Quinoa and Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash

The first Fall squash just arrived in my CSA veggie box — rich flavored, delicious acorn squash.  Yeah!  Each season has its culinary stars, and squash are definitely the stars of Fall.  Another autumnal joy is the new crop of apples in my local market.  I combined sweet-tart apples with protein packed quinoa and walnuts for the stuffing for acorn squash.   This tasty main dish is vegan, gluten free and packed with nutrition.

Quinoa stuffed acorn squash

Quinoa and Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash

2/3 cup quinoa
1 1/3 cup water
2 large or 3 small acorn squash, halved and seeded
3 shallots, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 small or one large apple, unpeeled, cored and diced
1 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Heat oven to 400.  Lightly season inside of squash with salt and black pepper.  Place acorn squash cut side down on baking sheet.  Bake for about 20 minutes, or until tender.

While squash are baking, prepare quinoa by combining uncooked quinoa and water in small lidded sauce pan.  Bring to boil, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

In a large frying pan saute shallot, carrot and apple in 2 TB olive oil.  Cook until carrots are tender.  Season with cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp. salt.  Combine cooked quinoa with sauteed shallot, carrot and apple mixture.  Add walnuts and mix to combine.  Mounds hot filling in squash hollow.  Drizzle with remaining olive oil.  Bake for another 15 minutes and enjoy.

Make ahead:  This ia a great make ahead recipe.  Bake the squash and prepare filling, but don’t add the walnuts yet.  Store the squash and filling covered in the fridge for up to three days.  45 minutes before eating, add the walnuts to the filling, fill the squash, drizzle with olive oil, and bake until hot.

Cracker Jack Cake

Last spring I wanted to create a new cake for a young friend.  I asked him for suggestions for flavor combinations, and he thought that peanut butter and caramel would be a good combo with yellow cake.  It was a great idea. This cake was the result.

It’s a yellow cake with peanut butter frosting, fresh roasted peanuts for crunch, and homemade caramel sauce.  (My son tasted it and called it Cracker Jack Cake, in honor of the snack.)  You can substitute purchased caramel sauce if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own.

Cracker Jack Cake

Yellow Layer Cake – two 9-inch layers (recipe below)
Peanut Butter Frosting  – one batch (recipe below)
Caramel Sauce – 1 cup (recipe here)
freshly roasted peanuts, roughly chopped – 1 1/2 cups *

Assemble the cake by frosting one layer of the yellow cake with Peanut Butter Frosting.  Sprinkle layer with one half of the roasted peanuts, and drizzle with one half of the caramel sauce.  Top with second layer of cake.  Frost the top and side of the cake with the remaining Peanut Butter Frosting.  Top with the remaining roasted peanuts, and drizzle with the remaining Caramel Sauce.

* Use plain roasted peanuts, not dry roasted.  Salted or unsalted is fine.

Yellow Layer Cake – adapted from the Smitten Kitchen

Yield: Two 9-inch round, layers

2 1/4 cups  (10 oz) cake flour
1 1/2 cups (7 oz) all purpose flour
2 teaspoons  baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (14 oz) sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans and spray with baking spray with flour.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk and flour mixture until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one more time.

Spread batter evenly in cake pans, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles.  Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Peanut Butter Frosting
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (10 oz) smooth peanut butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups (12 oz) powdered sugar
3 TB milk or half-n-half

In a mixing bowl, beat butter with peanut butter until smooth and creamy.  And salt and powdered sugar.  Beat until smooth.  Scrape down the mixing bowl, add the vanilla and milk.  Beat on low power until the frosting comes together, then on medium until it’s light and creamy.

Caramel Sauce – Liquid Gold

I’ve made this delicious, golden sauce for many years.  We just call this classic caramel sauce Liquid Gold.

I first saw this recipe many years ago in Cooks Illustrated.  I’ve made it so many times that it’s become a basic for me.  But I recognize that caramelizing sugar can be a challenging task for the beginning cook.  Read through the whole recipe before you begin, assemble all your materials in advance, and I know you can do it.

Caramel Sauce – Liquid Gold
2 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 TB light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. salt

Pour the water into a heavy, light-colored sauce pan with a lid.  Pour the sugar into the pan, aiming the sugar into the center of the pan.  The idea is to avoid having dry sugar crystals in contact with the sides of the pan.  The water should rise above the sugar on the sides of the pan.  There will be a mound of remaining dry sugar in the center.  Add the corn syrup.  Gently draw a spoon or knife through the remaining dry sugar in the center of pan to barely moisten the sugar.  It’ll feel sort of cement-like, and the sugar will not be dissolved in the cold water.

Cover the pan and place on a medium high flame.  Keep the pan covered until the sugar/water mixture comes to a rolling boil.  You should be able to hear the boiling liquid.  It’s OK to peek, but replace the lid if the mixture isn’t yet at a full boil.  The sugar will have dissolved by this time.  Once the mixture is at a full rolling boil, remove the lid.

While you are waiting for the sugar/water mixture to boil, warm the cream.  Pour the cream and salt into a glass measuring cup, and heat until warm in the microwave.  Stir to dissolve the salt.   Set aside.

Now the magic happens.  After a couple minutes (5 – 7?) the clear sugar syrup will begin to turn golden, then darker.  Using a long metal or wooden mixing spoon, gently stir the caramelizing syrup.  When the color of the boiling syrup is the color of a good cup of tea (light brownish), turn off the heat and slowly pour in a couple tablespoons of the warmed cream.  Stir with a metal whisk or spoon to incorporate.  warning! The caramel will bubble very vigorously when you first add the cream, so be aware.  Then add a few more TB of warmed cream, and stir.  Repeat until the cream is all incorporated.  You’ll be able to just pour in the last 1/2 cup or so, as the mixture will have cooled down enough and the cream won’t cause such a strong bubbling reaction.

Cool to room temp before using.  This sauce can be thinned with a little cream if it’s too thick.

Spicy Tomato Chicken

Ready for a super easy but mysteriously delicious chicken dish?  This is the one.  After I made it, I was discussing how simple it was with my college age son.  We agreed that this is definitely a dish that a less experienced (aka college student) chef can master.

Spicy Tomato Chicken

You can set the spice level to your taste.  I like mine SPICY, so I use more of the magic ingredient:  sriracha.  If you’ve never used sriracha before, you’re in for a treat.  It’s spicy hot, slightly sweet, garlicy, tangy, and awesome.  I almost called this recipe Awesome Chicken but deferred to the more descriptive name.  But in my heart, it’s still Awesome Chicken because of the sriracha.  Feel free to use fresh or canned tomatoes.  Just make sure your fresh tomatoes are good ripe ones to ensure the best flavor.

Spicy Tomato Chicken
(serves four)

2 LB bone-in chicken thighs and/or legs (skin off for the thighs)
one large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
2 TB olive oil
2 LB fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped or 2 cans diced tomatoes
1/4 to 1/2 cup Sriracha (start with the smaller amount, if you’re unsure.  At 1/2 cup this is a “heck yes!” spicy dish)
salt to taste

In a large covered saute pan fry the onions in the olive oil until they are beginning to turn translucent.  Add chicken, garlic, tomatoes, Sriracha and some salt.  Be sparing with the salt if you’re using canned tomatoes.  Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.  Simmer, covered, for 1 hour – stirring occasionally.  After about 1 hour check the consistency of the sauce.  You want the chicken to be very tender, and sauce to be clingy, but still “saucy”.  If the sauce is too watery, simmer for a little while longer with the lid off.  If the sauce looks too dry, add water to keep it fluid.  Taste sauce and adjust for spice (add more sriracha to make it spicier) and salt before serving.

Serve with cooked brown or white rice.