This post is my sixth entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. (Click here to see my contestant profile.) In this round we were challenged to create a portable meal on the go. Voting begins Monday, October 25, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first five rounds, I appreciate all of your support more than I can ever express!
Every year a good friend and I make our annual pilgrimage to our favorite pumpkin patch. The farm itself is about a thirty minute drive, and over the years it’s become something of an agrarian amusement park. Her children join in on the fun, and we end the day by each carefully selecting our own pumpkins from the field for carving. For me, the pumpkin patch is one of those rare experiences in life that really live up to the charm of the perfect Norman Rockwell paintings. Fall is my absolute favorite time of year, and there is something about that familiar chill in the air, all of those bails of hay, and the mounds of colorful leaves, winter squash and decorative gourds, that fill me with joy. Moreover, this time of year begins the long holiday season where we all, as a community, seem to collectively retain some sense of sentimentality; and people just seem kinder to one another. And on these days, traipsing through the corn mazes and produce stands, feeding the farm animals, and spending time together in the country I somehow feel most like myself.
The children always have their requisite hot dogs and apple cider from the farm stand, but this year I thought I would surprise my friend with something a little bit more special. So I decided to pack up a little picnic to share while the children played in their autumn wonderland. Nothing terribly fancy mind you, just simple, casual, delicious food among friends.
When planning the menu I wanted something light, something best eaten cold or at room temperature, and something that would ultimately travel well. I decided I would stick to the fall theme and make individual pumpkin and blue cheese crostatas, an autumn inspired green salad, and finish it off with a little bit of seasonal whimsy with my favorite white chocolate dipped caramel apples. To go with our meal, I chose to make a sparkling pomegranate pear punch, and for something extra cozy with dessert I thought my coconut chai would pair beautifully with the apples. All of the wonderful flavors of fall wrapped up together in one little picnic.
Packing – A few ice packs along the bottom of the cooler is all that I need to keep our food nice and fresh for the ride. I like packing the food in cylindrical deli containers which I purchase at my favorite restaurant supply store. They are inexpensive, sturdy, reusable, and I really appreciate the fact that all of the sizes use the same lid. Hand sanitizer and plenty of moist towelettes are a must for picnics. Not only are they great for keeping your hands clean, but they are also nice to use to wipe down your dishes before repacking them. I always like to use real plates, mugs, and reusable bottles whenever possible. It really isn’t that much trouble and it always feels a little bit more special; besides, it’s just the green thing to do.
Sparkling Pomegranate Pear Punch – This punch is refreshingly tart and sweet; the lemon and pomegranate add a delicious pucker, and the subtle hint of cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger really make the pear flavor come alive. In a blender, combine five ripe pears (peeled and cored), two cups of water, a third of a cup of vanilla sugar (or to taste), the juice of one lemon, a pinch of salt, and the tiniest dash of ground cinnamon. Blend until the mixture is very smooth, then pass it through a fine mesh strainer to remove the fruit pulp. Add one cup of pomegranate juice, and two cups of your favorite ginger ale.
Autumn Salad – This salad is the perfect mix of flavors and textures. The rich creamy goat cheese, sweet juicy pears, smoky bacon, crunchy pumpkin seeds, and the tart chewy cranberries all come together perfectly. The spiced apple flavored dressing rounds everything out, driving home the fabulous flavors of fall. To make the salad, toss baby greens with sliced pears (which have been tossed in freshly squeezed lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown), crumbled goat cheese, lardons of crispy bacon, dried cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds. To make the dressing, reduce one cup of spiced apple cider over medium heat until only one fourth of a cup remains. Add one finely minced shallot, three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a third of a cup of extra virgin olive oil, and a dash of salt and freshly ground black pepper. (To take the salad on the road pack the lettuce in one large storage container, submerge the sliced pears into the dressing and place into another smaller storage container, pack the crumbled goat cheese into a separate re-sealable storage bag, and combine the remaining salad topping into one small container.)
Pumpkin and Blue Cheese Crostatas – Pumpkin and blue cheese are a match made in heaven, and together they make an elegant filling for these crostatas. The buttery crust, sweet earthy pumpkin, subtle sweetness from the maple syrup, and delicious piquant creaminess of the blue cheese all harmonize together beautifully. The toasted pine nuts add a great texture and nutty flavor, and the sage leaves are the perfect savory compliment that bring it all together.
To make the pastry dough, combine one and a half cups of all purpose flour, one teaspoon of salt, and three tablespoons of sugar. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse this mixture along with twelve tablespoons of cold diced butter and one half of a cup of cold vegetable shortening until the flour is evenly coated with the fat (about twenty seconds). Add another cup of flour and pulse to combine. Empty this mixture into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the dough with one fourth of a cup of very cold vodka, one fourth of a cup of ice cold water, and gently fold to combine. Flatten the dough (which should still be pretty tacky) into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for one hour (or up to a week in advance).
Meanwhile, in a large skillet set over medium heat, sauté three cups of peeled diced fresh pumpkin in two tablespoons each of butter and extra virgin olive oil until it is soft and beginning to brown around the edges. Add two tablespoons of finely chopped fresh sage leaves, three tablespoons of pure maple syrup, a third of a cup of toasted pine nuts, one large garlic clove (grated on a microplane zester), three fourths of a teaspoon of salt, a fourth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a fourth of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, and a half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Continue sautéing for two to three minutes, then remove from the heat and allow the pumpkin mixture to come to room temperature.
Roll out the pastry dough on a floured board to one fourth of an inch of thickness and cut out four rough seven to eight inch rounds. In the center of each round add one fourth of the cooled pumpkin mixture and top each with two tablespoons of crumbled blue cheese. Bring the dough up around the sides of the pumpkin filling, forming a rustic pie. Brush the dough with a beaten egg and bake at 400° for twenty to twenty five minutes, or until golden brown. Garnish with fried sage leaves. (To take these crostatas on the road carefully stack them on a small plate, separating each with a piece of parchment paper, and wrap the stack tightly with plastic wrap. In a separate sandwich sized storage bag, separately pack the fried sage leaves for garnishing.)
Jacob’s Favorite Caramel Apples – These decadent apples are really just our childhood favorite dressed up for company. The tart apple, rich caramel, creamy white chocolate, and sweet cinnamon sugar all meld together in your mouth to create a flavor that really is very reminiscent of apple pie. Perfect for this time of year, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be happy to be surprised with one of these beauties.
To make them, begin by thoroughly washing and chilling your apples (if you suspect that your apples have been waxed, scrub them with baking soda as the wax can prevent the caramel from properly adhering). Insert a stick into the core of each apple (you can typically find these at bakery and craft supply stores).While I will often go to the trouble of making my own caramel for dipping, since I was in a bit of a hurry, I decided to take a fool proof short cut and use melted caramel candies instead. I start by melting one and a half pounds of soft caramel candies over a double boiler along with two tablespoons of whole milk, one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract, and a half a teaspoon of salt. Dip each of your apples to coat, and allow the excess caramel to drip off. Hold the coated apples upside down for forty five seconds or so to allow the caramel a chance to set up slightly before placing them on a baking sheet lined with lightly buttered parchment paper.
Once all of your apples have been dipped, place the baking sheet into the refrigerator for thirty minutes, or until thoroughly chilled (if your caramel covered apples are not cold enough, the melted white chocolate will not adhere to the caramel). Next, melt one and a half pounds of white chocolate chips over a double boiler with one tablespoon of canola oil, and allow it to cool slightly. Dip each of your caramel apples three fourths of the way into the melted chocolate, allowing the excess to drip off (holding each apple upside down just as in the caramel dipping step). Before returning the now chocolate covered apples to the baking sheet, carefully sprinkle each with a generous amount of cinnamon sugar (two cups of sugar mixed with one and a half tablespoons of ground cinnamon). Once the apples have dried and hardened, transfer each to a small cellophane bag and tie with raffia. (While these apples are perfectly fine on their own, to aid in the ease of picnic eating I think it’s nice to pack an apple slicer.)
Coconut Chai – This chai is rich and flavorful. It has just the right amount of spice, and the honey and coconut milk take it far beyond just your ordinary cup of tea. To make it, in a sauce pan, combine six whole cloves, six allspice berries, six green cardamom pods, one half of a nutmeg nut, four star anise, and three cinnamon sticks. (Here I had the luxury of instead using one four inch length of real cinnamon which a fabulous friend sent to me from her recent trip to the spice markets of Dubai. In the United States you can often find it labeled “ceylon.”) Over a medium low flame, slowly toast the spices for two minutes or until fragrant. Add six cups of water, one fifteen ounce can of coconut milk (whole or light), one vanilla bean split down the center, and two half inch slices of peeled fresh ginger. Bring this mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for seven to ten minutes. Add five and a half tablespoons of loose leaf black tea, and continue simmering for another five minutes. Add one fourth of a cup of honey (or to taste), and strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Ladle it into a thermos to keep it piping hot and ready to serve whenever you are.
These days it seems like most of the food that we eat is on the go. But just because we are on the move doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the food that we love to eat with the people that we care about most. This pumpkin patch picnic is a perfect example of how investing a little bit of extra time can turn any ordinary meal into something really special. In this economy, where money is tight for all of us, a little thoughtfulness can really go a long way. Luckily, preparing someone’s favorite meal, surprising a friend with a beautifully wrapped jar of homemade jam, or baking something extra special is often even more appreciated than the most extravagant gifts. This season brings out the best in all of us, and it makes me want to spend as much quality time as possible with the people that I care about. Food sets the stage for our time together. And with a picnic like this, what a beautifully charming production it is.