The Ninety-Nine-Percenter’s Cheesy Stuffed Pumpkins

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Today was an interesting day. I showed up to my full-time nanny gig this morning and learned that the family I work for will no longer be needing help after the start of 2013. Their situation is changing, and they understandably want to adjust accordingly. As anxious as I can sometimes be about employment and income, I was weirdly relieved. While I have my Master’s in Social Work, I have had zero luck landing a job in the field since I graduated last spring. I’ve relied on nannying for income, which pays the bills, but lacks professional development and advancement opportunities. I returned to writing this summer, hoping to build some momentum to find work in journalism or marketing, but again, haven’t had any luck.

Blame Obama, blame the Fiscal Cliff, blame one of the Bush’s, but the fact is: the job market sucks. A seemingly endless year-and-a-half search for work in one of my desired fields left me recently feeling demoralized and uninspired. Until today.

Mid-day, the kids and I met up with my dear friend Chanelle for lunch and currency exchange for an ethically raised bison meat share we are doing. Due to the four-year-old’s late morning ballet class, we found ourselves in the Cherry Creek neighborhood, originally planning for a quick coffee. Realizing our hunger would not be satiated by lattes and blueberry bread (however, delicious!), we moved on to one of the city’s new hot spots: True Food Kitchen.

The brainchild of Dr. Andrew Weil, head of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, True Food Kitchen serves seasonal foods that are cultivated locally. The four-year-old picked at her plate of grilled chicken breast, carrot sticks, apple slices and blanched broccoli, while Chanelle and I feasted on an Autumn Ingredient Salad, edamame dumplings and carrot ginger soup.

“Well, what do you want to do?” asked Chanelle, after I informed her of my newly “for hire” status. “More importantly, how do you want to feel?” The question wasn’t a difficult one to answer; I knew right away. “I want to do something with food. I want to be creative. I want to write. I want to use social media. I want to follow a pulse. I want to work on a team. I want to feel energetic, have fun and connect with people.” I said, emphatically.

Chanelle slurped her soup pensively, and paused for a moment before responding. “Well, let’s figure out how to cultivate that,” she said.

Moments later, the 10-month-old had an antibiotic-induced diarrhea explosion that cut lunch abruptly short. After a full-blown sponge bath in the handicap stall of the women’s restroom, we headed home for the afternoon. One proper bubble bath later, and the baby was down for a nap. Meanwhile, the four-year-old and I played “dress-up” in her room. As I sat cross-legged on the floor, Chanelle’s words ran through my mind: “…how to cultivate that…how to cultivate that…” I opened the job search application on my phone and typed in the letters “f-o-o-d.” I scrolled through the countless dishwasher and waitress positions until the words, “Marketing Foodie,” caught my eye.

“Shut up,” I said out loud. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. A perfect combination of marketing, social media, and food…as if I had written the job description myself.

“What Kewy?” the four-year-old responded. She walked over to me, stood behind me and wrapped her tiny arms around my neck. “I wuv you Kewy,” she sighed. Her words, so tender and genuine, hit me like a ton of bricks. It was then that I realized how much I was going to miss seeing her and her baby brother every day. This family feels like my own, and it will be tough to say goodbye. My eyes misted, and my jaw tightened. I cleared my throat. “I love you too, baby.” And I do. But I also know, it’s time to move on.

*****

When I unlocked and opened the front door this evening, I found the recycling bin completely raided by our Golden Retriever, Clementine. Trash was shredded and strewn about the apartment as she greeted me shamefully at the door. She hung her head, and I hung mine. “What are we going to do, Clem?” I begged her. “Cultivate,” I said again, out loud. “Cultivate.”

Moving to the kitchen, I did what any normal person would do in a moment of obscurity and gloom: I began slicing onions. It had been a long day: both inspirational and exhausting. But all that aside, I had dinner to make.

The plan was Cheesy Pumpkins with Sunchokes and Porcini Mushrooms, a recipe I adapted from last week’s Wall Street Journal. Originally intended as a vegetarian side-dish, we had it as the main entree. The original recipe calls for four ounces of dried porcini mushrooms, which run about eight dollars an ounce. I guess the One-Percenters on Wall Street run around spending 35 dollars on one-meal’s worth of fungi, but I’m a (soon to be unemployed) nanny, so I don’t have that kind of scrilla to blow, nahmean?

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Dried porcini mushrooms, available at Whole Foods.

I cut the amount of mushrooms in half, and substituted crumbled saltine crackers for breadcrumbs (I know, barbaric!). I also used sharp white cheddar cheese in place of Taleggio cheese, because I don’t even know what Taleggio cheese is. (I’m guessing it’s a special cheese harvested from the milk of AKC Certified Standard Poodles that live on Park Avenue.) Using money-saving adjustments (however crude), I’ve turned what was once a recipe for the elite into something even common folk can enjoy: The Ninety-Nine-Percenter’s Cheesy Stuffed Pumpkins.

I love using gourds in any capacity during fall and winter. When we moved two weeks ago we brought with us literally 30 pounds of assorted squash. I rely on them for soups, pies, and more recently, containers to be filled with deliciousness like sauteed veggies and cheese. For this recipe, you can use either kabocha squash or pie pumpkins; I went with the latter. The preparation is fairly simple, and once they are assembled you just bake them for a couple of hours.

The filling is a combination of cipollini onions, porcini mushrooms, and sunchokes, which resemble ginger root but pretty much taste like a potato. The gourds are topped off with fried sage leaves, cheese cubes, and breadcrumbs, making for a deliciously layered volcano of hearty goodness. The flavor is herby and autumnal, thanks to the sage and nutmeg, and the texture is chewy and gooey, thanks to the mushrooms and cheese. I only made one pumpkin, and it was more than enough food for two people. This recipe is fun and still has potential for tweaking, so I plan on making it again.

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Sliced sunchokes and cipollini onions.

The Ninety-Nine-Percenter’s Cheesy Stuffed Pumpkins

(serves 4)

2 pie pumpkins or kabocha squash

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

ground nutmeg

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms *or* 2 medium portabella mushroom caps, chopped

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling

8 large cipollini onions, thinly sliced

3/4 pound sunchokes, thinly sliced (unpeeled)

3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

1 cup breadcrumbs or a handful of crushed saltine crackers (gasp!)

1/2 pound sharp white cheddar cheese, or what the hell, whatever kind of cheese you like, cubed

1. Preheat oven to 350*. Cut off top quarter of pumpkins, scrape out all seeds and strings. Generously season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, Drop 1 tablespoon butter in each cavity.

2. Make filling: Put mushrooms in large bowl, cover in boiling water, set aside. (This is only if you are using dried mushrooms. If you are using portabellas or any other variety that is not dried, skip this step.) In large satue pan over medium-high heat, warm oil. Add onions, cooking 5 minutes or until translucent. Season with salt. Add sunchokes, cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium, cover, cook 5 minutes more. Meanwhile, drain mushrooms, roughly chop. Add to pan, cook 1-2 more minutes.Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste.

3. Stuff pumpkins: put gourds on rimmed baking sheet, divide filling between the two, and fill to the top. Drizzle with oil, cover with tin-foil, and bake until tender, about 2 hours. Meanwhile, in saute pan over medium-high heat, melt remaining butter. Add sage and cook 1 minute. Add breadcrumbs, cook 2 minutes more or until toasted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

4. Mound top of pumpkins with cheese, return to oven until cheese melts. Divide breadcrumbs between two gourds, sprinkle on top, return to over for 2 minutes more. Remove and let set for 5 minutes before serving. Serve pumpkins whole and scoop out pumpkin flesh along with filling.

As I said, we had these as a main course, but they would make a wonderful side-dish for a grilled pork chop or roasted chicken. Bon Apetit!

*****

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As I examined the sunchokes and pumpkin flesh on the end of my fork, I thought about Chanelle’s words a little further. “Well how do we cultivate that?.” I turned it over in my head several more times, until I realized that I do not in fact know the answer. I don’t know what’s next, which is oddly liberating. I do know what I need and how I want to feel, which seems like a good enough place to start. In the meantime I will just continue to do what I’ve done all along: have fun, love people, and cook good food. And maybe, just maybe, that will cultivate something.

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