Nothing will make you appreciate the amazing chew of delicious pasta quite like substituting the sad, overmatched strands of spaghetti squash. Awful.
The mistake everyone makes is thinking the appropriate use of spaghetti squash is as a spaghetti substitute. Man, it’s not even close. This is a common thing, though, when you get around people who, for one reason or another, can’t eat this or that delicious thing. Portobello mushrooms become burger patties. Tempeh becomes chicken. A fucking yellow squash becomes one of the oldest, most important foodstuffs in the history of mankind. And instead of approximating the experience of eating these delicious things, those doing the substituting are just eating poorly, whether they know it or not.
I suppose part of the problem is the name: spaghetti squash. Whoever came up with that name should be punched in the groin. First of all, the finished product doesn’t even resemble spaghetti. A much more accurate pasta comparison would be capellini squash, but even then, spaghetti squash would not remotely fit as a capellini substitute. The damn things really should have been named “julienned squash squash,” or, better yet, “salad squash.” Because that’s what we’re talking about: a squash whose highest purpose is as the main ingredient in salad preparations.
See, dammit, right there, I tell you it won’t approximate pasta, but makes a good salad, and you wander off hopelessly like one of those depressed penguins. This is your anti-salad bias, and it’s ridiculous. You’re thinking “salad” means “boring healthy pile of green shit,” and that’s just wrong. For our purposes, “salad” means “composed of various components contributing various textures, colors, aromas, and flavors, and served at room temperature or colder.”
Look, pay attention for a few minutes. This spaghetti squash is spectacular. I guarantee if you serve this spaghetti squash to a room full of people, no matter what else is on the table, this will be the most celebrated item in the room. Spaghetti squash is great! You will love this. Let’s make some.
Here’s what you’ll need: a spaghetti squash, some hazelnuts, some sage, some chives, some grated hard Italian cheese, some olive oil, a lemon or two.
Spaghetti squash looks like a big yellow rugby ball and is heavy as hell. Picking a perfectly ripe one isn’t quite as fraught as picking a perfectly ripe cantaloupe or watermelon, but it’s possible to miss, and missing is infuriating. Here are some tips for picking a squash, paraphrased from Elizabeth Schneider’s VEGETABLES from Amaranth to Zucchini:
1. Pick a rock-hard squash. Dig your fingers into that fucker as hard as you can. It should not yield even a little bit. You should not be able to easily nick or scrape the skin. You’re looking for one tough-as-hell squash, here.
2. Your squash should have a stem, and the stem should be thick and firm and brown.
3. Your squash should not have waxy, shiny skin. The skin should be dull, like matte paint.
Grab a big honkin’ squash, take it home, and cut it in half lengthwise. Grody seeds and loose flesh through the middle? Scrape out the guts, so each half has a clean little bowl cutout. Good. Now ram a fork into the skin of your squash in a few places, like you would a jacket potato.
Preheat your oven to, say, 350 degrees, and sock your squash in there, face down, on a cookie sheet. The skin will trap most of the moisture as the squash heats, and the face-down position will create a little steam-chamber in the cutout sections. Give your squash 20 minutes to cook, then poke it with the handle of a fork. It’s likely nothing will happen, but if the skin indents fairly easily, yank it out of there. If not, shove it back into the oven and check again every five minutes until it’s done.
Pull the squash out when it’s done, set it face-up on a cutting board, and give it a few minutes to cool. While it’s cooling, let’s prep the rest of your stuff. Because we’re thinking of this squash dish as more of a salad—and not at all like a wan, depressingly miscast pasta substitute—we’re gonna reference some fundamentals of salad construction. Let Albert tell it:
Think in terms of roles. You’re casting a reality show, only instead of looking for a dozen superficially diverse variations of the hysterical, egomaniacal, oversexed twentysomething template to cram into a gaudy show-house so they can exchange polluted bodily fluids for six weeks, you’re looking for at least four of the following: leafy, crunchy, tart, sweet, bitter, creamy, salty, nutty, spicy, and fatty. The more colorfully you can fill those roles, the better.
Okay, right off the bat, we’re gonna eliminate the leafy. For chrissakes, we’ve already got a whole fuggin’ squash here, how much more vegetation do we need. Our recipe is gonna go for nutty, crunchy, salty, tart, and fatty, and we’re gonna throw in herb-y, because herbs are great.
For nutty, we’re gonna reach for some hazelnuts. Hazelnuts are crunchy and fatty and delicious, and since you will immediately recognize their aroma and flavor from Nutella, they will slyly nod toward sweetness, adding a welcome layer of complexity to what is a fairly simple preparation. Hazelnuts are usually sold raw, whole, and unsalted, which is a pain in the ass, because we want them lightly toasted and broken into halves or coarse chunks. As with miserable pine nuts, toasting hazelnuts is a perilous ordeal—they will wait until the moment you look away, and then they will immediately burn to a cinder.
Drop a hearty handful of hazelnuts into a pan, slide the pan over medium heat, and then stand there and stare at the hazelnuts, occasionally tossing them around in the pan, until they are fragrant, shiny, and a nice warm brown color. When they’re done, get them the hell off the heat immediately. Either coarsely chop them on a cutting board or drop them into a Ziploc bag and beat the living hell out of them. One way or another, you’re going for nice coarse chunks of hazelnut. Set your prepped hazelnuts aside for the moment.
Hazelnuts will pretty much cover us for nutty and crunchy and fatty, and if we were quitters, we’d stop there. Screw that. Grab a hunk of good, hard Italian cheese—pecorino romano, parmigiano-reggiano, or grana padano—and grate yourself, say, half a cup or so. Depending on which you choose, your cheese will either give you creamy and salty and fatty, or nutty and salty and fatty, or hella salty and fatty, so you can’t go very wrong here. Get your grated cheese in a little pile or ramekin or whatever.
Last prep steps: grab some fresh chives and some fresh sage and finely chop this stuff until you’ve got a couple pinches of each, and cut a lemon or two in half. Cool. Done with the prep work.
Your spaghetti squash should now be cool enough that you can start working with it without burning off your fingerprints. Grab a fork and gently dig into the face of your spaghetti squash, methodically pulling away the weird alien fibers and depositing them into a big bowl. Keep at it until you’ve got the squash basically hollowed out, with just a couple of floppy empty squash skins left and a bowl full of yellow squash strands.
Dress your squash with a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil, then squeeze out one of your lemons all over it. Have a taste. Add salt and more lemon, stirring and tasting as you go, until the squash is mildly salty and pretty damn lemony. Now, add the other ingredients in the following order: stir in the sage; stir in a pinch of grated cheese; top with the rest of the cheese, the chives, and the hazelnuts. Maybe a grind of pepper and a drizzle of your olive oil. Okay. Done. Have a taste.
The thing about this preparation is it will redeem two separate, oft-maligned food things: the spaghetti squash, and the salad. Unlike bullcrap recipes that ask you to pretend these squash strands are anything remotely like cooked noodles, this preparation has a specific need of spaghetti squash’s particular combination of thread-like structure, mild sweetness, slight crispness, and versatile (and inoffensive) gourd-y flavor. And unlike the depressing bullcrap foliage that makes up your everyday salad, this thing is bright and rich and assertive, full of big flavors and fun textures.
While we’re here, these are characteristics it shares with, say, pesto, or arrabbiata, while remaining unencumbered by the distance between its qualities and those of a delicious, chewy pasta dish. In fact, the right thing to do here is to serve it right alongside a delicious pasta dish, where it will be the most thrilling, palate-cleansing side dish in the history of mankind. Your poor gluten-fearing companions, excitedly wolfing down great mouthfuls of splendid spaghetti squash, memories of brutally depressing squash-and-meatballs preparations washing down their face in tears of gratitude, won’t even know what they’re missing in the pasta. And, hey, this time, maybe they’re not missing anything at all.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.