Notes from Virginia: Roasted Butternut Squash

After months of spending way too much time on work, I have finally been able to take a couple of weeks of vacation. Destination? Phase 1, a total retreat from civilization into Deerfield Valley in Virginia.20111110-005804.jpg

The agenda couldn’t be simpler for a change: wake up, enjoy the gorgeous fall weather, pick up local produce, cook, eat, sleep, repeat. As this is farm land, there is no shortage of incredible locally grown products: tomatoes from Pat’s, wine from the vineyards outside of Staunton, and of course, the neighborhood pumpkins and squash. With a few visitors here and there, the environment is perfect for recipe testing and cooking without squeezing it in after work.

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As we arrived into the valley, late in the afternoon after the 6 hour drive from New York, we started thinking about what to do for dinner. Would we have the energy to cook? Or should we just stop in town and have a bite to eat there? Staunton certainly has its share of good restaurants to choose from, and nearly all of them seem to embrace the notion of local andsustainable food. But as it happens I was leafing through Saveur magazine and landed on this mouth watering recipe for rosemary rubbed roast beef tenderloin. Within minutes I was envisioning a fall feast: roast beef, arugula salad, and roasted butternut squash, all topped with a balsamic reduction. It was a done deal: tonight we were cooking.

Butternut Squash

I’ve been a fan of butternut squash for years, but I’ve never prepared it myself, and I’ve found it surprisingly hard to find in Geneva. So, naturally, I wanted to take advantage of being here in the south, where butternut squash features as a side on so many restaurant menus during the fall season. Besides, what could be easier than roasting a squash, right?

Well, if there ever was an easy plan gone horribly wrong, this would be it. I followed the basic principle of roasting a butternut squash: cut in half, brushed with oil, placed skin-side up on a baking sheet and baked for 45 minutes. Somehow, it came out undercooked and kept its tough and fibery consistency. I still haven’t quite figured out what went wrong. Maybe the oven wasn’t hot enough? Maybe the fruit wasn’t ripe? Maybe….? Whatever the reason, it didn’t quite turn out as planned. Next time.

Beef tenderloin roast

The rest of the meal on the other hand, was a success. To prepare the beef tenderloin: rubbed in oil and crusted with finely chopped garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, left to marinate for about an hour, and put under the broiler for about 4 minutes on each side (assuming you like it rare). You could pan sear it as well, but by broiling it you cut out that additional dump of oil you’d use in the pan. Cut out the excess, maximize the flavor, let’s just call this one a win win.

Balsamic reduction

The reduction was key to making the dish pop though, and guess what, balsamic reduction is a cinchto make. Use your favorite balsamic vinegar and pour about three times the amount that you want to end up with into a heavy bottomed, non-reactive pan. Simmer it until it reduces by about half (careful, don’t let it burn). Stir in half a tablespoon of brown sugar and then take it off the heat when the mixture sticks to the back of a wooden spoon. Careful not to add too much brown sugar or it will go syrupy and caramely on you. Not a bad taste, but nearly impossible to get off the spoon. You want to lightly (lightly!) coat the arugula with olive oil, just enough so that the balsamic reduction can spread more easily. On a batch of arugula for four people, I used a cap full of olive oil, which was plenty. Any more would have weighed down the arugula and diluted the sweet flavor of the balsamic reduction.

Just add butternut

I have to say, this to me would have been a perfect meal, had the butternut squash come out a little softer. The salty garlicky beef slices were well balanced with the pepperiness of the arugula, and the sweet and acidic flavors of the balsamic reduction provided a nice complement to the warm sweetness of the rosemary and the would-be butternut squash. Added bonus: if you follow the above, getting a good cut of tenderloin and broiling it instead of pan searing it, you can also get away with just about a tablespoon of oil/fat for the whole recipe, making this a really healthy AND really satisfying meal. Just need to figure out how to make better butternut!

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