Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country

Whipped-up Autumn

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My eyes are often bigger than my storage space. It’s a perennial problem that peaks just about this time each year, but this year I seem to have outdone myself.  Remember all those little green apples I froze? They are now keeping company with the berries we picked on our Michigan trip:

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In our defense, we didn’t realize that all three of the kids had now reached prime picking age. But it’s worth every cubic inch of freezer space–and not just because we can cool down a bowl of oatmeal with a handful of frozen berries every weekday morning for the rest of the year, without flinching.  When we were out in the blueberry patch–or maybe it was the black raspberry patch–our littlest guy, smeared with purple juice, declared “This is more fun than digging in the sand. Because berries does taste good, and sand do not.” (This is a translated quotation: If I transcribed his speech in its true, impeded form, you wouldn’t understand.)

And the berries and the apples are snuggled up against the leftover heels of bread, which I always cube and freeze instead of throwing away because, in theory and occasional practice, they would be fantastic homemade croutons. And the berries, apples, and bread share their space with several gallon bags of peaches that, right now, remind me of the orange and rust-rimmed leaves of our autumn tulip tree. (I knew I was out of control with the peaches, but, golly, they were just so pretty this summer, and they did taste great this morning alongside our pancakes.) Meanwhile, the berries, apples, bread, and peaches are competing with at least a dozen bags of Penzey’s spices, which I buy in bulk because they are so much less expensive that way and freeze because that helps them keep their flavor. And the whole lot of it is crushed under the weight of several bags of coffee, which my husband insists upon keeping in the freezer even though we use it so quickly that spoilage is a non-issue.

Are you getting the idea yet? My freezer is packed. I need to buy a second refrigerator and put it in the garage. That’s on my to-do list. In the meantime, a box of butternut squash that I bought at the season’s final farmers’ market is hanging out on my counter, giving me the stink eye. My plan was to spend an hour or so peeling and chunking them all and then to chuck them into the freezer to make into butternut squash soup. But there is, definitively, no vacancy. So I decided to use them instead.

The recipe I settled on has much in common with my butternut squash soup, but it’s more concentrated, more decadent, and richer precisely because it isn’t a soup. The technique will maybe seem a little strange, but trust me: steaming the veggies in their own juices with no added water keeps all the caramelly squashiness right where you want it. This is a perfect side dish for a pot roast (which is what I have pictured here) or for a roasted chicken or even a grilled piece of sturdy fish (like salmon or trout). It’s warming and robust and unmistakably autumnal–not to mention really easy, once you free those ornery squashes from their stubborn peels. You could use any old winter squash you like (except spaghetti squash) in place of the butternut, but I’m partial to butternuts because of their long noses, which contain no seeds and are, therefore, quite a bit easier to peel and dice.

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Whipped Winter Squash

2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 onion, peeled and sliced into half-moons

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced

1 russet potato (or other type of potato), peeled and diced. (Aim for a 2:1 ratio of squash to potato)

a generous sprinkle of salt

a sprig of thyme (if you have some on hand)

1/4 cup or so grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup whole milk, half-and-half, or (heaven help us) cream

1. Melt your butter over medium heat in a biggish pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add your onion and allow it to soften for 3-5 minutes.

2. Add your squash, potato, salt, and thyme. Stir and then cover and turn down your heat a smidgen. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are soft. It’s good to let them get a little golden on the bottom before you stir them again, but don’t let them burn. If they seem to want to burn, turn down your heat. The temperature you need here will depend on the heaviness of your pot and the power of your stove. On my stove and with my pot, a low medium worked well. This is not a mistake: Add no water.

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3. When they are soft enough to smash with the back of your spoon, sprinkle in your cheese and fish out the thyme sprig (if you put the stem in there).

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4. Then whip them up. You could probably use a hand mixer if you wanted to. I love my immersion blender for this task (and pretty much all tasks that involve transforming something chunky into something smooth).

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5. Then add your milk or cream and blend them together. The resulting mixture should be thick and autumn colored. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if you want. (I don’t like pepper, but that’s just me.)

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6. Serve alongside something sturdy.

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