Saturday, October 30, 2010

Buttercup Tart with Cardamom-Maple Ice Cream

     Sweet decadence has been haunting me as of late.  Ever since these goblin colored beauties entered the house I have pondered their aptly given name in reference to what I would create from them.  Hmmm,  buttercup . . .  And yes,  I am referring to buttercup squash, not the damsel in distress from "The Princess Bride."  I decided a traditional pie, in miniature size, would showcase the squash with seasonality, considering the two inches of snow that blew the other day.  Snow"fall" around these parts is almost unheard of.  The incredibly dry snow drifts sideways and whirls around in the powerful Wyoming winds creating a sensation similar to being trapped in a snow-globe or better yet, a dishwasher.
     We harvested seven nice-sized squash from the garden this year.  Two were zapped by the frost and snow volunteering them for duty in this particular dessert.  The cold temperatures concentrate sugars in the squash but also contribute to shorter shelf-life at the same time.  While cutting open the peeled squash to remove the seeds before roasting I note the cantaloupe colored and scented flesh with curiosity.  I know the raw squash won't taste like sweet melon, but it makes me consider new possibilities.
     Served on top, black cardamom-spiced, maple syrup-sweetened ice cream provides an interesting accompaniment to the pie.  Cardamom, which is related to ginger, has a warming, citrus-y aroma often used in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines.  Desserts are the most common destination for this historically admired spice, yet savory spice blends like Garam Masala emphasize the medicinal and flavorful benefits the seed pods provide.  The crust is a traditional tart dough or 'Pate Sucree' for textural contrast with smaller scale portions.  It is sweeter than flaky pie dough, as the french nomenclature suggests, but since the sugar has been reduced in the filling, the crust and ice cream provide a saccharin roundness to the palate.  The crust is 'blind-baked' before filled to maintain crispiness.  Combined with the rich flavors of pure maple syrup, cardamom gives the ice cream a butterscotch flavor at first, then hints toward citrus notes later on.  All together with the mildly spiced pie, one gets an eggnog-like flavor profile from the pairing.  A warm brandy in front of a cracking fireplace would elevate this to a state of autumnal ecstasy for the senses.
     I prepared 3 small 4-inch pie tarts with this recipe which would otherwise make one 9-inch pie.  A full pie takes 5 extra minutes of baking time, both with the crust and once filled.  The recipe for the pie filling was adapted from a pumpkin pie recipe in The New Best Recipe, a cookbook from the editors of Cook's Illustrated.  A small, 1 1/2 quart ice cream maker was used to freeze the ice cream.  Inexpensive and simple to use, ice cream makers are worth every penny in my opinion.

Tart Dough (pate sucree)

1/2 lb butter
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 egg yolks
12 1/2 oz A.P. Flour

  • Cream the butter and sugar 'till smooth.
  • Add salt
  • Add yolks
  • Add flour
  • Mix till dough comes together.  Do not over mix.
  • Wrap in plastic, refrigerate 30-40 minutes.
  • Pull dough from fridge, roll out to 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured surface.
  • Slide pie dish under and trim edges leaving some excess for shrinkage.
  • Cover and refrigerate for 40 minutes, then freeze for 20 minutes.

Buttercup Squash Pie Filling

2 cups buttercup squash puree (peeled, seeded, quartered and roasted, covered with 1/2 cup water in 375°F oven for one hour, blend 'till smooth)
1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup milk
4 large eggs

  • Combine sugar, squash, salt and spices.  Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat in heavy bottomed pan.
  • Line interior of pie shell with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dry beans.
  • Bake on top rack for 20-25 minutes at 375°F uncovering for the final 5-10 minutes (check at 15 min.)
  • Mix in heavy cream and milk. Bring back up to barely simmering. Turn oven up to 400°F.
  • Beat eggs 'till smooth.  Slowly add hot mixture while whisking eggs until all is combined.
  • Fill hot pie shells with hot squash mixture and bake on bottom rack at 400°F for 15-25 minutes depending on size (4" = 15-20 min. / 9" = 20-25 min.)  Pies are done when center jiggles like gelatin instead of liquid.  

Cardamom-Maple Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tsp black cardamom (removed from pod, roughly ground)
5 egg yolks

  • Bring cream, milk, syrup and cardamom to scalding.
  • Slowly add to beaten yolks whisking constantly.
  • Strain any large spice granules from mixture.
  • Chill
  • Pour into frozen ice cream basin and turn 'till frozen soft.
  • Store tightly covered in freezer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Seared Venison and Wild Watercress with Elderberry Sauce

     Autumn has brought us little rain and no snow yet.  The field behind our home is abundantly brown, crested with evergreens on the rising foothills.  Cottonwood leaves blaze colors of amber to orange, widespread as wildfire.  Pale straw crunches underfoot among cactus so withered, only needles and the hope of a drink remain.  Crispy sagebrush and large ant hills prevail in a rocky landscape arid and unforgiving like this.  The small forks of Clear Creek are dry now, causing the main flow to provide the only water for miles.  Well, almost the only water.  A small, unexpected, freshwater spring can be found far off in the middle of the field.  Actually two semi-warm springs bubble up from the earth year-round.  It is not easy to spot from afar, but is plain as day once you are upon it.

The draw coming from the spring.

The source of the spring and our dog, patiently waiting in the far back left.

     Many little critters call this oasis home.  Migrating sandhill cranes and geese often stop and feed on the bioavailability this little bit of water provides.  The pronghorn antelope, whitetail and mule deer slake their thirst and eat grass from this geological irrigation system.  For me, however, the patch of wild watercress centered in the heart of the spring is superlative.

Bright green watercress in abundance.

     Watercress is a wonderful little leafy green with tremendous texture and a crisp, peppery bite.  Because this is grown wild, it must be cleaned thoroughly.  I submerge and rinse at least three times, then spin it dry.  I most often use it in salads or cold appetizers for its mild, spicy flavor and wonderfully vibrant color.  Usually dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, watercress also makes a lively garnish among dark, robust flavors.
     I still have some venison from Jim, the war veteran and whitetail hunter who parks his camper across the creek and uses our access to hike in and out from his tree stands throughout the season.  He donated one of his does to us for allowing him to pass through.  Archery hunting is the only kind allowed on this land as it is part of the Veteran's Home of Wyoming.  Although this was not my kill, I am happy to have such sustenance provided for me.  I cleaned, skinned and cut the meat myself, storing most of it in the freezer and grinding all the trim for chili, meatloaf, and breakfast sausage.  The round (leg) provides several nice steaks or a couple of good sized roasts.  This deer was not very big, though, making it incredibly tender.  I decided to sear off some 8 ounce steaks with a generous amount of freshly cracked pepper.  This was served on millet cooked like pilaf (browned in oil with aromatics, then simmered) with crimini mushrooms alongside the simply dressed wild watercress (as described above).  Millet is a healthy, old-world grain similar in flavor to quinoa or bulgur.  A red wine sauce made with homegrown dried elderberries, which happen to be hugely popular among the local deer population, provides a sweet, velvety completion to the dish.
     Altogether, the millet, mushrooms and red wine are the only products not foraged, hunted or grown on this land.  Not only was this a delicious dinner, but local, seasonal and inexpensive to boot!

Elderberry Sauce

1 750ml bottle red wine Pinot Noir, Syrah, or light bodied Zinfandel
3/4 cup dried elderberries (2 cups fresh)
1 quart veal stock
2 Tbs butter

*may need an additional 2 Tbs sugar if using cheap wine

Reduce veal stock to 1 pint.
Add wine and berries, reduce to 1 pint.
Taste, add sugar or salt if necessary.
Fold in butter to warm sauce just before serving, stirring till emulsified.

Crimini Mushroom Millet

1 cup millet
1 small spanish onion, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups water, plus additional 2 Tbs water
2 Tbs olive oil, plus additional 4 Tbs olive oil
7 crimini mushrooms, halved

salt and pepper to taste

Add millet and 2 Tbs olive oil to pan on medium heat stirring constantly.
Lightly brown millet till tan in color, then add onions and garlic.
Add 2 cups water, stir once and cover.
Simmer for 15-20 minutes.

In separate, smoking-hot pan, add the remaining olive oil and mushrooms.
Saute till brown, season with salt and pepper.
Add 2 Tbs water.
Toss together with cooked millet and serve.


Sear seasoned venison in hot pan on high and finish in 500°F oven for 5 min.
Let rest at least 5 min before slicing across grain.