Friday, November 16, 2012

For the Love of Squash

With the golden, muted light and shorter days, a leaf strewn lawn and the early evening scent of woodsmoke in the air, I can say that it is really autumn – my favorite time of year. Comfort, this says to me, especially as we prepare for the ultimate form of comfort eating, Thanksgiving. I'm in no hurry to pull out the Christmas decorations or even think about sending cards. I want to savor the colors, aromas and flavors of Fall and the bounty of produce this season brings. And one of the most versatile and flavorful of that bounty are winter squashes.

Squash is a member of the Three Sisters in New World cooking. Along with corn and beans, this trio fed generations of Western Hemisphere inhabitants long before Europeans landed on the shores of North and South America. The Three Sisters are now a staple in international cuisine and have been incorporated into menus spanning the globe. From Aggie Horticulture at Texas A&M University comes this helpful information:
Our word "squash" comes from the Massachusetts Indian word askutasquash, meaning "eaten raw or uncooked." Although the Indians may have eaten some forms of squash without cooking, today we like our squashes cooked. The late-growing, less symmetrical, odd-shaped, rough or warty kinds, small to medium in size, but with long-keeping qualities and hard rinds, are usually called winter squash. They belong, almost without exception, to the species Cucurbita maxima or C. moschata.
Pumpkins also belong to that species, but large, late, smooth, symmetrical forms of C. maxima and C. moschata are sometimes called "pumpkins" regardless of species. The word "pumpkin" -improperly pronounced "punkin" by most Americans, is derived from the old French term pompion, meaning eaten when "cooked by the sun," or ripe. In modern French, pumpkin is called potiron.
The nutritional benefits of eating squash give it as much endorsements as the creamy roasted texture and sweet, earthy flavor. According to Elise Marie, contributor 
Acorn squash contains potent nutrients in it such as vitamins C, B-12 and A, potassium, folic acid, manganese, fatty acids, fiber and phytonutrients. All these potent nutrients help prevent free radical cells in the body from forming cancers. Some of the cancers acorn squash can help prevent are prostate, lung, colon, brain and breast.
With that information in mind, preparing acorn squash is a easy as it is delicious and nutritional.
Select a squash that is heavy for it's size, with firm skin. I picked out a Danish Green at my local produce market. Cut it in half. This can be tricky - use a large chef's knife and place the squash on an even cutting surface; make an initial cut and slowly bring the knife through the hard outer skin. Once you hit the flesh, it will be easier to cut through the entire gourd, just be careful and go slowly. Clean out the seeds and membranes with a spoon.
Add a pat of butter, some brown sugar and your choice of warm spices - Cinnamon, Allspice, Cloves and/or Nutmeg - and salt to taste.
Place your filled squash on a baking dish, silicon mat optional, but it does make for easy clean up, and bake at 400 degrees for 35-45 minutes, until the flesh has softened, the butter, brown sugar and spices have blended together and slightly caramelized.

Mash the flesh with a fork, add more butter (butter, in this case is good!) and you have an all-in-one side dish. I'm enjoying mine right now!

Butternuts are my absolute favorite varietal. I think anything that includes the word "butter" in its name has just got to be divine! Besides roasting cubed butternut (you can purchase pre-cut packages at Trader Joe's, Costco and a lot of independent and chain grocery stores, saving you the laborious task of doing it yourself) with olive oil, salt and pepper on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or so - you can also make a soup that combines to delightful Fall flavors of Butternut Squash, Apples and Parsnips, with Thyme as the herb that brings it all together.

    Butternut Squash, Apple & Parsnip Soup with Thyme
  • 4 TB unsalted butter, or 2 TBS butter, 2 TBS olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup apple juice or cider, unfiltered preferred
  • 4 cups cubed butternut squash
  • 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cubed
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and chopped
  • 1 bunch thyme, leaves separated from the sprigs and the springs tied together with cotton twine.
  • 2 quarts chicken stock, plus some extra if needed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Diced apples and a dollop of creme fraiche to garnish.
  • A shake of Applejack brandy optional

Heat the butter and/or olive in a stock pot over medium. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook the onions until softened but not browned; adjust heat appropriately to avoid scorching.
Add the apple juice to the onions and reduce until the juice is almost evaporated. Add the cubed butternut squash, chopped apples, chopped parsnips and the tied thyme sprigs. Cook for 1-3 minutes, coating the vegetables in the onion-juice mixture, until slightly browned. Add another pinch of salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Cook the vegetables until they are soft, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs and add the thyme leaves, reserving a few leaves for garnish, during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper as needed. The vegetables should be very soft.
Remove the soup pot from the stove and let it cool for a few minutes.
With a stick (emulsion) blender directly in the pot, puree the soup, making sure that big chunks of vegetables are thoroughly pureed. The texture can still be a bit thick but most of the vegetables should be broken down. Add more chicken stock if the mixture is too thick. Taste once again for seasoning.
Ladle the soup into individual bowls and garnish with a dollop of creme fraiche, a teaspoon or so of diced apples and the optional sprinkle of Applejack brandy. Serve warm.

This soup is also a unique appetizer, served at room temperature in a shot glass, garnished with some small diced apple. I call them Autumn Sippers.

Take advantage of the wonderful array of winter squash now available - Acorns, Butternut, Spaghetti, Hubbard, Kabocha, Turban, Delicata and more. A savory treat is in store.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Travel the World, Eat Eggplant!

Brinjal, Aubergine, Melongene, Melanzana...a vegetable by any other name would taste the same – smoky, earthy, a hint of bitter mixed with sweet. Eggplant, as we Americans call it, has a global following, with its roots in the Indian subcontinent. It shares a history with others in the nightshade family – tomatoes and potatoes. This versatile vegetable appears in cuisines worldwide, in many guises.

Growing up, I’d never heard of eggplant, though perhaps there may have been some in the produce section of the Food Giant where my mother shopped, but that is doubtful. The name alone wouldn’t have sold this purple orb to the suburban folk of Whittier, CA in the mid-1960’s.

Fast forward to the summer of 1976: I was an exchange student in France. I spent a few weeks with my French family in their suburban Paris apartment before going to the family vacation home in Vendée, on the mid-Atlantic coast.  A multitude of family members convened there every July and August. There could be 25 or more of us on a Sunday afternoon, when we’d gathered for a dinner that included grilled fish, oysters, mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, and pâté with crusty baguette. And among  them was a new taste sensation for me – Ratatouille!


Ratatouille is a stew of sweet pepper, onion, zucchini and eggplant. I put the emphasis on eggplant in my ratatouille because I love not only the flavor it imparts but the gelatinous texture it adds to this divine mélange. I think fondly of my French family whenever I prepare Ratatouille.  It is a late summertime staple in my kitchen when all the ingredients are at their peak. Its flavor only enhances after a day or two, so a large batch can provide plentiful vegetable course options. Add to a quiche, or an omelet, eat right out of a bowl at room temperature, Ratatouille may best be described as “vegetable candy”.  And now is the time to make it!
Due to it inclusion in so many international cuisines, eggplant is prepared on just about every continent, and acts as the perfect vessel for local spices and seasonings. Thanks to Bon Apetit magazine for this flavorful Asian riff using Japanese eggplant.
Ginger-Miso Glazed Eggplant
Bon Apetit


  • 6 Japanese eggplants (1 1/2 lb. total), cut on a diagonal into 1-inch-thick slices
  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed or vegetable oil
  • 1/3cup white miso (fermented soybean paste)*
  • 4 teaspoonsfinely grated peeled ginger
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • 1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3teaspoons sesame seeds, divided
  • 3tablespoons thinly sliced scallions, divided
* Also known as shiro miso, white miso can be found in the refrigerated Asian foods section of better supermarkets and at natural foods stores and Japanese markets.


  • Preheat oven to 425°. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with oil and place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Roast eggplant, flipping once, until very tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Arrange a rack in upper third of oven and heat to broil.
  • Meanwhile, whisk white miso and next 5 ingredients with 1 Tbsp. water in a small bowl. Stir in 1 1/2 tsp. sesame seeds and 2 Tbsp. scallions. Smear top of eggplant slices with miso sauce. Broil until golden and charred in places, 4–5 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tsp. sesame seeds and 1 Tbsp. scallions.

Have fun exploring the world via eggplant, or aubergine, or brinjal. Whatever you call it, how ever you prepare it - it's delicious!


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tomato Candy!

Pomodoraccio - it doesn't come trippingly off the tongue, but for every syllable, there's a wallop of flavor!  I was first introduced to Pomodoraccio at Sigona's Market in Redwood City. Available in the olive bar, these semi-dried tomatoes have made a huge difference in bumping up the flavors in many of my salads and appetizers. I call them Tomato Candy!

Not nearly as tooth-some and tart as regular sun-dried tomatoes, and available year round which makes for a nice substitute in the non-tomato months, Pomodoraccio has a sweet, meaty flavor component that brightens any dish to which it is added. I first incorporated them into a simple salad of arugula, mozzarella marinated in Sigona's Summer Peach White Balsamic Vinegar, with Parmesan shavings. No fuss - the marinade from both the fruit and the cheese was all the dressing needed.

Then came a brainstorm - how to transcend the traditional Caprese Salad as an innovative and swoon-worthy appetizer. I love this presentation - elegant and simple - but more so, I love the surprise I see in guests' eyes when they are hit with the amazing flavor of these rather innocuous strips of tomato, the creaminess of the mozzarella and the mixture of marinades. The basil on top adds color and earthy, herbal flavor. This is not your Italian grandmother's Caprese Salad!

Then...I took this concept to another, less formal level: The Pomodoraccio Skewer.

Humm...I'm seeing a savory tomato cheesecake in my future. Ya never know!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Little Nut That Changed The World

Happy five year anniversary to Nutmeg Kitchens! It’s hard to believe that in January 2007, I began this little enterprise with no premonition of where it would lead me or if I’d even be in business for five months, let alone five years. I’ve tackled some challenges I never expected, like dealing with the bureaucracy of starting a business, developing the confidence to market myself and work with QuickBooks, which I truly do not like doing. I love my work and I am most grateful for my wonderful clients. Thank you for your patronage, referrals and friendship!

Over the years, I’ve been asked how I came about naming my business Nutmeg Kitchens. It’s a two-fold answer.

When the naming process for my new enterprise began, I was encouraged by wonderful mentors at the now-defunct Personal Chef Network to incorporate my own name into that of my business and add a culinary twist in possible. Margaret’s Personal Chef Service was too unimaginative and it reminded me of what my mother called me when she was angry. Scratch that one. Portola Portable Pantry was universally shot down as too alliterative and too closely associated with those charming blue capsules often seen at construction sites.

After brainstorming for several hours with my husband, we landed on Nutmeg, a nickname I’d been given years ago when I went by Meg as a travel agent. I thought the colleague who christened me thought I was a pretty spicy thing, but she said, “No, you’re just a nut!” But the nickname worked perfectly to invoke the images I wanted for my new moniker; warmth, comfort, fragrance, something familiar with a bit of the exotic. Nutmeg Kitchens it was! I love my corporate identity too; the little bubbling pot conveys the whimsy and conviviality I want my clients to enjoy and remember after a Nutmeg event.

But really, what is Nutmeg? Well, in the 1600’s it was to European spice merchants what the Facebook IPO is to investment bankers today - a windfall.

Myrisitica fragrans is the evergreen tree which produces the fruit from which the nutmeg seed is derived. What made it so valuable, and elusive, is that, up until the late 1700’s, nutmeg was grown only on the tiny specks of volcanic rock that are the Banda Islands, in the Indonesian archipelago not far from New Guinea. Prized for centuries when first brought to Europe via the Spice Road, nutmeg's source was never revealed by Arab traders who first brought it to Venice. The search for nutmeg began in earnest once Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English navigators mastered the high seas following Vasco de Gama’s first visit to the Moluccas,or what would later be known as the Spice Islands, in 1512. Ruthlessness, cunning, deceit, disease, murder, death, years at sea and lots of money were all a part of a merchant fleet's sail around Cape Horn and into the treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean, and then the Ceram and the Celebes seas to the Banda Islands.

Giles Milton, in his lively and well-researched book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History details of the spice race with vivid stories of shipwrecks, kidnappings by Mogul warlords, vicious sea battles between competing national fleets, bribery of locals, and most of all, the importance of nutmeg’s trade to the financial stability of the countries involved.

The book’s opening paragraph captures the essence of the story, conveying the magic that a small brown nut brought to those seeking it.

“The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than ten miles out to sea, a fragrance hangs in the air…

“So it was on 23 December 1616. The Swan’s captain, Nathaniel Courthope needed no compass nor astrolabe to know they had arrived…He had at last reached Run, one of the smallest and richest of all the islands in the East Indies.”

Captain Courthope defended Run against the claims of the the Dutch East India Company with the help of the island's inhabitants who accepted the English King as their sovereign, creating the first English overseas colony. The Dutch laid siege to Run and after four years, with Nathaniel Courthope dead, the Brits and the locals loyal to them departed the island, beleaguered and in desperate straits.

The Treaty of Breda ended the 1665-67 second Anglo-Dutch war and gave Manhattan and all North American Dutch holdings to the English. Run, though technically still a British possession until this point, was officially ceded to the Dutch East Indies Company, giving the Netherlands a complete monopoly on the nutmeg trade.

Nutmeg fruit and nut with outer netting of mace,
another spice compliments of Myrisitica fragrans

According to Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, in the blog piece, Nutmeg and Mace History, “The Dutch waged a bloody war, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the island of Banda, just to control nutmeg production in the East Indies. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was 85 to 90 shillings per pound, a price kept artificially high by the Dutch voluntarily burning full warehouses of nutmegs in Amsterdam. The Dutch held control of the Spice Islands until World War II. “

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Dutch should’ve been quite pleased when French seaman Peter Poirve (how's that for a spicy name?) pilfered some nutmeg seeds from the Bandas and planted them in Mauritius, ending Holland’s nutmeg monopoly. Likewise, the Brits smuggled seeds to their colonies in Southeast Asia and the West Indies. The island of Grenada, where nutmeg has flourished, is called The Nutmeg Island, and its flag represents the tree that has brought it fame and fortune.

Nutmeg is not a seasoning one uses in large quantity. A mere 2 teaspoons can produce a high accompanied by hallucinations, similar to other nefarious substances. There’s a reason a little grate will do you! But that little grating will provide any dish with a singular sweet-piney flavor, distinctive yet subtle.

Associated most often with sweets such as custards and cookies, or as an ingredient in mulling spices, nutmeg can also be used in savory cooking, such as béchamel sauce, roasted squash and creamed spinach. One of my favorite preparations is even simpler, Patricia Wells' Just Spinach!

You’ll need:
A large, deep skillet with a lid
2 pounds spinach leaves, stemmed, washed and spun, though I like the pre-washed greens
Kosher Salt
Freshly grated nutmeg

Place the spinach in the skillet with several tablespoons of water. Cover and cook over high heat until the spinach is completely wilted, about 3-4 minutes. Drain thoroughly in a colander, toss with the sea salt and the nutmeg. Serve warm.

I hope the next time you dust your mocha latte with a bit of Myrisitica, you’ll reflect on the colorful history of the little nut that changed the world, and also think of Nutmeg Kitchens and five years of bringing spice to your kitchen!