Unlike the autumns I witnessed in New York, where leaves on the trees turned yellow, burnt orange, and brown before falling to the ground, visual cues of the change from summer to fall can be difficult to notice in California. Yet the days are getting shorter, daylight ends sooner, and the air feels cooler.
A clear signal that the season is changing is the arrival of new fruits and vegetables in the market. Summer produce with high sugar content such as corn and stone fruits begin to disappear, replaced by root vegetables, orange pumpkins and squashes, apples, pears, and persimmons. It is as if nature is preparing us for reduced light by giving us an abundance of vitamin A for improved eyesight, and helping build immunity against seasonal ailments by offering us the fibrous, concentrated nutrition of the hard “winter” squashes.
Most of the ingredients used in the following recipes are seasonal, organic, and available from local farms. I did not cook with hard squash such as acorn, butternut, kabocha, or turban when I lived in North India or in New York, so I was very excited when I first began to cook with these new vegetables in California. They are so colorful, and have such interesting texture. I found a simple recipe for baking winter squash that can be used for almost any of the hard squashes.
Simply cut the squash in half, remove the strings and seeds, sprinkle the surface with some oil or dot with bits of butter, and place the squash halves in a shallow pan. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and bake the squash for an hour or more until it turns soft and golden brown. Baked squashes are especially sweet, as the sugar in the squash caramelizes as it bakes. Also, baking them warms the house and smells delightful. Still, I wanted to bite into squash with something spicy and exciting. I experimented by cooking winter squashes with Indian spices and came up with a few winning recipes. My latest favorite is this Indianized version of Ratatouille that takes advantage of the overlapping seasons: late summer eggplant and bountiful ripe tomatoes are blissfully combined with early autumn squash.
Indian Style Ratatouille
6 medium heirloom tomatoes or 10 small dry-farmed tomatoes, boiled for a few minutes, then peeled and chopped to make 3 cups
2 small Japanese eggplants or 1 medium globe eggplant, cut into small pieces to make 3 cups
1 medium butternut, acorn, or kabocha squash, cut into 4 large pieces; remove seeds and fibers and peel and cut into small pieces to yield 3 cups
½ cup chopped green, red, or yellow bell pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1 teaspoon of fresh garam masala (by grinding ½ teaspoon cardamom seeds, 1 small cinnamon stick, and 4 whole cloves)
½ teaspoon each of turmeric, coriander, and cumin powders
¼ teaspoon or less cayenne powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water
fresh cilantro for garnish
Prepare the vegetables as listed and set them aside. Caution: winter squashes are hard to cut and even harder to peel. To make it easier to cut a squash into small pieces, cut it in half lengthwise and steam the two halves in a vegetable steamer for a few minutes to loosen the skin while keeping the flesh intact. Then the squash can be easily peeled and cut into small pieces.
Make the fresh garam masala with a mortar and pestle or a spice mill. Prepare a sweet-spicy tomato sauce as follows: Heat the oil over a medium flame, add the onions, and stir fry for a few minutes until they start to turn golden. Add the garlic and stir fry for another minute. Add the finely chopped tomatoes, stir fry for about five minutes, breaking up any tomato lumps. Add one teaspoon of the freshly made masala, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and salt. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the eggplant, squash, and pepper pieces to the sauce and mix thoroughly. Cover, lower the heat, and cook for 10 minutes. Then uncover, stir in about cup of water, cook for a minute while stirring, and then cover and let cook for another five minutes. Uncover to check that both the squash and eggplant pieces are very soft.
Sprinkle with chopped cilantro leaves and serve this colorful Ratatouille with a flat bread such as chapatis or tortillas and/or saffron rice (recipe below).
Saffron Rice with Pine Nuts and Currants
1 teaspoon oil or butter
¼ cup currants or small raisins
¼ cup pine nuts, cashew pieces, or slivered almonds
¼ teaspoon saffron thread
3 tablespoons hot milk or water
2 cups water for white basmati rice or 2½ cups water for brown basmati rice
1 cup white or brown basmati rice
¼ teaspoon salt (optional)
Heat the oil or butter in a skillet, and sauté the currants or raisins and nuts for five minutes until they start to smell fragrant. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Soak the saffron in a bowl of hot milk or water to release its color and flavors. Set aside.
Boil the plain water in a saucepan. Rinse the rice and drain it thoroughly. Add the rice to the boiling water, stir in the salt, and mix thoroughly. Allow the mixture to come to a second boil and then lower the heat. Cook the rice, covered, for 10-12 minutes for white basmati and 40-45 minutes for brown basmati. Then, uncover the pot and add the saffron liquid. Cover again and cook until all of the liquid is absorbed and the grains are soft to the touch. Turn off the heat, but keep the pan covered for a few minutes. Sprinkle the sautéed nuts and raisins on top before serving.
|Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager of Other Avenues, a health-food store. Serena Sacharoff is a chef, illustrator, and art student. Visit Shanta’s Vegetarian Ethnic Kitchen|