Surprises. They keep things interesting, snap us out of boring patterns, and sometimes provide
Take, for instance, what my dogwood is doing this week...
Surely a flowering tree shouldn't be towards the end of November???? Nevertheless, it is blooming away, in bold defiance of the freezing overnight temperatures we've been experiencing off and on for the last few weeks. Surprising!
Also surprising? Well, I'll have to make a couple of confessions here. First, although I love most vegetables, I've never been a huge fan of squash. Early encounters were not good ones, and consisted of bland and mushy concoctions that were frankly hard to get down. The unfortunate name didn't help either...'squash'...surely it sounds more appetizing in another language? Secondly, I'm not a big fan of stuffing either (I know that sounds slightly heretical this time of year). It's just that I find it doughy, overly moist and, well, superfluous. I simply don't get what virtually everyone else waxes rapturous about. It seems to me that stuffing takes up very valuable plate real estate on the big turkey day.
So, taking the dogwood's bold spirit of non-conformity to heart, I embarked on a personal challenge to find a recipe that features something a little more interesting in the squash and stuffing departments. I was more than happily surprised with the results.
I knew as soon as I'd seen these little guys at the market that I'd found the perfect conscripts for my quest. These were supplied by a local farmer, which I felt great about as I try to buy local when I can. Since my experience with squash was limited, I searched cook books and settled on and borrowed heavily from Robin Asbell's Pecan and Wild Rice-Stuffed Squash recipe in her lovely book
The New Whole Grains Cookbook.
The tops of the squash are cut off, the insides scooped out, and a small slice taken off the bottom for leveling purposes. The insides are generously oiled and salted, and baked until tender. Be careful cutting off the bottoms to avoid cutting into and exposing the interior (see squash in the bottom left above...oops). The original recipe called for grinding a large potion of the nuts and mixing this with the scooped out flesh of the squash, but I chose to leave the squash and nuts intact (easier, less time consuming, and more interesting textures that way).
The toasted pecans provide a delicious compliment to the rice and vegetables in the stuffing, and go particularly well with the subtle flavor of the baked squash. The warm, nutty and slightly sweet crunch of the pecans is a great texture addition. Toasting the nuts adds a layer of depth and complexity that simply isn't present otherwise....this is a quick and easy step that shouldn't be skipped.
These can be served with the tops off or on, but I think replacing the tops makes for a dressier presentation, and really shows off the natural beauty provided by Mother Nature (they look like jaunty little hats, don't they?).
The results of this recipe challenge were delicious! Each forkful of the warm, soft and earthy squash contrasted beautifully with the spicy array of vegetables and nutty textures and flavors of the rice and pecans. The sage and marjoram shout 'stuffing' but are not overpowering. The spices could be easily adjusted depending on personal tastes. Next time I may try an Indian or Mediterranean version, but loved this one so much, I will be hard pressed to change a thing.
This dish exceeded my expectations in every way and is definitely one that I will make again, very soon. The squash and stuffing were delicious and shattered my earlier prejudices (OK, I was wrong).
Every bite affirmed that I had been sorely mistaken about both this humble vegetable and maligned side dish. If you are looking for a less traditional stuffing alongside the bird , or just a fresh, new way to serve this simple vegetable, give this recipe a try.
So satisfying and, for me, so surprising. Like flowers in November...only tastier.
Acorn Squash with Wild Rice Stuffing:
4 small acorn squash (or any squash of choice)
1/2 cup wild rice mix
1 1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 tbs olive oil
1/2 to 1 tsp salt, to taste
3 stalks celery, minced
4 small (or 2 large) shallots, minced
1 1/2 cup mushrooms, diced
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp dried sage (or 3 tbs fresh sage), and fresh sage leaves for garnish
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
pinch of ground nutmeg
1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces, whole pieces reserved for garnish if desired
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Oil a large baking sheet and set aside. With a strong and very sharp knife, cut the tops off of the squash. Also cut a small slice off the bottom to keep the squash upright--make sure not to cut too deep or you will cut into the interior of the squash. Set the tops aside, and rub lightly with oil if desired (for presentation). If the seeds are not exposed, cut a circle into the top of the flesh, expose the seeds and interior, and scrape out the insides. You can reserve the seeds and bake along with the squash if desired, or discard with the stringy pulp. Scrape the interior clean. Generously oil and salt the inside of each squash, and place on the greased baking sheet. Bake for approximately 20 to 25 minutes until a paring knife pierces the flesh easily.
While the squash is baking, fix the rice. Bring 1 1/4 cup broth, rice, olive oil and salt to boil in a medium saucepan. Lower the heat, replace the lid, and simmer for approximately 20 to 30 minutes until all of the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let set for 5 minutes.
While the rice is simmering, saute the celery and shallots in the olive oil over medium heat until translucent, about five minutes. Add the mushrooms, marjoram and sage, continuing to saute until all the vegetables are just softened (do not overcook). Season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the toasted pecan pieces. Stir into the cooked wild rice mixture.
To assemble, fill each cooked squash with spoonfuls of the rice stuffing, lightly pressing down while filling. Garnish with whole toasted pecan pieces and sage leaves if desired. Replace the squash tops for serving.