When my cooking students ask me how I determine whether a restaurant is good or not, I often reply, "It's all in the vegetables." I explain that if a chef pays attention to these side dishes, you can be certain the rest of the menu will also be carefully prepared. The same adage applies to home chefs. Show me the cook who presents beautifully cooked vegetables, and I know the other dishes will be just as tempting.
In the fall, a new crop of vegetables appears: squashes in all colors and shapes, huge cabbages, tightly coiled Brussels sprouts, and fresh rutabagas and sweet potatoes. These vegetables are a welcome change and a culinary gold mine for the creative cook.
Acorn Squash Stuffed With Pears, Cranberries and Pecans
Makes 8 servings
4 acorn squash (about 1 1 / 4 pounds each)
1 cup dried cranberries
2 pears, ripe yet firm to the touch (Bartletts work well)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 teaspoons finely chopped peeled ginger
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
4 teaspoons light brown sugar
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
Cut thin slices from both ends of squash and discard slices. Halve squash (through middle, not stem ends) and scrape out and discard seeds and strings. Place halves, cut sides down, in very large roasting pan (or use 2 large roasting pans), and fill pan or pans with 1 / 4 inch water.
Bake at 325 degrees on center rack until flesh is very tender when pierced with sharp knife, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove pan from oven and set aside.
Place cranberries in small bowl and cover with boiling water to soften 5 minutes. Drain well and pat dry. Peel pears, quarter and remove cores. Cut into 1/2 -inch dice.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter in large heavy skillet over medium heat. When hot, add pears and saute, stirring, until pears are just softened and slightly golden, 3 minutes or slightly longer. Pears should be tender but not mushy. Do not overcook. Stir in drained cranberries, ginger, pecans and brown sugar and cook, stirring, 1 minute more. Sprinkle mixture with balsamic vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook and stir 1 minute more. Remove from heat.
Remove squash halves from pan. Pour out water and pat pan dry. Return squash, cut sides up, to pan. Salt cavity of each well and dot with 1 / 4 tablespoon remaining butter. Divide filling evenly among halves. (Squash can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at cool room temperature.)
To finish, return squash to oven and bake, uncovered, until heated through, 10 to 15 minutes or longer. Serve warm.