Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

As I've mentioned before, I am pretty much done with winter food. I can't wait for spring. Visions of glowing strawberries and roasted asparagus with a touch of lemon and some goat cheese tempt my palate. But I must be patient. There's no local food right now. And I've got leftover root vegetables and squashes hanging around in my veggie basket and frozen fruits (mostly peach slices) from last summer at the back of the freezer. It's time to clean all of that out and make way for the fresh food that's soon to come.

Today's task was to get rid of the three celebration squash that I bought oh so many months ago from the good people at Glascock's Produce, back when I thought I should store away as much produce as I could and was feeling adventurous about trying unfamiliar squash varieties. (I love winter squash, but a long winter makes root vegetables and squashes boring, although I have no doubt I will be excited about them again come fall.) The celebration squash were pretty beasties back when I bought them: variegated orange and yellow, smooth skin. Now out of the basket, they seemed a little dusty and felt as though they had lost a lot of weight. (I guess the moisture was pulled out of them.) So I cut them open to see how they looked, and they seemed fine. No black spots, no sliminess, no bad odors. Probably OK to eat. There wasn't a lot of meat on them anymore, but I decided they would make  good cups for a stuffed squash dish. So I cleaned the seeds out of the six halves, sliced a small bit off the bottom so they wouldn't roll around in the pan, and placed them in a baking dish I had rubbed with some olive oil. Finally, I drizzled a little maple syrup into the cups because maple syrup works magic on squash.

Then, I had to decide what I could stuff them with. I happened to have some ground chicken. Maybe I could make a chicken-apple sausage to stuff the squash? No, no, no, these squashes didn't have enough meat to make a meal. We need some carbohydrates. So I looked in the veggie basket and found a decent-looking sweet potato, a bruised apple, and some slightly wrinkly red-skinned potatoes. Got it: Hash!

Now, before I go on, let me say that I am not a fan of bad food, or, to be honest, even particularly tolerant of it. I've known people to dump the contents of their crispers into a pot with some water or a couple of cans of commercial broth and call it soup. This is appalling to me. And, as a lover of soups, it's offensive. Would you also call the contents of your garbage disposal soup? Well, I suppose that's one thing you could call it. What I wanted to do was to transform ingredients that were past their prime into something yummy.

So I'd decided to make a hash. I finely diced a yellow-skinned onion about the size of my fist (this turned out to be a good dish for practicing your knife skills) and added it to about two tablespoons of hot olive oil bathing in my wonderful iron skillet. (Anyone who has ever gotten a good season on an iron skillet must love their skillets the way that I do. Or perhaps not. OK, I'll be over here.)

I slow-cooked the onions until they caramelized into golden-brown bits that crusted the pan, which gave me time to dice the sweet potato, two potatoes, and the apple into about a quarter-inch dice. When I was done, the ground chicken went into the pan until it was slightly browned and mostly cooked through. Next the diced potatoes and apple went into the pan, just long enough to brown a little. I added about a tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of dried sage, and a generous pinch of white pepper. Then I threw in a handful of chopped almonds to get a little crunch.

The next steps were to fill the squash cups with the hash, top them with some fresh bread crumbs and a dab of butter, and pop them into a 375-degree oven for an hour. Because I had lots of hash left in the skillet, I popped it into the oven with the squash cups for about 20 minutes to finish cooking the potatoes and have some leftovers ready for tomorrow's lunch. (Just heat it up and fry an egg sunny side up to put on top. Yum. I love a good runny yolk on hash.)

I need to work on my food-styling skills.
This was my experiment. The verdict? The flavor was great. The sweetness of the apple and the sweet potato mellowed with the onions, the squash, and the chicken into a warm and savory mixture. However, the crumbs were a bit burnt, the squash a bit stringy, and the chicken a bit on the dry side. These flaws were not enough to kill the dish, but flaws they were. And yet, it tasted great, and I had managed to use several old vegetables and fruits that have been languishing for a while. A few more meals like this, and all the vegetables and fruits from last season will be gone, and there will be plenty of space for the fresh fruits and vegetables we will soon see in the markets. (And I don't have to feel guilty about wasting good food.)

If you want to try this "recipe," the steps are described above. Here are the general quantities used:

  • 1 lb of ground chicken (ground beef or pork with a slightly higher fat content would be a bit less dry; however, make it's not too fatty or the stuffing could get greasy)
  • 3 celebration squash, halved, seeded (if you use acorn squash instead, you may want to pre-bake it for at least 40 minutes before stuffing it because it's such a meaty, slow-cooking squash)
  • 1 large onion, diced finely
  • 1 sweet potato, diced (about a quarter inch)
  • 2 medium potatoes, diced (about a quarter inch)
  • 1 apple, cored, peeled, and diced (about a quarter inch)
  • about half a cup of chopped nuts (I used almonds because that's what I had, but most nuts would taste good here)
  • about half a cup of fresh breadcrumbs
  • some dabs of butter 
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sage
  • a generous pinch of white pepper

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