It happens every year. Summer is over and I am despondent. It's not that I don't like fall. Our fall season is glorious: from golden light to fog-free days to abundant produce, fall has a lot to say for itself. The problem is days are getting shorter and shorter — though, as my husband keeps saying to hearten me, they are doing so at a slowing rate.
Something clicks inside me at the prospect of plunging into darkness by 5 p.m. and I start hoarding winter squashes. Seeing their substantial shapes lined up in my storage room is a comfort. Later, on a gray winter day, I can reach for a glowing red kuri or a radiant delicata and brighten the kitchen. When I long for sun-sweetened fruit, I can satisfy my craving with a black futsu, and when I dream of gliding gently on the Venetian Lagoon aboard a vaporetto, a marina di Chioggia will wink at me sympathetically.
Winter squashes are like friends: They are at your side when you need them. I can count on winter squashes to be there for me throughout fall and winter into spring. Acorn squash has pride of place among them as a reliable performer, transforming into a delicious dinner without complicated arrangements, since you can stuff it with pretty much anything, like grains, nutritious greens, nuts or dried fruit.
The green acorn is the most widely available variety, but there is also the white acorn (to which I was introduced some years ago by Paul Giuntoli of Warren Creek Farms) and the golden acorn squash. All varieties will work in this recipe (you might also try jester squash), which includes one of my favorite vegetables: the leek.
Have you ever harvested a leek? The first time you reach under the roots with a tool, lift a leek from the ground and see how much dirt clings to it, your gratitude to farmers increases by at least two notches for the cleaning they do before delivering leeks to the market. It will also make you more patient while rinsing leeks in your sink.
The leek's distinctive, refined personality shines in solo performances and supporting roles in many dishes, particularly soups. In this recipe, it plays the protagonist of the stuffing. Fresh thyme from the garden, toasted pecans and cheese contribute to make a lovely dinner.
The dish is quite simple and is in line with my minimalist approach to everyday cooking. You can start with my proposed list of ingredients, add your own variations, and turn it into a personalized version. And you can easily multiply the given quantities depending on how many people you need to accommodate.
So these days I am out getting my therapeutic dose of winter squashes. And most local farmers and grocery stores carry a wide variety sure to satisfy everybody's preferences.
Leek-stuffed Acorn Squash
Serves 2 (can easily be multiplied to serve more)
Ingredients and method:
1 acorn squash, about 1 ½ pounds
8 ounces leek, clean weight (i.e., weighed after the dark green leaves have been cut away; save the latter to use in making stock or broth)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped, lightly toasted pecans
1 ounce freshly grated cheese of choice (for example, Manchego or Gruyère)
Heat the oven to 375 F. Cut the acorn squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds (a grapefruit spoon is a handy tool for this task). Place the squash halves cut side down on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until tender and easily pierced with a blade. Remove them from the oven.
While the squash is baking, prepare the stuffing. After trimming the roots, cut the leek(s) in half lengthwise and slice it into -inch-thick half moons. Rinse them in a colander, then place them in a bowl and fill it with cold water. With your hands, swirl the leeks to clean them well, then scoop them out of the water with a sieve or slotted spoon and drain them in a colander.
Warm the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the leek pieces and stir to coat, then add the thyme and stir again. Cover them and cook until the leeks are soft, making sure they do not dry out (in which case you can add a splash of water or broth to the pan). Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle in salt and pepper, and stir. Keep the leeks warm until needed.
Turn the squash halves cut side up. Distribute the cheese to line the cavities of the two halves of the squash. Pile the cooked leeks onto the cheese to fill the squash cavities and make a small mound. Sprinkle chopped pecans on top of the leeks.
Return the squash to the oven for 8-10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com