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.


  1. Shallots instead of chestnuts? Hmmm.. Wouldn't have thought of that. I've got some chestnuts in the freezer, but if I needed a substitute I would have used peanuts or peanut butter. Years ago I had a truly amazing peanut and chestnut soup at the restaurant at Mount Vernon, and the two nuts have been linked in my mental pantry ever since.

    The first time I had Spaghetti Squash it was served cooked in halves, with the cavity filled with spaghetti sauce. We just dug in with a serving spoon and scooped out the squashflesh. This time of year you can double-squash the recipe by adding chunks of yellow and green summer squash to your tomato-based sauce.

    I use any of the firm yellow winter squashes in any recipe that calls for pumpkin puree. I was raised with a lot of butternut and acorn squash but it was cooked only one way - halved, seeded, and baked with butter and maple syrup in the cavity. The leftovers of such a dish are best used up by mashing them and putting them in a muffin or sweet bread of some kind.

    My favorite recipe for Pumpkin Muffins is big and makes more than two dozen muffins, but the batter can be kept in the refrigerator for a week. I can bake a few fresh muffins every day, which is a time and energy saver if you have a toaster oven, just a time saver with a conventional oven. I love to use this recipe when I am hosting a brunch because I can just keep the pans of fresh muffins coming throughout the meal without having to spend time mixing it up.
    This is the ginger-studded recipe I bake for the Women's Retreat breakfast every year.

    Speaking of the Women's Retreat, I am changing the menu and this year we will be celebrating the alchemy of winter vegetables in the oven - roasted root vegetables and vegetable pies and tarts. It will be a little richer, with more eggs and cheese, but it's time for a change. You are the second friend to rhapsodize about roasted squash soup in less than a week; do I hear the voice of the Goddess?

  2. What, Tish is making tarts for the Retreat?! Egad! Sign me up!!!

    Squashes are an amazing variety of vegetable. I do think it must have helped people survive the winter harvesting all of those delicious "meaty" veggies with so many flavors.

    Acorn squash was a favorite in my home when I was little, but my Mom did not like to add any syrup or sweetener to veggies. Instead she used butter. I rather like to be able to savor the vegetable myself, without the sweetness overpowering it. That's just Plain Jane me.

    Thank you for sharing your Baked Kale Pie recipe on your own blog (here's the link, friends): http://uppitymother.blogspot.com/2007/11/baked-kale-really.html

  3. I agree about the syrup in the winter squash. I do not care for sweetener in vegetables, especially when they are naturally sweet. However, that's how my mother always cooked it.

    Here's my own recipe for the Three Sisters of American food. This dish is perfect for fall entertaining, when you can get really lovely little pie pumpkins. My the South Indian seasonings in the American Indian food is my culinary joke.

    “Three Sisters” Baked Pumpkin with Beans and Corn
    (American Indian food with Asian Indian flavors)

    1 “Sugar Baby” Pumpkin (about 7-9 inches diameter)
    1 can of Kidney Beans or Black Beans
    1 ½ - 2 cups frozen corn kernels (yellow or white) uncooked
    1 medium onion, diced small
    ¼ teaspoon Garlic Salt
    ½ teaspoon Ceylon or Mexican Cinnamon
    ½ teaspoon Celery Seed
    ¾ teaspoon Cumin Seed
    ¾ teaspoon Turmeric
    ¾ teaspoon Yellow Mustard seed
    ¼ cup butter (easiest if it’s a firm stick)

    Preheat oven to 325°.

    Thoroughly wash the outside of the pumpkin, leaving the stem on. Cut the top off of the pumpkin as though you are cutting a jack-o-lantern. Scoop out the seeds and inner pulp, scrape out the loose strings. Using a small knife (bird’s beak type fruit knife is easiest) score the flesh inside the pumpkin about every ½ inch, making sure you do not cut all the way through to the outer shell.

    Drain and rinse the canned beans.

    Stir together the beans, corn kernels, and minced onion.

    Stir together the dry spices. Then add to the bean/corn mix. Toss until the vegetables are evenly coated with the spices.

    Put the spiced vegetables into the pumpkin. They should just fill, or come pretty close to filling the pumpkin. Slice the butter and cover the top of the vegetables with overlapping butter slices. Put the top back on the pumpkin.

    Place the pumpkin in an oven-proof bowl or a round casserole and bake for 2 ½ hours, until the vegetables are cooked and the pumpkin flesh is soft. Serve in the shell, with the top on for show. To serve, reach in with a serving spoon and scrape pumpkin loose from the shell and stir it into the beans and corn. Also scrape soft flesh from the cooked pumpkin top and stir it in. As servings are taken, keep scraping loose more of the pumpkin and stirring it into the mix.

  4. I have had some good local one Delicata is a good one lots of "winter Squash" are out this time of year, good in thick soups and I have had some Organic stews here.