Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Butternut Squash & Tahini Spread

Hummus-lovers, are you sitting down? Because I have a recipe that's about to rock your chickpea-centered world upside down.

It's almost comical how much my female demographic loves hummus. Ranking #25 on the "32 things Jewish Girls Can't Resist" Buzzfeed list; showcasing domineering presence on the #birthrightproblems Tumbler, crowned "betchiest snack of the Mediterranean"....shrieking hungry girls and hummus come basically hand in hand. "I GOT A SABRA FLAVOR I'VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE," someone squeals while bounding through the dinner-party door, announcing the most ground-breaking news of the night within the first 5 minutes. (Kidding! Then we sit down to discuss history and politics at length.)

So indeed, people love hummus. Even your gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, juicing friends (no really, it's Blueprint #7) cannot refuse it. The texture is just so smooth, and the dipping options so plentiful, and that rich, earthy, nutty undertone...what is that, chickpeas? Olive oil?

No! It's tahini, the real star of the hummus party; taking center stage in this delightfully, inextricably addictive, Butternut Squash & Tahini Spread. Hold that pretzel thin or celery stick right there, and let me explain.

Tahini is sesame seed paste. It is made by soaking sesame seeds in water, crushing them to separate the bran from the kernels, skimming the kernels off the surface, toasting them (sometimes), and grinding to produce an oily paste. After all these steps, we are left with our beloved ingredient in all its nutrient-filled glory; boasting an exceptional source of copper, manganese, amino acids and omegas; plus high levels of calcium, protein and "good" fats.

Tahini paste itself is extremely concentrated; and a little goes a long way. But I can wholeheartedly say that adding it to any dish—whether that be salad dressing, dips, or spreads—guarantees a distinctive subtle taste that's so habit-forming it's basically an addiction. (I recently made a tahini-based Green Goddess dressing that is certainly appropriately named, because my devotion is so strong it might as well be deity worship.)

But if tahini can have this effect, this butternut squash spread is the Hercules of them all. When the slightly acerbic seed is paired with sweet earthy squash; slow roasted in cinnamon, creamy Greek yogurt, and syrupy sugar; the combination is so spot-on that one bite equals total taste transcendence.

The texture of this spread is out of this world, too. While hummus is inherently creamy, the denser butternut squash contributes a chunkier fluidity, kind of like perfectly smashed mashed potatoes. Because of this, it almost doesn't even need vegetable sticks or pita chips to serve it with—I am definitely guilty of eating at least half the portion straight from the plate with a spoon.

In fact, the consistency of the spread gave me an idea. Recalling a grilled sea bass I'd ordered once that had come served a top a plantain mash, I decided to mimic the dish, swapping plantain mash with my butternut-tahini spread. Instead of serving as an appetizer, I marinated a flaky white fish in balsamic vinegar, sautéed some swiss chard with onions, and distributed the butternut-tahini spread onto the plate, topping with the fish and then greens. Yum!

Butternut Squash & Tahini Spread (from Jerusalem)
Serves 6 to 8

1 large butternut squash (about 2 1/b lbs), peeled and cut into chunks (7 cups in total)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground cinnamon
5 tbsp light tahini paste
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 small cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp mixed black and white sesame seeds (or just white, if you don't have black)
1 1/2 tsp date syrup (can substitute maple syrup, molasses or Agave nectar)
2 tbsp chopped cilantro (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Spread the squash out in a medium roasting pan. Pour over the olive oil and sprinkle with cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix together, cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, and roast in the oven for 70* minutes, stirring once during cooking. Remove from oven and let cool.
3. Transfer the squash to a food processor, along with tahini, yogurt and garlic. Roughly pulse so that everything is combined into a coarse paste, without the spread becoming smooth. (You can also do this by hand using a fork or with an immersion blender.)
4. Spread the butternut squash in a wavy pattern over a flat plate and sprinkle with the sesame seeds, drizzle the syrup, and finish with cilantro (if using.)

*My squash cooked in about 45-50 minutes. Once you hit this mark, keep a close eye on your squash as it might be finished sooner.

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