Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Arugula and Roasted Delicata Squash Salad with Sautéed Leeks and Shitake Mushrooms, Candied Walnuts, and Asiago Cheese

Without wanting to appear disloyal to all the great foods I love, I have to admit that every so often I can develop a particular crush.

I'm not talking cravings here... those are just passing fancies... nothing you are particularly tied to for more than just a fleeting moment. You grab a coffee because the aroma draws you in; you nibble on a chocolate bar to satiate a sweet tooth...

A crush, on the other hand, is more serious. It's a taste that stays with you. It lingers in your mind. So much so that you want to tell anyone that will listen -- as I suppose you do when you are smitten.

My present crush is the Delicata squash. I almost hesitate to even admit this, as you might prejudge this little fruit of the gourd family and not listen any longer; toss it off as a silly rant. This crush, however, is rather significant; evidenced by the number of recipes I've come up with recently... just to have reason to roast up more!

Delicatas are particularly easy to prepare. While some folks simply halve them and toss them in the oven to roast -- later cutting them up or mashing them -- I prefer to slice them, toss them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast them for just 20 minutes. This way you get a nice little golden tinge to each and every piece. In this particular salad the sweetness of the Delicata pairs beautifully with the peppery arugula. And, it's quick. In the 20 minutes that it takes to roast the squash, you sauté your leeks and shitake mushrooms; candy some walnuts; and whisk up an easy balsamic vinaigrette. The sautéed leeks and mushrooms give a warm heartiness to this salad; a savory pop of flavor that is perfectly balanced by the natural sweetness of the Delicata and candied walnuts, and the salty bite of the asiago.

Delicatas are a thin-skinned squash, which makes slicing them an easy effort, and peeling them unnecessary. Though there are a few cultivars, the Delicata is distinguished by its long and slender shape (5- to 10-inches long; 3- to 6-inches in diameter) and its creamy coloring (punctuated with dark green seams). The best are vibrant in color (dullness is a mark of age), and of solid weight (it should feel heavy in your hand for its size).

Once out of the oven, I usually taste a piece (or two, or three...) and sometimes add just another sprinkle of salt. Getting that perfect salty-sweet balance is what makes the Delicata so irresistibly crush-worthy.

Arugula and Roasted Delicata Squash Salad with Sautéed Leeks and Shitake Mushrooms, Candied Walnuts, and Asiago Cheese
serves 4 (as a starter); 2 (as a light entrée)

To roast squash:
1 medium Delicata squash (1.5 to 2 pounds), ends trimmed, halved, seeded, cut into 1/2" slices
salt and pepper, for seasoning (about 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper)
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For veggie sauté:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sliced leeks
1 cup sliced shitake mushrooms
salt and pepper, to taste

For remainder of salad:
5 to 6 ounces fresh baby arugula
1/4 cup candied, chopped walnuts*
1/3 cup freshly grated asiago cheese
1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette** (you'll have dressing left over)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place sliced Delicata on a large baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to combine and arrange in one layer. Place in oven to roast for 10 minutes; turn squash over and continue to roast for another 10 minutes, until lightly golden.

2. While squash roasts, place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add leeks and mushrooms to skillet, sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until veggies soften and get a little golden tinge to them. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove from heat and set aside.

3. Place arugula in a large bowl and lightly dress with vinaigrette.

4. Plate dressed arugula. Top greens with sautéed leeks and mushrooms; sprinkle with candied walnuts; top with roasted Delicata slices; finish with freshly grated asiago cheese.

* Buy candied walnuts or prepare your own. Heat 1/3 cup granulated sugar in a small skillet over medium high heat. Stir until sugar melts to a caramel-colored liquid (1 to 2 minutes). Remove from heat and add chopped walnuts; mix to coat. Turn walnuts out onto wax paper to cool (turn over one or two times to prevent sticking to paper). Chop into pieces once cooled.

** Use a bottled vinaigrette or whisk your own. In a small bowl, whisk 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar and 1 teaspoon honey. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and whisk until combined. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, to taste.

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