Articles in Cooking

Cantucci are easy to make and last for months, so they are terrific cookies for the holidays, both to serve or give as a special homemade gift. Credit: Corsini Biscotti Company

Cantucci, crunchy almond biscotti, are a Tuscan classic. Created in Siena, they are popular throughout Italy. While in the United States we sometimes dunk cookies in milk, Italians traditionally dip them into the famed golden-amber dessert wine — vin santo.

Cantucci are easy to make and last for months, so they are terrific cookies for the holidays, to serve or to give as a special homemade gift. The dough is easy to work with, and the cookies come out perfect every time. One key to the great flavor is the addition of vin santo, which provides a nice aroma and a subtle fruity balance. Another is the touch of honey, which keeps the cantucci wonderfully moist.

There are dozens of ways to vary the recipe, so you can make several different batches. For a hint of orange tang, add 1/4 cup finely minced candied orange peel to the batter; for chocolate cantucci add 1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate; and for anything goes cantucci add 1/2 cup of your favorite dried fruit, such as chopped dates, apricots or figs. Substitute a different nut for the almonds or omit the nuts completely.

In Italy these luscious cookies are also featured as an ingredient in many desserts such as whimsical chocolate salami, an adorable dessert that really looks like a salami, especially the way Italians serve it: coated in confectioners’ sugar and tied with kitchen twine like real salami. When it’s sliced, the nuts and cookie bits add to the salami look, too. Think of it as a giant truffle!

Cantucci (Almond Biscotti)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Bake time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: About 2 dozen

Ingredients

3 cups Italian OO flour or cake flour, plus more as needed

3/4 granulated sugar

1/3 cup honey

2 eggs

2 yolks

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup vin santo

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole almonds, skins-on

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, honey, eggs, yolks, butter, baking powder, vin santo and salt. Using your hands, knead until dough forms, then add the almonds. If the dough is too moist add a little extra flour. Divide the dough into 3 sections. The dough will be a little sticky, that’s normal.

3. Put the dough onto the prepared baking sheet. Using wet hands, mold each section into a log shape, about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. No worries about it being perfect. The dough will come together while it bakes.

4. Bake for about 25 minutes then remove from the oven, but keep the oven on. Allow the dough logs to rest for 5 minutes, keeping them on the baking tray. While still hot and on the baking tray slice the logs on the diagonal, about 3/4 inches wide, using a sharp knife and one firm cut. Put the slices back into the oven and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, until lightly golden.

Chocolate “Salami” (Salame al cioccolato)

cantucci

This whimsical dessert looks like salami, but it is really made of biscotti. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but needs 2 hours refrigeration to set

Yield: 4 to 6 servings, makes one 6-inch “salami”

Note: Vary it any way you like: Add a shot of freshly brewed espresso or liqueur instead of the rum; try different kinds of nuts or even add dried or candied fruit if you like.

Ingredients

2 ounces dark chocolate

1/2 cup superfine sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup chopped cantucci

1/4 cup coarsely chopped nuts such as pistachios, hazelnuts or almonds

1 tablespoon rum

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Melt the chocolate in a glass bowl in the microwave or over a pan of simmering water. Allow to cool to room temperature. Reserve.

2. Beat the sugar and butter with a spatula or electric hand mixer until creamy and smooth. Stir in the chocolate, cookies, nuts and rum until well combined.

3. Spoon the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper and form into a salami shape, about 6 inches long and 2 inches thick. Wrap well and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

4. To serve, roll the salami in confectioners’ sugar and tie with kitchen twine, so it looks even more like real salami.

Main photo: Cantucci are easy to make and last for months, so they are terrific cookies for the holidays, both to serve or give as a special homemade gift. Credit: Corsini Biscotti Company

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Persimmon pudding cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

If you want a moist autumn cake, put a persimmon in it. Or, in the case of this recent obsession I call persimmon pudding cake, make that four to six persimmons, depending on size.

This cake has been a project.

Many years ago while I was having dinner with friends, a dessert came to the table. It was humbly wrapped in the tin foil used by the woman who made it before she gave it to my host. He unfolded the protective flaps of crinkly tin foil away from treasure inside. It was a square the size of an uncut pan of brownies. Instead of the matte look of chocolate, this cake was dark as mahogany and glistened as if it had been dipped in honey.

Before me was persimmon cake. Of course I’d experienced persimmon fudge, persimmon pie and persimmon bread. But I was not to forget the taste reminiscent of gingerbread and a rich consistency firm enough to chew but soft and lush, like cheesecake meets mousse.

By persimmon season the next autumn, I tried to replicate the cake. The recipe was gone with the passing of the woman who had baked it. I hunted persimmon trees in my neighborhood that yielded the proper fruit, the Hachiya persimmon. This is different than the small persimmon eaten like an apple, which is the Fuyu. The Hachiya is big and heart-shaped and needs to be so fully ripe that to the touch it feels like there’s a loose gland under its thin skin.

When the fruit is ready, astringency should have yielded to sweetness. At this point, the Hachiya pulp can easily be scooped out of the skin, and the somewhat slimy neon-orange pulp can be puréed in a food processor.

I tried using the pulp in applesauce cake, but it was too runny. Then cider cake, which was too juicy. I tweaked gingerbreads. I made steamed persimmon pudding in an old pudding mold that I lowered into simmering water. With each effort, when I inverted the pan onto a serving platter, the dish drooled juices or fell apart. I added flour, cut back on liquid, increased leavening. Still, it was not right.

It wasn’t quite “CSI: Persimmon” at my house, but close. I knew that the woman who first made the cake I loved had come to California from West Virginia. Considering her age and regional traditions, I had a hunch. I went to an old “Joy of Cooking” and found the recipe for persimmon pudding that wasn’t steamed at all, but baked.

Again, results were too runny. I cut back on cream and some of the sugar. The trick was to change “Joy’s” one-bowl dump method to a technique typical of more structured cakes. For this, the butter and sugar were beaten first.

On my last try, I also had in the house a huge bag of home-dried pluots from my brother-in-law’s tree. He had dried them without citric acid, so they were dark and ugly. On impulse, he’d dusted his entire haul with chile powder. They were spicy!

I cut the pluots into small dice and added them to the persimmon batter, then baked it much longer than the “Joy” recipe and started it a higher temperature, hoping it would cook through while staying moist without being soupy.

Success is the recipe below. If you don’t have ugly dark home-dried pluots, which I’m sure you do not, use raisins, apricots, dates or dried plums (not prunes).

Persimmon Pudding Cake

Prep time: 45 minutes

Baking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho chile powder)

1 cup diced dried raisins, pluots, dates, apricots or plums ½ cup sugar

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 stick butter, soft

3 eggs

2 cups puréed persimmon pulp (from 4 to 6 very ripe Hachiya persimmons)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 1/2 cups cream

Directions

1. Butter a deep 9-inch square pan. To catch drips, prepare to set baking dish on a baking sheet or a large sheet of foil. Heat oven to 400 F.

2. In a bowl, toss the chopped dried fruit with chile powder; set aside.

3. Cream sugars and butter very well. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until each is absorbed. Stir in persimmon pulp.

4. In another bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

5. With mixer on low speed, add flour and cream alternately to the persimmon batter in three helpings, ending with flour. Stir in chile-dried fruit.

6. Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish. To catch drips, set on a rimmed baking sheet or a sheet of foil.

7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 60 to 70 minutes more. Insert a toothpick near the center. If batter sticks to the toothpick, bake 10 to 15 minutes more. Center will just barely jiggle.

8. Cool in pan on a cooling rack no longer than an hour. Set a timer! Loosen by running a knife around the edges. Flip cake onto a serving platter. A bit of juice may pool around the cake.

9. Let stand until the cake cools completely. Serve with dollops of whipped cream on each piece.

Main photo: Persimmon Pudding Cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

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Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.

In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.

In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.

In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.

The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.

At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.

Pilgrims’ harvest celebration

We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.”

Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.

As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.

In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.

Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stewed Pompion (Stewed Pumpkin). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote

“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.

In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.

One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”

Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)

Ingredients
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.

Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock

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Roasted parsnips with harissa, preserved lemons and tangy yogurt drizzle. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Parsnips used to get a lot more love in the United States.

When this pale taproot — native to Eurasia — made its way to the New World in the early 1600s, the inherently sweet but peppery parsnip was a commonplace carbohydrate. It sustained English settlers both as a daily, wintertime starch and as a special occasion sweetener. In “Roots,” cookbook author Diane Morgan, explains that Native Americans picked up this new crop and ran with it as a staple root vegetable for quite a while. But then parsnips got pushed aside by the prolific potato and the burgeoning sugar trade. They were further slandered by wandering seeds that made parsnips more of an invasive weed (the leaves of which oozed a sap that causes a nasty rash) than a useful crop, and botanists discovered the scary similarities between wild parsnips and their deadly cousin, poison hemlock.

Centuries later, things are looking up for the lowly parsnip. Cultivated parsnips — the three main varietals, the All American, Hollow Crown Improved and Harris Model, are all pretty similar in taste — are now being celebrated by chefs in the more northern climes of the United States. Parsnips are particularly highlighted this time of year because chefs know these roots get sweet like candy after they sit in the ground after a few hard frosts. The cold forces the parsnips to metabolize some of their starch reserves into sugar.

Once Greg Sessler has had to scrape the frost off his car’s windshield several mornings in a row, the chef of Cava Tapas and Wine Bar in Portsmouth, N.H., knows it’s time to call one of his farmers, Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee, for sweet parsnips.

Bred for flavor

“The difference between a parsnip picked before a cold snap and one picked after is pretty amazing,” said Sessler, who makes a parsnip and vanilla soup with which he pairs crispy, fried lobster.

Chef Brendan Vessey of The Joinery, a farm-to-table place that offers a Southern flare to its fare but is located in Newmarket, N.H., makes a distinction between the straight and crooked parsnips that come into his kitchen. He knows the gnarly ones have been bred for flavor and not uniformity.

“You’ve got to work back from what comes in the door,” Vessey said. With the more uniformly sized parsnips, Vessey makes a confit in which he very slowly cooks the roots in oil or tallow, garlic and fresh herbs. The more gnarly ones get scrubbed, gently scrapped clean of the peel with a knife and roasted in all their twisted glory.

Parsnips.

Parsnips. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Parsnips can also easily be celebrated at home. Although the USDA does not track parsnip production or consumption on the national level as it does with its orange cousin, the carrot, anecdotal evidence shows that home cooks have increasingly better access to parsnips. They are popping up in farmers market stalls at a steadier clip and becoming more prolific in community-supported agriculture winter shares.

If you happen to find yourself in possession of more parsnips than you know what to do with, here are 10 ways to get them out of the market bag or CSA box and onto the table for dinner.

  • Surprise guests expecting potato chips with spicy parsnip crisps.
  • Grate parsnips for latkes, fritters or pakoras.
  • Use parsnips in any puréed soup that could benefit from their sweet, earthy flavor that has hints of both parsley and nutmeg. Straight roasted parsnip and leek soup is a classic, but you can easily mix that up with additions of curry or ginger.
  • Add parsnips to a pot of potatoes destined to be mashed.
  • Purée parsnips as you would celery root or cauliflower to have a surprisingly sweet, snowy white pillow for braised winter meats.
  • Add parsnips to long-simmering beef or vegetarian stews.
  • Replace half of the carrots in your favorite maple glazed carrot recipe with similarly sized parsnips for a fun, visual side dish.
  • Sauté parsnips in tangy goat’s milk butter, as author Morgan suggests, which plays off the sweetness of the root for an easy but out-of-the-ordinary application.
  • Swap the carrots in your favorite muffin or cake for parsnips.
  • Roast parsnips in a hot oven to bring out the sweetness even further and spice them up with trendy ingredients such as harissa and preserved lemons (recipe below).

 

Roasted Parsnips With Harissa, Preserved Lemons and Tangy Yogurt Drizzle

I became acquainted with parsnips while living in England and eating many a Sunday pub lunch after wet, rainy walks in the countryside. I’ve adapted this recipe, which I originally found in a grocery store advertisement, to fall more in line with the ingredients I can find easily now in my home state of Maine.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes

Total time: 40 to 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Kosher salt

2 pounds small parsnips, scrubbed well and halved lengthwise

2 tablespoons harissa

1 tablespoon honey

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces plain yogurt

1 teaspoon minced garlic

Skin of 1 preserved lemon, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped celery leaves

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add parsnips, bring back to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Drain parsnips, lay them out flat on a clean towel and pat dry. Toss parsnips in a bowl with harissa, honey and 1/2 teaspoon salt until they are well coated.

3. Slather olive oil all over a baking sheet and place it into the oven for 5 minutes. When the oil is hot, add parsnips to the sheet and spread them out in a single layer. Roast until the parsnips are crispy and golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.

4. As the parsnips roast, mix yogurt and garlic. Let mixture sit for 10 minutes and then season with salt to taste.

5. When parsnips are roasted, scatter chopped preserved lemon and parsley or celery leaves over the top. Serve warm or room temperature with a drizzle of yogurt sauce.

Main photo: Roasted parsnips with harissa, preserved lemons and tangy yogurt drizzle. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Carole Murko

Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.

Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.

Thanksgiving memories

Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.

As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.

The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.

Creamed Onions

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

3 pounds fresh pearl onions

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup beef broth

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup all purpose flour

3 cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons apple cider

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Peel onions and trim both ends.

3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.

4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.

5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.

6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.

7. Roast for 10 minutes more.

For the cream sauce:

1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.

2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.

3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.

4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.

5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.

6. Serve warm

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The Miles Smith Farm store is solar powered and heated. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

Old-fashioned farm, cattle

It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.

Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.

The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.

Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.

Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.

Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.

Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.

The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.

Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

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Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.

A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.

The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.

I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.

Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors

My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.

Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.

The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.

Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.

The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.

Simple sides make for a happy cook

Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.

I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.

The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.

The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!

Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage

(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying your side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit:  Rinku Bhattacharya

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ginger paste

Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)

1 tablespoon salted butter

15 fresh sage leaves

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 375 F.

2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.

4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.

5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.

6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.

7.  Pour over the squash and mix lightly.

8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.

Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

3 cups of chopped spinach

1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Salt to taste

1/2 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.

3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.

4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.

5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.

6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.

7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.

8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.

9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.

Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya 

 

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Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

As you’re simmering your cranberries with sweetness this holiday season, you can thank Mother Nature for their astringent qualities.

The compounds that produce the cranberry’s bite — their proanthocyanins (PACs) — not only ward off enemies such as small animals and insects but provide possible health benefits for us human predators.

PACs in cranberries have extremely strong chemical bonds, says Amy Howell, Ph.D., a research scientist at Rutgers University. Instead of being broken down and absorbed into the blood, they appear to travel intact and take their benefits with them, to various parts of your body.

While cranberry juice’s ability to efficiently fight infections has been called into question, Jeffrey Blumberg has done research to identify why there may be conflicting results, and Howell is among those who suggest potential health benefits in areas such as these:

  • Stomach and bladder: You may already be familiar with how cranberries are reported to benefit these organs. PACs bind to harmful bacteria that cause ulcers and urinary tract infections and thus keep those bugs from adhering to the stomach lining and bladder walls. If the bacteria can’t stick, then they can’t multiply and cause damage, Howell says. “Thus, they harmlessly leave the body.”
  • Mouth: The same action happens here. PACs can help bind bacteria that contribute to decay and gum disease.
  • Intestines: But it’s new research on how cranberry’s PACs behave in the gut of model animals that’s getting berry scientists  excited. PACs can improve the bacteria in the colon,  Howell says, and compounds produced by those bacteria have far-reaching effects on your health.

“A top story on cranberry right now, just published in a very prestigious journal [Gut], is beautiful evidence for how compounds in cranberries — PACs in particular — act in the gut,” says Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University.

Fermentable fiber and your health

When it comes to fiber, “fermentable” is the latest buzzword. Once foods have been digested in the small intestine, the parts that aren’t digestible — their fiber — then travel to the large intestine. There, healthy bacteria feed on certain plant fibers and ferment them into important fatty acids. In turn, those fatty acids get absorbed into the blood and help control blood sugar, appetite and inflammation. They also help enrich your gut lining, which acts as a barrier to keep harmful particles from leaking out or in.

Some plants provide the raw materials for producing those good bacteria. They’re called “prebiotic” because they are prequels to healthy probiotic bugs.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender

And that’s where cranberries come in. “The fiber in cranberry skins serves as a prebiotic to help establish colonies of probiotic bacteria,”  Howell says. In addition, she is researching the possibility that cranberry’s PACs may help keep harmful bacteria such as E coli from invading the gut.

“This is very, very, very exciting stuff,” Lila says. “The cranberry PACs were able to create a healthy population of gut bacteria in those animals and protect against obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation caused by a poor diet,” she says.

In addition to PACs, cranberries have about 150 healthy compounds, as identified in research led by Jonathan Bock and Howell on esophageal and pharyngeal cancer — vitamins C and E; anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants and give them their vivid color; quercetin and myricetin, which bind minerals (iron and copper) that promote oxidation. Howell suggests that many of the compounds in cranberries may protect DNA from damage caused by oxidation and help guard against inflammation in body tissues beyond the colon.

  • Cardiovascular system: Research suggests that regularly consuming cranberry products “can reduce key risk factors for heart disease,” says Howell, by reducing inflammation and oxidation of harmful LDL cholesterol and by increasing good HDL cholesterol and the flexibility of arteries.
  • Brain: Scientists think that some of these anti-inflammatory compounds may also protect the brain against damage caused by stroke or aging, Howell says.
  • Cancer: Preliminary studies, all done in lab animals and cell cultures, suggest that cranberry’s compounds have the potential to inhibit tumor growth of some types of cancer, but much research remains to be done, suggests Howell.

If you’re still stirring those cranberries, you may be wondering whether all that cooking will destroy their healthy benefits. Howell suggests that “cranberry PACs are not seriously damaged by cooking or processing.” But other health-promoting compounds may be damaged by heat, and the effects of cooking on foods “is an area that needs considerably more research,” says Ron Prior, a research chemist at the University of Arkansas. In general, harsh cooking methods will result in degradation.

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

With all the scientists out there investigating berries, the dream is that there will be a verdict on cranberries by next season’s holidays. For this year, however, we’re sticking to a quick cooking method — in hopes of pleasing some hungry guts. Should we tell them about the microbes?

Quick Cranberry Sauce, with healthy bugs

Courtesy of Reveena Rothman-Rudnicki/ Raveena’s Kitchen

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings, 1/2 cup each

Ingredients

4 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup water

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 teaspoon grated ginger

4 to 6 tablespoons maple syrup

Handful pecans

Directions

1. Put cranberries and water in a medium saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Take off heat. Add cinnamon, orange juice and zest, ginger and maple syrup. Sprinkle pecans on top.

3. Cranberries have no sugar, so you do have to sweeten them. Start with 4 tablespoons, let the dish sit for a while, then decide whether you want more.

Main photo: Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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This prized Turkish pumpkin dessert, kabak tatlisi,

Pumpkins are a fixture at autumn farmers markets in Turkey, where they grow so large that they’re often cut with saws and sold in halves or by the slice. Like Americans, Turks love their pumpkin both savory — in soups, stews and as stuffed vegetables — and sweet.

Perhaps the most prized Turkish dessert is kabak tatlisi (literally, “pumpkin sweet”), wedges of pumpkin simmered in a syrup made by using sugar to leach the gourd of its natural juices. Because the recipe doubles or triples easily and the result keeps well for a day or two in the refrigerator, it’s a perfect dessert for holidays that demand do-ahead short-cuts, like Thanksgiving.

A sweet dessert tamed by nutty toppings

I’ve been a pumpkin lover all my life, yet until recently, kabak tatlisi, which is often served on its own or with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), left me cold. Then I sampled it in Hatay province in southeast Turkey, where the pumpkin is served drizzled with tahini (that is a Turkish pantry staple) and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. The tahini’s slight bitterness tames the cloying sweetness of the pumpkin and crunchy walnuts complement the pudding-soft texture of the vegetable. The tahini’s oil content lends a rich, satisfying mouth feel, but since it’s made up mostly of vegetable, kabak tatlisi settles lightly in the stomach.

Though Turkish cooks usually make kabak tatlisi in a covered pan on top of the stove, I’ve found that the dish cooks wonderfully — and with less bother — in the oven. It emerges a lovely burnt orange, tinged with brownish bits from the caramelization.

Do not fear the sugar

Be prepared. This recipe calls for what will seem like a lot of sugar. Resist the temptation to cut back. The sugar is there to pull liquid out of the pumpkin. Yes, the result is super-sweet, but kabak tatlisi isn’t meant to be eaten in American pumpkin-pie-sized wedges. Just a few cubes per diner — three or four little bites of caramel-y,  tahini-nutty sweetness to end a meal — will do.

Resist also any urge to reduce cooking time by cutting the pumpkin into smaller pieces than this recipe indicates, or it will turn to mush before it caramelizes and the syrup has reduced. Be sure to use unadulterated tahini, without peanuts or peanut butter. Its bitter edge is essential to the success of this dish.

Plan ahead: the pumpkin must “soak” in the sugar for 8 hours (or overnight) before baking.

Caramelized Pumpkin with Tahini and Walnuts (Firinda Kabak Tatlisi)

Note: This recipe can easily be doubled, halved, cut into thirds. The rule of thumb is one part sugar to two parts pumpkin. Do not serve kabak tatlisi hot out of the oven. Room temperature or slightly chilled is best. Make sure your tahini is at room temperature when you serve.

Prep time: Up to 1/2 hour to prep the pumpkin; 8 hours to “soak” the pumpkin

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 8

Ingredients

1  1/2 pounds peeled pumpkin

3/4 pound (1 1/2 cups white sugar)

12 tablespoons pure tahini, at room temperature and whisked to remove any lumps

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

This Turkish pumpkin dessert features pumpkin wedges "soaked" for hours in sugar to draw out the liquid from the gourd. Credit: David Hagerman

This Turkish pumpkin dessert features pumpkin wedges “soaked” for hours in sugar to draw out the liquid from the gourd. Credit: David Hagerman

Directions

Prepping the pumpkin:

1. Cut the pumpkin into wide (3-inch) wedges and/or large (4-by-4-inch) chunks.

2. Arrange the pumpkin pieces in a baking dish or tray just large enough to hold them closely, but without crowding.

3. Sprinkle the sugar over the pumpkin and cover the dish with plastic wrap.

4. Leave the pumpkin at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight. Turn the pumpkin pieces occasionally – once every few hours, or once before bed and once after you get up — to expose all sides to the sugar.

Baking the pumpkin: 

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Before baking, turn the pumpkin pieces one last time in what has likely become a mixture of syrup and lumps of wet granulated sugar.

3. Place the baking dish on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40 minutes, gently turning the pumpkin pieces and basting with the sugar syrup once or twice.

4. Check the pumpkin for doneness by piercing a piece with a sharp knife. There should be no resistance.

5. Baste the pumpkin once more, then raise the heat to 400 F and continue to bake until it shows bits of caramel brown in some spots and the syrup bubbles, about 10 to 15 minutes.

6. Cool the pumpkin in its baking dish.

7. To serve, cut the pumpkin into small cubes or wedges and carefully transfer to bowls or plates. Spoon a bit of syrup over it, if you like, or leave it in the dish. Drizzle 1 1/2 tablespoons of tahini over each serving of pumpkin and sprinkle with walnuts.

Main photo: This prized Turkish dessert, kabak tatlisi, features pumpkin wedges simmered in a sweet sugar-based syrup and topped with tahini and walnuts. Credit: David Hagerman

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