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Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

Wild chestnut trees have flourished in southern Europe since the ancient Greeks brought them from Asia Minor and the Romans spread them throughout their empire. For thousands of years poor subsistence farmers in that part of the world extended their crops with wild foods like chestnuts. In addition to roasting or boiling them, chestnuts were dried and then ground into a flour which was mixed with wheat flour to help it go further. Before maize (corn) became a common crop in Europe in the 16th Century, Italian polenta was made with chestnut flour. When famine threatened, it was often chestnuts and other foraged foods which stood between the people and starvation.

There are many traditional foods in Italy and Corsica made with chestnut flour including a flat bread known as necci, and chestnut flour fritters called fritelli. In the late 1940s an anthropologist interviewed some elderly people in Corsica who said they had never eaten wheat bread, only bread made from chestnut flour. The villages in mountainous Corsica are isolated and at that time there was little trade with the mainland. Corsicans also call the chestnut tree arbre à pain or “the bread tree.”

I’ve made chestnut soup in the past and of course eaten roasted chestnuts while listening to Mel Torme, but to get in touch with the medieval food traditions of southern Europe I chose to make a Tuscan chestnut flour cake called castagnaccio. Many of the ingredients are forageable, it’s really easy to make, and as an extra bonus it is both vegan and gluten free.

Castagnaccio is very rich so you only need a small piece, especially after all that turkey. It has a deep, earthy flavor, punctuated by the sweet raisins and a slight bitterness from the rosemary. The cake’s consistency, and the fact that it is not overly sweet, reminded me of Asian desserts made with red bean paste.

I, for one, am grateful to be using the lowly chestnut to celebrate abundance at Thanksgiving, rather than as a stop-gap to prevent famine.

Castagnaccio

Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine, if you can’t get it, use a dry sherry instead.

Chestnut flour can be found in Italian specialty stores where it may be labeled farina di castagne. You can also order it from Amazon.com

⅓ cup Vin Santo or dry Sherry
1½ ounces raisins
10 ounces chestnut flour
1½ ounces sugar
a large pinch of salt
1½ – 2 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 ounce pine nuts

Put the raisins in a small dish and pour the Vinsanto or sherry over them. Leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Mix the chestnut flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. Gradually whisk in water until a batter with the consistency of pancake batter is formed. It should be pourable, but not too thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, it should be about 1 inch thick. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the top of the cake. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven. Drain the raisins and squeeze as much liquid out of them as you can, then sprinkle the raisins over the top of the cake. Also sprinkle the chopped rosemary and the pine nuts over the top of the cake.

Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until it is a dark brown color and the top is cracked like parched earth. The cake does not rise as chestnut flour contains no gluten.

Allow the cake to cool completely before turning it out onto a plate. Serve with a glass of Vin Santo or dry Sherry.

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“Is Slow Food Really Slow?” is a series here on Comestibles in which we explore the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe.

Everybody panic! It’s the great pumpkin shortage of 2009! I, for one, am deeply suspicious that Nestlé/Libby is making it all up to increase sales. I can report that my local grocery stores have plenty of canned pumpkin on the shelves as I write (the Sunday before Thanksgiving) and my mother, who is providing pie — which is of course the best in the universe — for our gathering, has not called to tell me that she will have to make apple instead this year. We had terrible rain during the growing season here in the northeast, and yet, yesterday at the Farmers’ Market, they had lovely pie pumpkins for sale at $1/pound. How are pumpkin supplies in your area?

If you can’t find pumpkin canned or fresh, I would recommend substituting sweet potato or butternut squash, I’ve heard that it’s difficult to tell the difference once the sugar, spices, eggs and cream are added.

When a friend of mine recently gave me a sugar pumpkin from her garden, I got excited because I’ve been wanting to try making pie from fresh pumpkin for years and the best type to use is the sugar pumpkin (sometimes called pie pumpkin). If you try this at home, don’t use a Halloween Jack ‘O Lantern type pumpkin. They are not sweet enough and they’re also quite a bit more fibrous.

I think we can safely say that it will take longer to make a pumpkin pie this way since opening a can only takes about 30 seconds and roasting a pumpkin takes about an hour and a half. However, as with home baked bread, the active time required is a lot shorter than you might think: about 23 minutes. I timed it thus (I have colored the active parts green, for the rest you can be out of the kitchen):

Chop in half and clean out the pumpkin: 15 min.
Bake pumpkin: 90 min.
Cool pumpkin: 15 min.
Scoop flesh out of pumpkin: 5 min.
Puree pumpkin flesh in food processor: 3 min.

So we’ve established that while yes, technically it is slower than opening a can, it’s not as horribly time consuming as you might think. But does the pie taste better? I did not go so far as to make two pies side by side for comparison (I’ll have enough weight to lose after the holidays as it is, okay?), but going on the memory of the many pies I have eaten which were made with canned pumpkin, I can say that I really didn’t detect any particular difference in flavor. It was delicious! However, I found it very satisfying to make a pie the way my great-grandmother would have, and I didn’t have to add another can to the recycling bin.

One thing I did notice is that after roasting, when I pureed the pumpkin it was a very bright orange, not that dull brownish color you find in canned pumpkin. I’m no nutritionist, but I’m guessing there was a lot more beta carotene and other “good for you” compounds in the fresh pumpkin.

So get thee to a Farmers’ Market and buy some sugar pumpkins. The one I used made the perfect amount of puree for pie (you need about 2 cups of puree for a 9 inch pie). I didn’t measure it but it looked to be about an average size based on what I’ve seen for sale. Ask your farmer, I’m sure she can tell you which size to get. Or better yet, buy two and make pumpkin muffins, or pumpkin bread with the extra. The puree also freezes very well, so don’t worry if you have too much.

Fresh Pumpkin Puree

Makes about 2 cups of pumpkin puree

1 medium sized sugar pumpkin (also called a pie pumpkin)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise and remove the stem. Scoop out the “guts,” saving the seeds if you wish for roasting later. Place the pumpkin halves on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cut side up, and bake until the pumpkin begins to collapse in on itself and the flesh is tender (about 90 minutes).

Allow the pumpkin to stand until it is cool enough to handle easily (about 15 minutes). Then scoop the flesh out of the skin and puree in a food processor until smooth. If your puree seems a little watery (mine wasn’t at all, but pumpkins can vary), line a strainer with cheese cloth and set it over a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it to drain overnight in the fridge. The final puree will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 days and freezes very well.

If you need a pie recipe, try this one from Simply Recipes, it turned out very well and I especially liked the addition of cardamom to the spice mixture.

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Photo by Flickr user midiman

Ah yes, the traditional Thanksgiving menu; let’s assemble the parade of protein and starch shall we? Turkey (of course!) with some kind of stuffing usually involving bread; mashed potatoes, or a creamy, cheesy, potato gratin; sweet potatoes, (no, they are not yams!) with or without marshmallows, as you like; maybe some preparation of turnips or squash; cranberry sauce, wobbly or not; and some luscious pumpkin pie. See what I mean? Not too much in the way of green vegetables.

To prevent holiday scurvy in our house we try to provide at least one green vegetable every year. One big hit from the past, which I may make again this year, is a Warm Salad of Autumn Greens with Plum Vinaigrette from Fine Cooking Issue Number 29, November 1998 (yes, I am a long time subscriber). It combines slightly wilted spinach, swiss chard (or kale) and frisée (or escarole) with toasted hazelnuts and a dressing made from plum preserves and Champagne vinegar. Besides being good for you (your digestion will thank you in the morning), the greens and the fruity, sharp vinaigrette make a nice palate cleanser between helpings of those heavier dishes. Hey look, here’s the recipe on the Fine Cooking website.

Another wonderful green option is brussels sprouts. I know some people claim not to like them, but try out the recipe below and see if they still protest. I was recently shopping at my local farmers’ market with a friend and saw sprouts still on the stalk, looking like some kind of weird modern art. In the finest market tradition, my friend rattled off this ridiculously simple recipe which I tried that very night. My husband, who is agnostic, but wary, when it comes to brussels sprouts, loved them; I swear we ate a pound between us.

Their little tiny leaves get a bit charred and crunchy, giving them some sweetness which balances perfectly with the balsamic vinegar. Trust me, those sprout haters will be asking for this recipe as you send them out into the night full of protein, starch, and a few green veggies.

Brussels Sprouts for People Who Think They Don’t Like Them

If you can’t find brussels sprouts still on the stalk, look for firm, dark green ones with no yellow leaves.

Serves 4

1 pound brussels sprouts
olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven 350 F.

Pour a liberal amount of olive oil into a large sheet pan or baking dish. Slice your sprouts in half and put them cut face down in one layer in the pan. Moisten the tops of the sprouts with a little more oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for about 45 minutes or until they’re starting to turn a little black (really!). Put them in a serving dish and toss with some good balsamic vinegar.

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