Last week, Curt and I went to the Union Square Greenmarket. On a Monday afternoon in January, it’s a bleak affair – I understand it’s the dead of winter, nothing’s growing, and people don’t want to stand outside in the cold. Such a difference from even the fall, or around Christmas, where at least there are Christmas trees to buy (which, this season, I thought that maybe I’m against the mass cutting of pine trees – but that’s another story).
So on a Monday in January, in Union Square Greenmarket, there are few things to pick from: some varieties of squash, apples, root vegetables (carrots, sad-looking parsnips). No good greens. No herbs. I’m beginning to understand the pickling cultures, the jams and jellies you eat in winter.
As I become more tuned into the seasons, I’m beginning to recognize the value of eating things that are right for that season. We live in a world now where we can get tomatoes in January (though not the ones that we can bite into, right at the market stand, juice dripping gleefully from our chins as we wander to the next stall). But the tomatoes I looked at last week at the Met grocery store – even a s**tty Harlem grocery understands that people want their tomatoes year-round – I recoiled. Though the outside flesh looked fine enough to go into a soup, the tops of some had white fuzz on them. I considered picking them up anyway. But couldn’t shake myself of Gordon Ramsay yelling at head chefs in restaurants that let their good produce sit with the bad – the famous temper of his yelling, “it’s rotten, you idiot!”
So, squash. Squash is what we found at the market. Which was fresh enough – at least it looked good, and I’ve read that squash can last some 6 weeks in the right temperature. We picked up butternut squash so I could make the usual roasted butternut squash soup (a recipe that I started making in the fall, despite Curt’s initial protests that I wouldn’t find anything to do with the butternut squash); and then I was drawn to a yellow, more oval squash next to the butternut. There were no signs indicating what it was. I haven’t been a fan of squash in the past, as it was always served to me in its boiled form – I didn’t like the texture, the “mouthfeel” of it. The mushy texture, how it fell apart and invaded every part of my mouth, teeth, gums. Squash always felt like baby food to me, and when I was old enough to chew, I didn’t want to have any part of it.
But I haven’t wanted to dismiss an entire group of vegetables, especially since they’re so significant when the market offerings wane. When we wander the market on Mondays, I like to shop by seeing what “looks good” – and then going back to the stalls that have them for the best price. We haven’t gone the organic farm route, as it’s usually more expensive, and, well, baby steps. This method of seeing and buying, then deciding what I’ll do with the ingredient when I get home (which sometimes involves having to go back out to the grocery store, or sending Curt to do it), while not the most timesaving route, is how I “discovered” that roasted butternut squash soup back in the fall, when the butternut squash was so massive and delectable-looking, despite my previous aversion to squashes of all kinds. So when Curt questions my desire to pick up vegetables that I’ve never cooked before, I remind him of the butternut squash soup, kabocha tempura, creamed Swiss chard; all dishes that he enjoyed despite his initial reservations.
So, spaghetti squash. Never cooked it before. Didn’t know what it looked like inside, and couldn’t tell what it was outside (the farmer’s market folks told us). Last night I wanted pasta, something simple. I was ready to go to the store and buy things for a Bolognese. Then I looked up spaghetti squash, remembering that we had it in the cupboard and needed a vegetable. To my surprise, I discovered that most people do cook it like pasta. A quick browse through recipes on the Internet made me realize that people consider it a healthy, no-carb alternative to pasta, and it’s frequently used in place of pasta for people who are dieting.
We’re not dieting. It’s winter, and I’m averse to diets anyway. The diet-conscious mentality that I’ve had before seems the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve now: a repertoire of home-cooked meals from provincial communities. As Anthony Bourdain frequently says in his books and TV shows, the people who seem to cook best are those who had to, because of poverty, circumstance. This is the kind of food that I feel drawn to, coming from a Filipino family, having grown up eating parts of animal that you don’t often see on fine dining, and certainly not American menus (though that’s changing now). The tough bits that require hours of cooking. The difficult vegetables that you can’t just stir-fry.
Perhaps this is a particularly winter thing too. In the summer, when vegetables and herbs are plentiful, they don’t require much cooking. It seems that God, nature conspire to get us out of the kitchen in the summer, the same kitchen that we retire to for its warmth in the winter, when the oven’s working its magic on a piece of beef or as I’ll finally return to, spaghetti squash.
I settled on Emeril Lagasse’s Spaghetti Squash Carbonara. Not the healthiest recipe in the world, but as I’ve mentioned above, that doesn’t matter to me. It still feels better to cook something at home than to pick up burgers or KFC, even if (especially if?!) it’s loaded with bacon. I can’t describe why it feels healthier – maybe because I’ve put the work into it, and feel justified with eating the reward.
Like a regular spaghetti carbonara, Emeril’s recipe makes use of the principal ingredients: fresh cracked black pepper, bacon (or pancetta), eggs, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (I just used regular Parmesan). The spaghetti squash is halved and seeded, then “boiled” in the oven: set in a salt and peppered baking dish, flesh side down, with a bit of water, then covered tightly with aluminum foil. I checked it after an hour for its fork-tenderness, and it was fine. As I’ve said above, I’ve never cooked spaghetti squash before, so I don’t know the levels of consistency it can achieve. This one, when shredded, looked somewhat like the sotanghon noodles I knew growing up: somewhat translucent, but yellower.
Shredding the spaghetti squash with two forks, I was amazed and its non-mushy and noodle-like consistency. So amazed that I ran into the other room, where Curt was watching TV, and made him come out and watch me shred the rest of it. Emeril advises to transfer the squash to a heat proof bowl – however, as I did, I realized there was still a lot of water left in it. I didn’t want to mess with it too much, but I know I don’t like my pasta too wet, and the squash was going to be softer and more prone to fall apart when I mixed it in with the sauce, so I transferred the squash to a colander and let it drain into a bowl while I prepared the sauce.
I followed the rest of Emeril’s directions to the letter (for the most part). I scaled up, since our spaghetti squash was 3 ½ pounds. Used a wok to do the sauce in, as it heats more evenly than our sauté pans. I don’t measure out the salt and pepper, as they come out of our Peugeot grinders, it’s a pain to measure, and it’s a matter of taste anyway. I was confident that the bacon would provide plenty of salt.
I loved the methods that Emeril provided in this recipe. We didn’t have shallots, so I used onion and garlic. Watching, smelling, and listening to the dish while I was cooking, with Emeril’s directions in front of me, I could see when the bacon had changed to light brown, i.e. had cooked off most of the fat, but not all. I could smell when the garlic and onions had become fragrant. Hear when the white wine had cooked off the mixture.
The dish was strange and delicious. It’s hard to go wrong with ¾ pound of bacon. Every bite was an explosion of bacon, white wine, and sweet onion. The onions could have been cooked a little more, until they truly began to caramelize, a direction I didn’t follow exactly. Maybe a little less water in the baking dish, so the squash wasn’t so wet afterward. Dish was rich, but since it uses squash and not pasta, it didn’t feel heavy. A fantastic, ingenious dish – highly recommended, and do follow Emeril’s directions, as they’re very clear and this dish requires some precision in timing to achieve the proper texture and flavor.