Saturday, December 29, 2012

How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

After the nightmare that was cooking Christmas dinner at my mother's house last year when my mother was still in the house, I decided to bring a dish to my sister's house this year.  Besides having to keep my wife out of the weeds, my mother is unwilling to even think about food with onions, garlic, spice or heat, let alone look at it or discuss it.  Excuse me, I'll pick up the "mother" issues on my other blog. . .

My sister was kind enough to share her menu plans, allowing me to fill in the gaps.  She already had meats, potatoes, fresh green beans (stolen from me last year), and dessert covered.  I decided that I could come up with a squash casserole that would compliment her offerings nicely.  Here's the recipe I started with:

So, we have to deal with three ingredient issues:  cheddar cheese, Ritz crackers, and onions.  If cheddar is a problem, Velveeta should work pretty well here.  Or if some other melting cheese like mozzarella or monterrey jack works for you, go for it.  Nothing else in this recipe is going to compete with your cheese flavor, so you have some flexibility if you need it.  Issue #1 solved.  Ritz Crackers can be replaced with a variety of things if they are a problem for you:  panko bread crums would be my first choice because it adds a great crunch that many people will not know how to replicate.  Toast or other crackers in the food processor would be in inexpensive solutions.  You could even use chips, pretzels, or cereal.  The only thing you need to keep in mind is that your choice will impact how much salt you will need to add.  Pretzels and chips will replace a lot of salt, while toast will not.  Although completely unnecessary, you could toast your crumbs in a saute pan, adding a touch of butter, salt, garlic seasoning, or some other enhancement to bring it closer to Ritz Crackers.  Issue #2 solved.  Finally, we have to deal with onions.  I chose Granny Smith apples as my substitute - they add moisture and taste like an onion, and they have a sourness that is better suited to the main meal than sweeter apples.  I peeled one (it's approximately the size of a large half onion), sliced it thin, and quickly put it in a water bath to keep it from turning brown.  Although lemon juice is a common thing to add to the bath, I added a teaspoon of white vinegar to stay migraine friendly.  The vinegar also tones down the sweetness just a bit. When the main ingredients go into the sautee pan, you can add a bit of onion powder if that does not affect you, and you are really close to having the effect of onions.

Being me, and this being Christmas, I could not stop here; I had to change things up.  First, I chopped up some fresh parsley and pulled some thyme off the stem.  Since the crumbs go both in the dish and on the dish, I just added it to the crumbs.  Voila - freshness and color.  Then, I wanted a little bit of "Christmas" flavor.  Cinnamon and nutmeg came to mind - the smell adds a dimension to Christmas, the taste goes with squash and apples, and I have actually seen my mother eat food containing them.  I must confess that I got a little cute and used garam masala instead, but the effect is the same.  Just go VERY easy with these tastes.  I really had to fight the urge to add ginger because of my mother, but I'm sure she wouldn't object if you added it to yours.  You could even add some garlic.

Now, a couple of notes about technique.  "Place squash and onion in a large skillet over medium heat. Pour in a small amount of water" did not speak to me.  Boiling and steaming are healthy, but they don't do much for the taste of food, especially comfort food.  I opted to saute instead.  This served a couple of purposes.  First, it allowed me to cook the garam masala a bit ("bloom the spices") instead of adding it raw.  I could then add garlic and ginger (I've been buying both pre-minced lately to save time), and cook for 30-60 seconds so they are not raw.  Finally, the squash and apples go in (maybe with a touch of salt and pepper).  The apples give off so much liquid that no extra water is needed.  Just keep everything covered so that steam stays around to do its job.

Finally, a few comments about ingredients.  I'm not sure that the dabs of butter at the end were necessary.  Ritz Crackers don't need the help, and if you toasted your substitute crumbs with butter, you're just gilding the lily at this point.  I used whole milk.  We use skim for drinking and cereal, but when cooking for friends, family and holidays, (or in my case, cooking in general) the real thing makes a real difference.

My casserole was a big hit.  It looked good with the green flecks of chopped herbs, the buttery crust smelled good, and the squash/apple/cheese/garam masalla had a rich warm flavor, and a light quality due to all the squash and apples.  You can throw it together from start to finish in about an hour, so keep this one handy for the holidays.     

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