Pedaling with pumpkins

I have a fond memory of harvesting pumpkins at a farm in Wisconsin. Someone drove an old delivery van slowly down the side of the squash field. The back doors were open, and another person stood in the back catching the huge vegetables as we tossed them from the rows. It was like a dance: we threw, he caught, he set it on the big orange pile, and on and on.

Great pumpkin

Lovely pumpkin

Bike basket cornucopia

My bike basket of heavy autumn goods, with a weighty U-lock to hit people with if they try to steal my pumpkin

Eventually, one of us threw too soon or aimed badly. The poor guy in the back would get knocked off his feet, or the van looked like the day after Halloween, with a big orange splotch on its white side panel. My aching arms were a testament to the hard work of the pumpkin harvest, and the end of the growing year.

Lessons from Cambodia

These days I know autumn has arrived, not because my arms ache, but because my calves are killing me. This is after I’ve filled my bike baskets with heavy autumn vegetables from the farmers’ market. Last week I precariously balanced on my overweight bike and somehow managed to turn onto my road without falling over.

from daily life blog 2011

From a blog called Daily Life in Cambodia 2011 (click the image to read more about it). It's a great example of what people can do with bikes in this wonderful country, and demonstrates what a wimp I am trying to get a few pumpkins home on my bike.

I mustered my courage to attempt such a dangerous journey by remembering the awe-inspiring cyclists I saw in Cambodia, where my meagre load of veg in baskets would be laughable. There, people pile their bikes (and also scooters) with monstrous loads, stacks of car fenders, other bicycles, and even small families, then pedal through the chaotic traffic, weaving in and out on both sides of the road, somehow dodging trucks and oxen.


Halloween corgi-o-lantern

Despite knowing that cycling with pumpkins in Oxford is child’s play compared to the daredevil cycling in Southeast Asia, I was proud to make it home unscathed with my cache of glorious pumpkins: two for eating, one for carving. Let’s face it, there aren’t many vegetables that you can roast, turn into soup, make sweet or savoury pie with, puree and stuff into ravioli, and even cook with ground beef and rice to make a sort of weird pilaf. The fact that you can also carve them to resemble your dog at Halloween, well, that makes pumpkins pretty special.

What’s cookin’ in our kitchen: the great pumpkin!

So, in homage to this year’s pumpkins, we cooked a yummy autumn feast: roast chicken, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, garlic and, of course, pumpkin. Here’s how:

Roasted pumpkin and other vegetables

Roasted pumpkin and other vegetables

  • Heat oven to a medium temperature.
  • Clean, peel and chop assorted veg so they are all a similar size.
  • Parboil by boiling water in a kettle and pouring it into a big pot. Once it returns to a boil, drop in chopped potatoes and set a timer for 10 minutes. When six minutes remain, drop in chopped carrots and parsnips, and at about four minutes, the chopped pumpkin.
  • Drain the veg in a colander using a slotted spoon and let it drip a bit over the sink to get it nice and dry. (I save the blanching water to make soup later – see below.)
  • Shake your potatoes. I remove all the drained veg to a giant roasting tray, leaving the potatoes alone in the colander. I then shake the potatoes for all their worth until they start to get crumb-y (but stop before they get crumbly) – the crumbs all over the potatoes get nice and crispy in the oven, so the more the better. This is a Jamie Oliver tip, and in our kitchen has made the difference between just-fine roast potatoes, and totally-freakin’-awesome roast potatoes. (Thank you, Jamie! Here he gives more tips for even awesomer potatoes … I haven’t tried it because I’m afraid I’d eat nothing but roast potatoes for the rest of my life.)
  • Lubricate all the veg with olive oil, including the potatoes, which you’ve now tossed onto the huge roasting tray with the other veg and some peeled and quartered onions and unpeeled garlic. It’s important that everything is in a single layer, otherwise the veg will steam rather than roast (which would taste fine, but not totally-freakin’-awesome). Coat it all with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse sea salt, and place in a hot oven, on the shelf below a chicken. We’ve got a fan oven, so it takes about 45 minutes for all of it to be nicely roasted.
  • Feast! It was good. Real good. I think we did the pumpkin proud.

Post-roast soup and scalding, or, what to do with the leftovers

Harvey the Corgi in the kitchen

Harvey the Corgi enjoys chasing punctured soccer balls, eating doggy food with chicken stock, and lapping up splattered soup from kitchen floors

Soup and Scalding sounds a bit like something you’d find on the menu of a traditional English pub, but it’s not. It’s my way of awesome-ing up the leftovers from a roasted feast. Here’s how:

  • Manhandle your chicken carcass and clean off all the remaining meat, then boil it up in a pressure cooker, using the water saved from blanching the vegetables. At pressure, I let it cook for about 10 minutes, then turn it off until the pressure comes down by itself.
  • Make provisions for the dog by straining the stock and putting some in the fridge for your pooch, who probably won’t say no to a splash of chicken stock on his food.
  • Dump everything you didn’t eat yesterday (i.e., roasted vegetables) into the stock and heat it all up on the stove.
  • Scald self by pureeing the stock and veg with one of those hand-held blenders. Honestly, I’ve no idea how you whir hot things up with those blenders without a serious scalding. But it wasn’t all bad, because plenty landed on the floor, where Harvey was patiently waiting to lap it up. And it left a decorative splattery design on my blouse.
  • Apply first-aid and optional toppings, such as aloe for your burns, stain remover for your blouse, and Emmenthal cheese and Greek yogurt for your soup.
  • Eat up. Ours was not a totally freakin’ awesome soup, but it wasn’t half bad for leftovers, only left a few minor burns, and the dog was happy.

My, you have lovely pumpkins...

Pumpkins et. al.

Pumpkins are only one of the many wonderful squashes on offer in autumn. Another favourite is butternut squash. Here’s a recipe for Thai butternut and coconut soup.


Thai butternut and coconut soup

Chopped squash and onions

Try different types of squash with this soup, and let me know how it goes

This recipe is from the Whole Foods website, but here’s how I did it.

1. Chop 1 onion and 1 clove of garlic, and cook in oil for 5 minutes, until soft.

Stir in the following, and cook 1 minute:

  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger (I keep ginger root in the freezer and grate it as I need it)
  • 1 teaspoon curry paste (or more if you like it spicy; I used green paste, but any will do)
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Then add:

  • 1 medium butternut (or other sweet) squash, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 cups of stock (any will do, including bouillon dissolved in hot water)
  • 1 14-oz can of coconut milk

Bring this to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes.

I also tried this with some fish sauce and lime juice added after cooking, and it was nice, but didn’t ‘wow’ me, so I’d say the basic ingredients above should do the trick.

If you like piña coladas, gettin’ caught in the rain…

Grandmas cocktail cabinet

Grandma's beloved cocktail cabinet

When the English weather gets me down, I head to the 1950s cocktail cabinet we inherited from J’s grandmother. The front pulls open and the top flips up to reveal mirrors, a light fixture and a contraption holding plastic cocktail sticks. If we were more technically savvy we’d make it play Barry White tunes, but for now it opens only to reveal our motley booze collection. This includes a few things we bought, and lots of things left here by friends who moved overseas. Our house was the last resort for items they hadn’t yet disposed of, and, lucky for us, the local charity shop doesn’t take donations of half-drunk Barbados rum.

Poor woman's piña colada

The poor-woman's piña colada I managed to whip up from things I found in the cupboard

Rum is the perfect elixir to turn a blustery English day into a carnival! Or at least a tipsy approximation of one. A few weeks ago, the ‘coldest summer since 1993’ pushed me to breaking point. I remembered seeing a box of coconut-pineapple juice in the back of our cupboard – another kind gift left by friends who moved back to the States … over two years ago, as I discovered upon reading the sell-by date. I persuaded myself to pour it away. Fortunately there was a (slightly less old) carton of similar juice in the fridge, which I whirred up with the Barbados rum, coconut cream and crushed ice.

The result was enough to take the edge off my doldrums, but I still felt the many miles between me and a sunny Caribbean beach. So when I walked past Café Tarifa last Saturday, I couldn’t resist the reggae music drifting from inside. I headed in for a Jamaican ginger beer (and some olives, which have nothing to do with the Caribbean, but they were good). I soaked up the vibe for a while but couldn’t linger long, because I was due at a harvest festival at the Barrack’s Lane Community Garden. I was supposed to drop off some jars of damson (sour plum) jam, which my better-half has been whipping up by the vat-full using fruit from our heavily-laden trees. I can’t think of anything less exotic and Caribbean than homemade English plum jam … Yet, to my surprise, when I showed up at the festival there were two Jamaicans giving a cooking class.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Mexican food may be hard to come by here (see previous post, desperately seeking salsa), it’s easy to forget how Britain’s colonial past is reflected in its culinary landscape. During the 1950s tens of thousands of people from the West Indies came to live and work in Britain, and many of them are still here. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to this, as are Caribbean eateries like east Oxford’s Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House, which has been a fixture for the past 30 years.

Home-grown chillies

Home-grown chillies

Cooking Caribbean-ish

I decided to stick around to see what I could learn about Jamaican cooking. The two chefs were using local, seasonal vegetables grown by Sandy Lane Farm, and a Caribbean leafy green called callaloo, which is grown locally by OxGrow community garden. Suitably inspired, I returned home to plan my own Caribbean-themed feast.

Admittedly, my knowledge of the region’s cuisine is limited: I’ve never actually been to Jamaica, and have only had a few holidays on other Caribbean islands (but I’ve seen loads of movies about islands, which is pretty much the same thing, right?). Despite this, I managed to make a tasty meal that hinted at something remotely Caribbean-ish. It was a pilaf of coconut rice and black-eyed-peas, and Colombo de Giromon, which I think is a fancy name for ‘vegetable curry’: in this case, a mix of squash, sweet potato and greens in a spicy coconut sauce. I adapted these from recipes found in my trusty old copy of Sundays at Moosewood, using produce from our weekly vegetable bag, some chillies grown in our greenhouse, and fresh coriander seeds I “grew” (i.e., accidentally let the cilantro go to seed).

Well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

My well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

Chopped veg and Colombo spice mix

I chopped all the veg beforehand, then mashed garlic, cayenne, turmeric, coriander and mustard seeds and water with primal passion in my mortal and pestle

The pilaf recipe is here, but I changed it somewhat: I didn’t use tempeh (because I didn’t have any, but I do recommend it — a soybean product, nice as a meat subtitute); I used white rice instead of brown; and I added shredded carrot to the onion and garlic. The other dish can be found here on another blog. I didn’t use butternut squash, but a mystery squash (which I traded some plum jam for at the harvest fest). I also used a sweet potato, no peppers, and added kale at the end of the cooking time.

The best bit of this recipe was making the Colombo seasoning: I love mashing up fragrant spices with a mortar and pestle. It’s so … primal. Even better was the fact that the recipe called for rum, so having raided the cocktail cabinet and poured a bit in the pot of simmering veg, I took a bit for myself. Surely that’s how it’s done in the Caribbean.

Later this week I’m planning to stop off at the East Oxford Community Centre to taste the Afro-Caribbean lunches made by people from ACKHI (African & African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative), and may also dip into their Afro-Caribbean cake-baking class on Friday.

Caribbean-ish meal

Coconut black-eyed peas and rice, and Colombo de Giromon (curried vegetables)

Meanwhile, I’ve finished off the coconut black-eyed beans and rice, and at the same time Mother Nature has responded to my desperate plea for a taste of the tropics: she sent winds as high as 80 miles per hour to batter Britain. These were the remnants of Hurricane Katia, which swept across the Atlantic last week. After all, nothing says ‘tropical paradise’ like a hurricane.

Leeky Mac & Cheese for two

Mac and cheese for two

Mac and cheese for two

Boil some dried pasta. Any kind will do (shells, ziti, spirals, or, if you’re feeling wild, actual macaroni). We usually cook up 125 grams (1/2 cup) of dried pasta per person. Chop up a vegetable of your choice. We almost always have great leeks in our veg bag, so we chop those up (after cleaning the dirt from between the layers – they can be a dirty little vegetable), or cauliflower, broccoli or greens such as kale. Part way through cooking the pasta, toss in your chopped vegetable and let it boil.

While that cooks, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat and in it brown a tablespoon of flour, stirring constantly (this is a roux). When it turns golden and starts to smell nutty, whisk in a cup or so of milk. Keep whisking for a while, or until your hand gets tired. Keep the heat low to medium, and eventually it will start to thicken (sometimes I lose hope and am sure it won’t thicken, then, just as I’m about to give up, it does; I’m sure it’s just chemistry, but I like to think it’s magic). Now you have your basic white sauce (you may use it to find love one day). Add a cup of shredded cheese (we usually use ordinary English cheeses like cheddar or Red Leicester, but most any kind will do, and if we have a bit of blue cheese, feta or something else on hand, we’ll throw it in), a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, some pepper and (optional) sea salt.

Making cheese sauch and pasta with veg

Stir the roux until it thickens, then add the cheese. Do this while cooking the pasta and veg in the same pan.

Combine the cooked pasta and sauce.

Now for an optional step: tip the concoction into a baking dish. Top with bread crumbs and a bit more shredded cheese. Since my hubby makes bread each week, we usually have crumbs and sesame seeds in the bottom of the bread bag and all over the counter top and cutting board. We sweep these into a small container to save for our mac and cheese topping. Or we grate the end of a loaf of bread with a cheese grater. (We rarely have white bread on hand, but if I’m being honest, white bread crumbs are the best).

With your toppings in place, grill/broil in the oven just for a few minutes (hard to justify firing up the oven for just five minutes, but it really is worth it; we have a little pizza oven that only takes a few minutes to heat up. It’s great for browning the mac and cheese, as well as making bubbly cheese on toast … mmm). Next time, we plan to use a little blow torch to brown the top (the kitchen kind, that is). If we don’t burn down the house, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Enjoy it with the one you love (even if that person is yourself).

Simple white bean soup

Simple white bean soup with pain de campagne

Saute chopped onions and garlic in olive oil (I didn’t use garlic because I’d run out, but this is an Italian-inspired soup so that’s probably illegal). Add a chopped piece of bacon if you wish. Once the onions are translucent, add a chopped carrot and cook for a few minutes. Then add some broth (I used fresh chicken broth, but stock/bouillon cubes in water will do), chopped kale (or other greens, such as collard or beet), a can of tomatoes, and a splash of white wine (optional). Simmer until the kale is cooked (about 5 minutes), then add cooked or canned navy/cannellini beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and grated Parmesan or other hard cheese. Enjoy!