I know about 28 words of Italian, not including words like “rigatoni” and “prosciutto.” They are very handy words, most of them, comprising survival-oriented sentences like “do you have these shoes larger, and in brown?” and “I’d like apricot, but with whipped cream, please.”
I am going to teach you seven of them today, and then move on to dinner. Apologies if you know them already.
Years ago, I was in Sicily with my parents and a school friend. We were staying in a breathtakingly beautiful old monastery, which had been converted into a decidedly not-monastic hotel. In Sicily, super delicious olive oil basically runs out of the faucets, and everything you eat is drenched in it, and your skin feels and looks fantastic, and there is no chance you could possibly need to eat when you get back to your room or before you leave it, because the food everywhere you go is so good.
Even so, for some reason I can no longer recall, my friend and I noticed that our in-room refrigerator was not working properly, and felt the need to have that corrected. I cannot imagine what it was that we needed to keep cold, but the refrigerator refused to do anything other than shield whatever was inside it from the ambient room temperature, no matter which knobs we twiddled. We called the desk, and in the fullness of time–probably the next day–they sent a man up to have a look. He looked.
“Non é freddo,” he pronounced. [“It is not cold.”]
This was not news to us, it being the reason our little summit had been assembled, but he did not tell it to us in a tone that suggested it was new information. Nor was it an apology, it should be noted, or really a diagnosis. It was clearly the first part of a statement that was about to continue.
“É fresco,” he continued. [“It’s cool.”]
He looked at us. “E basta, cosí.” [“And like that, it’s enough.”]
He left. Whatever we needed to keep cold learned to thrive at room temperature, or we learned to love it that way.
I was thinking about that little episode this morning, and then I went to yoga. This is a new activity for me, and it is succeeding as a venture because I finally found both the motivation to look after myself (pain, because I haven’t been), and the right teacher. Ilana always starts us off with a little direction, mentally speaking, and so far her hit-rate in terms of what I came through the door already thinking about is hovering around 100%.
Today she said: as you twist yourself up in pretzels for the next hour (OK, I am paraphrasing), think about giving yourself permission to see what you are doing as just enough, just the right thing to be doing to take care of your body and your needs. Don’t keep your eyes on some ever-elusive Bigger Goal, just dwell, in this moment, on the idea that you are already doing what you need to do.
So, turning our attention from Italian refrigerators and Eastern philosophy to the stove, welcome to Super Vegetable Week. Here in the finally-snowy Northeast, it’s hard to get very excited about vegetables in the winter. They have traveled a long hard road to reach us, maybe been iced down for a good while in the process, and taken a chunk out of the wallet on their way to our plates, too. But it’s good to love your vegetables. They love you back. I was reading yet another “EAT THIS WAY OR DIE” manifesto the other day, and amid all the statements contradicting all the other credos I have encountered prior, the author said “your body owes 70% of its health to diet.” Whether there’s meat on the plate or not, the vegetables ought to play a major role. We all know that. And if you live west of the Produce Line, which bisects the nation more or less where the Long Underwear Line also hits, maybe your access is unrestricted and consequently your enthusiasm never wanes.
Super Vegetable Week is for the rest of us. Kind of like Date Night for your relationship with the Food Pyramid.
My default position on squash is to split it, gut it, and roast it face down, then butter it. It gets eaten, and it is tasty, if not especially exciting. I read a recipe this week that went in a whole new direction, but had too many steps to make use of in a hurry and used spices that did not appeal. So I punted, combining the idea and the amount of time I had to spend on it to come up with this. My friend Laura recently reported, re: a recipe that asked her to toast cumin seeds, that it caused her to roll her eyes at the extra work–but when she gave in and spent the extra three minutes doing it, the aroma made her “understand why the entire age of exploration was fueled by an interest in spice-trading.” Good payoff in terms of time invested, I reckon. But toasting the spices, or not, is your call. Tasty regardless and, of course, either way is the path of enlightened self-care.
roasted squash slices
1 medium to large butternut squash
1 t whole cumin seed
a pinch of whole fennel seed
½ t nigella seed, also known as kalonji or black onion, or substitute whole coriander seed (you can also use both)
a pinch of red pepper flakes, if you want a little heat
a pinch of coarse salt
1T vegetable oil
optionally, a lime (and a kaffir lime would do well, too)
Preheat the oven to 400, and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Chop the neck of the squash from the bulb, then put each of these sections down on their cut side and split lengthwise. Scrape the seeds, and cut the squash in horizontal slices not quite ½ “ thick. Plop them in a medium bowl that leaves room for tossing.
Optionally, put a small skillet over medium heat and when it is heated up, drop the spices in and toast for less than a minute, until one or two seeds pop and the fragrance rises. Dump them into a small mortar or into whatever you will use to very coarsely grind them if you don’t have a mortar. They should be cracked, but not powdered. In a mortar, that took me about 40 seconds. Dream of sailing to Madagascar, if you like.
Pour the crushed spices (toasted or not) and the oil and the salt over the squash slices and toss to coat. Spread in a single layer on the prepared pan and roast for about 15-20 minutes, until the slices soften and brown a little. Squeeze a little lime over them, or not, before you serve them at whatever temperature suits you.
A note about the Nigella seed: it is generally not hard to find in the Indian section of your Gourmet Shoppe, or buy it online here or here, among other places. If you are ordering from Kalustyan’s, you may as well add a few ounces of the spice known temptingly as ‘grains of paradise’ to your order, because you can put it in your peppermill instead of black pepper and be very happy you did so.