By Joe Dizney
Last week’s local weather was representative of trends established by what is reportedly the most intense El Niño in 100 years. All you have to do is think back to the last two years to acknowledge that 60°F temperatures in February and ground that goes “squish” instead of “crunch” are at least unusual for the Hudson River Valley.
Howling winds at night, torrential rains followed by snow … or fog … or ice …(!) in the morning. You just never know.
Writing this on a beautiful sunny day makes it seem like a dream now. I really want to just get out and clean up the garden, but as soon as I do, I’m sure a cold snap will reappear to further confuse the vernal growth that has already begun way too early this year.
This meteorological whiplash also has very human psychological and physical repercussions and to combat the occasional, as usual, I cook. But the hearty winter stews and braises that usually seem so right for the final cold months are somehow heavy for these unseasonably bright days and don’t do much to lighten the gloomy ones — and it seems like we never know which we’re going to get.
You can’t really complain or plan, just face the realities — and the uncertainties — and deal with, or maybe even celebrate, them. Thinking light and bright and confronted with the late winter larder, I settled on a sunny yellow stew of squash, sweetened with leeks.
The squash (I used the readily available butternut variety, but a hubbard or even a sweetmeat pumpkin will do) is tossed with olive oil and spices — earthy cumin, marjoram and turmeric for even a bit more sunny brightness — and roasted, imparting a depth of flavor that makes the addition of meat unnecessary. Not being one to ever deny a pork product, the optional bacon con does have the advantage of further sweetening the sautéed leeks, as does the optional deglazing of the sauté pan with white wine.
I used a simple vegetable stock to puree about 75 percent of the roasted squash, roughly chopping and reserving the remainder to add later for a chunkier texture.
The addition of small, cooked, rice-sized pasta — orzo is readily available; but I found pignolina and small toasted fregola locally at Vera’s Marketplace — offers a pleasant texture and additional substance. If wheat/gluten is an issue, you can use cooked rice but the stew will be appreciably thicker.
For a more substantial meal, add a healthy handful of greens (spinach, baby arugula or cabbage) at the last minute and heat it just through to wilt. Garnished with chopped chives or tarragon, enjoy this one little bowl of winter sunshine on your table.
Winter Stew of Squash, Leeks and Pasta
5-6 cups peeled pumpkin or other yellow winter squash, cut into about two-inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
2 tablespoons butter
¼ pound pancetta, guanciale, or smoky bacon, chopped (optional)
4-6 large leeks, sliced, including some of the tender greens
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
¼ cup dry sherry or dry white wine (optional)
1½ cups cooked pasta (orzo, riso, fregola or pignolina)
2 cups baby spinach leaves, chopped roughly, or sliced cabbage or arugula (optional)
1-2 tablespoons chopped chives and/or tarragon for garnish
Preheat oven to 450°F. Cook pasta; drain and reserve. Toss pumpkin or squash with the olive oil, cumin, turmeric and marjoram. Salt and pepper lightly. Spread out on a parchment- lined baking sheet and roast for 30 to 45 minutes, checking and turning after 20 minutes so that it doesn’t brown too much.
While pumpkin roasts, melt butter in a three-quart saucepan (large enough to hold the final stew). Add the bacon if using and sauté over medium heat for a couple of minutes, followed by the leeks. Cook for an additional 4 to 5 minutes over medium heat. Add wine or sherry if using and allow to cook off a bit; 1-2 minutes. Add stock and simmer for another 10 minutes. Keep warm.
Once pumpkin or squash is done, allow it to cool enough to process in batches in a blender or food processor, adding ½ cup or so of chicken stock to each batch as necessary to liquefy. For a chunkier stew, reserve some of the pumpkin cubes and add to the stock pot.
Add pumpkin mixture to the pot and heat to a low simmer. Add spinach, cabbage or kale if using and cook just long enough to cook through. Add pasta and simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Serve garnished with chopped chives and/or tarragon.