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Food critic Tonya Kuxhausen writes reviews of meals she prepares for herself at home. Food is at the center of each article but the whole dining experience is considered and commented on. To paraphrase Socrates, an unexamined meal is not worth eating.

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Nostalgia for squash

I used to be afraid of squash. I didn't like how people always tried to make it sweet. My mom made various kinds of squash with sugar and butter; I've even seen recipes using honey and maple syrup. I never liked the smell of the steaming pile of the stringy, orange vegetable -- pungent and almost sour, but laced with the stomach-turning sweetness of brown sugar. It used to make me gag. That was before I tried spicy squash. Now I love it.

There is a sentimental history behind my favorite spicy butternut squash recipe. My boyfriend from a few years back made this one of the first times he ever cooked for me, and that was the first time I ever liked squash. After we moved in together we made it quite a lot, and I became a diehard fan of squash. When we broke up and I moved out, he kept the recipe because it was in his cookbook. Eventually, I borrowed the cookbook from a friend and photocopied the recipe. Over time it got to the point where I knew the recipe by heart.

Anyway, when I was at the Wedge the other night, the butternut squash looked irresistible. I got a really cute one that was just the right size for one person (me). I went to double-check the recipe when I got home and I couldn't find it anywhere. So I called my friend with the cookbook, and she brought it right over (she lives around the corner).

The Menu (04-01-02)

Bass Ale
Bearitos¨ brand tortilla chips and Salsa Lisa, medium
Butternut squash with bell peppers and feta cheese
Basmati rice
Bass Ale

I cooked the squash Sunday night, knowing I wouldn't make the rest of it until after class on Monday. I cut the little squash lengthwise, scraped out the little seeds, and generously coated both insides with olive oil. It fit perfectly facedown into the small glass baking dish. Everything was going to be cute and small about this. Cute small squash, cute small dish, cute small peppers, and cute small garlic. Cute small crumbs of feta, cute small rice.

I got home Monday night and prepared to finish the squash. I looked through my friend's well-used cookbook, glanced at the squash recipe and was alarmed to see that I had forgotten to get the yogurt. How could I forget that? Was it even essential? Could I make it without the yogurt? I really didn't want to go back to the Wedge (it was my goal not to set foot in the Wedge for a week). Would they have yogurt at SuperAmerica? If they did, what would it be like? My roommate helped me reason that it probably would be better with the yogurt, so I set out once again for the Wedge. I like walking through snowstorms in April anyway. Because I have this love/hate thing with the Wedge, and I was leaning toward hate at the time, I decided I would try to get in and out of the store without breathing. So I checked the second hand on my watch at the door, took a deep breath, and raced in. I grabbed the yogurt and made a beeline toward the checkout. I think I would have made it if I hadn't had to stop and say "excuse me" to the people who were blocking the door on my way out. Wedge bastards.

At home, I opened a Bass and started to cook. I sautŽed the red and green bell peppers with the onion and garlic, added cayenne and black pepper, then mixed it all with the pureed squash, the feta, yogurt, and sunflower seeds. I realized that in my haste at the Wedge, I had grabbed the full-fat yogurt rather than the nonfat yogurt that I usually get for the recipe. That's OK because I'm not dieting or anything, and I was excited that it might turn out creamier than usual. I added extra amounts of yogurt and feta for good measure. You can never have too much feta, and I crumbled it liberally on the top before putting the mixture in the oven.

Then I ate the chips and waited. Bearitos really are my favorite tortilla chips. They're delicious. They have a rich, full flavor that tastes really good and natural. In comparison, Doritos and Tostitos and the like don't even really taste like food. My one complaint is that Bearitos are inconsistently salty. This bag wasn't salty enough. Sometimes I salt the chips before eating them, or sometimes I just lick salt from my hand on the side. Salsa Lisa is of course excellent, it's more like mildly spicy gazpacho. I love the cilantro. Anyway, I did a little taste test. We had some salsa from a couple months ago, and then another jar from the past weekend. My roommate was skeptical that the old jar wasn't good anymore. We couldn't tell if it was moldy on the sides or just dry. Not afraid either way, I stirred it up and tried it. The new salsa and the old salsa tasted exactly the same.

The squash was bubbly and the feta on top was turning brown and toasty. It was done. It smelled great, but it actually was a bit too spicy. I had put in way too much cayenne pepper. After tasting it, I remembered that I had made notes in the margin of my old photocopied recipe, and in my friend's cookbook, it just said "cayenne pepper to taste." I bet I used twice as much as usual. It burned my mouth. So this called for more full-fat yogurt, which I heartily mixed in. Also, the rice would cut down on the spiciness. For the rice, I followed Mark Bittman's suggested quick-cooking method, which seemed to go against everything I had learned about rice before. Boiling basmati rice with salt and cooking it for 15 minutes? Whatever. It actually turned out OK, too salty, but that would help tone down the cayenne too. The texture wasn't quite as nice as slow-cooked basmati (or rice-cooker cooked). It was a little gummier, the grains not as cute and springy.

The whole thing together was pretty good, though I might be getting tired of this dish after all these years. Maybe I like the idea or the memory more than the reality of the squash. I think the feta carries the dish more than the squash. Mostly I like that it's warm and filling, and the feta melts so nicely on the inside. The sunflower seeds add a nice crunch to the otherwise mushy (but not offensively so) texture. Maybe this is comfort food. Without the extra yogurt though, it would have been too spicy to eat.

Dessert was the same as my appetizer, a frosty Bass Ale. So the beer sort of sandwiched my whole meal. It was very cold. Bitter, but not too, and kind of bubbly in my mouth. It went well with the hot and spicy squash, and it was scrumptious with the sub-salty chips and salsa. Bass is my number-one favorite beer -- for an appetizer, for dessert, a snack, anything.