There's an hors d'oeuvre on our fall/winter catering menu that we refer to as "the squash box". It consists of a hollow cube of roasted butternut squash, filled with goat cheese and crushed pistachios. When we serve them inverted and lined up on trays, they appear to be simple bite-sized blocks of squash— the hidden filling comes as a surprise. The squash boxes exemplify the combination of appealing flavor and clean presentation that we strive for in our passed hors d'oeuvres, so naturally, we were pleased by their popularity. But back in the kitchen, they were a real pain in the ass to make.
At first, we hollowed them by scoring 1/4" thick walls with a paring knife, then meticulously removed the centers with a melon baller. This was manageable when making a few dozen, but when the numbers stretched into the hundreds, we had to rethink the process.
Chef Martin is a great thinker, a creative problem solver, and a lover of tools. His first attempt at a solution was to have a square metal die fabricated to score the inner wall. In theory, it should've worked perfectly, but in reality, the metal was too thick and split the walls of the boxes. Undeterred, he pulled out the power tools— specifically, a drill fitted with a Forstner bit. It was a beautifully quick and effective solution to a previously tedious task.
Here's a short clip of Martin in action. Please excuse his parting gesture—apparently, his hands are not a fan of the camera.
Delighted as we were by this streamlined solution and the clean holes, I was more interested in what came out of them: long, coiled ribbons of butternut squash that looked identical to fusilli pasta.
Here's a closer look:
In this by-product of the squash boxes, I saw an elegant alternative to vegetable pasta. But cooking the butternut squash fusilli posed a critical problem. I tried every possible application of heat: wet, dry, slow, fast, but in each instance, just as it passed into a palatably tender stage, they would go limp and lose definition. I knew the solution was somewhere in the folds of my memory, ready to access, but there I failed, too.
Memory is a curious thing. Sometimes it's as direct and linear as a gunshot, sometimes it's like fishing in a labrinth.
I felt a tug on the lure while reasearching nixtamalization for a pickling project. It bit down in my memory of the 2011 Star Chefs Congress. When I reeled it in, at the end of the line were 2 gleaming nuggets of information.
The first was courtesy of Andoni Luis Aduriz, who, in a workshop, demonstrated a fossilization technique where salsify was soaked in a lime (the mineral, not the fruit) solution to firm the surface before cooking. From my memory, his claim that "any fruit with pectin will react with lime to make calcium pectate".
The second nugget was from Paul Liebrandt's mainstage presentation from the later that day. In a similar technique, he used calcium lactate to form a skin on the surface of jerusalem artichoke, allowing it to keep it's shape while the interior cooked to a creamy texture, without loss of moisture.
So, it seemed there were two possible solutions that produced parallel results. One, alkaline and caustic, the other a neutral salt.
I went with the calcium lactate. In the photo below, you can see the results. In the foreground is the squash that soaked in a 1% calcium lactate solution for 2 hours, then air dried, and roasted— tender, but still defined. In the background is the untreated squash roasted on the same pan— limp in comparison.
Solutions, like a great catch, are worth waiting for.
That's an easy one to remember.
butternut squash ✢ black kale ✢ goat gouda ✢ kale stem