There’s a dirty little trick to recipe writing used to draw in the unwitting cook. At first glance, the cook sees a reasonable number of ingredients, say, eight or ten. But as she reads down the list, she sees that the last two ingredients are proper nouns referring to other pages in the cookbook, meaning that the once-manageable recipe now requires three recipes and no less than 15 discreet ingredients. This is such a recipe.
See, I really had no choice but to make this, and neither do you. What was I to do when one small farmer at the market presented me with truly fall ingredients, like the beautifully knobby winter squash tucked into an old wooden apple crate, while the late summer bounty—mounds of bold, glossy dry-farmed tomatoes and bunches of basil stuffed tightly into galvanized-steel buckets—beckoned from the next? Yes, the fat drip, drip, drip of rain spatters against the windowsills with increasing frequency and wood smoke hangs in the air on our nightly walk. But the basil was emanating its perfume and the tomatoes were glinting, so I succumbed. With my market bag heavy with a pastiche of prizes, I set off to consult my cookbooks for inspiration, which is when I again stumbled on Ms. Gyngell; this time, though, it was her first work, A year in my kitchen.
Ms. Gyngell, an Australian farm-to-table type who cooks at Petersham Nurseries Cafe & Teahouse in Richmond, England, intuits impeccably well-balanced flavor combinations that I never quite think of. (This ability is quite like Elinor’s instinctive understanding that a wooden spoon and stainless-steel measuring cup produce a cacophony an elegant symphony when played on a ceramic plate.) For instance, last night we had her chanterelles with fried eggs. I was with her for the butter, garlic, rosemary, and even the deglazing with sherry vinegar. But I’ve never added lemon juice or lemon zest to eggs or mushrooms. She did both, brightening the flavors noticeably.
And for this dish, she balances the squash’s sweetness with a hint of bitterness from the basil oil, at the same time tempering the tangy tomatoes with the gently salty feta. The textures are artfully varied as well—creamy feta, dense squash, juicy tomatoes, soft onions. The marjoram adds a floral note, and the roasted onions a punchy sweet-sour element. Quite well composed, really. And exquisitely vivid. So when she tells me that I need to make three recipes to make one, I nod my head in submission. I make all three and figure out what to do with the leftovers later (in this case, I’ve done this for you in the “R E F I G U R E” section below), which is never really a problem because the extra recipes usually involve some concentrated flavor essence that elevates my cooking all week.
Now get cooking! The only way to become a cook is to cook.
Roasted Squash with Roasted Tomatoes, Feta, and Basil Oil
Adapted from A year in my kitchen by Skye Gyngell
You can use any winter squash for this, but rounded varieties work particularly well for presentation. I used the Sunshine variety, a dense, sweet vibrantly orange-skinned version of the Kabocha squash with skin soft enough to eat. This recipe can be easily made ahead since it is served at room temperature.
2 roundish winter squash, roughly 1 pound each
About 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Red chili flakes
A few sprigs of fresh marjoram, leaves only (or oregano)
Unrefined sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
1 pound cherry tomatoes, on the vine, if possible
6 ounces raw French-style feta (creamier and less salty than most Greek feta)
A small handful of Roasted Red Onions
2 tablespoons of Basil Oil
Roasted Red Onions
5 medium red onions
1 tablespoon of palm sugar, or any other sugar
Unrefined sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large bunches of basil
1 clove garlic, peeled
Unrefined sea salt
Freshly milled pepper
1.5 cups extra-virgin olive oil
Serves 6 to 8
C O O K .
- Roast the squash. Preheat the oven to 350°F. With a sharp knife, cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds with a spoon; cut each half into wedges roughly 2-inches thick. Arrange the wedges skin side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Scatter with some red chili flakes and the marjoram. Dust generously with salt and pepper; drizzle with the olive oil. Roast in the oven until the tip of a sharp knife slides in and out with no resistance and the edges are slightly caramelized, about 35 minutes.
- Roast the tomatoes; slice the cheese. About half way through cooking, put the tomatoes on another baking sheet; drizzle with the olive oil and dust with salt and pepper. Roast alongside the squash for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes have begun to shrivel. Remove the squash and tomatoes and allow to cool to room temperature. In the meantime, thinly slice the feta.
- Prepare the onions. While the tomatoes are cooking, prepare the Roasted Red Onions. Thinly slice the onions into pinwheels approximately 1/10-inch thick (a mandoline makes quick work of this). Spread the onions onto a rimmed baking sheet (line with foil for faster clean-up), dust with the sugar and generous pinches of the salt and pepper. Add the vinegar and olive oil, and mix the onions gently with your hands. Spread evenly on the sheet. Cook for about 30 minutes, moving the onions about with tongs or a spatula and basting about half way through. The onions are done when they are soft—almost appearing melted—darkened and are at once sharp and sweet tasting.
- Prepare the basil oil. Clean the basil. Blend (stems and all) in a food processor with the garlic and generous pinches of salt and pepper. When the basil pieces are fairly small, begin to pour the olive oil slowly with the processor still running. Continue adding the oil until a smooth mossy-green sauce results.
- Assemble. Arrange the squash wedges on a platter, or on plates or shallow bowls, and place the tomatoes among the wedges. Festoon with the red onions. Then place the cheese on top of or next to the squash. Spoon over with the basil oil and drizzle with some olive oil.
E A T | D R I N K . Some nights all I want is a heaping plate of vegetables; I happened to make this on one of those nights, so all we had to accompany this was a butter-lettuce salad with a roasted garlic and lemon dressing, and some sparkling water. (It was a Sunday night; for whatever reason, I like to start the week off with a light stomach, so vegetables are the go-to materials.) As for wine, look for clean, dry white wines with nice acidity and fruit (think ruby grapefruit), for instance, Spanish or Californian Albariños or Verdelhos.
R E F I G U R E . This is the sort of recipe I double—the squash and tomatoes, at least—leaving me only minor preparations for whatever derivative meals I make from it.
Squash gratin-cum-mash. I saw David Tanis, chef at Chez Panisse, speak recently, and he mentioned this simple winter-squash-gratin-meets-root-vegetable-mash. Peel and dice the squash into 3/4″ cubes. Toss with melted butter and unrefined sea salt. Place in an open gratin or other baking dish with enough stock, cream, or water (or a mix) to cover the bottom of the dish by about 1/4″. If you’re feeling daring, add some sage and thyme or a grate or two of nutmeg. Cook until warmed, about 20 minutes (if the squash is not pre-cooked, as mentioned above, cook until the tip of a sharp knife slides in and out with no resistance). The result is a gratin resembling the consistency of mashed tubers.
Tangy squash soup with basil crème fraîche. In a soup pot, warm 2 or 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat; add a medium onion, roughly chopped, and cook until the onion is glassy. Add one recipe’s worth of squash, peeled, and tomatoes, destemmed. Add 6 cups water, or vegetable or chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 20 or 30 minutes so the flavors can meld. While the soup is simmering, combine crème fraîche with a couple spoonfuls of basil oil; set aside. Purée the soup a blender (please, get a stick blender to prevent explosions). Alternatively, for a more rustic texture, use a food mill (mince rather than chop the onions and pass the squash and tomatoes through a food mill; stir in the remaining ingredients). Season with unrefined sea salt to taste. Serve with the basil cream and a piece of crusty toasted bread gently rubbed with a clove of garlic and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.
Extra basil oil. Think of the basil oil as a simpler version of pesto.
- Soft-scrambled eggs. I’m imagining next Saturday’s breakfast as soft-scrambled eggs with some basil oil on top. For an extra boost, toast a 1″-thick piece of homely levain bread, spread with a layer of fresh cheese—chèvre or sheep’s milk ricotta are my favorite—and top with the eggs and basil oil.
- Pizza with prosciutto. The basil oil could serve as the base of a thin-crust pizza with minced garlic (and, if you’re me, a farm egg in the middle), then draped with prosciutto and shavings of Parmigiano after cooking.
- Slow-roasted tomatoes. For a pre-dinner bite, slowly roast halved Roma tomatoes, particularly the mealy ones that start to appear at the end of the season, tossed in extra-virgin olive oil, unrefined sea salt, and freshly milled pepper at 250°F for 3 or 4 hours until the tomatoes are shriveled and disc-like; top each with a small spoonful of basil oil.
- Strawberry sorbet. While strawberries are still in season (I know, it’s not normal), I think I’ll make a strawberry sorbet with coconut milk and top it with the basil oil emulsified with some raw honey. Strawberry ice cream or plain strawberry sorbet would work just as well.
- Basil oil conserva. If you know you won’t use the basil oil this week, store it in a clean container topped with 1/2″ of extra-virgin olive oil in the refrigerator for another week, perhaps the dead of winter when you’re palate is tiring of braised greens.
Extra roasted onions.
- Liver and onions. This onion surplus is just the reason to make chicken liver. Rinse and pat the liver dry; scatter generously with unrefined sea salt; cook over medium-high heat until caramelized on the outside and still pink the middle, about 1 to 2 minutes per side; serve topped with the onions.
- Modified pissaladière. Fill a partially cooked tart crust with the onions; top with a lattice of salt-cured anchovy fillets and push niçois olives into the onions in the middle of each diamond shape. Bake at 350°F until warmed thoroughly.
- Wilted greens. Combine the onions with wilted greens of any kind; optional: add some reduced chicken stock to the greens and onions and toss with pasta.
- Fried eggs and herbs. Consider my most satisfying breakfast this morning: Heat clarified butter or lard until just smoking in a heavy-bottomed pan. Crack two eggs, dust with minced rosemary, thyme, and sage, and then place a few of the onions on top. Cook until the whites are still somewhat runny, and then cover with a lid for about 30 seconds or until the whites are fully cooked, but the yolks are still soft.
L I T T L E E A T S . Mash up the squash and tomatoes, skinned, with some melted butter or your fat of choice (the nutrients in vegetables need fat for the body to absorb them). Top with some minced onions and a dab of the basil oil.
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