Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pumpkin Love and the Experimental Dinner- Cajun Style

It's almost Halloween. I didn't decorate this year. I didn't even look for any of my Dracula collection, or any jack o'lanterns or scary ghosts. I did, however, buy a pumpkin. Yep, I sure did. It's a pretty big one too. The Chef and I made a very rare trip to Walmart last weekend and they had a massive display of pumpkins outside the store entrance. Snagged me. Mouse in the trap, they snagged me. I batted my eyelashes at The Chef and made a pouty face and before I knew it he was loading my big bright pumpkin in the cart.

Since then it has been sitting on the kitchen island. He wants to carve it. I don't want to carve it just yet. I thought about setting it on our front step but I don't want to look outside one day and see my precious pumpkin smashed to smithereens in the street because some punk kids were bored and out prowling. I don't really want our feisty squirrels to start eating it just yet. I want to enjoy it for a while before the inevitable happens- mushy bottom, moldy interior, smelly mess heading for the trash. Of all the seasons, autumn is by far my favorite for a number of reasons. The flavors- spicy, rich, creamy- pumpkin flavored coffees and rich beefy stew, fragrant bowls of soup. The weather- crisp cool days, chilly nights, windy and rainy and drizzly grey skies. The holidays- Halloween of course, with all the ghosts and ghouls and goblins, haunted stories, trick or treating and candy, and Thanksgiving with all the wonderful foods, family, and time for giving thanks. The colors- all the browns and greens and golds and reds of fallen leaves, crops in the fields waiting to be harvested, bright pheasants strutting on the roadsides, and fields of orange pumpkins.

I really cannot explain why I am hanging on to this pumpkin so closely. Maybe I will give in and carve it, maybe I will cook it and eat it, or maybe I'll just sit and enjoy looking at it as long as I can.

On this brisk October night I was home by myself looking for something to inspire me for dinner. I had some odds and ends in the fridge and a package of Cajun chicken sausage I grabbed on impulse at the grocery store. If you haven't tried the different chicken sausages, you need to. I never knew chicken could make such a tasty link. Chicken of course takes to seasonings incredibly well and herbs and spices can create some fantastic sausages. I've tried chicken sausages with apples and warm spices and others seasoned like kielbasa and even Italian links. When I saw the Cajun sausages I figured I better give them a try as well. I always have rice on hand, and other pantry staples like onions, bell peppers, spices. Whipping up a Cajun-inspired dirty rice-style dish was a snap and perfect for a cold evening. An Experimental Dinner was on the table in a flash!

Earlier in the summer I made a Saturday trip to the Amish vegetable farm and snagged a case of tomatoes. Those red beauties found themselves roasting to charred perfection in a hot oven and then canned with the pressure canner for use all winter long. The roasted flavor is perfect in this dish. You can also use canned fire roasted tomatoes, and if you use the juice, adjust the water accordingly. You don't want the rice to cook to a mush.

Experimental Cajun Sausage and Rice

1 package Cajun sausage*
1 chicken breast**
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 large green pepper, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced 
2 cups fire roasted tomatoes, fresh or canned
2 teaspoons dried savory
Cajun seasoning to taste
1 1/2 cups long grain rice
sale and pepper
olive oil

* Use whatever Cajun sausage you like, Andouille, kielbasa, hot or mild. I used a Cajun chicken sausage. Choose a 12-16 oz package

**You can also use leftover cooked chicken- just cube it up and add when adding the water.

Slice the sausage into thin coins. Cut the chicken breast into bite size chunks.

In a large pot heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sausage slices and cook until beginning to caramelize and brown. Add the chicken, Cook and stir for a minute or two. Add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic. Cook one minute.

Sprinkle the savory and Cajun seasoning over and stir in. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the rice. Add the tomatoes and 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve in bowls with hot sauce for sprinkling and sour cream if desired.

The best thing about these kinds of dishes is the versatility. You can adjust the heat to your family's taste- use a flavorful kielbasa instead of spicy Andouille and use a mild Cajun spice mix. Kick up the heat to blazing if you're a heat lover. It's an experiment so have fun with your food!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Visit With Dad Results in a Crusty Bread Experiment

It's finally autumn weather. Here in Iowa you would think we'd have a normal four seasons experience but we have some of the goofiest weather. It's mid October and we have still had days in the 80s, near 90s. But that appears to be in the rear view mirror now. What a wonderful week of cool breezy days, a little slight nip of frost, leaves blowing in the breeze, red, yellow and orange. Misty autumn rain and foggy mornings. All the smells I love so much. The kind of day you want to pile on a sweater and rake. Make chili. Watch football. Bake something.

My day started out with a lovely visit from my dad. You would have to know my dad to really get it. Larry is a character. We talk about all sorts of things. What he is up to, other old dudes at the V.A. that Dad is hanging out with these days. His new shoes. How the Vikings are doing. These visits are priceless times with my dad because, as we all know, human life is very fragile. In a perfect world our parents will grow old and pass on, and I know that eventually that will happen. In the meantime I am just going to continue to enjoy time spent with Dad and his kooky stories about bunions, hearing aids, and terrible football.

One thing Dad has always done is advise me on which new authors- usually Minnesota authors- I need to be reading. We share a love for John Sanford novels and he always has me on his mind when he is picking up books at the library sale or a book exchange at the V.A. This weekend he had a different book for me by an author I did not know. The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz. Apparently this is a continuation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books with a new author taking over for the prior author and Dad insisted I'd love it. So, read it I shall. My dad also always brings me some weird food item. Sometimes it's a big bag of macaroni, or a sack full of canned tomatoes. It might be a 20 pound hunk of chicken of the woods. You never know what to expect. Today it was a big bag of dried cranberries. This could be fun!

I am always up for baking something- that's no secret. I began to wonder what in the world I was going to do with 3 pounds of dried cranberries. My bakers brain immediately began to come up with ideas. Cookies of course, but I had no oatmeal.....cake?? Maybe apple cranberry cake? Oooooo quick bread!! Nooooo, I have all this yeast. I flipped through some of my recipes and wondered where I could incorporate some of these tasty little bits with ingredients I have at home to avoid going to the store. Flour? Check. Whole wheat flour even- check. Honey, pecans, check, check. In the freezer I still  have some of the crystallized ginger I made a while back. This was coming together like a perfect plan. Borrowing the same technique as the Skillet Bread Nathan and I made a few weeks ago I was able to come up with a delicious crusty loaf of fruity nutty healthy bread.

Cranberry Ginger Pecan Skillet Bread

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
4 tablespoons honey
1 packet yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
butter for skillet

In a large bowl combine the flours. Add the cranberries, pecans and ginger. Toss to coat the fruit and nuts well.

I looooove craisins. They are so sweet and tart and taste
like fresh cranberries. These are way better than raisins.

In a large measuring cup measure the warm water. Stir in the honey until dissolved, then add the yeast. Allow the yeast to bloom and become foamy. 

Mix the water into the flour and fruit mixture and stir until combined. Cover with plastic and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour and a half.

Generously butter a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. I used my regular skillet- about 10 inches. Gently remove the dough from the bowl and place in the skillet. Dough will be sticky and soft. Form into a round disk, it doesn't have to touch the sides of the skillet. It will rise to fill the skillet. Again cover loosely and allow to rise another hour. Make sure to CHECK the dough about halfway through both rising times. The temp in your kitchen will affect the rise of the bread and if it's nice and warm it might rise faster. You want the dough to double in size. It may take as little as 30 minutes each time.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the skillet in the oven and bake the bread for 40 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool- the bread will pop right out of the skillet. It's absolutely delicious served warm with lots of melty real butter.

In case you haven't caught on, I am absolutely hooked on these easy breads. No-knead doughs just couldn't be easier, and this is a fun and easy recipe to make with kids. I love the crunchy crust of the bread and the dense texture- it's not a fluffy bread like the sliced white bread you get at the store, but more like the rustic artisan breads you find in bakeries. They look impressive with their round shapes and look like something you spend a ton of time slaving over. Your secret is safe with me. Trust me, try one of these loaves, especially warm from the oven, and you'll be hooked too.