Cooking In College: Cooking fall dishes from family memories
This meal is like the tryouts for hosting a Thanksgiving get-together. If you can make it through this recipe without setting the kitchen on fire, you’re all set for seating six to eight people at your dining room table on the third Thursday of November.
Each of these recipes comes from a dish I remember growing up with. However, I didn’t have access to any of the recipe cards because each comes from different family members who are each 4,000 miles away.
So I took on the challenge of recreating the dishes from memory.
The green beans with sliced almonds are my Uncle Joe’s, the Cornish game hen is my mother’s and the acorn squash is my late grandmother’s.
I started with the acorn squash because I figured it would take the longest to cook. I remember it tasted like brown sugar, walnuts and apples. But I had no apples and very few walnuts. And I remember the squash were cut in half. So I took a large butcher knife and cut the acorn squash in half crosswise.
To my surprise, the inside looked like a pumpkin. I scooped out the seeds and matrix of fibers. I was left with a cute little bowl. I stuffed the squash halves with a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and walnuts.
I put these in the oven at 350 degrees and set out on the Cornish game hens. I should have mentioned that these are sold frozen and must be thawed before stuffing, however I forgot this until the very moment I needed them.
Tip for next time: Start defrosting the hens before prepping the squashes. This makes for the most efficient use of time.
I chose the microwave as my appliance of choice and defrosted two hens. I pried their awkward little legs apart each time I stopped the microwave to try to speed the process up. The thinking here went that if I can increase surface area, I can increase the amount of heat the little birdies got. The total defrost time turned out to be 15 minutes, with a break at 7.5 minutes to flip and finagle the hens.
While defrosting the hens, I made one box of Stovetop brand stuffing. This was more than enough to stuff the hens but, because everyone loves salt and fat, it doesn’t hurt to make extra. Once the hens were done defrosting, I pulled drumsticks apart and spooned around a half cup of stuffing into the body cavity.
No one has ever warned me how awkward it is to stuff a bird. It felt savage and wrong. If not for my hunger, I likely would have turned vegetarian simply to avoid the process. But I persevered and was rewarded in spades.
The birds went in the oven for one hour. Because preparing them took around a half hour, the total time for the squash turned out to be around 90 minutes, which by guesswork turned out to be just right.
This entire meal can be made with guesses and still be delicious. Confidence is key.
After taking care of the first two-thirds of the meal, I turned my attention to the green beans. Remembering a trick from my mother, I snapped the ends off the green beans instead of trimming them. It takes longer, but it is a relaxing process if you let it be.
Then I tossed them with the olive oil and sliced almonds in a medium-size frying pan.
I let the frying pan sit without heat for 30 minutes so all dishes would be complete at the same time. Then, because 10 minutes was left on the timer for the hens and the squash, I sautéed the green beans for 10 minutes over medium heat. I took out the squash, the hens and everything was complete.
The final product was not reminiscent of family meals. The squash had too much brown sugar; I had to pour half of it out of the squash before eating. After reviewing the correct way to cook acorn squash from allrecipes.com (cut it lengthwise, use 2 tbsp brown sugar and 2 tbsp maple syrup instead of 1/4 cup brown sugar), I see why.
The Cornish game hen was delicious but had a less smoky flavor than I remember. The stuffing was top notch, so good there is no need to reveal its boxed origins.
But the green beans were the biggest surprise. They were even better than I remember.
The lesson in this experience turned out to be that there is more than one way to skin a cat — or stuff a bird or sauté green beans. Just because it’s not exactly like you remember doesn’t mean it can’t become your future family’s traditional dishes.
Acorn Squash (Kate’s way)
2 acorn squash
2 cups brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ cup walnut peaces
Acorn Squash (allrecipes.com’s way)
2 acorn squash
2 tbsp butter
4 tbsp brown sugar
Cornish Game Hens
2 cornish game hens
1 box Stovetop brand stuffing
2 cups green beans
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 tsp salt