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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Butter Me A Squash

I have the most wonderful cookbook collection in the world.  Michael  goes to a lot of effort and expense to make sure I have the latest, coolest, and must-have cookbooks. I read them like novels.  I devour them for knowledge and adore cooking from them. That being said, lately I've been cooking willy-nilly, trying to use whatever I have on hand in any way I can.

A couple of nights ago, I made a creamy purple potato soup that was tasty and pretty.  Our skipping meat for one night was not earth shattering, but two nights in a row could be.  Last night, I took stock of the pantry, freezer, and refigerator, finding a pound of Not For Sale ground beef in the freezer given to us by a dear friend from  the arrival of the latest fatted calf, a green pepper in the vegetable bin tucked underneath thawed cryo-vaced asian seaweed (really?), and a small butternut squash occupying a gigantic bowl on the kitchen countertop. Beef.  Butternut squash.  Peppers. A tagine called  my name. The ingredients were  taking me down the Silk/Spice Road.  I certainly had the spices to go there, but wasn't sure I was up to the long journey (especially on a week night) for that kind of exotic flavor profile. 
When I opened the stuffed spice cabinet to check things out, a small Mason jar of ChefBabyBrother's ground ancho chile powder tumbled onto the counter and almost shattered. Perfect!  That was it. Butternut squash......chili.

It was the same concept of a tagine, but with a less bumpy road.

I sauteed ground beef until no longer pink before tossing ground ancho chili powder, cumin, ground coriander, paprika, mexican oregano, salt, pepper, and Sazon (a latin seasoning containing powdered garlic, cumin, coriander, and annato)  into the sizzling pot  to toast and envelope the meat.  When the ground beef was beautifully stained from the spices, I added chopped green pepper, diced onions, minced garlic, san marzano crushed tomatoes, and beef stock. I brought everything to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and let it rip for 45 minutes.  It was chili.  Simple chili. The skies didn't clear from a culinary thunder clap. 

Game changer.

While the chili simmered, I peeled the butternut squash, removed the seeds, diced it into bite sized pieces, set the pieces aside, and joined Michael in the parlor for several glasses of wine. That's what we do.  After  45 minutes, I tumbled the diced squash into the fragrant chili, covered it again, and let it bubble away for another hour. 
It smelled great, fogging the windows with aromatic spice.

Because it was an unconventional chili, I served it in an unconventional way.  Using large pasta bowls, I lined thinly sliced lettuce, julienned peeled black radishes, crushed corn tortillas, and seeded roma tomato-batons down the center of our bowls before spooning scallion-studded long grain white rice and  butternut squash chili on either of the fresh garnish levees. Cojita cheese, halved limes, and fresh cilantro finished them off.

It was a textural  food fantasy.  The softened  butternut squash melted into the spiced chili, napping the ground beef, tomatoes, and green peppers with sweet earthiness. The squash bites were both firm and soft, releasing enough buttery texture without losing their character. When the scallion-studded rice was pulled into the mix, it absorbed the sauce and imparted addtional subtle onion flavor. Calming.

The garnishes created heavenly havoc.  When the levees were broken between  rice and  chili, contrasting textures took over.  Biting bitter radish provided cool peppery heat while the julienned lettuce and juicy tomatoes exploded  wetness, awakening  the sleepy spiced chili with popping crispness. Tiny tangy cojita cheese crumbles perked the finish along with tart fresh lime juice and scattered cilantro. 

Mouth. Party.

I'll make this again. It was easy and simple. Any chili recipe would work with the addition of diced butternut squash tossed into the pot during  the cooking process. I happened to have the spices in my pantry, but could easily have used a packaged chile mix. Pick your battles.

Omitting the beef and using vegetable stock instead of beef stock would create a crazy good butternut squash vegetarian chili.  Just sayin'.

Last night, we needed  beef.

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