Seasons are now things of the past. Figments of memory, slices of lives lived farther north. With brisk days and crisp leaves behind me, I must now cultivate awareness—try to notice the small changes around me that signal the onset of what has always been my favorite time of year. McIntosh apples appearing at the grocery store (finally!), slightly cooler mornings and evenings, clearer coastal skies, an indigo-colored ocean. And yes, a tree here and there that’s decided to ignore it’s southerly surroundings, shedding a brown leaf here and there on the sidewalk to wait for the crush of my sandal.
I do miss the fall I have loved so much. But sitting on the beach at “negative tide” (a new term that I’ve learned is a synonym for “wow”) isn’t all that bad. And thank the newly cloudless skies there’s still squash, that harbinger of cozy, indoor evenings to come.
We’ve been eating a lot of spaghetti squash lately. It’s easy to square away in the oven while you prepare the accompaniments, and it’s just so, well, fun. (Not that I don’t LOVE the other offerings in the squash family, as my kabocha-udon noodles, quinoa-stuffed acorn squash, and warm butternut and chickpea salad can attest to. Not to mention the many other squash recipes that have showed up around these parts.) Scraping out the stringy flesh, I always think about the peasant who first discovered this freak of nature gourd: did she giggle when she set the fruits of her family’s labor down on the table? I would have.
Spaghetti squash is as versatile as the rest of the squash family, equally as delicious baked with butter and maple syrup as it is topped with more savory ingredients. But this variety of squash lends itself especially well to the pasta treatment, somewhat obviously, and my favorite way to eat it has been with a garlicky homemade puttanesca sauce. That is until I applied one of my favorite spice combinations to the stringy mass.
When I need some inspiration, there’s nothing like the good ‘ol Internet to help marinate the creativity. I was excited to find this recipe (from the 2002 issue of Gourmet – RIP), and after perusing some of the reviews and suggestions, took to the kitchen. Chickpeas are usually the featured legume in Moroccan cuisine, but they didn’t go very well with the squash, color-wise, so I chose my favorite lentil instead. My culinary compadre had already cooked up both the squash and the lentils, so all that was left was spicing and assembling.
The results? This is one easy dinner. Bake and scrape squash. Simmer lentils. Whip up a buttery spice mixture. Toss, garnish, and dig in! I think it would be a kid-friendly meal, too (not that I would know), as you can assemble these little nests if you so desire. Alternatively, you could mix the squash, spice mixture, and lentils all together for a more “complete” meal to serve to more sophisticated diners.
That’s all there is to it. As my triathlon training ramps down to base-building and my need for calories drops, these are the kinds of veggie-heavy dinners I want on my plate. A low-glycemic index meal that contains protein (yogurt and lentils) and good fat (cashews), and is vegan/vegetarian to boot? Bring it on. The optional raisins add just a little in the way of quick carbs, and the warming spices kept me satisfied until bedtime. And now, with these darker, post-time change evenings, even life in Southern California has begun to feel a little cozier.
Spaghetti Squash Nests with Moroccan Spices
1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) spaghetti squash
1/4 cup French lentils, well rinsed (blackish with flecks, and smaller than brown lentils)
1/4 stick (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, and 2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 smallish shallot cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon salt
Garnish: chopped fresh cilantro, Thompson raisins, plain yogurt, cashews, cracked pepper
- Choose your method of cooking the squash: Microwave – Pierce squash (about an inch deep) all over with a small sharp knife to prevent bursting. Cook in an 800-watt microwave oven on high power (100 percent) for 6 to 7 minutes. Turn squash over and microwave until squash feels slightly soft when pressed, 8 to 10 minutes more. Cool squash for 5 minutes. Oven – Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, cut squash in half, remove seeds, and lightly brush with butter or olive oil. Cook flesh side up until flesh is soft and begins to brown, one to one and a half hours in total. When the squash is done, scrape squash flesh with a fork, loosening and separating strands as you remove it from skin.
- Meanwhile, combine the lentils with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain well, set aside.
- When the squash and lentils are done, melt the butter and olive oil in a small heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and shallots and cook, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute. Stir in all the spices and salt and remove from heat.
- Toss the strands of squash with the spiced butter and arrange into nests. Fill the middle with the lentils, and garnish at the table.