Saturday, January 1, 2011

Kabocha is Squashspeak for “I Love You”

New Year’s Eve used to be my third most hated holiday.* But Beth has changed all that. New Year’s Eve is our anniversary!

I love Beth more than I can explain to you. I love the complement between her formidable intellect and her capacity for abject silliness. We laugh together every single day.

I love her giant heart: I have never met anyone who works as hard as Beth does to understand herself, to take responsibility for her actions, to extend a hand of compassion to others.

I love the fact that, though she’s a little tiny thing, she can eat an entire New York strip in a sitting. My baby can put the steak away, aww yeah.

So of course I made a steak for her on our special day. And there had to be something good to go with it. Bread? Pah! Baked potato? Fwuh! My girl loves squash. Imma make her some kabocha gratine.

Oh, kabocha. It is the most fine-grained, sweet, and creamy vegetable you could ever hope to meet. Its Crayola-colored rind peels away to reveal carrot-orange flesh streaked with green, yellow, and red. Can you resist sneaking a raw bite? It is crisp and sugary as a carrot, too.

Layer the slices in a baking dish and cover them with velvety cheese sauce, and you have decadence incarnate. The squash bakes to melting tenderness in a surprisingly short amount of time. The gratine is unctuous and rich, bathing the senses in deep flavors and smooth texture. Want to render your lover speechless with pleasure? Just slip a few spoonfuls of this onto her plate.

*After Christmas and Valentine’s Day. We fixed Christmas, but we still hate Valentine’s Day.

Kabocha Gratine with Four Cheeses

The remains of our Sparklemas cheese plate went into the sauce. More fun than the traditional Swiss!

A kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and sliced
¼ cup (half a stick) butter
2 T flour
1 c milk or cream
1 c grated/shredded/mangled cheese, divided. I used scraps of chevre, Manchego, Parmesan; and mostly mozzarella. Swiss would have been better than mozzarella, but that’s what I had.
A dash of fresh-ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a glass or ceramic baking dish. Arrange the squash slices in one layer, slightly overlapping them so the bottom of the pan is covered.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and sift in the flour. Whisk until smooth. Pour in the milk or cream and cook, whisking constantly, until thick—right before the liquid comes to the boil. Take the pan off the heat and stir in ¾ cup of cheese. The sauce should be thick and the cheese completely melted. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Pour the sauce over the squash, taking care to cover it up well. Put the pan in the oven and bake until bubbly and browned, about 30 minutes. The squash should be tender. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and put back in the oven until melty and toasty, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve to acclaim.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Sparklemas Pig

It was love that made me ask. Not chauvinism, not disrespect or failure to acknowledge, understand, or embrace my vegetarian friends. But the pork shoulder was so transcendant and amazing; I simply could not bear the notion that another person might live in the same world with such flavors and miss tasting them.

Thinking it through, I decided the risk of offending them was pretty slight; and, anyway, less weighty than the opportunity to bring this potential experience to their attention.

I called their names. “Are you sure you don't want to expand your definition of ‘vegetable’ to include pigs just for tonight?”

They didn't. They were plenty blissed out on the oven-roasted tomatoes (from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Italian Country Table) and the raw kale salad with walnuts, mandarin oranges, and dried cranberries (from the "A Year to Eat Freely" calendar from Kim Christensen's

Eh, more for me.

There are, possibly, as many slight variations on this roast as there are families who cook it. My grandmother dictated the instructions to be over the phone many years ago, and I still have the notes I scrawled in red felt-tipped pen on the back of a research request form from the Geography Department at Lerner Publications, where I worked at the time.

Porchetta is pork stuffed with fennel, garlic, and black pepper. How much, you ask? “Some,” I answer. A bunch. Just the right amount. Whatever you think is good. This is a food I know in my heart, not in my head. I chopped up garlic until it looked like enough, ground pepper until I was satisfied. Earlier this year I chopped up and froze the fronds from Harmony Valley fennel. I could have used less, but I felt bad for it because it had been frozen. I wanted it to feel loved. So I broke up the entire quart container I’d preserved. I mixed in the garlic (say about a head of it? Maybe two?) and half the pepper (A handful. Perhaps a quarter cup) and some salt (I dunno. A few tablespoons?).

The dish is made with a pork shoulder or a Boston pork butt. This is the roast made from the thick end of the shoulder. This year, our fabulous 18” snowstorm prevented Tollefson, my favorite pork farmer, from procuring a fresh pork shoulder for me. Instead I chose a pair of roasts to piece together.

A Boston butt (hee hee hee! “Boston butt”) weights three to five pounds; the whole shoulder weighs eight to ten. One pound of this weight is the shoulder bone, which must come out. The flat part of the bone is a piece of cake; one straight slice across the width of the roast and it’s done. The other side, though, is much trickier. Viewed side-on, the bone is shaped like a triangle. From the end, though, it is a T-shaped affair that swoops and curves through the muscle, fat, and connective tissue that make the pork shoulder an incredibly flavorful and tender cut when cooked long and slow.

I finally cajoled the bones out of the roasts. Normally I’d cut two or three layers across the width of the meat, but boning had left me with four big pieces. I butterflied the thick pieces and flattened out the thinner ones. Then I spread my herb mixture over it all. I folded over and shoved together , cramming herbs into every crevice and cut surface. I used four yards of butcher string to tie up the meat any which way I could, ending up with a seven-pound roast.

I mixed the other handful of pepper with some more (another couple tablespoons?) salt and rubbed this mixture all over the porchetta. I wrapped it up tight in foil and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I allowed two hours for the roast to come to room temperature; then started it, still foil-wrapped, in a 300° oven. I used a meat thermometer, since I was planning to cook it for five hours or more. But if I didn’t have one, I simply would have worried less and trusted more. Pork shoulder is so forgiving of overcooking. It is so well marbled and shot through with collagen. I’m not sure what it would take to dry one out. Maybe a volcano. Or someday when the earth consumes the sun. Not my partner’s little gas oven, that’s for sure.

For the last hour and a half, I peeled back the foil and cranked the temperature up to 350° so the meat would brown. I pulled it out of the oven at the five-hour mark, tented it, and let it rest a half hour. At this point, six or eight people suddenly needed to come in the kitchen. Where was the ice? Could they have some water? Did I need any help?

I had to insist, three times and increasingly loudly, that everyone get the hell out of my kitchen.

Finally, we carve. Another fun thing about pork shoulder is the grain: it is meaningless. You can start out cutting across it, but a) it doesn’t matter – the meat is falling-apart tender; and b) it is just going to change direction in about three slices. Do what you can. It doesn’t matter if you are a good carver or a poor one. Everyone is going to have one taste and forget everything except how delicious the meal is.

Buon Scintillina, e mangiamo!

(Happy Sparklemas, and let’s eat!)