This past weekend found me on the eastern side of the state in Richmond visiting my uncle and his new wife (they just got married in November). We spent the weekend walking through the James River Park, watching kayakers brave the urban rapids, and I got to see the spot they got married at (right on the river–so beautiful!), and, of course, we ate a lot of good food. Most of it was home cooked, but with a chef uncle it’s hard not to eat well. The one dinner we had was at The Black Sheep on West Marshall Street near VCU.

The NY Times’ 36 Hours in Richmond billed the restaurant as one of the best places for brunch featuring ridiculously huge sandwiches named after Civil War era battleships, but I decided to go for a more refined dinner option–Bucatini alla Funghi (bucatini passed tossed with portobello mushrooms and kale) and a glass of wine. The pasta was perfectly cooked and with kale and mushrooms you can’t go wrong, but the mushroom and pepper filled tamale stole the show for me. Few places ever make a vegetarian, let alone vegan, tamale, so I may have been biased by the fact that they simply serve it, but the mole, although inauthentic, was bright and complemented the tamale well. On the wine front, I was disappointed to find that all the wines were from elsewhere, but my Washington shiraz was quite good. Being in Virginia with all our stellar wineries, they really ought to serve local wine, but I guess some restaurants just aren’t there yet (get with the picture folks!). My only complaints were that they won’t serve you until your entire party arrives, and given that parking is a pain in the ass near VCU, we had to stand awkwardly by the front door until my uncle made it. The place is cozy–which really meant that we were in the way–and while I love staring at and being stared at by people trying to enjoy a meal, it really put me in a sour mood. (I should mention that there were two open tables and we were the only ones waiting…) Actually, the service was pretty bad over all. They server, although cute and perky, gave us our appetizers and then abandoned us until she brought out the main course, not checking to see if we needed more water or another beer or glass of wine. Bad business practice, if you ask me. But, hey, I’ll focus on the food, and it was good. My uncle ordered the Rebel Pot Roast which featured beef roast with veggies in a peach bourbon sauce with cheese grits and Priscilla, his wife, ordered the Chicken and Dumplings. All of our entries were portioned generously and if I ate meat I think I’d be into the pot roast. Slices of peaches were actually in the sauce–heavenly! Both of them genuinely enjoyed their entrees and we were all a bit disappointed that we were way too stuffed to try dessert. Next time. So overall, great food, wonderful ambiance, but fairly slack service. I’ll give it a 3.5 out of 5.

The main reason I was in Richmond, though, other than visiting family, was to drop off my mom’s (and my) Christmas gifts. You know, Christmas in January. Given that I’ve been really tight on money, my gifts were uniform–everyone got a jar of apple butter, a jar of pumpkin butter, and a medium cutting board made from local trees by a local artisan. I loved giving everyone something I’d made, and the cutting boards are exquisite. When I can afford one for myself I’ll post a picture.

The pumpkin butter, compared to the apple butter, is much easier to make–especially if you start out with canned pumpkin. But even roasting the pumpkins myself, I found the process fairly simple: roast, process, cook, can. The cooking time is much shorter than apple and it’s easier to get the right consistency, and, the thing I love the most about pumpkin butter is that it makes everything taste like a piece of pumpkin pie. Who doesn’t love a little pie for breakfast?

Pumpkin Butter

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

3 medium sugar pumpkins
3/4 c water
1 1/3 c brown sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
juice of 1/2 a lemon

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Carve top off of pumpkins and scoop out seeds and stringy insides. Slice in half and put them flesh side down in a baking dish with 1/4 inch of water in the bottom. Roast for 35-45 minutes until tender when poked with a fork.

Scoop the pumpkin flesh into a large pot (you want approx. 3 1/2 cups). Add the remaining ingredients (except the lemon juice) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until thickened. Adjust spices to taste and add the lemon juice.

Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal. If you plan to store the apple butter un-refrigerated, make sure to follow proper canning procedures.

Makes 6 pints.