Tuesday, October 29, 2013

the pumpkinization of october

Have we gone plum-kin crazy?!

I love the fall.  It might be my favorite season (Although I say that about every season when it's at the cusp of it's glory.  Just ask me about winter on New Year's Day.). 

But for today, I'm restricting my praises to autumn.  I am drawn throughout the year to it's deep colors, choosing purple, orange and red for all manner of things from dish towels, to sneakers, to the color of my bike.  Then there are the fall vegetables.  Forget those fragile sissy spears of scallion and asparagus I raved about in April.  In October, I want the thump of a butternut squash and the heft of a box of sweet potatoes to celebrate cooler weather. 

When I made my first pan of roasted vegetables in September, Olivia came into the kitchen and said, "It smells like school!" (Meaning, it smells like the time of year when school starts, not, it smells like that horrible building in which I'm held prisoner for 6 hours a day 5 days a week!).

These little things - a side dish for dinner that we haven't had in nine months - help us notice and celebrate the year's transitions.

So what's the gripe? 

Retailers, eager to exploit the pleasures of a new season, can really drive the thing into the ground if you let them.  And pumpkin is the flave-o-fall extraordinaire.  In October, I can drink myself into a stupor on pumpkin ale then wake myself up with a pumpkin latte. For breakfast I can smear pumpkin cream cheese on a pumpkin bagel, or if I'm not in the mood for a bagel, I could whip up a batch of pumpkin pancakes from a boxed mix instead.  While I'm in the baking section, I may as well snag some pumpkin bread, or pumpkin muffin, or pumpkin scone mix so I have something to go with my pumpkin soup for lunch.  And if I don't want soup, I could lather the bakery with pumpkin butter for a special treat! 

I can't help but wonder: is there also pumpkin jerky? pumpkin quiche, or perhaps salted, gingered, or candied pumpkin nuggets? None of this is to mention the pumpkin seeds --do they sell them in pumpkin flavor?  

When you shop for these pumpkin products, you will notice piles of real but mostly inedible pumpkins posing in Halloween pyramids about the store. How ironic that when I asked the clerk if the pumpkins were edible he looked at me in surprise, "Oh!  I don't know!" he said, as if it had never occurred to him to eat a pumpkin before.

Could it be that we are surrounded by pumpkin simulacra?--representations of pumpkin-flavor so prolific that we have forgotten that the flavor of our October coffee (which tastes more like cinnamon and allspice than pumpkin if you ask me) derived in the first place from a vegetable shockingly called: a "pumpkin?"

After surviving the pumpkin pandemonium at the grocery store this morning, I'm thinking again about lessatarianism.  I didn't even eat any of that pumpkin flavored stuff, but I still feel a little ill--as if I did.  It must be the power of pumpkin-persuasion.  Whatever it is, it's got me screaming "less is more!"

As in less pumpkin-flavor.   I have nothing against a bounty of actual pumpkins.  Here are my pretties for the season: 

notice the not-dead-yet plant in the background!

Even after the grocery trip, I don't feel remotely ill when I look at this pair of squash.  One is a little pie pumpkin from my co-op, the other is a Cinderella pumpkin - as good to eat as it is to look at. 

If you're in the mood for a real pumpkin too, stop by your local farmer's market--they have the kind you can eat! It's not that the traditional pumpkin patch pumpkin will poison you or anything, but it might bore you to death with its flavorless, skimpy and stringy self. 

Instead, get a beautiful, bulgy, knotty orange or green sensation--a Fairy Tale (or Musquee de Provence if you want to be French about it), a Cinderella (pictured above), a Jarrahadale (blue/green/gray that will shock you with its orange flesh), or a Hubbard (big or little, bulbous, orange). 

If you want to have fun with it, pick one out for its pumpkin personality rather than for its perfection.  Let it cheer your kitchen or family room for a bit, then, when the day arrives, slice the thing open and roast it.  You know I'm not a food blogger, so here are the details if you need step-by-step instructions with pretty pictures.

You can scoop out your cooked pumpkin and use it as is, but I like to throw it in a colander and forget about it for an hour to let excess water drain out (unless I'm using it for soup). 

I also puree it because some of us are funny about texture around here and don't like any "strings" of pumpkin to show up in our soup or pancakes, but that step is only necessary if you're family is texturally challenged. 

If your pumpkin is big, freeze the puree in 1-cup portions so you can pull it out for various recipes.  Add it to bread, pancakes, soup, cake and pie, but for god's sake, don't stir it into your coffee or drop dollops into your beer--pureed or not!  

We usually cook a pumpkin or two each fall, making sure to save enough puree for a thanksgiving pie.  And that's about enough, because as you know, less is more.    

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

shout-out for family dinner

When the kids were toddlers, sitting at the table together felt like a circus.  I remember mushy food thrown on the floor, shared and slobbery silverware clattering on the table, halted conversation that competed with one child who banged their sippy cup on the high chair and another who whined about eating peas.  Amid the fussing and the mayhem, it's easy to wonder: What's the point?  In fact, while Steve and I always sat down to eat as a family when the kids were young, it was a civilized dinner by ourselves that I really craved.  THAT sounded like real quality time! 

Back in those baby/toddler years, we ate together because that's how Steve and I were raised.  It just felt normal.   I didn't know that during those nights spent wiping sticky fingers while trying to eat our black beans and rice, we were instilling a routine into all of us that would pay off down the road.

We all know that dinner time is social---even if some nights devolve into things less civilized.  But in our digital age, meal time can provide respite from phones, ipods, and other hand-held electronics.  When I was a kid, the rule was, "no books at the table"--I clearly grew up in a different century-- but the idea is the same: we should talk to each other.

I've also discovered that mealtime can teach respect for food.  Sitting together gives me a chance to brag about my cooking, which of course, I take full advantage of, but it isn't just self-serving.  Talking about cooking can reveal its artfulness while reminding the kids that food preparation takes effort, heart and soul. 

I also talk about where the food came from:  how's that chicken? you know it came from Polyface Farm; or eat up your arugula - it's fresh from our co-op today; or you know that farmer with the big melons (ha!), he said these beets would be like candy.  And my favorite: "how 'bout them tomatoes? You know I grew those!" --Except that latter thing happens so seldom with me being a plant killer and all.

Of course, sometimes dinner offers a chance to disrespect the food.  No matter how many delicious meals I've prepared over the years, the one that lives in infamy? eggplant custard.  I had high hopes when I set out to make it, but it proved a gray and slightly slimy casserole for which superior flavor could not overcome the shortcomings of color and texture. Alas.

Despite such misguided concoctions, mealtime teaches respect for the cook.  The rules around our table are far more lax than the ones I grew up with (sit up straight, napkin on your lap, no elbows on the table).  I can't be bothered to police the dinner table so closely, but there is one rule I especially treasure: you NEVER eat before the person who prepared your food has sat down to the table.  After all the work of making a meal, this one gesture of respect and thanks goes a long way to acknowledging the effort.

This is especially fun when the kids did the work.  We can honor them and also shower them with praise: Wow, look how well the vegetables were chopped; this pasta is a perfect al dente; who peeled that garlic?

If you respect the endeavors of the cook, then you are also more likely to eat the food he or she prepared for you. 

Then there's respect for each other: it's boring, but it's true that you learn manners when you eat in a group.  I never tell Olivia to chew with her mouth closed because her brother does it for me.  Better she learn it from him than on a date with a cute guy who doesn't like the looks of her fish and broccoli in partial breakdown. 

If you don't want to get kicked by a sibling, you also learn to pass food around the table after you've served yourself, to use your napkin when there's spaghetti sauce on your face, and wait your turn to tell that hilarious story from the lunch room at school.

While I saw over the years that family dinner could do all these great things: teach community, nutrition, manners, and respect, I didn't understand the value of family dinner as a sustained ritual until this summer when suddenly, Gareth had somewhere else to be every night: at Chipotle, playing soccer at the school, at the pool, spending the night at a friend's.  He could easily leave in the morning and not return for days--and all that time wearing the same pair of underwear! 

I was at first baffled about how to get him back.  If he's welcome at the friend's house, or has already eaten out, then why should he come home?   Then it hit me:  family dinner!  After years of eating together, it made perfect sense to him when I said, "have fun, but you have to be home for dinner."   We had taught him, perhaps inadvertently, that food is more than a convenience or a pleasure.  It is part of the social fabric of our family.

Looking back, I can see the seeds of that idea in bloom. Before we eat, we usually wait for everyone to be seated, but it's not always easy to get everyone to the table.  Have you ever called a child to dinner forty-eleven times and gotten no response?  When one of our darlings just cannot tear themselves away from Breaking Bad, or Switched at Birth, or whatever other internet/cable sensation has captivated them, we begin our meal without them. 

With the other child sitting gleefully at the table with us, we chew quietly and smirk at each other while we wait for the offending family member to notice the silence in the house: the lack of clattering pans in the kitchen, the absence of a bouncing soccer ball in the dining room (no balls at dinner unless they're collard balls!), the long period of time since anyone yelled, "Dinner!"  He or she will inevitably come bolting into the dining room: "You ate without me!" 

Yes we did. 

It surprised me the first time this happened to see how much it mattered to the kids.  I suppose no child (or parent for that matter) wants to be cast out of a family ritual. 

Rituals bring families together--something about the obligation to one another, the predictability of repetition, the knowledge that we can count on each other to show up, and for dinner: the responsibility of getting the food on the table together (who's turn to set the table? who's getting drinks? someone get those potatoes out of the oven please). 

Good or bad, there are things we can count on about dinner: Olivia will never stop talking, then will complain that we never let her talk.  Steve will ask us to comment repeatedly on the part of the meal he prepared, regardless if it only accounts for 10% of what's on the plate; Gareth will put ice cubes in his soup even if I tried to let it cool; I will huff when people use salt. 

None of that is to say we haven't had some bad times around the table.  Who could forget the animal-shaped napkin rings we couldn't use because the kids nearly tore each others' eyes out fighting over the rocking horse? 

the unwitting source of so much familial strife!

And that doesn't rival the night when a cabbage roll inspired the debate: is 'frickin' a cuss word

To make it work, family dinner doesn't always have to be pleasant (but I can say we've definitely laughed more than we've fought); it doesn't have to be fancy (eat cereal together if you have to), it doesn't have to be every night (we have dinner some nights at 9pm and others not at all because of soccer and swim schedules), it just has to be. 

As we transition through these teen years and the kids become more independent, I hope that our determination to eat with the kids while they were young will perhaps inspire our kids to eat with us when we're old. 

I know I wouldn't mind the company.