A Valentine to Sweet Betty Decker

Peeled Reed Valley Sweetie Pie Pumpkin

Peeled Reed Valley Sweetie Pie Pumpkin

When I think heart, I think Betty Decker. This year's Savoring Kentucky Valentine goes to this extraordinary Wayne Countian and outstanding Kentuckian. Ms. Betty changed my life and the lives of many of my loved ones when she arrived with her powerful, angelic tenderness and her wise, beautiful presence to guard and protect my father in the last six months of his long, happy life. My wish for Betty this Valentine's Day is that she receive the same love and joy she brings to the people around her.

I think of Betty as I make the hundreds of tiny daily decisions that amount to citizenship on this earth -- our ways of caring for each other and for the parts of the world that belong to us. In particular, I think of her when I am cooking -- especially when there is laughter in my kitchen, laughter being always present when Betty is around.

Cooking is how I learn about most everything important. I learned so much from being with and cooking with Betty. I cook differently since I met her. I use more, and throw away less.

Recently, Betty seemed to be standing with me in the kitchen as I made a demanding dish, Pumpkin Enchilada Casserole with Red Chili and Poblano-Pepita Salsa for Cornbread Supper. I love cooking with other people, and I enjoyed having Betty's presence with me as I began peeling the last 2010 Sweetie Pie pumpkin from Reed Valley Orchard.

Before Betty, all peels, seeds, and fibers would have gone straight into the compost bin -- if not the trash. Now, I enjoyed figuring out how to use each bit of this beautiful Kentucky vegetable.

Roasting Pumpkin Seeds

Roasting Pumpkin Seeds

After peeling, I sorted the seeds from the central fibers, added a touch of olive oil and chili powder, and toasted the seeds in the oven for a crunchy snack.

Chopped Reed Valley Sweetie Pie pumpkin

Chopped Reed Valley Sweetie Pie pumpkin

Once I had the pumpkin pieces ready for the recipe, I realized I could add the clean peelings to the fibers from the center of the pumpkin and make a little pumpkin broth for use in a future soup or batch of cooked beans.

Making veggie stock from pumpkin peels and bits

Making veggie stock from pumpkin peels and bits

The finished dish--spicy to the max!--disappeared quickly from the Cornbread Supper table.

Pumpkin Enchilada Casserole with Red Chili Sauce and Poblano-Pepita Salsa, a Fine Cooking recipe

Pumpkin Enchilada Casserole with Red Chili Sauce and Poblano-Pepita Salsa, a Fine Cooking recipe

Friend Leo Keene of Blue Moon Farm recently gave me a tip that reminded me of Betty Decker. Leo had helped me find a bounty of Kentucky Shiitake (Kentuck-iiake?) mushrooms for special events over the holidays. Leo said, "Any mushrooms you don't use immediately will essentially dry themselves, and then you have dried shiitakes for any use you want." Imagine that - no work/no fuss dried mushrooms. Then he added, "And about those stems, which can get pretty tough: take them off, let them dry completely, and then run them through your blender. You get a powder that you can use to thicken soups."

Dried Shiitake Mushroom stems

Dried Shiitake Mushroom stems

Brilliant, Leo. You are a true Betty Deckerian. The shiitake stem rescue means that every part of this wonderful Kentucky fungus can be savored. I put my shiitake stem dust in a spaghetti sauce I thought was a bit thin, and it added both flavor and texture.

Ground Shiitake Mushroom stems

Ground Shiitake Mushroom stems

I'm a profligate girl in the kitchen, usually. I don't cook like Betty does every single day, but I do it more and more. An encounter with Betty Decker, especially one that extends across six intense months and includes many moments of laughing while cooking together in a working kitchen, has staying power. Her example and teachings still work on me every day. Betty, Happy Valentine's Day, with my love.

Savoring Kentucky awards occasional Valentines to extraordinary Kentuckians or Kentucky places or experiences. Previous recipients: Alfalfa Restaurant, and Debbie Long, owner of Dudley's on Short.

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