With the holiday over, it’s time to take a complete inventory of your refrigerator and find out what was hidden behind eggs, the stock you made with Christmas ham, and other leftovers. There were a surprise or two in the containers, but none had reached the fuzzy mold stage of decomposing. Altogether, fridge stock wasn’t too bad; I just had to toss some packaged semi-sticky green beans from the veggie drawer and a container or two of leftovers that I couldn’t incorporate into my meals.
I have an unofficial policy of waiting a week before throwing away any leftovers, including the ones I find hard to admit to myself that I never planned to use. It’s a silly little mind game to avoid scolding my mother for throwing out “perfectly fine” food, even though it’s been over 20 years now. After a week in the fridge, I feel like I can justifiably argue with my mom’s soul that the leftovers I throw away are no longer “entirely good.”
My mom was a Great Depression child growing up in the village of Walton, New York, where the Delaware County Fair has taken place for the past 134 years. The village has a long history of being the center of agriculture in the region, particularly during my mother’s childhood, which contributed to her having a very personal relationship with food from field to table. Combine this with the Great Depression – and World War II mentality of not wasting anything, and I was often reprimanded for “just cutting the bad parts” of some half-rotten fruit I’d refused to eat.
One of the items I pulled out of the back of my fridge was a butternut squash I hid there before Christmas, after it started forming a soft spot while I waited on the counter to decide my fate. When I pulled it out, his wound had spread no more than a few centimeters, but it brought back a memory of an oak squash I had come across while cleaning my folk’s fridge in anticipation of tenants moving to their Cape Cod spot sometime in the 1970s. The rent paid for plane tickets and some money to spend so they could spend the summer in Ireland, but it was a hilarious ordeal at times to get their place ready for the tenants.
The ordeal was compounded by the fact that it would be generous to describe my mother as an “unofficial” housekeeper. She was a busy and hardworking teacher, but housekeeping often interfered with smoking cigarettes and entering into conversation with anyone within earshot. Recruiting my father to clean was hopeless, because it would be like asking the bull in the china shop to clean the cupboard. I have nothing but love for both of them, but while their idiosyncrasies were their most wonderful characteristics, you might as well be what irritated them the most.
In an early moment in our family history, my mom was overwhelmed getting ready to host a dinner party and asked my dad how he could help. She suggested that he straighten out the living room, which she had to know was a completely alien concept to him. His solution to the calendar was to take the books out of the bookcases and rearrange them in alphabetical order while our toys remain strewn across the room, ashtrays need to be emptied, and magazines scattered all over the coffee table.
He came from another era and his intriguing, though quite predictable, priority to get his renters ready was the neatly curated pile of driftwood he collected from the surrounding beaches in his 1948 Jeep as we cleaned, sweeped and tidy the place. I have no idea what it entails to organize a driftwood pile, because after hours of organizing it still looks like a pile of driftwood to me. It was clearly something he felt was a necessary contribution.
It was during one of those crazy last minute cleanups that I encountered the aforementioned acorn squash in their fridge. It looked completely intact when I reached to pick it up, but my hand sank horribly in it to my third knuckle, causing the squash to collapse into a semi-solid mess. There was no cutting for the bad spots because I scraped the sludge formerly known as squash from my hand and came out of the vegetable drawer.
Fortunately my gourd was nowhere near the condition of this acorn gourd and required only minor surgery, but I still have to decide on its use. After my usual long internal deliberations, I decided to make a version of the classic Neapolitan pasta with winter squash, sage and walnuts.
The keys to this dish are cooking butternut squash in brown butter and baking prosciutto with sage. The dish is delicious and vegan without the prosciutto, but I found the chips to be a great addition, making it a fun and comforting meal for a casual winter dinner when served with a green salad.
Pasta with butternut squash, walnuts, sage and Prosciuttoرقائق chips
4 ounces very thinly sliced prosciutto
Approximately. 2 dozen sage leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
1 medium squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
2 garlic cloves, cut into thick slices
8 ounces dried, high-quality tube pasta of your choice (I used Garganelli)
4 ounces toasted walnuts, cut into small pieces
2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the sliced presciutto and sage leaves together in a bowl with olive oil. Without overlapping the prosciutto slices, place them on a tray lined with parchment paper and grill for 12 minutes. Set the saucepan aside, to allow the prosciutto to continue cooking.
In a large skillet with a lid, begin to brown the butter over medium-high heat, shaking occasionally until it turns light brown. Add the squash and fry in butter, stirring occasionally, for a minute or so. Add garlic, stir, and reduce heat to medium. Cook, covered, for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until squash begins to crack.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan with 6 cups of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta 1 minute less than the directions for the dent mixture and drain, reserving 1½2 cups of the pasta water. Add the cooked pasta and walnuts to the squash and cook, covered, over medium heat for another 2 minutes, stirring in about 1/2 cup of the pasta water every 30 seconds. The squash should be broken down almost completely at this point, to make a thick, creamy sauce.
Add half of the French fries and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnishing with remaining chips and cheese will add salt. Pour pasta mixture into shallow, wide bowls and garnish with cream and remaining cream cheese.