Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Turkey?!

Thanksgiving day is just behind us now and some of you have undoubtedly begun to participate in the annual marathon-shopping games of Black Friday.  I do recall how Brian and I spent Black Friday a couple of years ago: while others scrambled and trampled and frantically fought like juvenile sibling rivals over toys in the stores, we basked in the quiet solitude of a hike through one of the nature preserves out east; it was blissfully peaceful.  I digress, however, this blog is about food.  Most of us, however we chose to spend Black Friday, opened our refrigerators at the stroke of midnight for that annual post-Thanksgiving dinner craving: the turkey sandwich, followed by a revisit with the pumpkin pie.  As you disengaged the gravy boat from beneath the precariously balancing bowl of leftover cranberry sauce, your excitement mounted for that annual treat.  Now it is Friday night, or perhaps even Saturday afternoon as you read this.  You just opened the refrigerator once again and what to your not-so-wondering eyes appears?  More turkey!  Is it ever going to leave?!  You have just about reached the point when you wish this bird would just reanimate itself and fly away.  Don't despair, tonight's dinner does not have to be yet another rerun of the turkey sandwich, or the hot turkey on a plate.  Sit down, take a few deep breaths, and start browsing recipes online.  While I am not a fan of cooking with turkey, there are some perfectly welcomed culinary reincarnations for using up the rest of the bird, and I do embrace the opportunity to cook with it just once a year.  Besides, even your cat or dog will get wise to the fact if you keep trying to sneak days-old turkey into his or her dish.

To keep this post brief, as many of you, Black Friday shoppers or not, are busily starting preparations for a fun season of gift-gathering, clandestine gift-wrapping, card-addressing, creative cookie-baking, tree-trimming and home decorating for the next round of holidays, I'll just mention a few possibilities and include my favorite way to finish out the turkey once and for all.  Cooked turkey can be utilized in a number of dishes.  It can be added to a pot of soup with wild rice and vegetables.  For this I would suggest making the stock yourself, using the turkey carcass after removing all of the meat.  Be sure to strain the finished stock well before adding the rest of your soup ingredients; otherwise your stock will resemble that sink full of dirty dishwater that you forgot to drain.  Another helpful hint, if you have leftover vegetables from the big day, go ahead and add those as well when you add the turkey.  Remember, all of these things are already cooked, so once you have made the stock and added a couple of other ingredients to cook such as rice or pasta, the rest is easy as the turkey and vegetables only need to be stirred in at the end and heated through.  A white chili with white beans would also be a welcoming pot for the turkey.  On the note of Mexican dining, with the help of some southwestern spices and chili peppers, turkey can also be enjoyed in fajitas or tacos.  If you are craving Asian flavor, use the turkey in a stir fry with some peppers, broccoli and straw mushrooms.  A great idea for lunch is to arrange the turkey meat atop salad greens, add some sliced mushrooms, dried cranberries, nuts, sliced apple, crumbled blue cheese and drizzle the salad with a homemade apple cider vinaigrette.

My favorite way to use up the leftover turkey is to make a pot pie.  The pie can either be very traditional, with peas, carrots and potatoes; or it can be as creative as you want it to be, with the addition of fall root vegetables and hazelnuts for just one example.

Turkey Pot Pie

2 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 large potato (or 2 medium), peeled and diced
1 cup frozen green peas
2 cups frozen pearl onions
2 cups cooked turkey, coarsely chopped

12 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into dice and chilled again
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chilled vegetable shortening
1/2 cup ice water

1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup flour
4 cups turkey or chicken stock
1 teaspoon fresh sage, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup heavy cream

1 egg white, beaten with 2 tablespoons water
sea salt crystals

In a saucepan with a steamer insert, bring water to a boil.  Add the cubed potatoes and carrots into the pot.  Place the peas and pearl onions into the steam insert and place on the pot.  Cover.  Allow the peas and onions to steam for about three minutes.  Remove steamer insert and drain the peas and onions.  Allow the potatoes and carrots to continue boiling in the pot until they are tender.  Drain thoroughly.

In the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade, mix the flour and salt.  Remove the butter and shortening from the refrigerator from place into the food processor bowl.  Pulse ingredients until the mixture resembles small pea-sized pebbles.  Remove the water from the refrigerator and, with the processor on, pour it through the feed tube into the bowl.  Pulse the processor until the entire mixture begins to form one ball.  Turn out onto a floured surface.  Quickly form into a neat ball, pat down into the shape of a thick disc and wrap in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for about a half hour.

Return the ball of dough to a very well-floured surface and divide in half.  Begin rolling one of the balls with a floured pin into a ten-inch circle, turning the circle one quarter turn every few rolls to prevent it from sticking to the surface.  Butter the inside of a pie dish.  Place the dough into the dish, allowing the excess to rest over the edges for the time being.  Place pie dish into the refrigerator.  Roll out the second ball into a ten-inch circle.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Sprinkle the flour over the melted butter. Stir and cook for about a minute.  Gradually add the stock in several additions, stirring constantly, until all broth has been added, the flour-butter mixture has incorporated the stock and the sauce is thickened.  Remove from heat and stir in the heavy cream, sage, thyme, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.  Stir in the carrots, potato, peas, onions and turkey.  Turn mixture out into prepared pie dish, filling the crust.  Top with the second crust, sealing the edges of both crusts and fluting the edges.  Make four to five slits into the top crust with a sharp knife.  Brush the entire top crust with the egg white mixture.  Sprinkle liberally with the sea salt crystals.  Bake for about 30 minutes.

There now, you don't even recognize that foul guest who has overstayed its welcome, do you?  Hopefully this will help you finish off the bird as well as clear out that shelf in your refrigerator, making way for some of the holiday season's other delectables that you prepare in the coming weeks.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Fruits and Nuts Are Coming to Dinner

The fruits and nuts are coming to dinner.  Thanksgiving dinner, this week.  Yes, at your house, to your table.  No, we're not talking about your in-laws' quirky relatives or your second cousin twice removed who is only allowed out of the basement for special occasions.  We are talking about dessert!  No matter how much we doth protest and groan 'Oh, I'm so stuffed, I just can't fit in another bite or I'll explode...' everyone wants a piece of the pie.

As I have illustrated in the last couple of blogs in preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday repast, most courses of the annual autumnal feast have graduated from the basics to culinary presentations filled with creative new twists.  Dessert is no exception, as the timeless trio of Thanksgiving dessert traditions has evolved to incorporate further dimensions of texture, flavor and color.  Those desserts which have withstood the test of time are the apple pie, the pumpkin pie, and the pecan pie.

The apple pie, once a basic pie shell baked with a filling of apples, sugar, a little flour and some spices, has now benefitted from the additions of additional ingredients such as pears or cranberries.  A new twist of flavor can be imparted by using a touch of almond extract in the dough when preparing the pie crust.  A whole new look to strut down the runway of the dining table is the substitution of cinnamon streusel covering the apple pie in lieu of a top crust.  Other apple pies who go topless include the apple crostada; and my mother's apple pie in which, during the dessert's hot date with the oven, the apples caramelize on the edges for a nice presentation as they settle into a cinnamon-infused custard-like filling.  Two years ago I celebrated Thanksgiving with Brian's family, where one guest presented an apple pie which had been piled high with at least five different varieties of apples under the hood.  For those who may be pressed for time to prepare a pie in addition to an appetizer, a turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, biscuits, vegetables, cranberry sauce - oh my, perhaps now is the time to start calling on other family members in the hopes of an invitation elsewhere - an apple crisp may be the easier alternative you are looking for.  Crisps do not involve making dough for pie crusts, because they require no crust at all.  A crisp is simply a similar combination of ingredients that would be used for the filling of the pie, the apples cut into chunks rather than sliced.  The mixture is placed into a baking dish and topped with a crumb topping, a quick alternative to the traditional apple pie.

The pumpkin pie is still served on many a Thanksgiving table and still prepared in its traditional incarnation, though many have sought new ways to prepare that sweet dining finale using the amber gourd.  Recipes are now widely available for pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin mousse trifles and parfaits,  and pumpkin roulades with cream fillings.  Last Thanksgiving I prepared Ina Garten's recipe for a pumpkin-banana mousse tart; the additional flavor of the banana was a wonderful fusing of flavors.  If you aren't so eager to stray from tradition however, there are many new presentations for the original pumpkin pie.  Two of my favorites include the addition of a hazelnut streusel topping; and also the cover of a cloud of fluffy sweet meringue which had a brief encounter with the kitchen blow torch.  I recently spied a recipe in a cooking magazine for pumpkin pie with a brulee top.  Whichever variation you choose, the pumpkin dessert remains the steadfast requisite for an all-American Thanksgiving menu.

Thirdly, we have the dessert pride of the southern United States, the pecan pie.  Several friends have made requests recently for pecan pie recipes, and so here I am to deliver.  As with the aforementioned desserts, there are many variations on the theme of pecan pie as well, including the maple pecan pie, the caramel pecan pie, and my recipe which satiates the chocolate cravers of your family.  This is one I have made year after year at Brian's requests.  The use of both bittersweet and semi sweet chocolate, plus the addition of instant espresso powder to the filling, really brings out the rich chocolate flavor.  Pecan pie is typically served with big dollops of whipped cream.  A nice alternative would be a scoop of homemade or high quality store-bought vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Pecan Pie
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into dice and chilled again
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/6 cup chilled vegetable shortening
1/4 cup ice water

3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 cup either light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cup pecan halves

In the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade, mix the flour, salt and 1/2 tablespoon sugar.  Remove the butter and shortening from the refrigerator from place into the food processor bowl.  Pulse ingredients until the mixture resembles small pea-sized pebbles.  Remove the water from the refrigerator and, with the processor on, pour it through the feed tube into the bowl.  Pulse the processor until the entire mixture begins to form one ball.  Turn out onto a floured surface.  Quickly form into a neat ball, pat down into the shape of a thick disc and wrap in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for about a half hour.

Return the ball of dough to a very well-floured surface, and begin rolling with a floured pin into a ten-inch circle, turning the circle one quarter turn every few rolls to prevent it from sticking to the surface.  Butter the inside of a pie dish.  Place the dough into the dish, and crimp or flute the extra dough along the edge decoratively.  Place pie dish into the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt 2 ounces of the bittersweet chocolate, 2 ounces of the semi sweet chocolate and the 3 tablespoons of butter, stirring frequently, until all of the chocolate is melted.  Add the brown sugar, espresso powder, eggs, corn syrup and vanilla and stir to combine.  Stir in the remaining chopped chocolates and the nuts.  Pour batter into pie crust.  Bake for about 55 minutes.  Allow to cool completely before serving.

For those who seek for something different, there is a whole world of sweet confections to offer up at your holiday table.  I do recommend however that you exercise the one tradition of Thanksgiving and stick to the concept of incorporating the season's bounty, which includes apples, pears, cranberries, pumpkin and nuts.  For those whose consumption of nuts is a medical faux pas, there are plenty of seasonal embellishments to enhance your fall baking endeavors, including the use of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, ground ginger, chopped crystalized ginger, maple syrup,  caramel, dried cranberries and raisins.  However you choose to write the happy ending to your holiday spread, enjoy.  To all of my family and friends - all of my readers - I wish you a happy, safe and delicious Thanksgiving holiday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Autumn Berry

Throughout the summer we have enjoyed a variety of boldly colored berries.  A perfect summer dessert is the berry fruit salad, comprised of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries, topped with a dollop of mascarpone whipped cream.  With summer's conclusion, we no longer find those luscious jewels in the farm stand baskets.  Oh, but if we are patient for just another month, what's this?  What's this I spy in the produce department?  Ah yes, autumn has officially arrived, signaled by the grand entrance of the cranberry.  Typically sold pre-packaged in twelve-ounce plastic bags, these ruby-red little gems rich in vitamin C are what spurn the imagination into sprinkling the perfect finish over salads and sides, baking simultaneously sweet and tart desserts and preparing a creative accompanying condiment for the Thanksgiving turkey.

Cranberries grow wild in northern bogs of North America.  They are also cultivated in Washington state, Oregon, Wisconsin,Massachusetts, New Jersey and on Long Island. Yes, Long Island.  In fact, at one time Suffolk County was the third largest producer of cranberries in the United States.  There are several cranberry bogs along the Walking Dunes of Montauk.  The East Hampton Trails Preservation Society leads hikes along the bogs of Napeague throughout November.  Cranberries are harvested between Labor Day and Halloween, hitting the markets for their peak marketing season in October through December.   Cranberries release more sugar after the first frost, thus providing us with sweeter berries.

Just in time for fall baking projects, they are used in dessert breads, cobblers and pies.  Many baking recipes call for a secondary fruit, such as apples or pears, whose sweetness provides the perfect counterpoint to the cranberry's tart bite.  Cranberry-orange-pecan bread is a seasonal favorite in my family.  Every fall I also joyously extract baked cranberry-walnut clafoutis and cranberry-white chocolate bars from the oven.

Dried cranberries are widely available throughout the year, and make a nice addition to your fall salads.  They also add a nice pop of color and flavor when tossed with prepared vegetables and sides, such as roasted butternut squash or sweet potatoes, or with steamed brussels sprouts.  They may also be used in baked goods in place of raisins for a bit of scarlet autumn dazzle.

As the Thanksgiving holiday begins its rapid approach, no turkey feast is complete without the requisite cranberry sauce.  It so happens that November 22nd is in fact National Cranberry Sauce Day.  At some point in our lives we have all seen the ubiquitous canned cranberry sauce.  These cans are stacked in twelve-foot walls every November in every supermarket and put on sale at ridiculously low prices.  When opened, the contents must be extruded from these cylindrical containers.  Just as it is about to strike the awaiting serving dish, it threatens to bounce off of the rim and roll off of the counter, either onto the floor where it will bounce some more or into the eager dog's open-in-waiting jowls.  Even at a cursory glance, deep indents from the grooves of the can are observed encircling this gelatinous glob.  My point?  This is one perfect example of canned good which is never an acceptable substitute for homemade cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving table.  Make your own, it really is just as easy.

Cranberry sauce requires little more than depositing some cranberries into a pot with some liquid and sugar, adding a few spices and simmering the ingredients until most of the cranberries have popped.  That's it, voila, cranberry sauce.  Did you blink?  Then you probably missed it.  You can be as creative as you like, by changing up the spices used, adding flavor enhancements of liqueur, or adding some additional sweet or savory ingredients such as a second fruit or some chopped shallots, for instance.  It all depends on which flavor sensation your taste buds tend to gravitate toward, whether your have a sweet tooth like myself, or if you like to tease your palate with a peppery spice.  Anything goes, I have seen recipes that call not only for the typical fall baking spices, but also for cardamom or even cayenne pepper.  If it's heat you crave, the addition of a little jalepeno jelly might do the trick perfectly.  If you begin creating a new cranberry sauce recipe each year, you can easily come up with a new combination every year for the rest of your life.  Conversely, you just might churn out one combination that, upon sampling a taste just spooned from the pot, completely blows you away; and the result of this impromptu culinary experiment becomes the new tradition for every Thanksgiving thereafter.  This is exactly what I experienced four years ago, and now my citrus cranberry sauce with port is an annual tradition; why mess with perfection, right?

Citrus-Cranberry Sauce with Port (6 servings)
1 cup sugar
½ cup ruby Port
½ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons Cointreau
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 ounces fresh cranberries
2 oranges, peeled and cut into chunks

Stir the sugar, Port, orange juice and Cointreau in a pot over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves.  Stir in ground cinnamon.  Bring mixture to a boil.  Stir in cranberries, reduce heat and simmer until about three-quarters of the cranberries have popped, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  Stir in orange chunks.  Can be served immediately; or can be made up to one week ahead, store in a tight container in the refrigerator.

If you want to change things up in this recipe, try substituting six dried figs, each cut into quarters, instead of the oranges.  What to do with leftover cranberry sauce?  It makes an excellent topper for roasting meats or fish.  Spoon a layer over pork chops or salmon fillets and then roast, you'll have a simple weekday entree that's packed with flavor.  You can even doctor your leftover cranberry sauce by adding some savory ingredients, such as sauteed chopped shallots, a spoonful of dijon mustard or some fresh thyme or rosemary.

Once you set out a winning cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving table, and realize how quick and effortless it was to prepare, you will never look a can of cranberry sauce in the eye again.  Let them remain in the supermarket's warehouses, continuing to collect dust. If you already purchased a can, well perhaps it will serve you well as the occasional doorstop or paperweight.  Thanksgiving dinner is about bounty and harvest, which usually invokes images of freshly gathered vegetables and fruits, thus the embossed prints of filled cornucopias which grace many a Thanksgiving greeting card.  Maintain that imagery throughout your holiday meal by using only fresh ingredients, including that gorgeous crimson jewel, the cranberry.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Savor the Spuds

The countdown to the holiday season begins, as Thanksgiving soon leads the way into tree-trimming parties and gift gathering frenzies.  Another year will see its conclusion, but what a way to go; ushering the year's end with holiday feast after feast for two months sounds pretty good to me.   We begin with the Thanksgiving turkey day tradition on which we eat ourselves into a tryptophan-induced comatose oblivion.  A month later the Christmas Eve feast of seven fishes rolls around, followed by the elegant Christmas Day dinner.  With only a week to recover from those two meals of indulgence, then it's the New Year's Eve cocktail parties and the New Year's Day dinner to embrace good luck for the coming new year, and to feed the resulting hangover from said New Year's Eve cocktail party.  Let us not forget all of the little gatherings in between to trim trees, bake cookies, engage in shopping marathons and team up for gift-wrapping sessions.  We endure office parties with coworkers that you swear you have seen quite enough of at work already; and meet up for drinks with old friends that you know you should have been meeting up with all along during the preceding ten months.  November through January first is truly a foodie's paradise indeed!

We kick off the season with the traditional Thanksgiving turkey repast.  Thanksgiving dinners have come a long way since the pilgrim's debut of this annual tradition.  With the emergence of ethnic ingredients in our markets, the basic components of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner can now be jazzed up into platefuls of culinary intrigue to tantalize the palate.  One specimen of this creative cookery is the humble potato.

The ancient Incas cultivated the potato thousands of years ago; now hundreds of varieties are available around the globe.  We have the russet potato, also called the Idaho potato for its place of origin when first developed.  Picture a naked Mr. Potato Head, if you will.  The long tuber with its thick and rough brown skin is the spud of choice for making baked potatoes or French fries.  Round potatoes come dressed in very thin white or red skins, and are ideal for boiling, roasting, and making mashed potatoes.  My favorite potato for roasting or mashing is the Yukon Gold potato, which has a gorgeous creamy-textured golden flesh.  New potatoes are basically young round white, red or Yukon gold potatoes.  Often referred to as baby potatoes, they are perfect for roasting or boiling with little preparation involved, as the skins are wispy and therefore do not need to be peeled; and the potatoes are small enough to cook halved or even whole, so little to no cutting is necessary here either.  Potatoes which are shaped and sized like a thumb are called fingerling potatoes and are just as effortless to cook as new potatoes.  I love the blue potatoes I have recently been purchasing.  They are readily available in both the new potato and the fingerling variety; and unlike many blue or purple vegetables, they do retain their color throughout the cooking process.  Finally, we have the sweet potato, a large tuber with a thick coppery skin and a deep orange flesh.  Although much firmer than the aforementioned potatoes, it cooks up moist and tender and can be used in many of the typical potato preparations.

For weekday side dishes, roasting some new potatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper works just fine.  For Thanksgiving dinner, however, add some more flavor and dimension to that roasting pan, such as a combination of chopped fresh herbs and some grated pecorino romano cheese.  Thinking about potatoes au gratin?  Make it extra special by substituting basic cheddar with a goat cheese, or a combination of a blue cheese with gruyere.  You could even use both Yukon golds and sweet potatoes to make a gratin that will offer up wow factor.  Another option for the Thanksgiving side is the twice-baked potato, in which the potato is baked, halved, the flesh then hollowed out into a bowl and mixed with some other flavor-boosting ingredients such as cheeses, herbs, garlic, onion, chopped bacon, etc. and then stuffed back into the skins and baked once again.  The possibilities here are endless.  

By far the most popular starchy side on Thanksgiving remains the mashed presentation.  Mashed potatoes do not have to be boring run-of-the-mill potatoes mashed with milk, butter, salt and pepper.  No, there are infinite opportunities to create here too.  Mashed potatoes benefit from the addition of such ingredients as roasted garlic, truffles, rosemary, chives, corn, even chopped chili peppers or wasabi.  You could even boil a root vegetable, such as parsnips or celery root, and mash that along with the potato for an added flavor dimension. Here is a recipe that I came up with one day, rather effortlessly, just by grabbing things off the shelf of the pantry and spice rack.  It turned out to be one of those occasional culinary gems I concocted that turned out to be a winner.
Smokey Chipotle Mashed Potatoes (4-6 servings)
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks   
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
½ cup sour cream
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
½ teaspoon liquid smoke
Salt, to taste

Place cut-up potatoes in a large stock pot (not a nonstick pot), then fill pot with water.  Bring potatoes to a boil.  Reduce heat slightly and allow potatoes to continue a low boil for about 30 minutes, or until very tender. Drain the potatoes, making sure to shake the colander several times in order to drain as much water as possible.  Return potatoes to the same pot.  Add sour cream, heavy cream, chipotle chili powder and liquid smoke to the pot.  Using the highest setting on an electric hand-held mixer, beat potatoes until they are well mashed and blended.  If they appear too stiff, add more sour cream, a little at a time, until desired consistency is achieved.  Mix in salt to taste.  The flavorings for this can be adjusted to your personal taste: if you want more heat, add more of the chili powder; if you want a smokier flavor, add more liquid smoke - a little at a time, a little of the liquid smoke goes a long way on flavor.

This is how you put a not-so-traditional spin on flavor to some of your traditional Thanksgiving dinner courses.  Start turning your kitchen into a laboratory, peruse your spice rack, herb garden, pantry shelves and your refrigerator's dairy ingredients, and let the creative experimentation begin now so that your ingenious creation will be tweaked and ready for presentation once the holiday table is set.  Sure, Thanksgiving is a traditional American holiday; but there is no reason you cannot infuse some of your family's ethnic heritage into the mix.  You could even abandon tradition altogether and season the basic dishes with ingredients which center around a theme cuisine which you are particularly fond of, whether that turns out to be Italian or southwestern American or Cajun.  Be creative, but also be warned: after this year's sampling, invitees may be counting on a permanent seating at your future holiday tables!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ode to the Pumpkin

The month of October brings forth the annual pilgrimages by all to the nearest pumpkin patch.  On Long Island, the entire eastern north fork is devoted to the quest, evidenced by the clogging traffic congestion on roads whose designers never anticipated such volume.  The surrounding wineries, farm stands and restaurants have all capitalized on the pumpkin picking weekends as they offer fall festivals which become more and more spectacular each season.  We all visit the various farms that beckon to come and pick their pumpkins - pay us to complete our harvest so we don't have to!  It's all in fun, after all what would a front porch on Halloween be without the jack-o-lantern sentries to welcome our guests?  Uncarved pumpkins of varying size and color strategically arranged with colorful mums make for a warming entrance into our homes throughout November as well.

The pumpkin is a member of the gourd family, as are other squash and, yes, the watermelon.  Pumpkins have been a crop of North America dating back to the native Indians.  Embraced by the settlers who colonized America, it quickly earned its rightful place on the Thanksgiving table as pumpkin pie, this presentation retaining the starring role in Thanksgiving tradition ever since.

This year the white pumpkin is all the rage in sophisticated fall decor since they graced the covers of home magazines.  The humble round orange pumpkin has evolved indeed to a variety of sizes, shapes and colors.  I saw white ones, I saw hunter green ones, I saw buff shades and sagey grey-green hues.  There was even a plum-purple variety on display.  With all of the choices that abound, the best laid seasonal display for your home is a carefully chosen selection of several different specimens; and then the orange guys are destined to be carved into grinning and grimacing faces to adorn the steps and porch railings that surround our front doors.

What about the ones that don't make the cut for the role of Jack?  There are pumpkin recipes galore from September through November.  We can't run away from the pumpkins that surround us.  Their flavors, enhanced with autumn spices, appear to us wherever we turn, from pumpkin spiced latte at the coffee house and pumpkin doughnuts at every bakery to pumpkin-filled ravioli in the Italian markets and pumpkin bisques in the restaurants' stock pots.   Most recipes call for using canned pumpkin; Libby's is one brand, simply pureed pumpkin without added seasonings, it is perfectly acceptable for any recipe whether sweet or savory.  However, if you have an overabundance of pumpkins that your overzealous excitement loaded into the wagon out on that  pumpkin picking expedition, why not use them up?  They do make a perfect seasonal decoration through the Thanksgiving Day feast, but we all know darned well that the day after the feast, you'll be joyously evicting those pumpkins in lieu of reindeer and snowmen.

The process should be simple enough, much like baking an acorn squash.  Take the pumpkin and halve it.  Scoop out all of the seeds - by the way, a melon baller works wonders for that task.  Lightly rub the cut side with melted butter and place, cut side down, in a roasting pan.  If the pumpkin is large, you may need to use two roasting pans and you may need to cut it into quarters or even eighths.   Generally the smaller the pumpkin, the more tender it will be.  Place in a 425-degree oven for about an hour.  Remove from the oven, flip over the pieces so that the cut sides are face-up, a spoon should easily go deep into the flesh with no resistance, otherwise return to the oven and keep checking every fifteen minutes.  Once cooked, allow to cool completely, then scoop out the flesh.  Place the flesh into a very fine-meshed sieve, place the sieve over a large bowl and allow to drain for a couple of hours.  You don't want that added liquid that seeps out to end up ruining your recipe.  Next toss the pumpkin into the food processor and puree it, then deposit it into some tupperware and you're ready to cook!  My husband Brian is already being enlisted for a repeat performance of a pumpkin bisque he made a few years ago; it was creamy, velvety bliss.

If you reserve the seeds from the pumpkin, they can be husked and toasted.  These nutty-flavored toasted pumpkin seeds, called pepitas, are healthy snacks and also often used to top soups, salads and some Mexican dishes.

Here is the recipe for my grandmother's pumpkin bread, which she passed down to me when I was engaged to be married; it has become an annual fall tradition ever since.

Pumpkin Bread
2 ½ cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease and flour two loaf pans.  Mix all ingredients.  Divide batter between two pans.  Bake for 1¼  hours.  Cool before removing from pans; do not cut until completely cooled.  Makes 2 loaves.

Alternative: for my fellow chocolate lovers out there, substitute 1 cup of chocolate chips for the raisins.  I came up with this idea and acted on it one year, to the delight of my chocolate-loving husband.  Grandma loved chocolate as well, so I do not think she would disapprove!