On butternut squash pie
Plus more thoughts on deep frying, and gift ideas for the cooking-inclined in your life
Well, the holiday season is finally here - happy Thanksgiving and/or happy Hanukkah to those of you who celebrate! I hope you’ve had or will have the opportunity to take a few days to not think about work, and instead spend quality time with family and friends, ideally with a large quantity of good food involved. For my part, I’m deeply grateful for my booster shot and for the friends who invited us to share an evening of delicious food and great conversation on Thanksgiving - a rare and much-missed pleasure during these pandemic times.
It’s officially the correct time of year to share my favorite food-related fun fact: ever since the FDA decided in 1938 that they wouldn't take regulatory action to correct misleading canned pumpkin labels, Libby's has actually contained a close relative of butternut squash! But that’s OK, because butternut squash actually makes better pies.
I learned both of these things from Stella Parks’ wonderful cookbook Bravetart, which is both full of meticulously tested recipes for traditional American baked goods, and stuffed with well-researched food history. (My other favorite tidbit from this book? Jack Kerouac briefly worked at a Girl Scout cookie factory in his youth.)
The Bravetart butternut pumpkin pie recipe is also available on Serious Eats (though I highly recommend buying the book if you’re even vaguely into baking.) It involves roasting a whole butternut squash and making your own not-too-sweet, cinnamon-inflected condensed milk, but is reliably delicious.
Part of the problem with making pie only once a year is that my crust-rolling skills are mediocre. Predictably, I yet again managed to roll my dough out into an amoeba shape, resulting in tasty but somewhat ugly pie. Then I felt insecure about it and decided to roll out the other half of the pie dough I’d made and turn it into an apple galette, because galettes at least are supposed to look misshapen. Both turned out great and nobody was mad about having more dessert.
I also made buttermilk biscuits (another Stella Parks recipe, just leave out the black sesame seeds and halve the sugar) and deep fried brussels sprouts. As you may remember, last year I began a love affair with deep-frying vegetables thanks to Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons recipe for deep-fried cauliflower with spicy fish sauce dressing; last Thanksgiving, it felt natural to branch out into this Momofuku recipe for deep-fried brussels sprouts with a similar viniagrette.
I strongly recommend taking the plunge and deep frying your brussels sprouts. They will actually get crispy and delicious, rather than disappointingly soggy in the middle like many roasted sprouts can be. If you decide to go this route, it will be much less scary if you own three things: an instant read thermometer, a splatter screen and a wire spider.
Vegetables (especially slightly wet vegetables that you have lazily failed to air dry) will create an enormous fizz of bubbles as soon as they go into the frying oil, and your entire kitchen and carefully chosen Thanksgiving outfit will get splattered with hot oil. If you then regain some sense and don an apron and grab your splatter screen you can create a system where one hand uses the wire spider to drop the sprouts into the oil from a safe distance, and the other hand slaps the splatter screen on top to prevent the sputtering oil from leaving the pot (or wok, which is my preferred frying vessel.)
After a few seconds the sputtering will stop and you can remove the splatter screen and start agitating the sprouts using the wire spider. I will note that the splatter screen is particularly useful if you follow the recipe as written in the Momofuku cookbook (vs excerpted here on Food52) which calls for deep frying your cilantro as well. Deep-fried cilantro is delicious, but be warned that the initial fizz will make it sound like a small bomb has gone off in your kitchen. It’s worth it.
Some non-Thanksgiving things I’ve recently cooked and enjoyed:
Corn tortillas, heated in a cast iron pan and then topped with soft-scrambled eggs, crunchy pickled red onions, and some chili oil. I liked them so much that I ate them two days in a row. (Note: I am lazy and so my pickled red onion method is just: slice onions, stick in jar, cover with rice vinegar + big pinch of salt, screw on the lid, shake, and then stick in the fridge until they go pinkish.)
A riff on this Woks of Life recipe for Khao Soi, after I decided to make it and then realized I was missing many key ingredients. What I did was fry 2tbsp red curry paste in oil, stir in shredded rotisserie chicken, add chicken broth, coconut milk, fish sauce and brown sugar, bring to a boil, and then spoon the broth over cooked Italian spaghetti. I topped it with chopped cilantro, onions I tossed with cornstarch and deep-fried until crispy, and more onions I sliced thinly and soaked in ice water to cut the bite. Definitely not Khao Soi, but still really good.
I saw fresh fenugreek at the Alemany farmer’s market last weekend and of course had to buy it. Then I realized that picking off the leaves is a gigantic pain. So I’m not sure I’ll make it again, but can vouch that Chetna Makan’s methi matar malai (curry with fenugreek and in this case, also paneer) was delicious. I would recommend it to those of you with more patience, or perhaps an intensely focused child who will pick leaves off stems for you.
In the spirit of our annual weekend of sales, I did want to take a little space here to suggest some great gifts for anyone cooking-obsessed. These are all things I have been or would be delighted to receive!
A Peugeot pepper mill. I received one of these as a graduation present and it’s one of those thing I probably would have taken another 15 years to buy for myself, but use constantly and really appreciate. (Plus, it’s just a very beautiful and adult-feeling thing to have on your table.)
A fancy spoon rest. I bought mine, from Pigeon Toe Pottery, on a Black Friday sale several years ago and love it - it keeps my kitchen counter cleaner, looks pretty, and has held up absolutely fine in my dishwasher.
A Kunz spoon. A dear friend and fellow foodie got me one of these for Christmas a few years back and I use it all the time, for basting crispy fried eggs and steaks, mixing things, and serving/plating food more artfully.
A nice apron. I somehow managed to get by for several years without an apron, and then was gifted multiple for Christmas in 2019, which was amazing. I personally prefer the crossback style and can vouch for two - my day to day choice from Magic Linen, and a slightly thicker one from Enrich & Endure.
Kitchen towels and potholders. I have learned that the secret to not burning yourself in the kitchen is just to have lots of thick material lying around to grab stuff with. My favorite potholder was hand knitted by a family friend and is probably the kitchen item I use most often.
Gift cards. Those of us who are really into cooking usually have very specific preferences, especially when it comes to big-ticket items (enamelware, nice pans, stand mixers, food processors, etc.) If you’re thinking of generously splurging on one of these items (Staub cocottes are currently on sale, FYI, as are Kitchenaid stand mixers) I would strongly encourage you to ask the person if they have a preference, or just give them a gift card so they can choose. Surprises are overrated.
Gift cards, part 2. A really lovely thing you can do is give cooking-inclined friends a gift card to a cookbook store in their area. Our local one here in SF is called Omnivore Books and I’ll take any excuse to go there, browse, and pick something new for my overstuffed collection.
If you’re still stumped on gifts, or want to gift something that’s more delightful than utilitarian, might I recommend Helen Rosner’s wonderful gift guides for foodies? (2022, 2021, 2020.) Your giftee might not need some extremely cute 3D printed kimchi bouillon cubes, but they probably won’t be mad about it either.
In other news:
I just finished Planet Money co-host Jacob Goldstein’s Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing which was an easy and fun read about the history of money (and also finance) from Ancient Greece through to cryptocurrency. It also very briefly touches on the history of insurance, which has made me really want to read a deeper dive on that subject - recommendations welcome.
I liked Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals enough that I’m buying a physical copy so that I can flip through it again and take notes. Author Oliver Burkeman describes himself as a “recovering productivity addict” and the book is a useful argument against the traditional self-improvement approach of trying to squeeze more stuff into the same number of hours.
Fiction-wise, I recently hopped back on the romance train with The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood which is a fun fake-dating story set in a science lab at Stanford. (Thanks for the rec, Dian!) I also raced through A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, which is an often dark, occasionally darkly funny take on the Trojan War from the perspective of the women involved. (If the idea of Penelope writing increasingly salty letters to Odysseus seems up your alley, give it a shot.)
I’m glad that after months of pestering I finally caved and let Sam make me watch Behind the Curve, the 2018 documentary about Flat Earth believers. It’s a useful and reasonably empathetic look at the psychology behind conspiracy theories (and more generally, why we hold on to opinions when presented with evidence to the contrary.) That all feels even more relevant at a time when many of us have loved ones with whom we don’t agree on basic facts of the COVID19 pandemic.
If you’re traveling for the holidays and are incorporating rapid testing into your COVID safety arsenal, FYI that the Abbott BinaxNOW tests are found most cheaply at Walmart. ($14/2 vs $24/2 at CVS and Walgreens.) You’re welcome.
Lastly, if you need 5 minutes of serotonin, check out this amazing article about England’s first Popeyes. A taste: Focus group participants, [the CEO of Popeyes U.K.] recalled, would say: “‘Why are you giving me a scone with chicken? I have no idea what you are doing.’”
That’s all for now, folks! See you later this year for my annual year-in-review; and in the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’ve been cooking, reading, and otherwise loving. You can reach me via the comments section, Instagram or Twitter.