battle 19–day 2–butternut squash/christmas!

I took a few days off after my big onion-less soup victory (a few weeks’ distance from the soup experience has changed the narrative of its taste and smell and overall only moderate success from being boring to superb, in my mind) to get ready for Christmas. I had deliberately scheduled butternut squash for that week because it seemed like a pleasant winter vegetable and I would rather have something warm and friendly on my Christmas table than something disgusting that no one would eat, like turnips.  My sister, Bethany, who has been angling for another blog cameo since her last appearance was less flattering than she cared for, signed on to make Christmas squash so I could concentrate on everything else.  But unfortunately for Bethany, just because she cooks something yummy doesn’t mean her second appearance on the blog will be any more flattering than the first (even though she also has good hair, it kind of runs in the family).

In the days leading up to Christmas—which was at my house this year and was the first time since both my sister and I have been married that we would all be together on Christmas—I began to plan a menu and schedule what I should cook when so I could achieve the one thing I want to accomplish in this project: everything coming together at once. If I was able to do that on Christmas day it would be like my own little Christmas miracle.

I’d put together a pretty straightforward menu, but one that incorporated as many elements of the project as possible without straying too far from traditional Christmas goodness (I didn’t want my dad to go hungry, plus since he had so successfully scheduled Thanksgiving so that everything landed on the table all at once, hot and ready to eat, I would be relying on him pretty heavily to help me do that at my house, and I figured the least I could do as thanks was make a few things he wouldn’t mind eating).

Our Christmas menu for six (which was clearly enough to feed 112):

  • Roast and gravy
  • Orange maple glazed sweet potatoes (which I first made for pre-Thanksgiving)
  • Brown sugar Brussels sprouts
  • Epic butternut squash casserole (so named by Bethany)
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Mixed green salad
  • Grandmother Judy’s butter muffins
  • Pumpkin crisp (this delight has found a permanent home my repertoire; I love it)

I got the sweet potato and Brussels sprouts recipes from the Fresh Market Holiday Handbook I had been holding onto for months but only got around to looking at the Wednesday before Christmas. I knew the sweet potatoes would be easy and the sprouts looked even easier, and because I had just about convinced myself that cooking only easy things would be the best way to achieve synchrony, they both went on the list. Everything else was pretty standard: roast, red meat, obviously; David is a mashed potato expert and for me no holiday is complete without them, so that was an obvious inclusion; the salad was just because it seemed like the right thing to do; my grandmother’s butter muffins are a holiday staple; pumpkin crisp instead of pie for dessert because I love it and I don’t love pie; and finally, last but not least, the butternut squash casserole my sister promised would be epic.

I had talked to my sister about a  dozen times earlier in the week and traded several text messages about plans and how much time she would need to make epic squash (many, many hours) and whether she would make it at my house or her house and whether there would be enough oven space and and and…. We also talked about how she and her husband should bring all their presents to our house so we could all open everything together and then have our big dinner and then all collapse on the couch in beautiful, stuffed misery and watch football. I said, hey, make sure to bring your dog so we can spend all day doing all the things we’ve always done on Christmas since time immemorial.  It was around this plan and these conversations that I built my schedule, my hard-and-fast, dinner-at-3, because-that’s-what-time-we-always-have-dinner schedule.

So you can imagine my surprise when late, late, late on Christmas Eve I got a little text message from her that said, hey, we’ll be there around 2.

This was when If You Fuck Up My Christmas I’ll Kill You Dead Julie told It’s All Good in the Spirit of Christmas Julie to take a hike, and replied:

Me: No, no, no. Party starts at 11.

This was me being generous, still tending slightly toward Christmas spirit; I really wanted them there at 8 a.m.

Her: Sorry, lunch with husband’s family.

And this was when searing venom began to shoot out my eyes, ears, nose, fingers, toes, ala fire-breathing dragon lady, but worse, because it was me.

Me: I don’t like this at all.

So she called me. Her husband lost his mother to breast cancer a number of years ago, so it’s especially important to them to spend holidays together with his father and sister and celebrate in the spirit of holiday togetherness.

Me, on the phone: OK, let me sulk about this for a minute. I’ll be fine.

We hung up. I sulked. And then I relented. Begrudgingly.

Me, back to texting: OK, we can wait to do presents and dinner. We’ll just make it supper. Do NOT open ANY presents before you get here. At least let me have that.

Me again: And don’t be late or I’ll poke your eyes out and won’t give you a good blog cameo.

She said something nice and sincere here.

Me: I’m serious about poking your eyes out.

The next day they arrived early and her epic squash casserole was heat-and-eat ready. I’m not saying I’m a bully, but sometimes the fear of god, or eye gouging, goes a long way. I’m just sayin. What?

Christmas dinner was a fantastic success. My dad worked out the schedule, I chopped up my fancy vegetables with the fancy knives my parents gave me for Christmas (someone reads the blog!), and then I delegated the shit out of everything else, which actually felt great. Having more hands on deck made achieving my ultimate dinner goal much more manageable, and at 6:05, my entire Christmas dinner—including four new-to-me-in-2009 vegetables—was on the dining room table, hot and delicious looking. Happy Christmas to me. We did it.

And Bethany was right. Her butternut squash casserole was epic. Won.

Bethany’s Epic Butternut Squash Casserole

Cut two large butternut squashes in half, lengthwise. Get all the goo and seeds out of the middle. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them face down on a cookie sheet and roast at 350 for 1 hour.

Let cool.

Scoop all the mushy goodness away from the skin. Combine with two eggs, salt and pepper, a mountain of shredded cheese (I used sharp cheddar), and lots of bread crumbs. Mash it up really good. Spread in an appropriate sized baking dish. Throw a few pats of butter around the top (I did about 8). Then bake at 350 for 40 minutes.

Remove from oven.

Crumble Cheez-its over the top to form a nice crust. Bake for 5 more minutes.

And another thing: This is my friend Sarah’s blog documenting her treatment and personal commentary on breast cancer issues. It’s funny, enlightening and includes some great not-your-typical breast cancer resources: http://www.thetitoffensive.blogspot.com/

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battle 19–day 1–butternut squash

I made my very first soup last night as my official fuck you to the first day of winter.

Truthfully, I’m actually starting to recover from my winter blues, which is ironic since winter hadn’t even started when I sank into my funk. But now I’m feeling less and less inclined to end every day on the sofa, sulking in front of the fire, and more in the mood to venture out for some hot yoga or a sweaty jog with fresh, crisp air piercing my lungs (that last part looks less appealing on paper than it did when I imagined it in my mind, so maybe just hot yoga then). See? I’m not always a grouch.

Part of this transformation, definitely, was finally finding some worthwhile winter vegetables and enjoying the stick-to-my-bones goodness I can make with them, like soup. I’ve always really appreciated the concept of soup for just that reason—it’s so warm and filling and mmmm—but I’ve never been able to embrace it fully because I can’t see everything that’s in it, i.e., vegetables, i.e., onions. The only soup I’ve ever met that didn’t include something I wouldn’t eat was Campbell’s chicken noodle, and so my whole life the only soup I ever ate was…Campbell’s chicken noodle. And gross.

I was pretty excited about butternut squash week because yellow squash week had been so successful that I figured butternut squash would probably go equally well. Plus, since the one thing I know everyone makes with butternut squash is soup, I was going to get make my first soup ever. Easy vegetable plus fun meal equals easy, fun win.

But goddamn onions. Why do onions always have to spoil all my fun? And why is every soup in the history of the world (including probably Campbell’s chicken noodle) made with onions? Why?

My easy win quickly turned into a lot of grunting and bitching and moaning and reconfiguring and reimagining. The first recipe I found, which was perfect for my level of culinary know-how, read like a nursery rhyme for toddlers: gimme some butter, gimme some onion, gimme some stock, gimme some squash; put em together and what’ve you got? Soup!  Pretty easy. Except for the onion. When I rejected that and reassessed, butter, stock and squash seemed a bit paltry for a soup that was supposed to kick my winter into high gear.

Next I turned to some of my favorite cookbooks—Christa’s Simply in Season and my Clean Food—and began combining recipes and making things up, still determined to make the best soup ever without onions. I’d done it with squash casserole, I’d kind of done it with kohlrabi fritters, and by god I was going to do it with butternut squash soup.

As I poked around the kitchen looking for things to put in my soup, I asked David his opinion on the onion.

“Do you think I can use garlic instead of onion?”

“No.”

“But I mean, since garlic and onion are in the same family, wouldn’t it have kind of similar effect if just I used a bunch of garlic instead of onion?”

“No.”

“But listen, don’t you think I could just…”

“How many different ways are you going to ask me this question?”

I glared at him. Then I went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “Christa!” I’ve mentioned already how much I like having Christa around, haven’t I? She came out and I asked again whether I could substitute garlic for onion. She said, without really answering the question but knowing there was no way I was going to be convinced to put onion in the soup, “Garlic is always good.” Done.

During prep, I cut up my squash and chatted with David and Christa in the kitchen. When I got to the stringy, seedy part I looked around for instructions on what to do next. Christa said, “You need to get in there with a spoon and dig it out, like with a pumpkin.”

“I’ve never done that with a pumpkin.”

“You’ve never carved a pumpkin before? OK, like with a melon.”

“I don’t eat melon.”

David said, “Like with a cantaloupe, Julie.”

“I don’t eat cantaloupe, and I’ve never done this before!”

We all stood there a little shocked with each other: them with me because I’ve never eaten melon and cantaloupe, me with them for not automatically assuming this about me.

After I finally figured out how to carve my squash (a skill I promise to transfer to melon and cantaloupe should I ever make that leap), I began to build my soup, which now consisted of butter, garlic, stock, squash and… apples. Yay! I don’t know why squash and apple sounded like such a brilliant combination to me, but I was really stoked about it and added…a lot. So I combined everything in a pretty pot, turned it down to simmer, and sat around and waited for it to get soupy and delicious.

After an indeterminate length of time (a little bit, a while, not very long), I checked on the consistency of the squash and apples. They seemed to be softening up, so I started to move them to the blender. This is where good recipe instructions separate themselves from great recipe instructions. One told me to remove the chunks with a slotted spoon and put them in the blender (but then didn’t really give many clues as to what happens after that). The other said to put the whole mixture in the blender, stock and all. At first I started with the slotted spoon because that seemed pretty specific.

Chunks in blender. Blender on. Remarkable lack of blending. Weird smoke smell.

I really wanted to avoid a repeat of Brussels sprouts night, so before I cranked the blender up to high, I asked David his opinion about the blender, hoping he would take one look at it and diagnose the problem immediately.  He didn’t. He just turned it on and tried again, as if I had not just done that exact thing 30 seconds ago. More smoke smell.

Then I abandoned the specific slotted spoon recipe and switched to the whole mixture recipe and dumped everything in the blender, stock and all, and turned the blender on. Blending happened. No smoke smell. Lesson learned.

And what I got for my efforts was a beautiful, creamy butternut squash soup! It was so pretty! My first soup! I scooped myself a bowl, took some pictures and slurped my first spoonful.

Eh.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. It was fine actually, and I ate most of it, but I wasn’t sure if what was happening in my bowl was great, if it would be my go-to soup to warm my innards and soothe my soul this winter. What was it missing? What did it need more of, what did it need less of, what did it need? When Christa came back into the kitchen I said, “Please taste this and tell me if it tastes like butternut squash soup.”

“Of course it does, it’s butternut squash soup.”

Yes, it was. Thank you, Christa. I did it. I made my first soup. And right as I was about to close the chapter on my squash soup, won, a job well-done, she said,

“So what did you learn?”

Sigh. I may have had this very brief, fleeting thought that maybe I can sort of understand the concept of onions enhancing flavor, and maybe next time I make this soup, which will be around the time hell freezes over and pigs fly, I might try it with the onion. Maybe.