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Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Squash Toast

Squash toast

A little update on the state of affairs over here: I am sick, felled by the flu. Hugo is in the full throes of cranky, screamy toddlerhood (so soon? help!). It is my birthday, but because of the aforementioned germs I had to cancel every fun thing I had planned for the day. And I am up to my eyeballs in unanswered emails and stacks of work and to-do lists and backlogged posts and every time I think about all that stuff, my stomach does this ugly little flip, it's very disconcerting, and then to make it stop I have to burrow my face into my sick bed and breathe deep and tell myself to stop worrying, which of course does absolutely nothing to stop me from worrying, and anyway, it's all rather unpleasant.

And yet!

Despite this pathetic litany of complaints, I am in pretty good spirits. It is December, which is one of my favorite months. I just bought How The Grinch Stole Christmas to give Hugo on Christmas. Our Christmas Eve menu is coming together in my head. (Salt-baked whole fish? Chocolate soufflé? What do you think?) We have a roof over our heads and food in the pantry and I have a mother who drops everything to take care of my kid while I recuperate, even at 6:00 in the morning. Honestly, the only thing I wish I had right now were a few more hours in each day - say, three? I'm not greedy! - to get things done. Who's with me?

(Which leads me to a quick interlude: Dearest readers - sometimes, when I'm forced to lie in bed and think about thrilling things like organization and staying on top of things and other areas in which I find myself, at times, failing miserably, I wish there was some kind of textbook or curriculum on how to organize your life that could be passed around once you have a child and then go back to work. I'm not talking about having it all or balance or any of that, at least I don't think I am. It's more that I find myself wondering what little tips and secrets there are to running a household, working and parenting and staying marginally sane throughout. Then it occurred to me that I could just ask you wise people, because you've always come through in the clutch for me before. Right? So, tell me, give it to me straight: what is one piece of advice you'd give a frazzled lady such as myself if you could? You know, like, only buy socks in one color so you never have to worry if you lose one in the washing machine! Or...cook all your vegetables on Sunday and then use them up over the week! You know what I mean? Go!)

Raw squash

In return, I will tell you about this roasted squash business, which I made for the first time a month ago and have cooked every week since then and have decided is my favorite food discovery of 2013, which is no faint praise when you think about all the delicious things I wrote about since the beginning of the year: Orange marmalade, broccoli soup, French chocolate cake, porridge, for Pete's sake, homemade saag and THE BEST ROASTED VEGETABLES EVER, to name just a few.

It comes from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which should already tip you off somewhat, since that man is a cooking genius and one of the only chefs I know who can successfully translate his insane restaurant kitchen chops into doable home cooking. This particular recipe shows up on ABC Kitchen's menu as Squash Toast and you can see adorable Mr. Vongerichten himself cooking it with Mark Bittman right here (if that video doesn't make you want to get into the kitchen right this instant, then I don't know what to tell you). And the first time I made it, I followed it pretty precisely and had myself a fabulous little lunch - the spicy squash and the sweet-sour onions are fantastic layered with the cooling ricotta, the crunchy bread, and the mint. But it was just me for lunch, which meant that I had a good amount of the roast squash mixed with vinegary onion jam left over. I figured I'd eat the leftovers for lunch the next day, stuck them in the fridge and forgot about them.

Then, a few days later, my mother was over and we needed lunch, fast. I put water on to boil for pasta, rummaged around in the fridge and found the mashed spicy squash. I thinned it with some starchy pasta water, dressed the boiled pasta with it and topped it with a big mound of grated Parmesan cheese and, lo, it blew our minds. I've made the squash and onions and used it for pasta every week since then. No joke. Everyone who eats it (my mother, my husband, my friends) goes quiet and makes that wide-eyed face, you know which one I'm talking about, as they work their way through their plate. It's magical and delicious and perfect and I love it.

Roasted squash

Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Squash Toast
Adapted from the original recipe
Note: I usually use less oil than called for here, reducing the amount by a tablespoon here and there.

1 2 1/2- to 3-pound kabocha or butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into pieces 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes, more to taste
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 slices country bread, 1-inch thick
1/2 cup ricotta
Coarse salt
4 tablespoons chopped mint

1. Heat the oven to 450. Combine the squash, 1/4 cup olive oil, chile flakes and 2 teaspoons of salt in a bowl and toss well. Transfer the mixture to a parchment-lined baking sheet and cook, stirring once, until tender and slightly colored, about 15 minutes or a little longer. Remove from the oven.

2. Meanwhile, heat another 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high heat, add the onions and remaining teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are well softened and darkening, about 10-15 minutes. Add the vinegar and syrup, stir and reduce over medium-low heat until syrupy and broken down, 10-15 minutes; the mixture should be jammy.

3. Combine squash and onions in a bowl and smash with a fork until combined. Taste for seasoning.

4. Add the remaining oil to a skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches if necessary, add bread and cook until just golden on both sides, less than 10 minutes total; drain on paper towels. Spread cheese on toasts, then top with the squash-onion mixture. Sprinkle with coarse salt and garnish with mint.

4a. Alternatively, boil penne or rigatoni in lightly salted water, setting aside 1-2 cups of starchy pasta water towards the end. Toss the cooked pasta with the squash-onion mixture, thinning it with pasta water until you get the desired thickness and top with grated Parmesan cheese. The amount of squash and onions above will make enough "sauce" for 4-6 portions. If you go the pasta route, you can leave off the ricotta and mint.