Monday, October 8, 2012

Squash and The Columbian Exchange

OK, you may be wondering "What's The Columbian Exchange?" And what's it got to do with this recipe of couscous and butternut squash? Well, for those of you in the U.S., it's Columbus Day today. Now I know there's a huge controversy surrounding the Italian explorer's trips to the Western hemisphere and the "discovery" of America. But this is a blog about food and travel, so I steer clear of geopolitics here. What I will tell you though, is that his travels to the New World starting in 1492 opened the gateway to exchange between Europe and the Americas -- some good, like foods, crops and livestock -- and some not so good, like communicable diseases and slavery.

We'll stick to the food exchange on this post. 

Can you imagine Italy without tomatoes; Ireland without potatoes or Switzerland without chocolate? No, me either. But the Columbian Exchange, as it has come to be known, introduced those foods to other lands that hundreds of years later have nearly become icons of those nations' cuisine. In addition to the above examples, for instance, you can thank the Columbian exchange for oranges in Florida and bananas in Ecuador.

Squash made its way from the New World to Europe, which is why I thought this recipe would be perfect to present for Columbus Day. It combines flavors from the west (squash) with spices from the East (cinnamon, saffron). It's also a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef whose recipes are enjoyed around the world. Columbus might have missed his goal of finding a sea route to Asia, but his travels kicked off an international exchange that was to alter world cuisine forever.

For those of you living anywhere near New York City, the statue in Columbus Circle pays tribute to the sailor from Genoa. It has stood on a granite column about 70 feet off the ground since 1892, visible to cars and passersby in this busy neighborhood of Manhattan next to the Time-Warner Center.

But if you travel to Columbus Circle now, you won't see the statue from the street. Instead, climb six stories of stairs, amid scaffolding, and witness Columbus close up in a conceptual art installation by the Japanese artist, Tatzu Nishi. Until Nov. 18, he's the centerpiece of what looks like a living room in a New York City apartment.

Here's the big guy himself - all 13 feet of marble. Until now, only the birds had such an intimate view.

His feet appear to be resting on a coffee table, surrounded by magazines and newspapers.

Have a seat and catch up with the news while Christopher surveys the living room.  

The apartment's wallpaper is designed with iconic American scenes.

Want to watch a little TV or read a book? No problem.

You'll have a great view of the Trump Tower apartment building across the street.

While you're there, savor the view of Central Park from your perch in the sky with Columbus.

Then come home and make this vegetarian dish of couscous with butternut squash and apricots from Ottolenghi - a legacy, if you will, from Columbus.

If you're in New York and want to visit, you'll need a ticket. It's free. Click here to find out more about the artist and the art installation.

Couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash

From "Ottolenghi, The Cookbook"

Printable recipe here

Serves four

(I increased the ingredients by half and made 1 1/2 times the recipe and it served way more than six as a side dish. I would count on at least six servings or more from the base recipe.

    1 large (red) onion, thinly sliced
    6 tbs olive oil
    50g dried apricots - (1/2 cup)
    1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2 cm dice
    250g couscous (1 1/2 cups)
    400ml chicken or vegetable stock (1 1/2 cups)
    a pinch of saffron strands
    3 tbs roughly chopped tarragon
    3 tbs roughly chopped mint
    3 tbs roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
    1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (go easy on the cinnamon - it's very assertive - I made 1 1/2 times this recipe and used this amount, but next time I'd use only 1 tsp.)
    grated zest of 1 lemon
    coarse sea salt and black pepper

    (I also added 1/2 cup toasted pecans.)

Preheat the oven to 180d Celsius. (I set it at 400 degrees F.)

Place onion in a large frying pan with 2 tbs oil and a pinch of salt. Sauté over high heat, stirring constantly for about 10 mins (I used less time), until golden brown. Set aside.

Pour hot water from the tap over the apricots just to cover them. Soak for 5 mins then drain and cut them into 5mm dice.

Mix the diced squash in 1 tbs olive oil and spread out on a baking tray to roast. Place in oven for 25 mins, until lightly colored and quite soft. (I cooked it for closer to 45 minutes)

While waiting for the butternut squash to cook, cook the couscous. Bring the stock to the boil with the saffron. Place the couscous in a large heatproof bowl and pour the boiling stock over it, plus the remaining olive oil (3 tbs). Cover with clingfilm and leave for about 10 mins for all of the liquid to be absorbed. When done, fluff with up with a fork. Then add the onions, squash, apricots, herbs, cinnamon and lemon zest. Mix well with hands, trying not to mash the squash to bits.

Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Serve warmish or cold.

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  1. A marvelous dish! So scrumptious.

    There'd be so many things we could not eat (peanuts, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, etc...) if the Americas had not been discovered...



  2. Thank you for reminding me about this beautiful fall recipe.......they showed this statue and place on the news nice!

  3. Hmm. Linda, might one substitute quinoa for couscous to serve as a gluten-free dish? Thoughts?

  4. Un piatto davvero fantastico Linda. Credo che lo farò presto perché amo tanto il cous cous.
    Ho letto che fra poco verrai in Italia. Ma passi anche dalla Toscana? fammi sapere che mi piacerebbe conoscerti.
    Un abbraccione, Pat

  5. Michael - Absolutely. Quinoa would be great here.

  6. Linda, how ironic! Rpsemary and I set up appointments today for free tickets to this exhibit! We've been wanting to go since we read about it in the NY Times a month ago, but I haven't had a free moment until now. I loved your photos and look forward to seeing it myself.

    I love this time of the year when butternut squash become plentiful! I will have to try this recipe..thanks!

    PS: Thanks so much for your sweet comments on my anniversary post. You made me smile

  7. So glad that Michael asked the question I was pondering: making this quinoa to be gluten free. I'll definitely try it!

  8. Now that is an awesome way to view a statue, how cool!
    I love your dish it has fall written all over it, I will make it and take your advice with just a touch of cinnamon!

  9. Love how statue-viewing became an experience - and that American wallpaper - very clever. But that lovely fall offering - now that's divine.

  10. I like Ottolenghi recipes and this is a great combination of flavours. Perfect for these rainy days. Beautiful photos, I like the statue of Cristoforo Colombo!!!

  11. I love this dish. So full of flavor but so healthy too. What a wonderful exhibit!

  12. Coincidentally, I'm reading 1493. I bet you have too? I read about the Colombus living room. Nor sure what to think of it, but your experience intrigues me. May have to check it out next time I'm in NYC.

  13. Love this post Linda! I posted an Ottolenghi recipe just today! Can't wait to try more of his creations....

  14. This is a very special dish. I have tried to cook pumpkin rice, but not this. It looks nice. Maybe add some butter would have good smell. :)

  15. hi 2012 ppl i timed travled and im in 2023