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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Planning a Dinner Party and Serving Winter Squash

A lot of work goes into hosting a dinner party. No one likes wasted effort, so it behooves the cook in the house to find out what the guests like to eat and what foods to avoid. 

With pescetarians, vegetarians, vegans, shellfish averse and gluten-free friends all potentially coming to the same meal, putting together a menu can be a bit of a puzzle. Besides staying clear of food allergies and aversions, as with any menu, the dishes need to have a flow and there needs to be pairings and contrasts. All soft food would be unpleasant. Serving only crispy food presents the same problem. But a mix of flavors and textures enlivens the palate as the conversation twists and turns through different conversational topics.
Warming up a meal with winter squash
Writing about food when rain is hitting the windows and the wind pushes through the trees makes me hungry for hot, savory and filling comfort food. A salad anytime would be nice but what drives away the chill is a good bowl of soup, a nice braise or roasted vegetables.

Not being a squash-person, the great abundance of winter squash in the farmers markets hasn't much mattered to me. When we host a dinner party, included in the invitation are two questions: "What do you love to eat?" and "What do you prefer not to eat?"
Which is a long way of getting around to winter squash.

At a recent dinner party, one of our guests indicated a love of squash so I was encouraged to experiment with a vegetable rarely visited in our kitchen. In today's farmers market there were beautiful looking displays of acorn and butternut squash.
Versatile squash
Squash can be boiled, steamed, sautéed, roasted, stewed, pureed, braised and grilled. Because the seeds and pulp inside are not edible (although the seeds can be separated from the pulp, washed clean, tossed with olive oil and soy sauce and roasted for a snack), squash needs to be cut open. After that, the squash can be peeled or not, sliced, diced or left half or in quarters. 

Squash soup is certainly a good use of the vegetable, but I was more interested in retaining the texture of the flesh. Aiming for softness with a bit of char, I settled on a double method of cooking. Seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, the slices were first grilled and then finished in the oven to soften the flesh.

After cooking, the slices could be presented on a serving dish or, as I ultimately decided, peeled and large-diced, which made them an ideal side dish to accompany the rest of the meal, which consisted of brown sugar pork ribs, baked chicken breasts topped with parsley, roasted vegetable salad, Caesar salad, grilled romaine lettuce with Parmesan cheese shavings, Brazilian style grilled slices of picanha (beef top sirloin), roasted salmon with kimchi and brown sugar, chicken wing and leek tagine with preserved lemons.

For an easy-to-make side dish or tossed with pasta, roasted winter squash is a great way to go. In 30 minutes you can make pasta, the squash and a tossed salad for a healthy, delicious meal.

Grilled-Roasted Winter Squash

You can buy a large squash or, as I prefer, two smaller squash. They're easier to handle and are sometimes sweeter.

Serves 4

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds winter squash, washed and pat dried
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Using a sharp chefs knife on a wooden cutting board, cut off the ends of the squash and then cut the squash in half, lengthwise. Using a spoon, scoop out the pulp and seeds, washing the seeds and reserving them for a later use, if desired.
Preheat the grill and oven to 350 F. Slice the the squash into 1/2" thick, lengthwise slices. Pour the olive oil onto a medium sized baking tray and season with salt and pepper. Coat the squash slices with the seasoned olive oil.

To get char marks on the squash slices, place them on a hot grill for 30-40 seconds on each side. Use metal tongs to turn them and put them pack on the baking tray.

Put the squash into the oven 10 minutes on each side and bake until al dente. Don't make them too soft. Remove and, using a pairing knife, remove the peel.

Serve warm.

Variations

In addition to sea salt and black pepper, season the olive oil with finely chopped fresh garlic (2 cloves, peeled).

In addition to the other seasonings, add finely chopped fresh rosemary (1 tablespoon) to the squash slices.

For heat, add 1/8 teaspoon cayenne to the seasoned olive oil.

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