Monthly Archives: March 2014

Pumpkin burger buns

One of the most memorable meals we had in New Zealand was, unsurprisingly, at the beach. We rented bikes in Hawkes Bay–big clunky cruiser things–and went wine-tasting along the water. It was a postcard-perfect day, with a sharp blue sky, cottony clouds, and incredible jewel-green water. Needing to fill our bellies before a long afternoon of sipping sauvignon blanc in the vineyards, we stopped at a cafe at the end of the road in Te Awanga. It was a sweet-looking place, with red wooden walls and a gabled roof, overlooking a small cove and a rising mass of cliffs in the distance.

This was a place the bike tour company had recommended. It was also one of the few lunch spots around for miles. Based on those points, I think we were all expecting uninspired, overpriced tourist food. But we were pleasantly surprised: everything we ordered was fresh and tasty, with layers of bold and delicate flavor. We locked up our bikes and ate lunch out on the patio, crowding all nine of us onto a single park bench and watching the clouds drift past the sun.

Because several of us were on a quest to eat as much New Zealand lamb as possible, we ordered lamb burgers. They arrived majestically, each piled high with lettuce, carrots, and feta, and sandwiched between two halves of a pumpkin bun. The burgers themselves were juicy and delicious, of course. But the real surprise were those pumpkin buns. They were deeply orange and just the slightest bit sweet, and each was crowned with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds that crackled and snapped with each bite. They were a perfect foil for the gamy lamb, with just enough character to be interesting but not enough to overwhelm. None of us had ever had a burger on a pumpkin bun before, and now we all wondered aloud why not, since it was clearly a brilliant idea.

I came home determined to recreate those buns, and after a bit of trial and error, I think I finally managed it. These are so much tastier and more interesting than your average hamburger bun, with just a hint of sugariness from the pumpkin and a welcome crunch from the pumpkin seeds. Skip the dainty turkey or salmon burgers here; these buns can stand up to any number of meaty, gutsy, spicy fillings. Lamb is a natural, of course, as is beef or any other red meat, or portobello mushrooms, or richly spiced legumes, or anything else that’s savory and strong. (In my next post, I’ll introduce my new favorite sloppy joe recipe, which was absolute perfection with these.)

pumpkin bun 2

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Nicaraguan guacamole

The summer I spent in Nicaragua as a teenager, working on a volunteer project, I spent a lot of time in people’s kitchens. I’d only recently been bitten by the cooking bug, and it seemed somehow that every woman in the community I was living in was an excellent cook. (With the exception of my host father–a former restaurant chef–every cook I met was female.) I spent a lot of time peering over the shoulders of these brisk, sandal-clad women, watching as they prepared the afternoon and evening meals. I learned how to fry plantains, how to mix rice and beans in just the right proportions to make gallo pinto, how to shred cabbage for a vinegary slaw that we ate on top of fat masa cakes. But the thing that surprised me the most was how the Nicas made guacamole.

I only had it once, in the home of a woman I didn’t know very well. She’d just finished showing my volunteer partner and me how to form tortillas by hand–a skill I’ve sadly since forgotten–and told us she would make us some guacamole to have with our lunch. There were avocado trees everywhere in town, and we ate enormous ripe avocados every day with a spoon and a sprinkle of salt, but no one had ever offered to make us guacamole before. After a few minutes of slicing and chopping, she presented us with a bowl: in it was a chunky mix of avocado cubes, onion slices, and smooth rounds of hard-boiled egg. “Es el guacamole Nica,” she said. It was absolutely unlike any guacamole I’d ever had, and the flavors wrestled around strangely in my mouth. I felt very far from home. I finished my portion, thanked her profusely, and then for the rest of the summer we ate half-avocados with salt.

nica guacamole

I hadn’t thought about that guacamole until last weekend, when avocados showed up at the farmer’s market. I went shopping with my friend Molly, and she was craving guacamole. We agreed that it might be fun to try recreating that strange and startling guacamole I’d had over a decade ago. All we needed was an onion, an avocado, a few eggs, and some limes. I wasn’t expecting much–it seemed way too simple to be exciting. But when I took a bite, the memory hit me square between the eyes. Suddenly I was back in that Nica kitchen, shy and out of my element, taking the spoonful offered to me.

And something else happened, too. Suddenly, tasting with a teenager’s emotions and an adult’s palate, I realized just how delicious Nicaraguan guacamole is. The flavor is clean and sharp, with a bit of welcome chewiness from the egg and a prick of pungent sweetness from the onion. This will absolutely be my go-to guacamole recipe from now on–it’s that good.

The traditional recipe is dead simple: avocado, onion, hard-boiled egg, lime, and salt. I added some scallion tops and cilantro, just because we had them around, but these are neither traditional nor necessary, and the guacamole is great without them. You can mash the avocado to whatever texture you like, but for a real authentic guacamole, keep it chunky, almost like a salad. That way, the squishy avocado, chewy egg, and crunchy onion each have their say.

nica guacamole 2

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Pink lady cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

Some time over the past few years, I became the kind of person who likes making layer cakes. I still don’t quite understand it. Considering how scattered and slapdash I am in other parts of my life, it seems odd that I’d derive so much satisfaction from stacking cakes on top of each other and painting them with frosting. But I do. I really do.

I think a big part of it is the love. A layer cake might be the purest edible expression of love I know of. There’s absolutely no reason to make one except out of love for (yourself and) others. Layer cakes are celebration food, the thing you make when it’s time to shower love on someone. Even if you make a layer cake to celebrate yourself, you’ll still end up feeding it to people you love. It’s a project–a messy, multi-hour project–the kind of thing you wouldn’t undertake unless you really cared about the person or people whom you’re making it for. But if you like baking, making a layer cake is also a kind of therapy, a way of showing yourself some love while preparing to spread it to others.

This cake is the perfect example. I made it for Audrey’s birthday party, partly at her request and partly of my own initiative. She wanted Smitten Kitchen’s pink lady cake; I know how much she loves lemon, so I decided to give the frosting a lemon kick. It was the perfect cake for Audrey, who loves berries and lemon and gets impatient with chocolate. As it turned out, the strawberry flavor in the cake was incredibly subtle, so that the puckery lemon frosting stole the show. When she sliced into the cake, the layers revealed themselves to be a delicate purple-pink, the perfect color for a non-girly-girl who likes wearing pink.

But there was also some self-care in it for me. The planning of the cake was elaborate and specific, but creating it was a lazy breeze, a perfect excuse to spend the day indoors. I rolled out of bed in the morning, slapped the batter together and threw it in the oven, then went back to bed and did crossword puzzles until the layers were baked. While they cooled, I showered, ate brunch, and watched a nature documentary. I had a little bit of strawberry puree left over from making the cake layers, so I mixed myself a berryoska and sipped it while I frosted the cake. And then I brought it to the party, covered it in sprinkles, and presented it with great affection to the birthday girl.

pink lady cake slices

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Spaghetti squash with chorizo and tomatoes

I love the internet. (I also loathe and fear it. It’s a complicated relationship.) My modest little blog has started connecting people in unexpected and delicious ways, and I am just tickled pink.

For example, the lovely and talented Daisy stumbled across this blog a while ago, and commented on a recipe I posted. My (also lovely and talented) friend Molly saw Daisy’s comment, and clicked over to her blog. Molly made and loved several of Daisy’s recipes, and now Daisy’s spaghetti squash with sausage and tomatoes has gone into heavy rotation at Molly’s house. And I, the not-so-innocent bystander, sit on the sidelines and clap with glee.

Over the weekend, a big group of friends gathered for an impromptu dinner, and Molly spearheaded the making of a giant batch of squash. Four squashes, to be exact, and three skillets of sausage and tomato, with at least two bottles of wine and a growler of beer to keep us company while the squash roasted. Following Molly’s lead, we tweaked the recipe slightly from the Italian-inspired original, subbing in chorizo for the Italian sausage and adding a fat glug of red wine to the sauce. It made a satisfying mess of the kitchen, as we tried to fork the squash into strands while it was still hot and ended up dropping bits of it all over the stove. (I have the burned fingertips to prove it.)

If you haven’t yet experienced the smell of chorizo, tomatoes, red wine, and garlic cooking in olive oil, I highly recommend it. It’s the kind of smell I would happily wear as perfume, if only I could bottle it. We used Mexican chorizo–the raw, squishy kind–which gave the sauce a sharp sour-chili warmth and a slight bitterness. You could just as easily use the hard-cured Spanish chorizo, which would give a sweeter, smokier flavor and provide more of a chewy texture contrast with the noodly-crisp squash. Either way, the squash will drink up the fatty, winey sauce and become far more delicious than a vegetable has any right to be.

spaghetti squash chorizo tomato

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