Foodstuff: Acorn Squash agenda
Forget the turkey. Squash halved and slathered in butter is Thanksgiving gold.
I cannot remember the last time I ate turkey on Thanksgiving. It might have been 2010, the last November that I considered myself a carnivore, but I was in the seventh grade then and had braces and was probably dead-set on a diet of buttered rolls and pie.
I have no regrets about this. My life has been no worse off for it. It leaves more room for dessert.
Still, I recognize that this might be a scandalous statement to make on the one day a year earmarked for the consumption of giant gobbling fowl.
You turkey-touters may read this and wish to leave rotting pumpkins at the doorstep of the Aspen Times office to spite this foe of fowl. That’s fair, but I did not set out to write my first food column for the Thanksgiving edition of the Weekly and fill it only with the fall flavors you might already be digesting by the time you read this.
Or maybe you’re a kindred spirit, thinking that surely there must be a better way to spend the fourth Thursday of November than hunting down the number for the Butterball Hotline. (It’s 1-800-BUTTERBALL, just in case you’re right now staring a gobbler in the giblets and wondering what in the course of American history brought you to this crisis point over your kitchen sink.)
In that case, I offer two alternatives: You could cook a peacock, or you could bake acorn squash. I have recipes for both.
For the peacock: You’ll want it frozen solid with a vacuum at your side when you dress the bird, on account of all the feathers and the grubs that live alongside them.
That tip’s courtesy of food historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, who shared her recipe for the fancy fowl when I interviewed her a few years ago about her favorite discoveries over a lifetime cataloging and analyzing cookbooks that date back to the ninth century; she made the dish sometime in the 1950s for a medieval-themed party at Harvard.
Wheaton skinned and gutted the bird and then some, cooked the meat and re-stuffed the carcass, then added gold leaf on the eyelids and beak to gussy it up for the special occasion. It was not a task for the faint of heart or the light of stomach, but it was an “economical” dish because most people were so freaked out by the premise of peacock that they didn’t actually eat much. One bird fed 150 partygoers, with leftovers to spare.
I take it, though, that the odds you have access to a peacock on such short notice are slim. (Then again, I don’t know the status of the famed birds roaming Woody Creek these days.)
Acorn squash it is, then.
I gleaned the recipe from my mom, who made it a seminal Thanksgiving delight some years ago as an appetizer that I choose to embrace as the main event: slice in half, bake in a quarter-inch water bath around 400 degrees for about 45 minutes or an hour, serve and devour.
Cooked right, that acorn squash halved and slathered — preferably in butter, brown sugar and candied nuts, though a dousing of maple syrup would also do the trick — is Thanksgiving gold.
Cooked wrong, it’s still pretty good anyways, probably on account of all the butter and sugar and candied nuts. I’ve bungled it enough times to know that it’s hard to botch, even if every inkling of moisture evaporates into the ether (the water bath remedies that) or you melt your best friend’s roommate’s plastic microwave cover while preheating the oven (checking unfamiliar appliances for items that might be stored inside will prevent that).
Unlike my hazy turkey timeline, I can remember exactly the last Thanksgiving when I didn’t have acorn squash because of how sorely I felt its absence at my first Thanksgiving away from family during my sophomore year of college. It was more of what the squash represented than that sweet, soft orange flesh I was missing, but given that fickle link between food and feelings, the lack of my own family’s dishes at a friend’s relative’s house hit me in the stomach, right where it counts the most.
So I served the dish at the next two consecutive Friendsgivings that I spent the holiday away from home, sharing the blessings of butter and brown sugar with some of my best college friends.
Those were the two best Thanksgivings I ever had. Acorn squash has to get some of the credit, right?
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Slice your acorn squash in half. (A very sharp knife and a short spin in the microwave will make this much easier. Cut a few slits in the skin before microwaving and nuke it for no more than a few minutes.)
3. Gut the seeds and scrap ‘em.
4. Fill a baking dish (just about anything safe to go in the oven will work here) with water about a quarter-inch deep. Stick the squashes in there, flesh up.
5. Bake for about an hour.
6. Top with heaps of brown sugar, butter, and candied nuts. You could candy your own — more melted butter and sugar plus some cinnamon and nutmeg in a skillet with walnut chunks will work — but buying them at the store works just as well and you can eat them while you wait for the squash to bake.
Makes however many squashes you buy, times two since you’re slicing them in half.
Kaya Williams is a reporter for the Aspen Times and the Snowmass Sun with plans to push her acorn squash agenda through food columns for the Aspen Times Weekly this winter. Email her at email@example.com.
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Regardless of what holiday you observe, the time of year that stretches after Thanksgiving through Jan. 1 tends to be filled with celebrations that often call for presents, and what better gift to make spirits bright than, well, spirits.