Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Quick "roasted" squash side dish

I think squash is best roasted, but sometimes, I'm just too hungry to wait that long. This was the case last night after a long day in the lab. The point of roasting a vegetable (or meat for that matter) is to get some browning reactions going. Browning reactions convert simple sugars and proteins into more complex flavors. This 1953 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry by John Hodge, one of the great food chemists, identified and integrated some of the early postulated reactions into a unified theory. Quite remarkable considering how much is still not understood about the mechanisms that make grilled steak or roasted veggies so delicious.

But back to the squash at hand... I decided to try to shortcut the research presented above; by first boiling the squash, then dehydrating it a bit, and then broiling, and making up for the lack of browning reactions with peripheral savory, sweet, complex flavors. I had one small, sad acorn squash that had been in the fridge for quite some time, and about 1/4 of a very large butternut, about 1/2 lb in all. Any firm winter squash would work. I left the skin on, cause again, I was hungry! I had picked up some thyme at the store the other day, having remembered how much I like it because Mary and Erin cooked with some at our Estes Park/RMNP mini-vacation last weekend. That along with some smoked sea salt takes care of the savory flavors; brown sugar is a shortcut to the sweet caramelized flavor roasting usually imparts, and the butter brings it all together. The bread crumbs are for a little crunch and visually, for some browning.

~1/2 lb. firm winter squash, sliced into fairly large chunks (peeling is optional)
1 T. butter
1 T. fresh thyme (leaves removed from twigs)
2 T. brown sugar
large pinch smoked sea salt
ground pepper to taste
bread crumbs (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 and boil some water.
2. Cook the squash in the boiling water, till just tender, about 10 minutes.
3. In a casserole or baking dish, toss the squash with the butter, thyme, 1 T. of the brown sugar, and the salt and pepper.
4. Sprinkle the remaining 1 T. of brown sugar, and some bread crumbs on top.
5. Cook for about 10 minutes in the oven (to dehydrate), and then switch to broil. Broil for a few minutes till the bread crumbs and squash are starting to brown.

I think it would also be great with some parmesan cheese in addition or instead of the bread crumbs. I used some homemade wheat bread crumbs I have stashed in the freezer, but I think the crunch factor would be improved with crunchy Japanese style bread crumbs (panko), which are available in most supermarkets.


  1. ...So I've had this squash in a basket on my kitchen counter for a few weeks and I can't bring myself to wait long enough for it to cook. So it sits...

    And sits.

    I think its time on my counter has finally come to an end!

    p.s. thank you for not being afraid to talk food chemistry.

    Do you know of any good cookbooks that get into food chemistry or 'food theory'?

    I prefer a cookbook to tell me why a recipe calls for something or another...

  2. Thanks Ben! I do know of a few.
    Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" ( is the bible of kitchen science. It has very few recipes but is the most sciency of the ones I know. It goes into depth of the chemistry of all ingredients, and why certain cooking techniques work for certain ingredients. Harold McGee also has an occasional column in the NYTimes which he links to from his blog (
    Any of Shirley Corriher's books are also great. She's another scientist that explains the why. I have her book "Bakewise." I've heard that "Cookwise" is even better. But I don't actually make her recipes that often, they're a little overly sweet/rich for me in many cases.
    And last, I love Alton Brown's cookbooks (I have "I'm Just Here for More Food" and "Good Eats: the Early Years") and TV show Good Eats on the Food Network. He is less a scientist than Harold or Shirley but he does his research! And he explains things in a really fun, laymen's terms way.