bonfires burning bright, pumpkin faces in the night

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I’ve read seventeen books in the last two months which is more than I read in the last year, in fact I could say with neither hesitation nor exaggeration that it’s than I read in the past four years combined. One of these books was The Idiot by Elif Batuman, I call upon it because partway through this novel there was a passage that absolutely kneecapped me:

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Though I tempered the immediate butter knife that this drove through me by reminding myself that I’d been writing this very blog for eleven years now and have in fact had a cookbook published before; the precision is nevertheless really something, isn’t it, and probably applicable to any vocation that you hold out of your own reach while insisting it’s really external forces standing in the way?

And though this quote dangles in my head like a spider’s legs I’ve done a robust quantity of writing this week to helpfully back up my claim of wanting to write, including the following:

  • I updated my Frasier food blog, covering Episode 18 of Season 1 and a recipe for the Pink Lady Cocktail
  • I updated my Frasier food blog AGAIN, covering Episode 19 and a recipe for homemade Butterfingers
  • At the behest of no-one, I wrote an intense analysis of a performance of The Ladies Who Lunch, Elaine Stritch’s big number from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, likely to the interest of myself only, but I think it’s a fairly brilliant piece of writing.

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And I’m writing this, aren’t I! The recipe I made this week – Sticky Roast Balsamic Sumac Butternut Pumpkin and Cashews – came about simply because I was craving those precise qualities – sticky and caramelised and crisp and roasted and a little sour and salty and rich, you know what I mean? To be perfectly honest with you the sumac component came in at the last minute – after having taken the photos of this recipe I finally got to consume a bowlful, and while it was delicious it was lacking a certain top note, sort of like if you listen to a stereo and you’ve accidentally turned down the treble dial, so it’s recognisable but a little lifeless? That was when I thought to add the sumac: it dovetails with the balsamic vinegar, it imparts a kind of lemony ebullience, and lightens up the rich, oily heft of the roasted butternut pumpkin and all those cashews.

This combination is just smashingly delicious: the butternut gets all crunchy and almost adhesive to itself in the hot olive oil, the cashews with their brief blast of heat get their mild creamy flavour and crunch deepened, and the drizzle of golden syrup and balsamic vinegar intensifies everything else and ramps up the caramelisation. And the sumac demonstrably saves the day. If you don’t have any of the sour red powder that is sumac, and this is entirely reasonable, I would just squeeze over the juice of a lemon or a lime and furthermore sprinkle over its zest for good measure. Pomegranate molasses or tamarind would have a similar energy but I feel like if you have those you probably also have sumac already and therefore do not require my dupes. On that note; I chose the butternut pumpkin on purpose: it’s buttery and rich, and not only cooks quicker than regular pumpkin it’s also much easier to slice. But consider them fairly interchangeable if you only have the latter.

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Sticky Roast Balsamic Sumac Butternut Pumpkin and Cashews

a recipe by myself

  • 1/2 a large butternut pumpkin
  • (optional) 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 tablespoons or so olive oil
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup raw peanuts (or just more cashews if you like) 
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, plus extra for drizzling
  • 2 teaspoons golden syrup or similar
  • 2 teaspoons sumac
  • coriander leaves to serve, optional
  • lots of salt and pepper

Set your oven to 220C/450F. Pour the oil into a large roasting tray and put the tray into the oven to heat up while you get everything else sorted.

Carefully slice the skin off the pumpkin and dice the flesh into pieces of roughly one inch. Sprinkle the flour over the cubes of pumpkin if you want, this will make it all the more crispy when it roasts but you can leave it out if you want for gluten-avoidance reasons.

Tip the cubes of pumpkin into the roasting dish that’s been heating up and spread them out so they’re all on one layer. Sprinkle over the cumin and drizzle over more oil if it looks like it needs it. Roast for roughly twenty minutes, stirring halfway through – the amount of time will depend on your oven, but don’t be afraid to leave it in there for a while so the pumpkin gets really crispy and browned.

While the butternut pumpkin is in the oven, pile the cashews and peanuts onto your chopping board and roughly chop them into rubble. In a small cup or bowl mix together the golden syrup and balsamic vinegar.

When you’re quite satisfied with the crisp and brown-ness of the cubes of butternut, remove the tray from the oven and drizzle over the balsamic/syrup mixture – it doesn’t have to coat everything evenly – and sprinkle over the chopped nuts. Return the tray to the oven for literally one minute, then turn the oven off. Leave the tray in there for about ten minutes (although check occasionally to make sure the cashews haven’t burnt). Remove the tray from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and plenty of salt and pepper, and then serve with the coriander leaves sprinkled on top and an extra drizzle of balsamic vinegar for good measure.

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This recipe is one of those neither-here-nor-there ones, but in a really good way – you can serve it as a side during a larger hearty meal; you could stir it through couscous or bulghur wheat (perhaps with some capers and sultanas); or pile it on rice with some other components; you could fold it through some robust salad leaves, I’m thinking a mixture of rocket and cos lettuce; or you could mix it into spaghetti or other long pasta; or you can do what I did and just eat a bowlful of it on its own. The dish shone at any temperature as well: straight from the oven dish before I’d even decamped it to a serving bowl to photograph; at room temperature once it had finished modelling for me; even fridge-cold, the next-day leftovers were spectacularly good, the balsamic sweetness really coming through the wonderfully oily cubes of butternut pumpkin.

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(A Ghost sighting in the wild) (Ghost is the name of the dog by the way)

I’m currently staying with my parents for a bit, and have spent the last two days on the road in a car with my mother and her best friend getting from Wellington to Waiuku (including a three hour and one minute journey between the capital and Otaki due to post-Eminem concert-goer traffic – it should normally take around an hour at the most, but it’s all part of the road trip adventure as we optimistically surmised: if there’s one thing Mum and her best friend know how to do, it’s executing a cunning plan and being optimistic about it at every step of the way.) If you remember when I mentioned in my first blog post of the year that Mum suggested I could come home for a bit and frame it as a writer’s retreat, well, like foreshadowing in a prestige television show, that chicken has come home to roost.

The next thing I’m going to be working on is my actual writing projects that I’ve set out for myself (which you can read about here), an article I pitched to The Spinoff, and this month’s exclusive content for my Patreon supporters (a piece about what I believe each character from Gavin and Stacey’s star signs are, and why, and if this admittedly narrow field of appeal appeals to you then you can sign up here.)

title from: Halloween, by Misfits. I love the anxious guitar riff and the abrupt energy and the way lead singer Glenn Danzig slides over his consonants in a muffled, careless manner, much like a young Patti LuPone in, for example, the 1988 Broadway revival of Anything Goes. Let the bodies hit the floor!

music lately:

Survive It, by Ghostpoet. Really beautiful and poetic.

(I Want To See) The Bright Lights, by Julie Covington. She was the first person to record the breakout song Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in the concept album that preceded the musical Evita (when the concept materialised into a musical on the West End the role went to the unsinkable Elaine Paige, and upon its transfer to Broadway the following year, it was none other than the aforementioned Patti LuPone who sang the famous number.) This is from one of her solo albums and is a cover of a Richard and Linda Thompson song, she sounds just gorgeous and the jingle-jangle production is somehow not too dated, and it captures that very British oil-and-water quality of being plaintively melancholy and resiliently upbeat simultaneously.

Sound of Rain, by Solange. She dropped a new album all at once and everything about it, the musicality and her voice and the writing and the production is stunning and she just seems to be in top form. At 39 minutes, When I Get Home is easy to listen to in its entirety but I love this track in particular at the moment.

Next time: Mum has become an abundant and flourishing gardener and the property is positively creaking with home-grown produce, I imagine this will play a part in whatever I cook next.

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