Pumpkin Mac and Cheese

Oh so you have been bragging to all your friends have you? You have proclaimed yourself the pumpkin master and informed everyone that you can make pumpkin anything. Well your friends have decided to put you to the test by telling you to host a pumpkin dinner party. Each dish has to have pumpkin in it, in some way, shape or form. Now you are up a creek without a paddle, and you are afraid your boat will hit an iceberg along the way. Causing you to sink in front of all your friends. Having them all stare in awe and shock with their mouths’ agape. Sure it is one thing to tell everyone you are a pumpkin genius, but it is a whole other league to actually be one. First of all, you need to find new friends. If they are inviting themselves to your house and ordering you to cook for them, and you are agreeing to do it all the time, well then you have bigger problems on your hand than a little pumpkin dinner. How would they like it if you invited yourself over their house and demanded they cook? Granted, you should not have been bragging in the first place. You have no one to blame but yourself.

So now the big day has come and you are freaking out. You have realized that perhaps you are not so savvy with that orange squash, as you thought or as you led them to believe. Sure you have dessert covered. Who does not know a thing or two about pumpkin desserts? That is a walk in the park. It is the easiest route to take. The easiest way to transform that gourd. Let us turn our attention to the main course, however. The biggest part of the dinner. You are worried that you cannot make a delicious savory dish with the star ingredient are you not? And you should be. You have every right to be nervous. I would be if I were in your shoes. I am not going to lie to you, it is very difficult to get people to like pumpkin in savory dishes because everyone goes into it with the misconception that it will taste like dessert. Stop crying and shaking your head! You have nothing to worry about. I am here to help you. Lucky for you I am a pumpkin master. Together we will get through this. Together we will conquer. Now buck up. Shoulders high. Raise that chin, proud like you know what you are doing. You have to have confidence. Put on your apron. Grab a spoon and a whisk. Cross your arms. Turn and look at your reflection on the oven. You are a master. Okay that is enough, you have a dinner party to throw. What are you doing just standing there looking like a fool with your arms crossed holding a whisk and spoon?!?! You need to start working! You are behind!

The best way to make people like anything, I have found, is to drench it in butter and cheese and cover it in a creamy sauce. Throw in some pasta and your are golden. Stop giving me that look of confusion. It is simple really. You are going to make Pumpkin Mac and Cheese. It has everything that most people enjoy. Tie it in with some autumn flavors and you are good to go. What do sage and thyme and pumpkin scream out to you? Yes that is right, Thanksgiving. It spells out Thanksgiving. So it does not really spell out Thanksgiving, but you get the point. You are going to wow your friends with this dish.

You have put together the sauce—which is now a beautiful light orange color thanks to the pumpkin—and are now mixing in the pasta. Stop eating it. This is for your pushy self-inviting friends. Throw the mac and cheese into the ramekins, hurry. Sprinkle on the sage breadcrumbs. Stand back. Look at that. Admire the pumpkin mac and cheese. Does it not look delicious like I had promised? Does it not smell fantastic? Okay, what are you doing? Enough standing around. Pop the tray in the oven. These have to bake. Your friends are due at any minute! Look at yourself! You are a mess! There is flour on your face. Cheese sauce in your hair. Pull yourself together! You cannot let your friends see you like this! Go change!  The door bell rings at the same time that the oven timer goes off. Just in time. Your soon-to-be-ex-friends are finally here and they enter with a look as if they know they have won. Little do they know you had an ace up your sleeve. Let the party begin.

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Jalapeño Cheddar Corn Muffins

Smoke is everywhere. No matter what you do you cannot escape it. You try desperately to breathe. To let some sort of fresh air into your lungs, so as to relieve the burning – at the back of your throat – from the smoke and coughing fit you just endured. Your eyes begin to water and tears start to stream down your face. It’s something you cannot avoid because the two go hand in hand. You wipe them away from your eyes as if this will allow you to suddenly see what’s going on around you. The chaos that has ensued for the last twenty minutes seems like it is never going to come to an end. You pick up a scrap piece of cardboard, you find lying on the concrete ground, and you begin to fan the smoke away. You move your arms rapidly, in an up and down maneuver similar to a bird about to take flight. Desperately seeking to clear a path, not sure if what you are doing is helping or making matters worse. Yet through bursts of light you see the gray smoke fading into the clear sky. As the haziness all around you begins to dissipate, you catch sight of the now taming fire. Your mind  back on track at the task at hand. The once frightening flames emitting from the tiny grill are now docile and manageable. You chuckle and think to yourself how silly it all was, and say a little prayer thanking the universe for not sending the fire department your way.

Now that the smoke scare is over, you dump the flaming coals out of the chimney and into the grill. Replace the grate and begin to cook dinner. Lazy weekend evenings go from uneventful to fun and exciting in a matter of minutes. It isn’t so much the food that you cook – for it could be a simple feast of hamburgers and hot dogs – but rather the experience of having people over and cooking outside. Everyone gathered around in the backyard, throwing back some cold ones. Music playing softly in the background, the distinct chatter of the guests rising through it all, as the sun begins to set and the smell of grilling meat is all around. The splash of water from the pool is a welcoming sound with the refreshing feeling of happiness. Happiness because you look around and realize that all you’ve ever needed is right there around you. Surrounding you. Hugging you. Good food, good company and the prospect of good memories on the horizon. With the content feeling that many more days like these, await you all summer.

As this warm season approaches – three days to be exact – we begin to welcome afternoons at the park or evenings spent outside barbecuing. Where people do not shine in the kitchen, it seems impressive that they shine in front of the grill. Perhaps it’s the whole experience. The lighting of the wood or coals, and the idea of being in command of something semi-dangerous. Whether it is an extravagant feast on the fire or a simple meal for the modest, outdoor eating is something to treasure especially during the warm months of June and July and August. It allows us all to step out of our comfort zones and experience something fun and thrilling. Perhaps potlucks to friends and neighbors’ homes are what you’re used to. Whatever the case might be, there are certain recipes that are meant to be made for particular occasions. When talk of grilling, barbecues, potlucks, or outdoor eating arises, corn bread automatically enters my mind. It invades my train of thought, one of which I cannot shake off. The idea of the sweat and savory along with such classic dishes of potato salad, grilled chicken drenched in barbecue sauce with the crisp, coolness of coleslaw. You need something to mop up all those delicious accouterments. A bread treat of some sort. So when the corn is in season and the stalks are up and high above your head, and you have more ears than you know what to do with – roast the hell out of it – and make yourself a big batch of corn muffins. Throw in a few treasures like jalapeños, scallions and cheddar cheese and watch the face of those around go from happy to ecstatic. Who knew that corn muffins had that affect on people? Or rather, who knew that summer could be so much fun?

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