One of the valuable lessons this Bittman project is teaching me is flavor combinations. I like to think I am a pretty good cook, and lord knows I can follow a recipe (well, when I’m paying attention…), but I am still learning how to put ingredients together without a guide. Mark Bittman’s 101 is teaching me about this in two ways. First, he provides me with glorious combinations of ingredients to try out. Second, because I am not serving these dishes each week with “Thanksgiving dinner,” I am learning that before I make each item, I am only guessing how well it will match with the rest of the meal I’ve envisioned. This week, we took on acorn squash, which is one of my favorites:
“45. Render some chopped bacon in a bit of oil, then add apple chunks; cook until nearly soft. Meanwhile, bake halved and seeded acorn, butternut, or delicata squash until they start to soften. Fill squash with apple mixture and finish baking.”
Much as I love winter squash, I was faced again with the difficulty of deciding what else to serve with what I hoped would be boats of delight. Because our last squash experiment had needed something more substantial than the quinoa I paired it with, I decided this time on organic chicken sausages with roasted red pepper and garlic.
Bacon and apples sounded amazing and decadent, but I decided to add a little to Bittman’s foundation. Here’s what I used:
½ lb bacon, chopped
2 apples, skin on (I used Braeburns), quartered, cored, and chunked
½ a medium onion, diced (red onion added mild flavor and nice color)
1 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Salt, pepper, and olive oil
I preheated the oven to 400F for the squash. To keep them standing upright, I sliced a very thin piece off the “bottom” of the rind where I wanted it to sit. Just a little peel off the rind made a flat surface for the squash to balance on. I wedged the halves into a cake pan and sprinkled liberally with salt, pepper, and olive oil. I put them into the oven for about 20 minutes and concentrated on the stuffing.
I decided to eschew the extra oil, and put my squares of bacon into a dry pan on medium. While it sizzled, whining and complaining about the heat, I chopped the apples and onions. With the bacon halfway to crisp, I dropped in the onions, wanting to give them time to grow tender and sweeten.
When the bacon was teetering on the edge of barest crispness, I added the apple chunks. They only needed five minutes to begin to soften before I turned the stove off. Because I knew they were going to continue cooking in the oven, I didn’t want them to lose all their texture in the pan.
In three quick sweeps, I folded the rosemary into my apple mixture, slipped the squash out of the oven, and packed the boats full, no, overflowing. They looked beautiful, and it was difficult to say goodbye as the oven door closed between us for another 20 minutes.
With sausages sizzling and charring and smoking ever so slightly on the stovetop, I liberated the stuffed squash and loaded them onto our plates. The smell was wonderful, and the flavor matched. The squash and apples were sweet, but had soaked up some of the bacon fat, which complicated their flavor. The bacon itself was meaty and fatty and crispy and salty (I love bacon, can you tell?) and perfect. It was a nice textural component as well, as the squash was beautifully soft and creamy, and the apples were barely toothsome. As I had hoped, the sharp piney flavor of the rosemary kept the dish from being too rich. It was a lovely herbal note.
Because I packed the boats so full, the bacon in the dish was more than just an accent, as I had somehow expected it would be. Therefore, the side of chicken sausage I had chosen was not the best possible pairing. It was not until the next day as I heated up the leftovers and ate them alongside a corn muffin we’d had as a side earlier in the week that I realized what would have been perfect: golden circles of baked or fried polenta. I chose meat when I should have chosen starch. But as I am learning with this project, there was really no way I could have known the perfect side until I had tasted the dish. That means to get it perfect we will have to have this again. “What a shame!” she exclaimed with a wink and a smirk.
This is absolutely a recipe to keep and try out. I’d imagine the ingredients you stuff the squash with could be changed up: apples could be replaced with pears, bacon with prosciutto, or you could go more savory and add leeks or garlic, but if your squash boat includes bacon I’d recommend serving with a starchy side rather than meat – polenta, cornbread, maybe even buttered noodles or gnocchi. My 20/20 hindsight says it would be better balanced. And in a meal in which the vessel threatens to fall over and spill its rich treasures across your plate if you don’t take measures to keep it upright, balance is a necessary thing.