butternut squash macro

Man, o man do I love butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, delicata squash… you get the point.  When I was young, one of my favorite side dishes at family dinners was an acorn squash, halved, filled with butter and brown sugar, and roasted until soft and sweet.  It tasted like candy, but technically qualified as a vegetable – a loophole that I still enjoy exploiting.

During my recent, steamy love affair with my pressure cooker, I’ve discovered that it does fantastic things to squash.  For example, last week, Jethro served THE BEST butternut squash soup I’ve ever eaten – pressure cooked, of course.  There are two fundamental benefits to pressure cooking, as opposed to roasting, squash:

  1. Speed.  Fork-tender squash takes 15-20 minutes in the pressure cooker, rather than 30-45 minutes in the oven.
  2. All-Over Tan.  Put another way, the pressure cooker achieves deep, even browning on all surfaces, with a significantly reduced risk of burning.  Let’s explore that more…

One of the best tricks I’ve learned from Modernist Cuisine is that adding 0.5% baking soda (by weight) to things you’re about to pressure cook results in fantastic caramelization.  The baking soda increases the pH of the food, which allows the Maillard reaction to take place at the the relatively low-temperature environment of the pressure cooker – typical Maillard reactions start around 310F, but a pressure cooker operating at 15 psi only reaches about 250F.  That means that you get deliciously-sweet, browned squash without running the risk of accidentally scorching your squash.

Also, pressure cookers brown more evenly than ovens.  Think of your oven like a cheap tanning bed, with lights above and below the subject (in this case, food).  The top and bottom of the food is exposed to a lot of light and gets nicely tanned.  The sides, however, remain pasty-white because they’re mostly in shadow. The environment inside a pressure cooker, however, is more akin to bathing in a pool of self-tanner.  The heat and pressure generated by the steam come from all sides, and as a result, your cubes of squash are beautifully browned from every angle, not just the top and bottom.

If you’re ready to drink the Kool-Aid, here are some pressure cooked squash recipes to get you started.

Basic Pressure Cooked Squash Recipe

  1. Remove the skin and seeds from your squash and cut into evenly-sized 1” cubes.
  2. Add 1/2 cup of liquid to your pressure cooker.  I recommend centrifuged squash water (thanks Jethro!), chicken stock, or other flavorful liquid.  Water works fine, too.
  3. Toss your cubed squash in .5% its own weight in baking soda.  You can eyeball this measurement – about 1/2 tsp. of baking soda for 2 lbs. of squash.  Add the squash to the pressure cooker.
  4. Pressure cook for 20 minutes.  Remove and season to taste.

Pressure Cooked Squash Soup Recipe

  1. Follow steps 1-3 above.  For extra richness, add butter or duck fat to the cooking liquid.
  2. Check after 20 minutes.  Pressure cook an additional 10-20 minutes if the squash isn’t tender enough to fall apart yet (cooking time will vary by species).
  3. Using an immersion blender, puree the squash until smooth, adding additional liquid to reach the desired consistency.
  4. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, roasted garlic, nutmeg, maple syrup, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider, tarragon, ginger, or whatever else suits your fancy.

Go wild with variations.  Add other stuff like apples or canned pumpkin or bell peppers or carrots or leeks.  I promise it’ll be good.

[BTW, the picture above is an acorn squash, uncooked.]

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duck consomme with laser-cut nori
Having access to a laser cutter has made me think differently about food.  Although I’ve lasered more edibles than I care to mention, one of the most successful substances for laser cutting is nori – the seaweed paper used in sushi making.  Although nori cuts well, it is extremely delicate and brittle.  Inspired by that delicateness, I decided to use the nori as a garnish for duck consommé, a crystal-clear soup made from duck stock.  The potato creates a dramatic color contrast and allows the Japanese maze design cut out of nori to sit just above the level of the liquid.

Makes: 8 zen bowls
Total kitchen time: about 6 hours, depending…

Shopping list:

  • 8 cups duck consommé, prepared
  • 4 russet potatoes, fat and round
  • 1 tbsp. rendered duck fat
  • 8 laser-cut nori designs of a Japanese maze

Special equipment: laser cutter, 2” biscuit cutter, vacuum sealing machine, sous vide heating immersion circulator

  1. Slice the potatoes into 1” thick discs.  Using the discs that are at least 2” in diameter, cut out 8 rounds with the 2” biscuit cutter. 
  2. Place the potato circles in a vacuum bag and add rendered duck fat.  Vacuum seal.
  3. Cook potatoes in an 85C water bath for 1 hour. 
  4. To serve, place a potato slice in the bottom of a large bowl.  Blot the top of the potato with a paper towel to dry the surface.  Add 1bout 1 cup of consommé to the bowl.  Top with a piece of nori.

If you don’t have access to a laser cutter (a travesty!) you can try cutting shapes using a very sharp hobby knife. 

Nori on Foodista

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soup with mushroom ravioli 
Growing up, matzoh ball soup was my go-to metaphorical ethnic penicillin.  For some, chicken soup will always be the prescribed treatment for aches, pains and a sore throat.  However, there’s no reason that we can’t soothe ourselves with something a little more filling.  Next time you call in sick, email this 30-minute remedy to your significant other as a subtle dinner suggestion.  You’ll be back on your feet in no time.

Makes: 4 bowls
Total kitchen time: 30 minutes

Shopping list:

  • 1 cup pancetta, finely diced (you can use bacon if you want, but make it good bacon)
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 5 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 small leek, diced
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups shitake mushrooms, sliced into 1/8” strips
  • 1 package portobello mushroom ravioli (or any other ravioli that sounds good to you – lobster, pesto or spinach all work)
  • finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
  • 1/4 cup shaved parmesan, to garnish
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Heat a large stockpot over medium heat.  Add the pancetta and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the pancetta has started leaving brown bits on the bottom of the pot. 
  2. Add the onion, garlic and leek and continue to cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the white wine to deglaze the pot – the acid in the wine will let the brown bits on the bottom become unstuck.  Scrape them up with a wooden spoon or spatula.
  3. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.  Cover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Let simmer for at least 20 minutes, or up to 4 hours for maximum flavor.  Season to taste with salt and pepper. 
  4. When you are about ready to serve, bring the soup to a boil and add the mushrooms.  Cook for 1 minute, then add the ravioli and cook according to the package directions, usually about 3 minutes.  Add the tomatoes.
  5. To serve, ladle a generous serving of broth and a few ravioli into a bowl and top with a little parsley and parmesan cheese.
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