Saturday, November 26, 2011


I love these perennial rituals that bring family and friends closer together. Whether we're in the same location, or miles apart, these traditions become part of the rhythm of our lives. It can be something as simple as sharing gifts of food, setting the table with your great-grandmother's tablecloth, hanging that special ornament or playing a favorite game after a holiday meal. Traditions pay homage to who we are, where we come from and what we cherish most in life.

As I was setting the table for Thanksgiving I thought about Leila Saks Ranger, my husband's great-grandmother. While I never had the pleasure of meeting her, I've had numerous conversations with my mother-in-law about her life, her passion and her artistic creativity. She had an eye for beauty and the talent to transform that vision into a magnificent handbag, a needlepoint sampler, or a lovely flower arrangement. Often these heirlooms will spark an interesting conversation around the dinner table, or just quietly comfort those who remember seeing them in another home at an earlier time. 

Traditions are meant to be passed on to the next generation. This year Ally and her cousins, Chloe and Nicholas, prepared the desserts for our holiday meal. Chloe made a delicious apple pie using a recipe from the original Silver Palette cookbook, while Ally made a traditional pumpkin tart that she served with a caramel sauce. I helped with the crust as that takes a while to master, but we left them on their own to assemble and bake their creations.

Nicholas arrived with his masterpiece which tasted as good as it looked. With the dessert making in more than capable hands, my sister and I went out to dinner on Wednesday evening and decided this might just become our new tradition. It was a welcome respite before a full day in the kitchen.

As we make the seque into the Christmas season, it's time to hang one of my favorite decorations: Stolle's angel. Some wonder why I'm so enamored with this bubble wrap angel and all I can say is that a gift made by a child can really strike a chord. Stolle presented it to me when she was about six years old and I was so impressed with what she created from some very simple, albeit unusual, materials. Who looks at bubble wrap and thinks of an angel? Obviously, an insightful child. With all the hustle, bustle and commercialism of Christmas it's sometimes hard to stay focused on what's really important, so this angel is a loving and gentle reminder as we head into the holiday season.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Roasted Kabocha Squash

Ok, I admit it, I'm slightly obsessed with kabocha squash. In my last post I mentioned that you can eat the skin and roasting is the way to go for that preparation. This sweet and savory combination blends nicely with the nutty flavor of the squash.  It's a great side for Thanksgiving as you can easily prep it ahead of time and then roast it while the turkey is resting. It offers a change from mashed or pureed squash, and if my family is an accurate barometer (we were eating it out of the pan) then it's sure to be a hit for any meal.

Roasted Kabocha Squash with Pecans and Dried Cranberries
(Serves 4-6)
1 medium sized Kabocha squash
Extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
Healthy pinch of sea salt
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup of chopped pecans
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Trim the top and ends from the squash. Cut it in half and remove the seeds (save the seeds as they can be dried and roasted later)

Cut each half lengthwise, then cut those halves into 1/4 inch crescents.

Place the cut squash in a roasting pan that's large enough to spread it out to one layer. Drizzle with olive oil and toss so all pieces are lightly coated with oil. Finely chop two springs of rosemary that has been stripped from the stem and sprinkle over the squash. Add a healthy pinch of sea salt and some pepper.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes. Add the chopped pecans and drizzle the squash with the maple syrup and bake for another 10 minutes.

Add the dried cranberries and bake for another 5 minutes, then turn on the broiler and cook until the squash starts to brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to sit for about 10 minutes (this will make it easier to remove from the pan), then transfer to a serving platter.

Happy Thanksgiving

Monday, November 14, 2011

Kabocha Squash

This dark green winter squash is also know as Japanese Pumpkin. My introduction to it was through a macrobiotic cooking class. It's a staple of the Japanese diet, and I was enthralled with the nutty flavor at first bite. This preparation uses just a few ingredients, which is the essence of macrobiotic cooking and the way I like to eat food.

I also use kabocha in miso and other winter soups. Its texture is firmer than butternut squash and the skin is edible, too.  Personally, I think the skin tastes best when you roast the squash in the oven with a little olive oil, a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, brown rice or maple syrup, and salt and pepper. This mashed version is a great side dish for Thanksgiving and can be prepared ahead of time.

Japanese-style Kabocha Squash
1 medium sized Kabocha squash, washed, peeled and seeds removed
(select a squash with dark green skin as the flesh will be sweeter)
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 small sweet white onion, sliced into crescents
1 cup of water
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil (I like Eden brand)
Salt and pepper

After you've peeled and deseeded the squash, cut in into 1 inch chunks.

Add the olive and sesame oils to the pan and saute the onions until golden brown. Add the squash and the water. The water should come about 1/2 way up the side of your pan.

Bring to a boil, then cover the pan and allow to simmer for about 20-25 minutes, or until the squash is very tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. (If the liquid cooks out too quickly during the cooking process add a bit more water).  Add salt and pepper, to taste.

I like mine with some texture so I use a hand masher, but you can use a electric mixer to obtain a creamier texture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Allow the squash to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. It gets sweeter if it sits for a while. This simple recipe brings out the sweet, nutty flavor of this delicious winter squash.

Friday, November 11, 2011

An Autumn Minestrone with Roasted Cauliflower

With a focus on seasonal cooking, I made an autumnal version of the classic minestrone. Roasted root and winter vegetables were gently simmered in a light vegetarian broth made with chick peas and tomato sauce. The pièce de résistance was the whole roasted cauliflower inspired by Michael Ruhlman's recipe. Roasting the vegetables gives the soup a rich, nutty flavor and combined with the cauliflower it's a hearty, satisfying meal.

Autumn Minestrone with Roasted Cauliflower (Serves 6-8)
1/2 kabocha squash, peeled and diced
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
4 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 small yellow turnip, peeled and diced
1 cup of leftover tomato sauce, or 1 small can of chopped tomatoes
1 bag of baby spinach
Sea salt and pepper

Lightly toss each of the vegetables (keeping them separate as their cooking times will vary)  in extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast in a 400 degree oven until tender and golden brown. Go here for the cauliflower recipe.  Note: I did combine the squash and the carrots as their cooking times are the same.

Add 3 quarts of water to a heavy stock pan and bring to a boil. Add the chick peas and tomato sauce and allow to simmer while the vegetables are cooking. Cool the roasted vegetables for about 1/2 hour then add them to the simmering broth. Add 1/2 tsp of dried basil and continue to simmer (very gently, not a rolling boil) for another 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and add the spinach. Add salt and pepper to taste. If your soup gets a little too thick you can add more water to thin it out. When the cauliflower is done, transfer the soup to a tureen and place the cauliflower in the middle. You can break it apart using a small knife and fork.  Garnish with your favorite grated cheese. I used grated ricotta salada.  You could also try a hard goat cheese, feta, or parmesan.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Chandeliers of Versailles

Last February while on a business trip to Paris, I spent a day at the Palace of Versailles with my niece and nephew. It was a weekday and the foot traffic was pretty light so we meandered around at a leisurely pace which allowed us to take in the details of this visual extravaganza. I was intrigued by the latches on windows, elaborate mouldings, rich fabrics, sculpted feet of statues and the intricate needlepoint work on a chair seat or bench. You can see those photos in an earlier post.

I also found the chandeliers fascinating. While the most elaborate and surely most photographed are those that hang in the Hall of Mirrors, there are many others that are visually interesting.

Some are held up by other artifacts,

while others are lighting bed chambers

and sitting rooms.

Many of the chandeliers are adorned with crystals, but some are more understated (relatively speaking, of course, lest we forget where we are)...

This hangs, along with matching wall sconces, in the foyer of the Grand Trianon, a smaller palace on the grounds.

If you are contemplating hanging one of these beauties in your own dining room the lowest point of the chandelier should hang 32 inches/81.28 cm above your table.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Italian-Australian Lamb Braciole

I watched Lidia, of Lidia's Italy fame, make this meal last year and I finally got around to trying it. Braciole is rolled meat, usually beef, that's pounded and filled with a light stuffing then cooked in tomato sauce. Lidia's lamb version is influenced by the Abruzzo region of Italy, where my father's family is from, so it had an immediate appeal to me. It's impossible for me to get Italian lamb at the moment so I used an Australian boneless leg of lamb, which is an excellent substitute. Their free range, grass-fed meats are delicious.

Italian-Australian Lamb Braciole:
One Australian boneless leg of lamb (I used a 1/2 a leg which is about 2 lbs.)
3 cloves of garlic (chopped)
1 cup of breadcrumbs (I used gluten-free)
Chopped fresh parsley
Sliced fresh basil leaves (4)
Pecorino Romano Cheese
Salt and pepper

Tomato Sauce:
1/2 white onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and shredded, or finely diced
2 (28 oz) cans of San Marzano canned tomatoes
1 can of tomato paste
Fresh basil leaves (6-8)

Saute the onion and carrots in olive oil until soft. Add the canned tomatoes and break them up using your hands or a potato masher. Allow the sauce to simmer while you prepare the braciole.

Trim the excess fat off the lamb, then pound it with a meat mallet until it's of an even thickness.

Sprinkle with the garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley, basil, salt, pepper and a healthy handful of grated pecorino romano cheese. Roll into a log and tie it up with kitchen twine

Add the braciole to the tomato sauce and let it simmer for about 1.5 hours. Add the tomato paste and simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the lamb begins to break apart when pierced with a fork. Add the basil leaves right before serving.

Like Lidia, I served mine over polenta. Prepare the polenta while the lamb is cooking as it takes a few hours to set up.

1 cup of polenta (I used Mulino Marino from Williams Sonoma)
4 cups of water
3 tbsp butter
1 cup of grated cheese (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Bring the water to boil in a heavy saucepan. Salt the water, add the polenta, and stir as it cooks to avoid lumps.

Yes, you will need to continue stirring for the entire cooking time (30 minutes), but it's worth the effort. Once cooked, stir in the butter and grated cheese and pour into a baking dish to set up. Sprinkle a little pepper on top. The Mulino Marino brand comes from the Piedmonte region of Italy known for its high quality grains which produce a creamy, nutty flavored polenta.

Serve the sliced braciole over the polenta with tomato sauce and your favorite grated cheese. I can hear Lidia now, "Tutti a tavola a mangiare!"