Thursday, September 14, 2006

Squashed!

Call me Grace.

You wouldn't think it from seeing me stride my way through the day, tall and confident and radiating authority (or so I'm told), but I'm a klutz. I sometimes wonder how I manage to stand without falling over... that's how bad it can get. Blame it on wobbly ankles, fear of heights, a distinctly dysfunctional relationship with gravity, or just sheer clumsiness, but over the years I've managed to injure my feet repeatedly.

Think I'm kidding? The summer of 1993 I managed to sprain both ankles simultaneously on a short flight of shallow stone steps. Eight years later I skillfully cracked my ankle while mowing the lawn. And this week? Well, this week I dropped a bed on my foot, so I've been taking a couple days off to rest and ice the poor thing. (Fret not: nothing is broken, just splendidly bruised... and the offending bed has been removed from the house.)

But if you think that a mere injury can keep me from the kitchen when inspiration calls, you haven't been paying attention. (During that week off in 1993 when I was told to stay off my feet completely, I baked croissants. Stupid? Hungry? It's a pick'em.)

When I picked up fresh apples and sage from the farmers' market last weekend, the ideas started churning in my head. And after one morning this week when I sauteed apple slices with chopped sage and maple sugar to toss over a whole grain pancake, the ideas started coming together with delicious clarity.

I had already invited Mr. Nice Guy over for dinner as a respite from his student teaching duties (and woes), and knowing that he has always enjoyed my cooking, I decided to try out my ideas on him. Given his regular enthusiasm for my home cooking, I knew he'd enjoy what I had in mind. (And I knew he'd be more than happy to brag about it to the lovely Phoenix, who is no longer in the area and available for such taste-testing.)

Interspersing the prep work with periods of Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation for my foot, I managed to cook individual ingredients ahead of time so that I could simply throw it all together in one pan shortly before Mr. Nice Guy showed up. After sauteeing good local, organic onions and garlic in rich olive oil until they softened and browned, I tossed in fresh sage and rosemary, salt and pepper, steamed squash cubes, crumbled cooked "sausage," and slices of apple. I also added a heaping spoonful of another recent creation, garlic-shallot jam (which I will make again soon and describe to you in more detail later), and a healthy splash of a dry red wine, letting the whole mixture simmer and soften and fill the air with a seductive fragrance.

At the last minute, I added cooked whole wheat pasta and stirred it in before moving the pan off the burner in order to cook the kale. And in no time at all, we had gorgeous piles of savory autumn vegetables garnished with a tangy blue cheese, just begging to be devoured.


We sank into the sublime symphony of flavors, trying desperately to find a name for this dish that would do it justice. How can a mere recipe title capture the rich warmth and velvety texture of cooked squash and apples mingling with aromatic herbs and onions, with the intoxicating sweetness of the balsamic vinegar-laced "jam" thrown in for good measure? How could a few mere words convey the lush comfort of such a dish on a damp, chilly day when the leaves have already begun to turn and drift downward?

We finished the meal with slices of a toasty, lightly sweetened pear hazelnut torte (from the recipe found in Local Flavors)... also richly flavored with a pleasing contrast between the silky Bartlett pears and the coarsely ground nuts, and with a crust reminiscent of toasted coconut, milky and deep and utterly satisfying.


I sat back contentedly while Mr. Nice Guy paid lavish compliments and then cleared the table for me, thinking that a foot injury wasn't so bad if it meant good food and service like this.

Not that I plan on making this a habit, mind you.

But I do have more squash in the pantry.

Fall's First Harvest Saute

It's a wholly inadequate title for food so amazingly good, I admit, and if anyone can come up with a better name, please let me know! Each ingredient on its own is pleasant in its own way, of course, but when they come together with a little time and patience, they make magic. I don't expect anyone else to have garlic-shallot jam on hand, but you can easily substitute a dash of balsamic vinegar and a splash of red wine to get the essential flavor. And if you prefer real sausage, go right ahead and use it... just don't invite me to dinner. Serve over steamed greens for color and flavor contrast, and enjoy with a glass of red wine or a cup of mulled cider.

1 onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 c butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1-2 apples, cored and sliced
2 vegetarian "sausage" patties, cooked and crumbled (about 1/2 c)
1 T garlic-shallot jam OR 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1/4 c red wine
1/4 c water or vegetable stock
1 c cooked whole wheat pasta or brown rice
steamed greens (kale, spinach, etc.)
crumbled blue cheese for garnish

Saute onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft and slightly browned. Add sage, rosemary, salt, and pepper and cook for another minute. Add squash, apple slices, "sausage," garlic-shallot jam or vinegar, red wine, and water or stock, and allow to simmer until squash is tender. (Add more water or wine if needed.)

While vegetables simmer, cook the pasta or rice. Toss 1 c cooked grains into the sauteed mixture to blend flavors.

To serve, pile steamed greens on plates, then top with squash mixture and blue cheese (if desired). Serve with red wine or mulled cider to hungry friends.

Serves 4

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