Not that we're the sort to carve pumpkins post-Halloween. This was one we carved just before. But between politics and procrastination and twenty- (thirty?-) some loads of laundry, I have only just recently pulled up the photos. They are very orange. And more than a little confusing. Because during the same stretch of days we carved our jack-o-lanterns, we also consumed a few butternuts. And several carnivals. And a kabocha or two. It seems it was a squashy October. November seems set to continue at pace.
(Of course, if you do have an edible pumpkin, I cannot recommend Heidi's soup highly enough. Fry the onions in coconut oil, if you love its sweet aromatic whiff as much as I. Triple the ginger, for a warming boost. Make the browned butter ginger rosemary gunge, no excuses, as it tastes like stars look on a cold clear November night. Not that we're here to talk pumpkins, or soup. Didn't mean to confuse. But superior soups must be noted.)
To keep things straight, then, let's do it this way: ornamental squash in first position, edible in second. Am I pigeon-holing, here? Why don't we anthropomorphize butternuts, also? Two twigs up top, one bright crabapple in the middle, a few carved eyes, and bingo! Rudolph. But it would be tricky. Those long, thick necks would give you a real run for your money. There's just so little hollow in a butternut squash. They're the solid chocolate Easter bunnies of squash, heavy, dense, substantial. Which makes them particularly fine for eating, optimal bang for the effort buck.
The effort being no small matter, with squash. Squash can be hard, unyielding beasts, thick of skin, wobbly of stature. When my children were babies, I would tuck them in a sling and carry them about while I cooked dinner. They loved this set-up, because they could, in turn, snuggle, sleep, sway, and see everything. I loved this set-up, because it meant that we weren't restricted to cheerios and toast, that first year.
This sling arrangement worked beautifully, until mid-fall, when the squash started rolling in. The squash months were difficult. Over time, I arrived at a terrifically awkward yet effective body-perpendicular-to-counter maneuver, babe turned this way, shoulder angled that way, heavy chef's knife at one fully extended arm's end, other arm doing its best Elasti-Girl imitation, reaching up-and-over-and-around baby, to hold said squash something like still.
It was nuts. But I loved—love—squash.
(Oops. Here I go, muddying the waters, again. That second position pic is neither pumpkin nor butternut, but a blue plastic Lego whale. For what it's worth, I was breaking down a butternut when it ran aground. And do you see that yellow square? It's a secret compartment. Pull it out, and inside, hidden away, there's a single red brick, a heart.
I heart that.)
Things are a little safer, these days. I can set them up across the table, carry conversations instead of humans, give them something to stir and scoop and spread and count and arrange and salt. Stirring buys me five minutes, easy. Scooping and arranging, at least as much. Not every child takes such pleasure, of course, in the orchestration of squash seeds. I've others who subscribe to the Scoop and Dump School of seed management, still others who invoke the "EWWW!!! No thanks!" clause. Results may vary.
But salt, salt is a universal, at least among my sample size of three. It is small, and administered in pinches, and magically, I always seem to need exactly as many pinches as the child is years old. Until they're too old to want to add pinches. (It happens. Quick as a wink, doing double-time.) At which point, they occupy themselves. Also magic.
Apparently, I take my squash with a serious side of nostalgia. All asides aside: I came to talk salad. Salad squared up with sweet cubes of roast squash. And a dice of tart apple. And toasted pecans. And feta. And dried cherries. And have I lost you yet?
Because I would have lost me, had I read this salad before I ate it. On paper (on pixel?), it sounds, I don't know, baroque? Even now, after eating my way through a dozen helpings, it sounds unlikely, excessive, too too. Apples and squash? And also dried cherries? And don't dried berries evoke bad aisle 7 "salad kits", the sort with week-old lettuce and stale croutons and tiny mummified packets of the aforementioned for color? Let's not confuse the two. This isn't that. This is none of the above. This is wonderful.
I wish I could talk to your tastebuds, direct, slide a plate through the screen, bypass the brain. Because this is how I first experienced this salad, straight from a bowl, brought by a friend. There was pizza, also, hot and good, the sort I ordinarily eat three or four slices of. That night, I didn't finish my first. Too busy, I was, making a salad fool of myself. Although, in retrospect, I would've been a fool to do otherwise.
Because this salad's so got it figured out. There are tender, sweet caramelized cubes of squash, plus crunchy tart bites of juicy apple. Briny, creamy nubbins of feta bridge the yielding and the crisp, the honeyed and sharp, the raw and the cooked. Toasted pecans bring their own caliber of crunch, shattery, roasty, deeply mapled.
And then, those dried cherries. I'm still baffled by those cherries. Baffled, because I don't like cherries in my salads. So baffled, I tried leaving them out, once, only to come face to face with an uproar. From the cherries, and the bowl, and yours truly: those cherries belong there. Those cherries act like edible sequins, condensed winey bits of glitter and charm. A few bites without, and without meaning to, you find yourself, and your fork, poking about, searching for garnet, until, score! You spear one, add one square of squash, one apple, a pecan, a blip of white, a few leaves of green, until you've achieved The Perfect Bite.
(Does anyone else do this? Construct carefully composed bites? Little still lifes, arranged on four tines, with life spans that make Mayflies look geriatric? Maybe you're more the mindless salad eater, jabbing up forkfuls that just hold together, loading them in while you read The Times. I tend to go 17th century Dutch Tuesdays and Wednesdays (Science, Food), distracted shoveler on all the rest. Graciously, this salad holds up to both.)
Two final footnotes. Loads of flavor needn't equal loads of work. Take the squash. Roast a whole one (or two) hours (or days) in advance. The cubes must be cooled, anyway, and you'll have a bowl at the ready all week. Witness the multiple slumped squash, above. I roast several at a time, whole, sliced, or cubed, just to have their sweet goodness on hand.
Ditto the toasted pecans. We go through pounds of nuts, around here, both out of hand and in stuff. Toasting improves nuts immeasurably, underscoring their oil, amplifying their flavor. A toasted pecan is me, after my morning coffee, perky, sharp, tip-top, brimming with personality. Unlike me, pecans keep their gains a dozen days or more. Fill a sheet pan, toast a slew, keep cooled nuts in a jar, leverage your ten minutes' work all week.
Finally, play around. This is the iteration of the salad I've settled on, and there are some pillars I wouldn't change: crisp apples, soft squash, salty feta, crisp nuts, the occasional bling and chew of dried berry. Beyond that? Latitude, galore. The original had pepitas, not pecans, and they were awfully wonderful. Good candied nuts, the sort you'd set out with drinks, would, I think, be a slam-dunk. You may prefer cranberries over cherries. Blue cheese and feta are a toss-up, to me. Roast the squash in coconut oil. And perhaps smoked paprika, Sara-style. Add maple syrup to the vinaigrette. Or walnut oil. Or whatever piques. The three salads here? Three different days, made three different ways. Let's not confuse framework with formula. The fun and yum are in the flex.
A Salad of Greens, Squash and Apples for Autumn
with tremendous thanks to Tricia
If your squash has been roasted and refrigerated, allow 30 minutes, if you're able, to come to room temp. Likewise, if you roast it same day, it will hold at room temp a good 4 hours. I adore the tart Montmercy cherries from Trader Joe's, although any unsweetened, tart cherry will do.
8 loose cups salad greens
2 cups cubed, roasted and cooled butternut squash*, approx. 1/2 a small squash
1 large, tart apple (Honeycrisp or Pink Lady), cut into bite-sized bits
heaping 1/2 cup pecans, toasted**, roughly chopped
1/2 cup feta, crumbled
1/4 cup dried sour cherries, roughly chopped, or dried cranberries
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cider or sherry vinegar
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
plenty of freshly ground pepper
In a lidded jar, add vinegar and salt, return lid, and shake to dissolve. Add oil and pepper, and shake vigorously to emulsify.
In a large salad bowl, add all salad ingredients. Pour half of dressing over all, toss to combine, and taste for seasoning. Salad will likely need more, though not all, of the dressing, plus additional salt and pepper, to taste. Adjust, toss, adjust, toss, clink a glass to fall, eat.
*Roasted Butternut Squash:
Since reading Sarah's method for Perfect Roasted Squash, I've never looked back; it yields perfectly creamy, caramelized cubes, every time.
Preheat oven to 425°, and place a rack in the lowest position. Top and tail your butternut, peel, and slice neck from body of squash. Halve both pieces, and scrape seeds from bulbous end. Set each quarter on flat side, and cut into 1" slices. Dice each slice into rough 1" cubes, set on a rimmed, parchment-lined baking sheet, and toss with two tablespoons' olive oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cover sheet with foil, place in preheated oven, and roast 12 minutes. Remove foil, return squash to oven, and roast another 12-15 minutes, until squash is deeply tender and caramelizing at the edges.
Preheat oven to 350°, scatter pecans on a baking sheet, and place in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until the entire kitchen smells toasty and nutty and mapled, and until the nuts have darkened slightly. Set a timer, and don't walk away; nuts burn in a wink. Remove to a plate to end cooking, and set aside to cool.