April 6, 2011


I kind of did something amazing.  It involves butternut squash (go ahead, you can groan), and blue cheese, and some of those fancy vinegars from Blue Sky.  There was one last squash in our pantry, waiting to be used up before we moved on to peas and asparagus and said goodbye until next fall.  I wanted to do something completely different, something to end with a flair this months-long love affair we've had with butternut squash.  So I thought about empanadas, and I thought about mole, and finally I thought about croquettes.  

I batted ideas around with E, and we discussed the possibilities of bacon and mushrooms and blue cheese, and I came up with these beautiful little bites.  Then, the day before I was planning on making them, I discovered cinnamon-pear balsamic vinegar.  It was crying out for these croquettes, it was demanding to be the final, perfect ingredient. And it had every right to be, because it was absolutely a match made in heaven.  These croquettes were phenomenal, and the perfect finish to winter squash.  Little two-bite balls made with butternut squash and whole wheat flour, mushrooms sauteed in butter and thyme, with a sharp bite of blue cheese in the middle.  Drizzled with the cinnamon-pear balsamic vinegar, and topped with little crisps of bacon, they were quite possibly the single best thing I have ever made.  Like I said before, I did something amazing.

This recipe is one of those that I would have liked to perfect for you, to have spent a leisurely afternoon crafting and tweaking, bit by bit, until I found the best combination and ratio of ingredients.  Don't get me wrong, even without the golden touch of the scientific method, this dish will knock your socks off.  I just wish I'd had the time to make it a more solid recipe.  The first part of this year was so busy, and has flown by.  One minute I was harried and stressed, trying to figure out how to fit everything I needed and wanted to get done into a 7-day week.  Then, all of a sudden, I was sitting in the backyard with the warmth of an early afternoon sun on my ghostly pale legs, the weight of so many changes lifted from my shoulders, looking around at a world full of color and light.  It was wonderful: it was spring. 
I have finished my thesis, I have found a new job and both joyfully and painfully exited the old one; I have gone over a week without feeling a pit of uncertainty in my gut.  And I have missed being able to enjoy this blog.  I know it's still early, and that I've barely found my voice in this internet world.  But I feel like the last few posts have been soul-less, written with great intentions in my heart but mostly with deadlines on my mind.  I enjoyed the cooking, I definitely enjoyed the eating, and I enjoyed the writing.  But it was enjoyed stubbornly, in an effort to thwart the nagging sense that I should be doing something else- like studying, or job hunting, or just eating cereal because I didn't really have 4 hours to devote to dinner.

Now, I have all this extra room in my brain and it feels positively delightful.   I have the mental leisure time to wrestle with the big questions, like whether mushrooms can, in fact, get moldy. And the freedom to waste an entire hour wishing that I was a top-notch artist capable of drawing the gladiator-themed cartoon that perfectly matches the caption, "Well, that defeats the porpoise!" or to empathize with Charlie Sheen because, after all, I do know what it's like to be famous.  But more importantly, my head feels free to think about what's for dinner. And to start planning elaborately themed dinner parties that I really hope happen, and celebrations that I know we'll throw once this season of change has finally passed us by.  

In the meantime, I'm seriously debating afflicting our household with butternut squash one last time just so we can eat these croquettes again.  I suggest you do the same- a little winter squash and a nice salad might be the perfect bridge to this new season.  

Butternut Squash and Mushroom Croquettes
1 butternut squash, peeled and diced (reserve the seeds)
olive oil
salt and pepper
a few sprigs of thyme
1 large box of button mushrooms (or the equivalent amount of another variety)
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup whole wheat flour (plus extra as needed)
small block of blue cheese, cubed

Heat oven to 350F.  Toss the squash with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.  Roast until completely fork tender, then cool.  Mash by hand or in food processor until smooth, then transfer to a bowl.  

Clean mushrooms by wiping with a damp paper towel.  Dice very finely.  Heat 1 tbsp butter over medium-high heat and add mushrooms.  Cook for 5 minutes, then turn heat down to medium and add thyme and season with salt and pepper.  Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, then add white wine and cook until evaporated and mushrooms have softened and browned.  Remove from heat and add to squash.

Mix the squash and mushrooms together, adding 1/2 cup flour.  Continue adding flour until the mixture becomes thicker, like a runny cookie dough.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

To make the croquettes:
Cut the blue cheese into cubes.  Prepare one bowl with 1.5 cups panko bread crumbs.  Line a baking sheet with parchment.  Remove the "dough" from the refrigerator, scoop about 1/4 cup (or about one handful) and form into a rough ball.  Push a cube of cheese into the center, close up around it, then roll the ball in the panko.  Place onto the baking sheet, flattening slightly.  Repeat until squash mixture is used up.  
*Optional- refrigerate croquettes for an hour

Heat the oven to 350F, then heat a large frying pan with about 1/4 inch of olive oil to medium-high.  Add the croquettes in batches of 3-4, to ensure plenty of space between them. Fry on each side until browned, about 5 minutes.  Transfer to a baking sheet, and when all croquettes have been fried, place in oven to finish cooking for about 15 minutes.

You can top the hot croquettes with an extra crumble of blue cheese and a drizzle of balsamic before serving with the onions and salad.   

Caramelized Onions
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp butter
water, as needed

Heat the butter over medium high heat in a shallow saucepan.  Add the onions, allow them to soften and start to brown, then turn heat down to medium.  Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.  Add salt and pepper, then turn heat back up to medium-high. As onions begin to brown, add 1/4 cup water and allow it to boil off.  Check the onions for doneness- you want them completely soft, a little sticky, and a caramel color.  If they aren't there yet, add more water and cook until it has boiled off.  You can repeat this as often as needed until the onions are done, making sure you let the water completely cook off in between.  (This basically speeds up the caramelization process, and if you want more details on ways to speed this up, read this article.)

(while you can certainly order the cinnamon-pear balsamic and walnut oils for yourself, if you just can't wait, add diced pears and walnuts to the salad)
1 bunch watercress
2 handfuls mixed baby greens
1 tbsp good balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp roasted walnut oil or good olive oil
1/8 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt
pinch black pepper
2 tbsp roasted squash seeds (rinsed, dried, cooked at 350F for about 30 min.)
4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled

Wash and dry the greens, toss together.  Mix the remaining ingredients together, and sitr to combine, then drizzle over the salad.  Top with toasted squash seeds, crumbled bacon, and caramelized onions. 

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