Then there was the winter squash gratin from Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. Years ago, someone told me that it was a terrific recipe, and I’ve had it bookmarked ever since. I finally tried it on Saturday. It’s basically cubed winter squash - I used butternut - that you steam briefly with some minced garlic and fresh ginger and then fold gently with béchamel, top with fresh bread crumbs and gruyère, and bake slowly until lightly browned on top. I’d never made a gratin with béchamel - usually just milk or cream - but this was Julia, right? I love Julia. And butternut squash! And gruyère! It would be rich! It would be gooey! A Thankgiving homerun! You see where this is going. It too was only so-so: strange and slippery on the tongue, and with next to no flavor. It was like butternut squash with the volume turned down. It was wasted groceries, basically, and why oh why did I do that, and oh, what the hell, let’s have ice cream for dinner.

But in the midst of all this, my weekend of utter mediocrity, I remembered something. It came as a great relief. I think you’re going to like it. I know I do.

What I remembered was Shirley Corriher’s Touch-of-Grace Biscuits. Over the past several years, these little lumps of glory have come to be my Thanksgiving trademark, and though I wrote about them here three years ago, I thought it was high time to take them down from the shelf, dust them off, and trot them around again. I hope you don’t mind. Once you’ve tasted them, I doubt you will. I’ll bet even a snore of a carrot soup could look lively with one of these dunked in it.

Shirley Corriher is a well-known food scientist and author of a book called Cookwise, but even if you haven’t heard of her, this recipe will have you shouting her name from the rooftops. It’s based on her grandmother’s method for making biscuits, and though it’s a little odd on first glance, it’s utterly, utterly easy. Basically, you combine flour, sugar, and salt; rub in some shortening; and then stir in buttermilk and cream until the mixture looks like large-curd cottage cheese. Then, using a measuring scoop, you spoon up a biscuit-size quantity of the wet dough, dunk it in a bowl of flour, dust it off, nestle it in a cake pan, and repeat. The biscuits bake into a pebbly cake of sorts, like this.

Then you break them apart, wrap them in a dishtowel, put them on the table, and watch them go - because they do, fast. They’re uncannily light, moist and airy, with a flavor that’s both rich and tangy, buttermilk through and through. If you want to know what I’ll be contributing to Thanksgiving next week, when Brandon and I go to Oklahoma to celebrate with my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, three cousins, one cousin-in-law, two cousins’ boyfriends, one brother, one sister-in-law, one uncle, and one baby niece who is just starting to eat real food and loves it so much that she pants in anticipation - pants! - when she sees a spoon, well, this is it. I’ll probably be making two batches, actually, or maybe even three. Because we like biscuits. Much better than butternut gratin, in fact. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Touch-of-Grace Biscuits
Adapted from Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise

This recipe relies on two principles: 1) that low-protein flour makes tender biscuits, and 2) that a wet dough creates lots of steam in the oven and makes biscuits extra-light. It’s both simple and ingenious. The only tricky part is that you need Southern self-rising flour. It sounds finicky, but there’s a method to Corriher’s madness: Southern brands of flour are milled from a soft wheat that contains less gluten, meaning that they make a more tender biscuit. My favorite brand is White Lily, although I think I’ve also used Martha White, maybe, and Aunt Jemima brand. I can’t remember. White Lily is hard to find outside of the East Coast and the South. Williams-Sonoma used to carry it, but they’ve stopped, and now I have to mail-order mine. Crazy, I know, but these biscuits are worth it. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll order some too.

If you can’t find Southern self-rising flour, or if you don’t have time to wait for the mail, you can also try this: instead, combine 1 1/3 cups national-brand self-rising flour, 2/3 cup Wondra flour, and one heaping ½ teaspoon baking powder. That’s a decent substitute, although not quite as light. You also might need to add a touch more buttermilk to get the right consistency.

Nonstick cooking spray
2 cups Southern self-rising flour, such as White Lily
½ tsp. salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup vegetable shortening
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour, for shaping biscuits (do not use self-rising for this)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit, and spray an 8” round cake pan with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the self-rising flour, salt, and sugar and whisk to mix well. Add the shortening and, using your fingers, rub it into the flour mixture until there are no lumps bigger than a large pea.

Stir in the heavy cream and buttermilk, taking care not to overmix. Let stand for 2-3 minutes. The dough will be very wet, resembling large-curd cottage cheese.

Pour the all-purpose flour into a shallow bowl or pie plate. Rub your hands in the flour to dust them well. Using a ¼-cup measuring scoop or something of similar size, spoon a lump of wet dough into the flour, and sprinkle some flour over it to coat well. Gently pick it up and shape it into a soft round. I do this by cradling it in the cupped palm of one hand and gently shaking it, letting the excess flour fall through my fingers. You can also toss the dough softly - very softly - back and forth from cupped palm to cupped palm: it should feel similar to a water balloon. Place biscuit in pan and repeat with remaining dough, pushing biscuits tightly against one another so that they will rise up and not spread out.

Brush with melted butter and bake until set and lightly browned, 15-20 minutes. Cool for a minute or two, then dump out and break apart into individual biscuits.

Serve immediately.

Yield: 10-12 biscuits


So warm, so fragrant

Oh November, November, November.

What on earth am I supposed to do with you? You’re so confusing. I don’t know whether to cheer for you (Thanksgiving! Fuzzy slippers! Hot cider with cognac!) or hide under the bed (Chapped lips! Sunset at 4:46 pm! So! Much! Work! To! Do!). November, you’re a mess. You’re even worse than Brandon’s closet. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

Oh, people. Can it be true? Is it really November 5? Only 17 days before Thanksgiving? And did I really see that terrible ad for Lowe’s last night, the Christmas one with the giant snow globe and the dancing holiday turkey? (Also, did I really admit, by saying that just now, that despite our having proudly “given up” television last year, Brandon and I still pull the old box out of the closet every now and then, and that even though we canceled our cable plan, we found that you can use the old cable cord as an antenna, jiggling it and posing it just so until the picture is passably clear, except that it means you have to tiptoe back to the couch very, very carefully, or else you’ll disturb the whole precarious arrangement?) It can’t be possible.

I love November. It’s my mother’s birth month, so I really owe it quite a lot. I just don’t like what it means: the (almost) end of the year, the end of warmth (at least until spring), the end of daylight savings time, the inevitable ramp-up to all-out holiday craziness. I get tired just thinking about it. I need an eye pillow.

No, wait. Scratch that. You can’t get away with an eye pillow unless you’re a) Joan Collins, or b) on an overseas flight, and even then, it’s questionable. I’d rather have a roasted pear. They’re warm, for one thing, scented with vanilla bean and lemon. And with the way their little backs curve, it seems to me that they would fit perfectly, rounded side down, in the hollow of each eye. Doesn’t that sound nice? So warm, so fragrant, so soothing. They may be the best part of November, until Thanksgiving anyway.

I really could go on and on about these pears, and if my schedule this week weren’t giving me the shakes, I might. It’s a method I first heard about a few weeks ago, when Brandon and I were listening to The Splendid Table one Sunday over lunch. By the way, if you don’t listen to the show already, you really should consider it. Lynne Rossetto Kasper, its host, is so lovely. She’s quite contagious, in the best possible way. She has a wonderful voice - the kind fairy tales should be read in, I’ve always thought - and when she starts laughing, she sort of cackles and wheezes. I love her. I want to invite her to dinner. Anyway, on October 13, I think it was, she had Sally Schneider, author of A New Way to Cook and The Improvisational Cook, on the show. The two of them were talking and cackling and oohing and aahing about Sally’s recipe for roasted pears. It’s simple as can be: she just halves them, tosses them with sugar, butter, and vanilla bean, and then bakes them until they’re caramelized. My favorite part was when Sally told Lynne - with a slightly conspiratorial air - that a few nights earlier, she’d made a double batch for a dinner party, and one of her guests ate almost all of them straight from the pan before the meal was even served.

Having now made them, I can understand why. Pears are plenty fine on their own, but oh my, roasted pears are even finer. The dry heat of the oven intensifies their flavor, for one thing, and with a sticky, see-through sheath of vanilla sugar to boot - not to mention butter, ah butter - they almost make November worth the trouble. Almost.

Roasted Pears
Adapted from A New Way to Cook, by Sally Schneider

This recipe could be tweaked any number of ways. Roasted pears are just the beginning, really. Some thoughts and suggestions:

1. Try this method with other fruits. Think plums, apricots, peaches, apples, pineapples, strawberries(!), bananas(!), and even mangoes. Whatever fruit you use, it should be peeled (if there’s tough skin involved) and pitted (if it’s a stone fruit) and either halved or sliced ½ to ¾ inch thick. Softer fruits, or sliced fruits, will take much less time than harder or halved ones.

2. Sugar-wise, play around. You’ll see that the recipe below makes one cup of vanilla sugar, but you’ll only need a fraction of it. See what tastes right to you. I used ¼ cup, and it seemed about right. Whatever you do, you’ll have sugar left over, which just means that you’ll have to roast more fruit –
darn! – or use it in another dessert. You could also try using honey or maple syrup in place of the sugar, but it would be a little harder to work the vanilla in.

3. Sally Schneider uses only two teaspoons of butter, which seems downright stingy to me, so I used two tablespoons. Watch out, Sally. You never know what I’ll do next.

4. I like the purity of using only vanilla bean here, but if you want a little added complexity, try dusting your pears with a pinch of cinnamon. Or maybe some cardamom, with roasted apricots. Or fresh thyme leaves with plums.

5. Cooked this way, pears get nice and tender, but they hold their shape and stay somewhat firm. They’re soft, but depending on their ripeness, they might not be
quite as yielding as you’d hope. That’s my only beef with them: I want them to slump. If you’d like yours a little more tender, I’d suggest trying a couple of things: put more water in the pan to start with - maybe 1/3 cup - and/or try covering the pan with aluminum foil for some of the baking time.

1 cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
4 medium ripe pears (about 1 ½ lb.), preferably Comice or Bartlett
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Place the sugar in a small bowl. With a thin sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds to the bowl of sugar. Using your fingers, rub the seeds into the sugar until evenly dispersed. (Discard the spent pod, or bury it in a canister of sugar – soon it’ll have a wonderful fragrance, and you can use it in most any recipe – or use it to make vanilla extract.)

Peel the pears and halve them lengthwise. Core them, if you like. (I didn’t bother, but it would make them easier to eat. Whichever you choose, leave the stems intact. They make for a pretty presentation.) Place them cut side up in a large baking dish and drizzle them with the lemon juice. Dust liberally with some of the vanilla sugar. (I used ¼ cup.) Dot with butter. Add 2 tablespoons water to the dish.

Slide the dish into the oven, and bake the pears, basting every ten minutes with the pan juices and turning them once or twice, for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until they are glazed, cooked through, and very tender. The syrup in the dish will thicken and darken as it cooks, but if it evaporates too quickly – before the pears are ready – add a tablespoon or two more water to the dish. (I added 2 tablespoons at the 30-minute mark and another 2 at 40 minutes, stirring them into the caramelly pan juices with my basting brush.)

Serve warm, with ice cream, crème fraîche, or a glug of cream.

Note: I could also imagine serving these as a savory side dish to roasted pork or game, if you used some interesting spices and a light hand with the sugar.

Yield: 4 servings