Snowstorms and Squash

 

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Oy, 2016. There were many moments I (we? Most everyone?) would like to forget, although I am happy that this year brought me back to Western Mass. The last week of the year, for me, at least, was really lovely. My girls and I all had off from our schools so we spent the entire week together. When Beatrix wasn’t watching Frozen (“Elsa! Elsa!”) we squeezed in a few adventures.

We explored Great Barrington in the Berkshires (only about an hour from here) in search of the best grilled cheese in the Northeast. We had fun at Forbes Library, whose cookbook and media collection continues to impress me. (More on those in upcoming posts.) We made it to two children’s museums, including a New Year’s Eve Jr. celebration that allowed Bea endless rides on the carousel.

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One of Rich’s brothers gave us a gift card for Marshall’s/TJ Maxx/Home Goods for Christmas, and Lilli was quite pleased to find both dinosaur pasta and a cookie and cupcake decorating kit in the “Home” section. The design kit came in very handy during last week’s snowstorms, again between Frozen screenings.

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That decorating kit also brings us to today’s recipe. Because one cannot decorate cupcakes without frosting, and the only frosting worth making involves cream cheese. Which means I had cream cheese in the house, and that was the one ingredient I was missing to make this twice-baked butternut squash.

I knew it was a keeper as soon as I saw it, and, given its cheesiness, it was a good addition to our Chanukah table. I served it next to potato latkes, a salad of butter lettuce, dates, slivered red onion (soaked in ice cold water to take the snap out), sprinkles of blue cheese and a balsamic brown sugar dressing. Now that I think about it, there was also a lentil stew with rutabaga and kale to start things off.

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Grandparents, don’t panic. She got a haircut soon after this photo was taken.

The recipe actually calls for the squash to first get a steam in the microwave, so it moves the process along a bit quicker than if you did everything in the oven. Ditto with the sweet potatoes, which I know you can do in a microwave, as my old co-worker reminded me every day. I don’t own a 9×13 microwavable dish, so I used a glass pie pan and the squash ends hung over the sides. It still worked. I then transferred the squash halves to a large baking sheet.

This is not an everyday recipe, although it’s not as rich as the stuffed pumpkin that makes me giddy. I hope you’ll give it a shot. It’s actually very simple to make and tastes even better than you think it will.

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Learn from my mistakes. Don’t use parchment paper to bake and broil. It burns after a certain point.

Twice-Baked Butternut Squash from “Real Simple” December 2016

Ingredients

1 (3- to 3 ½-pound) butternut squash

¼ cup water

2 (8- to 9-ounce) sweet potatoes

3 ounces cream cheese, softened

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1½ teaspoons table salt

¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon black pepper

3 tablespoons shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives (optional – I skipped it.)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Remove and discard seeds. Place squash halves, cut sides down, in a microwave-safe 13- x 9-inch baking dish and add ¼ cup water. Cover dish with plastic wrap and pierce 3 to 4 times with a knife. Microwave on HIGH 10 minutes. Carefully drain water out of dish. Turn squash halves over, and bake in preheated oven until tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand about 5 minutes. Scoop flesh from squash, leaving a ¼-inch-thick shell and transfer to a medium bowl; reserve shells and return to baking dish.

Poke the sweet potatoes with a fork several times then microwave them on HIGH until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Peel potatoes and add flesh to bowl with squash along with cream cheese, butter, salt, nutmeg, and pepper; mash with a potato masher or a fork until mostly smooth.

Preheat broiler with oven rack 6 inches from heat. Scoop squash mixture into reserved squash shells and top with cheddar and Parmesan. Broil until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with chives.

 

Currying Favor

Dan, my world traveling, three bean salad-loving friend, is back stateside. When he came to visit, he came bearing gifts from Cambodia: a scarf for me, a T-shirt with what I assume is the Cambodian alphabet for Lilli, and some spices. Actually, I guess he only came bearing gifts for me and Lilli. “You can write an entire blog post about those spices,” he said with a slight smile.

Lilli's 1st Bday at Hebrew Play

Of course, all this happened months ago, and the curry powder and lemongrass, elaborately packaged in handmade woven sacks, remained unopened in the cupboard. Until last week, that is, when I was sent Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson from the kind people at Harvard Common Press. I know, first Rich doesn’t get a gift, and then he gets a week of vegan food. But every dish we had (and I choose dishes I thought he’d enjoy) was very good. The sesame noodles were slurped up by us and Lilli, who is turning into a carb fiend. The chocolate peanut butter brownies were good but not great (you know how picky I am about my chocolate and peanut butter). The morning mushrooms, sizzled in a pan with equal parts Tamari and maple syrup, were great, and not just in the morning.

But the best dish we’ve had so far from the book were the baked sweet potato and green pea samosas. They were terrific, actually. And I got to use the curry powder Dan brought us (see, I made the spices into a gift for all of us to enjoy) for the filling. I haven’t had a chance yet to make the sweet potato and pineapple gratin with coconut milk, but doesn’t that sound so good?

The samosas were a very hands-off dish for most of it, and they’re doubled baked and not fried. First you bake a sweet potato. It called for a large sweet potato, and I grabbed a huge one — 1.5 lbs to be exact — too big, it turns out, for the toaster oven. So after I scrubbed it (skin-on) and wrapped it in tin foil, I tossed it in a 450F oven, and walked away for about an hour. Helpful hint: Place a pan underneath the sweet potato because it will probably drip gooey innards onto the floor of your oven. Trust me on this one; I speak from experience.

The dough is simple: water, flour and a touch of oil. It’s mixed together in a bowl and left alone, covered on the counter, for a half hour. Once the sweet potato is roasted, you add it to a sauté of minced onion, garlic, ground coriander and curry powder — in my case, curry powder which was hand-delivered from Southeast Asia. The recipe calls for the addition of fresh or frozen peas, which is a natural for samosas, but I saw this as an opportunity to add edamame for a little bit of protein.

Lilli and Oma

Once you roll out the dough and add the filling and seal it with just a touch of water – remember, we’re dealing with a vegan recipe – you bake them until they’re golden brown. You can actually bake the sweet potato a few days before you get around to making the dumplings.

The results are delicious — not delicious-for-a-vegan-dish, just plain delicious. Ask Lilli, who has become very picky about her sweet potatoes. She usually drops them to the side of her high chair, but absolutely adored this spiced filling. There was more filling than fit in the samosas, so I gave it to her as a side for a few meals – minus the edamame, to avoid choking hazards.

I don’t have any photos of the samosas. In most cases, I forget to snap a photo, but in this case, Rich thought the finished product was remarkably unattractive, so I let it be. None of them turned out like the puffy triangles at Indian restaurants. But don’t let that stop you from making this dish.

Baked Sweet Potato and Green Pea Samosas from Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson

Ingredients

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

¼ cup water

1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons neutral vegetable oil, plus more for brushing

1 small onion, minced

1 large sweet potato, baked until tender, peeled and diced (Note: I just scraped the flesh off the skin and plopped it into the pan of spiced onions)

½ cup fresh or frozen peas or edamame

1 garlic clove, minced

2 heaping teaspoons curry powder

½ heaping teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon salt

Directions

In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, water, and 2 teaspoons of the oil until well blended. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 Tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, cover, and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and garlic are soft and the flavors have developed, about 10 minutes. Mash the filling slightly to combine. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly oil a baking sheet and set aside. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 16-inch square that is about 1/8 inch thick. Cut into sixteen 4-inch squares. Place a small amount of the filling in the center of each square. Dab a little water on the edges, and fold one corner over the filling to the opposite corner to make a triangle. Seal the edges. Place the samosas on the baking sheet and brush lightly with oil. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Lunch Break

In all the news that’s fit to eat, this springtime has brought us sun, rain and food trucks. More specifically, the new Boston food truck schedule includes a rotating list of five trucks parked directly across from my office building. Although my co-workers would be the first to tell you that I’m a lunch packer, in the name of research, I have found myself grabbing my hat and scarf and venturing across Commonwealth Avenue to inspect the goods.

There are a few vegetarian options out there, including one of the pioneer food trucks here in Boston, Clover Food Lab. Clover, which now has brick-and-mortar restaurants in Harvard and Inman Squares, offers up some pretty decent $5 pita sandwiches, including a BBQ seitan, a soy BLT, a chickpea fritter (read: falafel), an egg and eggplant, and a rotating seasonal sandwich. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve had there, but I usually walk away saying to myself, “I could have totally made that,” and then go home and make it, or a variation on it.

The latest seasonal sandwich I’ve enjoyed at Clover (back in April) was a steamed sweet potato that had been tossed with cinnamon, dabbed with cilantro sauce, and then topped with a spicy jicama slaw.

I actually recreated the sandwich more or less, sans pita, during Passover, and it’s the inspiration for the sweet potato and cilantro pesto salad below. (Although now I’m realizing that I’ve enjoyed the sweet potato and cilantro combination in the past.) During Pesach I used walnuts, but I ordinarily make it with pepitas, (Spanish for pumpkin seeds). The nice thing about pestos are that they’re very forgiving and can be endlessly tweaked. I know there are some cilantro-haters out there reading this, but I’ve read that one can actually train the palate to enjoy the ruffled herb.

This can be made without cheese to keep it vegan and, depending on if you like spice, with or without chile pepper, although I would strongly support keeping it. Add a can of black beans to make this heartier. A little tip for cleaning the cilantro: soak the leaves, head first, in bowl of cold water, for 15 minutes. The dirt and grit will fall to the bottom of the bowl. I tend to do two rounds of this hands-free cleansing. This can be done as soon you bring the herbs home from the market. Store them in the fridge standing upright in a glass container filled with water.

Sweet Potato and Cilantro Pesto Salad

Ingredients

1 lb. sweet potatoes (approximately 2 medium-sized potatoes)

1 bunch cilantro

1 clove of garlic, peeled and chopped

2 Tablespoons pepitas

1 chile pepper, chopped

1/4 cup hard cheese, such as Parmesan, finely grated (completely optional)

1 squeeze of lime juice

1 pinch of salt

Olive oil

Direct

Choose a pot that’s large enough to hold the sweet potatoes without crowding them. Fill the pot about 3/4 of the way with water and add several large pinches of salt. Bring to a boil.

While the water is heating, peel the sweet potatoes. Slice them in half, lengthwise, then slice those halves lengthwise. Depending on the size of the potato, cut those into three or four 1-inch cubes.

Add the sweet potatoes to the boiling water. Cover the pot and cook the potatoes for about 12 minutes, until just tender, but resistant in the middle if poked with a fork. When tender, carefully pour the pot of hot water and sweet potatoes into a colander in the sink. Set the potatoes aside and let them cool off a little bit.

Into the bowl of a food processor, place the remainder of the ingredients, except the olive oil. While the machine is running, pour the olive oil down the chute. Process for about 35 seconds. I don’t measure the amount of oil I use – my guess is half a cup – but I look for the pesto to turn to a smooth paste that will toss and coat things nicely. Of course, if you like your pesto a little on the chunky side, run the machine for about 20 seconds.

Once the sweet potatoes have cooled down, gently toss them with the pesto in a large bowl.