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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pan with steak

As you may know, one hallmark of the photography in Modernist Cuisine is their use of cutaway photos that show what’s happening inside your food – and cookware – as you cook.  Since I plan on (eventually) trying to recreate all of the recipes in the  book, I thought it might be prudent to recreate those cutaway shots, too.  Unlike the MC lab, however, I don’t have a waterjet

Enter the fantastic folks at Flow International Corporation.  They happened to catch my half-joking tweet asking if anyone had a waterjet I could borrow, and as it turns out, they do.  In fact, Flow manufactures waterjet machines and invited me to visit them at their headquarters in Kent, WA.  When I arrived, they led me – and my box of fully intact cookware – into their demonstration room, an enormous space punctuated by a handful of monstrous waterjets machines. 

Under normal circumstances, they’d load a 3D model of the object we were cutting and the cutting nozzle would follow an exact path through the object.  However, since I just wanted my pans cut “in twain” the operator switched  the machine into manual mode and piloted the cutting head across the surface of the pan like a Jedi.  The video below shows the cutting process. 

Thanks to the folks at Flow International Corporation for cutting some cookware in half for me!

Water and abrasive grit forced at 87,000 psi through an opening the size of a human hair is powerful. And, it doesn’t discriminate – it’ll cut paper, tile, glass, stone, metals (including titanium) and just about anything else that gets in its path. As it turns out, water jets are also commonly used for cutting food products.  Since the water jet doesn’t generate much heat as it cuts, it’s perfect for portioning frozen meat and fish or slicing a sheet of nougat into individual candy bars.  Of course, now I totally want one of these machines for home.  Cutting the crust off a loaf of Wonderbread would never be the same again.

The image at the top shows one of my new half-skillets and depicts the problem with cooking a thick steak on a hot surface (see those gray bands of well-done?).  Now I can do my very own cutaway shots, just like the big boys 😉

Huge thanks to the fantastic folks at Flow for helping me out!

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nerd nite presentation

Last week, I gave a talk at Seattle’s 0th ever Nerd Nite!  My talk was titled “Food, Science and Electric Bacon” and was a similar history of Modernist cuisine and explanation of geeky food techniques that I presented at the International Food Bloggers Conference in New Orleans a few weeks back. 

I’ll post the video of my “lecture” when it’s available, but in the meantime, give a listen to this Podcast I recorded with he wonderful folks at Nerd Nite.  Unlike the video, this one’s work-safe. 

Listen to Nerd Nite Podcast Listen at NerdNite.com or download the MP3.

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