Taste of Autumn: Stuffed Squash with Fennel and Apple

First off, does the word “squash” look really weird to anyone else?  I mean, S-Q?  Who starts a word that way?  

I love fall. Before people who know me call shenanigans, let me clarify that I do not like being cold, so any displays of autumnal dislike can be directly linked to a lack of sweaters.  Moving on.  The sky seems bluer in the fall.  I think it’s that it’s finally cool enough that going outside isn’t torture, and combined with the beautiful fall foliage one can appreciate the sky more.  The natural colors and earthy scents, (leaves, apples, fresh-turned soil) make me feel more connected to the earth than the riotous colors of genetically manipulated summer flowers.  It’s just cold enough that wearing all your cosy clothes and curling up under a blanket with a good book becomes wonderful.  Warming, substantial food suddenly becomes the best thing in the world. And, of course, every kids’ favorite part about fall:

Yes, I will go slightly out of my way to step on that crunchy-looking leaf!

Although I haven’t fully embraced the local foods movement (largely due to cost) I love the idea of eating foods in the correct season – it just makes me appreciate them more.  For example, I don’t look forward to raspberries the way I used to when I was growing up, because now they’re in stores for a much longer window of time.  Additionally, in-season produce is more flavorful and more nutrient-dense.  Not to mention that seasonal produce tends to lend itself to the types of food you want to eat in that season – in summer you have crisp refreshing fruits like melon and cucumber, in fall and winter rich sustaining vegetables and tubers.

We had several small squashes (the plural of the word looks even weirder to me!) sitting on the counter for the last week or so, and they needed eating.  I used to hate squash.  The only way my mom liked to make it was to cut (large!) acorn squash in half and bake them with butter.  Not only is that a very squashy dish for a child, but acorn squash (in my opinion anyway) is not a very delicious squash, being less sweet and more fibrous than other varieties.

Although I’ve warmed to the idea of squashes in recent years, I still don’t have much experience in cooking with them, so deciding what to make involved cookbook searching.  I spent many happy hours (ok, maybe just one) flipping through my go-to cookbooks, plus searching online.  I found a flavor combination that I really liked – squash with fennel and apple – but it was in soup-form and I was set on stuffing those babies. So I took the flavor idea, added some quinoa for substance and texture and came up with:

This recipe is not as complicated as it looks, or even that time-consuming (Took me about an hour, start to finish).  Just read through it all before you start so you know which steps you can do in tandem with other steps.

As a variation, you could just dice and roast all the squash and add it to the filling, making a delicious warm quinoa salad.

Make it vegan: replace the butter with something like Earth Balance and skip the browning step.  You can add a teaspoon of tahini to the melted margarine to get a more nutty flavor.

Ingredients:

4 small Winter Squash such as Sweet Dumpling
4 Tbsp Butter
3 fresh Sage leaves (optional)
1/4 cup Apple Cider or Juice

1 Tbsp Butter 1 medium Onion, diced
1 small bulb Fennel, diced (about 1 cup)
1 clove Garlic, minced
1 medium, crisp Apple
2 Tbsp fresh Sage

1/2 cup Quinoa
3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp Water
2 Tbsp Apple Cider or juice
1/2 tsp Better than Bullion* or  1/2 Bullion cube

Directions:

Pre-heat Oven to 350

Brown the 4 Tbsp of butter (this step can be skipped, but it adds more depth of flavor). To brown, heat a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat and slice the butter into it.  Watch the butter!  I just stand there and whisk it, not entirely necessary, but does keep my attention on it.  The butter will get really foamy, and then as the foam subsides you’ll see brown specks forming at the bottom of the pan.  You smell that?  The amazing nutty aroma?  That’s the tastiness developing.  Continue stirring the butter for another minute or two, careful not to burn it, and remove it from the heat.  I placed three sage leaves in the butter while I was doing this, which infused the butter awesomely, but also meant the butter never stopped foaming, making it harder to watch.  If you’ve never browned butter, mince the sage and add it at the end to make things easier.

Warm the 1/4 cup of cider/juice in a small pot or the microwave and add to the butter (or forget this step like me and be forced to re-melt the butter, oops).

Slice the top off of  each squash, and scoop out the seeds (reserve seeds for toasting!).  If the squash doesn’t stand up straight, cut a small slice off the bottom.  Brush the inside of the squash with the butter/cider mixture (or just pour some into the squash and swirl it around) and place the squash face down in a baking dish.

Cube the squash tops (you can peel them first if you’re the peeling type, I’m decidedly not), and place on a cookie sheet.  Coat squash pieces in the butter mixture, reserving 2 tablespoons.  Place both dishes in the oven for thirty minutes or until tender.

Separate the squash seeds from the pulp.  I put them in a colander and rinse them like crazy, picking out the pulp with my fingers.  Spread the seeds on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper and bake for 15-20 minutes, checking on the seeds after 10 minutes.

Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat.  Dice the onion and add to the skillet along with a pinch of salt, cook until translucent.  Chop the fennel bulb (reserve the greens for garnish) and add to the skillet.  Walk away from the skillet.  The object is to get the fennel and onion to brown, which is hindered by stirring (I’m an over-stirrer).  Cook the fennel, stirring minimally, until browned and delectable-smelling.  Add the minced garlic, and cook for a few more minutes, then remove the pan from the heat, and add the sage and diced apple.

While the fennel is browning, cook the quinoa. Place quinoa, water, 2 Tbsp cider and the bullion in a medium pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Add the quinoa to the fennel mixture.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

When the squash is tender (easily pierced with a fork) remove from the oven and add the squash cubes to the fennel mixture.  If the walls of the squash are particularly thick, trim them and add the trimmings to the fennel as well.  Fill the squash and return to the oven for 10-15 minutes or until thoroughly hot. Drizzle with reserved browned butter and garnish with toasted squash seeds and minced fennel greens.

Serves 4

* Better than Bullion is better than bullion.  It’s a bullion paste that comes in a jar.  Not only is it more flavorful than bullion cubes, but you can add whatever amount you want, and it dissolves much more easily.

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