Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spaghetti Squash To Comfort and Energize You

My brain has been on serious overdrive lately. Among other projects, I’m now preparing for a solo recital here in town at the end of the month, and I am really excited about it. After a month of intense chocolate making, I am thrilled to switch gears and spend concentrated time with my violin. It feels great to work hard, submerging myself in these incredible unaccompanied works of Bach and Ysaye, reminding myself of why I truly love playing the violin.

However, I do feel a bit spanked at the end of each long practice day, having exerted a lot of mental and physical energy preparing this 90-minute program of solo violin music. As a result, I’ve been craving comfort food that is warming yet isn’t overly starchy. That is how I’ve come to add Spaghetti Squash with Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms and Greens to my culinary repertoire in these last few weeks. Unlike a big bowl of mashed potatoes or a dish of mac-and-cheese that would send me straight into carb coma hell, this squash dish is well balanced and gives me energy so that I can keep working well after dinner.

Spaghetti squash is currently in season, and I’ve enjoyed reconnecting to one of my childhood favorite vegetables. It couldn’t be easier to prepare, because all you have to do is throw the whole squash into the oven on a baking sheet. Be sure to prick it all over with the tines of a fork so it doesn’t explode. (The thought of cleaning strands of exploded spaghetti squash from the insides of the oven is not very appealing!) After about an hour, you can slice the squash in half, scoop out the large seeds, and use a fork to scrape the squash flesh into individual spaghetti-like strands. It will cooperate quite nicely, I promise.

Now comes the fun part. You could simply add some butter, salt and pepper to the squash and call it a day. Or sprinkle a little parmesan cheese on it, the way my mom used to serve it to us when we were kids. But lately I’ve been folding a sauté of sliced shiitake mushrooms with minced garlic and shallots into the squash. And the other day, when I was feeling too lazy to make a salad alongside it, I threw a large handful of chopped watercress into the dish, just to get some greens as well as a little color contrast. I’m so glad I did, for it really transformed the dish into a meal unto itself. A scattering of toasted pine nuts certainly didn't hurt either.

My spaghetti squash is actually a riff on a side dish at Houston’s Restaurant, the home of my favorite cheeseburger here in town. Whenever it's on the menu, I always substitute this spaghetti squash for fries alongside my burger. I suppose this is technically a side dish, but lately I’ve been enjoying it as a main course at home. It’s comforting and satisfying, and it truly feels like a treat of a meal after a long day of working hard.

Inspired by a side dish at Houston’s. They garnish their spaghetti squash with golden raisins and chopped flat-leaf parsley in addition to all of the other goodies I’ve tried to incorporate into my version, which I occasionally add if I have those ingredients on hand. If you don't have watercress, you could substitute baby spinach leaves or arugula instead.

1 whole spaghetti squash (about 3 lbs)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 large garlic clove, minced
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps wiped clean, and cut into ¼-inch slices
1 handful watercress, bottom stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
1/3 cup shredded parmesan cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 375°. Prick the squash all over with a fork. Place it on a baking sheet and roast for an hour. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly.

While the squash is roasting, heat the olive oil and butter together in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the shallot and cook for 2 minutes. Add the minced garlic and shiitake slices and cook while stirring frequently until mushrooms have softened, about 5 minutes.

Cut the roasted squash in half. Scoop the seeds out of the centers and discard. Use the tines of a fork to scrape the squash into spaghetti-like strands. Add the squash to the mushroom mixture in the sauté pan. Stir in the chopped watercress and shredded parmesan, and cook over medium heat until the entire mixture is heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and scatter the toasted pine nuts over the top.

Serves 4 as a main course, or 6 as a side dish.


Ed Valentine said...

Thank you for the low-down on the recalcitrant but eventually cooperative squash! This looks delicious and may actually inspire me to cook, rather than to heat up a microwave meal.

Keep cooking, fiddling and blogging, Louise! You are an inspiration.

louise said...

Thank you, Ed! I totally encourage you to make this, as I think you'll love it. Of course if you're feeling lazy, just take yourself to Houston's in Pasadena and order the spaghetti squash. Naturally you'll feel quite virtuous after enjoying your nutritious vegetable-laden dish, so you should have no qualms chasing it with a hot fudge sundae, with the boat of extra hot fudge sauce on the side!