Ok, so really, aren’t these just the prettiest little things? And every diner gets his or her own. How cute is that? Well it’s way more than cute: it’s delicious, healthy, inclusive (can be vegan, gluten free, vegetarian or down right meaty) and pretty darn easy to prepare. I love acorn squash because it is so easy to work with—no large carving issues—and serves as a rich, sweet bowl for an endless variety of stuffings. Jackie Mills of The Family Garden grew these, known as Sweet Dumplings—and they are sweet!
To make the Stuffed Acorn Squash, let’s start with something old—and I’m talking ancient, as in grains. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional stuffing of rice or cornbread cubes, but what about farro, millet, quinoa, wild rice or barley? Thinking outside the traditional squash bowl can open a world of flavors. For my Stuffed Acorn Squash, I chose two combinations, one with one cup of farro (that does contain gluten) and one cup of millet and the other with one-half cup millet, one-half cup wild rice and one cup quinoa, all of which are gluten free. Any combination is acceptable, but keep in mind that all grains don’t cook the same, and their textures and tastes vary, which creates wonderful flavors you will just love. So be sure to see the end of this post for the Ancient Grain Primer.
Next, let’s talk aromatics and balance—celery, onions, garlic, mushrooms and cranberries—yes, FRESH cranberries to add sour zing and keep the sugar low. I decided to leave out carrots in the culinary world’s holy trinity of onions, celery and carrots because the squash and the carrots, in my opinion, tend to compete too much. But your opinion may be different, so don’t let me stop you from dicing a carrot here (and I’ll show you where and how to incorporate carrot in the recipe that follows).
Key ingredients are…well…KEY here. I’m all about flexible recipes and “making do,” but sometimes it is what it is and it can’t be anything else. And here, two ingredients must be the best you can buy—extra-virgin olive oil and dark balsamic vinegar. The oil of choice is from this month’s blogger box: Bellucci Olive Oil—one of my new loves. For the balsamic, I shopped close to home at Olive Oils and More. Since oils and vinegars are pricey culinary supplies, it will be worth the investment to find manufacturers and distributors you can trust. To begin, look for traceability—can you find exactly where your product comes from—not where it’s bottled or distributed—but a specific country and region where it is grown, harvested, aged and sold? Again, see the end of the post for shopping tips.
So let’s get cooking!
- Three large acorn squash, washed, cut in half and seeded (Any variety of acorn squash will do, but these Sweet Dumplings were a huge holiday hit.)
- One-half cup good-quality olive oil, divided into two quarter cups, one for coating the raw squash and one for sauteing the vegetables for the stuffing
- Two cups cooked grains such as farro, millet, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa or barley (See the end of the post for directions and cooking ideas.)
- One cup diced onion
- One cup diced celery (If you want to include carrot, add one-half cup diced carrot to the ingredient list.)
- One clove garlic, chopped
- One tablespoon unsalted butter
- One cup chopped mushrooms (We used Shiitakes and Maitakes from my friend Leo, but any variety you like will do.)
- Two or three tablespoons dry white sherry
- One-half cup fresh cranberries, chopped fine (I pulsed mine several times in the food processor, being careful not to puree them. While I am all for freezing cranberries for access throughout the winter, I’d avoid frozen cranberries here because the texture will change. Use fresh from the store and ALWAYS buy organic.)
- Zest of one large lemon
- One-quarter cup good-quality dark balsamic vinegar
- Toppings of crushed nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios or pine nuts), fresh pomegranate seeds, crumbled bleu cheese and crispy bacon bits, as you please
- Coarse sea salt to taste
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously coat each squash half interior with olive oil. Place them cut side down on rimmed baking sheets that have been lined with parchment paper. The squash will take anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes to roast. Testing with a fork for doneness beginning at about 25 minutes is a good idea, as is rotating the baking sheets halfway through for even cooking. Note that while the squash bakes, you can make the filling.
- Once the squash is tender (can be pierced with a fork), remove it from the oven (maintaining oven temperature), turn right-side up and, using a pastry brush, generously paint the interiors with the balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with a touch of sea salt.
- Fill each squash cavity with about a half-cup or so of filling and return to the oven for about five minutes, just long enough to heat everything together. Sprinkle with desired toppings and serve.
- In a large chef skillet, heat a quarter cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the tablespoon of butter, the onions, celery and garlic (and carrot if using). Sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt and turn the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is shiny and fragrant, about 20 minutes.
- Add the mushrooms with a sprinkle of salt and cook five minutes. Add the splash of sherry and cook about two minutes more, stirring well.
- Add the chopped cranberries and cook for a minute or two.
- Now stir in your choice of cooked grains, making sure everything is thoroughly combined and heated through and sprinkle in the lemon zest. Keep the filling on your lowest heat until you are ready to stuff your squash.
Note that prep and cook times assume you’ve made your grains in advance. How long this step takes depends on the grains you choose to include. Also note that you can extend the stuffing easily by adding a bit more grains and veggies to the sauté and adding another squash to the roasting pan. Extra stuffing makes great leftovers!
Quality Products Mean Great Results
You have probably heard this from me and many others a million times: If you want to make great food, use the best, freshest, highest quality ingredients. This rule is particularly true of ingredients for which many impostors exist, like extra virgin olive oil and aged vinegar. The quality of both these ingredients make all the difference in the recipe above. The olive oil, in this case a wonderfully mild and smooth 100 percent organic oil from Bellucci, and the balsamic vinegar, here a classic rich dark balsamic from Olive Oils and More, a small business right here in my town of Edwardsville, are the unassuming stars of this dish because they create the underlying richness and flavor pop that people love but can’t quite place. But you will know as you hand them a second helping. So I hope you go to just a little extra effort to find the best of the best for your version of this dish. It is especially gratifying to me that Olive Oils and More is owned by local merchant Greta Sullivan, since we are celebrating women-owned small businesses this month at Green Gal.
Ancient Grain Primer
So “grains” have acquired a less than stellar reputation lately. Paleo diets and keto diets that shun grains are all the rage. And while there are great benefits for many people that come from avoiding modern, commercial grains, that’s not necessarily true with their ancient cousins. There are lots of grains—actually some are grasses—that fall into the “ancient” category: farro, millet, quinoa, freekeh, spelt and teff, to name but a few; all deserve a place in today’s healthy kitchens. They represent heirloom varieties that are not grown with GMO’s and are not mass-produced with chemicals and unsustainable practices. Most people have never even heard of them, much less cooked with them. But they are worth a try because they are packed with nutrition, many are gluten free, and most are organic or at least sustainably produced and safe to consume.
For our purposes, we are going to deal with three of these, plus wild rice, which is a grass not a grain. And for myself, I try to cook most of my grains in vegetable stock because the added flavor is just a big plus. Maybe for you it will be chicken stock or just plain old water. Whatever works. But I encourage you to explore the many flavors, textures and nutritional profiles of all the ancient ones. Get a start with articles and recipes from Delicious Living Magazine online: Giving Ancient Grains a New Look, 5 Fiber-Filled Meals Built with Heirloom Grains, Four Ways to Use Millet and Watchword: Grains to get the whole grain story.
Farro has been called the ancient ancestor to wheat, and, yes, it does contain gluten. But it also boasts high fiber, iron and protein (more than three times the protein of brown rice) to go with its chewy texture and rich nutty flavor. It’s also rich in minerals like zinc and calcium. So, unless gluten is an issue, farro should have pride of place on your pantry shelf.
To make basic farro, be sure to rinse it well before cooking. In fact, I suggest you soak it overnight in water in the frig for best results. If you don’t, you’ll need to cook it longer to get it tender. Its cooking ratio is three to one—one cup of farro to three cups cooking liquid. Cook just as you would rice: bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook until most of the liquid has absorbed.
Millet looks like little golden beads. It has a nutty, sweet taste and is gluten free. Like farro, it has lots of fiber and protein, as well as an array of minerals and B vitamins. To fully enjoy millet’s taste and texture, give it a quick toast in a dry cast iron skillet and then a thorough rinse in cold running water before cooking. As with many of the ancient grains, millet has a bitter coating that can mar the taste if not removed. Toasting and rinsing are not essential steps, but an advised ones. The ratio for cooking millet is two to one—one cup of millet to two cups of cooking liquid. Since I toast and rinse my millet, I often use water instead of stock, certainly if I’m having it as a breakfast cereal, which is quite a nice treat. Bob’s Red Mill is one good source for organic farro and millet. Easy-to-follow directions are on the packages.
Quinoa is mentioned all the time on this blog and is a favorite gluten-free grass (nope, not a grain) of both myself and my daughter. We eat it all the time—for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the recipe above I cooked it with stock, and that’s usually the case. Like millet, quinoa has a bitter coating, so rinsing before cooking is essential. Use a fine mesh strainer. Then it’s a breeze: one cup of quinoa to two cups of stock, or preferred liquid. The main advantage of quinoa is that it is a complete protein, which means a lot to us vegetarians.
Finally there is the wild rice that has a chewier texture and stronger flavor than brown rice. Cooking time will take a bit longer. The big win for wild rice is its vitamin and mineral content—particularly folate, choline, magnesium and potassium. But we just think the flavor and texture add a lot to this particular dish.
So one nice thing here is that these grains can be made ahead, combined and stored in the frig. Depending on how many you choose to include, you’ll have leftovers. Bonus! I love extra cooked grains in my frig that can be added to soups, pasta dishes, salads, warmed up for breakfast or just eaten cold as a midnight munchie with some nuts and dried fruit (not kidding).
Looking for more great acorn squash dishes? Jenna Blumenfeld, senior food editor at Delicious Living Magazine has some great ideas for your holiday table. Then, let us know how your little sweet dumplings turned out.