Sep 17 2013
The story goes like this:
First, one of your friends says she is going to the Indian spice market in Brooklyn. Then, you ask her to bring back a few things (the kind you don’t typically use very often). Next, you get some spices from her and nearly faint from the sensory overload brought on by the many fragrances. Last, you go home and cook. And cook. And cook some more.
That’s what happened to me over the weekend. My friend Sana brought me some fresh asafoetida, cardamom pods, fenugreek (in three (3!) different forms) and barberries last Saturday, and my head nearly exploded. The smells are enough to make you want to open up your own restaurant, cook from morning to night, and renounce all else. As if I’d ever forgotten it (not a chance), this experience truly reminded me of how much good food depends on flavorings: no spice, no dice. Imagine a musician composing with one note; you might listen politely for ten minutes, then promptly decide to remember that root canal appointment. Conversely, cooking with a variety of spices produces a symphony; now, everybody’s listening.
Cooking with vegetables involves some savoir-faire (a few techniques such as roasting, sautéing and braising are useful), and a lot of flavoring. I happen to think vegetables are wonderful on their own, raw and barely seasoned, particularly during the summer months when the crops are plentiful and the sun turns all manner of plants into a delicacy; however, most people still need a little coaxing when it comes to eating their colors, be it the lovely purple eggplant, the green kale, the orange yam, the white turnip, the yellow squash. Spices provide an incentive to add more plants to your plate, in and so doing, to bring healthier life to your years.
And so it was that yesterday evening, as I was looking at (and burying my nose into) some of my new acquisitions and wondering what I should concoct for dinner, I was inspired to try a new blend of spices and some seasonal greens to prepare a stuffing for some lovely pattypan squash I had acquired over the weekend at my favorite local farm stand. The squash are small and thus ideal for a single serving. They are easy to hollow out and quick to prepare, and their firm yet smooth texture and mild taste makes them the perfect foil for a flavorful (and colorful) filling. I balanced the bite of the kale in the filling with some sweet potato and carrot, and added black beans for texture and protein – a must in this vegan meal. I used cumin, fenugreek and cinnamon, which combined to give a savory-bittersweet kick to the mix, with just enough black pepper to provide a little heat.
I had an idea it would be good, but I was altogether stunned by how luscious it was; I had to write down the recipe right away in order to ensure I would remember exactly what I did. Having said this, I might never follow my own recipe to the letter anyway, as I tend to walk the wire without a net when I cook; I relish falling prey to my imagination and to the caprice of inspiration, stoked as they are by the sizzling sights and scents of spices.
And the story, one more time, goes like this:
Stuffed Pattypan Squash
4 pattypan squash, top removed, and hollowed out
2 Tbsp vegetable or light olive oil (or ghee)
1 medium sweet potato, diced small
1 large carrot, diced small
1 small red onion, diced small
1 small bunch kale, center vein removed, washed, dried, and thinly sliced
1/2 can black beans, lightly mashed
1 tsp cumin seeds (whole)
1.5 tsp crushed fenugreek seeds
1 large stick cinnamon
1/2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground (or more to taste)
salt to taste
olive oil for baking pan and to drizzle on squash
Preheat oven to F350.
Over medium heat, sauté cumin, fenugreek and cinammon in oil until fragrant. Add onion, sweet potato and carrot, and cook for 5 minutes. Add kale and cook for another five minutes, until the onion is soft and the kale is wilted. Add beans, salt and pepper, mix well, and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes.
Place the hollowed out squash in a oiled baking dish. Sprinkle the inside with salt and pepper, and drizzle with oil. Stuff the squash, and place the cutoff top back on to cover. Bake for about an hour. The squash will be done when a sharp knife easily pierces the skin and flesh.
Serve with a side of red quinoa, and a crisp, cold glass of unoaked Chardonnay.