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A Pumpkin Harvesting Picnic
October is a month that burns brightest in my recollection of all the months of the year. With the last-of-the-season produce displaying its warm, burnished colors at overflowing roadside stands, this final harvest seems to echo the efforts of Mother Earth to provide the most spectacular burst of earthy ochre and bronze for us to enjoy and remember before winter.
For me, the first hint of autumn is always signaled by the cries of geese overhead as they fly south for warmer environs. Every year I think their internal clocks are "off" because I refuse to believe summer has ended and fall has sneaked through once again without my notice. I feel cheated. What have I been doing, I wonder, while earth has readied herself for another winter? As always, I am roused out of this state of righteous indignation and denial by the inviting scent of the first fall bonfire. As its pungent smoke wafts through the cool, crisp air, tickling my nostrils, I enjoy the sound of autumn leaves rustling and crackling underfoot.
Give me an oversized, nicely worn out sweater, some comfortable old sneakers and the promise of a mug of steaming hot soup and I'm ready for our annual hike into the wilderness to witness mother nature's fanfare. This year we decided to combine our tramp into the country with a visit to a rural pumpkin patch. Friends of ours own a farm in Northern California near the Russian River and they invited us there to share their annual pumpkin harvesting and carving celebration with them and their three young children. I volunteered to supply a simple meal that would appeal to adults and children alike and they agreed to provide the setting and the paraphernalia for an authentic country picnic.
We left early to avoid the traffic and to arrive at a reasonable time as the drive is approximately 1 1/2 hours from San Francisco. We were going to hike through their land before picking our pumpkins and settling down for our early afternoon lunch. It was a perfect late fall day with the leaves at their peak of color and the air hinting of newly turned earth and ripe grapes ready for the crush. I realized, with a hint of melancholy, that farmers were already preparing their land for next year's crops. Fall is my favorite season, but it is always a bit saddening to acknowledge that winter will soon follow.
Our friend's land was more breathtaking than I had expected. Its rolling hills and stands of red and gold trees created stark contrasts against the backdrop of thick, dark evergreens that seemed to whisper softly to you whenever the wind blew. We trekked through a copse of trees and headed towards the firs where just beyond the raging Russian River churned. By the time we headed back towards their pumpkin patch, we were all getting hungry, so selections of pumpkins fitting enough to carve were made quickly.
When we returned to our prearranged picnic site, I found our friends had built a roaring applewood bonfire to warm us as we lunched and enjoyed the beautiful views. Several old quilts had been placed on the grass for us to use as table and seats. There was a place setting of old, weathered Victorian china and glassware for each of us and a huge bucket of bright yellow sunflowers bobbing in the breeze. My friend thought of everything. I just hoped my meal would be as much of a success.
I planned a simple yet hearty lunch that was made two days ahead because of my schedule.
Since I anticipated a chilly fall day, I made a hot soup of creamed butternut squash that would be garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds to give it a little texture and to be in keeping with our pumpkin harvesting theme. Fresh, sweet potato-corn muffins were to be part of the menu to help make the soup a bit heartier and to appeal to the children in our group. These dense, very moist muffins, brightly speckled with yellow corn, are slightly sweet with a hint of molasses and brown sugar. This will usually satisfy the appetites of most people; but if not, I had come prepared! I made a curried chicken loaf with currants and roasted red peppers that was sliced and put in halved foccacia, spread with a honey-mustard-mayonnaise and dressed with red oak leaf lettuce and the last of the season's homegrown tomatoes. Yum!
Being out in the fresh air must have had a positive effect on all our appetites because we consumed everything. Not even a crumb was left for the squirrels that we saw scampering in the dry grasses. We all sat back and nibbled on crisp apples and pears and a nutty sheep's milk cheese from Spain called Manchego. While the children toasted their marshmallows on sticks over the fire and drank their warm apple cider with spiced apple wedges, the adults enjoyed small glasses of port as we watched the fire roast our fresh chestnuts to a delicious, mealy doneness. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
These recipes are designed to feed eight people.
Cream of Butternut Squash Soup with Pumpkin Seed Garnish
3 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 quarts homemade or good quality chicken stock, unsalted
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup light cream
8 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the onion, celery, and carrots. Stir over medium heat until the carrots soften a bit and the onion is translucent. Add the butternut squash, potatoes and the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and cover partially. Add the bay leaf and allow to simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the squash is very soft. Remove from heat and puree the solids with the liquid in a blender or a food processor until smooth and creamy. Add salt, sugar, nutmeg and cream and stir to combine. Taste. Cool and refrigerate. Reheat gently over very low heat before packing in a wide mouth thermos to take on your picnic.
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
If you have a heavy cast iron frying pan, warm over medium-high heat for about 15-20 seconds before adding the pumpkin seeds. This does not need any oil. As a matter of fact, the nutty crispness of the seeds comes out better in this method than if they were fried in oil, not to mention the calories that you would be consuming. If you don't have a cast iron pan, place the seeds on a cookie sheet in a preheated 350 degree F oven and bake for 4-6 minutes of until they are toasty.
Sweet Potato-Corn Muffins
makes 12-15 muffins
To make sweet potato puree, boil two peeled and cubed sweet potatoes in water until soft. Puree potato using a ricer, blender or food processor.
3 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 1/4 cup sweet potato puree
4 tablespoons molasses
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup fresh, sweet corn kernels (one ear)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 400 degree F. Lightly spray inside of muffin cups with a vegetable spray or line with muffin liners. Place eggs, brown sugar, melted butter, sweet potato puree, molasses, milk, vanilla and corn in a large bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl. Gently fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients and fold until just combined. Spoon into prepared pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on wire rack.
Curried Chicken Loaf with Currants and Roasted Red Peppers
This dense loaf is perfect for a picnic because it holds up so well. The red strips of peppers down the center and the dots of sweet currants make this an appealing dish for both children and adults. If you do not feel like taking the time to roast a red pepper, by all means, use one of the brands sold in your grocery store. Buy them whole and be sure to drain them well before use. This must be made the night before it will be eaten to allow the flavors to blend and the loaf to set properly.
1 1/2 pounds ground chicken 3/4 pound mild chicken sausage (or turkey sausage)
1/2 yellow bell pepper, finely chopped
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
fresh black pepper
1 inch fresh ginger root, minced
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup currants, rehydrated in enough hot water to cover
1 large red bell pepper, roasted, seeded, peeled and cut into strips
3/4 cup honey-mustard-mayonnaise (recipe follows)
8-10 leaves red oak leaf lettuce (or your favorite type)
2 large homegrown tomatoes, thinly sliced
8 pieces foccacia, sliced horizontally
Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Combine first 13 ingredients. Lightly spray a 9" x 5" loaf pan with a vegetable spray. Pack one third of the meat mixture into the loaf pan. Place half of the roasted red pepper strips in a layer on the meat mixture, then top peppers with another third of the meat mixture. Top this with the remaining roasted red peppers. Pack the remaining third of the meat mixture on top of the peppers so your finished loaf has three layers of meat separated two layers of roasted peppers. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes or until juices run clear when the center of the loaf is pierced with a knife. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. If the loaf exudes juice, remove it with a baster and discard. Cover with plastic wrap loosely, then with foil loosely. Top the loaf with a weight to press loaf into a solid form. You can use two large crushed tomato cans for weights, placing them on their sides on top of the foil. Refrigerate overnight.
Before bringing to the picnic, slice into at least eight thin slices and serve on foccacia spread with honey-mustard-mayonnaise, topped with lettuce and tomato slices. Slice in half. Wrap each sandwich tightly in foil. Keep refrigerated until you pack your picnic basket.
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Blend all ingredients together until incorporated. Store in refrigerator.
Candied Apple Wedges and Warm Apple Cider
1 large, crisp tart-sweet apple such as New Zealand Fuji or Granny Smith
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons brown sugar
2 quarts fresh apple cider
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons honey (optional-I use if the cider is a little tart)
Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Core and cut apples into sixths, leaving skins on. Mix together cinnamon and brown sugar. Press this mixture onto cut sides of apples and place on parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the apples turn soft but still hold their shape. Remove and cool completely. Pack in a container with a tight-fitting lid.
Meanwhile heat cider and nutmeg and optional honey over medium heat until the mixture is steaming. Remove from heat and pour into a thermos. Serve in mugs with a slice of candied apple.
These are a little work but are well worth the effort, especially with a glass of port. They will do wonders to warm your insides and brighten your spirits.
1 pound Italian chestnuts, skin on
Cut an "X" through the skin on the flat side of each chestnut. Place in a long-handled metal basket and place over the coals of a fire until the chestnuts get toasty and the skin around the cut curls. Let cool, then peel and enjoy.
Rosemary Furfaro is a freelance food writer.