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When I was a kid I naturally loved the holiday dishes, all except for the obligatory cranberry relish and pumpkin pie. I finally got over my cranberry problem, but I still require every pumpkin pie to stand trial before I eat it. To my mind, most are stodgy and boring and taste like a vegetable trying way too hard to be liked.
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But recently I looked into Maureen Simpson’s “Australian Cuisine,” which was published in the late 1980s, and one recipe caught my eye: gramma pie. Gramma is the name of a sort of Australian pumpkin, which looks like a particularly skinny and elongated butternut squash.
It’s a winter squash belonging to the same species as butternut, kabocha and acorn squashes. You might never have heard of gramma squash, but you have probably eaten pumpkins similar to it.
The Dickinson field pumpkin, which is canned as Libby’s Select brand, is the usual squash variety used in canned pumpkin filling. You didn’t think pumpkin pie was made out of used jack-o’-lanterns, did you? Now that I think of it, maybe my problem with pumpkin pie goes back to some ill-advised youthful attempt to cook one of those coarse, stringy Halloween-type pumpkins.
Anyway, when Simpson remarked that gramma pie bears little resemblance to the American pumpkin pie, I had to try it. The recipe doesn’t look hugely different. This pie has a coarser, less creamy texture because you crush the pumpkin rather than puréeing it. It uses the same spices, and I wouldn’t have thought the additions of the zest and peel of a lemon, a little orange zest and a tablespoon of raisins would change the effect much. They do, though.
Add lemon juice to pumpkin pie? Yes you can.
The resulting pie is quite sweet-sour. Simpson even tells her readers they can add more lemon juice if they want. In short, it’s a dramatic, brightly flavored pie filling, worlds removed from the sort of pumpkin pie I still balk at.
Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and replacing the usual pumpkin filling with something as exotic as this one may leave a lot of diners feeling disappointed. But if there’s a chance you’ll have an Aussie at your table, this would be just the thing to serve. We all have our own nostalgia.
I made this recipe with Simpson’s suggested crust, which is more like a European tart crust than the American flaky crust. Use any crust you want, though. Her recipe calls for Lyle’s Golden Syrup instead of corn syrup, but in such a small quantity that the difference in flavor is negligible. It says to mix the egg with caster sugar, which is finer than American granulated sugar. Some stores sell this as “baker’s sugar,” but you can simply grind regular sugar fine in a mortar or small food processor.
Australian Gramma Pie
Makes one 8-inch pie
For the filling:
2 pounds winter squash such as butternut, acorn or kabocha (about 2½ pounds before peeling and trimming)
½ cup granulated sugar
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon raisins, preferably yellow raisins (sultanas)
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (mixed cinnamon, nutmeg and clove)
For the crust:
2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
5 ounces (1¼ sticks) butter, softened
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons finely ground sugar
Water or milk
1. Having removed the peel, seeds and strings from the squash, cut into golf ball-sized chunks. Put in a saucepan and add water to barely cover, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium low, cover the pan and cook until the pumpkin is soft, around 40 minutes. Leave the squash pieces in a colander to drain, pressing out liquid several times until cool.
2. Mash the squash thoroughly with a ½ cup of the granulated sugar, lemon juice and zest, orange zest, raisins, corn syrup and spices and set the filling aside.
3. Begin the crust by sifting the flour with the baking powder and salt, and rub with the butter until evenly dispersed. Beat the egg with 2 tablespoons of the finely ground sugar and knead into the flour. Knead in more flour as needed to give a soft but manageable dough.
4. Divide the dough into two unequal parts, setting aside something between ¼ and ⅓ of the total for the top crust. On a well-floured work surface, roll out the bottom crust into a circle a little more than 11 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch pie pan and make sure that the crust reaches slightly over the edges of the pan. Scoop in the filling and smooth the surface. Wet the part of the crust the reaches over the edges of the pan.
5. Roll out the rest of the dough into a circle 10 inches in diameter and transfer into the pie. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Brush the top crust with a little water or milk and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the finely ground sugar.
6. Bake at 350 F for 1 hour, protecting the edges of the crust from over-browning with aluminum foil or pie protector during the last 20 minutes. Serve cool.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie made with gramma variety pumpkins. Credit: Charles Perry
Here’s a fusion dish that combines Kashmiri and Chinese influences. It’s not a new one — it appears in a 14th-century collection of recipes and medical advice that was compiled for Kublai Khan’s grandson.
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The Mongols ruled a large territory with many peoples in it, which gave them a taste for foreign cuisines. When they roamed on the steppes, they’d had an excessively boring cuisine, which was basically nothing but boiled meat and dairy products.
This recipe is found in the book “Yinshan Chengyao,” which was written for one of the Kublai Khan’s grandsons and translated in 2000 by Paul Buell and Eugene Anderson. One of their problems was that the Chinese writing system doesn’t have a good way of spelling sounds and it has to “spell” foreign words using Chinese characters that sound kind of the same. Buell and Anderson interpreted the name of this dish as Bal-po soup, Bal-po being a name for Nepal and Kashmir. As they point out, the recipe is more like Kashmiri food.
So what we have here is something like Middle Eastern food that’s taken a turn toward India and then China. It’s lamb and chickpeas in a broth flavored with saffron, turmeric and cardamom, served with rice pilaf. The recipe specifies fragrant, non-glutinous rice, which sounds like basmati. More exactly, it says to serve the soup on top of the rice, apparently jambalaya style. But the soup also includes Chinese daikon radish, giving the effect of radish-y potatoes.
Just a touch of guesswork
The recipe doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know. It gives a measurement for saffron that works out to one-one-hundredth of an ounce (try measuring that in your kitchen) but no measurement for the meat. So there’s a lot of room for interpretation, and I’ve chosen to modify the recipe slightly on top of that. It calls for asafetida, which to me just tastes like stale garlic. If you want that flavor, use asafetida or garlic powder to taste. I prefer fresh garlic.
And it says to cook chickpeas along with the meat, but chickpeas may need to cook for two and a half hours or more. If you want to cook the chickpeas with the meat, add a half-cup raw chickpeas and increase the water by two cups, and check the water level regularly. In any case you should end up with two to two and a half cups broth.
And then you can get a whiff of the short-lived fusion cuisine of the glittering Mongol court seven centuries ago.
Bal-po Soup (Mongolian Lamb Jambalaya, if you prefer)
For the soup:
1½ pounds boneless lamb
2½ cups water
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 5 cardamom pods, crushed
1 daikon radish, about 1 pound
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon turmeric
Vinegar to taste
For the rice:
1⅓ cups basmati rice
3 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
Cilantro for garnish
For the soup:
1. Cut the lamb into chunks roughly 1 inch square and an inch or less thick. Put in a saucepan with the water, bring to the boil and remove the scum that rises. Add the salt and cardamom and cook until the meat is very tender, about 1 hour.
2. Remove the meat and set aside. Peel the daikon and cut into coin shapes about ¼-inch thick. Cook in the broth until translucent, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside with the meat and keep the meat and daikon warm.
3. Degrease the broth and return to the saucepan. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add to the broth along with the pepper, saffron and turmeric. Simmer while making the rice.
4. Add vinegar to taste.
For the rice:
1. Rinse the rice repeatedly in cold water until the water runs clear. Bring 1⅓ cup water to a boil in a small saucepan, add the salt and the rice reduce the heat to low, cover and cook 14 minutes.
2. Remove the lid, fluff the rice into a mound with a fork and poke 2-3 holes to the bottom of the rice with the fork handle. Cover the pan with 2 layers of paper towel and the lid, raise the heat to medium-low and cook 7 minutes longer.
1. Remove the lid and paper towels and scoop the rice into 4 large soup bowls. Distribute the broth and chickpeas among the bowls. Arrange the meat and daikon slices around the rice and garnish with sprigs of cilantro.
Top photo: Mongolian lamb bal-po soup. Credit: Charles Perry
Here’s new kind of vinegar, not one flavored with lime juice but made from it. It resembles some old friends but suggests new uses of its own.
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We’ve had a mixed history of vinegar diversity in this country. For a long time, we could get only two or three kinds of vinegar in supermarkets: cider, distilled and, the foodie favorite, wine vinegar, which usually came in a differently shaped bottle.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the foodie’s vinegar was tarragon, because tarragon can magically fool the palate into thinking it’s sweet, so tarragon vinegar didn’t seem as harshly acidic as the other kinds. In the 1970s, balsamic vinegar stepped into tarragon vinegar’s shoes and thus began the Balsamic Age in which we still live.
Not counting occasional flurries of flavoring vinegar with herbs or spices (sometimes commercially made but more often, I suspect, homemade as Christmas presents), that’s where things stand now. But in the Persian Gulf, people make a distinctive “vinegar” that is almost as easy to make as your own tarragon or thyme vinegar except for having to squeeze a lot of limes and wait for a couple of weeks. You’re not likely to know about it unless you happen to have read Celia Ann Brock-Al-Ansari’s “The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook,” published by Emirates Airlines in 1994.
It doesn’t involve inoculating wine or fruit juice with acid-forming bacteria. They do that sometimes in the Gulf with grape juice or date juice, but this “vinegar” is made from lime juice.
Why bother, you might say? Lime juice is already sour. Ah, but after a couple of weeks of aging, the lime juice takes on an evocative aroma suggesting some kind of decadent late-19th century cologne. It’s the same sort of aroma you know from Moroccan pickled lemons.
This probably casts light on what gives pickled lemons their unique aroma. Lemon and lime peels contain chemicals called terpenes, which are also found in conifers, and this must explain the piney part of the pickled lemon smell. But there are no terpenes in the juice (or if there are, only a smidgen due to oils expelled from the peel during squeezing). The plush, decadent aroma of pickled lemons — and lime vinegar — is evidently due to oxidation.
We find the same aroma in the bottled lime juice, including Rose’s brand, used in some old-fashioned cocktails. But cocktail lime juice is sweetened, making it more or less an aged lime version of sweet-and-sour mix. Lime vinegar is sour and a little salty, though it gives less of a salty impression than you’d expect from tasting it before it’s aged. The salt is probably there to prevent the growth of bacteria.
You could probably make this with fresh lemon juice, just as you can pickle limes according to the same recipe used in Morocco for lemons. Limes are better in my opinion because they are more aromatic. Just don’t try it with orange juice because for some reason it develops a revolting aroma like spoiled pumpkin.
How would you use it? In the first place, sparingly, because lime vinegar’s aroma is so distinctive. A bit can make vinaigrette memorable. I’d say its main use would be in condiments, including olive tapenade or a sour cream spread flavored with herbs or walnuts. It can substitute for lemon juice in a Bloody Mary or avgolemono soup. I’d even be willing to try it in a ricotta cheesecake, though the salt might be a little distracting.
Brock-Al-Ansari says to age the lime juice outdoors. I’ve tried it outdoors and indoors, and not noticed any difference.
Makes 2 cups
2 cups fresh lime juice, about 1½ to 1¾ pounds limes
2 tablespoons salt
Stir the salt into the lime juice. Transfer to a sealable jar or other container and set aside for 5 to 6 weeks. The juice will become a light dingy tan and develop a plush aroma.
Top photo: Limes for lime vinegar. Credit: Charles Perry
We gladly eat the flesh of squashes and melons, and we also eat their seeds, often toasted. But although cucumbers are in the same family, we always eat them whole, seeds and all. What’s up with that?
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In the Near East, cooks sometimes hollow out cukes and cook them as dolmas. That makes them more versatile, but it also leaves you with a slippery pile of cucumber seeds.
In the middle ages, they knew what to do with cucumber seeds: Make them into a cucumber seed salad and serve a roasted bird on it. It’s kind of a California cuisine idea from 1,400 years ago. In the 10th-century cookbook “Kitâb al-Tabîkh,” this dish is called bârida tayyiba Kisrâwiyya, meaning a cold dish of the Persian king Chosroes I, who died in 579.
It’s a nice effect. The charm of cucumber seeds is slipperiness. In their humble vegetable way, they have the same quality that makes orzo pasta more luscious than rice.
The modern luxury of limes
The original recipe for cucumber seed salad calls for sour grape juice, which is available in Middle Eastern markets under the names ab ghoureh or hisrim. As a Californian, I say this was probably because they just didn’t have limes. Lime juice has a more pleasant acidity and is much more fragrant. On the other hand, I use mild olive oil for this recipe, which is what they would have had in 6th-century Iran, but sour grape juice or even vinegar would go better with a virgin or extra virgin olive oil.
Pick the fattest cucumbers you can find because they tend to have more seeds. Peel them (so you can use the flesh in some other salad), cut them in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds out with a spoon. Chop up the seeds (more exactly, separate them, because they’re loosely connected with stringy stuff) and drain them a little before using.
Preparing the chicken
The chicken part of the recipe poses problems for our time. You’re supposed to use three pullets, which are very young chickens that are all but impossible to obtain today. I just use supermarket-sized chicken. And you’re supposed to cook the chicken in a tandoor, which is out of the question for most of us, so grilling is in order.
The recipe doesn’t mention anything in particular about the chicken, but I like to marinate chicken in onion juice. Chop an onion coarsely, purée it in a food processor for 1 minute and strain the juice from the solids. Open the kitchen windows first. Marinating in this for half an hour produces a nice mild effect, though less noticeable on the breasts than on the wings or legs.
The recipe recommends garnishing the salad with slices of snake melon, which is a non-sweet melon that looks like a long, twisty cucumber with longitudinal ridges. In this country it’s sometimes sold as Armenian cucumber or ghoota. Do that for authenticity’s sake if you wish, I guess.
Chicken on cucumber seed salad. It goes to show you, that what’s old eventually becomes nouvelle.
Cucumber Seed Salad
4 large salad cucumbers
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped from the stems
4 tablespoons lime juice (about two medium limes)
6 to 8 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
14 to 16 fresh basil leaves
2 chicken legs and 2 thighs, separated or together, grilled until done
1. Cut the cucumbers in half and scrape out the seeds. Mix them with the thyme leaves. Mix the lime juice and oil and toss the cucumber seeds, reserving 1 tablespoon of the dressing.
2. Divide the salad into 2 serving dishes, arrange the chicken pieces on top and surround with the basil leaves. Spoon the reserved dressing on the chicken pieces.
Top photo: Cucumbers. Credit: Picturepartners/istock
Pandan extract, derived from a Southeast Asian tree, has a wonderful flowery, nutty perfume. I’ve heard that cooks sometimes add it to ordinary rice so it can pass for an aromatic rice such as basmati. It goes spectacularly well with coconut. In fact, when I make coconut cake with untoasted coconut these days I always add a few drops of pandan.
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But its aroma also has a faint funky quality that I recently realized reminds me a little of shrimp. So why not pandan shrimp? It turned out even better than I expected, a glamorously perfumed crustacean.
My recipe was adapted from the pla goong in Nancie McDermott’s “Real Thai.” Basically, pandan extract replaces the fish sauce in that recipe, with some garlic added to make it clear that this is not actually a shrimp dessert, because the pandan has a very sweet aroma. If you’re one of those people whose secret shame is that you’ve never really learned to love fish sauce, consider this recipe.
Note: There are actually two aromatic members of the Pandanus family, the Malaysian pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius), with fragrant leaves, and the Indian kewra (P. fascicularis), the usable part of which is the flower stems. Kewra has a pungent floral aroma, but I don’t think it’s as good for this usage. What you want to look for in a Southeast Asian market is a little 2-ounce bottle with the words pandanor dau la dua (the Vietnamese name) on the label. These labels also usually show some pandan leaves. Just to drive the idea home, the liquid itself is usually colored green.
If you can’t get fresh lemongrass, you might be able to find tubes of lemongrass purée in a supermarket and add it to taste to the lime mixture, though you’ll be doing without the pleasant crisp texture of the lemongrass rings. If you can’t find that, you’ll just have to do without; adding a little lime zest will beef up the flavor.
Serves 2 as a light entrée or 4 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 medium lime)
½ teaspoon pandan extract
1 clove garlic, pressed or grated
1 teaspoon sugar
1 medium serrano chile
1 stalk fresh lemongrass
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ cup chicken broth, divided
1 big handful mixed salad greens, or butter lettuce
Leaves from 2 good-sized sprigs fresh mint
Salt to taste
1. Mix the lime juice, pandan, garlic, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and set aside.
2. Slice the chile on the diagonal to produce oval slices ⅛ inch thin or thinner. Remove the dried, tough outer leaves of the lemon grass and trim the tough roots. Cut off a length 3 inches (or a little more if wished) from the root end and slice it crosswise as thin as possible. Peel the shallot, trim the root and cut into very thin slices lengthwise. Put the chile, lemongrass and shallot in a small bowl and set aside.
3. Set the shrimp and ¼ cup chicken broth in a pan and cook until pink, 1-2 minutes. Turn once, just before the shrimp is done. (Alternatively steam the shrimp and use only ¼ cup chicken broth or water for the sauce.)
4. Put the salad greens in a mixing bowl and mix well with the sliced ingredients, using your fingers to separate the lemongrass slices into tiny rings. Mince ½ of the mint leaves and add to the greens.
5. Mix the shrimp with the lime juice mixture and ¼ cup chicken broth. Remove ½ of the shrimp with a slotted spoon, toss the greens with them and transfer to a serving plate. Top with the rest of the shrimp, the lime juice mixture and the remaining whole mint leaves. Add salt to taste.
Top photo: Pandan shrimp with Pandan extract bottle in the background. Credit: Charles Perry
I’ve often thought of peanut butter as the American tahini because they’re both oily seeds ground to a paste. The resemblance between peanut butter and tahini used to be even more marked in the 1950s before homogenized peanut butter was invented, because in those days you had to stir up your peanut butter just about every time you opened the jar, as you have to do with tahini today.
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The aromas are certainly different, with peanut butter being toasty and a little funky, while tahini is redolent not only of sesame seed but of something faintly vegetal. But they’re often treated much the same, except that nobody makes tahini-jelly sandwiches because tahini is much too liquid.
Specifically, there’s a certain similarity between hummus, the chickpea dip that has conquered the world in the last 50 years, and the peanut sauce that goes on the Indonesian cooked-vegetable salad gado-gado. The gado-gado sauce, or bumbu as it is called in Bahasa, Indonesia, has a lot more ingredients than tahini has. For instance, you can put in shallots, spices, coconut cream and fermented shrimp paste in gado-gado, but both sauces typically contain garlic and lemon juice.
Peanut butter and tahini trade places
So I decided to switch the ingredients. Hummus was, of course, invented with tahini in mind, and ditto with gado-gado. I decided to spruce up the substitute versions with a pinch of cumin in one, and turmeric in the other, even though I’m generally anti-cumin when it comes to hummus. They worked quite well, especially the hummus with peanut butter.
Serves 3 to 4
1 pound mixed vegetables such as carrots, peppers, new potatoes, green beans, cabbage leaves
Oil for frying
½ cup tahini, mixed smooth
1 clove garlic, squeezed or grated
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground red pepper or hot paprika
1 cup water
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric, optional
Juice of ½ lemon
1. Steam or grill the vegetables.
2. Cut the onion in half width-wise and cut half into rings and the rest into small dice. Fry in oil until golden brown. Separate the rings from the dice, and drain on paper towels separately.
3. Put the tahini in a small frying pan and add the garlic, brown sugar, red pepper and fried diced onions. Stir together and gradually stir in the water. Bring to a boil, and boil over medium heat until thick. Stir in salt and optional turmeric.
4. Arrange the vegetables on a serving plate. Stir the lemon juice into the sauce and dress the vegetables with the sauce. You will have sauce left over, which you can serve separately at the table.
Hummus With Peanut Butter
Makes 3 to 4 servings
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas
Juice of 3 lemons, or to taste
1 to 2 cloves garlic, pressed or grated
3 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
Salt to taste
Cumin to taste, optional
1. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and put in a food processor with the lemon juice and garlic. Purée for about 1 minute.
2. Add the peanut butter and purée until smooth.
3. Season with salt and optional cumin to taste.
Top photo: Tahini gado-gado and hummus with peanut butter. Credit: Charles Perry