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Lifestyle

November 18, 2012

Squash: A centerpiece takes flight, without wings

Stuffed: a familiar condition at the holiday table shared among vegetables, turkeys, vegan alternative turkeys and the people who eat lots of all of those.

Pumpkins are subjected to such treatment. Scrape out the seedy innards of a 16-pounder and you've got a vessel for cooking a bready, cheesy goulash. The exterior will suffer a bit in the oven, though, darkening and softening on at least one side in a way that often suggests imminent cave-in.

Leave it to a resourceful cook to improve on tradition. For the past eight or 10 years, Lisa Jorgenson has taken a layered approach to stuffing a big squash for Thanksgiving. No sugar pumpkin or cheese pumpkin will do. She tracks down a big-bellied Hubbard, whose lovely blue-green color deepens after hours of low heat.

The Washington resident and mother of three grown children is an international water specialist. Her job requires quite a bit of travel, but that only increases her desire to cook a meal for her husband, David Doniger, and friends when she returns.

"I love having people at our house," she says. "Sometimes I'll try to make what I had wherever I was. I can be experimental, or we can throw steaks on the grill and bake potatoes and make a salad. It's important to connect with people — especially, that's good here in Washington.

"Cooking at home makes everybody feel good — including me," Jorgenson sums up as her expressive hands outline a small universe in front of her.

A dear family friend who puts on a Thanksgiving feast for 75 at her family's mountain cabin told Jorgenson about the pumpkins she stuffs with ratatouille each year. Intrigued, Jorgenson tweaked the recipe to make it her own. It's a project, she admits, but one with benefits. A filled squash covered with clean towels will stay hot for several hours. In the Thanksgiving prep kitchen, that means a side dish or entree is out of the way so a la minute items can be cooked and other foods can fit in the oven. It's also a relatively inexpensive way to serve a crowd.

With years of carving experience behind her, Jorgenson can hollow out a 23-pound Hubbard in under 10 minutes, leaving a five-inch access hole and reserving its "lid."

"It's kind of pleasant work, actually," she says.

Jorgenson seasons the 3/4- to 1-inch-thick squash walls with garlic salt and white pepper because they will be the edible base of a beautifully layered portion.

She makes her own simple risotto with chicken broth and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or uses a good-quality boxed mix. About six cooked cups of it constitutes the most substantial layer, which firms up in the oven and later takes on the role of tasty insulation. Next, she adds a layer of just-roasted eggplant slices; overlapping is okay, but it's crucial to make sure the eggplant reaches all the inside edges. Then comes a sprinkling of fresh thyme, followed by a layer of roasted zucchini or golden squash slices. That layer gets its own herb garnish: fresh oregano. Pressing and compacting each layer during the process ensures a good result at serving time.

Then a layer of raw white onion rounds goes in, which will reach only the crisp-tender stage by the time the squash is finished cooking. They provide a subtle contrast in texture, as do the slices of fresh tomatoes. Fresh chopped garlic's next, followed by a final layer of onions. On goes the squash's own lid.

Jorgenson has found that the best way to keep the squash from collapsing or over-browning is to bake it in a bain-marie: a dish placed inside a larger pan that's filled halfway with hot water. Because the filled squash is so heavy on its own, she places the squash/pan/within-pan in the oven, then pours a just-boiled kettle of water into the larger pan.

Less than three hours later, the squash is done, its walls holding firm.

"The flavors meld nicely yet retain their individual qualities," she says. "That's what I like about it. I rarely have leftovers."

The aroma is complex and compelling to anyone within a few hundred feet. And presentation at the table can be downright celebratory, elevating the expectations of non-turkey eaters.

Other lessons learned: For cooking the squash, use pans that have handles. It's best to pick up the cooked, filled squash by its middle rather than its elongated ends, which might bruise or break off. If those ends look like they're browning too much, Jorgenson covers them with aluminum foil. She creates a platform of wooden chopsticks in the bottom of a wide basket or serving bowl to rest the squash on, which provides a stable base and keeps the bottom of the vegetable from collapsing or steaming.

Jorgenson has other uses for freshly hollowed squashes. The specimens she uses to feed 50 guests for Thanksgiving (five turkeys; she is undaunted) lie in wait on her dining room table. A classic-looking pumpkin will be emptied out, then filled with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for next-day breakfast. "They, too, will stay warm and moist for more than a hour," Jorgenson says.

A rounded Hubbard will become a tureen for a rich Portuguese soup. All those turkey bones will go into the making of its broth; she tosses in lots of garlic, turnips, potatoes and chicken.

Once guests arrive, she plunges in a great handful of mint and a huge splosh of lemon juice.

"It's lovely," she says.

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