I Promised You Panzanella

Yesterday, as I wrote grimly about the lapse in judgment that led J. and me to a processed food coma, and the better head that prevailed when I redeemed myself by creating the soft pretzels that are tucked safely into my kids’ lunchboxes, I promised you that today’s post would include something about panzanella.  See, among the many fall food triumphs of the weekend, the panzanella I made on Saturday evening stands out in my mind, not only because it was delicious (and it really was); not only because L. devoured it (he did); but because it was created to use up half a loaf of good leftover bread, and as a canvas for that new and interesting piece of produce I picked up at the market: the Boston Marrow Squash.

Now, if you’re like me and you’ve never heard of nor seen these things, I must caution you: don’t be alarmed.  Back slowly away from the giant mutant pumpkin creature.  It will not hurt you.  In fact, the marrow squash is your friend.  But I fully respect the impulse to turn and run from something that looks like this:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/39718079@N00/3049809442 (I didn’t have a photo of a whole one from our market, since my camera wasn’t handy when I bought the beast; but this link is to someone else’s wonderful photograph of one of these gnarly suckers.  Thanks, stranger, for the image!)

Anyway, when I happened upon my own marrow squash, it was already hacked into portions, seeded, and wrapped for me, which is a good thing.  The farmer selling them had a couple of whole ones there, which were a) bigger than P.; and b) going for the low, low price of $18.  Not that I quibble with the pricing — $18 seems more than reasonable for a squash that would probably feed the entire population of Luxembourg.  But as this was the last stall I visited at the market on Saturday, I didn’t have $18 left in my pocket, so I would have missed out on the opportunity to try something new if there hadn’t been lovely pre-portioned sections available.

The reason I was so enchanted by this particular glorious gourd is that not only do I feel obligated to try every new thing that crosses my path at the market (Try it!  You might like it!), but L. is a great lover of all things pumpkin-y.  His favorite vegetable is actually butternut squash (referred to in our house as “Cowboy Squash” — a story I’ll remember to tell sometime), but as long as it’s in the pumpkin/butternut/winter gourd family, he’s likely to get on board with it pretty quickly.  When I realized that here before me was a large specimen of pumpkinesque proportions, I felt certain that it was destined to come home with me and become a part of L.’s dinner plate.  With a plan brewing in the back of my mind, I marched up to the vendor and asked about the beast.

“It’s very mellow,” she said.  “Nice, creamy texture.  I like it roasted.”

Since roasting had been one of the first things that came to mind upon seeing the marrow squash, I didn’t have to hesitate; I handed over the requisite cash and remarked that I thought I’d be using it to make panzanella.  Since most of the vendors at our farmer’s market are pretty adventurous foodies, I was shocked when she replied, “What’s that?”

I turned around to find a captive audience of four or five other shoppers all listening with interest.  I was a little flustered — I hadn’t meant to be holding court on the merits of day-old bread in the middle of the morning market — and if I had, I’d certainly have put on a little makeup.  But I explained the general concept to her: panzanella is a wonderful creature of culinary ingenuity, a salad made of day-old bread and any vegetables and dressings and so forth that you want to mix into it.  It’s sort of like stuffing, but easier to make, more textured, and not usually served hot.

A woman standing near me remarked, “And if you can get your kids to eat THAT, I’ll be anointing you, because that’ll be a miracle!”

I grinned.  A challenge!

Once home, I pondered the vast trapezoid of marrow squash and the half-loaf of organic sourdough.  While I thought about their impending marriage, I pulled out a deep pot and began concocting an apple cider brine for the evening’s pork loin.  The apple-pig combination took hold of my consciousness.  Marrow squash…bread…bacon…cider vinegar…  The recipe was born.

I did have some trepidation about serving the concoction to L. and P.  After all, the woman at the market might just have been right — kids are so fickle when it comes to food, and panzanella, at least on the surface, seems awfully haute cuisine for two people who still feel compelled to see what happens when they put food in body parts OTHER than their mouths.  But, I reasoned, it’s really just bread.  And in this case, squash.  And the ever-intoxicating, much yearned-for bacon, to make it an easy sell.

I needn’t have worried.  I think L. ate the best dinner of his life, between the slice of roast pork, serving of panzanella, and a pile of wilted spinach with lemon.  He literally cleaned his plate in about six minutes flat and asked for seconds, then sat picking bits of squash off my plate and snacking.  P. picked, but as we’ve already established, he was cutting molars — the only thing he really wanted to do at dinner was complain.  And the thing is, as fancy-schmancy as the whole thing sounds, this had to be one of the easiest dinners I’ve made recently, barring soup and sandwiches.  We had about a hundred places to go on Saturday, but I still managed to get the whole meal on the table by 5:30 (the kids were too tired to wait for our usual 6 p.m. dinner hour) without stressing.

I highly recommend trying a marrow squash if you can get your hands on one — it was exceptionally mild and sweet, and the texture, as promised, was lovely and creamy.  It roasted beautifully and could, I’m sure, be used in any number of ways.  I’ll probably find out, at any rate, because there’s still half of that behemoth chunk of squash in my fridge.  But if you can’t get a marrow squash, you could definitely use pumpkin, butternut, or even acorn or delicata squash in the panzanella recipe.  The next time the weather turns cool in your neck of the woods, this is one of those knockout meals you can use to really impress somebody special — even if that somebody special is only three and a half feet tall, wears Spiderman sneakers, and laughs until milk comes out his nose.

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