Gourd bless us

Not that many years ago a vegetarian at Thanksgiving was part pariah, part object of pity. That special day without the burnished turkey was a holiday with no there there. Times have changed. In my close social circle I have a vegetarian, a pescetarian, a gluten-free-er and a sly flexitarian. Meat-free options are essential at every gathering, including the Big Day in November. This doesn't mean some creepy meat substitute (Tofurky, be gone!) or just having veggie guests go heavy on the green bean casserole. There needs to be a dish of drama and substance that serves as a "centerpiece" for meat-free guests.

Here's the secret weapon: squash.

Thick-rinded winter squash varieties — from acorn to butternut, pumpkin to delicata — mostly mature during the fall, lending autumnal colors of orange and yellow to the Thanksgiving table. They are affordable and forgiving and make great do-ahead casseroles, purees, tarts, pies and even dramatic receptacles when roasted whole and filled with stuffing or rice pilaf. Here are a few tips in making squash a showstopper:

• What carnivores miss in meat-free entrees is often textural. Tooth resistance and contrast are easy to achieve with a dish that includes pastry. Pie dough, puff pastry, phyllo and even pizza dough can turn a side dish into a main attraction.

• Combining roasted squashes with grains and legumes takes a hearty vegetarian dish and makes it a complete protein (something vegetarians have to work a little harder to find). Lentils, white beans and wild rice are elegant companions to sweet roasted butternut squash and the like.

• No, chicken broth is not vegetarian. Make your squash purees with it and you've closed the door to vegetarians. Vegetable broth works fine. Despite being a little salty, Swanson makes a good one (not the organic version). College Inn's is a bit more sour. It's worthwhile to taste a couple and see which you like.

• Everyone loves gravy, including vegetarians. Consider making a mushroom gravy or other sauce as a special treat for meat-free guests. This gives a squash entree a little more holiday polish.

• Think presentation. Dried fruit and roasted nuts go great with squashes and make for a pretty serving platter garnish.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

>>MODERATE

Winter Squash Souffle

3 tablespoons unsalted butter plus additional for greasing

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups whole milk

1 (12-ounce) package frozen winter squash puree, thawed

1 cup coarsely grated Swiss cheese (¼ pound)

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste

¼ teaspoon cayenne

¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3 large egg yolks

4 large egg whites

Generously butter a 2-quart shallow ceramic or glass baking dish. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt butter (3 tablespoons) in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until foam subsides, then add flour and cook roux, whisking, 2 minutes. Add milk in a slow stream and boil, whisking, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 3 minutes. Whisk in squash, cheese, brown sugar, salt, cayenne and nutmeg until combined (mixture may not be completely smooth), then transfer to a large bowl and whisk in yolks.

Beat whites with a pinch of salt in another bowl with an electric mixer until they just hold stiff peaks. Fold one-fourth of whites into squash mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Spoon into baking dish and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Loosely cover top with foil and bake until puffed, golden brown, and just set, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately, with freshly ground pepper.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: Gourmet, November 2006

>>EASY

Spiced Pumpkin,

Lentil and Goat Cheese Salad

As a side dish, this trumps many others for vegetarians because of its protein punch.

¾ cup French green lentils

6 cups 1-inch pieces peeled seeded sugar pumpkin or butternut squash (from about one 2-pound whole pumpkin)

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon hot smoked Spanish paprika (called pimenton)

½ teaspoon sea salt

4 cups baby arugula

1 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled, divided

¼ cup thinly sliced mint leaves

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Place lentils in small bowl. Cover with cold water and soak 10 minutes; drain. Cook lentils in boiling salted water until tender but firm, about 30 minutes. Drain lentils. Rinse under cold water, then drain.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place pumpkin in large bowl; toss with 2 tablespoons oil, cumin, paprika and sea salt. Arrange pumpkin in single layer on baking sheet; roast 20 minutes. Turn pumpkin over. Roast until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool.

Combine lentils, pumpkin and oil from baking sheet with arugula, half of goat cheese, mint, vinegar and 1 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among plates; sprinkle remaining goat cheese over.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: Bon Appétit, October 2009

>>DIFFICULT

Roasted Butternut Squash Pie

½ package (1 pound) frozen phyllo dough

1 butternut squash (about 2 ½ pounds)

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced through the equator ½ inch thick

1 red bell pepper, halved, stemmed, and seeded

2 teaspoons kosher salt

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus cup for brushing the phyllo, or as needed

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger (about 1 inch, peeled)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

cup raisins

¼ cup walnut pieces

2 medium garlic cloves, chopped

16 ounces spinach, large stems removed

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the phyllo from the freezer and thaw at room temperature 1 hour. Meanwhile, trim off both ends of the squash. Cut it in half crosswise where the neck joins the rounded body. Peel tough skin with a vegetable peeler. Cut into 3-inch chunks. Cut the rounded end in half, With a spoon, scoop out the seeds and discard them. Peel with a vegetable peeler or a knife and cut into 3-inch chunks.

Put the squash chunks, onions and red pepper halves on a baking sheet so that the vegetables are as much in a single layer as possible. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons oil. Toss to coat the vegetables with the oil. Roast 30 minutes, turning the vegetables once with a spatula. Remove the pepper halves and turn everything again. Roast 10 more minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned. Dump the squash into a large bowl. Quarter the onion slices and cut the pepper into 1-inch cubes; dump them both into the bowl. Sprinkle the vegetables with the ginger, cumin, cinnamon, cilantro, ½ teaspoon salt and the pepper. Add the raisins and toss gently; set aside.

Turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees. Put the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven, shaking the pan twice for even cooking, until lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and chop; dump them into the bowl with the vegetables and stir gently.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil with the garlic in a large frying pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes to flavor the oil. Add about one-third of the spinach and cook, turning it in the oil with tongs, until wilted, about 1 minute. Add more spinach and cook, turning as before, and then add the remaining spinach. Sprinkle with the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and cook until all the spinach is wilted, 2 to 3 minutes total.

To assemble the pie, have ready a 9- by-13-inch baking dish and a pastry brush. Pour ⅓ cup olive oil into a small bowl. Set that on a work area with the phyllo and the vegetables. Open the package of thawed phyllo and unroll the pastry sheets so that they lie flat. Brush the baking dish with olive oil. Arrange the dish so that one long side faces you. Starting at the left edge of the dish, lay one sheet of phyllo in the dish crosswise so that it covers about half of the bottom and half of the sheet hangs over the side facing you. Brush the part that covers the bottom with olive oil. Now lay a second sheet along the right-hand side of the dish, overlapping the first sheet in the middle of the dish and overhanging the side facing you. Brush with olive oil. Repeat with 2 more sheets but this time arrange them in the dish so that they overhang the other long side of the dish (at the top). Continue in the same way until you've used 14 sheets of phyllo.

Line the bottom of the dish with about half of the spinach, using your hands to open up the leaves and spread them out. Spoon the squash mixture on top and gently flatten with the spoon. Cover with the rest of the spinach. Working with the side of the dish facing you, fold one of the phyllo sheets over the filling and brush with oil. Fold the sheet next to it over and brush with oil. Do the same for 2 sheets on the opposing side of the dish. Continue in this way until all of the phyllo is folded over the filling. Then cover with 2 more sheets of phyllo, brushing each with more oil.

Put the baking dish in the oven and bake until the pastry is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving, or let cool to room temperature. Cut pie into squares and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: The Food You Want to Eat by Ted Allen

Gourd bless us 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]

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