sirens + skunks: butternut squash + sage puree

New York , for very obvious reasons, has been at the tippity top of my brain lately.  While I’ve of course been keeping my buttery fingers (ahem, lots of pie dough) as directly on the electronic pulse of the recovery after Sandy as possible, I’ve found myself also thinking back to where I’d be if I were where I was just over one year ago.

That is, most likely hunkering down for dinner in a kitchen that was surely turned into a veritable fish tank of sorts by one overflowing Hudson.

After mentally swimming out my front door and up Eighth Avenue (presumably to the nearest un-flooded wine shop), I’ve thought about how here, over five-thousand feet up in the clear blue sky, a flood is something that just isn’t on our radar.  Scary forest fires….yes….but the horror of watching the salty dregs of the East River rise up and totally comsume my corner bodega or favorite brunch spot?  

Not even a blip on my Colorado radar.

And that got me thinking about the other heres and theres; the funny little disparities between one very distinct place and one very different other.  You know…the things that one can only truly become ‘used to’ after ‘really’ living somewhere.  I thought back to a few weeks ago, when I was perched at an outdoor table at The Kitchen Next Door, enjoying a glass of Drydock Apricot Ale and chatting with a couple of friends in the sunshine, when two fire trucks went screaming by us on 11th Street.  I happily sipped my frosty mug of suds and adjusted the tone of my voice only slightly higher to continue on telling whatever (probably bad) joke or (definitely) side-stich inducing story about the World’s Cutest Pug I was wrapped up in at that moment.

Totally ignoring me, my tablemates made the kind of face you make when your husband unexpectedly presents your olfactory system with a jug of milk he suspects has gone off, and my girlfriend protectively covered her baby’s brand new ears.  My other friend, clearly alarmed, jumped up out of his seat with a start and yelled, really to no one in particular, “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!?”

I sat right where I was, feeling a bit confused whilst calmly drinking my beer and picking at the remnants of a plate of garlic smashers, whose deliciousness is much more deserving of screaming and yelling that a couple of lousy sirens and racing red engines.  (At least in my opinion.)

Later, as we walked West on Pearl Street to pick up our cars, I smelled a skunk.  A! Skunk!  At four-thirty in the afternoon!  I can’t even tell you the last time I smelled a skunk – even the slightest wisp of that unmistakeable scent brings me back to age ten, to the heights of a muggy Cape Cod Summer playing barefoot games of capture the flag.  I couldn’t even remember the last time I had been hit in the face with the scent of a real, live, skunk, and my excitement and bewilderment over all of this elicited sideways glances and hidden elbow jabs from my company.

It’s really funny, the differences you notice about one place from another, after you’ve spent enough time in each to really get a good feel for life.  Even though I’ve been out West now for well over a year, I still find myself noticing the small stuff; while in Manhattan a fire truck is an almost reassuring and constant background noise that yes, indeed, life is charging forth exactly how it should, here, it’s an (actually valid) cause for concern.  And if there are any skunks living in the city, I most certainly never noticed their stink — but then again, it would be an impressive skunk whose perfume could prevail over the scent of a few select dark corners of the 34th Street subway station.  ::shudder::

And the only way this paradox relates in any way to this butternut squash is that it too embodies two very opposite things: rustic and comforting yet luxurious and unexpected.  I can think of almost no vegetable better suited for Fall than butternut squash, and though there are a thousand ways you can prepare it, I seem to be defaulting to this simple but delicious method.  (Probably also due in part to one very enthusiastic sage bush I have partying down in my window at the moment.)  You simply roast chunks of skinned squash until they are totally tender, and then drop them into a blender with a spoonful of creme fraiche and a few fuzzy leaves of sage.  A few turns of pepper and a large pinch of salt is all the seasoning that is needed, and the blender does the rest, whipping the mixture up into a headily scented bowl of squash so silky that it’s weight will barely register on your tongue as you take a bite.

Butternut Squash and Sage Puree
Serves 2, as a side

1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
5 leaves fresh sage, roughly chopped plus a leaf or two for garnish
1/2 cup creme fraiche
up to 2 Tbsp water, if needed
kosher salt
fresh cracked pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Cover a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper (optional), and scatter the squash cubes evenly over the pan.  Drizzle enough olive oil over the squash to just lightly coat, and toss the cubes with a bit of salt and pepper. Make sure they are evenly (but lightly) coated with olive oil.

Roast the squash for 30-40 minutes, until it is totally and completely tender when pricked with a knife.  Place the cubes in a blender, and add a large pinch of salt and few grinds of pepper.  Add in the rough chopped sage and the creme fraiche.  Blend the mixture on high until it is completely and totally smooth, adding a bit of water (if needed) to get the right consistency; you want something that has enough texture to be spoonable (not too loose), but that is also silky and not chunky at all.

Serve immediately, garnished with a sprig of sage.

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