Sunday, January 12, 2014

Figuring out spaghetti squash (with Mrs. J.J. Pickle)

Ah, Cucurbita pepo. The easiest way to treat it is to hack the vegetable in half, scoop out the seeds, and place it, cavity down, in a glass baking dish along with a very scant one-quarter cup water. Cover the dish loosely -- I balance a microwave-safe plate on top of it, remaining unsure whether this actually aids in cooking or is psychologically helpful only -- and put it in the microwave to cook on high power for eight to ten minutes. It is done when you pull it out, steaming, turn it over, and scrape out great forkfuls of tender-crisp yellow flesh from the collapsing rind. (A very satisfying chore.) Pile them into a plate. Anoint them lavishly with butter and salt and pepper, and you have a simple, and most comforting, accompaniment to any meal.




I say all this required "figuring out" because one can, you know, make mistakes even with kindergarten-level zapped spaghetti squash. The original instructions, from a gold foil sticker on the actual spheroid itself, required one to cover the squash-bearing, microwave-safe dish with plastic wrap before cooking. This seemed to smother the vegetable, and to cause it to come to the table all watery and flaccid. Of course one could simply bake it, scooped and seeded, in a preheated 350 F oven. While this might help concentrate the yellowy squashy flavor, it also takes forever -- up to an hour and a half -- and unfailingly conflicts with other uses for the oven. Let's say that on a lazy Sunday afternoon one wants to bake a chicken or a pot roast at 325 F for a few hours, plus serve spaghetti squash and have all ready at the same time. No, no, better to zap it, as I have figured out how to do. Thank heaven I'm fairly bright about things.

Our spaghetti squash, you must know, is botanically Cucurbita [of the cucumber family] pepo [a "particular form of berry with a protective rind and a mass of storage tissue containing many seeds" -- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking]. It is a winter squash, meaning that it is kept on the vine to mature and develop a hard skin and dry interior flesh before going into storage. Summer squash such as zucchini are picked immature and used right away, retaining thin edible skins and succulent flesh. However "the differences between summer and winter squash thus correspond to differences in use, not to divisions between the four principal botanical species of squash," the Oxford Companion to Food explains. Strangely enough, botanically speaking the summer squashes, the hard dark green, ribbed round acorn squash, and most pumpkins are C.  pepo, just like our spaghetti squash. The other familiar grocery store type, butternut, is its own species, C.  moschata. The old-fashioned-sounding Hubbard squash, very large, grey-green, and "warted" in appearance, is also another species, C.  maxima. 

If a squash variety can be said to be conspicuously absent from older cookbooks, then spaghetti squash is it. I have a collection of about fifty books (small by professional standards), not counting the seven devoted to baking and sweets. Most are from the 1950s and '60s. "Squash" is indexed and cooked in them, certainly. Often it is Hubbard. It's never spaghetti. Perhaps the reason is that it's a "recent variety," as Marion Cunningham attests in her 1986 Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Even when one moves forward into the 21st century and finds it for example in Ruth Reichl's Gourmet, still one sees it prepared as simply as above, dressed only with butter, garlic, and "Moroccan spices" (cumin, coriander, and cayenne). It's as though professionals haven't had enough time to think complex thoughts about it. Perhaps once we have forked it out of its shell and piled it into a serving bowl, there is little else to do but treat it as, well -- spaghetti.  

Shall we be adventurous anyway? In one of the books of my retro collection, The Congressional Club Cookbook (1970), there is a squash recipe contributed by Mrs. J.J. Pickle, "wife of Representative (Texas)."  We will have a look at it presently, but first the history behind this Club deserves a nod.

The Congressional Club was founded in 1908, at the suggestion of Congressman Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, to serve as a non-partisan social center for the wives of U.S. Representatives and Senators. The women who swiftly took up Mr. Lowden's idea wanted the club officially incorporated by an Act of Congress, but they only got that done because one of the Club's vice-presidents inveigled her husband, Congressman John Sharp Williams, to take her out to lunch on the afternoon of the vote. This gallant Southern gentleman, who would and did drop everything when his wife knocked on his door and expressed a wish to dine, opposed the notion of women's clubs at all. He had to be escorted out into the fresh air and away from his filibuster on immigration ....

All went according to plan. The resolution passed, Williams-less, and the Club was officially incorporated in May 1908. At first it met in the "historically important" home of former Senator Gorman of Maryland, at 1432 K Street. In 1914 a house was built for it at 2001 New Hampshire Avenue, which still serves as its venue. Members are the wives of present or past U.S. Representatives, Senators, or Supreme Court Justices, as well as the wives of members of the president's cabinet. "Once a member, always a member, upon payment of annual dues." The Club still publishes a cookbook. My 1970 edition happens to be the eighth; you may log on and purchase the newest, the fourteenth (2006), from the Congressional Club's website.

But let us return to Mrs. Pickle, member. She was the second wife (married in 1960) of a legendary Texas Congressman and protege of Lyndon Johnson who served in the House for thirty-one years, from a special election December 1963 to his retirement at the age of 81 in 1995. Beryl Pickle's recipe is called El Paso Squash. I would think the two pounds of "yellow" squash called for could just as well be our C. pepo as anything else. Spaghetti squash's slightly crunchy texture and interesting form would make a nice foil to the simplicity of onion, chili peppers, and "Longhorn cheddar cheese" (Longhorn refers only to a shape of American, processed, cheddar-ish cheese. Surely any nice cheese would do. Even cheddar.)

El Paso Squash
2 lbs. yellow squash
1 onion, chopped
1 can chili peppers -- (by all means be modern, and substitute fresh)
grated cheddar cheese
Cook and drain the squash. Saute onion [in butter or perhaps olive oil?] and place it in the bottom of a buttered casserole. On top of the onion, place layers of squash, canned green chilies, and cheese. Repeat layers n this order, ending with cheese. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 F.

Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Pickle, departing for Washington in December 1963. Image from "James Jarrell Pickle," www.austinschools.org; image originally from Austin American Statesman.

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