When fall comes around, I always recall the time I spent as a boy assisting my father on Saturday mornings at his farm stand in Lyon, France. Autumn was a highlight of the year. At that time, we would stock goat cheese, a range of wild mushrooms, and one of my favorite annual sights: a colorful array of winter squash, which were snapped up and transformed into everything from soups to stuffings and gratin dishes. Some of them grew to be enormous—almost too big to be carried away. My father would sell these by the wedge. To this day, I never miss a chance to incorporate this sweet, delicious, and highly versatile vegetable into my seasonal repertoire.
We didn't grow acorn squash on our farm but I have always loved this variety, with its shiny, green ridged exterior (shaped like an acorn) and its distinctive yellow-orange flesh. The sculptural shape lends itself to eye-catching recipes like this one, where the firm and glossy skin of the squash becomes an edible vessel for what's inside. Here, the inside of the squash is scooped out and combined with pearl barley, a grain that makes for a healthier take on the classic risotto. The shell of the squash is baked and then filled with the barley, which also contains sage, garlic, and smoked mozzarella. Since the "bowl" is just as delicious as its filling, it's like having your cake and eating it, too.
ROASTED ACORN SQUASH WITH BARLEY AND SAGE
4 acorn squash, top and bottom trimmed by about 1 inch
2 T olive oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
6 cloves garlic—4 smashed, 2 finely chopped
4 sprigs fresh sage, 5 chopped sage leaves, 4 small leaves for garnish
1½ cups pearl barley
4½ cups unsalted chicken stock
1 shallot, finely diced
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
2 T unsalted butter
1 small bunch chives, chopped
3 oz. smoked mozzarella, finely diced
Preheat the oven to 350°F. With a large spoon, scoop the seeds out of each squash and discard. Continue scraping the insides to extract about ½ cup of the flesh from each squash. Reserve the flesh. Drizzle ½ tablespoon of olive oil inside each squash, then season with salt and white pepper. Set each squash upside down on a greased cookie sheet with a smashed garlic clove and a sprig of sage tucked underneath each cavity. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until a knife can easily pierce the squash's flesh without damaging the shell. Remove from the oven, turn over, and cover with foil to keep warm.
While the squash is baking, put the reserved squash flesh, barley, and chicken stock in a large saucepot and bring to a boil. Season with salt. Cover, reduce the heat, and let simmer on low for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped garlic, shallot, carrot, and celery; continue cooking for 15 minutes, until the barley has the creamy consistency of risotto. Remove from the heat and add the butter, chopped sage leaves, chives, and smoked mozzarella. Stir a few times to incorporate and adjust the seasoning. To serve, fill each roasted squash evenly with the barley mixture and garnish with the small sage leaves.
WHAT TO DRINK
"The earthy flavors of this dish call to mind the aromas of autumn," says Raj Vaidya, head sommelier of Daniel restaurant. "They make me think of a Pinot Noir from Oregon, where the wines have a smoky character. Mouton Noir Wines' O.P.P. 2013 [$15] is a spicy yet fruity Pinot from the Willamette Valley. For something richer, try Domaine Drouhin Oregon's Laurène 2011 [$50], from one of the pioneering family vineyards in Oregon's Dundee Hills. Its grape can be traced back to Burgundy, France, the home of great Pinot Noir."