Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly....Pumpkin

On a recent shopping trip to my favorite local gourmet supermarket, I encountered an alien in the produce section. It sat, unloved, lumped between Cinderellas, Fairytales, and Long Island Cheese. Its warty skin reminiscent of ghoulish witches, its odor faintly of compost, it hid, dejected, waiting for a home to be adopted to, to grace with its stinky, unusual presence.
    My friends, I had come across the galeux d'Eysine.

If not for my yearly obsessive poring over seed catalogs for my (failing) garden plot, I might not have ever known about this tremendous pumpkin. The specimens I encountered weighed in about 20 pounds, not anything to sniff at in a pumpkin. The galeux is an heirloom variety French pumpkin, cultivated in Europe for centuries as a winter staple. The peanutty-looking "warts" are actually sugar crystals that have expanded and essentially exploded in the skin, causing the appearance of a monster. Much in the way us Americans revere butternut squash and cranberries, the French worship these bastions of snowy nutrition as nearly a religion.
   You can EAT this thing???
You Bet!!
      So, back to the produce department....
I stood in front of this tremendous pile of colorful, animated pumpkins, and drooled...literally. They had all been labeled as DECORATIVE PUMPKINS. $6.50 a piece!!! (Meanwhile, the butternuts were priced at 99 cents a pound - ha!)   The surrounding customers must have thought I went certifiable right then and there, as I gleefully giggled in delight, loading two large pumpkins (about 40 pounds) into my cart, mumbling to Colette how we were gonna EAT GOOD THIS WINTER!! I was practically dancing all the way to the register. And, all I could think was, SUCKERS!!! You mounded pounds upon pounds of pumpkins to sell as decoration, without realizing you can eat them, and sold them at such a loss!
  Christine, 1, Supermarket managers, zero!
I drove home in sweet, sweet victory, thoughts of roasted pumpkin dancing in my head...
   I figured I could display my galeux until at least Halloween before having to roast it. As it turned out, the galeux had a different idea all together...about three days after I brought it home and made it part of my fall table decor, I began to smell compost everywhere. The sugars in the warts apparently don't like my moist home air, and had begun to fuzz over with a whitish mold. I was aghast, and scared - now what? This weird pumpkin was certainly now haunting my house, way too early.
   I grabbed a chefs knife, and got to work. I deftly whacked out 8 huge wedges of pumpkin, scooping and saving the seeds (maybe I can get THOSE to grow next fall?). I scrubbed the fuzz off the warts, and threw them into a 400 degree oven to roast. I AM NOT LOSING THIS PUMPKIN!, I kept hollering in my head.
In a matter of hours, I had accumulated a GALLON of sweet, pure orange pumpkin puree, the rival of canned versions everywhere. I'm not exaggerating - it was a literal gallon. I was so proud of my fat warty monster! First order of business - freeze enough for pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Then, I decided to take an entirely different route, and make pumpkin soup. The weather has turned chilly, a gentle rain trickled on the yellowing leaves outside, and..I wanted a warm, comforting soup simmering on the stove. The spices were reminiscent of pie, but tasted like a delicious curry. And, the pumpkin was nothing short of perfection. I have to give it to the French - they know their pumpkin.
  I hope the next time it's getting chilly out by you, and leaves twirl in the wind, and maybe the dreaded "S" word looms on the will make this belly-warming soup and think of how delicious it is just to savor an autumn day in a toasty home. Enjoy.

Spicy Pumpkin Curry Soup - makes about 1 1/2 quarts

1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. diced red onion
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 c. diced celery with leaves
1/2 c. raw cashews
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp. fresh sage, thinly sliced
1 tsp. garam masala
2 1/4 c. chicken stock or broth
3/4 c. heavy whipping cream
3 c. pumpkin puree
1 tbsp. maple syrup

In a Dutch oven, melt together butter with olive oil over medium high heat. Add onions, garlic, celery, cashews, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until onions become soft and fragrant, and cashews are browning in spots, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, sage, and garam masala; cook another 2 minutes. Pour in chicken stock, cream, pumpkin, and maple syrup; bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer on low for 10 minutes. Puree the soup in a blender in two batches until very smooth; return to pot and bring back to a simmer. Serve hot with crusty bread for dipping.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Best Banana Pudding in the Nation

As I write this post, I am still digesting the events of this past Saturday, October 2nd, 2010. I participated in the inaugural National Banana Pudding Festival in lovely Hickman County, Tennessee, and....guess what! I won! Who'd a thunk that a wee girl from small town NJ could whoop a bunch of Southern chicks at their own game??? Certainly not me.
   In fact, I was sure I didn't even sure that I was TAILGATING in the parking lot before the announcements of the awards!
    But here, I digress. Until the check clears in the bank, I'm still not sure if this has all been a sweet dream, or a poor hoax on my mental fragility. So, if it did truly happen, I am forever in debt, honor and love the people of Hickman County. THANK YOU for beginning another food festival that crazy foodies like me can make a destination to attend. THANK YOU for your love of such a splendidly simple dessert that brought me such good fortune. THANK YOU for your beautiful mountains, and perfect weather the weekend of the competition. And the 70 MPH speed limits on the highways.
    But most of all, THANK YOU to the people of this fine county. This was my first ever visit to this part of the country, and as a native New Jerseyite, I was incredibly humbled. Never once did I feel out of place (although after a couple hours, I did realize I was the one with the accent!). I was not ostracized, not made fun of (at least, not to my face), not doubted as a competitor, not shunned. I met so many wonderful people that day  - the very gracious photographer from the local paper - apparently he was rooting for me! -, a woman who told me they make good folk in NJ (her hubby's from Bayonne), another paper editor who grew up in Middletown, Sheila B form Kix 96, the bounce house volunteers, and the Channel 4 Snowbird, who danced my daughter's heart out in front of the crowd (note picture!). Everyone was warm, gracious, congratulatory, and welcoming to me, the foreigner who ousted their county pudding queen. And Granny Rocket, I'm so sorry I took your title, I would have loved to taste your pudding. It looked fabulous!
   But, as this is a food blog, my heart and biggest thanks have to go to Angie and Devin Pickard, the owners of Papa Kayjoe's BBQ in Centerville. After my big win, I was swamped with congratulatory hugs and chats from all the locals, so my husband took my daughter to the bounce house for Hour 3 of bounce house fun. There he met Angie, who also had a young daughter bouncing about with delirium in her eyes (I think it was the free ice cream), who happened to own the 'burning' BBQ joint we kept passing. Allow me to we drove in, I said to Sean, "Is that smoke?? It looks like the forest is on fire!" A mess of grey smoke billowed from a shallow ravine next to this tiny "shack"- and I use that term with great endearment Angie!- but did not appear to have a big flame or be in harm's way. We passed a couple more times, and NO ONE tended to the fire! I then (wrongfully) assumed it was the BBQ smoker pit they carved into the mountain belching its guts into the air from the inside. Oh, silly Yankee! We don't carve pits into rock! No, Angie laughed and explained it was brush they were trying to burn off. Oh.
The pit was up the mountain. OH.
Then we chatted for a while, she also warmly spilling  congratulatory remarks onto me for my pudding. THEN, she offered us barbecue at their place before we left, on her. I was, simply, floored. REAL Tennessee barbecue?? For FREE??? You bet!
   After dragging Colette from the bounce house,we drove up the road to Kayjoe's, a simple, unimposing place with about 7 counter seats, 7 tiny tables, and Devin's team's newspaper clippings plastering the walls. Unimposing, that is, unless you're a NJ Yankee in Granny Rocket's home court! I have to admit, we got a few stares walking in, but then ANOTHER local woman came to congratulate me - how wonderful and kind! This would NEVER happen in NJ. If Roy Rogers walked into Tony Soprano's joint in Bayonne, he may have been shot on spot...or gotten strung into a shot drinking contest, won, then given cement shoes and dunked in the Hudson. I'm just sayin'...I love my state, but we are a rough crowd!
    After the chef loudly proclaimed "We have NO pork, NO turkey, NO chicken...NO BARBECUE LEFT!!!!" (it was a busy day...there was also an antique auto show and a quilt show going on), Angie found us outside waiting for our burgers, which I'm sure would have been terrific. Well, she felt just AWFUL, trying to be a good HOSTESS, and we have no BARBECUE??  NO. In no time flat she rustled out two pulled pork sandwiches, and we sat down to eat.
   I have NEVER had pork like this before. Inside this uninspiring white bread (!) hamburger bun was nestled a load of soft, meltingly tender pulled pork. Real, days-long, low n slow pork. It literally melted on your tongue, like a pat of butter on toast. Then I doused some of their house made vinegar-based sauce on it.
  Angie, I have something to admit - I HATE BBQ. Most importantly, I hate BBQ sauce. But what you served us was something sublime, beyond comprehension. The sauce was sweet, sour, and light, but rich, all at the same time. It melted into the pork fat like they were kissin' cousins, and became an entirely different creature in my mouth. I mean, this was GOOD EATS. I have never eaten a barbecue I'd go for again and again, but yours was it. My hat off to you. And then, a piece of your mother-in-law's pecan pie??? And real Southern sweet tea! I nearly grew a cavity on the drive home. They were incomprehensible to me!
    All in all, the highlight of my trip, besides winning the prize, was the honor of meeting Angie Pickard. I am sure her preacher hubby is just as wonderful as she is, and the next time we're in Hickman County, we'll be sure to stop in and catch his Sunday sermon - I hear it's beyond compare. Angie, and Devin, even though we did not get the pleasure of meeting you - thank you for being the wonderful people and chefs you are. I am forever grateful to have made your acquaintance, and I'm sure we'll be in touch. We have new friends in Tennessee, and I am so thankful for this.
   Soooo....are you all waiting with bated breath for my pudding recipe??? Here it is! I promised the fine people at the NBPF that I'd give out my recipe, and I will not negate a promise. I only owe it to my fellow competitors, that they may try my recipe and decide for themselves if it's worthy of the title. And by the way - I heard a naysayer prowls the NBPF Face Book page, saying the best pudding will always be the "SOUTHERN" kind....honey, whoever you are, I have two things to say:
1) All your judges were Southern, and locals. They liked me best. I'm sorry.
2) Just because I'm from the North doesn't mean I don't know good food. Case in point: Kayjoe's. I rest, counselor.

I hope you all enjoy my banana pudding as much as I enjoyed my time in Hickman County, Tennessee. Thank you, forever, I am eternally grateful.

Roasted Banana Walnut Pudding
1 c. light brown sugar
3 tbsp. cornstarch
¼ tsp. salt
2 c. whole milk
1 c. plus 1 ½ c. heavy cream, divided
4 large egg yolks
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp.  dark rum, divided
1 c. whole walnut halves
1/2 c. white sugar, divided
45 Nilla wafers
5 ripe, firm bananas
In a heavy saucepan, mix together brown sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add milk and 1 c. cream, stirring over low heat to dissolve. When sugar is incorporated, spoon about ¼ c. of the warm milk into the egg yolks and whisk to temper. Add the egg yolks back into the saucepan, whisking constantly. Raise heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to low and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, strain into a shallow dish, and stir in vanilla, 1 tsp. rum, and butter. Press a sheet of plastic wrap on top to prevent a skin. Cool completely.
Meanwhile, roast walnuts in a 400 degree F oven until fragrant and browning in spots, about 10 minutes.  Allow to cool.
In a large bowl, whip remaining 1 ½ c. heavy cream with 1 tbsp. rum and ¼ c. white sugar until soft but firm peaks form. Cover and refrigerate.
Slice the bananas lengthwise, and lay cut side up on a baking sheet covered with parchment. Dust the tops liberally with  the remaining white sugar. Run under a broiler until tops are golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Remove and let cool.
To assemble, lay  Nilla wafers in the bottom of a 9x9 inch glass baking dish in a single layer. Spoon half the pudding on top of the wafers, and top with half the bananas broken into pieces. Spoon half the whipped cream on top, smooth, and sprinkle with half the walnuts. Repeat the layering of Nilla wafers, pudding, banana, whipped cream, and walnuts. Decorate the top with additional NIlla wafers and walnuts. Serve cool.