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When a vegetable takes center stage…

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December 01, 2019 | NATIONAL AJ FUSCO, Correspondent
This article is a direct street report from our correspondent and has not been edited by the 1st Responder newsroom.

The tables are set, friends and family are starting to announce their arrival, and the smells of the holidays fill the air. The spiral honey ham is getting its last coating of glaze, the filet mignon is resting and the turkey is getting carved. The center of the table is cleared to make way for platters of meat, while the vegetables take their place in the far ends of the earth...ok, maybe this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but in all honesty, who really pays much attention to them?

Is it because we have been eating the same vegetables year in and year out? The green bean and sweet potato casseroles, the apple and cranberry sauces, and let’s not forget the wonderfully off putting dish that is overcooked brussels sprouts. It’s time we take a stand and start putting a little more effort into those “side dishes”. Let’s make them worthy of the center of the table, right next to the prime rib. Seems like a daunting task, but with some attention to detail and great ingredients, we can finally let the vegetables take center stage.

Great ingredients are the most important part of any recipe. They are the foundation to build flavors upon that will take a dish from good to great. When shopping for produce, if the budget allows, it's best to buy organic. There are obvious reasons as to why, with the important one being better flavor. Organic produce has more antioxidants, which affects the taste, aroma and mouthfeel. In short, organic produce has more intense flavor than those grown conventionally. With that being said, we need to address the other ingredients which make up great recipes.

As with produce, the other elements of a dish must be the best we can afford. This is not to say all recipes need to break the bank, but rather we should focus on some key ingredients to help make the dish shine. Let’s take the recipe for Chile-Maple Glazed Butternut Squash for instance. Maple syrup is something you should not skimp on, as it lays the groundwork for all the ingredients that follow. It's very easy to grab the bottle of “pancake syrup” instead because it may be half the price, but one look at the ingredient list and you will see why the real maple syrup makes sense. If a recipe contains many ingredients, read through it and decipher which ones will make or break a dish depending on the final goal and “splurge” on them.

Now that we know how to shop for ingredients, let’s talk a little about why certain ingredients work in a dish. In order for vegetables to shine, the recipes must have elements that excite our palate. It's not a hard fast rule, but there should be salt, fat and acid. There is no chance of achieving great flavor without the addition of salt. In fact, you can eliminate any other seasonings and yet still make a great meal using only salt. It has the ability to enhance the other ingredients in the recipe, even in sweet applications like desserts. There are so many different kinds out there, but for the majority of recipes you may find, kosher is best.

The fat in a recipe is vital as well, especially in a vegetable dish since most vegetables don’t contain fat. Among all the fats out there, extra virgin olive oil is best for most cooking techniques, aside from high heat applications like frying. In moderation, butter is also a delicious ingredient to carry flavor and add moisture as well. When buying butter, look for the unsalted, grass-fed variety. If you taste something and it seems like it's missing something, it's usually lack of an acidic component. Whether it comes from fruit, like lemon or vinegar, acid will help balance out the fat in a dish. It's also the component which makes us crave more of something. Just a squeeze of lemon on some roasted broccoli elevates the dish from home cooked to something you may find in a restaurant. With the Chile-Maple Glazed Butternut Squash recipe, the cider vinegar balances out the richness of the butter. The elements of salt, fat and acid when applied to vegetables is what takes them from the corner of the table to the center of attention.

When you combine great ingredients with great presentation, any vegetable will hold its own next to the glazed ham or rib roast at the holiday dinner table!

Chile-Maple Glazed Butternut Squash
Serves 4


1 Large Butternut Squash
¼ Cup Maple Syrup
3 Tbs. Unsalted Grass-fed Butter
2 Tbs. Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Fresno Chile (substitute with jalapeno or shishito), sliced
6 Bay Leaves, preferably fresh


- Preheat oven to 450°F

- Cut the butternut squash in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds

- Using a peeler, peel the skin of the squash until there is only bright orange flesh

- Rub all sides of squash with EVOO and salt, place on a roasting pan cut side down. Cook in oven for 15-20 minutes.

- While the squash cooks, combine the maple syrup, butter, vinegar and chile in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce to a syrup, about 5 minutes.

- After the squash has cooked for 15-20 minutes, remove from the oven. Place squash on cutting board and carefully slice into ¼” slices. Using a spatula, arrange the squash back on the roasting pan in a shingle like pattern. Stuff with bay leaves, brush with glaze and place back into the oven.

- Cook squash for another 30-40 minutes, brushing with glaze every 10 minutes or so. Remove and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.

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AJ FUSCOCorrespondent

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