Squash becomes welcome invader

October 10, 2007|By ROB KASPER

It sat in the kitchen for days, looming over me as I ate. It seemed to be asking, when am I going to be invited to a meal?

It was the butternut squash that came to dinner, forcibly.

I had not planted it in my garden; instead the squash imposed itself into my life, with savory results.

The tale began in the heat of summer, when a squash vine sprouted in a neighbor's plot in our community gardens in Druid Hill Park. Quicker than kudzu, the vine jumped a fence dividing our gardens and made itself at home in my plot. Because the intrusion occurred in an area that was already overgrown with mint, I did not mind. In fact, I welcomed it, hoping the vine might slow down the mint's sprawl.

It seemed to work as day after day the squash vine pushed deeper into my garden, cloaking the mint. One afternoon while thrashing around in the underbrush, I discovered a butternut squash. It hung from the vine, like a large, tan earring.

The skin was rock-hard, so I left it alone, figuring it would soften as it ripened. That never happened. It remained as unyielding as Vladimir Putin.

I had read that any winter squash with thick skins would continue to sweeten after you pick them. So one day when I was bored, I cut the squash off its vine.

I carried it home and placed it on a kitchen counter. There it sat for weeks, like a piece of sculpture. I was saving it, I told myself, for some squash-friendly occasion, such as Thanksgiving. Then another squash appeared in my garden and soon I had the two alien vegetables perched on the kitchen counter. The more I looked at them, the more their vase shape reminded me of lamps.

Recently, one of the squash turned slightly darker. I took that as a sign of readiness and resolved that the time had come to bring the squash to the table.

I paged through Alice Waters' new book, The Art of Simple Food. Waters, who founded Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., is a vegetable hugger. Her accomplishments include creating an Edible Schoolyard program that teaches school kids about food and nutrition by having them grow vegetable gardens. I figured she knew her squash.

Sure enough, Waters' book had a simple treatment for roasted butternut squash. I followed it, working around the fact that the amounts for ingredients in her recipe -- salt and olive oil, for instance -- were not specified.

Armed with a vegetable peeler, I removed the skin of the squash. Soft and yielding it was not. I also had to muscle up to cut the squash in half. The process reminded me of carving jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween, an undertaking that is more strenuous than first imagined.

Once the squash had popped open, its flesh, a bright Oriole orange, appeared. The squash looked autumnal, but it offered resistance as I scooped out its seeds and chopped the very firm flesh into 1/4 -inch pieces.

I am told that years ago, in the cigar houses of Havana, someone would read aloud from great works of literature as the workers painstakingly rolled cigars. I could have used a reader as I chopped the squash. I felt like about half of War and Peace could have been knocked off in one chopping session.

I put the chopped squash in a shallow baking dish, sprinkled it with salt, drizzled it with extra-virgin olive oil and added four torn sage leaves. I tossed the ingredients, then baked them in a 350-degree oven until they were soft and lightly browned on top, a little more than one hour. The butternut squash, once a brash invader, had become a soothing dinner companion. Its dense flesh had turned sweet and pliant. It could, I decided, hop my garden fence anytime.


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