Fall brings cool weather and a happy return to the kitchen. Although summer melons and tomatoes have waned, the bounty of apples, pumpkins and mushrooms stimulate the appetite for slow cooked meals and boisterous gatherings around the table. The many varieties of squash are abundant and we do love to work with them.
When we went down to cook with Sean Brock at McCrady’s a few years ago we were surprised to see squash lining the walls of the restaurant at the end of June. Sean explained to us that in his neck of the woods squash are harvested in late spring/early summer and stored until fall. Here in the Northeast they tend to be harvested a little bit later, sometimes even after the first frost of the season. There’s something magical in the way that their dry, tough flesh transforms into something so tender and full of flavor.
Dealing with Large Squash: Whole-Roasting
Our trick for dealing with large, unwieldy specimens is whole roasting. We pierce the skins and wrap them in foil like giant baked potatoes and roast them in a medium oven until they are soft and juicy. We let them cool and slice them in half, easily separating out the pulpy seeds and peeling away the skin. The dense flesh is then chunked or pureed and full of squashy goodness.
Seeds Arent' Just for Roasting: Squash Butter
Instead of discarding them, we used the pulpy seeds to make squash butter. We combined them with unsalted butter in a pan and put them in the oven for about an hour to melt and infuse their flavors. When we pulled the butter from the oven we added some whole star anise and freshly grated nutmeg and let it rest for twenty minutes. Then we strained out the seeds and spices and let it cool. The result was a flavorful compound butter that we used to bump up the butternut flavor in the dish.
We chunked up the cooked butternut squash and put it and its juices in the oven with some Oloroso sherry, seasoning it with salt, nutmeg and garam masala. Oloroso sherry is a fortified wine that reminds us of dry maple syrup with rich nutty caramel notes that seemed to be a perfect match for squash. The garam masala is a blend of roasted warm spices, common to India, that often contains cloves, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, peppercorns, star anise and coriander. This adds an exotic note that nicely complements both the sweetness of the butternut squash and the complexity of the sherry.
A Trick for the Pasta: Add Baking Powder
Once it was almost dry we pulled it from the oven and let it cool. We weighed it and added a little more than half its weight of all-purpose flour to make cavatelli dough. We added a touch of baking powder to create firm, toothsome pasta. Its alkalinity weakens the proteins in the flour and helps improve moisture retention in the dough. The addition is a riff off a Chinese technique for using alkaline water to make noodles in order to improve the texture of the dough. We find that the cavatelli made with this dough, in addition to being delicious, holds its texture well without becoming gummy or soft after cooking.
We gathered and array of mushrooms and cooked them in a foil packet on the grill. They were simply seasoned with salt, squash butter and sherry vinegar and finished with a handful of freshly chopped herbs to brighten their flavor and add an earthy, green note. We cooked the cavatelli in boiling water and then added them to the mushrooms, tossing everything together to complete the pasta.
Finally we garnished it with aged gouda cheese, grating it over each dish with a microplane and, if we don’t mind saying so, this delicious dish tastes like autumn on a plate.
Ideas in Food is a blog, book, and culinary consulting business by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot.