Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Winter Squash: A Study in Still Life part I

Winter squash is like a little ray of sunshine.  The varieties available make the fall farmer's markets look like a veritable candy store with the beautiful oranges, yellows, and greens that usher in our fall season.   Acorn, Butternut, Delicata, Hubbard, Spaghetti, Pie Pumpkin...just to name a few.  When these gems are stored properly (cool, dark, with moderate humidity...I keep mine in a single layer in my basement) they can feed us well in to our long Wisconsin winter.  They are loaded with vitamins and minerals and each variety has its own flavor and texture profile.

As with their Summer counterparts, Winter squash is very easy to grow.  If you have the space, a squash vine can give you quite a bang for your buck on the dinner table.  Or, if you have a CSA (like I did this year, thank you Primrose Community Farm!) you might have a stash of squash in your basement that can seem a little daunting.  Although we all love the familiar baked squash with butter and brown sugar there are all kinds of fun ways to enjoy this versatile vegetable.

Before I get in to the recipe portion of this post let's talk about the challenges to cooking with winter squash...cutting and peeling.  As we all know, winter squash comes in many shapes and sizes and has a very hard outer skin.  A large sharp knife and an easy to hold sharp vegetable peeler will make your life a little easier.  This is probably one reason that folks generally opt for the oven roasted squash dish I mentioned above.  Cutting the squash in half, baking, and scooping out soft flesh is definitely the easy way to go...not that there's anything wrong with that.

Peeling a smooth variety, such as Butternut, isn't as bad as dealing with a grooved squash like Acorn.  A tip I got from a friend is to pop the whole squash (uncut & unvented) in to the microwave for a few minutes.  This softens the skin just a bit and makes it easier to peel.  A smooth squash like Butternut is easiest to peel if you leave it whole and use a vegetable peeler.  (Please keep in mind, this is based on my personal experience and not some other kind of culinary edict)

There are a couple of ways to deal with the grooved squashes.

  • Cut in half crosswise and scoop out seeds.  Microwave for 4 minutes or so on high to soften the peel and flesh a touch.  Cut halves in to wedges following the indents already present on the squash.  Peel each wedge with a vegetable peeler

  • Cut squash in half and scoop seeds.  Continue to cut each half in to 1 inch slices parallel to the first cut edge.  You will end up with rings.  Lay each ring on the cutting board and trim the peel from the flesh with the tip of a knife. (Sorry, bad blogger...I don't have a photo of this.  You'll have to use your imagination.)

One last thing to keep in mind is that once cooked and softened, nearly all squash peels are edible and may go completely unnoticed in your dish.  In some cases it can even add some decorative flair.

Let's get cooking!  Shall we start at the beginning of the meal hierarchy with soup?  Here is one of a few recipes that are my own.

Al's Squash Soup   
(Who is Al?  Just another nick-name folks)

1 large winter squash - halved and seeded
1/2 lb bacon or pancetta - diced
1 med onion - chopped
fresh Sage (large bunch) - leaves picked and stems discarded
2 Tbls fresh Thyme - leaves removed and stems discarded
1/2 C. Apple Cider
1 small bulb garlic
2-3 C. Chicken stock
1/4 C. Sour Cream or Creme Fraiche

Optional toppings:
crumbled Blue cheese
Walnuts roasted and finely chopped
Splash of an aged Balsamic Vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rub olive oil over squash flesh and season with salt.  Place in roasting pan flesh side down.   Place garlic bulb on a piece of foil, drizzle with olive oil, and wrap loosely with the foil.  Add garlic package to roasting pan with squash.  Cook until squash flesh is soft and skin easily pierced. (Approx 40 minutes)
2.  Check garlic after approx 30 minutes.  If golden and soft remove from oven while squash continues to cook.
3.  Meanwhile, pan fry the pancetta/bacon in a skillet over medium heat until brown and nearly crisp.  Remove from pan and drain on paper towel.
4.  Pour all but 2 Tbls of the rendered fat in to your BGB (Bacon Grease Bowl- everyone should have one in the fridge for reserved bacon grease).  Return the skillet with 2 Tbls bacon grease to the heat.  Fry sage leaves in hot bacon grease, add onion & Thyme and reduce heat to medium-low.  Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until caramelized.  (approx 20 minutes)
5.  When squash is ready remove from oven. Scoop soft flesh out away from skin and put in food processor.  Add roasted garlic (by squeezing softened cloves from skins) and onion-herb mixture.  Process until smooth. Pour all contents in to a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add apple cider and chicken stock until you reach desired consistency and soup is heated through.  Taste and adjust salt to your liking...keep in mind that crispy bacon will add a bit of salt to the soup.
6.  To serve: spoon soup in to warmed bowls.  Top with a small dollop of sour cream/creme fraiche, crispy bacon and any combination of remaining optional toppings.

Makes approx 8 C.

That's all for now.  Stay tuned for more!

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