Friday, November 16, 2012

For the Love of Squash

With the golden, muted light and shorter days, a leaf strewn lawn and the early evening scent of woodsmoke in the air, I can say that it is really autumn – my favorite time of year. Comfort, this says to me, especially as we prepare for the ultimate form of comfort eating, Thanksgiving. I'm in no hurry to pull out the Christmas decorations or even think about sending cards. I want to savor the colors, aromas and flavors of Fall and the bounty of produce this season brings. And one of the most versatile and flavorful of that bounty are winter squashes.

Squash is a member of the Three Sisters in New World cooking. Along with corn and beans, this trio fed generations of Western Hemisphere inhabitants long before Europeans landed on the shores of North and South America. The Three Sisters are now a staple in international cuisine and have been incorporated into menus spanning the globe. From Aggie Horticulture at Texas A&M University comes this helpful information:
Our word "squash" comes from the Massachusetts Indian word askutasquash, meaning "eaten raw or uncooked." Although the Indians may have eaten some forms of squash without cooking, today we like our squashes cooked. The late-growing, less symmetrical, odd-shaped, rough or warty kinds, small to medium in size, but with long-keeping qualities and hard rinds, are usually called winter squash. They belong, almost without exception, to the species Cucurbita maxima or C. moschata.
Pumpkins also belong to that species, but large, late, smooth, symmetrical forms of C. maxima and C. moschata are sometimes called "pumpkins" regardless of species. The word "pumpkin" -improperly pronounced "punkin" by most Americans, is derived from the old French term pompion, meaning eaten when "cooked by the sun," or ripe. In modern French, pumpkin is called potiron.
The nutritional benefits of eating squash give it as much endorsements as the creamy roasted texture and sweet, earthy flavor. According to Elise Marie, contributor 
Acorn squash contains potent nutrients in it such as vitamins C, B-12 and A, potassium, folic acid, manganese, fatty acids, fiber and phytonutrients. All these potent nutrients help prevent free radical cells in the body from forming cancers. Some of the cancers acorn squash can help prevent are prostate, lung, colon, brain and breast.
With that information in mind, preparing acorn squash is a easy as it is delicious and nutritional.
Select a squash that is heavy for it's size, with firm skin. I picked out a Danish Green at my local produce market. Cut it in half. This can be tricky - use a large chef's knife and place the squash on an even cutting surface; make an initial cut and slowly bring the knife through the hard outer skin. Once you hit the flesh, it will be easier to cut through the entire gourd, just be careful and go slowly. Clean out the seeds and membranes with a spoon.
Add a pat of butter, some brown sugar and your choice of warm spices - Cinnamon, Allspice, Cloves and/or Nutmeg - and salt to taste.
Place your filled squash on a baking dish, silicon mat optional, but it does make for easy clean up, and bake at 400 degrees for 35-45 minutes, until the flesh has softened, the butter, brown sugar and spices have blended together and slightly caramelized.

Mash the flesh with a fork, add more butter (butter, in this case is good!) and you have an all-in-one side dish. I'm enjoying mine right now!

Butternuts are my absolute favorite varietal. I think anything that includes the word "butter" in its name has just got to be divine! Besides roasting cubed butternut (you can purchase pre-cut packages at Trader Joe's, Costco and a lot of independent and chain grocery stores, saving you the laborious task of doing it yourself) with olive oil, salt and pepper on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or so - you can also make a soup that combines to delightful Fall flavors of Butternut Squash, Apples and Parsnips, with Thyme as the herb that brings it all together.

    Butternut Squash, Apple & Parsnip Soup with Thyme
  • 4 TB unsalted butter, or 2 TBS butter, 2 TBS olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup apple juice or cider, unfiltered preferred
  • 4 cups cubed butternut squash
  • 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cubed
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and chopped
  • 1 bunch thyme, leaves separated from the sprigs and the springs tied together with cotton twine.
  • 2 quarts chicken stock, plus some extra if needed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Diced apples and a dollop of creme fraiche to garnish.
  • A shake of Applejack brandy optional

Heat the butter and/or olive in a stock pot over medium. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook the onions until softened but not browned; adjust heat appropriately to avoid scorching.
Add the apple juice to the onions and reduce until the juice is almost evaporated. Add the cubed butternut squash, chopped apples, chopped parsnips and the tied thyme sprigs. Cook for 1-3 minutes, coating the vegetables in the onion-juice mixture, until slightly browned. Add another pinch of salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Cook the vegetables until they are soft, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs and add the thyme leaves, reserving a few leaves for garnish, during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper as needed. The vegetables should be very soft.
Remove the soup pot from the stove and let it cool for a few minutes.
With a stick (emulsion) blender directly in the pot, puree the soup, making sure that big chunks of vegetables are thoroughly pureed. The texture can still be a bit thick but most of the vegetables should be broken down. Add more chicken stock if the mixture is too thick. Taste once again for seasoning.
Ladle the soup into individual bowls and garnish with a dollop of creme fraiche, a teaspoon or so of diced apples and the optional sprinkle of Applejack brandy. Serve warm.

This soup is also a unique appetizer, served at room temperature in a shot glass, garnished with some small diced apple. I call them Autumn Sippers.

Take advantage of the wonderful array of winter squash now available - Acorns, Butternut, Spaghetti, Hubbard, Kabocha, Turban, Delicata and more. A savory treat is in store.


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