Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

What is it about pumpkins that symbolizes the best of autumn?  It could be the bright orange colors, the fun of Halloween, or the comfort of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Whatever it is, when chilly days arrive in October, my mind and stomach turn to pumpkin. It's almost an instinctual urge, a modern day kick-off to my hibernation rituals of baking and eating comfort foods. Instead of foraging for nuts to hide in a tree trunk, I head to the store to buy canned pumpkin.

In the last month I've made several batches of pumpkin bread, pumpkin caramel custard, pumpkin oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin cake roll with cream cheese filling, and pumpkin pie. I can't get enough. Whenever I see something pumpkin flavored, I *need* to get it. This also includes beverages: pumpkin spice lattes at Peet's, smoothies at Jamba Juice, and Keurig coffee pods. Even the frozen yogurt folks get into the mood. I recently had pumpkin frozen yogurt with crushed graham cracker topping at Red Mango in Palo Alto, and thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Another favorite fall ritual is driving to Half Moon Bay to see the glorious pumpkin patches.  When my kids were littler, they enjoyed going to Lemos Farm to pick pumpkins, ride the little train and ponies, feed the goats, and see how long they could brave the haunted house. Lemos Farm is one of those places that's definitely more fun for little ones than their parents, but their shiny smiles make it worth it (and it's not as excruciating for parents as Chuck E. Cheese's).

Half Moon Bay is a wonderful seaside farm town. Not only do residents there grow pumpkins and host a famous annual Pumpkin Festival, many farmers grow Christmas trees and all kinds of flowers. The majestic blue ocean beckons nearby, both hypnotic and beautiful, but also often cold and windy. Since I grew up in Southern California and frequented the warm water and sand of Newport Beach, I miss being able to go body surfing. But the beauty of Northern California beaches takes your breath away, and the half moon shaped beach that gave the town its name creates a scenic picnic spot and relaxing place to walk in the sand.

Since Half Moon Bay is so well known for its pumpkins, bakeries there specialize in pumpkin goodies during October and November. My favorite HMB bakery is called Moonside Bakery & Cafe. It's always bustling, even on cold mornings. On my recent visit I perused the bakery case for all things pumpkin. In addition to the usual pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, Moonside offered these goodies:

- Pumpkin cookies with walnuts, raisins, and a coating of maple frosting.
- Pumpkin filled croissants, a flavorful autumn twist on the classic buttery French pastry.
- Pumpkin cheesecake, one of my favorite kinds of cheesecake. It's hard to beat the creamy blend of tart cream cheese and cinnamon-y pumpkin spices. A sophisticated cousin to pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake is a rich, all-around, delicious dessert and not too hard to make.
- Pumpkin bread pudding, a surprisingly tasty concoction with a dense, soft texture, the punch of pumpkin flavor, and a delightfully aromatic nutmeg undertone. It was better than I expected, and something I might try making sometime.

Unfortunately, pumpkin farmers in the Midwest have had an extremely challenging year with cold and rainy weather.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Nestle, which controls 85% of the canned pumpkin market with its Libby brand, issued an apology to consumers for the canned pumpkin shortage, stating that they will stop shipping before Thanksgiving. This means canned pumpkin will likely run out at the stores before the December holidays, and Nestle won't have more pumpkin to harvest until August 2010. As word of the pumpkin scarcity spreads, it's only human nature to run out and hoard some extra cans for the cupboard. I admit I bought five large cans last weekend, and will parcel it out so my favorite autumn flavor lingers for many months to come.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Moms on Mountains

If you're the parent of a school-aged child, you know most schools in the Bay Area have educational funds to supplement both public and private school revenues. At the public Menlo-Atherton High School where my son Jacob is a senior, the annual fund raising online auction lets parents and teachers offer items for bid, with proceeds donated to the school. For two years now a pair of enterprising moms, Kathy Jackson and Kevyn Allard, have hosted a fun and creative Moms on Mountains hike. This year fifteen moms went on a rigorous and scenic five mile hike through the Skyline Ridge Preserve, led by two expert guides, Van Whitis and Tom Taber. Tom has even written a book called 'The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book', and acts as a docent at Filoli.

We hiked up to panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Butano Ridge, the largest ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We could see the flat top of the Loma Prieta Mountains in the distance, the peak of the 1989 earthquake epicenter (it's hard to believe that was twenty years ago). We learned about the flora and the fauna, and saw grinding stones that Ohlone Indian women used to use as a mortar and pestle to crush acorns and other foods that grow in the area. I relished exploring this part of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a protected greenbelt system of over 57,000 acres and 26 open space preserves.

At the end of our hike, we arrived at Horseshoe Lake where we enjoyed a rustic, Italian style lunch graciously created and presented by Kevyn. A savvy shopper and cook, Kevyn used both store-bought and homemade items to assemble the perfect meal to enjoy after our invigorating morning hike. My favorite items were the fresh mozzarella and pesto bruschetta, the Marcona almonds, and the walnut butter cake with mixed berries. The food tasted even better after the energizing hike with fellow moms, surrounded by the natural beauty we're so fortunate to have here in the Bay Area.

Moms on Mountains Lunch Menu:

Assorted Bruschetta:
Ricotta Fresca with Slow Roasted Tomatoes
Roast Beef and Caramelized Onions
Fresh Mozzarella and Pesto

Fresh Organic Fruit & Nuts:
California Grapes
Black Amber Plums
Marcona Almonds

Walnut Butter Cake
Mixed Berries
Sangiovese Wine

Kevyn, like many moms, is a huge fan of Trader's Joe's. One of her tips is to buy the Trader Joe's frozen croissants instead of the much more expensive Williams Sonoma brand. The reason? Both buttery concoctions were created by the same chef! We've tried the chocolate filled croissants, and everyone in our family loved the buttery, chocolatey goodness. They must be thawed for several hours, rising in the process. As they cook in the oven, the smell starts to permeate throughout the house, like you've just walked in to a French bakery. By the time the croissants are ready, hungry kids and adults alike will automatically appear, ready to eat.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yin-Yang Refreshment

Frozen yogurt used to be good, but now it can be great. When I was an undergraduate student at Stanford, getting some fro yo at Tresidder Union was a fun and sweet break from studying. I'd usually get vanilla with M&Ms, not exactly high on the nutrition scale, but something to satisfy my sweet tooth. That fro yo store gave way to other food vendors over the years in its little corner location inside Tresidder. How surprised I was to see that a new frozen yogurt shop has taken up this same spot some twenty-five years later, and even better it's a Fraiche yogurt shop. Score!

Fraiche represents a new wave of freshly made, organic, European-style, probiotic cultured frozen yogurts that taste above and beyond the old sticky, sugary variety. These shops, including Pinkberry and Red Mango, usually offer original tart, chocolate, green tea, and fruit flavors. Toppings go beyond mini M&Ms and jimmies to all kinds of fresh fruits, gourmet chocolate chips and shavings, breakfast cereals, and chewy mochi pieces, which bring me back to the Botan Japanese candy with dissolvable rice paper wrappers I had as a kid.

On my most recent foray to Fraiche in downtown Palo Alto I had the pomegranate frozen yogurt topped with blueberries and olallaberry puree. After a three mile walk around the Stanford Angell Field track, I savored this concoction as my anticipated lunch. To me this yogurt is so good that a regular size with two toppings accompanied by the awesome Blue Bottle coffee transforms my definition of the mid-day meal. The nutritional kick (low or non fat, fruit, calcium, protein) provides further justification for my thinking. There's a method to my madness--maximum flavor and nutrition with a reasonable amount of calories.

The combination of tart, delicately sweet, cool, creamy, fruity frozen yogurt and warm, bittersweet, full-bodied coffee created a delightful combination of flavors, satisfying head, heart, and stomach. It had a yin-yang beauty to it, something simple yet complex, old and new, hot and cold, textures and flavors intermingling, firing up different taste buds all around my tongue. I'm partial to pomegranate, and this frozen yogurt flavor delivers. I always like berry toppings, and the purees pack a more intense flavor that brings me to a state of sublime.

Blue Bottle coffee is an Oakland-based purveyor of some of the finest coffee in the world. You can get it locally at Fraiche, or up in the city at the Ferry Building. They also have a website to order beans directly. I ordered a bag of their Ethiopian Yirgacheffee, rated by one expert panel as some of the finest coffee in the world. It comes from the Ethiopian location where coffee originated. A farmer discovered one of his goats dancing all night and traced its odd behavior to a mysterious bean the goat had been eating the day before.

From the moment our Blue Bottle package arrived to our house to the somewhat sad moment we finished the whole pound of beans less than a week later, the amazing fragrance floated through the air, strongest in our kitchen, wending down the hallways and awakening my senses when my alarm clock went off in the morning. It's definitely my current favorite blend, and made me understand why some call coffee the nectar of the gods. Waking up to a freshly brewed pot of Blue Bottle is the best way to start the day. Coffee has numerous proven health benefits too, another justification and method to my coffee-obsessed madness.