Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to Cook: Spaghetti Squash

I like cooking. A lot. And really (let’s be honest) the only thing I like better than cooking is just food in general. I love ingredients. It’s probably because nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable than working with things I don’t understand. I’m the girl that spent the summer before I started French 101 studying French so I wouldn’t start my beginner level class as a beginner. Twenty-some years of this type of behavior has shown no signs of dying, so now I roll with it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are foods I really don’t like. Ready for the most blasphemous example of them all? Tomatoes. I’m really not a big fan of them. Now, I try and try to cook things like tomatoes in a hundred different ways forcing myself to eat them because I just don’t feel right leaving a food out from my repertoire (and in this case, a very basic one) because it’s not really my thing. Over the summer when I spent weeks making tomatoes countless different ways to prove that I CAN and WILL eat them, I diagnosed this issue of an inability to truly put my foot down and refuse any food as the workings of my inner food evangelist. The personality that takes over when I hear someone say “Bell peppers are gross” or “What the hell is a pomegranate” and immediately attempts to fill the knowledge or acceptance gap.
This morning at the market, you could say my inner food evangelist took over.
It was spaghetti squash. I was standing harmlessly by one of the stands eyeing the potatoes that were laid out, innocently thinking about how wonderful the potatoes I cooked a few weeks ago with bay leaves tasted. And then I overheard the woman behind the counter say her mother used to do wonderful things with spaghetti squash, but she didn’t really know how to cook it. You can imagine what happened next. What made this morning unusual is that one conversation started almost a half dozen more. Everyone around this stand was truly curious about what you do with a spaghetti squash. I was happy to inform them, though in my own head I am thinking how sad it is that these people have been missing out on spaghetti squash all these years!! It’s different than every single other kind of winter squash, has a flavor that is both beautifully delicate and able to be brought out by so many different kinds of seasonings, and best of all makes it feel like you have a massive pile of carbs on your plate when in fact you have veggies!! …And there I go again. Needless to say, the woman thanked me for facilitating the sale of about a dozen pounds of squash that these uninformed consumers would have otherwise overlooked.
So here’s the skinny on spaghetti squash, why I think it’s wonderful, and what in the world you can do with it:
Spaghetti squash is a winter squash (like acorn, butternut, etc.) that shows up in fall and stays through early spring. The most important thing to know ahead of cooking it is that while it IS a winter squash, it doesn’t ACT the same as other winter squashes. Other winter squash you can roast, braise, stuff and bake, puree and turn into soup etc. and the results between the squash varieties will be relatively the same: a creamy-textured hearty vegetable that makes a great center or compliment to any winter meal. With spaghetti squash, there’s really only one way to prepare the actual squash. After that, you can dress it up however you would like (and I promise, straying from the cinnamon/brown sugar/cranberry variety of seasoning is both doable and eye-opening), but you need to first get the spaghetti out of the squash.
The best part about spaghetti squash (and really, most squash recipes, if you have a microwave) is that you can prepare the squash in around 10 minutes. Pierce the squash all over and place on a plate in the microwave on high for 4 minutes. Turn it over and cook it for another 5 or so, depending on how large the squash is. When it’s done, it’ll be soft to the touch on the outside (but also hella hot, so watch out). Let it cool. And I say again LET IT COOL. 5 minutes should do it, cut it in half lengthwise and let it cool for another 5 or so. Once the squash is no longer on fire, scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Take a fork and scrape the flesh out of the shell from top to bottom. It should create long, spaghetti-noodle like strands of squash. Its a little easier if you have the stem still on the squash – it makes for a lovely little handle. If not, I recommend using a hot pad and holding the squash half over a bowl and scraping into that. Once you’ve got your two shells scraped, that’s it. Seasoning time! As an aside – if you don’t have a microwave, you can bake the squash at 350 for 45 minutes or so. Line a cookie sheet with foil, slice the squash in half lengthwise, rub a little bit of oil onto the sliced sides and put them face down on the sheet to bake.
You can season it with just about any combination of spices you like. Spaghetti squash by itself has a slightly less creamy taste than other winter squashes and a more subtle flavor. It takes well to virtually and spices and seasoning because of how mild it is. I’ll put up some actual spaghetti squash recipes as the season goes on, I’m sure, but to start you off, here are a few general ideas:
  • Using just like spaghetti and topping with a pasta sauce or chopped tomatoes with basil
  • Browning a tablespoon or two of butter and tossing it with the squash
  • Use as an addition in soups such as lentil or vegetable
In terms of picking a squash, find one that is firm with an unbroken skin. Typically the ones I find at the market have some sort of dirt or buildup on the skin.  As a rule, I don’t worry about it if I can wash it off. You aren’t going to eat the skin, so as long as its intact and the squash is firm, you’re good to go. All winter squashes will keep for quite a while. Using it within a month is a good rule of thumb. But good luck keeping one around that long once you realize how easy and delicious the cooked version is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Recipe: Red Pepper Soup

After posting this initially with just instructions (and after a recent reminder of how essential clear directions are – I’m looking at you, IKEA) I thought it may be helpful to go back and give some additional information and tips for the recipe.
This is an original recipe of mine and I have tried lots of different variations and landed on this version as the best. It’s like a tomato soup in the way that so much of its appeal is in the simplicity. I’ve spiced it, used roasted peppers, tried different bases, and each time I am highly disappointed I’m not eating this version.
One nice way to vary it is how much you blend your peppers. Well blended peppers will produce a finer, saucier soup while less blending will leave the peppers a bit chunky. If you’re looking for your peppers to be liquefied, I’d recommend using an immersion blender. I prefer the latter and sometimes take the chunky texture a bit further by leaving one pepper out of the food processor, chopping it into bite-sized pieces separately and adding the pieces to the stock when the other peppers go in.
A note about the main ingredient: Buying red peppers at the grocery store is highway robbery. Two dollars for a pepper? Are you kidding me? And there’s no negotiating with the produce guy for a cheaper price. I have a feeling this is the first of many “The farmers’ market is the best thing since sliced bread” rants, but it is so true in this case. I can usually get a good, fresh red pepper at the market for 75 cents. For those keeping score at home, that’s roughly a 63% discount from the grocery store. My recommendation? Get to the market, pick the reddest, biggest, most beautiful peppers you can get your hands on, take them home, turn them into pepper pulp and freeze it. So on that January evening when you’re thinking “Man, I would die for a bowl of red pepper soup right now, but it’s so not worth braving the elements to go buy overpriced, mediocre-at-best peppers to make it with” (…just wait, those exact words will cross your mind) you’ll have the perfect solution already in your freezer. Take advantage of both the bounty of the season and the wonder that is modern refrigeration.
And with that, please do enjoy this soup. It’s one of my absolute favorites and I hope it will earn your admiration as well.
4-5 large red bell peppers
4 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. flour
1 cup milk
2 tbsp. sherry
1 cup vegetable stock
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1. Quarter the peppers, removing the stem and seeds, and blend in a food processor until pureed (mixture will be slightly chunky).
2. Place butter in a stockpot over medium heat. When melted, whisk in the flour one tablespoon at a time to create a roux.
3. When the roux is golden brown, whisk in vegetable stock, milk, and sherry. Stir in pepper puree and add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes. Serve topped with freshly chopped parsley.

A Spoonful of Something

I’ve kicked around the idea of starting a food blog for quite a while now. I feel qualified for this position for a few reasons. One, I love food. And I love GOOD food. …Admittedly, I love really bad food occasionally, but overall, I’m a well behaved foodie. Two, I love cooking. I love it even more when there’s someone other than me to consume the final product, but I won’t discriminate an opportunity to make my apartment smell completely delicious. Three, I have more cookbooks than I can read in a lifetime. I have made quite an impressive list of qualifications for myself. However, perhaps the most compelling argument for food blogging is that it’s the freaking internet. And I can go on, and on, and on, and on about things like my love for greek yogurt, or my slight aversion to mushrooms, or how there is just nothing that satisfies my soul the way that a perfectly iced cake does.
The way I see it, you have to eat. You have to eat a lot of food in a lifetime. There is really no reason that food can’t be good. But good doesn’t mean gourmet or took six hours to make or had to fly to Guatemala to get half of the ingredients. Good means the kind of food that just makes you step back for a moment, realize the beauty of the substance in your mouth and smile on the inside before you go for the next bite.
I, too, live a normal human existence and therefore have the aforementioned reaction to my food about 10% of the time. I mean, that kind of reaction to raisin bran in the morning (especially pre-coffee) might be a bit too much. BUT, when a meal falls into that 10% it is a beautiful thing. A beautiful thing that really should happen more often. A thing that I was reminded of when I returned home after a mentally anguishing day and stepped up to my sink. I washed and sliced a bagful of red peppers from the farmers market, blended them in the food processor, whisked up a roux and the only thoughts that crossed my mind were remnants of stressful day. It wasn’t until I took my oversized spoon, dipped it into my bowl and put a bite into my mouth that I was whisked away from the thoughts I’d been stewing in got lost in the flavors and textures I’d created.
Romantic sentiments about food aside, I make a wicked good pot of Red Pepper Soup. Part of the reason I love it so much is because it’s an original recipe. The other reason is that it’s, um, delicious. I really hope it’s not the same sort of syndrome that I have about my mother’s Poppy Seed Noodles where I seem to be the only one under its spell. I think Poppy Seed Noodles is possibly the greatest side dish ever created. Poppy seeds. Noodles. Butter. What more could you want? But everyone I have cooked these for is quite underwhelmed by them. I mean, seriously unimpressed. I think they’re crazy, but I’ve never been known for my ability to turn down carbs covered in fat. Truly, people are missing out.
My hope is that everyone has a Poppy Seed Noodle or a Red Pepper Soup of their own. That food you eat that takes you somewhere else. That dish that only gets a long hard look when your spoon is coming up empty. That meal that literally makes you want to lick the plate. …Or, if you’re like me, actually lick the plate.