Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

One week into autumn, and I already feel like I’ve overdosed on pumpkin spice lattes. Granted, my tolerance for the intensely sweet, largely over-hyped drink is far lower than the average enthusiast, but it doesn’t help that it’s already been perking up coffee shop menus while summer was still in full swing. Is it just me, or has the #PSL craze died down a bit this time around? Fewer rants, fewer raves; love it or hate it, I fear we may have collectively reached peak pumpkin spice.

I tease about the fervor every year, but I do still enjoy a strong cuppa myself. The trouble comes when it transforms into other foods and products that should never bear the orange hue. Please, just keep it out of my lip balm, cough drops, and… pet shampoo, at least! Is that really so much to ask?

Still, the overall attraction is undeniable. It’s hard to beat the comfortingly familiar, creamy espresso eye-opener adored worldwide to begin with. Add in an extra dose of sweetness, a touch of nostalgic spice, and the health halo associated with pumpkin itself, to say nothing of the beautiful latte art possibilities, and you’ve got yourself a viral social media hit. When the hype starts to wear a bit thin, though, I have a small tweak that will revive your enthusiasm over the usual brew.

Chai spice, bearing a brighter, bolder palate emphasizing ginger, cardamom, and a pinch of black pepper, makes a strong argument for skipping the one-note cinnamon seasoning typically on standard order. While the most popular (and some would argue original) purveyor of pumpkin spice lattes doesn’t even offer a dairy free option, it’s effortless to whip up a big batch of this spicy pumpkin sauce to flavor not only coffee, but drizzle over ice cream, swirl into cheesecake, and dip into with crisp apples all season long.

Happily, you’ll have plenty to play with, as this recipe does make a big batch indeed. Halve quantities if you must, but once you take your first sweet, invigorating sip, you’ll end up just going back in the kitchen to make more later.

Continue reading “Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice”

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Plum the Depths

Growing up in New England, with its characteristically rocky soil, temperamental weather, and a deeply shaded backyard, I envied those who could grow their own fruits. Even mundane produce selections like lemons or apples seemed like an exotic rarity when they could be pulled straight from the tree. To bemoan such abundance was unthinkable, but mild complaints became inevitably woven into every conversation with such lucky gardeners. Irrepressibly messy, dropping fruit and attracting all manner of vermin, the problem sounded like one of laziness to me. Just don’t let the precious harvest fall in the first place!

Oh, how naive I was.

Now that I have a plum tree in my own backyard, that tiny square plot of land has turned into a battlefield overnight. Blood-red splatters stain the concrete while sticky pits cling to the tall grasses. Swarms of flies delight in the detritus, although they’re just as happy to follow me inside at the slightest provocation. Short of putting a net across the entire property, catching this downpour of plums would be impossible. While this was a mild irritation in summers past, the situation is considerably more exasperating now that Luka patrols the grounds.

Pouncing on these treats as soon as they’re within reach, he’ll happily eat himself sick, and then just keep on eating once again. He devours them whole, pits and all; a choking hazard that gives me regular panic attacks. The growing season has only just begun and I’m already dreading peak plum production.

Out of fear and frustration, I viciously pruned back the offending branches, ripping off every last plum I could get my hands on. Almost all of the fruit was still immature; bright green, hard, and unbearably sour. Though unpleasant to eat out of hand, I nonetheless struggled to simply pitch them into the compost bin. Sure, they could be pickled, but then what do you do with them? A bit of Google sleuthing pulled up a new flavor sensation I had never encountered before, hailing from the Eurasian country of Georgia.

Tart, tangy, warmly spiced, and herbaceous, tkemali can be found in both red and green varieties, depending on the plums themselves, but is always an assertive staple for both cooking and seasoning. Some use it at the table like ketchup, but I found it best as a marinade and sauce for cooking. Slather some seitan in this vibrant elixir, saute, and serve alongside rice pilaf for an effortless meal. Stir into soups and stew to instantly brighten up the flavor, no matter how long it’s been simmering. My favorite use so far has been with simple roasted potatoes, baked until crisp, bursting with the brightness of this distinctive sour blend.

Desperate measures never tasted so good.

Yield: 3 Cups

Green Tkemali (Georgian Sour Plum Sauce)

Green Tkemali (Georgian Sour Plum Sauce)

Tart, tangy, warmly spiced, and herbaceous, tkemali can be used at the table like ketchup, but truly excels as a marinade and sauce for cooking. Slather some seitan in this vibrant elixir, saute, and serve alongside rice pilaf for an effortless meal.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 2 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Pounds Unripe Green Plums
  • 1 Whole Meyer Lemon, Seeded
  • 1/3 Cup Fresh Cilantro
  • 1/4 Cup Fresh Dill
  • 8 Cloves Garlic
  • 2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 3/4 Teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Instructions

  1. Place the plums in a large stock pot and cover with cold water. Set over medium heat on the stove, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil. Cook for just about a minute before turning off the heat and uncovering. Let sit until cool enough to handle; about 30 minutes. Drain out the water and prepare to get messy.
  2. The plums will be very soft, so simply use your hands to squeeze out the pits and stems, removing the skin as well if it comes off easily. Transfer the flesh to your blender, along with all of the remaining ingredients. (Yes, you’re blending that lemon, skin, pith, and all!) Puree until smooth.
  3. Pour the mixture back into the stock pot and set over low heat. Simmer gently for 45 – 60 minutes, until thickened to the consistency of loose ketchup. Cool completely before storing in glass jars in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

3

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 167 Total Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 709mg Carbohydrates: 41g Fiber: 6g Sugar: 31g Protein: 3g

Planting the Seed to Sweet Success

Milk candy, milk jam, dulce de leche, or just plain caramel: Comparisons are easily made, but thick and creamy cajeta is truly a step above all the other simple burnt sugar toppings out there.

Inspired by Brian Huston, my take on this classic milk confection is a modern departure from the typical goat milk base. He is a BlueStar All-Star chef, so I knew this basic formula would be the best place to start my recipe experiment. (In case you don’t know about BlueStar, they are makers of restaurant-quality kitchen appliances for the home chef. They are based in the U.S. and can offer lots of great customization options! Click here for more information.)

Rather than just swap out the milk for a standard non-dairy alternative, I wanted to start from scratch with whole sunflower seeds. Why sunflower, of all things? I’ve found them to be fairly neutral in flavor when raw, and by using the whole seed, the resulting blend would be plenty rich from those natural fats- No need to add any oils to compensate for a leaner dairy-free drink.

Cajeta takes a bit of patience to perfect, but very little actual work. It’s kitchen alchemy at its best, seeing that pale, unexciting liquid transform into a thick, decadent, caramelized topping. In fact, mine became substantial enough to even use as a spread once fully cooled. Although it was highly tempting to use this golden milk jam as an indulgent new peanut butter sandwich filling, I took Mr. Huston’s suggestion in making a sweet cajeta sundae instead.

Of course, I substituted additional sunflower seeds for the recommended peanuts, since it only seemed right to match. It may be tough to see the pool of cajeta at the bottom of the glass here, but the beauty of this caramel accompaniment is that a little bit really does go a long way! No matter how you drizzle or slather it on, it’s hard to go wrong with such a versatile dessert topping.

Girasol Cajeta (Sunflower Caramel Sauce)

4 Cups Warm Water
1 Cup Raw Sunflower Seeds
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Combine the water and sunflower seeds well in advance, and allow the seeds to soak for about 4 hours. This will soften them and allow them to blend much more easily than if they were simply raw. Transfer the mixture to your blender, and thoroughly puree until perfectly smooth. If you’re using a lower-powered machine, pass the resulting sunflower milk through a sieve to catch any remaining grit, discarding the solids.

Pour the fresh sunflower seed milk into a large stock pot and introduce the sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate before setting the pot over medium heat on the stove. Slowly bring the mixture up to a boil, whisking periodically. Keep a close eye on the mixture at this point, because it can go from inactive to an overflowing bubbly mess in two seconds flat!

Reduce the heat to medium low and continue cooking at a gentle simmer, whisking frequently, as the milk cooks down and gradually darkens in color. After about 30 minutes, it will be especially important to keep stirring so the milk doesn’t burn on the bottom. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent anything from sticking. Add in the vanilla extract at this point.

After another 30 – 40 minutes, the mixture should be a deep amber brown and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the pan from the heat and cool for at least 5 minutes before serving, or let cool completely before storing in an air-tight container. Stashed in the fridge, the cajeta will keep for up to 2 weeks.

Makes About 1 Cup

Printable Recipe

This post was sponsored by BlueStar. All opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.

Feeling Saucy

Sauces are the unsung heroes of every meal. Quietly, selflessly, they accept their role as the supporting actors, and yet they’re often the most flavorful element in the whole production. The same old boring dishes can be reinvented with just a few small tweaks to the sauce, no further modifications necessary. Take, for instance, stuffed shells.

Plate provided by Steelite

A fool-proof formula of pasta, “cheese,” and tomato, the staples upon which Italian food is built. However, if I were to tell you that the pool of red sauce seen above was not a mere marinara, but one infused with lemongrass, ginger, and a bird’s eye chili, among other exotics, wouldn’t it up the ante for the average meal that much more? Proof positive that the magic is all in the sauce, the ordinary meal became something truly memorable with a small deviation from the norm. Creamy coconut milk helps to tame the burn of hot peppers, making a velvety but delightfully chunky red sauce that’s mellow enough for even those with more timid palates to enjoy. Rather than following the usual path for dinner, give the sauce some much-deserved attention next time, and see where it can take your meal.

Yield: Makes About 5 – 6 Cups Sauce

Thai Spiced Marinara

Thai Spiced Marinara

Marinara sauce infused with lemongrass, ginger, and a bird’s eye chili, plus so much more. Creamy coconut milk helps to tame the burn of hot peppers, making a velvety but delightfully chunky red sauce that’s mellow enough for even those with more timid palates to enjoy.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Tablespoons Olive or Coconut Oil
  • 1/2 Large Red Onion, Chopped (1 1/2 – 2 Cups)
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 3/4 – 1 Inch Ginger, Minced (About 1 Heaping Tablespoon)
  • 2 Tablespoons Chopped Fresh Lemongrass
  • 1 Bird’s Eye Chili
  • 2 Makrut Lime Leaves, or 1 Strip of Lime Peel
  • 1 14-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Stock
  • 1 Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
  • 1 12-Ounce Jar Roasted Red Peppers, Rinsed and Drained (or 2 Roasted Peppers)
  • 1 – 2 Tablespoons Red Curry Paste
  • 1 Tablespoon Tamari or Soy Sauce

Instructions

  1. Begin by heating the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add in the chopped onion, garlic, and ginger, and saute until the onion is translucent and the whole mixture is very aromatic. Allow the onion to take on a bit of brown color around the edges; about 10 – 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, gather together the lemongrass, chili, and makrut lime leaves or lime zest, and bundle them together in a tea bag or reusable tea ball. I find that this makes it easier to remove these items once they’ve imparted all of their flavor into the sauce, rather than fishing around with a strainer and hoping you got all of the fibrous bits. Set aside for the time being.
  3. Once the aromatics are beginning to brown, stir in the diced tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure that all of the flavorful caramelized bits get incorporated as well. Pour in the vegetable stock, and toss in the sealed tea bag or ball (if using a tea ball, clip it to the side of the pot for easier retrieval.)
  4. Toss the roasted red peppers, coconut milk, curry paste, and tamari into a blender, and thoroughly puree. Once perfectly smooth, pour the mixture into the stock pot as well. Bring everything up to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low so that the sauce simmers gently, uncovered. It may seem a bit watery now, but give it time; 60 – 90 minutes should thicken it up nicely.
  5. Remove the tea bag or ball, and discard the contents. Serve the marinara hot, or let cool and store in an airtight container for up to 10 days.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

18

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 105 Total Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 6g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 6mg Sodium: 306mg Carbohydrates: 6g Fiber: 1g Sugar: 2g Protein: 3g

Alone in the Kitchen

Eating alone is one thing- The act of scarfing down a sloppy assemblage of discordant ingredients while on the run, a quiet moment stolen away from a hectic schedule, shared only with a soothing bowl of soup and sandwich- Just a small, acceptable aspect of the modern world we must make peace with. Whether these meals are a respite or a terribly lonely hour are all in the eye of the beholder, or should I say, mouth of the eater. Cooking alone, in my opinion is an entirely different subject though. When you make the conscious effort to cook something from scratch, taking into consideration exactly what you want to feed yourself with, it’s a far more meditative, nourishing experience than merely grabbing a solo bite between meetings.

It looks different for everyone, but eating alone for me means a bowl of cereal for dinner or reheated leftovers. Cooking alone, at least in the winter, means rich curries packed full of vegetables, hearty soups enriched with miso and nutritional yeast (vegan catnip, from my point of view), or red sauce, enriched with thick, creamy coconut milk and vodka.

A perfectly balanced dinner, it is not, but sometimes it’s the less healthy option that’s better for your soul. Rather than mope over previously picked over scraps, while away the night time hours by myself, I poured myself into making a simple vodka sauce, tending the pot while listening to music and allowing the savory scent of stewed tomatoes fill the entire house. Smooth, with a few chunks of diced tomatoes for a more satisfying texture, vodka sauce is a favorite that isn’t indulged in very often around here. More than anything else, this recipe is an effort in self-editing. Resist the urge to throw in garlic (Yes, must fight the temptation, at least the first time you try it!), keep the fancy herbs at bay, and stick to the basics. Time is the best seasoning in this case, so approach this sauce with plenty of patience in stock. Top it all off with a fine chiffonade of fresh basil if you absolutely must, but that’s it!

Pasta, that simple, starchy comfort food, naturally makes the best sort of base. Go for something tube-shaped to catch and hold on to all that creamy crimson goodness, and if you must pretend like you’re eating healthily, go ahead and toss in some chickpeas or baked tofu for protein.

With the scent of my carefully tended vodka sauce wrapping around me like a thick, soft blanket on a cold night, just like that, I didn’t feel so alone when it came time to eat.

Yield: 2 Quarts

Coconut Vodka Sauce

Coconut Vodka Sauce

Smooth, with a few chunks of diced tomatoes for a more satisfying texture, this vegan vodka sauce is enriched with coconut milk rather than heavy cream.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 Cup Coconut Oil, Melted
  • 1 Large Onion, Finely Minced
  • 1 Cup Vodka
  • 2 28-Ounce Cans Diced Tomatoes
  • 1 14-Ounce Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
  • Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Instructions

  1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the onion in the melted coconut oil until softened and just beginning to take on a brown color. De-glaze with the vodka, stir well, and let cook for 10 minutes. Mix in canned tomatoes, juice and all, and bring the mixture up to a rapid bubble. Reduce the heat to medium-low to keep the sauce at a steady, low simmer, and cook for another 30 minutes. Pour in coconut milk and cook for a final 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, but be generous with both. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender and puree, or hit it with the immersion blender until it reaches your desired consistency. Be sure to leave it slightly chunky.
  2. Serve while hot, or store in an air-tight container in the fridge after cooling, for up to a week.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

16

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 161 Total Fat: 12g Saturated Fat: 10g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 136mg Carbohydrates: 5g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 3g Protein: 1g

Playing Cat-sup

For the record, I hate ketchup. Not just some brands or in some applications, but all ketchup, across the board, even with the classic pairing of crispy and well-salted french fries. There is no faster way to ruin a perfectly good handful of starchy, fried potatoes than to throw some of that red glop across the top. Too sweet to be comfortably paired with savory main dishes but certainly no dessert fodder, it’s that extra piece of the puzzle that doesn’t make sense anywhere in the bigger picture of a meal, and may in fact have come from an entirely different box.

So why on earth did I go and make a quick ketchup, on a blindingly busy day where I had to bake and snap pictures at a breakneck pace? I like to challenge myself, for one thing; Dissecting my reasons for detesting this tomato-based substance, it became a more of a dare. “I bet you can’t make a better version, either,” I taunted myself silently. For another, I can’t resist the temptation to positively bury myself in work, so what better timing than a day when I’m already swamped? Immediately, the ideas started flowing in. A big bag of sun-dried tomatoes provided the initial push, and from a quick internet search and some inspiration, it became an unstoppable impetus. Employing a decent measure of apple cider rather than straight sugar would help cut the sweetness, and a decent bite of vinegar can swing things back to the savory side of the street. Suddenly, this ketchup concept become entirely more appealing.

Unlike traditional ketchup recipes requiring hours of laborious stewing and stirring, the sun-dried tomatoes provide concentrated flavor right from the get go, and the recipe speeds right along. Amazingly, I do not hate this ketchup, which is high praise considering my previous disdain. I can’t say I’m about to slather it on everything that crosses my dinner plate, but those french fries we were talking about earlier? Bring them on.

Yield: Makes About 3 Cups

Sun-Dried Tomato Ketchup

Sun-Dried Tomato Ketchup

Apple cider rather than straight sugar helps cut the sweetness in this rich, sun-dried ketchup, while a decent bite of vinegar swings things back to the savory side of the street.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 35 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Cups Apple Cider
  • 1 Cup (Dry, Not Oil Packed) Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Soaked in Hot Water for 30 Minutes and Drained
  • 2/3 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Tamari or Soy Sauce
  • 1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
  • 3/4 Teaspoon Mustard Powder
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
  • Generous Pinch Cayenne Pepper
  • Pinch Ground Cloves
  • 1 Small Yellow Onion
  • 2 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • Freshly Ground Black Pepper, to Taste

Instructions

  1. This procedure hardly needs a written recipe, but here goes: Toss everything into your blender or a sturdy food processor, and puree until completely smooth. Scrape down the sides as need to make sure that everything is thoroughly pulverized.
  2. Transfer the mixture into a large sauce pan and set over medium heat. It may seem like too large of a pot, but this stuff bubbles and sputters like mad once it gets going, so the high sides are helpful for protecting the walls (and yourself) from gruesome blood-red splatters. Cook at a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes, until slightly thickened or at least less watery, stirring every couple of minutes to prevent burning.
  3. Move the whole batch back into your blender or food processor, and puree once more to ensure a perfectly smooth texture. Let cool completely before bottling and storing.
  4. Bear in mind that since this homemade ketchup lacks the additives and preservatives of mainstream brands, you will need to shake it well before each use, as it can separate a bit as it sit. Additionally, it should be kept in the fridge, tightly sealed for no more than 1 month.

Notes

Bonus! If that label caught your eye, you’re in luck! I’d like to share it with you for your own ketchup creations. Here are three color variations for whatever strikes your fancy, below. Just click on the image and print it out on sticker paper at a 6 x 4 size. Trim, and slap it on a 16-ounce glass bottle. I used a rinsed and dried GT Kombucha bottle, for size reference.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

48

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 49 Total Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 84mg Carbohydrates: 2g Fiber: 0g Sugar: 1g Protein: 0g