It’s all about that squash

September has mostly turned into a squash fest, with a few exceptions.

Every time I go to the grocery store now, I see new squash that I’ve never seen before, like these two interesting specimens. Do you know what they are?

Delicata squash and sweet dumpling squash

The smaller squash is one I had never heard of, and apparently is used a lot with sweeter recipes, so I decided to use it more as a dessert. I also felt compelled to buy it because it shared the name of my cat. On the left: Sweet Dumpling Squash. On the right: sweet Dumpling the cat.

Sweet dumpling squash My part Siamese cat, named Dumpling

This may have been the recipe I used, though I don’t remember poking holes in the squash or putting water in the bottom of the pan. It’s possible that I just didn’t read the recipe that carefully.  I did cut the squash in half and scooped out the seeds, which I left outside for the squirrels.

Inside view of sweet dumpling squash

It used lots of pure maple syrup, butter, cinnamon and nutmeg to turn the squash into a really yummy as well as hearty dessert. And it was easy to bake in the oven.

Cooked sweet dumpling squash with maple syrup mixture inside

Jacques and I decided that it tasted like a combination of French toast and pumpkin pie.

Whole delicata squash

Do you know this squash?

The delicata squash I had heard of, I think on one of the cooking shows I’ve watched, but I was pretty sure I’d never tasted it. Again, the first step is to halve and scoop out the seeds.

Inside delicata squash Inside delicata squash with seeds removed

I found a fun recipe from theprettybee.com, which specializes in allergy-friendly recipes, using ground turkey. Instead of cherry tomatoes I just chopped up some on-vine tomatoes I already had, and instead of chopped onions I used pearl onions, which I’d eaten many times but had never cooked with. It was not hard to make this recipe, and it turned out to be really tasty. I would definitely make it again. I served it with a simple romaine salad and crusty garlic toast.

Ground turkey, tomato and pearl onion mixture, cooking in a pan Meal with delicata squash half stuffed with ground turkey/tomato mixture, French bread and salad

The lesson I’m learning about squash is that overall it’s really easy to use, you can simply bake it if you want less fuss, and most of the squash varieties do not have that strong of a flavor, so they absorb a lot of what you’re cooking with them.

This was really true of the last one I tried this week, spaghetti squash.

Spaghetti squash, whole

I’d seen it on cooking shows, often used as a substitute for pasta. If you’ve never cooked with it, I recommend giving it a try! This squash has a harder shell, so it can be difficult to cut in half. The recipe I used recommended poking holes in it and scoring where you want to cut it first, then putting in the microwave for a few minutes to soften up the rind before cutting.

This recipe from inspiredtaste.net called for cutting the squash in half, removing seeds, then baking the halves with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Spaghetti squash cut in half Cooked spaghetti squash halves

Then you shred the spaghetti-like cooked insides of the squash with a fork, so it looks like this:

Spaghetti squash after shredding with fork

Hence the name

Then you use as you might a pasta, mixing it with cut-up cooked chicken thighs, cheese, fresh lemon juice  (I also mixed in some lime, as I didn’t have enough lemon), and pepper. It really absorbed the citrus flavors and cheese wonderfully, which was a surprisingly delicious combination!

Cooking spaghetti squash strands with cut-up chicken thighs

It looked like a hot mess after I added the cheese. I didn’t have enough Parmesan, so I added cut-up mozzarella too, which turned it into a gooey but very addictive mess. I served it with a simple salad of romaine and cut-up tomatoes to add those extra colors (see last week’s blog).

I did make one new dish this week that did not include squash. This recipe featured pearl onions.

pearl onions

They were difficult to peel, though if you boil them for a few minutes they peel easier. Based on the general idea of a recipe I found on potsandpans.com with pearl onions and mushrooms (I didn’t have fresh thyme, so used dried thyme), I started what was supposed to be a side dish. Then I added some cut-up ham and some tomatoes too, because I had them in the fridge waiting to be used, plus I really like tomatoes. That turned it into a meal.

Pearl onions and button mushrooms cooking in a pan Pearl onions, mushrooms, tomatos and ham slices cooking in a pan

Here’s what I’m learning about myself as a cook: I get creative when I don’t have the right ingredients. This happens a lot, either because I don’t plan ahead, I’m too lazy to run out to the store for just one thing, OR I just feel like using up something I’ve got in the fridge that might go bad if it’s not eaten. The results have been amazingly good! I sometimes google substitutes for the missing ingredient, which can be more or less helpful, but lately I’ve just been winging it. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to try that even a year ago, so I can tell that my confidence is increasing. And the more positive results I achieve, the more confident I become. I guess that could be true with anything.

Keep on cooking!

Miriam

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Color my world

One thing I’ve read about good, healthy eating involves color. Not only does a colorful plate look pretty, but it also means that you’ve chosen ingredients with a variety of vitamins and nutrients. In my continuing quest to cook with unfamiliar — and plant-based — ingredients, I’m looking to color to inspire me.

Most types of squash have nice color to them, both inside and out. I picked up this acorn squash at the grocery store last week to try.

Whole acorn squash

While I’m sure I’ve eaten acorn squash, which is a pretty familiar ingredient in the autumn around here, I’ve never cooked it before. I think I’ve had acorn squash ravioli somewhere. When I cut it open and scooped out the seeds, it felt like preparing a jack o’lantern, and smelled a bit like pumpkin, too.

Acorn squash cut in half Acorn squash with seeds removed, cut in slices

 

A lot of acorn squash recipes include butter and brown sugar, sounding more like dessert. I wanted to go a little more savory with this one, so I found a recipe on realsimple.com involving parmesan cheese which sounded good.  I didn’t have sprigs of thyme that the recipe called for, so I used dried ground thyme. It turned out to be pretty tasty. Jacques ate the skin too, but I didn’t care for that texture.

Acorn squash slices arranged on pan

I probably could have sliced them thinner.

Acorn squash slices with spices and Parmesan cheese before cookingAcorn squash slices, cooked

Then I bought a bag of little sweet peppers at the grocery store last week just because they were cute and colorful: the peppers were various hues of yellow, red and orange.

Colorful yellos, orange and red sweet pappers, cut up shishito peppers

Without using any particular recipe, I ended up cutting them up quite thin to sauté with the one shishito pepper I had from my sister-in-law’s CSA pepper stash.

Whole shishito peppers

The second pepper here looked like it had gone bad when I cut it open, so I only used the good one, along with half an onion and a garlic clove. Because I was going Asian flavor profile with this meal (I’d already marinated chicken drumsticks in soy sauce, ginger, black pepper, honey and garlic, with a sprinkle of fish sauce and lemon juice; and I had rice going in my rice cooker), I then added a dash of soy, ginger and lime to the sautéed peppers.

Cooking peppers and onion mixture in a pan

Then I cheated and microwaved a bag of frozen sugar snap peas I had in the freezer, to end up with a nice colorful plate. It tasted pretty good, too. The shishito pepper was not spicy at all but added a nice zing to the overall flavor.

Finished meal with chicken drumsticks, rice, sugar snap peas, cooked peppers and onion mixture

There were two chayotes left over from the previous week,

Whole Chayote

Remember this?

so I decided to cook them up using a recipe I found on AllRecipes.com. It called for slicing the chayote lengthwise and cooking with vinegar, garlic and red pepper flakes.

Pan with cut-up chayote slices with red pepper flakes

The red pepper flakes made the dish quite spicy (for me) in a good way, but I didn’t care for the taste of the vinegar very much (though maybe it was not good vinegar). After tasting it in the pan, I decided to add some tomatoes to absorb some of the heat and vinegar, which helped. I threw in a dash of lime juice also; not sure why. The recipe said that the chayote would still be crunchy after cooking, but I didn’t care for it being that hard, so I cooked it a great deal longer than the recipe said. It was still quite crunchy despite the extra time in the pan. I think I prefer chayote to be cooked until softer.

I served it with some leftover sweet potatoes and carrots I had roasted with cumin and cinnamon a couple of days earlier for a colorful, meatless meal.

I’m going to keep looking for more colorful, unfamiliar ingredients to add to my cooking. I’ll let you know what I find at the grocery store next time …

Miriam

Adventures in eating

What better way to broaden your horizons, if you don’t have the means to travel, than through your palate? Do you know what this is?

Whole chayote

I’ll tell you a little later on.

This month I plan to explore new horizons via the kitchen. I’ll be cooking with ingredients I’ve never used before (which is a lot, actually), or that I’ve never even heard of, as in the above picture.

As you may have read in my previous blogs about baking, starting with Alice’s Loaf Pan, I don’t have a great history as a cook. My mother did not welcome company in the kitchen while she cooked, so I didn’t learn at her side. It wasn’t until I had children that I even thought much about cooking, and the exhaustion and busyness of motherhood did not inspire me to play catch-up for all the years I’d neglected learning this important skill.

So the upshot is, I have a very limited range of experience in the kitchen. In recent months I’ve been trying to rectify that. It’s easier now that I have fewer obligations and a little more time to experiment. I’m enjoying lots of the cooking shows on Food Network. Plus, I have a willing recipient of my efforts who has been very encouraging (my boyfriend Jacques)!

My main goal is to increase the amount of unprocessed, plant-based foods in my cooking, mostly for reasons of health as well as for the environment.

First I decided to use a Poblano pepper, since we received some peppers from my sister-in-law Kathy, who belongs to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

Whole poblano pepper

I hope to join the CSA next year, as you get a wonderful, fresh, organic supply of vegetables (and occasional fruit, like melons) for a reasonable price. You receive whatever items they’ve harvested each week, and it’s like a fun surprise — your share might contain various lettuces, herbs, squash, root vegetables, peppers — you name it! Plus you support local agriculture, which is great.

Being Minnesota born and raised, I’m not crazy about spicy food, and I’m pretty wimpy in general about things like peppers. I hunted around on the internet till I found a recipe that seemed pretty straightforward and did not use too many peppers, on the Food Network website.

Because I didn’t have any pears, I used a peach instead. I didn’t really char the onions, as they weren’t that close to the broiler in my oven (I’m a little afraid of the broiler). But overall it turned out pretty good, though it was spicier than I normally like.

Jacques liked it just fine; here he just chomped into a pepper at our local Teresa’s Mexican restaurant.

my boyfriend holding half a pepper (he ate the other half)

Jacques enjoys spicy food!

The dish was hot enough for me that if I made it again, I might only use half a pepper, or add more fruit to balance it out.

My friend James assures me that Poblanos are not at all spicy (only 1,000-3,500 on the Scoville scale of spiciness), but Jacques and I both agreed that the dish had some heat. It may be that I didn’t clear the veins out of the pepper as well as I should have, though I was careful to remove all the seeds.

The Poblano pepper was sliced thin and sauteed with onions, thin-sliced garlic and fruit before putting in a pan under the broiler.

Mixture of peach slices, poblano peppers, onions in a pan Cooked garlic, poblano peppers, onions, peach slices in a pan Finished dish with pork chop, rice, poblano/peach/onion mixture

One of my favorite cooking aids is my rice cooker. If you don’t have one and you like rice, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s pretty impossible to ruin rice if you follow the directions using a rice cooker. I’ve even made saffron rice and garlic-infused rice in it.

My rice cooker

My next adventure started when I was walking through the grocery store and saw an item I’d never noticed before, and had no idea what it was — that picture I began with.

Give up?

It’s called a Chayote (pronounced chay-OH-tay), also called a mirliton, alligator pear or pear squash, and it’s common to Latin America.

Whole chayote with label (resembles a pear)

The chayote can be cooked or eaten raw, and is sometimes used in salsas or salads. It has a high vitamin C content, which makes sense — the flavor is very mildly citrusy, though it really doesn’t smell or taste like anything I’ve had before. Cut up, it seemed similar to a zucchini, though much more firm even when cooked.

I found a recipe online using ingredients I already had in the kitchen. First I peeled the chayote, cut it in half and removed the center seed (seeds?) before cutting up. The color reminds me of honeydew.

Peeled Chayote Chayote cut in half Chayote halves with center seeds removed cut-up chayote

The recipe called for sauteed diced onion, minced garlic and tomatoes. I served it over rice with chicken thighs that I pan seared in olive oil with salt and pepper before finishing in the oven.

Finished meal with sauteed chicken thighs, rice, cooked chayote with tomatoes and onion

I did end up cooking the squash longer than the recipe said, as it stayed almost crunchy for some time. Again, it’s much firmer to cook with and holds its shape better than zucchini or eggplant. It doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but absorbs a lot of whatever you’re cooking it with.

Often when I’m grocery shopping, I remember a news story from 1989 when former Russian president Boris Yeltsin visited a U.S. grocery store and was astonished by the sheer quantity as well as quality of goods available to shoppers. We are very fortunate, those of us who can access such a variety of food, especially items from around the world. We often take it for granted. We should also recall that many people in our own communities do not have the access or ability to buy from this cornucopia of food, and be sure to donate to local food shelves when we can.

Join me in trying some unfamiliar ingredients this month, as well as a few unfamiliar recipes (at least to me) using more well-known ingredients. Feel free to make suggestions!

Miriam

 

 

Time to Move on

The one thing I am learning rapidly as a result of this “try something new each month” experiment is that one month is not nearly enough time to explore anything sufficiently, much less get very good at it.

The month is way too short, and I find that I want to keep baking, or collaging, at the end of it . . . though not so much with calligraphy.

Calligraphy has been a real challenge for me. I just barely started trying some of the more fancy-looking scripts (Spencerian, Copperplate) as the month was coming to a close.

Here’s what they should look like:

Here’s some of my practicing:

I had a pretty hard time doing well in my first attempts, and I did not feel encouraged to practice much. After viewing the flourished versions of each of these in my book, I didn’t even give those a try. Perhaps when I’m older and have more patience (or not).

However, with repetition, I became a little more comfortable with the initial script types that I tried (Foundational, Italic, Uncials). Let’s not mention Gothic. Notice I’m not saying that I got very good at it, I just became a little more comfortable working on them (read: less swearing).

For a final project, I set myself the task of writing something out for another person.

You may recall from back during my collage month (which seems so far away now), I mentioned that a friend of mine was doing a project that I was lucky to be a part of.  First Collage post: A Bird by Any Other Name. That project is still ongoing. A group of her creative-minded friends (myself included) signed up to decorate pages in an artfully handmade book for each one of us, which we are passing around via snail mail after adding our pages.

Participants are drawing, painting, writing poems, inserting quotes and songs, and yes, making collages. And, for the first time, I added a couple of pages of calligraphy. Each of us has a theme word for our book, which will be mailed to us when all of the pages have been decorated.

The book that came to me this week had the theme word “music,” so I made a couple of collages for it, but then reserved two pages for an attempt at a quote in Italic calligraphy (though I snuck in a couple of Foundational characteristics — oops), spelling out part of the Shakespeare quote from Twelfth Night that is used in a Purcell song, “If Music Be the Food of Love.”

It was a good thing that I practiced first, then wrote the calligraphy on separate papers to glue into the book afterwards, as I was not fully satisfied with many of my attempts. Some words looked better with capital letters (majuscules) and some with lower case letters (miniscules).

I practiced a bunch. Sometimes the spacing wasn’t right, or just one letter looked wonky.

Finally, I decided that a colored ink would be better, and I worked hard at the balance and spacing of the letters. While I was not 100% satisfied with the results, I came to realize that I probably would never be. Unfortunately the glued-in page on the left formed a bit of a wrinkle where it was glued, but I was otherwise pleased with the overall effect, and I hope that the recipient will like it also.

Not perfect, but overall satisfying to look at.

But the truth is, while I may dabble in calligraphy from time to time or use it to write an occasional birthday card, it is not something I aspire to master or think about doing with an excited eagerness. However, collaging and baking are definitely things I think about doing (and have already done a little more of since the assigned months). I also continue to sing a bit while I’m drumming with bands, when backup vocals are needed.

What’s next for my adventures? The truth is, I haven’t made up my mind yet, and it’s already September 2nd. I have a number of ideas, but I’m still trying to work out details about the scheduling and cost of some of them. I also want to do something I’m excited about, and which involves perhaps a little more physical activity or socializing, and doesn’t leave me hunched over a table with a headache and sore neck, swearing and feeling frustrated.

I am open to suggestions . . .

Miriam