The vegetable everyone loves to hate? In my book it’s not lovely green broccoli, or Brussels sprouts cooked briefly so they’re still slightly crisp in the middle, or even sweet potatoes, as long as they’re roasted in olive oil and not, heaven forbid, boiled and served with mini-marshmallows on top.
No, the Thanksgiving vegetable tradition that truly makes me gag is squash—boiled, mashed to a watery and tasteless pulp, dressed with nothing more than salt, pepper and a stingy pat of butter. And squash doesn’t deserve that at all.
If you’re contemplating squash on the Thanksgiving menu, here’s a quick and easy substitute for the above, one from southern Italy that takes humble squash to the heights it deserves. It’s easy to do at the last minute because everyone will have the ingredients in his or her kitchen. All it takes, apart from the squash itself of course, is salt, pepper, an onion or two, some fresh green herbs (mint preferred but basil or Italian parsley will do), a half cup or so of extra-virgin olive oil, a quarter cup of vinegar, and a couple of tablespoons of sugar.
I don’t have a name for the squash I used. It was grown in Salvatore Denaro’s garden from seeds that came from Switzerland. Salvatore knows the name but he can’t pronounce it and I can’t understand it when he does. But any kind of hard winter squash will do for this and the smoother the surface, the easier it will be to peel. (This one of Salvatore’s was a bitch to peel—in fact, it was the most time-consuming part of the recipe.) The squash should weigh 2 to 3 pounds to serve 6 to 8, but it’s easy to expand the recipe to serve more.
Cut the squash in half, pull out the seeds and fibrous stuff in the middle, then cut the squash in pieces you can handle easily and peel the tough outer skin. Now cut each piece in slices about ½ inch thick and set on a rack to dry somewhat before you continue with the recipe. Slice a couple of red or yellow onions in slices about ¼ inch thick. Chop the green herbs (and if you don’t have green herbs, just leave them out). Combine the vinegar with the sugar and set aside.
Set the oven on 350º. Add about ¼ cup of olive oil to a big skillet and set it over medium heat. If the squash slices aren’t dry, pat each one with paper towels before you drop it into the hot oil. Cook each slice of squash, turning until both sides are brown and blistered, then removing to an oven dish. The slices should be nice and toasty looking but still a little resistant in the center to a poke with a paring knife. Add more oil to the skillet from time to time if you have to. When half the squash has been done, drop the sliced onions into the skillet and sauté them until tender. Pile the onions on top of the squash and sprinkle with the chopped herbs. Continue cooking the remaining squash slices and set them on top of the onions.
Now add the sugary vinegar to the pan along with ¼ cup of water and let it sizzle up and reduce just slightly. Pour all the pan juices over the squash and transfer to the hot oven. Let bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the squash slices are thoroughly softened but not falling apart.
Serve the squash immediately—although in southern Italy this is often set aside and served at room temperature so if your Thanksgiving schedule calls for it, claim tradition and serve it at whenever you wish.