In the Desert, We Wait for Spring, and Eat Roasted Butternut Squash with Sweet Spices

 

grand falls 1

 

Bryan and I drove out to Grand Falls the other day, down a long dirt road, to see the spring runoff flooding down the Little Colorado river and over the cliffs (as high as Niagara, or so they say around here).  I kept thinking about how our Ponderosa pine forest seems so complete when I’m in it (which is most of the time), but really, just on the other side of town is a transition zone between our high-elevation forest and the lower-elevation piñon pine and juniper, and the scrub-covered desert.

It’s getting warmer all over our varied section of the landscape, including the valley further south where most our local produce comes from.  We are not, however, California, and we are still waiting for asparagus and strawberries.

 

grand falls 3

 

In fact, as we drove, it seemed like the desert was waiting too, the little bushes looking soft and sun-bleached, flocking the hills.  Maybe the roar of muddy water will bring some green, a few desert flowers . . . but not yet.

 

grand falls 4

 

Fortunately, in the meantime, we still have squash.  Butternut squash was the first winter vegetable I fell in love with, since what’s not to love; the round, slightly sweet flavors, the vibrant orange color, and in this case, brightened up further for the coming spring with some new and unexpected spices and a tangy sauce.

I mentioned that we’ve cooked a LOT of recipes from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi this winter, this is latest one; which I adapted to my tastes and what was in my pantry that day.  It was just perfect to make ahead and leave in a friend’s refrigerator while we gallivanted around the desert, ready and waiting for all of us to be hungry when we got back.

 

roasted butternut with sweet spices

 

Roasted Butternut Squash with Sweet Spices and Tangy Chile Sauce

Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

Serves 5 as an appetizer

 

Preheat the oven to 400° F

Take two very small, or one medium-large butternut squash.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and set them aside for later.  Slice the squash 3/8 inch or 1 cm thick.  Lay out the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a non-stick mat.

Take 1 Tablespoon of dried cardamom pods; break the green pods open, either with your fingers or by crushing them a bit in a mortar and pestle.  Discard the pods but keep all the seeds which are inside.  Crush the seeds until they are roughly ground, either with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.

Add the ground cardamom to a small bowl with: 1 teaspoon ground allspice and 3 Tablespoons olive oil.  Stir this up and brush it all over the squash slices.

Sprinkle a little salt over the squash, and roast in the oven until the slices are tender but not mushy when stabbed with a fork, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, separate the squash seeds from the stringy stuff they grow in, and put the seeds into the bowl with the leftover oil and spices, mix them around to coat.

For the sauce: stir together the juice of 1/2 lime, several heaping Tablespoons of crème fraîche (once you have it, you put it on everything) and some chopped fresh chile  – I used 1/2 of one large defrosted frozen roasted one from last fall (you can put those on everything too).  If dairy is not your thing, these would also be great with just a little chile or hot sauce, or maybe even a sweet and hot sauce . . .

 

roasted butternut sauce and seeds

 

When the squash is done, transfer it to a cutting board, or platter or bowl to serve, and put the seeds on the same baking sheet and roast them for 10 – 15 minutes, until golden and crunchy.  You can serve them with the squash, or eat them as a road-trip snack.  The leftover spices are more subtle, but delicious with the toasted seed flavor.

To serve the squash, slide a small sharp knife around the outside of the slices, taking off just the peel.  If you run out of time, you can also serve them as they are and let the eaters peel their own.  This is good cold or room temp, with a little sauce drizzled over the top.

 

So, what are you eating?  Is it spring yet where you are?

 

grand falls 2

 

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DIY Crème Fraîche – and Kohlrabi Salad

 

Or, why I like The Joy Of Cooking so much.

 

creme fraiche and kohlrabi

I know, it looks like strange bedfellows, but keep reading . . .

 

If you’ve never had crème fraîche, I recommend trying it.  It’s kind of like sour cream, but a little less sour and much more subtly flavored.  And expensive, at least here.  It’s a cultured food, so we figured that if some of the cultures are still active, we might be able to get more crème fraîche by adding some of what we had to some plain cream.  Good quality organic heavy cream is about 1/4 the price per ounce of crème fraîche, at least in Flagstaff, AZ.

And in fact, if you look up crème fraîche in the KNOW YOUR INGREDIENTS section at the back of The Joy of Cooking (I love that part of the book), they suggest as a substitute: adding one tablespoon of buttermilk to one cup of heavy cream, warming it to 110° F on the stove, and then pouring in into a jar, letting it set loosely covered “until the cream has thickened and has a pleasant mildly sour flavor,” anywhere from 6 hours to 3 days.

We tried the same thing, using one tablespoon of store-bought crème fraîche to one cup of cream.  And, almost three days later, tada!  It’s funny because it looks like nothing is happening for quite a while, the cream still very liquid, and then finally a few more solid clumps appear, and the then bam! it’s done.  Once it gets as thick and mildly sour as you would like, store it in the fridge to keep it from becoming overly acidic.

These directions say to leave it in a warm place while the cultures are working.  Our house is short on warm places in the winter, so the first time I tried it, I left the little jar near the stove, figuring that whenever I heated something up it would get a little warmth.  That was the time it took almost the whole three days, but definitely worked.  The next time, I actually forgot to heat it at the beginning, I just added 1 tablespoon of the first batch to one cup of fresh cream and stirred it around.  I thought it might benefit from a warmer place, so I put it in the middle of the burners on the stove as I was cooking dinner, checking from time to time to make sure the jar was getting warm, but not hot, and to rotate it around a bit.  That time the whole jar had become thick crème fraîche by the next morning!

 

kohlrabi salad

 

Ok, so once you have some crème fraîche, kohlrabi is probably not the first thing you are inspired to put it on.  Dolloped in soup or on waffles might sound more luscious, and both are wonderful.  But, if you’ve never had kohlrabi, I definitely recommend it.  It’s one of those winter vegetables that looks knobbly and scary on the outside, but on the inside has a lovely subtle flavor, in this case a little cabbage, a little nutty, and quite good.

I tried one recipe for kohlrabi salad earlier this winter, but I thought the amount of lemon juice in the dressing overwhelmed the soft flavors.  If you look up almost any specific vegetable in Joy, it will tell you not only whether it is good raw or cooked, and how to cook it, and whether to peel it first, but it also gives a list of flavors that compliment that veggie particularly well.  That features was a huge help when we joined our local CSA – even though I had never heard of most of the greens we got, they were almost all listed, and I could figure out at least whether they were for cooking or salad, and what they were likely to taste like.

Under kohlrabi it says, among other things, that it goes well with cream, parsley, and dill.  As do carrots, and so . . .

 

Recipe Sketch: Kohlrabi and Carrot Salad with Crème Fraîche

This makes enough for 2 or 3 servings, feel free to make more!

 

Peel, taking off the woody outside layer (chew on a bit if you are not sure), 2 small kohlrabi

Scrub one medium carrot (I pretty much never peel carrots)

Grate the kohlrabi and carrot on the largest teeth of your grater (a trick I only recently figured out is to leave the carrot top as a handle, start grating from the skinny end, and stop when you get almost to the top).

Put these in a bowl, add 2 – 3 tablespoons of crème fraîche, and mix with your fingers, it should be slightly creamy all over.

Sprinkle on about a tablespoon each of chopped fresh dill and fresh parsley.  (Remember how I keep herbs in a jar in the fridge?  Dill keeps practically indefinitely that way.)

Mix together, taste, and add a pinch of salt if desired.  If you are not serving it right away, you may find that the veggies have absorbed some the liquid and the salad is a little dry, if so you can add a little more crème fraîche or regular cream before serving.

 

I love all harmonious delicate flavors in this salad.  And, as you might guess, some crème fraîche mixed with the cream for carrot and raisin salad is pretty great as well.

If you can’t find any crème fraîche to start from where you live, you may be able to get the cultures from a source like New England Cheesemaking Supply.

I did a little research on using the same process to make perpetual yogurt, which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never tried, but it’s now next on my list of kitchen projects.  From what I’ve read so far it seems only slightly more complicated, heating the milk, I presume to kill of any unwanted bacteria, then adding the yogurt or culture once it’s cooled back to warm.

What about you – have you made your own crème fraîche or yogurt, or other cultured food?  Any tips or thoughts?