I feel the dust slide between my hands and the winter squash as I rifle through the giant cardboard bin at the farmer's stand. With the smell of hay and fires in the breeze, staring into a kaleidoscope of earthy vegetable colors, I whisper, “man, I love autumn.” The crisp air, the colors, the scritching sound of leaves blowing along the street kindle a quiet joy in my heart. Choosing some for their aesthetic gnarliness, and some for eating, I bring as many squash to the checkout as my arms can carry. Squash are beautiful, inexpensive, rippin' with nutrition (see?), and a versatile cooking ingredient. There are tons of types of edible winter squash, far more than what is typically seen in the grocery store.
I recommend going by a farmer's stand and finding your own bin to dive into. Where I went, it was 50 cents and 40 cents a pound (depending on the bin), compared to at least double that at the store. In olden times, autumn was a time of harvest and celebration, but also a time for preparation. Winter squash is not so named because it only grows in the winter. Rather, it can keep for months, making it a staple for winter storage.
As another great staple of autumn, the natives of North America made (and make) good use of acorns. They are in great abundance this time of year and keep wonderfully through the cold months. They are a meal unto themselves with ample carbs, fats (lots of omega 6), and complete spectrum protein (really). In central California, we are especially blessed with a prize natural resource of oaks producing some of the high-yield varieties such as Valley Oak Acorns. I went out with my little brother to Dry Creek in Modesto to gather some and try my hand at some acorn fare. I was blown away with a couple things I have come up with so far. I will now share a couple of my favorite dishes I am enjoying in my favorite season of the year: a squash bisque, and a Navajo-style acorn taco.
For this dish, I chose a butternut squash for its sweetness and vivid color. This bisque is wonderful on a chilly evening, especially with a chai tea.
Autumn Warmer Bisque
1 butternut squash
1 can coconut milk
5 green cardamom pods
½ tbsp sucanat sugar (optional)
Salt to taste
Cinnamon to garnish
- Place the squash flat-side down in a glass casserole dish. Add 1cm warm water to the dish, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave 15 minutes. Some may choose to roast the squash in the oven, and this is a great choice, but it takes far longer and the difference in flavor is almost unnoticeable.
- While the squash is cooking, separate the seeds from the fiber. Salt the naturally wet seeds, spread them evenly on a baking tray, and roast in the oven at 420ºf until the seeds get a little brown on them. If they start to pop, open the door for a minute. All squash seeds are edible, and we don't want to waste them. They are a good source of protein, omega 6 and 3, and a bunch of vitamins and minerals (!).
- Open your can of coconut milk, pour in a bowl, and beat it- in honor of Michael Jackson.
- Drop the cardamom pods in a food processor and pulse for 1 crocodile, 2 crocodile. Open it up and remove the green hulls, now separated from the seeds. Process the seeds for another 10 crocodiles.
- Drop the processed seeds in a hot saute pan and scoop a spoonful of coconut milk into the pan, which should hit with a PSSSHHHH!!!! Reduce hard until the aroma of the cardamom is released, and the coconut just begins to change color.
- Check the squash. Push on the skin at different spots with your finger, and make sure it has a little give. If you feel like you're pushing a little hard, it probably needs to go back in for a few more minutes. Don't be pushy with this, we want the squash nice and soft.
- Scoop the squash with a spoon from from the flesh. Try not to get any skin, but it's not the end of the world if there's a little in there.
- Put everything in the food processor and blend to consistency.
- Pour into saucepan. Add salt to taste and sugar (I prefer sucanat, but brown sugar, turbinado, castor sugar, or any dark sugar will do) and gently simmer for 15-20 minutes without a lid.
- Serve garnished with cinnamon powder. Place seeds on the side. Note: if you aren't used to eating squash/pumpkin seeds, they can cause a little stomach discomfort the first time or two.
It was a joy to go through the process with the acorns, and was a great activity for the little one. This dish is some greasy goodness that goes great with a cervesa.
Navajo-Style Acorn Tacos
There are many ways to prepare acorns, as most varieties are inedible unprocessed. In the old days, it was typical to mash the acorns to a meal, then leave it in a woven basket, submerged in a river for a couple days. As that isn't super convenient in the city, I opted for the boil-and-strain method. This was convenient and allowed me to eat them the same day. There are ample web pages describing other cold methods if you google it.
- When gathering, don't choose any with any holes. If they are sprouting, and thus cracked at the tip, that's usually ok- give it a peek and ensure it doesn't appear rotted.
- Separate the shells (with the variety I gathered, I found it very easy to use scissors as shown).
- Discard any which are dark brown or have a weevil in them.
- Put in a pot and boil vigorously. Rule of thumb is 3 parts water to 1 part acorns.
- Pour out water through a colander. Fill back up with water and repeat until water is clear-ish. I did 7 boils, which seemed more than adequate.
- After this, they can be used right away, or allowed to dry on a baking tray to store for later.
- If they are stored dry acorns, boil them briefly to re-constitute them before using in this recipe.
Couple handfuls of flour
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of salt
Jug of canola oil
Egg replacer and soy milk will be fine to keep this vegan. The key is to have a dough sticky enough that it can be rolled super thin without crumbling.
- Combine flour, salt, baking soda first. Then the egg and milk in a bowl, working it over and working the proportions to get a firm wad of dough, about baseball sized.
- Knead dough for a few minutes with well-floured hands.
- Let sit for 15 minutes (or don't, see if I care).
- Divide into four parts.
- Roll out on a well-floured surface with a well-floured pin. Peel, re-flour the surface, dust the top, and roll out again. Don't be afraid of over dusting, as is a concern with some other breads. A very dry, floury rolled dough will make a nice greasy, crispy frybread.
- Flip and repeat a few times if needed to get it as thin as possible (but let's be realistic, it has to fit in whatever sized skillet you have).
- Pour oil in a skillet, enough to almost, but not quite, cover the bread when it's dropped in. Heat it to dern hot, but not smoking.
- Drop your rolled dough in (PPSSSSSHHHH!!!!).
- Lift bread after about 45 seconds with a spatula to check underside. When it's golden-brown, flip it. Peek at the other side just the same and remove when crispy golden-brown.
1 c boiled acorn
Jug of canola oil
- Put boiled acorns in a food processor and run it very thoroughly. Using boiled acorn is important because the water content causes it to take on a crumbly texture great as a taco meat.
- Throw it in a frying pan stirring in canola oil until it saturates (meaning you see it no longer absorbing into the meat).
- Add taco seasonings. I like to use: salt, white pepper, paprika, cayenne, and chili powder.
- Cook until browned. If it goes too far, it'll start hardening. A little bit adds a nice crunchiness, but too much and it just seems like wood.
Garnish and finale:
Green leaf lettuce
- Put the bread on a plate. Put the meat on the bread. Need me to repeat that?
- Slice the garnish ingredients and cover the taco to your liking. I like using kefir rather than sour cream as it has a richer taste and is a bit healthier than the cream usually found at the store. Tofutti's “Better Than Sour Cream” is a great vegan no cholesterol alternative.
- If you're in New Mexico reading this, you'll know that a red chile smothering is totally in order.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the season and the bounty that it brings. And remember- butter and cream are the crutches of unimaginative chefs!