Apple Cider Braised Squash with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

You've gotta love how literal I used to take things. When I was 10 and had my first bowl of Pho in Seattle, I thought Vietnam's Pearl on Rainier Avenue was the only place in the world to get those giant bowls of steaming, spiced noodle soup. I honestly believed Vietnamese cuisine was indigenous to Washington state. How was I to know? There are countless stories from my childhood of me taking things at face value. Fine, I admit it. I wasn't so much of a critical thinker. It also took me 22 years to realize my parents were just winging the entire parental thing. It's therefore not surprising that I used to think the only farmer's market in the world was in Santa Barbara.

My paternal grandmother was the first person to ever take me to a farmer's market. In fact, every time I visited her beach house we got up early on Saturday morning to get the best pickings at the downtown market. She was notoriously more "visual artist" than "cook" and so always filled her huge wicker basket with fresh flowers and orchids for the dining table and fruit for the big bowl that sat in the middle of the kitchen island while I wandered in and out of the stalls looking at avocados, oranges, and freshly baked breads. "This is the best market in the world!", she said while examining a delicate orchid bud. "And this is the best orchid stand, " she sang while giving the stand owner an approving smile.

Everything and everyone in my grandmother's life is "the best". She has the best housekeeper, the best flower vendor, the best orthopedist. "Oh, he's the best in the country!", she praises. "People travel from around the world to see him." Let me add that not only are these particular people the best, they are hers and I often wonder if they agree with her self-entitled ownership rights. Now, whether or not any of the bests are true is completely irrelevant. My grandmother deeply believes that her world consists solely of bests and I, with my painfully literal interpretations, always believed her. I don't think I questioned anything she said until I was about 20. My favorite "best" was why to dress well on an airplane. "Jamie, remember to always dress your best while traveling," she so frequently reminded me. "I've met the best, most gorgeous, most glamorous people while traveling. You never know who you are going to meet!" From what I can gather, this recommendation all stemmed from her chance meeting and subsequent dinner with the Marchioness of Bath. No joke! Of course, with a story like that you might think I'd wear something other than sweatpants and my coke-bottle glasses on the plane. But no. That is serious dedication to comfort, my friends.

So let me admit right now that Santa Barbara is the best farmer's Southern California. It was the first place I ever ate sugar snap peas (and quickly learned you CAN have too much of a good thing) and where my grandmother asked her favorite farmers what they thought was the best of their bounty. I often think about my grandmother's conversations with her farmers when I am talking to my own. That's right, my farmers. Turns out I might have a small ownership problem myself. The farmer's market was our little ritual and I cherished strolling down the aisles with my grandmother in an environment so rich and beautiful to us both. We recently went back and, just like old times, she headed for her orchid lady and I quickly OD'd on sugar snap peas. It was a great morning and ended just like so many outings with my grandmother had. "Jamie," she said, hold my chin in her tanned yet aged hand. "Honey, you need a facial. I'm taking you to see my girl immediately. She is the best!"

Apple Cider Braised Squash with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

This is a recipe I made last week at the San Francisco Farmer's Market Food Wise booth. Every Tuesday they have guest chefs make a seasonal dish for the public to taste. I had one gentleman come up to me and exclaim, "This is absolutely perfect!" I was on cloud 9 for the rest of the day. Squash cooked in cider is a lovely combination of starchy and sweet while the nuts and pomegranates give it a great fatty and sour crunch. Think of this as a potential replacement for the traditional marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Enjoy!

Serves 4-6

2 kabocha squash (about 2 pounds) or other firm winter squash such as acorn or butternut 3 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee 1 garlic clove, minced 1 inch piece freshly grated ginger or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger 1 1/2 cups fresh unfiltered apple cider or juice 1 cup water 2 teaspoons brown rice or apple cider vinegar 1 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped Walnuts or almonds, toasted and chopped 2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

If using kabocha squash, cut off the stem and split lengthwise. Peel it with a vegetable peeler and scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each piece lengthwise in half again, then crosswise into 1/2-inch -thick slices. If using an acorn squash use the same method however you do not have to peel it.

Melt the butter in a large (12-inch) skillet over low heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not brown the garlic.

Add the squash to the skillet, then the apple cider, water, vinegar, and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat at an even boil until the cider has boiled down to a glaze and the squash is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and season with pepper, and additional salt if needed. Top with fresh cilantro, toasted nuts, and pomegranate seeds and serve.

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