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I know bean salad isn’t really something to get too excited about, but I think this one is great. It’s perfect for hot summer days when you want protein but just can’t bring yourself to turn on the oven or stove (those of you down South with central air conditioners don’t have that problem). The recipe comes from The Modern Ayurvedic by Amrita Sondhi. While I think it’s interesting, I’m not that into ayurvedic cooking, but I find this book has easy recipes that are both tasty and healthful. This one is great for a picnic or a pot luck supper. I put it on salads with avocado; and usually don’t even need dressing. Enjoy!

Mixed Bean Salad
From The Modern Ayurvedic

1 1/2 c. chickpeas (garbanzo beans) cooked or canned [I use a full can of each kind of bean, which is a bit more, and adjust the ingredients accordingly]
1 1/2 c. black beans, cooked or canned
1 1/2 c. red kidney beans, cooked or canned
1-2 tsp. garlic, minced
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. green onions, chopped
3 tbsp. fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 tsp. fresh green chilies, minced
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 tbsp. lemon juice or vinegar (your choice of vinegar) [I think it’s markedly better with lemon juice]

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve.

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Fiddlehead ferns are one of those things I’d never heard of until I moved to New England. Every Spring, for a few weeks, you can find fresh fiddleheads in the grocery store. Up here I think it’s the ostrich fern that’s most commonly used. Anyway, they are good. I’m no expert, but they are really easy to prepare. Just snip the ends off if they’ve turned brown. Then you can steam, saute, or do whatever you like. I always just steam them and sprinkle with soy sauce, lemon juice and sesame seeds.

The leafy part in the middle soaks up the juice really nicely.

My CSA starts next week, so hopefully I’ll have more fresh produce to post about.

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My in-laws arrived in town last weekend with an SUV packed to the gills with stuff from Mississippi. Along with some rugs and furniture they brought two boxes of my grandmother’s cookbooks.

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I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books; I didn’t realize there would be so many! She says she has more, but they couldn’t fit them in the car. So, I’ll just start with this. They’ll keep me busy. It’s probably half community cookbooks, half more popular, “classic” books, like Simca’s Cuisine, Joy of Cooking, Beard on Food, etc. Looking through these cookbooks made me realize that food really does go through fads; just like fashion. And unlike fashion, it’s not really easy to get nostalgic about them. Some of the stuff in these books makes me feel kind of gross. Among the recipes you’ll see a great many that call for tuna, cottage cheese, cream of mushroom soup, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce. Many of them are then formed into a ring. Although I scoff at some of these recipes you have to admire the hard work that went into putting them together. I love this one, that has an introduction by the author. Like any good Southern cookbook, the lion’s share of recipes are for sweet things, cakes, cookies, frostings, and pies. Entrees are shoved in the middle almost as an afterthought, and Vegetables and Salads are tacked onto the end after “This and That.”

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My friend Jen loves cooking and we have decided we are going to make some of these recipes. One of the first ones we’ll try, although we haven’t worked up the courage yet, is the Vegetable Jello Salad. You never know, maybe we’ll love it! The recipe comes from Jen’s favorite of the bunch: The American Oil Chemists’ Society Cookbook, 1977.

Vegetable Jello Salad

1 package lemon Jello
1 c. hot water
1 lb. cottage cheese (small curd)
3 medium sized carrots (grated)
1 tbsp. minced onion (grated) how do you grate an already minced onion?
1 tbsp. green pepper chopped fine
1/2 c. salad dressing does this mean Miracle Whip? or vinaigrette?
1/2 c. cream or dream whip (whipped)

Dissolve Jello in hot water. Let cool to the setting point. Mix whipped cream with salad dressing and combine with Jello then with cottage cheese, grated carrots, onion and green pepper. Pour into mold and chill until firm.

If you decide to try this before us PLEASE let me know how it goes. I know you can’t wait!

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A week or so ago I decided to render some lard. This is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I bought Jennifer McLagan‘s book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes during our visit to San Francisco last August. I picked up this book in Berkeley and couldn’t put it down. I sat there reading it for probably twenty minutes and told my husband that I couldn’t leave without it.

It’s one of those books that completely changes the way you look at things. I mean, who ever thought of writing a cookbook praising the virtues of fat? What McLagan argues, very convincingly, is that our bodies need fat and there’s little conclusive scientific evidence that a low-fat diet actually works. I’ll let you read the book for the full argument, but what you should know is that low-fat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If eaten in moderation fat won’t kill you. I promise. Lard has less saturated fat than butter (lard: 39%, butter: 50%), and doesn’t leave you hungry and scrounging for more fat free devil’s food cakes.

As someone who loves Southern food this is great news! I mean, I can really get back to my roots if I can cook with lard! The problem, of course, is that my grandmother’s generation stopped cooking with lard when Crisco was introduced. There is no one around to teach me how to do this, so I’m on my own. Armed with McLagan’s book and a few links to some food bloggers, I decided to give it a whirl. What follows is my excursion into pork back fat. You want to use the highest-quality fat you can find. I got this from Chestnut Farms, who have a stand at the farmer’s market. They’d vacuum packed 5 lbs. in two packages, which I’d put into the freezer and rendered in two separate batches. I used back fat this time, but you can also  use leaf lard. As I understand it leaf lard is the highest quality and the best for pie crusts or delicate pastries.

Properly rendered lard should have a completely neutral smell and taste. On the other hand, you can cook it for longer or at a higher heat and get Mexican lard, which has a roasted pork flavor. The first batch I cooked for way too long, so basically I got two jars of Mexican lard. Good for refried beans, but not necessarily the best for biscuits. The problem was, I kept expecting the pieces of fat to melt entirely and that just never happened, with either batch. Nor did the cracklings ever really pop off the fat. McLagan recommends using the oven for more than a pound, but she also gives instructions on using the stove top; maybe that would yield different results. Here’s the fat as I’m cutting it:

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Lard

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and cut the fat into 1 inch cubes or smaller. Put the diced fat into a Dutch oven or other heavy oven-proof casserole or sauce pan. Add approximately 1/3 c. water per 1 lb. of fat; this will keep it from burning. Place the pan in the oven, uncovered. Stir after 30 minutes, then after 45 minutes, then every hour until the fat begins to color. The water will eventually evaporate and the fat will melt. As you stir you can really press the pieces to the sides of the pan to help them along. After a few hours you will notice the liquid starting to brown a bit around the edge of the pot (you can see this in the picture below). Strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve or colander. Once all the liquid has drained from the fat, put the fat back into the Dutch oven and return to the oven, stirring every hour until you render more lard from the remaining pieces. This will be the Mexican lard that will have a more smoky pork flavor and smell.

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You can see that I just re-used some jars and containers that I had in my kitchen. This lard will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months, or in the freezer for a year. I don’t know if you can read my labels, but I dated them and labeled “neutral lard” and “smoky lard.” McLagan says that you should average 1-1 1/2 c. of lard per lb. of fat. I think I maybe got 4 c. total, including the Mexican lard. Next time I’m going to try the stove top. If you’ve had success with rendering lard please let me know; I’d like to figure this out.

Since I’ve got so much of the Mexican lard I decided to make carnitas and refried beans with cilantro rice. The lard really does make a world of difference. I’d never tasted refried beans like this, except maybe during breakfast in Merida, when we where there on our honeymoon. These beans were rich and creamy and delicious; I’ll never be able to eat the stuff from the can with satisfaction again.

This post is part of a series on cornbread; the simple yet widely variable staple of the Southern table.

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If you follow this blog you may have been wondering what business I have writing a blog called Syrup and Cornbread without actually blogging about cornbread. I admit it, I’ve been dancing around this for a while and I have a confession to make: I don’t yet have the perfect cornbread recipe. Unlike some of my friends, we didn’t really eat cornbread much in our house growing up; although my  mom hails from Memphis, her family were German immigrants from Cincinnati. In my dad’s family there was always cornbread, but it’s just not something for which you’d pass down a recipe. Since my mom did most of the cooking when I was growing up, I was never really given the tutorial on how to properly cook it. Inspired by my friend and fellow cornbread-lover Katy, who has just returned from a trip to Mississippi, I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts about my search for the perfect cornbread recipe. I hope that this series will take me further into my own families recipes (I’ve simply never thought to ask), as well as other people’s.

Cornbread is a pedestrian bread; it is very rarely the star of the show, but people are passionate about it. In the South cornbread is not sweetened at all. Here in New England all cornbread has sugar in it. This is wrong. Cornbread, if made properly, should be thin, crumbly, have a nice dark crust on the bottom, and be made with bacon grease or butter.

For my first attempt I turned to my favorite Southern cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking. You all know how much I love Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, the authors of this cookbook. I have the utmost respect for them both and came very close to actually swooning over the dinner I had at his restaurant Watershed (oh, and don’t forget when I was spying on his biscuit-making at Slow Food Nation ’08). Well, I tried their favorite cornbread recipe and was underwhelmed; it turned out too egg-y. You might be able to see in the picture (my fancy camera is on the fritz so you have to make due with the point-and-shoot) that there’s a layer of egg on the top. This was unexpected, and I’m not sure I like it; maybe I did something wrong, although I can’t figure out what.

The only substitution I made in the recipe was bacon grease for butter. I just keep a jar of bacon grease in the door of my refrigerator. It keeps forever and is perfect for getting that nice bottom crust that all cornbread should have. His technique, from what I can tell, is pretty standard. You melt the grease in a cast-iron skillet in a hot oven. Then, once it’s melted, you pour it into the batter, stir, then pour the batter into the skillet. Katy told me this is what her mom does, and it’s pretty close to the method I use.

Don’t get me wrong, this cornbread turned out really good; I realized that I do like buttermilk or sour milk, but this particular recipe just didn’t it the mark. I want a bit more crumb and certainly less egg. The search continues.

Our Favorite Sour Milk Cornbread
From The Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis

1 1/2 c. fine-ground white cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 3/4 c. soured milk or buttermilk*
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp. unsalted butter (I used bacon grease)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the cornmeal, salt, and baking powder together in a bowl. Stir the milk into the beaten eggs, and pour over the dry ingredients in batches, stirring vigorously to make a smooth glossy batter.
Cut the butter into pieces and put in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or baking pan. Put the skillet in the preheated oven, and heat until the butter is melted and foaming. Remove from the oven, and swirl the butter all around the skillet to coat the bottom and sides thoroughly. Pour the remaining melted butter into the cornbread batter, and stir well until the butter is absorbed into the batter. Turn the batter into the heated skillet, and put in the oven to bake for 3040 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown and crusty on top and pulls away from the sides of the skillet.
Remove the skillet from teh oven, and turn the cornbread out onto a plate. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve the cornbread while it’s hot.

*I didn’t have buttermilk, so I soured some milk according to their note: “A Quick Sour Milk It only takes about 10 minutes to make this tangy substitute for buttermilk. Stir into 1 3/4 cups sweet milk 2 tsp. lemon juice and 2 tsp. cider vinegar. Let sit until curdled.

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I love Christmas sweets: the fudge, cookies, and chocolate covered salty things that come out during the holidays. Eventually, though, I start to want something savory and hearty; something that will stick to your bones through the chilly (and in New England downright cold) dark evenings of winter. In my family this means gumbo.

My dad grew up in southwest Louisiana, Abbeville to be precise. Home of Steen’s syrup, and numerous outstanding eateries which serve up plates of seafood fresh from the Gulf. In Abbeville there’s always a pot of gumbo on the stove around Christmas time and the first thing relatives say when you walk in the door is, “you want some gumbo, sha?” At my Grandparent’s house they’ll also offer you a bowl of potato salad, which goes surprisingly well with gumbo; the potatoes cut nicely through the spice.

The Louisiana I know doesn’t put tomatoes in gumbo. My dad claims that west of Morgan City you don’t see tomatoes in gumbo. Sure enough, Paul Prudhomme, from Opelousas, cooks gumbo just like my people in Abbeville. Still, Talk About Good, the Junior League cookbook of Lafayette, has several recipes for gumbo with tomatoes in it. My theory is that tomatoes in a gumbo is more Creole than Cajun, and there is a definite difference. With Creole cuisine there is a noticeable Spanish, Caribbean influence; in Creole recipes you see more bay leaves, herbs, and tomatoes. New Orleans cuisine tends more toward Creole. Cajun cooking, on the other hand, is country cooking using very simple ingredients: stewed meats (or seafood); a short list of vegetables including the “trinity” of onion, bell pepper and celery; seasoned with salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Surprising to some, gumbo in southwest Louisiana doesn’t always have okra in it. An okra gumbo is made differently; without a roux. That’s a post for another time. What we call gumbo others might call stew with more water. Whatever you call it, I promise you’ll call it good.

This is the gumbo that I make most: chicken and sausage. The sausage doesn’t have to be andouille; but it should be smoked. My husband says this is his favorite meal. He could eat it every night, I think. Cook it a day ahead so that the flavors can really mingle. The key to cooking this is the roux. If you can master a dark enough roux (and it does take practice) your gumbo will most assuredly be delicious.

Chicken & Andouille Gumbo

For a chicken and sausage gumbo: buy a broiler and cut it up. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and a little red pepper. Brown chicken and set aside.

In a separate heavy bottomed pot make a dark roux:
1 c. canola (or other high heat oil)
1 c. all-purpose flour

Over medium-high heat pour oil and flour into the pot and stir to combine. I find a wooden spatula works best. Cooking at this temperature means that you need to constantly stir the roux. I mean don’t stop for one minute, especially as the roux starts to darken. If you need to stop and go do something take it off the heat entirely, but I don’t recommend that. It’s important to know when a roux is burned. A roux is burned when it starts smoking a lot and gets black specks in it. Plus, it really smells burned. You can cook a really dark roux that some people might think is burned, but if it doesn’t smell burned then, well, it’s not. It can burn in an instant though. If you suspect you’ve burned it just throw that batch away and start over (it’s just flour and oil after all). Alton Brown says you can cook a roux in the oven, just mix together the oil and flour in a dutch oven and stick it in the oven for an hour and a half. I’ve never done this but it would be worth a try! By the way, be very careful not to splatter as you stir; it’s sometimes called Cajun napalm for good reason. Stir gently.

When the roux is the color of dark chocolate and thick enough to leave a fleeting trail behind the spatula, pull it off the heat.
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Stir in about 1-2 chopped onions, 1 chopped bell pepper and 3-4 stalks chopped celery. (It’s all “about” because you do it to taste and how you prefer it to turn out). Return the roux and chopped vegetables to medium heat and cook until the vegetables are soft and begin to release their moisture (the roux will darken a bit more at this point but not much). Enjoy the wonderful smell, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to look transparent, about ten minutes or so.

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Add about 8 cups of chicken stock or water. Add salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste.  Then bring the stock to a furious boil to set the seasonings.

Lower the heat to simmer and add the chicken pieces (I add the neck and the back to in order to maximize the flavor). Skim foam from surface and let chicken simmer until it is falling off the bone. I always pick out most of the bones if I’m feeding the gumbo to company who might be finicky about bones, but for family I just pick out the more offensive pieces, such as the back, neck, and skin. Regardless, keep them in there as long as possible because they add a ton of flavor. The gumbo will simmer for something like an hour. About 30 minutes before you will eat add the sausage. If you love the smoky flavor add the sausage earlier but be careful not to overcook it; it’ll get tough.

Spoon gumbo over rice and serve with a green salad or potato salad and some white French bread if you wish.

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Now these really are a great Christmas cookie. This is a time-tested recipe handed down to me by my grandmother. I don’t know who Mumsey was, but I’ve enjoyed these cookies all my life. They are really a kind of classic Southern teacake, with some citrus zest added. They are thin, rich, and not overly sweet. I almost always bake these cookies and give them as gifts to neighbors, teachers, etc. You can give someone you really like a frozen roll of the dough, along with instructions for baking, and then they can just slice and bake. It’s a great gift, especially for a friend who is hosting family for the holidays.

One word of advice: This recipe makes a LOT. I mean, in my grandmother’s notes (included below) she actually says, “This recipe makes at least 20 dozen.” That’s a lot of cookies, people. I have a classic Kitchen Aide mixer and can’t make this full recipe because it’s just too much. In years past I’ve cut the recipe in half and it works fine. This year I decided to be brave and try the whole thing. I ended up having to do everything by hand. That’s right. not using a wooden spoon, using my hands. It was a lot of fun actually. I just mixed everything in a shallow bowl and got my (clean) hands into the sugar, butter, eggs, flour, etc. I’d never gotten quite that intimate with my ingredients, but I definitely recommend it if you’re ever feeling daring.

As I said, this recipe came to me from my grandmother. The notes are in italics are hers. I recommend slicing the cookies very thin. I’ve included a picture. The cookies just aren’t as good if you slice even 1/4 of an inch thick. I made the rolls a bit larger than she recommended; it’s up to you. You’ll get less cookies this way, but well, maybe you don’t need 20 dozen cookies.

Mumsey’s Cookies
Wonderful recipe to keep frozen to make when needed. Not very sweet with a touch of citrus.

3 c. butter softened [my grandmother calls for 3 1/2 c. margarine, softened, but I don’t use margarine. I find 3 c. is plenty]
5 c. sugar
zest of 2 oranges
zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
7 c. all-purpose flour

Cream butter, sugar, zest, and vanilla until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add flour 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Form into rolls, 1 1/2 in. in diameter and refrigerate overnight or at least 1 hour. Slice thin and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 6-8 minutes. Cookie edges should be browned.

Note: Dough can be frozen for several months. Makes at least 20 dozen cookies.

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I’ve been obsessed with chocolate chip cookies lately. I’ve made three or four batches, sharing them with friends and co-workers but eating most myself. Ever since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking a lot about mixing sweet and spicy. I love this combination, and was inspired by chili-seasoned chocolate I bought from Trader Joe’s. Chocolate chip cookies are such a basic, run-of-the-mill cookie; crying out to be spiced up in some way.

These cookies aren’t spicy, but they have a subtle smoky spiciness, thanks to chipotle chili powder,  that really compliments the dark chocolate chips. If any of you are doing holiday baking, these might just be a good recipe to add to your mix. I don’t think they are spicy enough to put anyone off. I’d like to experiment with just how much chili powder I can add before it gets too spicy. I think 1/2 tsp. is enough to taste the chili, but not too much. If you are wary and wussy, you can add 1/4 tsp.

Smoky Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cocoa powder
1-2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1 lg. egg
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. 60% dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare 2 cookie sheets (grease or line with parchment paper or silicone mat)
Whisk flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and chili powder together. In the bowl of a mixer cream butter and sugars until well blended. Add egg, salt, and vanilla and beat until well combined. Stir in flour mixture until well blended, being careful not to over mix. Stir in chocolate chips.
Drop dough by heaping teaspoonfuls approximately 2 in. apart on cookie sheets. Cook until brown around edges, about 10 minutes. Let them rest briefly on the cookie sheet then transfer to a rack to cool.

On Wednesday I head back down South for twelve whole days. I’ll be sure to keep you updated as I eat my way through Mississippi. I’ll be traveling all over the state to see family and am sure to eat some good food along the way. If you have any special requests for food you’d like to eat vicariously, please let me know. I plan to visit the fish camp in Whynot, MS where they serve each meal with a big bowl of cole slaw and probably consider hush puppies to be a vegetable. I’d love to try to find Jean’s Red Door BBQ in Meehan (or Savoy?). Where else…I don’t know, but I’ll also be going to Brookhaven, Jackson, Birmingham, Louisville, and finishing up in Oxford where we’ll tailgate with all the crazy Ole Miss fans. That’s a tradition that’s worth writing about. If I pick up any fun recipes I’ll be sure to share them with you.

I was going to post about caramel cake again, but I really messed up the icing this time. I think I over cooked it and it ended up as hard as a rock. I’ll keep trying. I made a pretty good potato kale soup the other day from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. I still have some kale in the garden, and had bought a ten pound bag of potatoes last week (for some unknown reason…I really don’t eat that many potatoes). It turned out well, but could’ve used more salt. I made the chicken broth with some chicken parts I had in the freezer and I think the recipe is written for store-bought broth. Also, I browned some turkey andouille and it went really well with it. You can add it in with the kale or keep it separate as I did so some people can eat vegetarian. I didn’t get a picture because I didn’t think I’d blog about it, but when the caramel cupcakes fell through I figured I’d better post something. Cook this and go vote.

Curly Kale and Potato Soup (From Alice Waters)

Remove the tough stems from the leaves of:
1 large bunch of kale, curly or Russian
Wash, drain well, and coarsely chop.
Heat in a heavy soup pot:
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
Add:
2 onions, sliced thin
Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft, tender, and slightly browned, about 2 minutes. While the onions are cooking, peel, cut in half, and cut 1/2 inch-thick slices:
1 lb. potatoes (Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold)
When the onions are cooked, stir in:
4 garlic cloves, chopped
Cook the garlic for a couple of minutes, then add the potatoes and chopped kale. Stir, then add:
A large pinch of salt
Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Pour in:
6 c. chicken broth
Raise the heat, bring to a boil, then iimmediately reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until the kale and potatoes are tender. Tast the soup and add more salt if necessary.

Ok, so this recipe isn’t Southern at all. It’s so good though I feel obligated to share it. I don’t really know why, but winter squash is not something that is typically associated with the South. We didn’t eat it much growing up and I don’t really remember seeing it on any buffets or pot luck suppers. Well, it’s very good for you and very popular up here in New England. Everywhere you go you see squash and pumpkins for sale.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the farmer’s market and ran into my friend Shira, who is apparently a squash aficionado. I was there looking for some to fix for my one-year-old daughter, but I’m not really a squash person myself. I mean, I like it, but butternut is about as exotic as I ever get. Anyway, there I was lost among the gourds when Shira came to my rescue. Her eyes lit up when I told her that I was charmed but confused by all the different kinds of squash. She relished the opportunity to tell me the virtues of each variety; when she got to delicata all she had to say is, “this one is really deliciously sweet,” and I was sold. Before moving on she told me about this cooking method, which makes wonderfully crispy sweet rings of squash. Let me tell ya, they are really really good. You can eat the skin, or you can peel it off pretty easily just before you eat it. I think the skin adds a nice aesthetic.

Crispy Delicata Squash Rings

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Slice one delicata squash into rings. With a spoon scoop out the seeds. Drizzle with olive oil and salt and roast for 10-15 minutes. Flip and cook for a few more minutes if needed.