Make an autumn version of a traditional Italian salad with this butternut squash panzanella salad tossed with apples and kale, dressed with an apple vinaigrette.
I spent much of September in Italy attending an Italian language school in Treviso, a smallish town outside Venice. For 2 1/2 weeks I ate a ton of pasta, pizza, risotto, and tiramisu (a dessert created by a restaurant in Treviso). The trip was about language, food, and people — meeting local Italians and making new friends with fellow travelers.
I learned a few things while there – some of which I already knew, and just needed reminding:
First. People, I lack the language gene. I've been studying Italian for several years, and still become catatonic when someone initiates a conversation with me in Italian.
Second. It was surprising to me how many Italians wanted to know if we thought Trump would win the Republican nomination. And not to wade into politics, but this wasn't necessarily because they thought that would be a good thing.
Third. The other top topic was the plight of the migrants, desperate to find new (safer) lives for themselves and their families, and the impact this migration was having on Italian life. I heard a lot of fear, mostly of the unknown. How long will this last? Where will they live? Where will they work? And this was in the prosperous Veneto!
Fourth. On a more mundane level, I was reminded that I could live on pasta and salad everyday. Forever. Which only proves that for me, some of the best meals are the simplest. I don't need celery foam, deconstructed French onion soup, or smoke wafting off an artsy dish that looks like it belongs in MOMA. I live in a city of culinary sophistication, but give me a plate of Penne Arrabiata that's perfectly cooked, or a bread salad with peak season heirloom tomatoes, and I'm a happy girl. This twist on a traditional Italian panzanella bread salad is a great example.
Bonus points: it's ready in just over 30 minutes. Slice up a red onion start it caramelizing on the stove – let it cook until the last minute before folding it into the salad. Roast up some diced butternut squash, and toast some bread cubes at the same time – this part goes quick. Make the dressing. Cut up an apple (leave the peel on) and slice ribbons of kale. You're done. Seriously. All you need do now is toss it all together and eat it up.
My husband, Carnivorous Maximus, had two helpings and never once suggested adding bacon. Of course now that he's reading this, he'll ask for it next time around…
I use Ras el Hanout spice mix in so many dishes this time of year. I think of it as the Moroccan version of apple pie spice. You can buy it, make it yourself, substitute apple pie spice, or use just 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon. But it won't be the same. Ras el Hanout is a mixture of many spices that provides a unique flavor. I throw it in apple pies (duh), sprinkle it on my husband's pork or chicken roasts, add it to berry jams and plum preserves I make at the summer's end every year, on roasted squash along with some fig jam, and casseroles.
Peeling butternut squash looks more difficult than it is, and is much easier than other squash (like kabocha). Chop off the neck and peel off the skin with either a potato peeler or sharp knife. Next, split the body, scrape out the seeds with a spoon (grapefruit spoons with their serrated edge work best), turn it on end with the bulging body on your work surface, and peel off the remaining skin. The knife must be sharp to do this well – otherwise use a potato peeler. Or just take a huge shortcut and buy butternut already diced in the produce section.
If you must, fried up bacon lardons would be a good addition for the meat eaters at the table. I recommend using 3 strips of bacon for this.
Butternut Squash Panzanella Salad with Apples and Kale
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 red onion thinly sliced
- ½ tsp ras el hanout a spice mix used in Middle Eastern and Northern African food
- 4 cups diced butternut squash
- 4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil divided
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt divided
- 4 cups cubed seeded bread
- 3 Fugi apples cored, peeled, and diced
- 4 cups shredded kale
- 3 Tbsp dried cranberries
- 2 Tbsp pepitas toasted pumpkin seeds
- Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Pile in the onion slices and toss around to coat. Sauté until the onions are limp - about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat and sauté for another 10 minutes, until starting to caramelize. Add the ras el hanout and sauté another 5 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400˚F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Toss the diced butternut squash in 2 Tbsp olive oil and a dusting of 1/4 tsp kosher salt. Lay out on one of the prepared baking sheets. Toss the bread cubes in the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil, and lay on the second prepared baking sheet. Feather the remaining 1/4 tsp salt over the bread, and slide both baking sheets into the oven. Remove the bread when toasted, about 10 minutes, and remove the squash when soft and slightly caramelized, another 10 minutes.
- Toss the apples, kale, butternut, bread, and caramelized onions together in a large bowl. Add the cranberries and pepitas, and dress with the Apple Vinaigrette.
- Mash the apple in a small blender or small food processor. If you don't have a small version, heat the apple in the microwave for a few seconds to soften and mash using a mortar and pestle. Whisk into the apple cider vinegar, maple syrup and salt. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to emulsify.