Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Win some, lose some
When things don't go as you want them to, Grant says, "Win some, lose some." This is the attitude I've been forced to take with some of my cooking exploits over the past couple of weeks.
I mentioned before that I love fall, but Texas and I have very different ideas of how these autumnal months ought to be spent. I think crispy air and changing leaves are necessary, while Texas seems perfectly content with 90 degree days and leaves that turn brown and fall off. I refuse to let Texas have a total win, so I've been bringing fall into the apartment for weeks now- pumpkin spice candles, hot cider, jack-o-lanterns, and, to top it all off, I've been trying some fall-inspired cuisine. I've been cooking with things like pumpkin and sage and even butternut squash. It's been an adventure- some of it delightful as those crisp fall breezes I miss so much and some of it the edible equivalent of those brown leaves that fall without even bothering with beauty.
My first try was inspired by a short story I read. The story was set in Tunisia and there were several references to couscous. I don't normally cook with couscous, but the story had my mouth watering for it. So I went online and found a recipe that perfectly combined my literary-inspired craving with my autumn experiments- pumpkin couscous.
I've never cooked with an actual pumpkin. If I've ever cooked with pumpkin at all (and I'm not really sure that I have) then it's been with canned pumpkin, to be sure. But the pumpkin couscous required a fresh cooking pumpkin. First thing was to take the seeds out, which I reserved for Andy so that he could bake them later on. (The pictures are above... pumpkin couscous is the top three pictures)
I cut the pumpkin into 1 inch cubes, doused them in olive oil, cinnamon, nutmeg and a little salt, and then baked them for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I sautéed some onion in olive oil on the stove top. After the pumpkin finished baking, I added it into the onion mixture. During this time, I was preparing the couscous. The recipe I found online called for Israeli couscous, which is much larger than regular couscous, but when I was at the store, I found a box of Near East couscous that was already flavored and had pine nuts (which I love!) so I went with that, rather than the Israeli couscous, which I would have had to season myself. However, I did cook the box mix with chicken broth, rather than water, which made it tastier, I think.
When the couscous was light and fluffy, I poured it into the pan with the pumpkin and onions, mixing everything together. Then I dished it up. I served the couscous with a store-bought mesquite flavored rotisserie chicken, steamed green beans and naan (Middle Eastern flat bread, similar to a pita) which I coated with olive oil and heated in the oven. This meal was a delicious creation! I was really thrilled with the way it turned out. The pumpkin by itself was not particularly good. (I tasted it when it came out of the oven) But mixed in with the couscous, onions and pine nuts, it was delectable!
My second creation came from Better Homes and Gardens October edition. There was a featured cook who gave a menu for an autumn dinner party. There was a picture of what looked like a delicious pasta- pappardelle with butternut squash and blue cheese. Fortunately, my mom has always told me never to try a new recipe on guests- so I cooked this dish for only Andy and myself and good thing too, because this was definitely a low point in my recipe repertoire.
First of all, I've never cooked a butternut squash. Like the pumpkin, it had to be seeded, skinned and cut into one inch cubes. After the squash was prepared, I cut up an onion and sautéed it with some olive oil and three tablespoons of Marsala wine. Then I added the squash cubes, covered and let it simmer for at least ten minutes.
Meanwhile, I cooked the pappardelle, a thick ribbon-like pasta, in a giant pot. I also toasted 2/3 cup of pine nuts in a pan. But everything about this meal was just off- starting with the pine nuts, which I let get too hot. They turned black on one side and I had to throw them away! I sent Andy off to the store to get some replacements, which I was not at all happy about because pine nuts are NOT cheap!!
While he was out, I drained the pasta and added it into the squash/Marsala mixture, and tasted as I went along. Everything was really bland to me, so I salted and added oil as I saw fit. Then I added the blue cheese. Now, I generally like blue cheese, but I know that Andy is not a big fan, so when I went to the HEB, I asked the lady behind the deli counter which blue cheese would be mildest. She recommended Saint Agur, which, consequently, was the blue cheese recommended in the recipe in BHG. She said that it was milder than the other imported cheeses, so I went for it. Well, Saint Agur might be mild for an import, but it is NOT mild. It was very strong, too strong even for me, and I didn't even feel like I used very much of it. I mixed in the equivalent of two to three spoonfuls into my heap of pasta and squash and it melted and congealed with the sauce the way it was supposed to.
Andy returned with the pine nuts, which I toasted more carefully and added to the pasta. But, even my love for pine nuts could not salvage this dish. When all was said and done, this recipe was a dud. The Saint Agur was overpowering, and the squash was bland with an unpleasant texture. Though, I must say that pappardelle (which I had never even heard of before) is a delightful pasta with whom I will become better acquainted. (I imagine pappardelle in a very cheesy, but not too heavy home-made Alfredo would be wonderful!) I think the recipe would have been better if I had used another cheese- something milder like Gorgonzola, but even then, the squash was nothing special. So I give this recipe two thumbs down!
At least I have a husband who is a great sport about these sorts of things! He was really too nice about it, saying "it's not that bad." And good thing, too, because we have to eat it for at least another day! It made six servings, and we can't just waste it. But, I figure I will make up for it by cooking beef curry (his favorite!) a couple of times in the next few weeks. Oh well. Win some, lose some.