Thanksgiving and Christmas are times to celebrate but they can also be used to innovate in the kitchen. I am happy to be constrained by “traditional” ingredients as long as I am free to choose what to do with them.
The reason for scare quotes: traditional = old bad habit, constraint and enemy of innovation; I have little time for it.
I came up with this dish for a Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta a couple of years ago. We had sent our guests a wide list of ingredients and asked them to choose the flavours that they most associated with Thanksgiving, celebration and autumn/fall. This dish, one of many small courses that we served, was a result of their choices.
I had wanted to do something with sweet potato that showed it in a different light. The dish is equally good with sweet potato or squash, but look for a Potimarron or Hokkaido squash, they are less moist which is essential.
At the end of our summer squash season we ended up, as you often do, with a couple of giant zucchini\courgettes. They are best eaten when smaller, but were perfect for these loaves.
To readers outside the U.S. think cake rather than bread, this is not savoury. The nearest things I can compare it to are a carrot cake and the Jamaican Ginger cakes that were popular when I was growing up in the UK.
I have been cooking and refining this dish for years. The recipe is based upon one by Madame Germaine Carter whose 'Home Book of French Cookery' was a favourite in my teens, not only because of the recipes but also due to its narrative. Mme Carter and her co-authors were interned in a number of prisoner of war camps during World War II. During a winter of particular privation in 1941-42, a fellow prisoner suggested the book as a means to boost their flagging spirits. The book is long out of print, but copies are not hard to find.
I have included additional ingredients that you'll find in most 'authentic' recipes in the Suggestion section, but with the exception of the bread fried in bacon fat, I find them a distraction.
This dish is always better when made a day in advance.
For a great plate of roasted vegetables, you need a good balance of textures and flavours. Use too many root vegetables and it can be too sweet, though turnips will help offset that. Fresh herbs will give fragrance to the dish.
Use a combination of four or more of the following six categories: (1) potato and\or sweet potato, (2) squash and\or courgette\zucchini, (3) aubergine\eggplant, (4) root vegetables, (5) broccoli and\or cauliflower and (6) onions (red for colour) and a head of garlic.
It's fun when a friend from afar comes to stay, but it's fabulous when said friend brings truffles with her. Hot foot from Abruzzo and on her way back to Manhattan our pal Jackie brought truffles, so I had to share them.
I watched Rick Stein eating fried eggs with truffles on TV last week, he was on location in Puglia and out with a truffle hunter. I have eaten truffle omelettes here in France, it's a popular dish, but I preferred the purity of fried eggs with truffles.
Lola, one of our chickens, has been laying enormous eggs. I figured that these were double yokers and this was confirmed this morning.
The method for frying eggs I learnt from observing and listening to Albert Roux many years ago.
I love a good vinaigrette or salad dressing, one that barely coats the salad leaves and that has enough acidity to cleanse the palate. But I cannot abide salads where the leaves have been drowned in a sappy mayonnaise soup, something that is all too common in the UK and USA.
A salad needs good leaves. If it is a single variety make it count, e.g. a frisée, butter or oak leaf. Otherwise use a mixture of leaves and add leafy herbs in small quantities.
The classic formula is one part acid to three parts oil, but there is considerable variation depending on the acids and oils you use. So my tip is taste, taste and taste again.
As I write this I realise that I use a lot of different dressings, so I am giving you my two favourites, plus a celebratory dressing that is perfect with an avocado and watercress salad and an oil-free dressing that I reconstructed from the restaurant 't Hofke in Antwerp.
I have or thought I had a 'Zucca piena di Napoli' squash growing, a rare Italian variety with a beautiful blue-ish green hue. While I was away last week it turned a pale tan colour because it is actually butternut squash. No complaints butternut has an excellent flavour and is particularly good in risotto and soup.
I let the squash, the whopper pictured below which weighed 2.2kg (almost 5lbs), mature a day or two more on the vine and then let it sit for a couple of days once cut to allow it to dry a little. This concentrates the flavour.
Any firm autumn\winter squash will work. I am looking forward to experimenting with some of the varieties that we have planted in the kitchen garden; let's hope they don't all turn out to be butternut.
We have grown more varities of chard than I knew existed. In the kitchen garden you will see Rainbow\Bright Lights, Silverbeet, Spinach Beet. On the other side of the garden we have what the French refer to as Cardes. The wine bottle pictured is for perspective, not because of a wild party in the vegetable garden.
You'll see cardes in French markets with the leaves bundled on top of each other. The stalks have an excellent flavour and can be substituted in any recipe that calls for cardoons (for the first month, that's what I thought I was growing).
Most chard recipes will tell you to cut off the stalks leaving just the spinach-like leaves. The leaves can be treated like spinach, see Suggestion below. What the recipes neglect to mention is that when you discard with the stalks, you dispense with the essence of chard, because while the leaves are good, the stalks are wonderful. This recipe shows you one simple way to cook them.