We have this birch tree in our yard that pre-occupies me at the most awkward moments.
Between April and August, I mostly ignore it, as it goes about its green leafy ways. It does weep, which is a wonderful thing (in a tree), inverting as it does our onward-and-upward expectations of the genre. It starts out with good intentions, straight trunk, sky-bound branches, but then it reverses course, as if it suddenly re-considered, or indulged a rebellious streak, or was struck with cold feet. Maybe it just forgot its keys.
Anyway, it does a full about-face, right back down from whence it came. This change of heart creates a dome, tidy, pronounced, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mary Poppins' umbrella just as she's carried off by the West Wind. Sweet, that bit. But all Spring and Summer, it's covered in small dull innocuous leaves, and ho hum. It blends.
And then fall hits, and I gravitate.
The thing is, from a distance, it looks a wreck, like a kid six days into a seven-day camping trip, hair unbrushed since leaving home. The branches, which in some other arrangement might seem elegant, look in this instance just kind of scrawny. Emaciated. Helter-skelter.
September's cute lime dome fled the scene in one giant WOMP, several weeks back, and with it, any architectural pedigree. It no longer looks like St. Mark's. Or a canopy. Or a bumbershoot. Or anything, really, save bald and forlorn. Until you stand underneath. Underneath is another story.
Underneath, those stray dog branches gain grace, expose their articulate line. The crazed scattershot of yards away is, up close, all Spencerian script, some Victorian spinster's extraordinary inkwork penned in mid-air and three dimensions. The lackluster pine cones, too small to amount to anything, are up close a study in papered exactitude, layer upon filament-fine layer. The two together form a tracery which filters the sky and orders the view and organizes the big messy wide world into crisp. I like crisp.
I like this crisp best after a storm, or in the midst, damp, dripping. The pine cones act like little rain chains; the branches, like so many downspouts. Everywhere, rain hangs like crystals, each drop a vast tiny refractory. The overall effect is that of those thickly lit outdoor shopping mall trees at Christmas. A spectacle, all glitter and bling. But minus the crowds. And cash registers.
More than anything, underneath and after a storm, our birch brings me back to Chartres' hallowed hush. The small contained sense of soaring. A thin reverence. Fragile glory. Maybe it's the steep arch of the branches. Maybe it's the encylopedic details. Maybe it's because my one trip to Chartres took place in the midst of a monsoon. We swam up the steps, left puddles in the nave, and wiped constantly the rivers let loose from our hair in a desperate attempt to see the rose clearly. Water up my nose always makes me feel holy.
I keep waiting to tire of the thing. I don't. No more than simple squash.
I've said before that I have a habit of throwing squash into the oven, whole. But at the time we were talking soup, and soup's only the start. I realized last week, as I ate my way through another four, that I'd never mentioned my fastest, most favorite squash. And while it seems almost embarassing in its simplicity, anything this warming, this satisfying, this good, this easy, deserves mention. Because warm simple satisfying easy good always always, in my book, deserves mention.
Here goes: You bake a bunch of squash, whole. No peeling, no scraping cold clammy seeds, and absolutely no terrifying hacking away at round hard heavy obstinate objects. Just chuck and bake, until fairly soft. Then halve and bake some more until very soft, scoop away (the now-cooperative) seeds, and boom, ogle your oodles and oodles of tender sweet ready-to-eat orange. That was the hard part.
What I do then depends on the day, but nine times out of ten, looks like this: I take half a squash and nestle it in a bowl and sprinkle it well, really well, with coarse salt. If you have a fancypants gray or sea salt or something with a whale or the word Himalayan, go for it. Me, I mostly use basic boxed kosher, or sometimes fleur de sel, if I happen to have some. The important thing is that it is coarse, that the crystal won't dissolve on impact. That the small pop of salt will endure ten minutes, while my spoon and I get to work. I want not just the saline kick but the crunch, here and there, sparkling as I eat.
To that, I add a good throw of brown sugar, dark, maybe a tablespoon. Some might prefer syrup, maple being an obvious (and excellent) companion to squash. I do love its flavor, but for me its a texture thing, and oh boy do I crave that contrast. The slow melt of brown sugar that lasts just long enough to add fleeting sweet grit to each custard-soft bite. That. That's the thing.
And lastly, butter. Of course, butter. A small sunshine square, preferably cold, sliced off the cube straight from the fridge. In one of life's lovelier coincidences, it takes as long to eat half a red kuri as for a thick disc to turn liquid gold. Fate? Chance? You decide. I'm eating.
And I do. Eat these squash, I mean. All. The. Time. I ate that entire tray up top there last week. Four squash. Eight halves. Ten-plus pounds. Just me. I inhaled another four (squash), the week prior. I baked off another five, Sunday. But after diverting two for dinner, stocks are now dangerously low. I predict a mid-week re-up. Indeed, I get a little panicky when I run out, so central are these sweet squashy MRE's to my cold-weather self.
I eat them for lunch, and for second breakfast, and for snack, and for an after school pick-me-up. Once baked, they take all of two minutes to prepare, no small thing for my greedy, impatient self. They hit the same buttons, for me, anyway, as kettle corn: salty, sweet, rich, buttered, warm, rather addictive, entirely wonderful. Also, there is just joy in the eating, the small simple visceral pleasure of carefully, thoroughly scraping the skins. Of building good bites with a thin gloss of butter, a dab of brown, the right number of crystals. Of working free from the shell's dips and hollows every last bit of the squash's soft sweet. Like nibbling the last bits from the bones of a lamb chop. For those who prefer acorns to sheep.
There are so many directions to go with winter squash, and I've listed other ideas below. And really, they are just the beginning. I am eager to hear what you've tried and loved. The key, for me, is that they're at the ready, and easy as breathing to get that way, and that, when dressed, whichever way, the thrill sits squarely in the details.
Lovely Squash for Lazybones
I bake a tray of mixed squash early in the week, and eat from it until the week (or squash) is through. Acorn, butternut, red kuri, carnival, and pie pumpkin are all excellent this way. I find two minutes in our microwave reheats most squash halves to the perfect butter-melting temperature. Alternatively, cooked squash can be scraped from the shell and mashed, or incorporated into soups (this or this).
A word about squash buying: At farmer's markets and farmstands right now, squash can be had for pennies on the grocery store dollar. Around here, direct from the farmer, butternut squash can be had 3 squash for $2, and pie pumpkins for $1 each. By contrast, grocery store prices run anywhere from $1-2.49 per pound. Squash are HEAVY, and a butternut can easily run into the $7-9 range. Irrational food economics at its finest. Squash stores beautifully. Stock up when you can.
To Bake Squash:
Assorted Whole Squash (acorn, butternut, red kuri, carnival, pie pumpkins, etc.)
Preheat an oven to a middling temperature. 350° is nice. 400° is also. Anything in between is good, too. Squash are forgiving. They'll bake alongside anything. Place assorted squash on a lined baking sheet, hoist the heavy thing into the oven, and leave it there awhile. In 30-45 minutes (the bigger the squash, the longer the time), remove your tray from the oven, and poke around a bit. If the knife goes in without much effort, slice your squash in half (mind the steam), place cut side down, return tray to oven, and cook until completely tender, another 15-30 minutes, depending on squash size and oven temp. When you can pierce the thickest bit like a hot knife through butter? Done. Remove tray from oven, allow to rest until cool enough to handle (15 mins), then remove seeds and strings with a spoon. Serve immediately, and/or store, covered, in the refrigerator. Cooked squash keeps, sealed and refrigerated, 5 days.
To Serve (Per Half):
1/4-1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 Tbs. dark brown sugar
1 Tbs. butter
If squash is cold, warm in a microwave for 2 minutes, or until steaming. Nestle one warm squash half in a bowl, and top a healthy smattering of coarse salt (1/4-1/2 tsp). Sprinkle brown sugar over all, add a knob of butter, and dig in.
Other Serving Ideas:
*Coconut oil + chopped salted almonds + unsweetened coconut flakes
*Browned butter + balsamic drizzle
*Minced ginger + rosemary sizzled in oil or (browned) butter
*Slivered garlic warmed in olive oil + parmesan
*Lime zest + minced ginger sizzled in butter