The Happiest Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie

I wasn’t exaggerating… I really did buy 6 small sugar pumpkins last week. What was I supposed to do? They were on sale and staring up at me all orange and adorable. And despite the fact that I’m moving, and despite the fact that all the pumpkin I pureed and froze last year only got used up last week, I unequivocally do not regret this purchase. And yes, I will be importing Oregon pumpkin to Kansas Thanksgiving. I figure this will make my pie exceptionally exotic, even if it defies the locavore within.

Though not exactly exotic, Thanksgiving is pretty much my favorite holiday. (Partly because I loathe Christmas carols… Sorry if this offends you. I just can’t muster the love for them.) Anyhow, my mass of a family gathers in Kansas every year, and it is truly a mass - both my mother and my father’s extended ancestry crunched into one very small prairie town. The slow, meandering Midwestern pace is all but lost for these 72 hours of feasting.

As for the Boyts meal, I got assigned dessert this year. Which means pumpkin pie. Clearly.


A Goodbye Ode to Oregon

I’ve put off writing this. Maybe I just wasn’t quite ready to make it all official-sounding and true to its bone, but I suppose before the holidays take hold of my sanity I should just put it in writing already. If not, my ability to do so might get pureed up with today’s pumpkin…
Sooo in January, this Shoofly will take flight, stretch its molasses-stained wings and make its way to the pie-crust colored deserts of New Mexico where Santa Fe shall be its new home.
So there it is. 
True to its bone.

But for this Sunday moment Portland is still home, and though I’m thrilled to rest the Shoofly in Santa Fe, closer to some of my favorite things, like the sun and my mother, it feels pretty surreal to pack it all up.

Photo by Ali Schultz
Why was Portland ever home anyway? Hard to say… The city had been sitting in the back of my head for years before I moved here, whispering sweet nothings – a vague story about coffee beans as I recall. So in 2005 I answered the call of the beans, packed up my tan Buick Century, and moved west into a small, shag-carpeted apartment in the Southeast. Portland eventually felt like home.

Then things change. People change. Life calls us to change and drowns out the nothings that once sounded so sweet and alluring. What can we do but answer?

But regardless of where we go, Portland shall forever hold residence in a chamber of my over-caffeinated heart. To say I’ve met some fantastically talented people does not do them justice. To say I’ve had some great meals would be a gaping understatement. The soils and people of Oregon create what I would call life-altering experiences and food. Sound dramatic? Well it’s also true.

My memory is chock full of vivid food(ish) firsts from Portland. We never do forget a (good) first kiss. So as I set the Shoofly off from its metaphorical nest, let me give an ode to Oregon with a few of those firsts…


Chicken Cheese Broccoli Casserole

Now that we've got our Ryan Gosling fix, let's seal the deal with the best casserole of all time...
The Chicken Cheese Broccoli. Of course.

A tidbit on the casserole you can impress people at parties with: In France, according to the Larousse Gastronomique, "a casserole is a preparation generally made with rice, which, after cooking, is fashioned in the shape of a casserole." (Which is sort of funny to picture - fashioning rice)

In the US, "a casserole is a dish with two or more elements, the basis of which can be rice in combination with meat or fish, plus a sauce or gravy, and often a variety of vegetables. This one-dish-meal can be prepared in advance and cooked in a decorative casserole. (Here comes my favorite part) - Such a dish is very popular in homes where there are no servants to help prepare or serve meals."

My one-dish-meal, prepared in advance, in my terra cotta Goodwill score

So there it is - a precise definition of where we're headed:
- A one-dish-meal (perhaps in a terra cotta)
- Containing two or more elements (rice + broccoli + chicken + cheese + soup)
- Prepared in advance (which I did)
- Which we especially enjoy because we don't have servants or sous chefs. (which I don't)

With that in mind, a note on the elements:
We are being guided by the principle (as Robert would say) that each element needs to taste good on its own. We can't rely on a pinch of salt in the final moments of the whole mixture to magically blend a bunch of individual mediocrity into a marriage of pure delight. That's like assuming that two bland, boring people you'd just as soon avoid (even if your Mennonite roots prevent you from admitting that) are going to make a sparkly, exciting couple simply because they are together. It just doesn't work that way. Sooo...
- Try not to overcook the broccoli till it's mushy and gray.
- Don't make the chicken taste like nothing by not giving it any salt.
- Coax the flavor out of that soup till it dances on your tongue.
- Do use a good cheese that you'd also enjoy a slice of.

Treat each element with love and attention, and they shall marry one another within the heat of your oven till it sparkles all around.

A very quick note on this dish's yield: I have adapted the recipe to serve 4 people. Or 2 with generous portions and a bit of leftovers. Because I'm cooking for 2, not 8, and I don't need a 9 x13 pan of anything hanging out in my frig.

Also, giving your neighbors leftover casserole is decidedly uncool. But if you're into that sort of thing, feel free to double the recipe.

The finished product! I think Ryan Gosling would feel the love. I sure did!

 Chicken Cheese Broccoli Rice Casserole 
Adapted from my mother, Teresa, who adapted it from a magazine whose name I'm working on getting. 

Elements (aka Ingredients):
½ cups rice, cooked (about ½ cup uncooked) 
½ cups chicken, (about 3 chicken breasts)
12 to 15 ounces cream of mushroom soup
½ to 2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cups broccoli
½ to ¾ cup milk

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. RICE: Steam your rice and set aside.

3. CHICKEN: In a medium sauté pan, heat up enough olive oil to coat the pan over medium heat.

4. Place chicken breasts in pan, seasoning each side with salt and cook, uncovered, till no longer pink in the thickest part. Turn the heat to low if oil is sputtering. When finished, remove from heat and set aside. Cut into bite sized chunks after at least 15 minutes.

5. CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP: See recipe for that (and the Gosling reference) here. It can made well in advance.

6. BROCCOLI: Bring a medium-sized pot of water to a boil. Salt the water generously, and add the broccoli. Cook for about 1 to 2 minutes, and strain immediately. Run cold water over the broccoli to stop them from cooking any further. Set aside.

7. MARRY THE ELEMENTS: In a large mixing bowl, combine the rice, broccoli, chicken, and cheese. Make sure to keep enough cheese aside for the top layer. Add the soup and stir till everything is coated evenly. Now add the milk 1/2 cup at a time until the casserole is creamy and of light thickness. If you like your casserole pretty, well, juicy use a full cup. Taste and salt if need be.

8. Place the mixture in a casserole dish such as an 8x8. Top with a layer of cheese, cover with foil, and place in the preheated oven.

9. Allow to bake for about 50 to 60 minutes. Take the cover off, turn the heat up to 400 degrees and let the cheese brown.

10. EAT: Remove from oven and allow to cool till you think it won't scald your mouth. I served it up with a slice of oatmeal bread from More-with-Less and a green salad. Enjoy!!

One Last Tip: Let's not lie, casseroles are not aesthetically pleasing. So if you don't want it to look like you vomited on your plate, just bake it in individual ramekins.


Cream of Mushroom Soup

This topic of casseroles gave me a small bout of writer's block, which I recognize seems ridiculous because it's a casserole... for the love. I was out to write this long, profoundly articulate diatribe about the history of casseroles, how Campbell's waylayed American cuisine, how housewives in the 1950's were the target of a convenience food conspiracy, and how Mennonites were not immune. They too bathed in the savory condensed waters of that scheme. 

But then I remembered that this is a blog. Not a book. I'll save the conspiracy theory diatribes for the book. 

What did come quickly was the thought of Ryan Gosling. 
When I find myself contemplating the origin of casserole I'm often reminded of that scene from Lars and the Real Girl. Who isn't.  The one where Gosling, all dapper with his mustache and cardigan, is in great despair and needs some comfort. Thus a stunning scene quietly unfurls as he is fed heaps of what else... casserole... by the church women in his community. He clearly feels the love.

That really says it all: Casserole is the warm and comforting tie that binds. It is what we bring to those in despair - the sick, the grieving, the new parents. Something in that warm, muck of goodness utters to us: 
"Be healed. 
Be comforted. 
Know that you are loved."

And if casseroles are the tie that binds us together, cream of mushroom soup is the tie that binds the casserole. Seriously. The soup's function is a pure one - you need something to get all that meat and and rice to stick together. Which is why I'm focusing solely on the soup today. 
The casserole is tomorrow. Writer's block notwithstanding.  

There are many options out there for alternatives... The More-with-Less cookbook provides a solid substitute for the canned stuff. They call it a "Basic White Sauce", which it is. It is also what the French call a Béchamel, one of their Mother Sauces

If you go a step beyond the basic though you have a much more interesting and flavorful sauce/soup. And subsequently, casserole. Need I say more? 

Bonus of going beyond the basics: 
- People will really feel loved. 
- You'll have the construct for a a soup that is outstanding all on its own. 
- You can replace "mushrooms" with any veggie and have a Cream of _____ Soup! 
- You'll know how to make a Béchamel, which is fantastic skill to have if you spend anytime in the kitchen. 

So here's the construct...

Chicken Stock + Mushrooms + Béchamel  
Why I chose to put it in a green butter dish... I don't know. 

And here's the recipe...  

Chicken Stock
Or any kind of stock for that matter. Water works too. 
1 to 1 ½ cups chicken stock 

1. Heat up the stock. (Yep, that's really it.)  

The amount of mushrooms you use depends on how strong you want that flavor in your soup. I like it in the forefront. 
This method is a dry sauté. Its purpose is to concentrate the mushroom flavor and because we're going to puree them, the texture doesn't really matter. 

2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced

1. Heat a large sauté pan and add the sliced mushrooms. Add generous pinch of salt. 
2. Cook on med-low heat, uncovered, till the mushrooms give up their water. Continue to cook, turning down the heat if they start to brown, till the water has evaporated and the flavor of the mushroom is pronounced. 
3. Remove from heat and set aside. 

Adapted from Madeleine Kamman's The Making of a Cook. I took out the carrot and celery she called for because, well, I didn't want carrot and celery that evening.  

Yield: About 2 cups

¼ cup unsalted butter
½ small yellow onion, diced
5 Tablepsoons + 1 teaspoon unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ¼ cups milk, heated
4 sprigs of thyme
Pinch of grated nutmeg

1. Heat butter in large sauté pan until the foam subsides. 
2. Add the onion and cook on low until the onion is translucent. About 5 to 10 minutes. 
3. Stir in the flour. Let this cook for another 5 minutes to allow the raw taste of the flour to subside. Be careful not to brown it though because, yes, flour will burn. 
4. Off the heat, whisk in the milk gradually to prevent lumping. Return to heat, and add the nutmeg, thyme, and salt. Let cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until it is thickened and flavorful. Add salt if need be. Remove from heat and take out the sprigs of thyme.  

To finish the soup: 
1. Place the mushrooms and béchamel in a blender. 
2. Turn the blender on, slowly at first to prevent a splatter. (I've learned this the hard way). Gradually add a bit of chicken stock. Test the consistency and keep adding until it is the consistency you want. If you're adding it to a casserole, stop at about ½ to ¾ cup of stock. Keep going with more stock if it's for a soup to eat on its own. 
4. Test the flavor and season with salt to taste, remembering that it should taste fully seasoned, even if you're putting in the casserole.   

Voila! You now have made yourself a lovely, delicious, completely lacking of any MSG soup. 
You can pop this in the frig, in your casserole, or in a soup bowl!


The Food Art of Naomi Nissley

Today as I worked on the task of Casserole Perfection, I pulled out my copy of the legendary Mennonite culinary source - The Mennonite Community Cookbook. Turning to the "Cheese, Egg, and Casserole Dish" chapter, I immediately noticed the small, detailed drawing framing the title at the top of the page - a cheese cloth hanging from a tree branch, dripping every so slightly onto the Dishes

It was sweet and beautiful and shined of a skilled artist. The cover of the book obviously has some fabulous work, but the interior had never caught me before the Cheese chapter. So I flipped through its entirety and marveled at the drawings.


Autumn: A Season for Casseroles

Whenever autumn is about to set its foot firmly on the calendar, I tend to dig my heels in a bit. Especially in Oregon where the summers are brief, ideal, and filled with raspberries.

But once autumn is all nestled in snug with its hot cocoa in hand, and once I’ve finally accepted that, I really do adore it. Heck I’ll make the hot cocoa if it’ll stick around a little longer.

What may have been the last of the raspberries draped over dessert

Because at this point I’m no longer salty at the cold weather, its chronic presence meaning the raspberries won’t come. Because Autumn is for Apples. Brussel Sprouts. Broccoli. Pumpkin. Spice Bread. Sweet Rolls. I could go on and on, but then I’d have technical errors from my own drool seeping into my keyboard.

Our last night cooking at the Chef's Studio: Apple Brussel Sprout Tart

And with this autumnal shift… No more summer vacations. No more planning trips to Haiti. Class at the Studio is over. There is a new invitation to come indoors and slow down for a little while.  

On that invitation, it’s back to buckling down on the work of the cookbook. That mural of butcher paper taped to my wall entitled “Table of Contents” needs some new life. Which of course means…Casseroles! Obviously.

Mennonite potlucks are chock full of casseroles. Though I've not yet dug deep into the research on this topic, I'm guessing the casserole made its debut in Mennonite cookbooks when they arrived in North America, not the Alsace. But I'll let you know what I find out on that. 

Admittedly, there was indeed a time I refused to let the casserole into the kitchen…  
Self #1: “No casseroles in my book!” (Or some snobby crap like that.)
Prevailing Self #2: “Get over yourself Katie. Casseroles are friggin’ delicious and you know it. Stop pretending you don't crave that chicken cheesy broccoli goodness, and just figure out the condensed soup problem.” 

Because as we all know - any casserole worth its weight in Pyrex has that can of soup within its silky folds. Packed full of its dreamy MSG. (There must be a line somewhere). No offense to Mr. Warhol

Hence my next endeavor… figure out the best homemade version of cream of mushroom soup that will do for my Broccoli Chicken Casserole what Phyllis Pellman Good did for the Crockpot.

Ok, that seems far-reaching but a girl’s got to have goals… Wish me luck!