I love it when the weather starts to turn, and the evening fare starts to shift to heartier more savory meals. One of our favorites are stuffed winter squashes. In our neck of the woods, acorn and butternut squash are plentiful and inexpensive. Talking to friends, I was kind of surprised to learn that these squashes are a little daunting to a lot of folks, so I thought I’d share my approach to what is realistically a 40-minute meal, start-to-finish. You can alter the ingredients based on what you have on-hand, and/or make in advance and refrigerate or freeze for a quick, easy meal later.
I didn’t think to photograph this meal step-by step, but it’s straightforward to describe, and pretty easy to reverse-engineer just by looking at the finished product. My version is vegetarian and gluten-free (omit cheese and butter for vegan version). But you can alter all the inputs – I used millet as stuffing base, but it could have just as easily been rice, or wheat berries, or other grain of your choosing. Tonight I put pears in my stuffing, but you could omit, or use apples, or dried fruits (raisins, cranberries, etc). Likewise, I had kale in the house, but any green would be equally good. Read my recipe and feel free to modify or substitute liberally. If you want meat, add some cooked crumbled sausage to the stuffing mix prior to baking.
Acorn and Butternut Squash, Stuffed with Sage-infused Millet, kale and pear
1 Acorn squash, halved, seeds scooped out
1 Butternut squash, halved, seeds scooped out (cut off area above hollowed out bowl and use in other dishes)
1 cup millet (uncooked)
1 Medium onion, chopped
2 cups chopped kale
2 pears, chopped
1 tbsp dried sage, or several fresh sages leaves, minced
1-2 tbsp butter (omit for vegan)
1-2 tbsp oil (olive oil, canola, etc)
1/2 cup grated semi-hard or hard cheese (omit for vegan)
salt and pepper to taste
Arrange the squash cut side down on a large plate with enough of a lip to add a bit of water (submerge squashes a couple millimeters). Cover plate and squashes tightly with plastic wrap. Microwave them for 5 minutes to steam them. Alternatively, you could steam the squashes in the traditional way, which would take about 15-20 minutes.
Cook the millet, covered, in 3 cups water with sage and salt to taste. At a low simmer, millet takes about 25 minutes. All the water should be absorbed, but if not, drain excess.
Saute the onion in a bit of oil and/or butter. When nearly translucent, add the kale and pear, stir till wilted, about 2 minutes.
Mix the cooked millet with kale mixture. Add a TBSP butter and stir till melted. Salt and pepper to taste.
Stuff the grain mixture into the squashes, and top with cheese. bake in a 375F convection oven or under broiler until cheese is lightly browned. Serve hot, or save for later. these will keep for a week in the fridge, or months in the freezer.
Squashes were $1 each at farmers’ market. Millet about $0.25. Onion and kale $0.25. Pear $0.50. Cheese $0.75. Butter $0.25. Sage $0.10. EVOO $0.15. Total $4.25. Made (4) servings = $1.07 per serving.
I started this blog to help people do kitchen things that are different, unusual, or downright difficult, things that are neglected topics in the world of food instruction. With the plethora of book, blogs, YouTube videos, etc out there, it’s usually pretty easy to find information and/or instructions on many, many things, even if actually doing them isn’t exactly easy.
Making traditional strawberry jam (or even novel recipes with sugar as sweetener) is one of those topics that’s extraordinarily well covered. While I hesitate to say there is nothing new to add to the subject, it’s safe to say that *I* personally have nothing new to add to the subject.
But making strawberry (or other fruit) jams without sugar, and without artificial sweeteners, well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. While I have no health reasons for wanting sugar-free jam, I personally just don’t like how sweet traditional jams are. For a few years, I tried reducing the amount of sugar in traditional recipes, and wound up with tasty syrup. My jam just wouldn’t set. I tried recooking it with more pectin, to no avail. For two years, I poured my strawberry jam onto toast and sandwiches instead of spreading it with a knife. So in 2010, I made my last batch of strawberry jam. Until today.
What happened between then and now was a simple but life-altering discovery: Pomona Pectin. It is different than the pectin you can buy most places – that pectin only works if the correct amount of sugar is added, so that after cooking there is not enough water present to keep added pectin dissolved, and thus upon cooling, the pectin will gel. Pomona is a calcium-activated pectin, so when calcium (included with the pectin) is added, it will gel regardless of the amount of sugar present. Now that you know the secret, you can Google it and read up on the topic yourself. What I will tell you is that while Pomona pectin works like magic, it IS different to work with and requires some experience and experimentation if you want to wander off the reservation and make your own recipes.
Let me show you how I made some strawberry jam with honey today. Note that it is NOT my intention to teach you to make jam, or to do basic canning; I assume you are competent in this regard already. I’m also not trying to teach specific recipes, though I hope you will like mine and the variations of it described here. The point of this post is to teach you how to do what you know how to do already, except WITHOUT SUGAR.
I do try to include costing info with each post to refute the notion that cooking with fresh, high quality ingredients is expensive. I bought the strawberries at the farmers’ market for $12. I buy my honey by the half gallon, and estimate I may have use about $3 worth. My mint was free from my garden, but if you bought it I would have paid about $1. The lemon juice and pectin may have been $1. So for about $17, I got (12) 4-oz jars and one large (32-oz) jar (ran out of small jars!). So 80 ounces of jam for $17 is $0.21 per ounce. That’s about $1.70 for 8 ounces, which is a typical supermarket size that will run you from $3-5. And the store jam won’t taste as good, or be as good for you.
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Our Thanksgiving bird was, once again, wonderful. We go to a lot of trouble to buy a high-quality bird (a Bourbon Red in our case), from a farmer we know. And we pay a lot, compared to that insipid supermarket stuff they call turkey – $87 for a 12 lb bird, to be precise.
I get as as much as I can out of that bird. It’s not just the money, either – it’s a matter of respect for resources. And one of the ways we stretch the use is to start a big pot of turkey soup while we’re cleaning up from dinner. Literally, I’ll break up the roasted carcass into a soup pot, add water, put the pot on a small hob and lowest flame, and start a simmer that will last nearly 24 hours. Here’s the pictorial.
Note that you need lots of headspace – 1 inch, no kidding, if you want to assure all jars seal (one in this batch did not).
Costing notes: This turkey yielded about 30 individual meals, which is fairly unheard of for a bird this small. Total cost, then, is $2.90 per serving (that does not include dog food). The trick is to not waste any. We hope this post helps you do that.
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OK, the pig itself was not 500 years old. But my pancetta project started 5 centuries ago, give or take.
Pancetta, for the uninitiated, is an Italian version of “bacon”. It starts with a pork belly, but unlike American bacon, it is salt-cured (along with garlic, pepper and other spices), not smoked. Pancetta is typically cubed and rendered to provide flavor for any number of dishes, and to my taste is more enjoyable than American bacon, mainly because it tastes more “porky”.
Before I became determined to make pancetta, I became infatuated with a hog. Not just any hog, an Ossabaw Island hog. These pigs are descendants of the legendary Iberica swine, and were deposited by the Spaniards on Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Georgia, in the 1500’s. As an isolated, feral herd, they are now the most genetically pure European swine on the planet. These are not your ordinary industrial hogs.
Fortunately for me (who lacks a farm), I have a friend as crazy as I am. Bruce is the fourth generation on his Hillsborough, NC farm, and he agreed to raise a some Ossabaws. We bought some gilts from Cane Creek Farm in Snowcamp, NC, later found a boar from another farmer, and soon enough we had piglets. Bruce’s young son took care of the piglets, and in October we harvested the pig that was subject of this post.
While our piglets were bulking up, a couple of food bloggers created the Charcutapalooza Challenge. The gist of it is that they proposed one charcuterie challenge per month, and dangled a big prize for the person who completed all the projects in an exemplary way. They managed to get Michael Ruhlman, author of the amazing book Charcuterie, to be a consultant to the project. As soon as I saw the project I knew I needed to be involved.
Sadly, however, I’ve only had time for one challenge – duck prosciutto – till now. I posted on that one several months ago. In some ways, knowing that I can’t compete for the prize was liberating. I am now free to focus on my art, the way I want to. And I thought that it would be pretty unusual for anyone to make Ossabaw pancetta, let alone from a pig they’ve grown. In addition, I decided I would do the hog processing myself. Here’s the photo tutorial.
Now that you see how to make the pancetta, let’s do something with it: pasta carbonara.
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My work on this planet may be just about done.
After a dinner of the Best Porkchops Ever (from heirloom pigs we selected, crossed with a farmer’s hybrid boar from friend farmer Tim, grown with love by our friend Bruce at his farm), I asked daughter Courtney what she would like for school lunch tomorrow.
Answer: pork chop biscuit.
Be still my heart.
So I set about making biscuits. Only to have Southern grandma-channeling daughter Emily hop up to coach me on my biscuit prep skills. Because this girl can make her some biscuits.
And together, we made the World’s Best Porkchop Biscuit. I have eaten me some porkchop biscuits in my time, including the famous ones at the NC State Fair. And I am not exaggerating, this is the best ever.
And it dawned on me, how many of you have never had a porkchop biscuit that didn’t come from Hardee’s? Or Biscuitville. Whatever. This is another one of those foods that is crazy-easy to make, and everyone loves. So here’s how to do it:
Biscuits (Alton Brown’s recipe, it’s the best):
- 2 cups flour
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons shortening
- 1 cup buttermilk, chilled
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don’t want the fats to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.
Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter (or a little bigger), being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they just touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. (Biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first, but hey, that’s life.)
Bake until biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes.
For the porkchop:
Obtain the highest quality porkchop you can find. A thick one, at least 3/4″. None of that boneless crap, either.
Brush it with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper (I like smoked salt for this).
Grill it till about 155F. Just a little pink inside. Yes, it’s safe.
Remove bone and excess fat. Slice it about 3/8″ thick (probably in half). Cut such that it fits on the biscuit.
Place porkchop slices on biscuit and prepare for the magic to happen. A little pat of butter on the biscuit first won’t kill you. Quickly.
Try it paired with a nice of of Nicaragua El Limoncillo Pacamara Peaberry from Muddy Dog Roasting Company.
Meat pies are under-appreciated in the USA. Rabbit (as food) is under-appreciated in the USA. So you can imagine how much rabbit pie is under-appreciated in the USA. When I had the opportunity to pick up a couple fresh rabbits from In the Red Farm at the NC State Farmers’ Market last weekend, along with some beautiful fresh kale, I was inspired by Tamasin Day-Lewis’ fabulous book, Tarts With Tops On, to turn it all into a rabbit pie. I did a mash-up of a couple recipes in her book to come up with this. Of course this entire procedure is in keeping with the purpose of this blog: to take under-appreciated ingredients that people think are difficult, and show you how easy it is to do something spectacular with them.
Now here’s the thing: you could make this pie from any meat, and traditionally it’s done from a leftover Sunday roast. It would be equally great with chicken. You can also substitute any green veg – turnip, mustard, chard, etc will work just fine.
Cost per serving is admittedly higher than I like it. The rabbit was $19, which I consider to be a bargain for an animal of that quality, properly processed (I got the liver, heart and kidneys along with the visceral fat, which yielded an appetizer for my daughter and I and a meal for my 2 dogs). The butter for the crust was about $2, flour maybe 25 cents. I used a buck’s worth of greens, and about $1.25 worth of eggs. Plus $2 for the onion, plus the Marco Polo ingredients. $24.50, total. We got 12 servings from everything you saw, so just north of $2 per serving. We aren’t large portion people, so if you are, your cost might be $3 a serving. Still pretty good for a meal of this quality. Of course I added a $4 glass of wine to mine 😉
My after diinner espresso was the Sweet Jane espresso from
Winter is a great season to make sausage. Just about every meat eater loves it, and when you make it yourself you can use any meat you like, any seasoning, etc. Although it does take some time to make sausage, it’s pretty much all in the setup and cleanup, so if you make a big batch and freeze it, it’s a good use of time. At the end of the photos I’ve listed some resources I like for sausage making supplies and information.
Surprisingly, this is one of the more expensive foods I make. All the ingredients (casings and spices prorated by number of portions) cost about $80, and I figure there were 25 servings of all things produced (the sausages, the roast, the leftovers from the roast), so grand total per serving is about $3.20. Which, compared to a $6 sausage from Farmhand Foods in Durham, actually sounds about right. And we frequently pay $9 or $10 for a 4-serving package of farmers’ market brats, so they are at least comparable. But cheap meat is one thing the mass market does well (the cheap part, anyway), so making your own brats is going to cost more than buying a package of Johnsonville.
One of the biggest barriers I’ve heard to people doing this at home is “where do I get the stuff”? Here are some resources I like:
For knowledge, there is one book that is unsurpassed: Charcuterie – The Art of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman. This book will get you off to a running start, and is the “from scratch” source.
Equipment: many of us these days have a KitchenAid stand mixer, and I’ve found that the attachment available for grinding and stuffing has been adequate for my needs (for 17 years now, and I make maybe 25 lbs of sausage per year). It’s only $37 at Amazon; you may have to buy the stuffing tube attachment for $9, too. Of course, this assumes you have the mixer (or it’s a good excuse to buy one!), which is a bargain starting at $199. Another source you may be surprised at is Northern Tool and Equipment, who sells heavy duty grinders and stuffers in their store in Cary as well as online, but you will easily spend $300 or more on great machines to make sausage, but nothing else. eBay frequently has suitable equipment listed, but my experience is that it’s not a bargain and you run the risk of getting some pretty well-used stuff. I’d buy new.
Meat: Of course you can buy meat at your local supermarket – look for the Boston Butt cut of pork (which isn’t a butt at all, it’s a shoulder). But I recommend you go to your local farmers’ market and ask a farmer. They may not have the right cut with them, but can probably bring it to the next market. The shoulder in this post came from Little River Ranch in Hillsborough, NC – they sell regularly at the North Raleigh Farmers’ Market. Coon Rock Farm and Fickle Creek Farms are good choices at the Western Wake Farmers’ Market.
Spices: My go-to source for 20+ years has been Penzy’s spices. I bought from them when the only way to do so was from a catalog, with an order form and a check! Of course now you can shop them online, and they just opened a new store in Raleigh’s Cameron Village. Penzey’s spice blends remain very true to classic recipes you find in the book mentioned above.
Sausage casings: This is perhaps the most difficult item on the list. You won’t find this in your average supermarket. I like to go to a local butcher, in my case Cliff’s Meat Market in Carborro, NC. Casings are also available through sportsman’s stores, such as Dick’s Cabellas, Bass Pro Shop, etc., or online at Amazon.com.
Coffee: You know I couldn’t end this without a plug for our coffee company, right? What does that have to do with sausage? Not much, but I’m writing the blog post, so I get to include the plug. Get the best coffee available at