Because when the ingredients speak for themselves, you shut up and listen
Have you ever eaten a vegetable and thought 'wow, this is exactly what this vegetable should taste like'? I mean, like, bitten into a carrot and thought 'this is the most carrot-y carrot I've ever had - I didn't know a carrot could be so, well, carrot-like!' Instead of something more along the lines of 'babe, where's the dip?'
You may be one of the lucky ones who answers in the affirmative, but for most, vegetables simply taste like a vague semblance of what their corresponding Magic Marker shade may have smelled like, and act, primarily, as a vehicle for hummus and the like.
Unless you're fortunate enough to do your produce shopping at a local farmer's market (and even that can be hit or miss - just because it's farm fresh and organic, doesn't mean it'll get you anywhere near as excited as a chargrilled ribeye steak with a side of, umm, chargrilled ribeye steak) you're probably living a life of underwhelming veg, with the odd standout making its way into your crisper drawer from time to time.
The reality is, the reason vegetable dishes are so often doctored up with lots of cheese, garlic, butter and bacon, is that the produce being served can't stand on its own two feet. Let's be honest, you're not ordering the brussel sprouts, you're ordering the bacon and browned butter they're basking in - and, most of the time, so am I!
Though I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some truly outstanding examples of fruits and vegetables through work and by living in a state that always seems to have something in season, the true potential of a vegetable wasn't made clear to me until one rainy evening on the opposite coast, in the Hudson Valley.
If you haven't been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, find a way to make it happen. Not only are you in for an amazing dining experience, you get treated to a deeper understanding of what food, at its most naked, should taste like. (They also serve foie gras, sandwiched between shards of paper-thin, salted dark chocolate - I almost cried. No, seriously, if I were someone who OMG'd, I would have OMG'd...all over the place. So, if the 'deeper understanding' bit isn't enough to get you there, this borderline inappropriate, dip into almost pornographic indulgence, should be.)
Dan Barber, the genius behind Blue Hill, is the epitome of the 'farm to table' dining movement, and I would say 90% of what you consume at his restaurants was grown, raised and harvested at the Stone Barns farm. And after a (very) late night, post-work, hunger inducing Netflix screening of his Chef's Table episode, I knew I had to taste the fruits of his labor for myself.
And boy, did I taste. Every course was, quite honestly, magical. The execution was, of course, perfect, but the courses that stood out the most, were the simplest - the ones that required no execution apart from simply growing the ingredients with care, in soil so tended to, he probably could have served it to me as an amuse.
The dish that really gave me an education in the potential of a vegetable, was served on a humble wooden plank. Small spikes stood at attention down its center, with perfect pieces of raw vegetables skewered atop. After a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, said plank was dispatched from the kitchen and placed in front of me. Beautiful, yes, but raw vegetables as an appetizer? And no dip? Oh, yes...yes, yes, yes!
I've never had a tomato that tasted more like a tomato, or a piece of squash that tasted more like a piece of squash. I seem to remember it actually stopping me in my tracks - speechless and astounded, eating a glorified crudité platter reminiscent of no catered office party ever.
Though everything we had that night was more than memorable, that one little mid-course was a welcome reminder that immaculate ingredients prepared simply, can actually change your understanding of food, quite deeply. And that a vegetable has the potential to be perfection, when given the opportunity to grow into everything it was intended to be.
So, when I heard of a squash developed by the Vegetable Breeding Institute at Cornell University, in collaboration with none other than Dan Barber himself, I thought 'that squash is going to taste like what every squash dreams of growing up to be' and I knew I had to try it - by no means was I disappointed.
The Honey Nut Squash is something special indeed. Think of a mini butternut squash, then amplify the flavor and the sweetness tenfold - a mighty punch, packed into a teeny, tiny gourd, so enchanting you feel barbaric slicing it in half and roasting the hell out of it. But barbarian that I am, slice it and roast it, I did.
For the squash:
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice the squash halves into 1" thick wedges, toss them with the olive oil, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste, and spread them out on a foiled baking sheet. Bake them at 15 minutes, until tender. Then allow them to cool.
Meanwhile, slice your apples into thin wedges and sauté them in butter over medium heat, until browned and soft, but not mushy, about 5-7 minutes. Allow them to cool.
Finally, toss the cooled squash and apples with the arugula, chopped nuts, pomegranate seeds, a splash of olive oil and flakey sea salt and pepper to taste.
That's all she wrote. No heavy dressing required - I'm telling you, the honey nut doesn't need it.
It took an evening of driving through the rain with a friend and the combined nighttime eyesight of an earthworm, an hour outside the city, to Pocantico Hills, NY, to truly realize that such simplicity was possible.
That being said, I'm not turning my nose up at dip - dip's delicious. Oh, and chargrilled ribeye. Chargrilled ribeye's good too.