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Trying new foods: a tale of Squash and Brussel Sprouts

11/03/2009

Union Square Farmers' Market

I learned how to cook from hanging around my mother in the kitchen while she made dinner every night, picking things up piece by piece. As a kid, my job was usually stirring the onions as they simmered and browned in the sauté pan. The smell of sautéing onions still makes me feel at home. But mom can’t teach us everything and there are some foods I was never introduced to in my house, which of course meant that it never occurred to me to try them elsewhere. Things like tofu, yes, but also canned beans and cartons of broth (she’s come to the other side on the broth question)–foods that never came into my house growing up, but are now constant occupiers of my shelves and refrigerators (though I am now taking steps to go back to the dried beans of my childhood).

Halved delicata squash

And then there are the vegetables. By the time I got to high school, I often would tell people that my favorite foods were broccoli, spinach, and green beans, everyday staples in my house. I got to college and continued cooking my familiar green vegetables, even while the rest of my daily menu changed significantly. But in the last two years, that dynamic, too has changed. In part inspired by eating my friends’ cooking, but mostly the excitement of going to farmers’ markets and seeing things I have never eaten, nor ever thought of eating, I have been trying new foods. Last year my experiments involved butternut squash. I began eating squash pies when they were served at meals and I started making my own butternut squash soup regularly (I’ll post that recipe soon). Over the summer I started buying eggplants once a week, concocting with pasta sauces, lasagnas, and burgers.

Oven-roasted delicata

This year, I’m taking bigger steps. It started with all of the crazy winter squashes in every color, shape, and size at the farmers’ market in the past few weeks. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t really know what they would taste like, but in the past week, I’ve bought three different squashes, none of them butternut (delicata, acorn, and carnival, for the record). And while I was buying these squashes, there was a cooking demonstration going on that featured some vegetable mix I couldn’t identify, but I figured, why not? So I tried it. And it was delicious. It could have just been that warm food was a nice treat on a cold day, but that first taste of brussel sprouts was a delight. So I picked up some of those, too.

Tender delicataSo this past week has seen lots of kitchen games. Since I had never eaten any of these squashes and the general consensus of my internet sources and the guide to winter squashes I picked up at the market was that they are all best when roasted in the oven with olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices of choice, I set up an experiment. I halved my squashes, scraped out the seeds (which I later cleaned and roasted with a little cooking spray and salt), salted, peppered, and oiled them. Then I applied paprika, chile, and cinnamon in sections, leaving a fourth section with just the salt and pepper. After about 30-40 minutes in the oven at 350, the delicata squash came out tender–so tender that the skin itself was edible! The squash itself was sweet, but not overpoweringly so, the meat slightly stringy. My favorite of the seasonings was the chile powder–the smoky flavor of the spice was a fun contrast with the sweet delicata. I didn’t like the acorn squash as much–maybe I didn’t cook it long enough, but it was a bit tougher and less flavorful. Although I did love that once seeded the inside forms a huge bowl–soup, anyone? The seeds were delicious. Both the delicata and the acorn seeds had a sweetness to their crunch that you don’t get with roasted pumpkin seeds.

Brussel sprouts

As for the brussel sprouts… When I went to the farmers’ market on Union Square on Friday, I learned something. Brussel sprouts grow on branches/stalks (see above). Who knew? Granted, I knew nothing about these sprouts on Thursday, but still. Last night I went to an event sponsored by the American Jewish World Service and Avodah called What’s on your plate? Unpacking Local, Organic, and Fair Trade. One of the most popular points by the panelists was the lack of connection we now have with our food. We were asked what we ate for dinner last night and where it came from–many people answered the grocery store, a restaurant, their kitchens. But, of course, the food doesn’t come from those places–it comes from a farm somewhere, potentially anywhere in the world. I wonder if people there would have been able to describe how brussel sprouts grow?

Like the squashes, I didn’t really know what to do with my newly acquired brussel sprouts. I really wanted to eat exactly what I had had at the cooking demonstration, but that wasn’t going to happen because I am pretty sure whatever he was mixing involved chestnuts, which I didn’t have (I don’t think I’ve ever tried those either… maybe that will be my next experiment?). But I overheard the chef saying he likes his vegetables to be themselves–a little olive oil and very minimal amounts of salt so that what you are tasting is the vegetable and not the seasoning. So I did that.

Brussel sprout

I chopped up my sprouts into little pieces, threw them in a frying pan with a bit of olive oil and lightly sprinkled with salt. I was disappointed with my first bites, so I cooked it a bit longer, until the green edges were starting to turn brown. That was better, but not quite where I wanted it to be. But then I remembered that what I had eaten had been a mixture of the sprouts and butternut squash. So I took a stab at the acorn squash on my plate and then added some of the brussel sprouts to the fork. That was it. The salty, slightly bitter taste of the sprouts with the mushy sweetness of the acorn squash.

The moral of the story? Take advantage of all of the wacky produce that is becoming more and more available every day. I realize brussel sprouts maybe aren’t so crazy, but on Friday I counted at least fifteen different types of squash–you probably can’t find that at your local grocery store.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. vivian reynaldo permalink
    11/05/2009 8:54 AM

    This is great Jess love it by the way I now make a vegetarian sandwich but I hurt my hand and it is hard to write but will send recipy late love tia vivian

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