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Fall, Gourds, and Corn Chowder

October 4, 2012

I’ve been giggling all week since reading this post from McSweeney’s. There are a lot of swears in it but the f-bombs aren’t gratuitous; each one is needed to express the author’s love for fall and decorative gourds.  His profane enthusiasm worked on me – for someone who isn’t into fall or decorative gourds, this made me want to aggressively decorate my home with gourds and shout at everyone I came across while kicking through the first fallen leaves:  “It’s fall, $&*%ers!”

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I were a couple of hours north of Toronto at a friend’s cottage on Georgian Bay. Instead of taking the highway back to the city, we took a scenic side road. It’s fall, we’re in Ontario driving through rolling, picturesque farmlands, and we come across a farm stand where fall’s harvest is for sale.  The bounty of pumpkins and squash set out in large bins and flatbed trailers and a table groaning under the weight of potatoes, onions, corn, cabbages, peppers, cauliflower and straggler tomatoes convinced us to pull over.  Yes, of course I was interested in getting some (edible) farm produce but what I could barely admit to myself and not admit at all to my boyfriend was that I was hoping that they’d have some decorative gourds, too.

I looked at the pumpkins, there were ones for pie and ones for jack-o-lanterns.  There was a time not too long ago when I didn’t know the difference. I thought jack-o-lanterns were perfectly fine for pies. I learned the hard way that this isn’t true. There were bins of spaghetti squash, acorn squash, all sorts of other squash varieties I had never seen before including carnival squash.  These were too pretty to pass up and I bought two.

And then jack pot, there was the gourd bin. As I was oohing and aahing, my boyfriend comes up to me and says, “I’m surprised you want these.” He doesn’t know that a profane, overly enthusiastic piece of writing on decorative gourd season had done its job: “I think we can put them out around the house.”  We both peer into the large bin and start rifling through all the gourds, trying to find the ugliest ones.

The proprietress comes round, sees us looking at the gourds and says, “Those are five for $2.” My excitement spikes at the sound of such a deal on these non-edible produce cum autumnal decorations. She then points to the pretty squashes cradled in my arms and adds, “you can eat those, y’know.”  Yes, I know. Thank you.

Our attention goes back to the bin. We want the weirdest ones. We notice one looks like a crooked penis and decide we have to have that one. Another one looks like a mod space ship. We’ll take that one, too. After some deliberation, we finally have our motley assortment of five gourds. I head to the check out and notice the rest of the (edible) bounty: corn, onions, potatoes, peppers. I want corn chowder. The idea hits me like a sucker punch. Corn chowder is a perfect dish to transition from summer to fall. The last of the summer corn and fall’s hardy potatoes, together in a warm and comforting bowl.

Once home, I realized that I was missing a few things that most typical corn chowder recipes call for. But sometimes following a recipe to the letter is nonsense. Do you think the woman on the frontier who wanted to make chowder decided not to feed her family that night because she didn’t have a rib of celery? I didn’t have any celery and my carrots were covered in weird white stringy things and I didn’t have any bacon either. No matter. I just used peppers as my aromatics along with my onion and garlic.  Smoky kovbasa is a flavourful substitute for the bacon.  It’s leaner than bacon so I had to use extra butter and oil when frying but having bites of that delicious sausage in the chowder worked perfectly for me.

Fresh Corn Chowder
adapted from Elizabeth Germain’s recipe in Cooks Illustrated American Classics 2008

5 ears of corn
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (I used grapeseed but you could use any type – it’s just to keep the butter from burning)
1 cup diced smoky kovbasa
1 cup diced sweet onion
1 cup diced red bell pepper
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups chicken broth
4 small to medium red potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup milk (I used 2% even though the original recipe called for whole)
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup heavy cream

I didn’t have any aromatic vegetables around to use. If you want to add to or substitute the red bell pepper with a rib of celery and a carrot (both diced) then please do. I just used the whole red bell pepper because I didn’t have anything else to add to the onion. That’s not the only reason, it’s also a great pop of colour in the chowder.

First thing to do is tend to the corn. Take two of the ears and grate all of the kernels and pulp into a bowl. Then take the back of a knife and scrape it down the ears, taking off any remnants of pulp. You’ll have a milky and pulpy corn mess. Set aside. With the remaining 3 ears of corn, take the knife – this time using the sharp side – and cut off all of the kernels and set aside. This, too, is best done in a bowl so you don’t get any errant kernels flying here or there.

Over medium heat, in a medium sized heavy pot, heat the butter and oil until the butter is foaming. Add the diced kovbasa and let it brown well before stirring it and letting it brown some more. To get the most flavour, let the meat develop a nice crusty, caramelized exterior. Once the kovbasa has that nice seared brown exterior, remove it from the pan using a slotted spoon (to leave the fat behind) and set aside.

Add the diced onion to the pan and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes until the onion has softened. Add the diced jalapeno and red bell pepper. Cook for a few minutes more. Add the minced garlic and cook for about one minute more.

Sprinkle the flour into the pan and for the next two minutes stir constantly while you cook the flour with the vegetables.  Next add the broth and then the milk, grated corn pulp, potatoes, bay leaf and thyme to the pot and bring to boil. Season with salt and pepper. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

Add the corn kernels, kovbasa and the heavy cream and continue simmering over low for no more than 10 minutes. You still want the corn to be a bit crunchy and fresh. The texture of the corn kernels is lovely in the chowder against the tender potatoes and creamy broth.  Check for seasoning again and add any salt and pepper if needed.

When serving, and this isn’t necessary, you can garnish with chopped chives or parsley to give it a fresh pop of herby green flavour.

Almond Cloud Cookies

September 27, 2012

From 2001 to 2003, I used to work as an analyst at a Washington, DC based NGO that ran healthcare reform initiatives in the former Soviet Union. What does that mean? It means I proved everyone wrong when they told me I’d never find a job with my Russian degree. But what it really means is that I spent most of my working hours writing reports on how our volunteer US healthcare workers helped out their counterparts in Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, etc. with training and getting the resources they needed. If you thought that sentence was long winded, I’m glad you never read any of my reports. Back from a trip to Ukraine, an American neonatologist told me he found out that a doctor over there was keeping much needed supplies on display in a locked cabinet…untouched. Why? If he used them, he would run out. So, if no one used them then he could say that they had some and that they were stocked like a proper clinic. Technically, he’s right. If you want to make sure your inventory never runs out – just don’t use any of it.

It’s been ten years since I first heard that story. I’m standing in my kitchen looking at a package of pistachio paste that I picked up in Siracusa, Sicily.  I bought it in an amazing food shop right at the end of the town’s open-air market. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I would use it for – these almond crinkly cookies that I bake with almond paste that would definitely work with pistachio paste, too. I couldn’t wait to give this cookie recipe a try.

Since I got home from that Sicilian trip last December, that package of pistachio paste became an immovable piece of my kitchen counter-scape: toaster oven, salt cellar, pepper mill, pistachio paste, cutting boards, drying rack.  Every month or so since that December, my boyfriend has been gently needling me about when I’m going to use it. When does that expire? Isn’t it going to go bad before you use it? No, no, I say. I have time. It doesn’t expire until the end of September 2012. And then it was September 2012. Oh god. I couldn’t put it off any longer but I didn’t want to let it go. And then I remembered that story about the Ukrainian doctor. I was just like him. I remember thinking how asinine that logic was and here I was using the same exact asinine logic except with lovely foodstuffs from Italy instead of medical supplies. I was definitely the bigger fool.

Right under the expiry wire, I used it to make the cookies. I boldly broke open the package, tossed the paste into the mixing bowl and started mixing the cookie dough. I felt relief. And excitement! My self-imposed embargo against the pistachio paste was over and I was finally going to make (and taste!) these cookies. After waiting all that time, how did they turn out? Were they these amazing pistachio versions of a favourite cookie? Sorry, but the answer is nope.  The cookies were lovely as usual; it’s just that I didn’t even taste the pistachio paste. They just tasted like the regular tried and true almond favourites. What happened?!? Well, when I broke open the package I wasn’t overwhelmed with pistachio-ness. Maybe I did wait too long and the pistachios lost their oomph? Maybe that pistachio paste wasn’t any good to begin with? Now when I look at my kitchen counter, there’s a toaster oven, salt cellar, pepper mill, SOMETHING THAT IS GONE FOREVER, cutting boards, drying rack. In the end, the pistachio paste was better appreciated on my kitchen counter as a memento of my Sicilian adventure than for what I actually bought it for – baking.

Crying aside, these almond cookies are a proper treat. They’re intensely sweet and almond-y. They’re crackly on the outside and chewy on the inside. They are bliss with an espresso, the sweetness a perfect opposites attract match to deep, dark, bitter coffee.

Almond Cloud Cookies
Very slightly adapted from the King Arthur Flour website

10 ounces almond paste*
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
¼ teaspoon almond extract
⅛ teaspoon lemon extract
Confectioners’ sugar or glazing sugar, for topping

*if you want to attempt the pistachio version of this recipe, use 6 ounces almond paste and 4 ounces pistachio paste; 2/3 cup sugar, and 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon pistachio flavoring. I didn’t have any pistachio extract, so I just used the lemon extract. Maybe the addition of the extract would have oomphed the pistachio flavour?

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

In a stand mixer, blend the almond paste, sugar, and salt until the mixture becomes uniformly crumbly. This will take a few minutes.

Add the egg whites gradually, while mixing, to make a paste. It won’t look like it will come together but it will. Stir in the almond and lemon extract.

Scoop the dough by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared pans. I find that these can spread out a bit large, so next time I’ll try using heaping teaspoons instead and adjust my baking time for the smaller sized cookies.

Sprinkle the cookies heavily with confectioners’ sugar, then use three fingers to press an indentation into the center of each cookie.

Bake the cookies for 20 to 25 minutes, until they’re brown around the edges. Remove them from the oven, and let them cool right on the pan.

You’ll get about 20 cookies from this recipe.

A Super Peachy Semifreddo

September 8, 2012

I almost filed this away as a post for next summer since I was really late in getting this up and now it’s September (sobs). Should I even post something that is for keeping cool in the dead of summer? I didn’t need cooling off from today’s autumn-like, blustery winds and rain but I do want to willfully ignore that summer is over so I will pretend that the cicadas are still singing in the hazy heat.

Sue Riedl from the awesome blog cheese and toast perfectly expressed her grief at summer’s passing by “clutching onto its leg and crying.” She’s clutching onto one leg and I’m clutching onto the other. If you want to join us in not letting go, then this absolute peach of a semifreddo is for you.  You can still find the last of the summer peaches at the markets and green grocers but you’ll need to hurry.

This semifreddo is totally peachy and I’m not speaking figuratively. It literally screams Peach! Peach! Peach! as it melts on your tongue. Its flavour is clearly focused on this fuzzy late summer bounty.  Compared to the divinely creamy peach semifreddo I wrote about before, the dairy in this version is kept to a minimum so peaches can be front and center and the texture a bit more icy.

I found this recipe on my semifreddo research trip to the Toronto Reference Library. Out of all the books I flipped through looking for semifreddo recipes, I found what I was looking for in Silver Spoon, a tome of Italian cookery that not only breaks up the recipes by courses but then also gives you the geographic provenance of each dish because Italian cooking is never just Italian – each dish comes from a very specific nook of Italy.

Peach and Amaretti Semifreddo from the Piemonte region
Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2005)

2 lbs ripe peaches (about 7-9 peaches depending on size)
2/3 cup coarsely crushed amaretti cookies
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream or whipping cream*
1 large egg, separated (you’ll only need the white for this recipe)

*your cream should be at least 30% butterfat so it can be whipped into proper peaks

Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap.

Whip the cream until it stands up in stiff peaks. Set aside. Whip the egg white until it’s glossy and stands up in stiff peaks. Set aside.

Peel and pit the peaches. If you need a refresher on how to do this, check out this post. After prepping the fruit, chop them up roughly and toss them into a food processor or blender with the amaretti cookies and sugar. Puree until smooth. You don’t want any chunks of peach. When you open the lid of the processor/blender, the peach slurry will smell divine. You might want to slurp this stuff with a spoon. You’ve been warned.

Pour the peach mix into a large bowl and then fold in the whipped cream and stiffly whipped egg white. Be gentle so you don’t deflate either of the whipped items. That air in the egg white and whipped cream will give your semifreddo lift.

Pour the mixture into the prepped loaf pan and freeze for four hours to set.

The cookbook advises that the semifeddo should be turned out onto a serving platter. I took it out of the freezer, let it thaw out a little bit while sitting out at room temperature for 15 minutes and then flipped it over onto a plate. I took a good, hard look at its homely self. Regardless of my apprehension of its looks, I was going to photograph it as it lay whole on the plate. My boyfriend walks by and grimaces, “you’re not going to shoot it like that, are you?” I tried taking a beauty shot of it, but no matter what angle, it still just looked like a pale peach homogenous loaf.  Regardless of appearance, the taste is AMAZING. Don’t bother with showing anyone what it looks like whole. This semifreddo should be scooped and served in dishes just like ice cream.

Hold onto that summer feeling.