The weather has grown colder, and even our vegetable friends need some extra warmth. That's why this buttercup squash grows its own fitted light-green "beanie," as original weird vegetable goddess Elizabeth Schneider calls it in her indispensable Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, originally published in 1986 with the super extended title that continues: From Arugula to Yuca: An Encyclopedic Cookbook of America's New Produce, With Over 400 Easy-to-Follow Recipes. She writes, "this turban-shaped squash with its distinctive pale 'beanie' has long been esteemed by many growers as the ideal winter squash..." Our intrepid guide never really says what makes this squash "ideal" (or her guide "common sense" for that matter). This shiny green fellow I picked up during a rare visit to the produce mecca that is Berkeley Bowl seemed pretty ideal, and I half expected to find a baby dread tendril peeking out from under its jaunty cap.
The buttercup is in the Cucurbita maxima family, which means it shares a resemblance to hubbard, turban, and kabocha squashes, the most dramatic group of the winter squashes, in my opinion, for their larger size and swirling color combinations.
Although I love the hearty orange comfort of roasted winter squash, spooned directly from the steaming rind, mixed into pasta, or puréed into a soup, I don't often buy the larger ones because they seem to take too much effort and planning. I hesitate to overload my shopping bag with these heavyweights because I'm usually biking or taking public transit home (I like to pretend I don't have a car), then I get nervous about how my knife will slip and take off a finger while I'm struggling to hack open this thing that suddenly looks disconcertingly like a human head, and after that I'll have to scoop out the seeds and guts and then, depending on what ultimate form I would like to serve the squash in, try again not to draw my own blood while awkwardly peeling the outer skin, then perhaps cut the orange meat into smaller pieces and then--whew!--heat the oven that I forgot to preheat and wait forever for the slices to soften, and then do yet more fixing up before serving.
But! Inspired by the optimistically unhinged grin of the Elmo pumpkin I carved with my sister, I've decided to quit all this exaggerated whining and tackle the world of winter squash with gusto! And a sharp knife.
Ms. Schneider prepared me for the worst kind of squash resistance to being halved: "If you want to cut up the buttercup, a heavy cleaver or giant knife usually does the job." Then she gives the contingency plan, which involves pounding--okay, gently hammering--on the blade where it joins the knife handle with a wooden mallet or rolling pin. Excited by the cartoonish potential of this scene, I eagerly got my rolling pin out, ready to beat that buttercup into comic submission (boing! oof! stars). But it parted surprisingly meekly before my not-yet-sharpened blade, and the large seeds were easy to scoop out.
I had decided to make a squash and sage risotto based on a recipe from my Chez Panisse Vegetables book, so I sliced the pieces up and peeled the rind off with a paring knife. I also added in some pieces of red kuri squash that Erin had left over from an elaborate dinner involving several kinds of home-brewed beer and food pairings that was orchestrated in part by this pickle master friend, whose chocolatey porter she cooked a squash mole to accompany.
The red kuri has a red-orange peel and is slightly harder and less sweet than the buttercup, say my taste buds. The buttercup was unexpectedly tender for being a C. maxima and reminded me of acorn squash.
The exact risotto that I made is probably unreproducible since I had the sudden inspiration to substitute the chicken broth with a cardamom-ginger-anise-spiced Vietnamese pho broth base and add shreds of ox tail meat that I slow cooked in the broth for four hours and then reheated as I ate pho for breakfast, lunch, and dinner over the course of two days while I was recovering from what I'm self-diagnosing as swine flu in a minor key. It's also my mom's pho [pronounced "fuh" like "fun" without the "n"] recipe, so you really can't reproduce it unless I release the information to the Internet winds.
But here I shall give you a version of Alice Waters's risotto:
SAGE & BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO
(I used buttercup and red kuri; acorn would also be nice)
1 medium squash (1 lb)
24 sage leaves (really, you don't have to count them, just use the force)
Salt 'n' pepa
7-8 cups of chicken stock (or pho broth!)
1 medium onion
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
I also included this one monster chanterelle mushroom that cost $5 at Bi-Rite and must have drawn a glistening tear from the eye of the forager who unearthed it:
Evil monkey peeler approved of the frivolous purchase.
Now, onto the instructions:
Carefully peel and clean the squash and dice it into small cubes (I'm still stuck in remedial-level peeling, as you can see from the tinges of green still stuck on my cubes.)
Put the diced squash in a heavy-bottomed pot and cook with a few whole leaves of sage, salt, and 1 cup of the stock. Cook until tender, but not too soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop 6 sage leaves fine and cut the onion into small dice [yes, Waters writes "small dice." I guess that's an official chef's term.] I also took this moment to slice up that glorious mushroom into small sliver [that's my own term].
Heat the rest of the chicken broth and hold at a low simmer. In another heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the butter, add the chopped sage (mmm, it's gonna start smelling gooood), and cook for about a minute; add the onion and cook over medium heat until it's see-through (I'm doing that undergraduate plagiarism trick where you switch out a few key words, like "see-through" for "translucent"). Add the rice and toss it around a bit with your wooden spoon until it's covered in butter, glistening and slightly translucent (or see-through). Now turn up the heat (aw yeah) and pour in the white whine (sookie sookie, now). When the rice absorbs the wine, add enough stock to cover the rice, stir it up, little darlin', and reduce the heat.
Keep the rice at a gentle simmer and continue to add more stock, a ladle or two at a time, letting each addition be absorbed by the rice. At this time, you should feel free to pour yourself a glass of the white wine while your guests hover in the kitchen and wait for the food to be ready because they got there on time and why are you behind. While the rice is cooking, sauté the remaining sage leaves in butter until crisp. (I did not do this because I was busy drinking wine and talking about movies with the people in the kitchen and forgot, but I'm sure it would have been awesome.)
After 15 minutes, the rice will be nearly cooked. Stir in the cooked squash, the rest of the butter (I left this out), and the cheese--I also added those chanterelle slivers and the shredded slow-cooked ox tail meat. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes or until all that extra stuff is warmed up and mixed in. Adjust the seasoning or add more broth as needed. Serve in warm bowls and microplane some more Parmesan cheese on top and add those crispy sage bits. So delicious and warm on a chilly night!
I fed five people with this recipe (along with crispy roasted brussels sprouts and a potato dish that Erin made), plus made at least three bento box meals of it in the days following.