The sad truth about a lot of European-style food, which let’s admit is a lot of what Americans eat, is that there isn’t a lot of mixing of sweet and savory. Sure, we’ll go in for the salted caramel desserts but rarely for sugar in the main course. But that’s too bad for us because this Afghani recipe for baked squash with meat sauce is, in a word, “heavenly.” And that’s not just my word for it; I’ve gotten a second opinion.
It’s creamy and sweet and garlicky and rich; which is the whole point of a good meal – each bite wakes you up a bit. If everything tastes the same, by the fourth or fifth bite is starts to taste a little boring, a little flat. There’s nothing to compare it to, nothing to make the flavors stand out. That’s why meals come with side dishes – it provides some contrast.
To be fair, I wouldn’t have tried to make this dish at home if I hadn’t already eaten it at several restaurants. If you’d offered me just candied pumpkin with meat sauce I probably would have passed but the combination of flavors won me over where the name wouldn’t. How can you “no” to something that tastes exciting every time you take a bite?
Ok, the traditional dish uses sugar pumpkin but butternut squash is easier to get and much easier to peel and cut up. Plus I cut the amount of sugar by a lot – so sue me. Luckily, I don’t have an Afghani grandmother to roll in her grave so I can take whatever liberties I want. If it tastes good in the end, who cares about the substitutions, right?
Baked Squash with Meat Sauce (Kaddo Bourani)
Adapted from the San Francisco Chronicle’s recipe from Helmand Restaurant
Makes 4-5 servings
1 medium to large butternut squash
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup + 1 tbs oil (pick something neutral, like canola or grapeseed)
1 cup yogurt
1 clove garlic, finely chopped (or use a garlic press since it is a little easier)
2 tbs dried mint
1 tsp dried dill
1 tsp + 1 tsp + 1 tbs kosher salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbs tomato paste
1 tbs coriander seed, freshly ground if possible
1 tbs cumin seed, freshly ground if possible
1 tbs smoked paprika (or use sweet paprika if you don’t have smoked)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1/2 cup water
Preheat the oven to 300F. Prep the squash by peeling it – I find that a good-quality peeler works just fine – then cutting it in half and scooping out the seeds. Cut the halves into 1/2-inch slices and lay them in a 9 by 13 pan. It’s ok if the overlap a little, you’re not looking to brown them. Sprinkle the slices with the sugar and 1/4 cup of oil and then toss them together with your hands. Cover the pan with foil and bake it for 2 hours. Midway through the cooking process you can flip the slices, recover the pan, and continue to bake it.* When finished, the squash slices should be a much deeper orange and will be very soft and tender.
While the squash is baking, make the yogurt sauce – the longer it sits the better the flavor will be. Just mix together the yogurt, garlic, mint, dill, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover it and let it sit in the fridge until you’re ready to eat. Yes, this can be made a few days ahead and it’s good on other things too so you could always double it or one-and-a-half it.
After the yogurt sauce is done, heat the last tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the onions and 1 teaspoon of salt and cook for about 15 minutes or until they get a little color on them and most of the onions are soft and translucent. Add the tomato paste and the coriander, cumin, (smoked) paprika, and cinnamon and stir well. Cook for a minute or two or until the tomato paste darkens a bit and the spices are fragrant. Crumble up the ground beef and then add it to the pan along with another tablespoon of salt.** Cook the meat for about 30 minutes. First it will lose its pink color and then after about 15 minutes it will start to go very dark brown as the water cooks out. Just keep scraping the pan every few minutes so that it doesn’t burn.
Once the meat is deeply browned and the sizzling noise has subsided considerably, you should have a layer of brown bits on the bottom of the pan. To get that back into the sauce, keep the heat on medium and pour in 1/4 cup of the water. Use a hard metal spatula or a wooden spoon to scrape the pan and loosen all the browned bits so that they come back into the sauce. Then cook it for a few minutes to get rid of the extra liquid. If that doesn’t work the first time around you can always add the rest of the water and scrape again but if you don’t need it, don’t worry. Taste the meat mixture and add more salt if needed.
To serve the dish, lay out slices of the candied squash on a plate and spoon over the meat. Then top the whole thing with about 3/4 cup of the yogurt; reserve the rest for spooning on at the table. And yes, the leftovers and delicious are will keep for several days. The candied squash is great served with just yogurt for a vegetarian dish. I think it tastes best when the meat and squash are hot and the yogurt is cold. It adds an extra dimension of temperature to the dish, along with the textural and flavor contrasts. But whatever works for you is probably best.
* Flipping will help more evenly distribute the sugar but if you forget or can’t be bothered the final difference isn’t that big.
** The pre-crumbling just helps to create a more uniform meat sauce with small bits of meat rather than having large pieces of ground beef in the final sauce.