Friday, September 17, 2010

Introducing High School Students to the Wonder of Winter Squash

Meghan Gibbons, head of Nutrition Services, at Evanston Township High School invited Spatulatta to take part in the school's week long "Move and Crunch" campaign. Each day of the week would involve tastings prepared with specific vegetables in the school's four cafeterias. Each cafeteria would have its own chef offering samples made with the day's secret ingredient.

I enlisted the help of Janet Weinberg, who trained at Kendall College's culinary program and has appeared frequently on Spatulatta. Our secret ingredient was butternut squash.

We chose the Harvest Soup recipe from the Spatulatta Cookbook because it would be easy for the students to replicate at home. I decided to kick it up a notch by adding a touch of maple syrup. I've been proofing whole wheat pastry recipes and found that pure maple syrup really adds a complex set of flavors. So why not add it to the soup? I made a batch the week before and the hint of maple was exactly right.

Entering the high school's industrial kitchen was really a trip. We were surrounded by huge cauldrons and massive ovens. This was a big step up from cooking for the Spatulatta videos or even cooking demos. When we found our station, we were confronted with two cases of butternut squash, a pile of onions and carrots.

Cooking along side us were personal Chef Service Chef Tom Leavitt and his wife Laurie from White Oak Gourmet. They were stirring up a savory butternut squash curry with yellow rice.

Later we were joined by Gonzo Fabar of Fox River Foods. Gonzo's offering was butternut squash ravioli with browned butter with crispy sage leaves dusted with cinnamon.

Butternut squash is extremely hard. It has evolved to keep its seeds safe through the long hard winter. Cutting these nearly impregnable curcurbits involved all the force I could apply to the knife. Peeling was equally interesting. Afterwards, I found I had a thin veneer of orange squash starch covering my left hand. I couldn't wash it off. Even a scrub brush didn't make a dent. Two days later, I am still peeling it off.

Here's the recipe. It comes together in about 10 minutes with 40 minutes cooking time.

Saute in a heavy bottomed pan:

3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup of chopped onions


1 medium butternut squash - cubed
1 large carrot - in 1 inch chunks
2 teaspoons of real maple syrup
1 teaspoon of dried rosemary
1 quart of chicken or vegetable stock

Bring to a boil then simmer until squash and carrots are tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the vegetables out of the soup and into a food processor.

Process until smooth. Return pure├ęd vegetables to the soup and mix.

Serve immediate with chopped smoked almonds as garnish.

I was impressed with the ETHS students. The majority of them came right over to take a taste. It was Thursday and they had been doing the drill all week but it still was encouraging. A few had to be cajoled with breaking down the ingredients. Janet would say, "You like carrots don't you? Do you like maple syrup?" The overwhelming majority really liked the soup. While we had a few kids slinking away without comment, we also had students coming up for seconds and a couple who came up for thirds.

We served tastes for the three lunch periods starting at 11 am and going to 1 pm. Isabella Gerasole, one of the hosts of Spatulatta, goes to ETHS and she has the last lunch period. Belle joined us at the table and started filling up tasting cups. One of her friends had never heard of the Spatulatta Cookbook so she was quite surprised to see a younger Belle on the cover. "How cool!"

I did keep an eye on what else was on the student's trays. Lots of nachos with gloppy cheese, spaghetti with red sauce. It's going to take a long time to rework the system but I'm proud that Evanston is taking steps in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Micro-crafted Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer

Friends recently brought me a real treat from their trip to Pittsburgh - a bottle of Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. Jamaica's Finest is produced by the Natrona Bottling Company in Natrona PA.

Natrona Bottling has been around since 1904 and Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is one of their legacy brands along with Red Ribbon root beer, cherry and grape sodas. They also bottle Bauser Champayno, a non-alcoholic champagne-like beverage and Pennsylvania Punch, a non-carbonated grape-flavored soft-drink that was first formulated during the Roaring 20's.

Small, family-run bottlers like Natrona have been steam-rollered as the major bottlers have gobbled up their customer base. The last micro-crafted soda bottler in Chicago, that I can remember, was located on Sheffield Avenue just north of Fullerton. I got to visit it once before it fell victim to gentrification in 1990s.

So it's great to see a small scale bottler like Natrona still alive and kicking. You can watch Natrona's famous Red Ribbon Soda being bottled in this clip from WQED.

Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is made from a 70-year old, tried and true recipe: carbonated water, ginger and other natural essential oils, citric acid and pure cane sugar. No long unpronounceable names, no mystery ingredients. The folks at Natrona are proud to say they use pure cane sugar, rather than much cheaper high fructose corn syrups like other soda manufacturers.

Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer has a crisp, gingery bite that lingers on the tongue. It awakens the taste buds and the cane sugar gives it a very satisfying, clean finish. The label says Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is a "Spicy Soft Drink and Mixer." I became very interested in the "mixer" application of the product.

At the 2006 James Beard Awards, we were treated to a cocktail made with ginger beer and rum that I'd always wanted to reproduce.

Here's my experiment:

Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour in 1/2 once of "overproof" rum. Overproof means the rum has a alcohol content of more than 40%. A whole jigger of that potent rum would overpower the ginger flavor. Pour in the Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. Thread two soft crystallized ginger coins onto a straw and give it a stir.

The original recipe included cayenne pepper but the Jamaica's Finest was spicy enough and didn't need the added kick.

I can't wait to try Natrona's Plantation Style Mint Julep with a shot of bourbon.

You can support Natrona's artisan soda makers by asking for Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer at your local liquor store or specialty grocery. Or call the folks at Natrona at 724-224-9224. They will ship you a 12 pack.