spaghetti squash nests with moroccan spices

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. Continue reading

buttercup lentil soup

Squash is a rather deceiving name for the vegetable to which it refers. With pudgy approachability and even cuteness, the squash family is far from cushy. Take, for example, this buttercup. Looks delightful enough. With its little cap and almost folded-in appearance, it’s the grandmother of the fall harvest.

But set a knife to it and it sure puts up a fight. This hard fact is what led me to one of the most important realizations of my cooking life: squash need not be peeled before cooking. Nope. No matter what those recipes tell you, “squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped” need not require a follow-up cool down and protein shake.

The secret’s in roasting the squash first: Hack it up (or not, as some argue) throw it in the oven, and digging into that squishy soft squash-flesh will become one of your happiest soup making memories.

Lately I’ve been trying to venture out of my butternut rut. There are just so many other squashes to try: hubbard (not so impressed with my specimen), spaghetti, and acorn (one of my favorites to stuff), to name a few. I finally got around to this buttercup, whose dense, creamy flesh surprised me. I’ve also got two Delicatas on hand to try sometime this week.

There are as many ways to prepare squash as there are to love it, but one of my favorites has to be soup. I know I could have just substituted this buttercup into any squash soup recipe, but instead decided to do an off-the-cuff version with whatever needed to be used.

And it was good. Very good. With bright tomato red, spinach green, and buttercup orange, this soup is fall’s palate in a bowl.

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pumpkin puddin’ pie

Nation, I know you’re stuffed. But you didn’t think all I was going to say about Thanksgiving was drunken cranberry sauce, did you? Oh no. Besides, in Canada, we eat this stuff right through Christmas.

Yet another winner from the good (ahem, OCD) folks at Cook’s Illustrated, this is pumpkin pie as if it’s gone through all the rounds of America’s Next Top Model. Only it’s pie—and so much better for the soul. 

I never really thought there was much to mess with when it came to pumpkin pie. Take a recipe off the back of the can and you’ve got yourself a winner. But in the words of one of my editors, there’s always room to make good better. 

Soft and smooth as pudding, there’s ne’er a curdled spot of pumpkin in this baby. With the perfect shade of pumpkin-orange throughout, this pie doesn’t look like it’s spent too much time in a tanning booth either.  

As I read through Cooks Illustrated’s version of the classic, I decided to heed most of their advice. Following those those test kitchen folks’ advice is like becoming a teenager and learning that some rules are made to push. Take, for example, the following:

Silly Rule #1) Straining the filling through a fine mesh strainer. Yeah, right. (My friend Aaron, my favorite Cook’s Illustrated mocker, joked that he was surprised they didn’t want you to strain them through a series of mesh strainers, graduating in fineness. Borrowing a tip from his wife, I put my hand-held blender to work where the old strainer once ruled.)

Silly Rule #2) Using 3 eggs PLUS 2 more egg yolks? Um, since when did I not need my arteries?

Other than that I followed the recipe verbatim, except for this one not-so-secret ingredient I would now like to share with you. The story goes a little something like this:

Last year I was making my first ever pumpkin pie for our first American Thanksgiving when I discovered I didn’t have any evaporated milk. Gosh! Darn it! Whatever would I do? Neither of us felt like leaving the house, and as I pawed through my fridge for a reasonable facsimilie, there it was, smiling back at me: a carton of premium, thick-as-molasses eggnog. 

With my deepest apologies to evaporated milk. As much as I loved you, something taller, darker, and more handsome came a knockin’ at my oven door. And let me tell you, things have never been so hot as this here pie. 

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grown-up cranberry sauce

It’s kind of sad that I don’t get a full-fledged Thanksgiving this year. I know that every day is a feast with the comparative abundance I enjoy on a daily basis. When you’re living with a foot in two countries whose fall holidays don’t match up, though, planning a proper feast can slip easily by the wayside.

This year, our last-minute host in Ottawa delivered some fine impromptu stuffing and sweet potatoes. Days later, my visiting chef (mom) whipped up a pumpkin pie to help us refuel after our marathon. This Thursday, on the American holiday, we’ll likely share a smorgasbord of non-traditional dishes with other left-behind friends.

And so for this most humble of Thanksgiving posts, I had to reach way back into my photo archives for last year’s grown-up cranberry sauce, which I discovered on one of the first food blogs I started reading regularly. I have only one thing to say about this sauce: we’re still talking about it a year later.

I know what you’re thinking–why mess with perfection? But trust me on this one. It’s not so far off from the original, really. And after 20+ years of eating plain old cranberries n’ sugar, don’t you think it’s time for a change? I mean, let’s face it, life is too short for the same old. And If you hate it, I promise you someone will be happy to take it off your hands. (Express post to our place works as well.)

There’s something about an old favorite with a twist, like a reminder that old things too can be made new. What could be better accessories to tart, sweet cranberry sauce spiked with ruby red port, piney rosemary, and melt-in-your mouth figs.

My deepest apologies go out to turkey: there are some sauces that are just too good for you. This one deserves to be eaten by the spoonful. Or at least spread on crackers with a nickel of goat cheese.

But don’t despair, dearest bird. For you there’s always the recipe on the back of the cranberry bag.

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curried pear and butternut soup

Before you quickly click away from this post muttering squash, AGAIN?? please humor me. If there’s any time of the year I’m allowed to indulge my love of all things gourd, it’s fall.

On Halloween evening I biked to the grocery store to procure a baguette. We were going to have it with Mark’s delicious Punkin Ale rendition of this Beer Baked Beans recipe. I rode home with my baguette sticking out from behind me, feeling like I was headed to a dinner party in Montmarte.

The best thing about that little jaunt though were the pumpkins. Dotting front stoops like jolly orange goblins, glowing as if they had invaded the streets of Syracuse, the rotund globes guided me all the way home. There’s something about a carved pumpkin that makes me smile every time.

Leaves crackled under my bike tires as I passed people in lawn chairs doling out candy. My twilight ride wove through neighborhood streets that grew more festive as the sun sank.

But my recipe today doesn’t have to do with beans, baguettes, or pumpkins, but another type of squash. I’ve posted about the silky, meaty butternut once before, but today it’s back, pureed into a low fat soup with pears and curry powder. Here it is pictured with a swirl of sour cream.

Some friends and I made this soup a few weeks ago as part of our newly founded “Estro-cook” nights. The semi-weekly Sunday evening cook-a-thon was named after a Winnipeg Folk Festival workshop called “Estro-Jam,” where women from different bands teamed up to play a daytime stage.

I just love how this picture shows off the sunny October afternoon I enjoyed it on. Having soup in the freezer is one life’s easiest pleasures.

This soup can even be dressed up with cubes of tofu and green lentils, as this cafe on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast did. I took this picture while I was solo cycle-touring around Vancouver island, and this picture reminds me of those days, spent largely alone, when a bowl of soup and a Moleskine journal could very well be a vagabond’s best friend.

And years later, though I am holed up in Syracuse as the fall wilts to shades of ochre, the dear gourd does it again.

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when life gives you apples

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday saturated with the smell of fallen leaves baking in the sun, I went apple-picking. For for the first time. Ever. I know, I had a deprived, prairie childhood.

Sure I’ve plucked a few sour crab apples from the tree we had out back as kids. But that doesn’t count. This was good old-fashioned, eastern-style apple picking, right in the heart of the Empire state.

We debated the merits of Galas, Macs, and Cortlands. We ate fresh apple fritters, just out of their hot oil bath. We bought salty cheese curds and they squeaked against our teeth. We wandered the orchard in the feeble fall warmth.

Normally I don’t post photos of myself on here, but I got kind of a kick out of this one. It’s so posed, and I look so proud. With all the time I’ve spent in grocery stores in my lifetime, apples seem ubiquitous. Perfectly piled, row upon row, making ruby pyramids that greet you from the produce section.

Picking them from the tree is an entirely different thing. The apples, Empire in the case, appear like swollen purple grapes nestled in their spindly trees and pruned for prime production. You wrap your hand around one of the firm fruits, pull gently, and feel the snap of stem dislodged from its lifeblood. It’s such a simple gift of nature.

And when nature gives you apples, there’s just so much you can do. We ended up eating most of them raw, shined up on shirt sleeves, but I did managed to eek out a few containers of applesauce.

This stuff was a mainstay of our family’s dessert repertoire. Ladled out into bowls or over ice cream, the cinnamon-laced chunky brown applesauce was all the bedtime snack we needed. I’ve hated the baby food jarred stuff ever since; chunkiness and sauce go hand-in-hand in my world.

This year, the applesauce surprised me with its bright shade of pink. It must be those Empire apple skins, redder than a whole bushel full of blushing Republicans.

So many dear dear apples, straight from the tree into my pot. My childhood, slurped up from a silver spoon.

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