cooking 101

earning your chops

Here's how to prepare two popular vegetables for Thanksgiving

November 12, 2008|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,

A monthly series to teach you basic cooking techniques

Thanksgiving dinner preparations are a vegetable chop-a-thon for a cook, and not an easy one at that.

Butternut squash is at its peak season now, but getting beyond the bell shape and hard skin to the naturally sweet veggie can be daunting. And just thinking about the amount of diced onions called for in the dishes that cover a holiday table is enough to make you cry.

But don't reach for the tissues. Instead, place two all-purpose knives - a chef's knife for the squash and a paring knife for the onion - by your cutting board. Then follow the directions we got from Tom Schwarzweller, executive chef at Wegmans in Hunt Valley.

First, the butternut squash. With a rich and slightly nutty flavor, it's a versatile winter squash that can have a place in everything from soup to desserts. Its orange flesh makes for brightly colored side dishes, said Schwarzweller.

Butternut squash is also incredibly good for you, and its availability offers a welcome autumn change in vegetables.

"It is a wonderful, nutrient-dense food to add to your vegetable selection as the winter approaches," said Maureen Shackelford, a registered dietitian at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

Butternut squash is known as an "amazing source" of vitamin A because 1 cup of cooked squash provides 145 percent of the vitamin's daily requirement, she said. That same cup provides 35 percent of the daily recommended dose of vitamin C, plus lots of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins - all at 80 calories, and at a time when out-of-season vegetables may be beyond the price range of many consumers.

All of this presumes you know how to select a ripe one and cut it into the chunks called for in many recipes.

Deceptively heavy for its size, a good-sized butternut squash weighs about 3 pounds. Properly cut, it yields about 2 1/2 pounds of flesh. Its exterior should be smooth, hard and free of blemishes. The stem must be dry, Schwarzweller said. A green stem indicates the squash is not ripe.

"The pressure point, on the bottom, should not be rotted. It should be firm," Schwarzweller said.

Removing its armorlike exterior can pose a challenge. Using a chef's knife with an 8-inch blade, Schwarzweller trimmed off the ends of the squash and cut the squash into three pieces: first, removing the bulbous seed compartment, then cutting the remaining piece into two short cylinders.

Then, standing each piece on the cutting board, he showed us how to slice downward at the edge of the vegetable to quickly remove the skin.

He used a big metal spoon to scoop the seeds and goop from the halved seed compartment.

Don't be afraid of the large, sharp knife, the chef said, as he prepared to turn the flesh into a 1-inch dice.

"A sharp knife is the best thing you can have. It will cut cleanly and it won't slide off your product and cut you," he said.

"You want a nice, even dice," Schwarzweller said as he reduced the large vegetable to small pieces to roast for butternut squash with baby spinach.

"I'm actually rocking my knife, to cut with the tip down," he said as he demonstrated. The reasons: first, for safety, and second, it's easier on the hand.

Onions are a flavoring staple - Wegmans uses red ones for sweetness in its butternut squash with baby spinach dish - but have a different kind of cutting challenge. Aside from bringing tears to handlers' eyes, halved onions can slide away or their layers can come undone, ending a cook's dream of an even dice.

Here, a paring knife with a 3-inch blade was big enough for the job.

While he had no cure for the tearing - though onions in fall generate less weeping than those in the spring - Schwarzweller did show us how to get an even dice by keeping each half of our onion from falling apart. That made the dicing go faster.

"One of the tricks of the trade is not to totally remove the root end," he said, as he removed the top and about half of the root end to form a flat top and bottom.

That remaining root stub held the onion layers in place.

Cut the onion in half from top to bottom, slicing through that hunk of root, and then lay one half of the onion flat-side down. Hold it firmly at the top of the root end, and slice in horizontally toward the root.

"Slice three-quarters of the way through," the chef said, demonstrating.

Then, make three vertical slices, again toward the root but not reaching it. Turn the onion and make three cuts all the way through. That will yield a half-inch dice - a perfect size for roasting; smaller pieces burn too easily.

To make butternut squash with baby spinach, start with a 3-pound butternut squash, which can cost about 69 cents to $1 a pound. Or, if you'd like to avoid chopping altogether, buy fresh butternut squash already peeled, cleaned and diced, at about $2.50 for a 20-ounce package.

knife tips

* Use a cutting board with a little give, such as one made of wood or hard rubber, to protect the knife.

* The first time you pick up a knife that day, give it seven swipes on a honing steel.

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