The Great Pumpkin

Once October rolls around, out come the pumpkins, filling the bins and crates of every market. Why does the pumpkin have a whole mystique that captivates and enchants? It inevitably has to adorn doorsteps, stoops and porches in every neighborhood.

img_5855

Version 3
All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The month is almost over, but I am driven to share my own fascination with the iconic pumpkins. I understand the association with Halloween and jack-o’-lanterns to ward off spirits and ghosts. I am neither superstitious (well maybe a little) nor a stickler for tradition but I am still completely smitten and bewitched by their annual arrival, like aliens out of nowhere.

The orange glow of their hard and smooth skin—that is more like a tortoise shell or crustacean carapace with ridges that meet at the base of a scrunched up coarse and sometimes gnarly stem—contrasts ever so vigorously with the grays of the side-walk cement and the washed-out hues of brick and paint of city buildings and townhouses.

The first time I laid eyes on a pumpkin was in an illustrated children’s book, probably the Cinderella story. That is perhaps where the magical entrancement began. I don’t remember ever seeing a real pumpkin until I came to the U.S., although I am sure it grew in Lebanon, but I do not recall any of my family ever eating or cooking with pumpkin.

I have taken my children to pumpkin patches to pick their own. I have carved pumpkins at Halloween events year after year, or turned them in to vessels to hold floral centerpieces for Halloween and Thanksgiving table settings (thank you Martha Stewart). I have taken hundreds of photographs of pumpkins. It’s as though by taking photos, I might break the spell or unveil the secret behind my obsession.

The path to demystification is to get to know your subject. Wikepedia tells me that the U.S. produces 680,000 tons of pumpkins each year and that 95% of the crop intended for processing is grown in Illinois. I’d be blown away by the sheer size of those pumpkin fields and my small iPhone camera will certainly have a hard time wrapping it’s frame around that picture!
I also discovered (see Colonial Williamsburg Journal (CW Journal : Autumn 09 : Some Pumpkins!) that the colonials did not celebrate Halloween. The holiday was brought over to the U.S. by the Irish immigrants in the 19th century along with the jack-0’-lanterns that were originally carved turnips. The article also mentioned that the pumpkin had been, for thousands of years, a nourishing staple both for North and South America’s indigenous people. Pumpkin along with corn and beans was cultivated as part of the three sisters crop (a symbiotic relationship that improved yield). By the mid 1600s the settlers in the colonies were growing their own and incorporating them in their meals.

The plant itself is described as a delicate, thirsty and voracious feeder. It  produces both female and male flowers and depends heavily on pollination by bees. The pumpkin that is cultivated for decoration (not cooking) is just one variety of pumpkin also known as winter squash. They come in all shapes and colors and much is discussed about the difference in flavor and sweetness. Food52 has a post showing all the varieties (in case you have the time and the interest).

It’s not the visual aspect of the fruit alone that thrills me, it’s also the arrival of all things pumpkin in bakeries and stores: pumpkin pie, bread, scones and pumpkin cheesecake. But I draw the line at pumpkin flavored latte in coffee shops! There is pumpkin eggnog and ale… both not for me either.

Yes, I have made curried pumpkin soup and pumpkin scones in my day, I also use some varieties of squash in soups and stews— but I never made a pumpkin pie. Since all confections are ready-made, easily available, delicious and for the most part cheap(-ish?), why bother with the mess. I turn to canned pumpkin puree for some needs or the conveniently peeled and cut winter squash at the markets. But I am encouraged to do try working it from scratch someday when I have time for the ritual. Maybe that will exorcise my enchantment for good.

img_7598-2

img_7607-2
Pumpkin kibbeh in the making, with filling (above) and completed and baked (below). All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Soon after moving to D.C. I discovered that pumpkin kibbeh is a regional Lebanese dish that is found ready-made in Middle-Eastern take-out delis in the suburbs. The small pumpkin kibbeh balls stuffed with spinach, onions and nuts are delicious but too time-consuming to make myself. I recommend The Gourmet Basket in McLean, VA (no, they are not sponsoring this post). Call first to ensure they have enough on hand. They sell out quickly.

One snowy Sunday last February, I tried making the kibbeh “pie” using canned pumpkin puree. It was a lot of work but I had a pair of helping hands: a vegan daughter who was invested in the process in order to reap the benefits. I used the recipe from the Classic Lebanese Cuisine cookbook by Kamal Al-Faqih, but there are others on line including Emeril Lagasse (can you believe it?!) and a multitude of videos ranging from the good, the bad and the funny, showing method and process for making either the balls or the “pie”.

Finally no pumpkin story can go without mention of a longtime (baby-boomer) favorite, the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz and the Great Pumpkin, a mythical figure in whom only Linus van Pelt seems to believe. Every Halloween Linus awaits in a pumpkin patch but the Great Pumpkin never appears. Unlike Linus, I know that pumpkins, luckily, will appear every year in October. Wake up Linus, the Great Pumpkin is all around you, focus on what is real. The Great Pumpkin is here in all its magic and all its glory.

halloween-linus-great-pumpkin-political-cartoon

 

Green Tomato Chutney

tomato crop
Green Tomatoes. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

When I was growing up I never recall my father ever setting foot in the kitchen except to fix appliances and sharpen knives. Once a year he was called upon to dress, cook and carve the Christmas turkey. He was an expert and performed his duties with flawless precision and grace.

My parents moved to Cyprus just about the time my daughters were born. Until my father passed away, I would take my girls to Limassol for a month each summer. My husband would join us for part of the time. For four wonderful weeks out of the year I had the luxury of parents doting over my little ones, giving me a hand, watching over them, feeding and entertaining them. It made up for the the hard work of raising two kids in the city, in almost complete isolation. It was a huge and welcome change for us all: My girls tagged along on errands with my dad, helped him in the garden or played on the beach and splashed around in the Mediterranean. Our favorite excursions by far were to the mountain villages and orchards for fruit and vegetable gathering. When we came home, my mother and I would sort through the bags and baskets taking on assignments of pickling, sauce-making and tart-baking, leaving some produce to incorporate into our week’s meals.

One day while picking through a friend’s vegetable garden, my daughters exclaimed:
“Look mama! GREEN tomatoes!”
“They’re not ready yet,” my dad warned.
Recipes of fried green tomatoes and green tomato chutney flashed through my mind. Having never lived in the U.S., my dad couldn’t have known that green tomatoes were desirable, edible and made to be delicious. Pleadingly I asked if we could pick them anyway. I promised he would not regret it.

 

Chutney faxes
Chutney faxes 1992: originals and faxes of tear sheet recipes. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

In my D.C. kitchen I had a stash of recipes: piles of pages ripped out from magazines, ink scribbles on napkins, faded photocopies from newspaper articles. All I needed to do now was to call my husband and ask him to look for that green tomato chutney recipe. This was 1992, pre-internet, you understand.
“It’s a tear sheet from la Maison de Marie Claire, a large magazine format”,  I explained.
“A black background and white drop-out type and color photos of jars filled with pickles. And while you’re at it, there is another recipe of apricot chutney that Lisa (my friend and inspiration) had once sent me from Jaffrey’s book*… could you please?”
I knew it was no easy task to ask of anyone. My files were a mess. But having lived with me for eighteen years, my husband understood the urgency of any situation related to food. An hour later, the fax came through with everything he could find on green tomatoes and chutney— stamped and sealed with his love and devotion.

I had spent many Decembers making pineapple chutney that I distributed to friends as Christmas gifts. I even designed and hand-colored my own labels. That day in early July, I poured over the recipes which included a helpful article by Joanne Halataei for The Washington Post,  “The Chutney Brigade”. Within a half hour I wrote down a formula that intrigued my father enough to make him venture into the kitchen. He carefully observed, asked a few questions and before I knew it, he had joined in the preparations. The production of home-made green tomato chutney that ensued was a turning point in our lives. He was no longer the macho, untouchable super hero commanding fear and respect and I was no longer the sweet frivolous female child. We were no longer father and daughter but partners in potion-making. I could finally teach him something that he took interest in adopting. There also, was a recipe that was complex enough to conceal nutmeg and ginger, two of his most abhorred spices. We chopped, we mixed, we stirred and we bonded.

For the few remaining years of his life, my father did spend time in the kitchen when he needed breaks from his computer. He toasted and roasted peanuts for snack or sesame seeds for his own special Zaatar mix, he also had my pesto recipe down to a T . Once or twice he called to say: “guess what I made today?” Amazingly, he had tried his hand at chutney making all on his own.

Years later I met the creator of the award winning Virginia Chutney Clare Turner and tasted her product. I loved the chutneys and bought them often. But it did not stop me from making my own. Whenever I have a surplus of fruit, I chop up some onions and garlic, grate some ginger, add some spices and go to town. Once you’ve understood the concept you can concoct your own varieties.

FullSizeRender
Hand-drawn chutney labels for home-made chutney. ©1992 Fadia Jawdat

Green Tomato Chutney

The basic combination for any chutney is one part vegetable to three parts fruit. And for every two cups of fruit and vegetable combination, you need a quarter of a cup each of the sweet and sour elements. Brown sugar is usually the sugar of choice, but according to Halataei, “Brown sugar sounds earthy and chutney-like, but the clean taste of white sugar is often better at letting other foods shine through. With tomatoes, though, a combination of the two would be hard to beat.”
The recipe below is adapted from “La Maison de Marie Claire” but has been modified and converted to American weights and measures.
Yield 36 oz chutney or approximately 4 – 8 oz jars.

1 lb. green tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 lb. cooking apples, coarsely chopped
1/2 lb. onions, chopped fine
1/2 lb. shallots, chopped fine
1/2 lb. raisins
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups vinegar
3/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 cups white sugar
3” piece of fresh ginger coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and cloves
1 tsp. each salt and black pepper

Place all ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil and let simmer over medium heat for an hour to 90-minutes, stirring frequently. Do not let the chutney stick to the bottom of the pot. Lower heat if necessary. The chutney will thicken and keep in mind that it will thicken more as it cools.
When completely cool, pour into sterilized jars. Seal and refrigerate.
Serve to sooth hot curries, to accompany a soufflé or brighten up a plain omelet. Use as a spread over Brie or in a cold cut or grilled cheese sandwich.


*Madhur Jaffrey, World of the East: Vegetarian Cooking

Spring: Ris & the Ramp

IMG_5456
Red veined Sorrel, ramps, watermelon radishes, beets and white Hakurei turnips. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Since living in Washington I have grown accustomed to making a big deal over spring. Spring is a THING! It’s a happening.

My heart skips a beat at the sight of the first robin or the first peeping crocuses. Soon the trees will burst with gigantic magnolia blooms and a little later the glorious cherry blossoms will summon the photo-snapping tourists. The stretches of daffodils color the drive along the parkways, and the tulips adorn front yards with splashes of pinks, whites, purples and yellows.

But it seems the wait is a slightly longer for spring at the farmers’ markets. I drive myself sick with anticipation. I look for the appearance of ramps that indicate the beginning of Spring produce. I hadn’t heard of ramps until a few years ago when a celebrated Washington chef, Ris Lacoste brought them to my attention.

IMG_8535
Ramps. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ris is a dedicated mentor, contributor and educator. I am genuinely fond of her. I admire her sincerity, humility, her wit and her brilliance. She is not only one of DC’s top chefs, but her generosity of spirit allows to sit on many a board, consult and advise many restaurants and organizations, teach and mentor young aspiring chefs. Over the years, Ris and I would run into each other at the store and at every community event in the city where we never missed a chance to chat. She was in the restaurant business and I worked in the food retail business. We had loads to talk about and share.
So when Ris mentioned ramps one day, I took note. I went searching and researching for this illusive plant that turns out is a small wild leek, native to the Appalachian mountain region in eastern North America—now how would I ever have known that?—It is foraged in the woods. Ramps  have a short seasonal appearance that grace the market stands in April. Communities in Southern Appalachia celebrate ramps with annual festivals and restaurant chefs, plan whole menus around them.

But there is also a controversy around the ramp. Chefs may have glorified it but botanists have scorned its over-harvesting. It takes five to seven years for ramps to produce seed, and a year at least, for the seeds to germinate. Quebec, Canada, has banned its sale since 1995 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned its harvesting since 2002. For further detail this NYTimes article tells it all.

Boycott or buy?
I usually get carried away with my shopping at the market, often coming home with enough stuff for a family of eight. Maybe it’s an exaggeration. But seriously, the amount of produce that could go bad while waiting for me to find time to process is overwhelming. I therefore commit to a specified budget. A $5 small bouquet of ramps that dwindles down to a mouthful when cooked, may not be the most economical way for a poor foodie to be spending her money. Maybe I will buy one small bunch as a ceremonial act of confirmation— to mark the beginning of the season and to bring in the Spring.

That said, there are so many other lovely temptations that won’t burn a hole in my pocket. Ramps are gorgeous but so is everything else at this time of year. I cannot resist the red-veined baby sorell, the zucchini blossoms, and the baby new potatoes, the spring onions and baby beets, not to forget the white Hakurei turnips and rainbow radishes as well.

IMG_8556

For dinner I will make a salad with roasted beets, sliced turnips and baby sorrel, and a Spring Minestrone Soup that was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

Here’s her recipe: I have substituted quinoa for the brown rice and I have added lemon juice for a touch of brightness. I find quinoa earthy and delicate in flavor, overall more nutritious, and it takes less time to cook. If you are looking for a heartier bowl of soup, brown rice is more filling and comforting. You can use a frozen, cooked, store-bought version of both. I always keep a bag of each in my freezer for the occasional need. (Or you can use your own cooked, frozen quinoa or rice. They freeze easily. Place your left-over cooked rice or qinoa in a zip-lock bag, pat to release air, and seal).

Version 2

Spring Minestrone (with 0r without Ramps)

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 shallots or Spring onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced(Bunch of ramps if available)
(Bunch of ramps if available, washed and chopped)
3/4 cup Quinoa (cooked)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas trimmed and cut in half
8 spears asparagus trimmed diagonally into 1 “ pieces
1/2 cup green petite peas (frozen or fresh if you have them)
Lemon juice, Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil, sauté the shallots and garlic, (and chopped ramps) until soft. Add the stock and bring to a boil. add the the vegetables and cook until desired tenderness. I like them crisp and bright green, that will only take a few minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa. Add lemon juice, S & P to taste.

As for my bouquet of ramps, I photographed it, washed and minced it, sautéed it with fresh thyme and added it to my sautéed chicken livers, finishing it off with a splash of sherry.

Happy Spring!

Years ago, I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com/ after I had come across her book in 2007. You may not come back to my blog ever again after you’ve seen hers. But I need to give credit where credit is due and after all, my blog will always reference the books, cooks and people who have inspired me over the years.

All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Mona’s Gift

Version 2
Rendering of the book as I remember it. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

The very first cookbook that inspired and encouraged me was a Christmas gift from my aunt Mona. Title: “La Cuisine Est Pour Les Enfants”; translated: “Cooking is for Children”. It was a large format book, maybe 12” x 16” with a hard glossy cover and spiral bound. Large colorful illustrations adorned every page, and the recipes were “hand-written” in a large chalk-like black script. I might have been twelve or thirteen, and thought to myself “I am not a child!”, this looks too easy! I flipped through it and put it aside. The illustrations looked intentionally like a child’s drawings but were luscious and inviting. I was more interested in the technique and the medium than in what they represented.

One day, I cannot recall when exactly, after a hormonal bout of depression and desperation—the usual teen, over-the-top feelings of rebellion and alienation— I was searching for something to occupy and distract me. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover and emerged challenged to try every recipe for my family’s Sunday meal.

Most Sundays, my mother and paternal grandma took a break from cooking and we went out to eat when my father was in town, or, if he was not, we ate left-overs. By then, my maternal grandparents had passed away and we were no longer gathering at their home with my mother’s siblings and their families for huge Sunday luncheons. With my new proposition, my family would have to forgo the Sunday outing, accept and enjoy my cooking, and contribute to cleaning up after it was all over.

Much to my surprise my mom agreed and perhaps encouraged me. Of course she helped as well, but I wanted to remember the experience as a culinary feat that I achieved single-handedly. To this day, I brag about cooking since I was fourteen. It is true. For several Sundays, in the heat of a Beirut summer, I took control of that kitchen and prepared the most outlandish dishes from that cookbook. “Outlandish” because they were not the dishes that my mom or grandma prepared, “outlandish” because they required special shopping for ingredients that were not necessarily available in our pantry or refrigerator, and “outlandish”  because they had little to do with our Mediterranean seasonal diet. I took the whole business seriously and beamed with pride when my parents hummed with approval, or expressed their polite satisfaction with forced glee.

I remember a Quiche Lorraine—goodness how boring— but at least it didn’t break the bank like the Filet En Croute! My favorite was the Carbonade Flamande, a beef and prune stew that seemed really exciting because it required cooking the whole thing in beer, or the Coq au Vin that require red wine! Super adventurous and daring for a fourteen year old. I wonder now how that met my mother’s approval and how eating a hot beef or chicken stew could be appreciated in the dead of summer. But my family didn’t seem to blink. I never heard a complaint. On the contrary, they met my dishes with welcoming enthusiasm, pretending perhaps, as if it was the most delicious food they had tried—not that French cuisine was unfamiliar to us, but it hadn’t really made it into our pots and pans. It was my own initiation into the kitchen and that would not have been the same had I begun with my mother’s dishes. I would like to think that Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child, neither of whom I had even heard of then, would have been proud of me!

You may have gathered already that the cookbook was definitely not meant for children. Perhaps for adolescents, but NOT, in any way, for children. It left me exhausted, but cured from my depression. Luckily for everyone, I probably never delved into the dessert section (I don’t recall ever making the Clafoutis or the Choux a la creme! Can you imagine! The entrees were complex enough as it were, and enough of an exercise in tolerance and perseverance for cook and subjects alike. Luckily we survived the few weeks of experimentation and the result was proof enough for me that I was loved and worthy of the family cooks.

That book was where my life in the kitchen began and I have my aunt to thank for it. That gift was only the beginning of her influence. She would continue to inspire me with her unconventional, independent style. She was not a conformist. She was emancipated in her life and in her cooking. She often impressed us with fondue dinner parties and a few international dishes that were unheard of at the time within the family circle. Her Moroccan chicken with prunes and almonds was a recipe my mother and I would adopt and make for years to come. She opened my eyes to different cuisines. Her sense of adventure and accomplishment both in her career and in her kitchen inspire me to this day.

Favorite Mid-East Cookbooks: the link to a distant past.

Version 2
Photo © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

My family’s women were preoccupied with food and cooking.

Lebanon was the crossroads of civilization and it’s cuisine reflected it. My mother and grandmother’s culinary repertoire was mostly Levantine with hints of Greek, Egyptian, Iraqi and Armenian. There were no written recipes or records, files or cookbooks, yet there were endless conversations about the latest failures and successes in the kitchen. The spontaneous barrage of questions, detailed comparisons of methods and styles between friends and relatives would lead you to believe that this close-knit community was about to produce a thesis on comparative cookery.

The women I knew were immersed in complex relationships of subliminal competition or undisclosed complicity. Pride bordered on arrogance, admiration was only a diplomatic façade, and praise was a cover for envy. However, it would have been unthinkable not to share one’s tips and secrets. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter and, each generation, by virtue of marriage, would gain some  hints of new culinary influences. Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese cuisines were similar but had nuances that only the experienced cook could decipher. As I recall, Aleppine and Armenian cuisines were highly regarded and sought after. If you were lucky enough to either marry or befriend someone with either of those backgrounds, then you had it made!

Over the last few decades of wars and revolutions, my family and friends moved to different continents seeking safety and stability. With the upheaval, we clung to memories of togetherness around the table. We longed to re-invent the experience in our own new homes and the countries we’d adopted. We were westernized, but our heritage and culture was still to be found in our kitchens, in our pantries and at the table.

By the time my generation had their own kitchens, we already had a few Middle-Eastern cookbooks for reference and a couple of decades later we witnessed an explosion of books, blogs, and an entire Food Network—who would have thought!

When I began cooking in my (so-called) “kitchen” on the Upper West side of New York City, we only had a landline (phone). The raging civil war back home made it difficult to get through to my mother, but it was still my only life line. I would call her long-distance from NYC to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Cyprus, to grill her on ingredients and methods. It helped that I grew up eating the stuff; I knew what it should taste like. I kept a notebook, cooked religiously and followed tradition to a T.  I had no children then and had time to impress and compete with—yes I inherited that sense of competition—  friends who, like me, were homesick, and yearned for their mama’s cooking.

Between gifts and purchases, I acquired a decent cookbook collection. And although I have embraced many new cuisines, I still seek more Middle-Eastern  books than any others—I am still perfecting variations on a theme, so to speak.
In the late seventies, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food was my favorite. Her book helped me overcome the feelings of exile and yearning I experienced at the time.  She made complex recipes accessible, and often mentioned regional spins on certain dishes. It was a relief in contrast to my mother’s long-distance vague garble of instruction that lacked precision and clarity. Ms. Roden’s introduction to the book describes the history, origins and influences of the cuisine which tells an interesting story.  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food has excellent reviews. It is a revised and improved version of her first publication. I will undoubtedly buy it on Amazon along with a newer copy of the first book to replace my stained, shredded and yellow pages held together with layers of aging tape.
An excellent comprehensive new-comer is The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage. It is big, thick and probably intimidating to the novice. But it is clear and well organized. Instruction is slightly inconsistent at times—sorry Phaidon (publisher). It is, however a good addition to any library with its beautiful photographs of Lebanon.

Another impressive and thorough coverage of fine Lebanese recipes is Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. It has step by step instruction and photographs that could turn you into a professional, if you are so inclined. Finally, I must mention and recommend Mary Laird Hamady’s Lebanese Mountain Cooking (first published in 1987 by David R. Gordine). I find it uncomplicated, earthy and easy to grasp. It also has sparse but evocative and helpful illustrations by Jana Fothergill.

My life changed with the birth of my daughters. My cooking changed too. Time and energy were considerably compromised, especially when holding down a full-time job on top of everything else. Forever adapting my family meals to our changing lifestyle, I took shortcuts and taught myself tricks. Whether in re-adapting old recipes or experimenting with new cuisines, my kitchen remains a meeting place that upholds traditions (with a twist) while remaining open to innovation. A place where my daughters learn, experiment and practice, where new bonds are fused, wider circles of friends are formed and cookery continues to be an exciting adventure.