Shell Shock

Everyone in my family is a fidgeter, a picker, or a combination of the two. We simply can’t sit quietly, motionlessly, and we certainly can’t keep our hands still. As if possessed, they move with minds of their own, searching and groping into empty space for something to latch on to, work through, touch and feel.

If not for knitting, I would have long ago torn my nail beds to utter ruin, all without realizing precisely what those devious hands were doing. I’ve noticed that my mom often tries to redirect that energy into more positive channels as well, typically working knots out of yarn or twisted lengths of jewelry, impossibly tangled by yours truly. My sister’s gift, however came as a complete surprise. It turns out, she’s a gifted and endlessly enthusiastic sheller.

Failing to locate shelled pistachios for a recipe in need, I resigned myself to a frustrating night of cracking open about a million half-smiling green nuts, their tiny smirks mocking me from the safety of their hard cocoons. Somehow detecting the need for help, my sister was there in an instant, popping them out left and right, until only a pile of clean, perfect pistachios remained. Stunned, I could only stare at the heaping bowl of nuts, dumbstruck. This girl hates nuts, had never willingly or knowingly eaten a nut of any variety, and yet relished this horribly monotonous duty to free them from their shells.

Of course, this discovery came years ago, when we all lived together under one roof. Now separated by hundreds of miles, I can’t help but think of this moment wistfully as a new heap of nuts sits before me, cocooned in their impenetrable cloaks.

In the times of quarantine, though, it’s not the worst way to pass the endless hours. Any project that ends with a delicious result is a worthwhile investment in time.

Most cream of [fill-in-the-blank] soups are good only as ingredients, possessing little redeeming culinary value alone, but this pale green pottage was designed specifically to fly solo. Lush toasted pistachios are blended to both flavor and enrich the silken brew, dazzling with simplicity and subtlety. Glorious spring greens enhance the color, of course, while adding a light, peppery bite. Fennel, typically a bit player, is essential for this unique concert of seasonal flavors, not to be overpowered by the standard array of aromatics.

If you don’t start with shelled pistachios, it will definitely take a minute to prepare, to which I say: All the more better. Consider it an act of productive meditation. Don’t rush the process, but embrace it instead.

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Nuevo Gazpacho

Chill out. Watermelon might sound like an unconventional base for the classically tomato-red gazpacho, but it’s nothing to lose your cool over. Given a surplus of the highly perishable fruit and an oppressive heatwave to contend with, this sweet and savory mashup was inevitable.

As preferences quickly skew toward the fast, easy, and refreshing dishes, I can think of no better recipe to fit the bill. Gazpacho, no matter the color nor contents, must always be on hand for days like this, waiting in a properly chilled pitcher for instant access.

Balancing fruit and vegetables in elegant sufficiency, with a subtle bite of vinegar and fresh, verdant pop of basil, it’s an invigorating study in contrasts.

Don’t let the juicy inclusion scare you off. I promise, it’s not a vegetable-forward smoothie… Although it’s so good that you’ll still want to drink it straight from the blender.

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Light Whites for Spring Delights

Fearlessly springing forward, onward to brighter days and warmer weather, it’s time to emerge from hibernation at last. Blossoming alongside the flowers, as tender green buds unfurl their fragrant sails into the wind, is the urge to raise a glass in celebration. The crisp, clean, refreshing flavors of white wine are exactly what the season calls for.

Explore the world of nuanced, diverse white wines right at home through the carefully curated selection from Wine Access. Unique, rare, yet surprisingly affordable bottles perfect for the season can be unlocked with the turn of a corkscrew. Whites are my first pick when opting for a sophisticated sip, but I still don’t know the first thing about selecting the best bottle. That’s why this kind of rigorous vetting is invaluable; it’s impossible to pick a dud from this exclusive roster.

What makes a great white wine at this time of year? For food pairings, it should play nicely with delicate green vegetables, mild proteins, and sweet citrus, while still offering some substance and body. It should be cool, but not cold, for those evenings when there is still a bit of a nip in the air.

Starting the party with a bang, a velvety curtain of fine bubbles lifts with the first sip of this NV Langlois-Chateau Cremant de Loire Brut Loire Valley. Crafted like a fine champagne, it unfolds in layers, leading with acidity reminiscent of grapefruit that morphs into notes of tart green apple, finishing with a crisp, mineral bite. Pair with an elegant starter like creamy asparagus and coconut soup to best compliment these bold bubbles. It helps to cut the richness, while harmonizing with the bright citrus notes and subtle vegetal sweetness.

Herbaceous notes of tarragon and the tropical twang of kiwi and pineapple set the 2018 Kinfolk Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley apart from the pack. Pleasantly grassy, yet slightly floral with a hint of jasmine, it’s unlike any other white I’ve encountered. Lingering long after each taste, the surprisingly assertive flavor can stand up to stronger dishes, like the funky blue cheese on a classic wedge salad.

When you want a juicy, luscious white wine that’s as sumptuous in the glass as it is on the plate, look no further than the 2018 Tinpot Hut Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough New Zealand. Dazzlingly acidic with a sharp nose combining lemons, lychees, and limes, it’s strong enough to take the heat in the kitchen. Fiddlehead scampi positively sings with this vibrant, fruit-forward infusion. Naturally, those fickle ferns can be a bit tough to find early in the season, so I’m happy to report that it’s just as delicious with your garden variety zucchini, too. Fava beans or artichoke hearts would be equally delicious substitutions, verdant and elegant, ideal for tangling around al dente strands of pasta.

Just like the season itself, this is just the beginning. Wine Access has so much more to offer for every occasion, even if it’s just an evening at home. Revel in the warmer weather and raise a glass to the bounty of spring produce making a triumphant return on the table. For a limited time, you can get 15% off your purchase by exploring this collection, and shipping is included for all orders over $120 or 6 bottles or more. Leap into spring to greet the sunshine with only the best white wines at hand.

This blog post is sponsored by Wine Access but as always, the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

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.

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Fall Back Plan

Wet leaves slap the windshield, leaving teardrops in their wake, smearing across the glass before spreading their wings and fluttering away. Driving through a light autumnal drizzle is strikingly more depressing than a gentle summer rain. Fog obscures the road, blurring signs and stoplights into hazy, shapeless colors. I feel like my whole head is full of damp cotton balls by the time I finally shift gears to park.

Fall is not my favorite season, but by no fault of its own. Signaling the end of summer, it’s merely the messenger, doomed to be shot every year. I shiver as I watch temperatures slowly fall, regardless of how warm it really feels. I storm angrily through piles of leaves, even if there’s only one small mound pushed together on an entire block. The truth is, there’s still a lot to love about fall, and almost all of if it is food.

Do you welcome the arrival of the autumnal equinox with open arms, or reluctant acceptance? One thing we can all appreciate is a return of cozy comfort foods with all their warming spices, hearty starches, and nostalgic aromas. There’s a handful of recipes that always set me in the right mood and remind me, in spite of my irrepressible pessimism: Hey, it turns out that autumn isn’t all bad.

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Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Do you know what’s in your pumpkin puree? No, do you REALLY know what’s mashed into that aluminum tomb, wrapped up like an autumnal present with labels that promise “all natural” and “100% pure!” contents? This isn’t not a trick question like asking who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, but a real head-scratcher that might surprise you. That golden orange goo has little to do with actual pumpkins, which are much more stringy, watery, and bland than what we’ve been raised to enjoy. Rather, a blend of hardy squash, such as butternut, Hubbard, Boston marrow, and golden delicious are the unsung gourds that have bakers swooning. Like orange juice, natural variations between harvests turn the job of maintaining consistent flavors a perpetual challenge between batches. It takes more than one source to hit just the right standards for the tastes and textures we’ve come to know and love. If you thought you were really just getting plain Jane pumpkin all along, I’m very sorry to pull the curtain back and ruin the illusion.

By spreading this knowledge, my goal is not to incite riots in the canned goods aisle, but encourage everyone to think beyond those metal constrains. There are so many more squash in the sea, looking for love, and a place in your kitchen.

Featuring a few of the unsung heroes of autumn, this grand double decker celebration cake is a gloriously sweet tribute to those underdogs at the farm stand. Butternut squash puree is an easy swap for pumpkin, since you were probably using that anyway without even realizing it, but I’ll readily admit that spaghetti squash might be a bit of a stretch for some. In fact, it rarely makes it onto the dinner table as is; a real shame, considering just how delicious those firm, noodle-like strands are, especially when smothered with red sauce or pesto. We’re talking dessert today though, so just consider this a natural evolution of carrot cake or zucchini bread. You wouldn’t give a second though to including those vegetables in their eponymous confections, so why should this humble gourd be any different?

Crowing this pièce de résistance, naturally artful slices of delicata squash contribute beauty along with brains, adding a moreish bite to the moist, delicate crumb down below. Paper-thin shavings are essential here lest you risk throwing off that careful balance, perfected by the crisp crunch of fresh squash seeds. If you have to call it a day and resort to good old pepitas, well, I won’t tell. A little bit of pumpkin is still welcome on my table, especially if it’s not coming out of a can.

Does this revelation ruin or redeem the classic orange gourd for you? Hopefully I can make amends either way with this offering of the best cake autumn’s bounty has to offer. Trust me, you’ll never miss the pumpkin; you were never eating it anyway.

Harvest Squash Cake

2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry or All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Ground Cinnamon
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 1/2 Cups Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Cup Butternut Squash Puree
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3 Cups Cooked Spaghetti Squash*
Delicata Squash, Seeded and Thinly Sliced (Optional, for Topping)
Reserved Squash Seeds or Pepitas (Optional, for Topping)

Cream Cheese Filling:

1 (8-Ounce) Package Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Lemon Extract or Lemon Zest
1 – 2 Teaspoons Water

*To easily cook your spaghetti squash, slice it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, reserving them for the topping if desired. Place the halves with the cut sides down in a microwave-safe dish, adding about an inch of water around them. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave for 8 minutes. Let stand for 2 minutes before carefully removing the plastic. Test for doneness by piercing them with a knife; if it slides in easily, and the squash give under gentle pressure, they’re done! When cool enough to handle, take a fork to the interiors and scrape out the strands of tender squash.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 8-inch round baking pans.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices, stirring thoroughly to evenly distribute all of the dry goods throughout the mixture.

Separately, whisk together the coconut milk, vinegar, butternut squash puree, olive oil, and both sugars. Still to dissolve the sugar and smooth out the mixture, so that there are no lumps of butternut remaining.

Toss the cooked spaghetti squash into the bowl of dry ingredients, coating the strands with flour to keep them from simply sinking to the bottom of the cakes. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, folding the two together with a large spatula to combine. Resist the urge to break out the heavy artillery here; the batter will be fairly thick, but it’s perfectly fine to leave a few lumps, rather than risk over-mixing.

Divide the batter equally between your prepared cake pans. If desired, seed and very, very thinly slice the delicata squash, arranging the pieces artfully around the top of one pan of unbaked batter. Sprinkle with the leftover seeds or pepitas for a final flourish. Bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Bear in mind that the layer topped with squash will take longer to bake due to the excess liquid expressed by the gourd.

Let cool completely before assembling the final cake.

To make the filling, simply toss the cream cheese and butter into your stand mixer and beat until soft, smooth, and homogeneous. Add in the confectioner’s sugar and begin to mix on low speed. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula, as needed. Once mostly incorporated, add in the vanilla and lemon, and increase the speed to high. Add water as needed to reach your desired consistency, but use sparingly! It doesn’t take much at all. Whip for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy.

Turn out the bottom layer of the cake onto a serving vessel and smoother generously but evenly with the filling. Top with with second, decorated layer, press down to adhere, and serve with aplomb. No pumpkins need apply.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

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