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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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The NY Times food section has got my dander up again. Headlines on an October 4th article promise a “method for keeping eggplant Parmesan crisp and delicious,” thus “solving the puzzle of eggplant Parmesan.” Now, there’s a solution looking for a problem! Crispness is a totally wrong characteristic for this dish.

Author Julia Moskin found a problem, though. She tells us that, up to now, she had never made an eggplant Parmesan that she didn’t regret. Many recipes, mostly American, that she’d tried made it come out tough, slimy, mushy, or sludgy. However, she concedes that good Italian versions of eggplant Parmesan exist – so why didn’t she make them rather than abandon an entire range of great traditional recipes for the sins of some bad ones?!

It’s because she wants her eggplant to be crisp, like a crusty breaded veal cutlet. So she set about to solve the puzzle of “in the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate.”
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Well, in the real or any other world, I have no objection to a dish of breaded and fried eggplant with marinara sauce and mozzarella alongside. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call it eggplant Parmesan!

As for making the real thing, there are perfectly easy ways to prevent problems like mushiness or sludge. Don’t coat the eggplant slices with both a thick batter and breadcrumbs, don’t over-fry them, don’t drown them in sauce, and don’t bake the dish for too long a time. But also, don’t expect the eggplant to retain any crispness: That’s like asking for a crisp, crunchy ratatouille.

Having vented this, my latest culinary annoyance with the Times (others are here and here), I decided to soothe my spirits by making a genuine parmigiana di melanzane. I’ve already written here about one favorite version; this time I chose one that’s a little different, from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

In many ways the two recipes sound as if they’d be very similar. Mostly the same components: eggplant, tomato sauce, onion, basil, grated parmigiano, mozzarella. Mostly the same procedures: making a simple sauce of plum tomatoes, salting or soaking thinly sliced eggplant, lightly frying it in olive oil, layering it in a baking dish with the other ingredients, and baking it.

But the two versions produce dishes with quite different effects, starting with the way the tomato sauce is made. My earlier one, more typically, softens a little onion in olive oil, stirs in pureed tomatoes and basil, and sautés until the sauce thickens. This one uses no oil – just softens halved tomatoes in a pot with onion and basil (no water), puts them through a food mill, and simmers until thick. Then the sauce is mixed with beaten raw egg.

Also, the two recipes use different proportions of the ingredients. For the same quantity of eggplant, this one (on the right) uses only half as much sauce (not counting the egg), and half as much of each cheese. That produces a dryer dish, as these two photos of the layering processes show.
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Baking time is different, too. The earlier version bakes at 350° for only 20 minutes, uncovered. The newer one goes into a 350° oven, covered, for 30 minutes, then is uncovered and baked 10 more minutes at 400°.
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Eggplant parmigiana always needs to cool somewhat before being eaten, to let the flavors blend. This one sat for a full half hour, and in fact it tasted even better as the portions cooled further on our plates. As you can see, on the right, below, it’s still much “eggplantier” than the earlier version, but the vegetable is beautifully permeated with all the other flavors.
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The portion on the right is also considerably dryer and more concentrated than the other one. The cheeses aren’t as prominent, serving more as an accent and slight binder here. The egg itself is unnoticeable, having merely done its job of smoothing and thickening everything else.

Both these versions of eggplant parmigiana are totally delicious. Neither one needs anything to make it great again; they’re great just as they are.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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It started with an earworm – that is, a song that sings itself over and over in your head and you can’t make it stop. In the current case it was a chant: a phrase that legendary drummer Gene Krupa said he would constantly repeat to himself as he played, keeping time for the band.

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It’s a catchy phrase, “Lyonnaise potatoes and some pork chops.” Its rhythm of DAH dah dah …dah DAH dah … dah DAH dah DAH is kind of fun to say, which is why it sticks in my head. I thought maybe I could exorcise the earworm by making those two dishes for a dinner.

I hadn’t had lyonnaise potatoes in many years, and I needed reminding of how to make them. A little checking online revealed a lot of variety in recipes called by that name. I was taken aback by one from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, which spoke scornfully of the “greasy mixture of unevenly browned potatoes and frizzled onions which usually passes for pommes lyonnaises.” My goodness, I thought, I guess I’d better go with “the correct recipe”!

It was simple enough to make. The only ingredients are potatoes, onions, butter, and salt. Plus, for me, the pork chops, of course.
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According to David’s recipe, I had to boil the potatoes in their jackets, peel and thinly slice them, salt them, and sauté them in butter until they were golden brown on both sides. My potatoes were very reluctant to color. By the time they had done so they almost as hard as poker chips, while in the long-ago dish I remembered, the potatoes had been tender and soft. Hmm.

As the potatoes were cooking I also sauteed sliced onions in butter in another pan. They also were to become light gold – and they also resisted doing so. I could just hear David tutting “unevenly browned!” and “frizzled!”
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But they were what they were, and more cooking wasn’t going to help them any. To finish the dish I had only to combine the contents of the two pans. I cooked both vegetables together for a few minutes, hoping the onions’ moisture might soften the potatoes a bit. They didn’t. They looked pretty together, though.
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And when served alongside my braised pork chops, they were tasty enough. Good in their own way, even if not at all the dish as I remembered it.
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Days afterward, I’d lost my earworm but kept thinking about those potatoes. I’d chosen fingerlings because they’re firm-fleshed and wouldn’t fall apart when sliced ¼” thin after cooking. Maybe they weren’t the right kind. Or maybe David had been overly insistent that hers was the only correct recipe: That kind of assertion is not uncommon among passionate cooks. I should try one of the other versions.

I turned to my cookbook collection, and in Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine I struck gold. The two recipes are as different as these two important mid-20th century cookbook authors: she a skilled amateur British home cook, he a famed professional French restaurateur.

For Oliver’s pommes de terre sautées à la lyonnaise, the potatoes are sliced raw, not boiled; sauteed in lard, not butter; half cooked covered, not browned. His onions – a lot of them – are minced, not sliced, and sauteed in butter until just soft, not browned.
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When the two vegetables are combined, Oliver’s are cooked again, covered, for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are fully done. That was the dish I remembered!
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This time the potatoes turned out meltingly tender, beautifully flavored from the onions, butter, and lard. They went just as well with a New York strip steak as they would have with pork chops. I don’t know which version is truly the “correct” one – or if there even is such a thing – but this one certainly pleased us. I wonder which Gene Krupa would have preferred!

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Local corn is finally in at my Greenmarket! Corn season started late this year, and then there were flood washouts from heavy rain in parts of New Jersey that grow the best corn. It’s still not exactly abundant, but I’m doing my best to make up for lost time – as is, I hope, the corn.

After my first joyous indulgences in plain, sweet corn on the cob, I was ready to think about corn recipes. I remembered one I hadn’t gotten around to last year: a salad of roasted fingerling potatoes and corn, dressed with a lively set of flavorings, in Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors. I’ve written here about several of that book’s recipes, and while some came out very well, I’ve learned to approach them with caution. There’s some bad copyediting: For instance, an item on an ingredient list may never show up in the instructions; and quantities given for various ingredients seem disproportionate both to each other and to the stated number of servings.

This potato and corn salad was a case in point. For two of us, I was making half of a recipe said to serve six (I expected some leftovers). It would have wanted a whole pound of fingerling potatoes to a single ear of corn. I bought the pound of potatoes, but when I set them out next to the corn, they looked like far too many.
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I made an executive decision to use just half a pound. That was partly based on my sense of proportion and partly out of awareness of our age-diminished capacities (sigh).

My unpeeled potatoes and the whole cob of corn were to be “tossed” on a rimmed baking sheet with 1½ teaspoons of olive oil – quite a stingy amount, even for my fewer potatoes. Interpreting the tossing metaphorically, I rolled the vegetables around in the oil. Then the corn was to come out, the potatoes to be salted, and the pan to go in a 425° oven.
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After 20 minutes of roasting the potatoes and turning them occasionally, I added the ear of corn to the pan, and kept roasting and turning everything until the vegetables were tender, about 20 minutes more.
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When everything had cooled, I cut the kernels off the corncob, put them in a bowl along with the still-unpeeled potatoes, and dressed them with a tablespoon each of lime juice, minced jalapeño pepper, and chopped parsley, plus about 2½ tablespoons of mayonnaise. When first tasted for salt and pepper, the mixture was entirely dominated by the jalapeño. However, after the bowl sat in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, the seasonings had blended very well, the jalapeno retreating to a pervasive, genial warmth.

In the evening I took the salad out, transferred it to a serving plate, and let it stand at room temperature for half an hour, before serving it alongside grilled sirloin burgers, lettuce, tomatoes, and red onion – classic summer casual dining.
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It was pleasant enough. The flavors were good, though the lime juice was indiscernible. The jalapeño gave the dish a light spicy lift. We would have preferred olive oil instead of mayonnaise, which in this case became slightly gummy, and we would have liked twice as much corn as there was. The potatoes hadn’t taken up many of the seasonings, and their skins were a little tough and not pleasing. (I can’t blame the recipe for that: These were a supermarket’s commercial fingerlings, not local or freshly dug ones, because my Greenmarket didn’t have any this week.) I was very glad I’d cut the potato quantity as I did – it made the right amount for two.

Bottom line: Some time later in the summer I might try adapting the concept of this recipe for a cold dish in a picnic-style meal, but it’s not likely to become a regular in my repertoire.  Just adding roasted corn to a basic potato salad sounds attractive, and I’ve noticed in recent years that in France and Italy, where eating corn on the cob is all but unknown, corn kernels have been turning up in all sorts of dishes, so there’s a lot to explore.

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It’s high season for peas in my Greenmarket, and I’ve been buying them as fast as I can.

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I should mention that for me “peas” means shelling peas, or English peas: My household has no interest in sugar snaps. Standing together at the kitchen counter shelling peas is a pleasant summer tradition for Beloved Spouse and me.

I used to buy peas in quantity, blanch them and freeze them for year-long use, but they always came out tasting like commercially frozen peas, not the tender-crisp sweet vegetable that truly fresh ones are. Now I buy only enough for one or two days’ dinners at a time, so they can be eaten quickly, before the sugars turn to starch.

There’s nothing wrong with plain boiled peas, but when I feel a little more ambitious I turn to Julia Child’s pea recipes in volume 1 of Mastering. The first three are simple enough, and each is designed for peas of a certain quality: very young, sweet, and tender; large but still tender and fresh; and large, mature, end-of-season. The fourth recipe, Petits Pois Frais à la Française, is far more elaborate. Julia calls it “the glory of pea cookery.”

Essentially it’s peas braised with lettuce and onions, in a very particular way. I’ve never gone through the entire procedure, but this season I successfully adapted the recipe for faster, easy preparation. Here are the components for two portions, using one cup of shelled peas:

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The first simplification was the lettuce. Julia calls for quartered heads of Boston lettuce, wound around with string to keep them in shape during the cooking. As you see, I simply shredded leaves of fresh Greenmarket leaf lettuces.

Second was the onions. Julia wants one-inch green onion bulbs or small white onions parboiled for five minutes. I had a larger onion – so fresh it didn’t need peeling – so I quartered it and gave it the parboiling.

The cooking began in Julia’s manner. I brought butter, a little water, sugar, salt, and pepper to a boil in a pot, put in the peas, and stirred them around. Then, instead of burying a bunch of fresh parsley stems tied together with string in the middle of the peas, as she says, I sprinkled on chopped parsley. Instead of arranging lettuce quarters over the peas and basting them with the liquid, I just strewed on the chopped lettuce and followed with the onion quarters (already falling apart, but no matter).
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Next came my major divergence. This is what I didn’t do:

So that the cooking steam will condense and fall back onto the peas, invert a lid over the saucepan and fill it with cold water or ice cubes; or use a soup plate. Bring the peas to the boil and boil slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Several times during the period, remove the cover and toss the peas and vegetables to insure even cooking. As the water warms and evaporates in the cover or soup plate, refill with ice cubes or cold water.

I couldn’t see why a snug-fitting normal lid wouldn’t circulate steam as well as that Rube Goldberg contraption, so I just put a low flame under the pot, covered it tightly, and simmered for 20 minutes, checking and stirring once or twice. It worked perfectly well. When the peas were done, most of the liquid was gone, but that’s what the recipe said would happen anyway. So why take all that trouble? I briefly raised the heat to boil down what remained, and transferred everything to a serving dish – skipping an indicated final dose of softened butter. That would’ve been gilding the lily.

 

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The dish isn’t glamorous, but it is absolutely delicious. The flavors blend in a rich harmony. For me this is indeed the glory of pea cookery – and done in the easiest possible way.

After a dinner or two more of peas like this, and while their short season lasts, I may cross over to Italy and turn to another delicious pea dish: risi e bisi. (Background cheers from Beloved Spouse.)

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Although we’re well into spring, I’ve not seen many good seasonal vegetables yet. Stores here all have asparagus, peas, radishes, spinach – but they’re either from far-away agribusiness outfits, hence not really fresh, or outrageously overpriced. After a dispirited walk through the produce area at a local grocery recently, I came home with an acorn squash.

I settled for that because of a recipe called Zucca in Agrodolce in Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily that I’d been meaning to try all winter but hadn’t gotten around to. Italy’s zucca is a very big pumpkin-like squash, which we rarely see here, but most winter squashes lend themselves to the same kinds of treatment, and I just needed a dinner vegetable for two. Acorn is not one of my preferred varieties, but it was the only small squash on offer.

I halved my raw squash and scraped out the seeds, and cut one half of it into neat ⅓-inch slices. That looked like enough vegetable for the two of us, so I put away the other half for another time. The recipe actually said to peel the squash first and then slice it, but the shape of an acorn squash makes that nearly impossible.
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Once I peeled the slices I was to lay them on an ungreased grill, cook them until grill marks appeared on each side, transfer them to a baking dish, and keep them warm. That was all the cooking they were to get. However, by the time my squash slices were over-blackening they still were hard – nowhere near cooked. They’d shrunken up and looked quite ugly, too. Not a promising beginning, but I soldiered on.

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I did put them in the baking dish, but then covered it and set it in a 350° oven to cook some more while I went on with the recipe, hoping the squash slices would soften.

Next was to thinly slice about a third of a big red onion, soften it in generous olive oil, and add salt and pepper. Finally came the agrodolce: I stirred half a teaspoon of sugar and four teaspoons of red wine vinegar into the onions and cooked for about five minutes, until the vinegar had slightly reduced and the sugar slightly caramelized. My own wine vinegar is so strong I had cautiously thinned it a bit with water.

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I took the finally-fully-cooked squash out of the oven, spooned the onion sauce over it, covered the dish again, and let it sit for 10 minutes before serving so the agrodolce flavors would permeate the squash.
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Somewhat to our surprise, it was delicious! The squash itself was only moderately interesting in flavor, but the onions and the agrodolce did wonders for it. I think using a red onion, rather than my usual big Spanish onion, was an important contributor to the final intriguing flavor of the mélange. I’ve tried making things in agrodolce occasionally in the past, but never with such excellent results. We regretted not having cooked the whole acorn squash.

In fact, I did a reprise of the dish with the other half of the squash a few days later, with one major alteration. Instead of grilling the slices, I just baked them on a nonstick pan at 400° until they were fully cooked. That worked just fine.
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If I’d had a wood fire to grill the squash on, I think it would have been more flavorful, but a dry gas grill seems not to do much more than any other dry cooking does. Still, when summer vegetables come in, I’m going to try the onion-and-agrodolce condiment on grilled eggplants, peppers, and zucchini. I can hardly wait!

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