Pumpkin (or squash) is not a fad

Lately, folks are writing about the whole Pumpkin Spice Latte flavoring craze and I want to make it clear that I have loved pumpkin flavor long before it was a fad. As a kid, whenever my mom made pumpkin pie (as she often did for Friday night dessert in the fall), I’d have the leftovers for breakfast.

Actually, I don’t just like the pie flavor; my true passion is pumpkin and squash in all its forms. One of my all time favorites is a traditional couscous with chunks of pumpkin or squash which can be used interchangeably (in fact, I think the Israeli pumpkin is more like what we call squash in the U.S.). When I worked at the Israeli Ministry of Health in the mid 1990s, Wednesday was couscous day at the office cafeteria. My colleagues and I would start gathering each other at 11:45 a.m. because we couldn’t wait a moment longer for the terrific vegetarian couscous. When it was my turn to be served, I prayed that the lunch lady would give me a large chunk of pumpkin and then I would ration my piece so that most of my bites would include  some pumpkin.

Make sure every one gets lots of all the goodies (especially squash!) in their serving. Photo by REG

Make sure every one gets lots of all the goodies (especially squash!) in each serving.
Photo by REG

As much as I loved those couscous lunches, I gave it all up to marry the man I love. It was a hard to leave the job and the couscous that I loved, but that professional experience gave me the confidence   to have the courage to give it all up and join Mr. Dot in California, a place with all sorts of cuisines and fresh produce—but I never found a couscous with pumpkin (or squash, which is what we use in the US) like the one in the humble cafeteria of a certain Jerusalem government office.

Recently, I have started to make a couscous with squash and chicken that may not have the je ne sais quoi of the Ministry’s dish but is, IMHO, pretty delicious. It’s my own recipe so it can’t be called authentic (but I have a feeling that the folks in the Ministry used Osem Imitation Chicken Soup Powder).  I use some short cuts, liked canned chickpeas (and sometimes pre-cut squash). It’s quick, but to be honest, it does require a number of pans so the washing up may not be as efficient as the prep. I like this dish because I can put in lots of squash and, best of all, I get to both have my squash couscous and eat it with Mr. Dot.

 Squash Couscous with Chicken Thighs

1 large leek sliced thinly

6 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup dried apricots

around 1 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ¾ inch cubes (you can do it yourself or buy it cubed)

½ cup canned chickpeas

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs—cut up into 2 inch pieces (no need to make these uniform)

1 ½ cups couscous

1 2/3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 tablespoons chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

½ teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Mix squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil and some salt and pepper, to taste and place on a baking sheet (I line it with parchment paper to prevent sticking). Bake for about 25 minutes – you can check on it a couple of times while baking and move it around so that it all roasts more or less evenly.  You can’t really mess this up. If some of it gets a little brown, that’s fine.

Soak apricots in enough hot water from the tap to cover them. Drain after 10 minutes and cut them into strips.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add leeks and a pinch of salt. Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown. Remove leeks, and add chicken and sauté. Add salt, pepper,  allspice, and cinnamon.  Let it brown on both sides and cook a few minutes longer so that the chicken is cooked through.

Once you have the squash, apricots, leeks, and chicken in process, heat up the stock. Place couscous in a large, heatproof bowl and pour in the boiling stock along with the remaining olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and leave for about 10 minutes. All the liquid will be absorbed.

Heat up the chickpeas—you can pop them in the microwave for a couple of minutes.

When ready to serve (in other words, once the chicken and the squash are done), it’s time to assemble the components on a large platter. First spread out the couscous, fluffing it up with a fork so that it’s light and not clumpy. Then add the leek, squash, chicken, apricots, mint, cilantro and chickpeas.

Make sure that every serving includes all the components, especially enough squash so that every bite includes some squash.

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My Hungarian Jewish roots and infusing the holidays with a special sense of grandeur

I once dated a guy who said that there were two reasons to date Hungarian women: their looks and the food. Some people may consider these superficial qualities but my Hungarian mother elevated them. By dressing up and making special food, she infused our Jewish holiday celebrations with a special sense of grandeur. We always had new clothes for the Jewish holidays, especially so that we could wear something special on holidays when we said the “shehecheyanu” blessing—a blessing that thanks God for keeping us alive to celebrate special occasions. In addition to saying this blessing on holidays, we always recited it the first time we wore new clothes. This fancy dressing was an essential part of the holiday when I was growing up and remains so for me today.

And then there was the food! Mom would start cooking multiple batches weeks before the holidays and freeze everything. She had to start early because there was so much food. A holiday meal had at least two main courses—for example, capon AND veal roast or duck AND roast beef. There were also multiple dessert options and to this day, I worry that I need to provide choices for my guests. After all, some people are only happy with a chocolate dessert and others can’t eat chocolate—so I channel my mom, and make sure there’s something for every palate.

My mother was always open to new cooking ideas but at holidays there were always traditional Hungarian Jewish foods—especially the desserts, such as dobos torte or rigo jancsi. One fall favorite of my mother’s ties in to her Hungarian heritage but was of more recent vintage: Roszi Neni’s (Aunt Roszi’s) apple roll.

A slice of apple roll with some chocolate ice cream (a necessary option in case you have guests who think dessert must include chocolate) Photo copyright REG

A slice of apple roll with some chocolate ice cream (a necessary option in case you have guests who think dessert must include chocolate)
Photo copyright REG

According to mom, her mother’s sister Roszi was one of the family members who cried bitterly when my mother’s family left Hungary in 1939. They thought my grandfather was foolish to uproot his family because they believed Hungarian Jews were safe. Later, Roszi took a course and learned how to make foods that would appeal to Americans with the hopes that she could emigrate and perhaps work as a cook. She shared the recipe for apple roll with my grandmother. Sadly, Roszi never made it out of Hungary; she was one of the family members killed by the Nazis.

My grandmother's sisters who both died in the Holocaust: Roszi Bloch Hausman and Szidi Bloch Aron

My grandmother’s sisters who both died in the Holocaust: Roszi Bloch Hausman and Szidi Bloch Aron

This is a tragic rather than festive story but I share the one recipe I have from Roszi Neni as a way of connecting to my  Hungarian Jewish heritage. It seems particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashanah when it is traditional to eat apples (which just happen to be in season). Roszi Neni’s apple roll also connects me to the sense of occasion and splendor at my mother’s holiday table and in the finest Jewish tradition allows me to bring some elements of my extended family and their memory to our table.

Roszi Neni’s Apple Roll

Dough:

3 cups of all purpose flour

1 tsp salt

¼ cup sugar

4-5 egg yolks

Lemon rind from one lemon

1 tsp vanilla

½ lb. shortening (or margarine or butter or some combination)

4-6 tablespoons cold club soda

Filling:

3 lbs tart green apples (like Granny smith) .

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ cup raisins or currants

1 tablespoon tapioca

Cut shortening into flour, salt and sugar with a pastry blender. Add remainder of dough ingredients until ball is formed. Refrigerate several hours overnight.

Cut apples into around 16-20 pieces each. I leave the peel on because I like the peel. Mix in remainder of ingredients.

Cut dough into two parts. Roll one half of the dough on a floured surface into a 10” X 14” rectangle (well not a perfect rectangle—the beauty of this is its rustic look so no need to make sure that this is perfect. It will be better if it’s a little misshapen). Place half of the apple mixture in the center of the rectangle so that it goes almost the whole length of the “rectangle,” leaving some room so that you can seal the ends when you’re done. Fold the sides of the dough over  so that they overlap a little in the middle and so that you have a roll that is 4 inches wide (still 14″ long). The top will look home made. Repeat this with the remaining dough and filling. Place the rolls gently on a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper. Seal the ends tightly. Prick all over with a fork so that steam can escape.

Bake at 400 for 20 minutes. Reduce to 350 for another 40-50 minutes.

Serve hot (either fresh or heated up) with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar. This actually freezes very well though it’s heavenly when fresh.

The final instruction is one of my favorite lines in my mother’s cookbook: “Cut slices as for strudel.” I’m sure she knew what that meant.

Extra tip for those of you making festive meals that require lots of desserts: this recipe uses only the egg yolks. You’ll have 4-5 whites to use for making great meringues.

Very forgiving cookies (substitutes allowed)

When I first started to work out of my home, I craved a healthful snack  and there was a nearby kitchen beckoning. I started to make oatmeal cookies that are incredibly easy to make and forgiving. You can make all sorts of substitutes. I never use the same nuts/seeds/chips to make these cookies: I just add whatever is around.

After several months of making these, I actually diagnosed a late-blooming walnut allergy . . . and it was no problem; I just started to use other nuts–in my case, pecans, pistachios or cashews were the ones I was most likely to have around but I’ve also added hazelnuts.  Whatever I’ve added, they were delicious.

I’ve also made these gluten-free (not an issue for my household but an issue for others), using cashew flour from Trader Joes. Again, delicious.

Recently, I was put on a restrictive diet to control migraines. I don’t want to turn this into a blog about the diet—but a lot of my favorite foods are now verboten. With time, I’ll introduce some foods back into my diet and figure out which are my migraine triggers. In the meanwhile, I can make these cookies with pumpkin seeds, real flour, and unsulfured dried fruits but, sad to say, not with chocolate. Since I do think most people expect demand chocolate in this kind of cookie, I might make a few cookies for myself without chocolate and add chocolate chips to the rest of the batter.

However you make these cookies they are easy and delicious and you are likely to have most of the ingredients on hand. I recently whipped up a batch when I had some company coming on short notice. I always have the basic ingredients in my pantry and then I get creative with the add-ins.

oatmeal cookies

Very forgiving oatmeal cookies

2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

½ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

½ cup flour (all purpose or whole wheat . . . or nut flour)

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups rolled oats

your choice of any combination of the following, totaling around 1 ½ cups. Most people will expect demand some chocolate chips.

chocolate chips

dried cranberries

coarsely chopped nuts

pumpkin seeds

chopped dried dates

dried cherries

raisins

Preheat the oven to 350.

Blend the butter and oil until smooth and beat in sugar and vanilla until creamy. Add the egg and beat until smooth.

Sift flour, baking soda and salt into the bowl and stir until well blended. Add the oatmeal and then your add-ins for a chunky batter.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto the sheets. You will probably need to use your hands to shape these a bit.

Bake at 350 for around 10 minutes, until the cookies are light brown around the edge. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack. This makes around 24 cookies—and it’s possible that they’ll be gone once your unexpected company comes over. If you do have leftovers, they can be stored in a covered container.