Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spaghetti Squash Two Ways

This probably isn’t news to you: it’s fall and winter squash are in season. For many of us, the yellow, orange, and green colors, and the savory-sweet, nutty flavor of winter squash go hand in hand with leaves changing colors and sandals getting pushed to the back of the closet until next June. There are so many possibilities: acorn squash roasted to perfection with butter and maple syrup, butternut squash pureed into a spicy, comforting soup, and, of course, sweet pumpkin filling a perfect pie and topped with whipped cream. This week, though, I decided to tackle spaghetti squash.
If you purchase a spaghetti squash and wonder how it got its name, the answer will become evident as soon as you cook it. Grab a fork and begin to scoop the seemingly solid flesh of the cooked fruit, and it will immediately pull away from the shell in vermicelli-like golden threads. It’s kind of fun, and allows for a whole new realm of possibilities that other types of squash don’t offer. Unlike other varieties, spaghetti squash are not ideal for pureeing, which, though not the only preparation of winter squash, it must be the most common. You can actually treat these strands of squash as you would pasta. There were so many opportunities for experimentation, I knew I couldn’t choose only one. So, I tried two different methods for cooking the squash, and two different methods for preparing the flesh.
Night one was spaghetti squash with meat sauce. I cooked the squash using the method that was the quickest, and most commonly used in the recipes I looked at: steamed in the microwave. Now, the word “microwave” is normally an immediate deal-breaker for me—I use my microwave for reheating, not for cooking. Also, the microwave methods all involved wrapping the squash in plastic wrap, a practice that did not seem safe to me. The box may read “Microwave Safe”, but I usually steer clear of putting any plastic in the microwave—we don’t know enough about what may get leeched out of the plastic during the cooking process, and what kind of harm that may do to us. All of that said, I was intrigued enough to try this quick and easy method that so many recipes recommended. So, after halving the squash and scooping out the seeds, I turned half of it flesh-side down in a glass dish, added a quarter cup of water, covered it in plastic wrap, and microwaved on high for 12 minutes.

Well, it certainly worked: the squash came out fully cooked, and pulling away from its shell in beautiful, individual strands, just as it should. I added some salt, pepper, and a dash of olive oil and set it aside to work on my meat sauce.

I kept my sauce simple. I didn’t cook it for as long as I would cook a Bolognese, and I think it kept the flavors simpler and fresher, perfect for allowing the taste of the squash to come through. It was a basic combination of some local, grass-fed beef, mirepoix, garlic, wine, canned whole peeled tomatoes with their juice, and various herbs and seasonings. I let it cook down for about forty minutes: just long enough to let it concentrate a little and to bring out the flavors of the herbs.
I mixed the cooked squash with the sauce, scooped it back into the shell, topped it with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and baked it for about half an hour to allow it to concentrate just a little more. I loved this combination: the squash and the herby tomato sauce, along with the earthy taste of the grass-fed beef made me think of harvest, wet, fallen leaves, and the comfort of hot food on a cool night. In other words, it tasted like autumn.
On night two, I opted for a more classic cooking method for the squash, and a simpler preparation of the final product, more of a side dish than a main course. This time, I roasted the squash in a 375 F oven. I brushed a baking sheet with vegetable oil, sprinkled the halved squash with salt and pepper, placed in face-down on the sheet, and baked for about thirty-five minutes.

Need I say more? Just looking at that deepened color, and the golden edges of that squash told me right away that this method had produced a richer, more flavorful product than the steamed version. The rest was pretty simple: I melted butter in a hot sauté pan, added the squash strands and tossed it for a couple of minutes, allowing a little more of the liquid to cook out of it. I sprinkled it with a little more salt and pepper, and added a dash of nutmeg. It made for an unexpectedly light side dish, highlighting the combination of savory and sweet that makes squash so delicious and versatile.
These were two of many possible preparations of spaghetti squash. I liked both, but in the future, I will definitely be roasting my squash rather than microwave-steaming it. Try one of these recipes, or make up your own. You should do it soon, though: the squash season will be over before you know it.

Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce
Serves 4

1 tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. ground beef, preferably grass-fed
Salt and pepper
½ cup ¼” diced onion
¼ cup ¼” diced carrot
¼ cup ¼” diced celery
1 tbsp. minced garlic
¼ tsp. dried red pepper flakes
½ cup dry red wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
1 tsp. ketchup
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. dried oregano
1 spaghetti squash, halved, seeds scooped out
¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, or a large, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the ground beef season with salt and pepper. Brown until no pink remains. Use a slotted spoon to transfer beef to a side dish. Reduce heat to medium, and add the onion, carrot, and celery to the drippings. Sauté until vegetables have softened and onion is translucent, about ten minutes. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook one minute longer.

Return the beef to the pot, and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the red wine and deglaze, scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir in the tomatoes, ketchup, and dried herbs. Simmer for forty minutes, stirring occasionally, and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.

Meanwhile, place the squash, cut side down in a large, glass baking dish. Add enough water to cover the bottom of the dish, then cover tightly with microwave-safe plastic wrap. Microwave on high for about twelve minutes, until shell can easily be pierced with a fork. (Alternately, roast the squash using the method in the recipe below.) Using a fork, pull the flesh of the squash away from the shell, separating it into strands.

Stir the squash strands in with the finished sauce, taste, and season with salt and pepper as necessary. Scoop the squash and sauce into the emptied shells, and top with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place on a baking sheet, and bake in a 375 F oven for about 30 minutes, until Parm has melted and browned slightly, and filling is heated through. Cut each half in half, and serve one quarter squash per person.

Butter-Sautéed Spaghetti Squash with Nutmeg
Serves 4

1 tsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 spaghetti squash, halved, seeds scooped out
1 tbsp. butter
½ tsp. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 F. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil. Sprinkle squash with salt and pepper, and place cut side down on baking sheet. Roast squash for thirty-five minutes, until shell can easily be pierced with a fork. Use a fork to pull squash flesh away from the shell into strands.

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat, and add butter to it. When foam has subsided, add the spaghetti squash strands to it. Sauté for a couple of minutes, tossing, and letting some of the moisture cook out of the squash. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.