This year, I changed things up. Armed with an armload of Casey County butternut and acorn squash,
I ditched my usual dance card.
The exotic tone of Moroccan spices are actually quite similar to the warming spices we play with this time of year. With that in mind, I danced down the silk road with an seductive riff on winter squash tagine. Tagines are North African ceramic conical cooking vessels as well as the meals that are stewed inside of them. Braised food within a braising pot. Low and slow. Although I used a tagine because I had one, any oven safe dish with a tight fitting lid would have worked beautifully.
Here's the deal, braised anything is rough around the edges. Cooked low and slow, whatever gets tossed into the pot (meats and/or vegetables) eventually breaks down and melts into a lovely concentrated essence of its former self. Deep. Succulent. Sexy. Although I love a down and dirty braise, I wanted to dial it back with a delicate bent. While I could have simply chopped the peeled squash for the tagine, I had a little fun and took it a wee bit further.
Butternut Squash Tagine.
An autumn vegetable stew.
I hacked the neck from the bulbous end of a large butternut squash. After slicing off both ends of the neck, I stood it on one end and used a very sharp knife to peel and square off the neck until it resembled a gorgeous orange brick before slicing it into very thin rectangles. Using a vegetable peeler, I peeled the skin from the remaining bulbous end, scoop out the seeds, split it in half, and sliced it into thin half-moons.
For contrast in color and texture, I didn't bother peeling the thin-skinned acorn squash. I simply halved it, scooped out the seeds, and sliced it into half moons.
Assembly. The fun part.
To give the tagine structure and form, I snaked the pave' ( paving stones) slices down the center of the dish before wedging the remaining half-moons to the side. To offset the inherent sweetness of the squash, I nestled a few salted sliced lemon halves wherever I could make them fit.
The Silk Road. Happy Dance.
I didn't want to drown the squash in stock. Typically, when braising, the liquid used should measure about halfway up the sides of whatever is being braised. After blooming a pinch of saffron in 1 cup chicken stock, I set the stock aside and slivered a medium sized shallot. I sauteed the paper thin shallot ribbons in a drizzle of olive oil over a medium flame. Just before the shallots turned translucent, I added 1/2 teaspoon each: dried ginger, turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, allspice, coriander, and ras el hanout. As the spices swirled through the softened shallots, I added a tablespoon of fiery harissa and deglazed the pan with the saffron-spiked chicken stock before adding 1/2 cup dried cranberries, 1/2 cup diced dried apricots, 2 tablespoons honey, salt, and cracked black pepper.
When the dried fruit plumped in the reduced spiced stock, I poured the stock over the squash, dusted it with citrusy sumac, placed the conical lid onto the tagine base, and slid it into a preheated 350 degree oven to braise for 1 hour.
After an hour, drunk from the aroma, I pulled the tagine from the oven, removed the lid to release the steam, and let it cool a bit before finishing with fresh parsley and quartered fresh Black Mission figs.
With staggering layers of flavor and depth, the seemingly dainty tagine packed a crazy potent punch. Spicy. Sweet. Salty. Tart. Smoky. Like delicate edible sponges kissed with exotic perfume, the achingly tender squash absorbed the complex warmth of the aromatic stock and fragrant steam. Tucked beneath the fresh fleshy figs, speckles of plumped fruit countered the slight acidity of the lemons and heady heat of the harissa.
Stewed butternut squash.