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Cooking Off the Cuff: Sweet Shallots + Sweet Squash = A Savory Side Dish

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Anyone who reads these posts -- and their predecessors in other places -- knows that every fall Jackie and I eat a lot of winter squash and pumpkin (I use the terms interchangeably). It's an annual craze, really. This year, it coincides with another mild obsession: for shallots, which I've been cooking in unprecedented quantities -- unprecedented for me, anyway.

A little while ago, the two crazes intersected, and what emerged at the junction was one of the nicest side dishes I've had in some time: rosemary-scented squash smothered in shallots. Both ingredients offer an appealing spectrum of sweet and savory flavors, and it seemed to me that the two were a natural match. Of course, there's nothing new about combining shallots and squash, but what I did here was to make them equal partners.

I started by cutting half a kabocha squash into wedges, then peeling and chunking it (leaving a bit of the peel on; it's good to eat, and it looks nice). When I saw how much squash there was, I chopped enough shallots to yield around a third the volume of squash -- the shallots would shrink in the cooking, and there isn't anything mathematical here: just use a lot of shallots and you'll be entering into the spirit of the thing.

I first sautéed the squash for a couple of minutes in neutral oil over medium-high heat, merely to gild the chunks and start to develop their flavor; a deeper browning would be okay if you preferred it, but this worked very well. I drained it on paper towels and blotted up as much oil as possible. Meanwhile, in a deeper sauté pan, I sweated the chopped shallots in butter, seasoned with salt, pepper and chopped fresh rosemary. Sage would be an excellent alternative, and thyme wouldn't be half bad either. When the shallots had softened I added the squash and a little more rosemary, and stirred to combine. I covered the pan for a few minutes to let the squash get tender, then finished the dish with the lid off. Unlike some squash dishes, this one is unlikely to dry out, because the abundant shallots and the butter provide plenty of moisture and lubrication, but you mustn't cook it until it falls into a puree: the edges and corners of the squash pieces will lose definition, but the chunks will remain chunks.

The sugar content of winter squash/pumpkin varieties varies a lot. The kabocha I used was just about ideal and yielded a satisfyingly savory dish with just enough sweetness not to need any added acidity. But if it had, I saw two options: lemon juice and traditional balsamic vinegar (not the stuff labeled just "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena," which is an industrial product that no doubt has its uses, but not here, please). The juice would have been brighter, but the balsamic vinegar would have enhanced the depth of flavor. Bear those two possibilities in mind when you taste the squash just before serving.

This is an ideal side dish with grilled, roasted or pot-roasted pork. Poultry would work too -- yes, I am thinking of Thanksgiving. The leftovers could be mashed into an astonishing ravioli filling.

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