Monday, October 31, 2011

Butternut Squash Salad with Spices, Lime, and Green Chile

The week after I returned from London, I received a package that followed me home. My lovely UK editor had sent it, the best kind of parcel, one filled with books.

The books included a memoir by a woman who learned to live on a farm, a “how to” book on drinking wine by Victoria Moore and a cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi.

I had heard of Ottolenghi before. He's a chef in London with four restaurants named after himself and another called Nopi. He writes a column in the Guardian, which began about vegetarian cookery and now expands much wider. The cookbook my editor sent me was his first cookbook, a UK-version cookbook, charming with its Britishisms: aubergine not eggplant, grams not cups. I cooked a number of dishes—most recently a honeyed sweet potato and chickpea stew, which reminded me that simple is great and healthy can taste far better than good. I’ve been enamored of Ottolenghi ever since.

The other day, I went on a cookbook-buying binge. My schedule has been so packed the last few weeks that I haven’t had much time to cook. And since cooking is one of my favorite ways to unwind, to relax, to push the cobwebs of anxiety out of my brain, I’ve been feeling like my insides are tied up in knots. Even if I don’t have time to cook, however, I could never give up those few minutes before bed when I read. And I’ve been reading lots of cookbooks. I love it when I can get lost in a cookbook like I would in a novel. It inspires the best kind of dreams.

Anyway. On this cookbook-buying binge, I purchased Ottolenghi’s newest vegetarian tome: Plenty. It’s a beautiful book with a pillow-press cover and recipes organized by vegetable. (Last night I dreamt about eggplant.)

And last weekend Becca came to visit. She’s one of my best friends but lives in San Francisco, so seeing each other in person is a rare delight. Her first night here I cooked a little vegetarian feast from Plenty. It included a salad made with roasted butternut squash, sweet spices, spicy peppers, limes, cilantro, and a yogurt-tahini sauce. It sounds like a mouthful, but it was pretty much perfect. I’ve been thinking about this salad so much ever since that I made it again Friday night for some other lovely friends, who agreed.   

To make this salad, you take a butternut squash, peel it (or not; I kind of like the crunchy roasted skin), slice it, and roast it with a brush of oil mixed with cardamom and allspice. When you serve it at room temperature, the squash is sprinkled with crunchy slivers of a spicy green pepper, the herby wash of cilantro, tart pieces of lime, and a nutty, smooth sauce. I don’t know what it is about this salad, but it works.

Butternut Squash Salad with Spices, Lime, and Green Chile
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

2 limes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 big butternut squash
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 teaspoon allspice
½ cup Greek yogurt
2 ½ teaspoons tahini
1 tablespoon lime juice (or more to taste)
1 green chile (I used jalapeno), stripped of seeds and pith, sliced thin
2/3 cup cilantro leaves, picked off the stalk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  

For the limes: trim off the tops and bottoms of the limes with a paring knife. Now with the limes standing stable on a cutting board, use your knife to cut down the sides, slicing off the skin and the white pith. Quarter the naked limes, and then cut into very thin slices. Place these slices in a bowl, add a 1-tablespoon drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.

For the butternut squash: Cut the squash in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Now, cut the squash into slices – about ½ inch thick. Lay them out on a baking sheet (Ottolenghi suggests on a piece of parchment paper).

Mix together the cardamom and allspice in a small bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and stir. Brush this spiced oil over the squash. Season the squash with salt. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until tender, and then let cool. (Here is where you can peel off the skin… or not. I’ve done it both ways, and love the slight crunch when it is left on.)

For the sauce: Whisk together the yogurt, tahini, lime juice, and two tablespoons of water. Season to taste with salt. (The sauce will be thick, but you want to be able to drizzle it over the squash, so add more lime juice or water to taste to thin it out if necessary.)

To serve: Arrange the squash on a serving platter. Drizzle with the yogurt-tahini sauce. Spoon the lime slices and their juice evenly over top. Scatter the chile slices. And then the cilantro. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Orleans

Matt and I flew down to New Orleans—one of my favorite cities in the world, his hometown—a few weeks ago. My mother and her boyfriend, Charley, joined us.

Stepping outside that first morning, I inhaled the thick, warm air. It smelled like earth, like dew, like the tropics. We weren’t in Boston anymore.

We spent the weekend exploring. The French Quarter. The Marigny. Uptown, downtown, the Garden District. On Sunday, we took a trip out to some plantations, their grounds lined with ancient Live Oaks. We had a lovely meal at Sylvain. And a fantastic one at NOLA. There was a fried green tomato po’boy that kind of blew me away. A Sazerac at the Columns Hotel. My love of beignets will never falter; especially if I continue to eat them alongside the thick, bitter coffee served at the CafĂ© du Monde.

One afternoon a street musician—who played the clarinet like it was a living thing, like she didn’t just want to, but she needed to—stopped us in our tracks. When she was joined by a little boy playing a recorder, I melted into my shoes.

I finished the long weekend with an interview at the local NPR affiliate, and a reading at the GardenDistrict Book Shop. Talking about smell in New Orleans is especially fun, because, well, the smells of New Orleans are especially intense. From the rich, spicy aroma of shrimp gumbo to the rather unpleasant olfactory assault of Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. From the sweet scent of powdered sugar melting atop a hot beignet to the briny breeze coming off the Mississippi River. It’s a city filled with life.

(While in the city, my mom and Charley stayed at The McKendrick-Breaux House. It’s on Magazine Street, in the quite-funky Lower Garden District. The owner, Brett, is fantastic. He collects old yearbooks, and makes a mean pancake. Need a place to stay? We highly recommend.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011