Articles in Thanksgiving

Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to revisit the year past, particularly for a wild foods enthusiast. This last foraging season was a doozie in my little corner of the Rocky Mountain region. It was a hard year for the plants, even harder for the people who endured the natural disasters, which only increases my gratitude for the wild foods I was able to pick, including porcini mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner.

Rough year for wild food

Despite what was, in nearly every way, an unusually hard year for foraging, I was still able to harvest foods throughout the growing season.

This year there were regular snows and hard freezes right up into May, which meant that nearly all of the tree fruit crops were lost, including wild plums and apples. Summer looked to be a repeat of the previous years’ droughts, complete with destructive forest fires. Then, just as summer was about to end, a flooding rainstorm hit the area, shredding the landscape and forcing people from their homes.

I won’t forget my joy in finding the first green tops of wild onions in the spring, and preserving them in butter kept safe in the freezer. High summer scented my fingers with Monarda fistulosa, also known as beebalm or wild oregano. As summer started to drag its heels, I made my annual trek into the forest to chase down Boletus edulis, porcini mushrooms.

Even now, in what I’ve taken to calling “the year without fruit,” months past the first freeze, and having endured many snow storms, the land still provides. Some hardy greens still cling tightly to the ground, and I’m looking forward to a quiet snowy day in the coming months when I can pick black walnuts out of their shells. My pantry is wonderfully well stocked.

Foraged Thanksgiving classics

I will revisit my year of foraging at Thanksgiving with dishes tickled with wild ingredients. They will taste distinctly of this place I love and cement my foraging memories. It is possible to make a nearly all-wild Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve done so in the past. But because the holiday is a time to be surrounded by friends and extended family, many of whom are unfamiliar with wild cuisine, I usually restrain myself from making an all-wild meal. Instead, I prefer to make a wild twist on traditional dishes — cranberry sauce mixed with highbush cranberries, turkey basted with wild allium butter, or pumpkin pie made with a black walnut crust.

Among my most successful wild-infused Thanksgiving dishes is a stuffing loaded with foraged porcini mushrooms, which can also be purchased from a store if you aren’t lucky enough to find your own. Stuffing made with porcini mushrooms tastes at once wild and luxurious, but also comfortingly familiar. Using the porcini soaking water in place of the traditional broth adds an extra dimension of mushroom flavor to the dish. The eggs in this recipe add extra binding power to the bread cubes, but they may easily be omitted if you are serving vegans or those with egg allergies. This Thanksgiving stuffing may also be made gluten-free by using gluten-free bread.

Wild Porcini Mushroom Stuffing

Serves 8 to 10

Ingredients

1 pound sourdough bread, cut into ½-inch cubes

3½ cups boiling water

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms

8 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 stalks celery with leaves, sliced

8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems

½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed

10 fresh sage leaves, chopped

Freshly cracked pepper

2 eggs, beaten (optional)

3 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, chopped

Directions

1. Evenly spread the bread cubes on two baking sheets, and toast them in a 350 F oven until they dry out and the edges begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

2. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini mushrooms. Set it aside.

3. In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, thyme. Salt to the skillet and cook them until they turn soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.

4. Use a strainer to fish the mushroom slices out of the soaking water. Let the water drip out of them for a few seconds before adding them to the skillet with the onion and celery. Continue to cook the vegetables and mushrooms for another 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, and add cracked pepper, plus more salt if necessary, to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat.

5. Gently pour the mushroom soaking water into the skillet full of vegetables and mushrooms, taking care to leave behind any dirt that has settled in the bottom. If you are using eggs, whisk  them into the liquid.

6. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl. Pour the contents of the skillet over the bread cubes and toss until the bread cubes have absorbed all of the liquid. Stir in the parsley.

7. Transfer the mixture into a greased two-quart baking dish, and bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is heated through and the top looks crunchy and brown.

Top photo: Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Pumpkin pie made with gramma variety pumpkins. Credit: Charles Perry

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.

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

1 egg

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons finely ground sugar

Water or milk

Directions

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

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Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett

I have long been a devotee of cranberries as much for their history and lore as for their happy association with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. And they deserve to be an essential part of this totally American feast day because they are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, that are native to North America.

We have evidence that long before Europeans settled in what was to become the United States, indigenous people used cranberries extensively both in their diet and as medicine. Pemmican, a preserved food, was made from crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. As well as lasting through a harsh New England winter, pemmican was portable, a benefit for people on the move. As for cranberry’s medicinal properties, the Indians were said to make cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, but as far as I know, there has been no research done to measure the efficacy of this.

What we do know, however, is that cranberries contain a high level of vitamin C, and that in earlier times American sailors took them on voyages to avoid scurvy, just as the British took along limes for this purpose. We also know that cranberry juice is often recommended to people suffering from an urinary tract infection, so this fruit has a good reputation among the health conscious.

The healthy and the sweet

But it seems to me that the cranberry’s greatest triumph has to do with its crucial place at the table as a delectable accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. Just as holiday cooks vary as to how they prepare sweet potatoes, so do they differ in their preferred cranberry sauces and relishes. The easiest version, and perhaps the one with the most dubious reputation, is the canned jellied sauce that slithers out of its container with a long scar along its side, the imprint from the inside of the can, ready to be sliced and served.

Fresh cranberries in the market, ready for Thanksgiving. Credit: Barbara Haber

Fresh cranberries in the market, ready for Thanksgiving. Credit: Barbara Haber

Another canned sauce is similar to what we cook at home from fresh cranberries. Berries are left whole and cooked with plenty of sugar until a jellied sauce is formed. Raw cranberries bear the distinction of being both sour and bitter and must be tempered by sweeteners to be edible. (I recently came across the sobering fact that sugar has such a huge capacity for dissolving in liquid that one pound of water can easily absorb two pounds of sugar.)

Home cooks have been adventurous in their approach to cranberry sauce with recipes that embellish the simple mode of throwing the fruit into a pot with a little water and lots of sugar. Some introduce other fruits to the mix, especially oranges that give great flavor and an inviting complexity to the dish. Other cooks cast wider nets and add raisins, currants, blueberries and pecans or other nuts.

Then we get into the realm of spices. My preference is for a sauce made with cranberries and sugar, just a touch of orange zest, maybe a stick of cinnamon and nothing else. But I have come across recipes that call not only for cinnamon, but nutmeg, ginger, cloves and even allspice. To my mind, harsh spices take away from the tangy and unique flavor of a cranberry sauce whose fruity purity strikes me as the perfect companion to turkey with a rich gravy.

Getting creative with cranberries

But canned or cooked cranberry dishes are not the end of how this Thanksgiving side dish is approached. Enter the world of relishes. What with the availability of meat grinders and food processors, home cooks have been busily grinding up fresh cranberries along with apples, oranges, even pineapple in mixtures that can include such flavored liqueurs as Grand Marnier to pep up the dish. And if such mixtures are not lively enough, white pepper, fresh ginger and even jalapeno peppers can be added, thus taking an innocent cranberry relish into the realm of south-of-the-border salsas.

Endless varieties of cranberry juice. Credit: Barbara Haber

Endless varieties of cranberry juice. Credit: Barbara Haber

National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg has received lots of attention for a cranberry relish recipe that includes an onion, sour cream and red horseradish, resulting in a shocking pink dish she admits looks like Pepto-Bismol.

This never-ending pursuit of novelty is displayed every fall when food magazines can be counted on to scramble up traditional Thanksgiving dishes. One magazine this year is offering holiday relish recipes that omit cranberries altogether in exchange for pomegranate seeds or kumquats.

For innovation, I would rather direct my attention to the cranberry industry, which has successfully attracted us to its products all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry drinks now occupy vast grocery shelves and are available in mixtures that include the juices of other fruits, and of course in diet form.

And dried sweetened cranberries are pushing aside the long-held monopoly enjoyed by raisins in such baked favorites as cookies and muffins. I have made the switch in my own baking, and am happy to encounter the bright flavor of cranberries in May or June and not just at the end of the year.

Dried Cranberry Muffins

Ingredients

1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1¼ cups whole wheat flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream

1½ cups sweetened dried cranberries

1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin muffin tin.

2. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.

3. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl to be sure the butter is thoroughly mixed. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix thoroughly.

4. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing at low speed until batter is smooth. When all ingredients are mixed, add the cranberries and walnuts by gently folding them into the batter.

5. Using ¼ cup measuring cup, scoop batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.

They are delicious served warm and freeze beautifully for reheating later.

Top photo: Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett

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A selection of holiday wine. Credit: Tina Caputo

Several years ago, while visiting my family in Michigan for the Christmas holiday, my dad told me about a mysterious collection of wines stashed in his basement. The wines had been passed down to him by an old Italian judge, who had died before he had a chance to drink them.

Naturally, I was curious about what sort of wines they were. My dad hadn’t bothered to go through the couple of cases he was given, instead leaving them for me to pick through when I arrived. I was practically rubbing my hands together in anticipation of the treasures I might find in Dad’s basement.

When I went downstairs on Christmas morning, what I found was mostly disappointing — white wines from the ’70s that had turned brown, unremarkable reds never meant to be aged, cork-tainted wines that had to be poured down the sink. But there was one bottle that made my heart palpitate: a 1967 Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva from Tuscany.

I brought it upstairs and popped the cork, and found that the wine had held up beautifully over the years. It had lovely mature character, and managed to retain much of its fruitiness. I poured glasses for our little gathering — my dad, stepmom, husband, sister and brother-in-law — and we all agreed that the wine was something special. Truth be told, it was a little past its prime, but that didn’t stop us from finishing the bottle.

While we waited for the rest of the family to arrive for dinner, my husband searched the Internet to find out more about the wine we’d just polished off. “Wow, that wine is selling at auction for $200!” he announced. My frugal father, a man who drinks wine daily but rarely spends more than $10 on a bottle, was thunderstuck. “If I’d known that,” he said, “I would never have opened it.”

He was only half joking. But what better time could there be to open a special bottle of wine than the holidays, when you’re surrounded by family and friends — the people you love most?

Holiday-worthy wines

Even if you don’t have a 1967 Chianti hiding in your cellar, chances are you have a bottle or two stashed away from a winery visit or vacation. What are you waiting for? My dad’s Italian judge was waiting for the right occasion to open his wines, too. If you don’t already have a special bottle set aside, why not make this the year to splurge on a memorable wine to share with your favorite people?

Here are five wines that fit that description nicely. These Napa Valley and Sonoma stunners taste great now and will improve with age, so you’ll be able to enjoy them at future holiday celebrations too. The wines are balanced and food friendly — none containing more than 14.1% alcohol — so they’ll pair wonderfully with your holiday brisket or standing rib roast.

Pine Ridge Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($85): This gorgeous wine has an enticing aroma of red fruit, along with cherry and berry flavors accented with baking spices. It’s elegant and balanced, with soft tannins.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Fay Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($95): With aromas of raspberries and cedar, this is a beautifully balanced wine with bright red cherry flavor, silky texture and well-integrated tannins.

Clos Du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($80): Here’s a classic, age-worthy Napa Valley Cabernet with rich aromas of leather and black fruit. It has black cherry and chocolate flavors, along with good structure and moderate tannins.

Cobb Wines Sonoma Coast Jack Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($70): This lovely cool-climate Pinot smells of ripe raspberries and cherries, and has delicious red fruit flavors to match. The wine’s fruit-forwardness is balanced by a good bit of acidity.

Inman Family Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2009 ($35): With its aromas of red fruit and cinnamon spice, this wine was made for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s medium bodied and elegant, with soft tannins and flavors of red fruit and cola.

Top photo:  A selection of holiday wine. Credit: Tina Caputo

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French turkey

Thanksgiving seems a consummately American holiday, embodied by nothing more succinctly than the roast turkey, a creature native to North America. However, in France, a feast not dissimilar to Thanksgiving took place each Nov. 11 to honor Saint Martin of Tours. Perhaps even more surprisingly, this too featured an enormous roast turkey as its central dish.

Alexandre-Laurent-Balthazar Grimod de la Reynière, the author of the world’s first serially published food magazine, the Almanach des Gourmands, in 1803 explained that no other day on the calendar held such joy for gourmands, be they Protestant, Greek Orthodox or even atheists. He described Saint Martin as the “patron of parties and the Saint the most generally invoked by men of good appetite.”

As Grimod himself put it, there’s no special evidence that this fourth-century bishop of Tours, long associated with the French royal family and nation, had epicurean leanings (although he has been credited as developing viticulture in the Touraine and for introducing the Chenin Blanc grape there). He was, in fact, a Roman soldier, before his conversion, and has long been venerated by the military. However, from an early date a great feast was held to venerate Saint Martin, which preceded the 40-day fast of advent.

Although this had been dropped by Grimod’s day, the copious harvest-festival banquet remained and stood as a highlight in any French gourmand’s calendar.

The French take to turkey

In no uncertain terms, this consummate epicure explained that the turkey was “the bird of Saint Martin.” He correctly elaborated that although the bird was not native to France, the French had taken to it immediately. Although he credited the turkey’s debut in France to the 1570 wedding banquet of Charles IX, 66 of them had already featured at the coronation feast given by the city of Paris to the king’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, in 1549. Regal French households had, in fact, been breeding them from as early as the 1530s.

Unlike other New World foods such as potatoes and tomatoes that took centuries to assimilate in Europe, turkeys met with instant popularity. Because the prevailing dietary theory accorded a high status to game birds, which, after all, were the exclusive perquisite of an aristocracy that enjoyed the right to hunt, these exotic birds felt appropriate for princely tables. In such a way the turkeyquickly replaced the goose, which had previously featured at the feast of Saint Martin, purportedly because he had hidden amongst a flock of geese when resisting his election as bishop.

French turkey carve

1720 carving illustration. Credit: Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

In spite of the turkey’s renown in France, its origin proved a point of confusion. Grimod conjectured that the bird was either Namibian or Indian in origin. The latter theory gave rise to the early French term ‘coq d’inde’ (Indian cock), which eventually contracted into ‘dinde,’ for turkey (of course, the English got it equally wrong, attributing the bird to Turkey, hence the name).

He wasn’t that fussed about where the turkey originated so long as that on his table was young, plump, and juicy. His fellow Frenchmen apparently felt the same. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789, fashionable Parisians bankrupted themselves to serve turkeys à la Périgord, i.e. stuffed entirely full of the region’s magnificent black truffles.

Grimod confessed that this extravagance could rarely be prepared on Saint Martin’s feast day, even by the wealthiest of hosts, because the holiday falls before truffle season typically gets underway (although he noted that there were exceptions). As an alternative, he suggested stuffing the bird with chestnuts from Lyon or little sausages from Nancy. One way or another, however, roast turkey had to appear at the Saint-Martin’s-Day feast.

1830 restaurant card available from. Photo courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

1830 restaurant card available from. Credit: Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Bringing Saint Martin’s feast back

The holiday has fallen out of favor in today’s secular society. Moreover, since World War I ended on November 11, 1918, the day has been remembered in France as Armistice Day, further obscuring its more ancient association with Saint Martin. Nevertheless, traces of it remain intact to this day.

‘Foire aux Dindons’ in Varaignes, France. Credit: Tourist Office of Varaignes

‘Foire aux Dindons’ in Varaignes, France. Credit: Tourist Office of Varaignes

The town of Varaignes in the Haut Périgord, for example, this Nov. 11, celebrated its 47th annual ‘foire aux dindons’ (turkey fair), which reprised an earlier, forgotten tradition. The festival begins each Saint Martin’s Day with a parade of turkeys through the town square and culminates in a grand banquet, featuring, bien sûr, a stew made from the turkeys bred in the region. Turkeys may be North American in origin, but for the locals who’ve been rearing them for centuries they now symbolize a proud part of the local terroir.

Plump Roast Turkey Stuffed with Foie Gras and Truffles

From the “Dictionnaire portatif de Cuisine, d’Office, et de distillation. » (Paris : Vincent, 1767 ; translated by the author).

Choose a young, small and plump turkey. Pluck it, gut it & flame it. Take three blanched foies gras; cut the truffles, which have been partially cooked in a bouillon, into them and cut them in the same way. Put the truffles with the foies and some juice, and finish cooking them until the sauce dries out. Let it cool; stuff your turkey & stitch it up. Put it on the spit, wrapped in lard and paper; serve it with a good essence.

Top image: Turkey illustration from Pierre Bollons, “L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, Paris: 1555.” Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Fresh produce is handed out at a community pantry. Credit: Peter Clarke

When Seattle chef Maxime Bilet says he was presented with the “most amazing challenge,” you want to know more. After all, what could be more difficult than creating barbecue with a smoker, a sous-vide bath, a centrifuge or liquid nitrogen?

Think simple, really simple.

“You pretty much have nothing other than what’s in the food bank. You have to make a delicious dish from these ingredients in under 20 minutes. And you have nothing but the basic tools,” says Bilet, the 30-year-old co-creator of “Modernist Cuisine” and its sister cookbook “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” a groundbreaking exploration of cooking, art and science.

Food bank?  Basic tools?  Under 20 minutes?  Dorothy, we are clearly not in Nathan Myhrvold’s kitchen anymore.  (Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive and master French chef, was the force behind “Modernist Cuisine.”)

Peter Clarke and Susan Evans. Credit: Duane Poole

University of Southern California professors Peter Clarke and Susan Evans enlisted Bilet in their ambitious project to transform the diet of Americans dependent on the free food distributed by food banks. They began in 1991 with a program to pair up the nation’s 200-plus food banks — whose inventory consisted largely of cereals, canned goods and convenience foods — with produce distributors who had surplus fruits and vegetables.

Clarke and Evans quickly discovered that getting fresh beans or squash into the food bank community pantries wasn’t enough. They needed to help people figure out what to do with the vegetables or risk having the produce dumped in the garbage.

Food bank visitors don’t have easy path to healthy eating

Time and resources are big barriers to healthy eating. Many of the people dependent on pantries are seniors or the working poor, who are juggling a couple of part-time jobs while raising children. They often suffer from diabetes or other chronic diseases. A growing number are Latino and Asian immigrants who aren’t familiar with the vegetables eaten in the United States. And their kitchens aren’t likely to be stocked with sharp knives, food processors or expensive spices.

They need food that is simple to make, fast and filling, which is why their default meals often come in a can, a microwaveable carton or a fast-food bag.

So Clarke and Evans created QUICK! Help for Meals, a computer program that provides pantry clients with recipes that incorporate the produce of the day and are available in English or Spanish.  They found that by customizing the recipes to the individual’s needs — family size, health issues, flavor preferences — they could double the amount of vegetables people took home.

Dio Velasco (left), a field researcher for QUICK! Help for Meals, gathers reactions to recipes from a pantry client at Our Savior Center in El Monte, Calif. Credit: Peter Clarke

Clarke and Evans scoured cookbooks and the Internet to build a recipe list based around the vegetables most commonly found in food banks:  zucchini, broccoli, green beans, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, root vegetables and cabbage.  They also sought the help of top food professionals.

Brian Wansink, Cornell University food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think,” taught them about the hidden things that influence people’s food choices. His research shows that restaurants can increase sales by 20% with menu descriptions that evoke positive feelings, such as “Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.” With his assistance, Clarke and Evans revised their recipes and are currently testing the dressed-up versions at several Southern California pantries.

Lachlan Sands, the executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Los Angeles, and his students reviewed several hundred recipes for ease of preparation, flavor and nutritional value. “The number one thing is that the food is properly cooked,” Sands says. “People don’t like Brussels sprouts because they have such a strong flavor. But if you cook them right, they are nutty and sweet.”

Chef Maxime Bilet. Credit: Ryan Matthew Smith

Bilet was asked to use his culinary wizardry to develop recipes with kid appeal, an important priority for pantry clients. His biggest challenge was “making a head of cabbage awesome to a kid who’s accustomed to eating Big Macs.” The solution?  Cut the cabbage into thick wedges, baste them with a little oil and salt to release the water and then roast them with a few sprinkles of feta cheese or brown sugar and honey.  “When in doubt, roast,” he says. “Kids prefer the softer textures with vegetables and they love that roasted flavor.”

Bilet also created a whole-grain stew featuring sautéed zucchini, brown rice and creamed corn, all popular pantry items.  “It had all the flavor notes,” says Bilet. “It had the vegetableness, the nuttiness and substance of rice and the creaminess and sweetness of creamed corn. The kids loved it.”

Bilet, who recently left Myhrvold’s cooking lab to pursue new adventures, believes food empowerment can become a powerful tool for improving public health in America. And he credits Clarke and Evans with helping lead the charge. They are now working with researchers to transfer QUICK! Help for Meals to a smartphone app to make it easier for pantries to administer.  “It’s just so brilliant,” Bilet says.

Photo: Fresh produce is handed out at a community pantry. Credit: Peter Clarke

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apple butter

Apple butter might not seem like a traditional holiday food, but it holds a place of honor at my family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas table in Virginia. Stored in mason jars in the cellar or pantry until opened, then kept in the fridge, the apple butter gets its own special serving dish at my family’s holiday meals. Every few years we forget to put out the apple butter, but as soon as we start passing the homemade rolls, someone (usually my father) inevitably asks for it.

Because apple butter is traditionally made in the fall after apples are harvested, it also makes a great holiday gift.

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I grew up, gallons and gallons of apple butter are made by groups of people who gather for an “apple butter boiling.” The results are then canned and sold as fundraisers for local churches, fire halls and civic organizations.

Not a hurried process

Making apple butter this way is a two-day process. It takes 15 to 18 bushels of apples to make a large kettle of apple butter, so preparing the apples is an event in itself. On the evening before the apple butter boiling, people gather to peel and core the apples and cut them into slices called “snits.”

The next day is devoted to cooking down the apples in a large copper kettle over an open fire. It takes hours to boil down the apples in a bath of apple cider and the pot must be stirred the entire time. It’s traditional to add 10 to 12 pennies to the bottom of the kettle as you start to boil the apples in the kettle. Nobody really knows why, but some people think it keeps the apples from sticking to the bottom and burning. There’s even a special way to stir the kettle and a rhyme to help remember how to do it.

Once around the side and twice through the middle,

Don’t you burn that apple butter ‘kittle.’

People in the community buy apple-butter from the communal “boiling” for themselves and to give as holiday gifts. I grew up in Winchester, the apple capitol of Virginia, so my perspective on apple butter may be slightly skewed, but it’s been my experience that you can find apple butter anywhere people grow apples, at least in this country.

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Picking apples at Riley’s Farm. Credit: Susan Lutz

However, if you don’t have a local civic group that takes two days to make apple butter for you, you’ll probably have to do it yourself. I don’t mean to imply that you can’t buy apple butter at the grocery store. You can. But it’s not the same. So this year I embarked on a quest to create the kind of apple butter I grew up with.

A new generation

My husband and I took our daughters to pick apples in our local apple country at a place called Oak Glen, Calif., about an hour and a half east of Los Angeles. When I told my dad what we were planning, he said, “I always wondered who went to those places. Seems smarter to have someone else do the hard work and pick out the good apples for you.”

Clearly, he is a man who grew up picking his own apples from his family’s small orchard. I was embarrassed at first, but also defensive when I said, “So you WANT your granddaughters to grow up not knowing how to pick apples? The phone line was silent for a minute before he replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Point made.

My family happily harvested apples at Riley’s Farm (and enjoyed the hay ride and other “old-timey” events). A few days later we began to make our own apple butter. My father happened to be visiting when we made the second batch. I’m pleased to report that he sat at my stove dutifully stirring the pot of apple butter for an hour and a half one evening. Such is my father’s love of apple butter and family.

The apple butter we made is so thick that it will pile up on a spoon and melt in your mouth. It is dark brown in color, generously spiced with cinnamon and cloves and never gritty. My recipe makes about nine half-pint jars so if you go to the trouble of making it, you’ll have plenty to share. That is, unless you’re a part of my family, in which case you’ll have to make at least two batches of the stuff for your own family’s use. That’s what I did this year and I think I might make another batch or two before the holidays roll around so I have some to give away as presents.

Country-Style Apple Butter

Yield: 9 to 10 half-pints

I am grateful to Phyllis Shenk and Betty Sheetz for sharing their apple butter recipe with me and allowing me to attend their family’s joint apple butter boiling about 10 years ago.

Both of these amazing women have since passed away, and I often think of them as I stir my apple butter “kettle.” Although they’d probably get a good chuckle at the “tiny” quantity of apple butter this recipe makes, I think they’d like it. I’m sure it would please them both to know that I’m teaching my daughters to love apple butter and to learn their traditional apple butter stirring-rhyme.

Note: This is not the fastest or easiest way to make apple butter. It’s still a two-day process, even without the open fire and copper kettle.

My recipe calls for using a combination of a slow-cooker and stirring a pot on the stove for several hours. Using the slow-cooker allows me to cut down on stirring time by about 1½ hours, while still getting the rich, dark color I like.

Ingredients

8 pounds of apples (Phyllis and Betty recommend using Ben Davis or Rome apples. They say never use Staymen because they cook up “stringy.” I’ve used a combination of Jonathans and Senshus with great success. Avoid overripe, mealy apples of all varieties.)

2 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)

1½ tablespoons whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1 spice bag (or a piece of cheese cloth with a string to tie it shut)

4½ to 5 cups white sugar (The total amount of sugar used depends on sweetness of the apples. You can also substitute light brown sugar for white sugar.)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

2 cups apple cider or water (Sometimes I need to add a little extra water to the pot during the second cooking phase on the stove-top if I turn the heat up too high during the cooking process.)

Directions

1. Wash, peel, core, and slice apples into at least 8 pieces about ¼ to ½ inch thick. You should end up with approximately 6 to 6½ pounds of sliced apples from 8 pounds of whole apples.

2. Warm the apple cider vinegar and 1 cup of water or apple cider in a medium sauce pan.

3. Place apples, spice bag containing the cloves and cinnamon stick, and warmed liquid mixture in a slow cooker. Cook on high, with covered lid, for 8 hours. Don’t do this overnight because you want to watch the cooking process to make sure the apples don’t scorch. The cooking time will depend on the heat of your slow cooker. If you have a high-powered slow cooker, cook on low heat.

If all the apples won’t fit into your slow cooker, you can place the extra apples in a medium sauce pan with at least 1 cup of the original liquid mixture. Heat the pot of apples and liquid mixture slowly on the stove and keep the pot covered. When apples in the slow cooker have cooked down a bit, add the softened apples from the pot into the slow cooker.

4. After 5 hours, open the lid and taste the liquid. Remove the spice bag if you like the flavor. For a stronger flavor, leave the spice bag in the mixture until you achieve the desired spiciness. Continue cooking for a total of at least 8 hours.

5. After 8 hours, the apples should be very soft. They will also have produced a large quantity of liquid.  Cool the apple mixture and put it into the refrigerator overnight.

6. The next day, put the apple and liquid mixture into a large non-reactive pot and heat slowly, stirring constantly. If you don’t like slightly lumpy apple butter (as I do), you can run the apple mixture through a food mill or use an immersion blender to get rid of some of the lumps before you begin heating it.

7. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for approximately 1½ to 2 hours until the apples are dark brown in color and have the consistency of slightly lumpy applesauce. Add 1 cup of additional water (or apple cider) if the pot starts to get dry before the apples have thoroughly cooked. Be careful to keep heat low enough that the mixture does not bubble up and burn you while you’re stirring the pot.

8. When the apple butter has thickened, add 4 ½ cups sugar, continuing to stir the pot.

Taste for flavor. Add up to ½ cup of additional sugar and ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon if needed.

9. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches desired consistency. To test for doneness, remove a spoonful and see if it mounds on the spoon. You can also put a small spoonful of apple butter onto a plate and watch to see if a rim of liquid forms around the mound. If it does, continue cooking until a spoonful of apple butter mounds on the plate without creating a puddle of liquid around it.

10. While apple butter is cooking, sterilize half-pint jars.

When apple butter is done, pour it into hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars and put on lids and screw rings. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath following USDA recommendations.

Photo: Apple butter. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com

What looks like a cross between a giant thistle and supersized celery, but tastes like artichoke with a trace of truffle? Don’t worry if you don’t have a clue. Cardoons are still a rare find in U.S. stores, although more and more farmers are growing them. If you’ve spent time in Italy or Spain, though, you probably know them as cardi or cardone — a classic winter vegetable that is perfect in a bagna cauda.

Cardoons are among the vegetables that home gardeners have enjoyed and that great painters have lovingly rendered for centuries.

The cardoon in Juan Sánchez Cotán’s bodegón (a still life, usually in a pantry or cellar), is domestic and poetic, mundane and mysterious, secular and sacred. Somehow Sánchez Cotán painted the lowly yet lovely cardoon’s sharp edges in soft colors, making it pulse with hidden life. It’s a humble, ordinary scene, yet the gathering up of the fruits of the earth before they die and return to whence they came hints of the rituals of the altar.

The artichoke’s cousin

Like artichokes, cardoons are in the thistle family. Their wild ancestor grew all over the Mediterranean and was gradually domesticated. Some, bred for their big buds, became the artichokes we know today, while others, bred for a large and meaty petiole (leaf stalk), became the cardoon.

The cardoon plant resembles its forebears, with long stalks and velvety, deeply lobed, heavily spined, gray-green leaves with a felt-like surface. The pale green stalks are about an inch wide, and 18 to 22 inches long. Some cardoon stems are straight, but in Italy the most sought after are curved, a feature that results in their being nicknamed gobbi, or hunchbacks.

My brother, Henry, plants the Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice) cardoons, as well as the Porto Spineless variety on his farm in Illinois. Both have the look and the crunch of celery, but the flavor is absolutely nothing like celery.

Henry Brockman with cardoons

Henry Brockman with cardoons, photographed on an angle. Credit: Terra Brockman

Cardoons are not normally eaten raw, but when my brother had me go chop one down (slicing through the 6-inch base is more akin to chopping a tree than cutting a vegetable), we inhaled the earthy truffle aroma, and decided to sample it on the spot. Raw, it has an immediate bitter bite on your tongue, but as you chew it, it develops complex and pleasant flavors. By the time you swallow it, you can’t help but take another bite, and soon the bitter flavor becomes addictive.

Worth the trouble

When cardoons are cooked, their membership in the artichoke family becomes apparent. But they are better than the best artichoke hearts, in that they seem to have been dusted with rich white truffle. A quick look through my Italian cookbooks suggests a variety of cooking methods, from braising to frying to making them into a risotto or gratin.

The cookbooks also make it clear that cardoons need some prep time. Chef Jason Hammel of Chicago’s Lula Café and Nightwood Restaurant, once said, “Good food is trouble.” And I say cardoons are a case in point. But anything worthwhile requires a bit of work, right?

In the case of cardoons, you trim the spines, peel the fibers and boil them for in water with the juice of a lemon before doing anything else with them. And honestly, that’s not so much trouble. Rest assured — what comes later makes it all worthwhile.

Try substituting this cardoon gratin for that tired old potato or squash gratin at your Thanksgiving dinner. Give an extra helping to whoever can identify the vegetable.

Cardoon Gratin

Ingredients
1 large cardoon (3 to 4 pounds)
1 lemon
Salt
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely grated provolone
½ cup finely grated pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil. While the oven and the water are heating, prep the cardoons.

2. Use a paring knife or your fingers (I prefer fingers) to zip off the strings on the ribs of the cardoon stalks. (Some recipes say to peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler, but that just got my peeler all gummed up. Besides, you don’t have to get all the strings out for the cardoons to come out soft and luscious.)

3. Squeeze the lemon’s juice into a large bowl of cold water. Cut the cardoon stalks into 2- to 3-inch lengths, and put them into the lemon water to keep them from discoloring.

4. Put the squeezed-out lemon pieces into the boiling water and then whisk in the flour. According to some, this lemon-flour combination removes some of the bitterness from the cardoons, and keeps their pretty green color. Let the flour and lemon boil together for few minutes, and then toss in all the cardoon sticks, and boil about 30 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and silky. Drain.

5. Liberally smear olive oil (or bacon fat) all over the inside of a casserole dish that is large enough to hold all the cardoons. Arrange the cardoons in one layer, and then sprinkle with the provolone, and then with the pecorino. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature. This dish is even better as leftovers, reheated in the microwave or toaster oven.

Photo: Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com

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