07 November 2007

Cooking Fresh for Fall: The Squash Files

This post is a follow-up to my article posted back in August, "Cooking Fresh Experiment: Summertime Foods." As summer drew to a close and I became busier at work, I was not able to keep up with the slower cooking ideas. It is so easy when I'm stressed out to fall back on cooking that is very fast. In contrast, it is much harder to find the energy to cook new foods. I did squeeze in a few experimental recipes that my husband pronounced winners, and I'm writing about those dishes here.

Spaghetti Squash is not a food I knew about from home-cooked meals in the Midwest. For me, it's a "new" veggie, but I have tasted it a few times from dishes prepared at the deli counter of my local organic market. It is the oddest vegetable, really. It looks like a big yellow squash on the outside, but when you cook it, it becomes all stringy inside like spaghetti. When I asked my husband what type of autumn meal he wanted me to prepare one weekend, he listed spaghetti squash as one of the approved fall harvest veggies he'd like. Well, thought I, Why not?

My cookbook advised that spaghetti squash may be prepared ahead and then used as a substitute for pasta in any meal. I admit to being a skeptic, but planned an Italian dinner around it. The squash didn't take long to prepare. Following instructions in my cookbook about poking holes in it and microwaving, I set to work. The most time-consuming part for me was separating all of the strings of squash from the skin into a bowl. I selected portobello mushrooms, olives and several fresh herbs such as Thai basil and rosemary. Added dried oregano and parmeasan cheese and sauteed it for five minutes. Presto! This Italian-flavored meal tasted surprisingly good for a main ingredient that was not remotely like pasta. It absorbs the flavors of spices and other vegetables much like another starch.

My other recent experiment involved a soup recipe from my new favorite cookbook by Annie Wayte, Keep it Seasonal: Soups, Salads, and Sandwiches. I adapted her original recipe for Squash Soup with Roasted Chestnuts and Pancetta slightly to accommodate my husband's lack of interest in chestnuts. Instead, I decided to use shallots so we could call this one Squash Soup with Shallots and Pancetta. We both like strong savory and onion flavors, so I guessed it might be a good substitution for the two of us.

Pancetta was also new to me since, unlike my husband, I did not grow up in a place big on Italian deli meats. (My local delis tended towards the Yiddish and Germanic ethnicities.) I actually had to learn how to pronounce "pancetta" in order to be able to ask for it and not sound ignorant: /pan-CHe'-tah/. When I bought the meat, I had to ask for 1/4" thick slices according to the recipe. I didn't know it looked like bacon, so it was a learning curve and instinct which told me three slices would be enough, when the butcher held up the meat.

I worked with organic chicken stock and used a butternut squash for the base. The butternut squash was so mellow and perfectly ripe, proving once again to me that there are great advantages to attempting this type of seasonal cooking. The results were so delicious that the many who is not big on soup got up and helped himself to another bowl before I could finish my first one. I think I've converted him to stews, a very least.

As a side note, I've discovered over the nine years I've known my husband that he is a very talented cook, especially when it comes to fall foods. He gets all excited about the prospect of cooking with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg at the time when the leaves start to turn. In fact, his pumpkin dessert dishes are not to be missed. My most often-requested dish is his famous pumpkin mousse. Apparently it was sometimes his job to make the pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving when he was growing up. So ladies, when you set to prepare your Thanksgiving dinner, make sure you give your sons kitchen duties! The way to any woman's heart is a man who can make spectacular desserts.