Vegan Cook-Off #1: Butternut Squash!

My husband and I have been watching a lot of Iron Chef lately—the original Japanese one.  Sometime in between laughing at the Chairman’s anime-inspired outfits, cheering on Chen Kenichi, our favorite Iron Chef, and predicting the outcome of every episode, we decided that our own, in-house Iron Chef competition would be a good way to work on our burgeoning cooking skills and get creative in the kitchen.  We’ve been sitting on this idea for a couple of weeks, but today, on the first day of an eleven-day staycation, we finally decided to take the plunge.

I had the honor of choosing today’s secret ingredient, and I knew almost immediately what I wanted to use.  It’s one of my favorite vegetables, but one I don’t eat very often.  It’s orange, perfect for fall—and, even though it’s still in the 80s most days here in Chengdu, it’s almost October, and to me that means it’s fall!  Have you guessed the ingredient yet?  No, not pumpkin.  Butternut squash!

butternut-squash
The theme ingredient, ready for its close-up!

Once I announced the secret ingredient, Nathan and I started the research phase (we’re beginners, okay?) and hammered out some rules.

THE RULES

  1. No more than three dishes per person.
  2. No cooking something you’ve made before, and no following a recipe (though recipes may be used for inspiration).
  3. The secret ingredient needs to be a major player in each of the dishes—none of this garnish bullshit.

We determined that Nathan would serve his dishes first, in the afternoon, and I would serve mine as a late dinner.  I knew that I was at a bit of an advantage here: butternut squash fits my style of cooking better than Nathan’s, and I would have more time to perfect my dishes.  (On the other hand, I’m a notoriously slow cook, so I might need every second of that time!)

I was banned from the kitchen while Nathan made his dishes, but I can tell you that they smelled wonderful from the living room!

His first dish was finished around 4.30pm.  When I asked him for a name, he called it “Street Squash,” and it was easy to see why.  It was a butternut squash dish taking strong inspiration from the spicy potatoes we regularly buy from the street food vendors in Chengdu.

vegan-cook-off-street-squash

I can’t give you recipes for Nathan’s dishes (trade secrets, he says), but I can tell you the ingredients he used:

Butternut squash (of course), a combination of several soy sauces, walnut milk, salt, a combination of Chinese spicy oils, Sichuan numbing powder, rice vinegar, anise, ginger, scallions, Thai red chili peppers, green chili peppers, dou ban jiang (a fermented bean-based chili sauce), paprika, cilantro, and an ingredient that looks like tiny white shoots of bamboo.  For the life of me, no matter how much I google that ingredient, I can’t figure out what it is!

Anyway, this one was exciting for me because I love spicy food, and I’ve never had spicy butternut squash before.  When I thought of butternut squash dishes, what came to mind was comfort food-savory and fruity-sweet.  This was totally different from what I would have thought to make!  Quite good, but I also thought that the spiciness overwhelmed the squash a little.  Its inspiration was quite clear to see, and it was a very creative approach!  But, even as a queen of spicy food, I think it would have been a little more enjoyable with a slightly more toned-down spice profile.  Nevertheless, a great offering from Nathan!

His second dish was finished about ten minutes later—a butternut squash burger!  Actually, it was sort of closer to a sloppy joe in texture, but more like a burger in presentation (by which I mean toppings).  For this one, Nathan gave the disclaimer that the buns he’d bought for this turned out to be sweet buns, which was not at all the effect he was going for.  I thought it was good, though!

vegan-cook-off-butternut-squash-burger

For this dish he made a loose patty out of butternut squash, garlic, green onions, and yellow onions sautéed with a bit of thyme, basil, and a tiny bit of paprika for a smoky taste.  He put these on the buns with sriracha, tomato, lettuce, and some leftover vegan cheese sauce that I made for mac and cheese a few days ago.  Another success from Nathan!

As for me, I decided to make three dishes: butternut squash bruschetta, butternut squash mac and cheese, and a curried butternut squash stew.  I read a few recipes for inspiration, but ultimately I made these dishes up as I went along.  I’ve tried to provide approximate recipes below, in case anyone is interested in replicating my dishes at home!  Keep in mind that I’m a pretty inexperienced cook, but these recipes are great starting points!

vegan-butternut-squash-bruschetta

Butternut Squash and Apple Bruschetta

This one is a super easy appetizer with an unexpected and sophisticated taste!  I had the idea because sometime last year I roasted butternut squash, onions, and apples together and it was (to this date) one of the best things I’ve ever cooked—but it’s against the cook-off rules to repeat a dish you’ve made before, so I had to change it up somehow.  So I figured hey—who doesn’t love bread?

Recipe

2 cups cubed butternut squash
½ red onion
a little brown sugar
a dash of balsamic vinegar
a little oil (I used peanut oil because it’s what I had on hand, but I suspect olive oil would taste better)
a baguette
an apple

butternut-squash-bruschetta-ingredients

This really couldn’t be easier.  Cube your butternut squash and toss it in a very light coating of oil—this is just to add a little flavor and help it soften up when you roast it.  Sprinkle a tiny bit of brown sugar over it for flavor.  Spread it on a baking sheet and stick it in the oven at about 200C until it’s very soft.  This took me about 40 minutes, but it should take you a lot less time—my tiny oven is extremely inefficient.

Meanwhile, caramelize the onions on your stove.  Cut them up into whatever size pieces you like (I did about 1-inch pieces, but you can do smaller if you’re not an onion fiend like me) and sautee them in some oil over low heat.  Once they’re softened up and well-cooked, add a pinch of sugar (I used brown sugar) and a dash of balsamic vinegar—this’ll allow it to caramelize.  Keep cooking it on low heat, stirring it often enough that it doesn’t burn or stick to the pan, until it’s caramelized to your liking.  This should take 15 or 20 minutes total.

Once your butternut squash and your onions are done, toss them in a blender together and blend until smooth.  The onions do not need to be blended—it’s just important that they’re well mixed in to the soft butternut squash puree.

Meanwhile, cut 1/2-inch slices from your baguette on a diagonal so they look all fancy.  Brush a light coating of oil onto these and spread them out on a baking sheet.  Toast them in your oven for just a couple of minutes—keep a close eye on these, because you don’t want them to burn.  You just want them to get a little crispy.  While these are in the oven, cut your apple into thin slices, maybe 1/4-inch thick.

Once you have them out of the oven, spread a little of your butternut and onion puree on each piece of bread and top with an apple slice.  I meant to drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over the top of these, but I forgot (and besides, the vinegar I was working with wasn’t really balsamic vinegar, it was “aromatic vinegar”).  Another good way to serve would be to sprinkle cinnamon over the top (but I can only find cinnamon sticks here, not ground cinnamon).  Serve immediately and enjoy!

Nathan and I both loved these.  The fresh apple really brightens the bruschetta and offers textural complexity, and the flavors of butternut squash, apple, and onion will always be a hit.

Next, the Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese!

vegan-butternut-squash-mac-and-cheese

This one is heavily inspired by the butternut squash mac and cheese recipe over at Veggie Inspired Journey, so rather than tell you my version, I’ll direct you to theirs.  I upped the butternut squash content and threw in half a red onion as well as the sweet onion it called for, tweaked the proportions of the ingredients in the sauce, added a whole heap o’ nooch (I eyeballed it, so “a whole heap” is really the best word for it), and ditched the nutmeg because I didn’t have any.  Then I sprinkled breadcrumbs on the final product for a little textural interest.

butternut-squash-vegan-mac-and-cheese-ingredients
You may notice some bok choy in this photo that doesn’t appear in the final dish–that’s because I forgot!  I tore it up and steamed it to fold in at the end, but when plating time came, the bok choy got left behind!  But I think this dish would be great with some greens added–bok choy, spinach, kale, broccoli… dealer’s choice!

This was great!  Both Nathan and I went back for seconds after I presented my final dish, even though we were already stuffed from five butternut squash dishes in the course of five-or-so hours!

And finally… Butternut Squash Curried Lentil Stew

vegan-butternut-squash-coconut-curried-lentils
No veggies left to stage the photo with, the stew stands alone…

This was our least favorite of the dishes I served.  It was still pretty good, but it wasn’t as complex of a flavor as we wanted or expected, particularly given the fact that it had the most ingredients of any of the dishes.  I read several recipes for curried butternut squash soups before sort of combining them all for this dish.

Recipe

4-ish cups of cubed butternut squash (but I bet you could do more and it’d be tastier)
6 cups of water
250ml (or a can, the more the merrier) of coconut milk
1 large scallion, cut into strips
1 yellow onion, chopped
several heads of bok choy (or spinach), torn up
1 large carrot, grated (I had two available, but I only ended up using one)
2 cups red lentils
at least a tablespoon of curry powder (feel free to throw some more in there if you’re feelin’ it)
garam masala till it smells good
a hearty sprinkling of cumin
black pepper to taste
fresh ginger (I grated in about a 1-inch piece)
4 cloves garlic, minced
oil to sauté in (I used peanut oil, but only because it’s what I had on hand)

butternut-squash-curried-lentil-stew-ingredients

Once all of my veggies were prepped, I sautéed the onion and squash together for a couple minutes, then threw in the rest of the veggies (including the ginger and garlic, but not including the bok choy and spinach) and curry powder and sautéed them for several more minutes.  You don’t need to get everything cooked in this stage, just get the flavoring and softening started.  Then I threw in the coconut milk, the lentils, and the water and added the rest of the spices.  I added spices periodically as it cooked, too, just for fun, sprinkle by sprinkle.  Bring it all to a boil, stir it up, and then take it down to a simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until everything has softened up and the lentils have broken down to make it soupier.

AND FINALLY… THE VERDICT

After much tasting and deliberation, we doled out some scores.

Street Squash: 3.75/5 — the spice overtook this dish, leaving it tasty but not very nuanced and a bit overwhelming.
Butternut Squash Burger: 3.5/5 — the flavors were very good, but the texture left something to be desired.  A denser patty would have helped a lot.
Butternut Squash and Apple Bruschetta: 4.5/5 — the apple really took this flavor combo to a higher level
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese: 4/5 — this was a solid 5/5 once we added a bit more nutritional yeast and salt, but as I cooked it, it wasn’t quite there
Curried Butternut Squash Lentil Stew: 3/5 — this was good, but it just wasn’t great.

Which means…. HANNAH WINS!  I did it!

This was a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to do it again next week with whatever ingredient Nathan tries to trick me with!  If any of you are feeling uninspired in the kitchen, I highly recommend holding a casual cook-off to get those juices flowing!

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