Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Lamb-Apple-Bread-Stuffed Delicata Squash
I don't have the fondest associations with stuffed vegetable dishes. It goes back to my virtuous days as a vegetarian, now near 30 years behind me. It's the slumped, dispiriting green pepper stuffed with bland rice filling, the watery zucchini boat filled with...more watery zucchini, oozing glumly across the plate. These sort of dishes were standard fare in the meatless line at the college cafeteria, and I perpetrated more than a few such atrocities in my own fledgling kitchen. It was as if the bold culinary daring of scooping out the insides of a vegetable could compensate for a general lack of flavor in the entire dish. The best thing that could be said for preparations like this was that they didn't contain meat. And, ironically, they did a grave disservice to the very vegetables that a vegetarian diet ought to exalt.
Well, one was left with that virtuous feeling....
Now, I know that vegetarian cooking can be great. At this time of year, particularly, I'm thrown into a frenzy by the piles of produce still pouring in from our gardens, and from the markets where I just can't help myself (one really can't go into winter with too many celery roots squirreled away, can one?). I also find, having reached a certain age, that I can't--and don't want to--pack away the grub the way I used to, and so as my plate capacity declines, I want its contents to be as flavorful as possible. I like meat just fine, but the vegetable kingdom offers a much wider range of flavors and textures, if you ask me. I could see myself living without chicken, but you'll pry that leek from my cold, dead hand, mister.
A drive through the Wisconsin countryside a couple of weeks back led us to an end-of-season squash and pumpkin field. There'd been a couple of frosts already, the vines were all dead, but many dozens of butternut, acorn, and delicata squash still lay on the dry, cold ground, and the sign by the side of the road said that we could take our pick, four for a dollar. We filled a tote, left a check in the box 'cause we didn't have change. We had barely pulled back onto the highway before I was putting the delicata together with some ground lamb I knew I had in the freezer, some good bread, stock, a ton of aromatic vegetables, and some apple.
This is a stuffed vegetable dish with nothing to apologize for--well, except that it's not vegetarian, maybe. But you could make it so by substituting vegetable stock for the chicken, and in place of the lamb perhaps some walnuts or chestnuts?, or mushrooms, a mix of wild and dried? You want a good, chewy, flavorful bread in the stuffing, a natural leaven type, if possible. I used the remains of that fougasse I wrote of recently.
A lovely, delicious way to pay homage to the harvest. We served it in a puddle of a light roasted tomato sauce, with roasted kale on the side.
Stuffed Delicata Squash
2 delicata squash
3 to 4 ounces stale bread--coarse crumbs or small dice, 2 cups--hold 1/2 c back to grind smaller, mix with cheese
1 rib celery
1 small onion or 1/2 onion and small leek
2 large cloves garlic
1 small apple, peeled, cored, in small dice
1 small carrot, peeled, in small dice
1 cup chicken stock
10 ounces lean ground lamb
1 small hot chili, like a Serrano, or half a jalapeno; or a half teaspoon of sambal chili paste
grated gruyere--2/3 cup about 2 oz.
salt and pepper
1 medium tart tomato like a green zebra, or use an underripe red tomato, seeded and chopped (no need to peel)
A few sprigs thyme, four or five large leaves of sage
Preheat your oven to 425. Halve and seed the squash--a good sharp heavy knife is useful here. Start in the middle and cut through one end, then turn the squash around and cut through the other end. Place the squash halves cut side down in a lightly oiled baking dish. Add ¼-inch of water, cover the pan with foil, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 10 minutes longer. The water should all be gone by now, and the squash should be soft.
Carefully turn the squash over while it’s still warm--otherwise it may stick. Tent the foil over the pan and let the squash cool. Then, careful not to tear the skin, scoop most of the flesh out with a spoon--leave a thin layer of flesh next to the skin if you can manage it. Chop the squash flesh coarsely.
While the squash is baking, saute the ground lamb, and a good pinch of salt, in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until the meat is lightly brown, and excess moisture has cooked away. Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon to a large mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Add the onion, leek, carrot, celery, chili, and a pinch of salt. Saute over medium-high until the vegetables are wilted, about five minutes. Add the apple and tomato, and cook for one minute.
Add the sautéed vegetables to the lamb. Add the squash flesh and 1 ½ cups of bread crumbs or cubes. Deglaze the saute pan with the chicken stock, then pour the stock into the mixing bowl. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems, chop the sage, and add to the mixture, along with a few grinds of black pepper. Mix well. Taste the mixture for salt, and add as needed.
Combine the cheese with the reserved bread crumbs, along with a teaspoon of olive oil. If you’re using cubed bread, turn the reserved ½-cup into coarse crumbs in a blender or spice grinder.
Lightly oil a baking dish--the one you prebaked the squash in should be perfect. Lay the squash shells in the dish and divide the filling among the four shells. Sprinkle the cheese-crumb mixture on top and bake at 400 for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is brown and crusty.
The whole dish can be prepared a day or more ahead of time, up to the point of the final baking. Refrigerate the stuffed shells, and bring the baking dish out of the fridge an hour or two ahead of baking. Sprinkle the cheese and crumbs on just before baking.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw