The farmer's market is only just beginning to feel a bit leafier, a bit brighter, more vibrant and varietal. As we ease closer to spring, crisp salad greens, dark pink rhubarbs and delicate fresh peas are bravely cropping up. It was while I was stuffing a bag with some extra bouncy arugula that I noticed this old soul at the edge of one of the stalls.
I love squash - they arrive with discolorations and scars, endearingly squat and a bit crooked, reminding you of their long journey to your table. Although harvested in the fall, these hardy vine fruits (the presence of seeds prevent them from being classified as a vegetable) live comparatively long lives and store well through the winter, after which they're named. While summer squash are eaten at a still tender, young age, winter squash are harvested at full maturity, once the skin has hardened into a tough, protective rind, allowing them to be stored for consumption during cold winter months when little else is growing.
This particular squash is a red kabocha. Sweeter than its more common green sister, the red kabocha has a light, meaty interior and when cooked is likened to chestnut in taste and texture - tender and sweet, earthy and starchy. As with all winter squash, the kabocha is a warming and grounding choice, not surprising as it's been on this earth for a long time.
Dating back to Mesoamerican times, the squash is one of the oldest documented food crops. Along with maize and beans, it's one of the three pillars of the ancient agricultural technique called Three Sisters, or companion planting, whereby the three crops are planted close together in order to benefit from each other's growing structures and nutrients - a maize stock provides the pole for the beans to climb, the beans provide the nitrogen in the soil for the squash and maize to grow, the squash spreads out over the ground blocking sunlight and stopping weeds, and so on and so forth. The logical simplicity and timelessness of this technique suggests a degree of authenticity that should be paid attention.
Companion planting is an example of an integrated farming technique, and it has become trendy in recent years thanks to people like chef and farmer Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York State and author of The Third Plate, in which he explains his take on what he call's "whole farm production" where the farm functions as an ecosystem with everything taking on a purpose greater than itself.
I picked up this little guy without quite knowing what I'd do with him. Red kabochas are a small squash variety, so feel free to use two, or a larger butternut or acorn if you want to make this dish go further (just be sure to increase the recipe accordingly). As a winter crop, we tend to associate squash with hearty meals, like butternut soup and pumpkin pie, but this is a freshened up, bring-on-spring take on the winter squash.
The squash is marinated in a sesame-orange vinaigrette before being tossed in sesame and cumin seeds and roasted at high heat in the oven. The chimichurri-esque sauce is a blend of fresh herbs, fiery serrano chiles, and crisp garlic and shallot to contrast the sweet density of the squash. The cashew cream balances out the bite with a smooth, creamy tang.
This dish is packed with surprises of both the flavor and texture variety - from the pop of the nutty cumin to the crispy caramelized corners of the squash to the team of zesty herbs that come alive in your mouth, all intended to both wake up your tastebuds and SPRINGTIME.
ROASTED KABOCHA SQUASH
Serves 3-4 as a side dish
1 large kabocha squash
1 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/3 cup olive oil
juice of half an orange
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs thyme, leaves torn from stems
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons pepitas, chopped (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine oils, orange juice, vinegar, sugar, pepper flakes, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Add garlic, thyme and squash. Stir until all surface area of the squash is covered with marinade. Let sit for 20 minutes at room temperature.
Warm a small skillet and toast sesame seeds at medium-high heat, keeping a close eye and shaking pan frequently until golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add cumin seeds and toast until fragrant, about 1 more minute. Let seeds cool for several minutes.
Discard excess marinade from the squash bowl. Pour seeds onto squash and toss until fully covered. Remove thyme sprigs. Spread squash and garlic pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 20 minutes. Flip slices and continue to roast until squash are tender and golden brown, about 15-20 minutes more.
HERBED GREEN CHILE SAUCE
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 small shallot, cut into large pieces
4 fresh serrano chiles, seeds of 2 chiles and stems removed
1 bunch cilantro, stems removed* and roughly chopped
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, stems removed and roughly chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1-2 teaspoons salt
Roast unpeeled garlic and chiles in a skillet over medium heat, turning frequently, until soft and browned, about 10 minutes for the chiles and 15 for the garlic. Remove the peels of the garlic peel once cooled. Cut two of the chiles in half and remove seeds (this is to control the heat of the sauce, but if you are a heat-lover, feel free to leave in all the seeds). Roughly chop garlic and chiles.
Combine garlic and chiles with cilantro, parsley, olive oil, vinegar, shallot and salt in a food processor. Pulse until smooth. Let the sauce stand at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.
* Don't throw these away! They are still flavorful and there is so much you can do with unused stems. And they're really quite nice to look at. Think salsas, marinades and sauces, an added layer of flavor to soup stocks, chopped like chives in an omelette, or to add an extra crunch to a sandwich or taco.
1 cup raw, unsalted cashews
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
6 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Place cashews in a bowl covered with water and soak for 4 hours or up to 12. Drain and rinse. Add cashews with lemon juice and water in a blender and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust for salt.