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Agave-Sweetened Spiced Pumpkin Cake

The trees are heavy with apples, the raspberry canes are fading, and the fragrant bushes of basil we enjoyed all summer were sacrificed to the first frosts this past week.

Despite the summery temperatures of the last couple days here in Wisconsin, autumn has arrived. Even though it’s sunny out, the light has a different quality to it. Filtered through leaves of gold and rust, it’s thinner, paler.

It’s the time of year when steaming bowls of soup seem perfect, and the smell of fresh bread and cinnamon warms you far beyond the ability that another sweater possesses. It’s the time of year when the folks in our household start craving baked squashes and the rich texture of pumpkin in casseroles, risotto, muffins, and cakes. As the sunlight grows loses its muscle and the days shorter, the golden and orange colors grow more and more appealing. Our household is no exception. Specifically, I have been given orders from mum to get going on the pumpkin goods and to keep ‘em coming until I hear otherwise. Based on last year, I might hear otherwise sometime in April.

And I might not.

My mom has diabetes, so finding a way to create pumpkin baked goods that actually taste amazing without causing a crazy blood sugar spike has involved some trial and error. At this point, we have a couple keepers: spiced pumpkin cake and mom’s own agave-sweetened pumpkin pie. Both of them use raw agave nectar instead of sugar. I’ll get to the recipe for this pumpkin cake in a moment, but I figure some of you might like some background on agave nectar first.

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From the Experimental Kitchen: Creamy Carrot Soup with a Side of Baby Chard

Vegetables are amazing. I mean, there’s kohlrabi, which looks like nothing quite so much as a purple and green UFO camouflaged with a few leaves in order to lurk in your home gardens and probe the tomatoes and eggplant undetected. There are lumpy and bumpy and spiny cucumbers, amazing zebra-striped tomatoes, tenacious snap peas, and, of course, the artichoke. The artichoke is a testament to human ingenuity, as I am still baffled as to how anyone ever figured out that the artichoke bud was edible. In addition to all the oddball shirttail relations of Veggieland, however, there are the gorgeous cousins, like these sunset-hued, violet-red carrots.

We took home a bunch each of the last two weeks from our CSA, which meant that it was definitely time for carrots for dinner at our house. My first inclination was to roast them with some of my wonderful WildTree lemon-infused grapeseed oil, salt, and maybe a bit of dill, but it turns out that the little dill babies the neighbor gave us last week are still a ways away from being bulked up enough to provide dinner. I decided to roast the carrots anyway, though with an alternate ultimate goal: a delicious, creamy carrot soup. I had been wanting to experiment more with vegan versions of creamy soups, and the carrots seemed to be just the ticket. I had made some cashew milk (just like my almond milk, but with cashews) the day before, and I still had all the thick, creamy cashew pulp in the fridge. Perfect, I thought. (Actually, it was more like, “Eh, what the hey,” but that’s sort of how I roll in ye olde kitchen.)  Carrots and cashews seemed like a wonderful combination.

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Dinner for Busy Nights: Pita Pizza

While I do enjoy cooking, some nights demand dinner that comes together quickly.  This week was full of such nights, and on several of them, I enjoyed this pita pizza.  It comes together in five minutes and cooks in fifteen.  You can make vegan versions and tweak the flavors however you choose: Greek, Italian, Asian…dream it and do it!

To make your own fine specimen, simply slather a whole-grain pita very generously with hummus (I used homemade roasted red pepper hummus), then stack with vegetables of your choice.  I sprinkled on thinly sliced onions, zucchini, tomato, wilted spinach (briefly cooked in a skillet), grated carrots, and a smidge of jalapeño havarti.  Then I popped it into the toaster oven and cooked it for fifteen minutes at 400 degrees, which was just long enough not just to melt the cheese, but also to make the bottom delightfully crispy.

If you’re skipping a flavorful cheese like the one I used, you may want to add a little something to the pizza to boost the flavor such as salsa, olives, or a spice blend of your choice to give it enough spark.

Guten Apetit!

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Dark Days Challenge: Perfect Pinto Beans

One of the most essential skills for anyone interested in making a delicious, low-cost meal is knowing how to make a tasty pot of beans.  Since I’ve decided to focus on basics here for a while, that means I’m about to tell you everything I know about them thar legumes.  Pull up a chair, people.  Get comfy.  Grab some guacamole.

This week for the Dark Days of Winter Challenge, the Unicyclist and I decided on tacos.  We’d scored local pinto beans through our CSA as well as at the Guadalupe Farmers’ Market, and we do so love a good taco.  Typically, we build ours with soft corn tortillas, black or pinto beans, salsa, guacamole, and a hearty handful of lettuce or spring greens.  I’ll give you the Unicyclist’s guacamole recipe later this week (your knees will melt), but let’s stick with the beans for now, ¿qué no?

I learned how to make a good pot of beans from one Afra Llamas, a woman with whom I worked for several years.  She was newly a U.S. citizen, originally from Mexico, and, baby, could that woman cook.  Silky arroz con leche, salsa so fresh and delicious that people would smuggle it out of parties in disposable cups, and pinto beans cooked to perfection.  I’d fussed and bothered over making good beans for quite some time, adding and removing onion, peppers, garlic, cumin, and all sorts of other goodies in order to make something drool-worthy.  Finally, in a stroke of inspiration triggered by a morning potluck catered by Afra Llamas, I had the brilliant idea of just asking her.  It turns out that making perfect beans is less about ingredients than it is about technique.  Remember that, people.  Play with the ingredients if you want, but if you fuss with the technique, I make no promises.
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Dark Days Challenge: Enchilada Sauce Recipe

Several weeks ago, the Unicyclist and I splurged at the Guadalupe Farmer’s Market.  We decided it was time to decorate our place while stockpiling some good food.  That’s how we wound up with a massive jar of mesquite honey and a cheerful ristra of red peppers, one of those beautiful strings of chiles you often see adorning kitchens or doorways in the Southwest.  Both of them are on display in our kitchen, but the honey has definitely been getting more use than the peppers.  You see, I’ve been something of a pepper collector the last couple years.

The Unicyclist and I both like food with bite.  That’s the first problem.  The second problem is that we live in some pretty good chile country.  The third problem is that I have frequented both Native Seed SEARCH and the Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company in the Tucson area a couple times when entertaining out-of-town guests.  Both places have fantastic assortments of chiles, and it’s nigh to impossible to turn any of them down once you give them a whiff.  As a result, I have nearly a dozen unique kinds of chiles commiserating in my cabinets.  There’s morita negro, chiltepín, chile japonés, pasilla Oaxaca, pasilla negra, guajillo, and Santa Cruz hot.  In addition, we have cayenne, paprika, whole mystery ristra chiles, and fresh serranos.  As you might guess, my cupboards smell amazing.

All of which is great.  However, it also means that I’m not giving said enormous ristra as much attention as I ought.  To compound the problem, we’ve received a hearty helping of dried chiles in our CSA share the last two weeks running.  As the chiles piled up on the counter, it became clear that it was time to take action.  It was time to figure out a chile-intensive dish that could help cull some of my burgeoning chile population; thin the herd, as it were.

It was time to make enchilada sauce.

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Dark Days Challenge: Darn Good Hummus, Grilled Focaccia, and a New Broccoli Waldorf

For several years, I was something of an anomaly in the vegetarian world.

I hated hummus.  For those of you unfamiliar with hummus, it’s a staple in Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants, as well as in many vegetarian kitchens.  A savory spread of garbanzo beans puréed with garlic, lemon, garlic, and tahini (a sesame seed paste), it’s a healthy and convenient dip for vegetables or for use as a protein-rich sandwich spread.  I loved the concept of hummus.  I just hadn’t had the opportunity to understand what all the fuss was about.  Frankly, whenever I tried to make hummus, it just wasn’t…well…good.

I tried to make it at home.  I even stepped out of character and followed several recipes to a T in my attempts to make something palatable.

I failed.

Then one day, I discovered cumin, and the world was reborn.

Now, we almost always have some hummus in the fridge.  As I mentioned, it’s great for both sandwiches and high-protein snacks, it keeps well, and it’s full of garlicky goodness.  This week, I decided it was time to share my love of hummus with you, so that you all can enjoy it as well.

Although I’m posting my basic hummus recipe, I actually switched this one up today and used tepary beans instead of garbanzos to keep it local for the Dark Days Challenge.  I served it with herbed, grilled focaccia (which I made using our CSA wheatberries and garden herbs) based on the recipe in Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible and a fantastic, mostly local, reinvented Waldorf salad.  I’ll be posting the Waldorf recipe later this week.  Lunch was very satisfying: both light and hearty, sweet and salty, chewy and creamy and crunchy.  It was also healthy.

I love when that all comes together.

Enjoy!

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Dark Days Challenge, Starring Orange Cauliflower

The Unicyclist and I didn’t get much in the way of fresh produce last week from our CSA share with Crooked Sky Farms.  The farm is not to blame, however.  The Unicyclist was on veggie pickup duty, and he managed to barter and swap our citrus and one set of greens for an important storage items for us: wheat berries!  The Unicyclist knows what’s up, which is why we now have three small baggies of wheat berries to make into flour and expand our local cooking possibilities.

I love the Unicyclist.  Not just for his bartering skillz, but those don’t hurt.

In any case, since he managed to barter some of our fresher goods for other people’s wheat berries, we decided we’d better make a stop by Crooked Sky’s booth at the Ahwatukee farmers’ market this morning to ensure we’d have enough produce to see us through until the coming Thursday.  I am awfully glad we went, because that’s where we discovered this beauty.

That, gentle readers, is Orange Cauliflower.

(I thought it merited the caps.  Don’t you?)

Isn’t it stunning?  Apparently, commercial Orange Cauliflower is a hybrid between a non-engineered mutant orange cauliflower and the standard whites.  It’s also a bit sweeter, a lot higher in beta carotene, and much more striking than its pallid (but also delicious) cousin.

I had to have it.

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Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Herbed Sunchokes and Red Potatoes with Yogurt Sauce

If you recall, last week’s challenge meal involved sunchokes as well.  As many of you are undoubtedly aware, eating locally means that when things are in season, you wind up consuming a fair few of them because the harvest dictates what’s for dinner.

It seems that our farm planted enough sunchokes to have them for at least two consecutive weeks, because they were out for the weekly pick-up again.  We actually managed to score a double batch this week by trading in our allotment of dried peppers (of which we already have an entire string) for a basket of sunchokes from someone who apparently felt creatively challenged by the tubers.

After much agonizing over recipe options, I settled on a lighter, herbier version of a traditional au gratin dish for these sunchokes.  I’m not a huge fan of creamy sauces, see, and I get pretty turned off by dishes like scalloped potatoes or fettuccini Alfredo.  To complicate things, I wanted a simpler dish than a multi-ingredient soup.  Basically, I wanted something to let the character of the sunchokes shine instead of drowning it in pools of heavy cream or pureeing it into a liquid.  Me and sunchokes, we’re still getting acquainted.  I may very well make them into a soup if we get them again, but I want to have a better sense of what they are and how they work first, dig?

Care to meet some of the cast of characters?  Sliced sunchokes, red potatoes from the farmer’s market, and a magic herby yogurty sauce, pictured below.  Not pictured: Spinach.  Pecorino Romano.  Fresh yogurt herb sauce for garnish.

This was very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants sort of recipe, so forgive the lack of specifics in the following post.  To be honest, I’ve come to realize that very few of my Dark Days recipes make it to publication with any significant specificity.  When that dawned on me this weekend, I was initially horrified.

“Oh, my!” I lamented. “Whatever was I thinking?  However will anyone manage to make this again?”

Then I realized: I don’t want you to make this.

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Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Butternut Squash Ravioli

Note: If you’ve been gone or are new to the site, make sure to check out yesterday’s post for a New Year’s contest and giveaway! More info at the end of this post as well.

For some reason, the Unicyclist and I decided that this week would be a good one to tackle a more challenging dish for Urban Hennery’s Dark Days of Winter Challenge.

Perhaps the fact that it had been a full week of down time since the Christmas cookfest influenced our judgment.  Maybe it was the excitement of the new year, full of promise and potential.

Or maybe you can just chalk it up to pure lunacy.  That’s my vote, after having spent almost four hours in the kitchen yesterday trying to alternately craft/beat/and will perfect ravioli into existence.

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Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Sweet and Savory Kabobs

Early this morning, awakened by the dulcet tones of one Mr Hippo singing to the sunrise, I got up, got dressed, and headed to the farmers’ market to see what I could scavenge for our Dark Days Challenge meal.  The fridge was a little bare, since our CSA pick-up last week was canceled due to the holiday.  However, the Unicyclist and I had an inkling of what we wanted: kabobs.  Rich and savory kabobs to slather with the leftover muhammara from our Christmas Eve shindig.  Last night over dinner, just as we’d decided this, the Unicyclist was struck with a bolt of inspiration.

“What about dessert kabobs?”

Brilliant.  And timely.  As everyone knows, nothing makes a party like food on a stick, so consider these recipes my belated Christmas gift to you.  Both the savory and the sweet kabobs we made would be a wonderful, healthful addition to any New Year’s Eve fiestas.

Let’s get into it.  First: the ingredients.

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