Monday, March 16, 2015

Thai-style Squash Salad with Masses of Herbs

You are lovely, you are. How many times have you shored me up? Countless. Truly. Thank you, now and always, for your kindness, your sympathy and empathy, your thoughtful and carefully chosen words. You have said so many things to me that I have turned over in my mind, and that have offered a great depth of comfort. I will tell you a little more about my friend at some point. I will. I'd love to. I wrote the tiniest bit here, about losing her. I hope to write more.

But also, I am eating. Cooking and eating. My friend died, I slept for a thousand hours, and then I returned, hollow and blinking in the light, to the world of the living, where people expect to be fed, and where I like to feed them and to eat.

I've made this particular salad a number of times lately. I like it because it uses the end of the winter storage squash, but then it gestures towards spring with its bright flavors and heaps of herbs (and much as I want to be all asparagus and radishes, all that's growing here right now is mud and puddles). It's based on a Thai salad I love called nam sod, which is usually made with ground pork or chicken, and has this same flavor thing happening: ginger and chiles and raw onions, lime and salt and herbs, peanuts and fish sauce. 
It is so, so good, and I wanted to make a vegetarian version of it for a potluck we were going to, so I made it with squash (I left some out for the vegetarians before adding the fish sauce). 

Some people won't like it. Some people will like it just fine or even a great deal. And some people will become deranged about it, obsessed, and the email they send asking for the recipe will be time-stamped 3:25 AM, because they were up in the night thinking about it in all it's spicy-crunchy-tender-sour-salty-caramelized glory. I will say that Michael, who is generally baffled by winter squash and people's affection for it, likes it quite a lot prepared this way. "I love the mint and cilantro," he just said when I asked him. And then (this isn't saying much, but still), "I would say it's my favorite squash preparation." Recipe follows a brief photo essay. Enjoy!

Thai-style Squash Salad with Masses of Herbs
It doesn’t matter if you have a little more or less squash: just adjust the dressing accordingly. You can also add other vegetables to the squash, such as roasted Brussels sprouts, which are lovely in here. I haven’t tried sautéed mushrooms, but I feel like they would add a nice, chewy textural element; cooked barley might add that too. Another note: don’t be shy about the salt and lime and chili paste. You want the dressing to taste too salty and sour and spicy before it interacts with the robustly mild, oppressively sweet squash.

2 medium butternut squash (or 1 massive one), enough to make about 10 cubs diced squash
¼ cup melted coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
Kosher salt
1/3 cup lime juice (around 2 limes)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1-3 tablespoons sambal oolek (Malaysian chili paste) or sriracha (or something else Asian and spicy)
1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
3 tablespoons very finely slivered ginger
1/2 cup salted peanuts, roughly chopped
1/2 red onion, halved and sliced thin
1 bunch cilantro, with stems, roughly chopped
Leaves from one bunch mint, the largest leaves torn in half and the rest left whole

Heat the oven to 450 and line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Peel the squash (a brutal job), then cut it into ¾-inch cubes (another brutal job). Toss the squash with the coconut oil in a large bowl, then spread it out on the baking sheets and sprinkle with salt. Roast for 20 minutes then flip the cubes around, switch the pans top to bottom, and roast for another 10 minutes or until the squash is deeply browned in spots and just tender.

Meanwhile, whisk together the lime juice, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, chili paste, and fish sauce.

Gently toss the squash with about half the dressing and taste: it should be tart, salty, and spicy. Add the ginger, toss again, then leave to cool. Top with the peanuts, onion, and herbs. Toss gently just before serving, then taste again and re-dress as needed.


  1. Allyson7:30 PM

    Catherine, I just read your piece on music and loss, and now I am in tears, but it turns out a good cry was just what I needed today. I know we don't actually know each other, beyond the occasional blog comment or email, but so often it seems that you are just what I needed. The perfect gingerbread or roast chicken recipe. The perfect summing up of joy and melancholy and the encroaching winter. The perfect pairing of loss and music. I am so, so sorry for your loss, and so, so grateful for your presence, however virtual, in my life. Thank you for that, truly.

    1. Not to be lazy, but I have to second everything Allyson said so perfectly.

    2. And I'll have to third it. The music piece was lovely. As lovely as I'm sure your friend was and as lovely as the friendship you shared.

  2. Dear Catherine --

    I just read your bio-blurb on the mid and noticed mention of a forthcoming book. I was wondering when someone would have the good sense to offer you a contract for another book (or get permission to publish a collection of your essays, etc...)

    Again, I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. This business of being human is not easy; I am grateful for the way you shine light on the dark and confusing paths.


    1. Must second m. bloom's comment, as well. So well said.

      Just seeing the title of your forthcoming book made a big smile happen on my face!!

  3. I wrote a long comment, well-thought out comment and I think it was "eaten up" :-( -- Thank you so much for the link and that essay and, most importantly, the playlist. I really wish you could share you Joni Mitchell Playlist with us too! I'll try to post this and hope it works. And maybe later, someday I'll try to rewrite that comment. (but obviously I can't exactly). :-(

  4. OK, I will try right away instead of waiting (though I'm still slightly upset for having lost it).

    What I wrote was something like this:

    Thank you for in your moments of grief still sharing your words and music with us as well as delicious food. And thanks for your kind words about our comments. The least that we can do after we've known you for so long and after our children have grown together sometimes not far (as when I used to live there until we moved back in 2004) and many miles away is to share a few words with you too. I'm always thankful for these connections that we can make through blogging and internet writing.

    Sigh... that's all I'm able to recapture at this point. I promise I was much more eloquent the first time, with tears running down my face as I listed to Joni Mitchell's River.

    That's why I hope you can share your Joni Mitchell's playlist someday. I can't believe I only found her when I was in my mid-thirties, mystified by the fact that I was so crazy about songs that were written when I was born back in 1971.

    I can only imagine that those songs were very cathartic for you. I hope they'll continue, along with the precious friends and music makers and the delicious food you'll all make, to console you and to heal your heart! Virtual hugs! (and copying this just in case!)

  5. I lost my very own best friend 4.5 years ago. It is hard, still, and I think of her every single day, but it is better, after all this time. Funny though, I had a very vivid dream about her two nights ago. In my dream, she had died, but had come back to life. It was actually a very nice experience, because when I woke up, I felt like I had really spent some time with her!

  6. Just searched your new book title and found where you told about it, (along with perfect quinoa bowls!) back in April last year. Don't know how I missed that, but it turns out I needed the recipe, too.

    Sending extra hugs, and thank you always

    1. I think I missed it because it was written teenily. ;-)

  7. Beautiful story (link). It seems that amidst the loss, there are tremendous blessings. Recipe looks mouthwatering as well.

  8. Love the story via the link. So beautiful how our usual connections and community can come together in unusual times and meld the two. Grief can be so unpredictable.
    Thinking of you as we had crack broccoli and maple tofu (might as well call it crack) for dinner tonight. Thank you.
    How did I miss this about the book? Hoping a book tour brings you my way!

  9. thank you for the music, here is some music for you, too. best from faraway berlin, anja xx

  10. Keryn Page9:51 AM

    I loved your music piece, and I was thrilled to see Drive-By Truckers on there. If you haven't already, you should check out Jason Isbell's solo/after Truckers stuff, too. I love love love him.

    So sorry for your loss.

  11. Lovely piece about about music and your friend and your whole community of good friends/musicians. You are blessed. Also, this salad looks delicious; my children are sure to hate it (is that a haiku? It should be a a rubber stamp). I'm so very sorry about the loss of your friend. It seems like the good people are always the first to go. Hang on and sing on and cook on.

  12. I've just been catching up on blog posts and I am so so so sorry to hear about your friend. Your piece about music is lovely; it gives me a vision of community that I haven't found yet but that I hope is still out there.

    I'll be thinking of you a lot. Grief is so heavy and stifling, at times, and you never get over a deep loss like this, but eventually it becomes less of a constant stabbing, for the most part. Meanwhile I'm glad you have your wonderful family and music and delicious food to soothe your soul. Much love from Cambridge...

  13. Ahhh, the dog finally settled down, one kid's in the shower, one's done showering, the husband is out to eat at a very French Portland restaurant he's been waiting forever to eat at and in this moment of peace, I can hear my daughter singing away in the shower, whistling actually at this present moment, and it's one of my favorite sounds, that happy song emanating beneath the annoying buzz of the fan and creeping out from the rhythm of the drips and slaps of water. Tonight I talked on the phone with my mom and we laughed so so so hard, it's my hardest laughter as of late, and there's still a bit of light in the sky, and I read your post about music and losing your friend, about the power of uniting in song. It made me want that community of song so bad. But it also reminded me of my dad's dying, which happened six years ago now, and which related to music. When his body was working hard on dying, when he couldn't speak, when his elbows were looking different, purply, and his breath wasn't coming out in fish gulps yet but it was changed, the one thing he COULD do was to give out these BOOMPAH type bursts of humming, rhythmic, sensible, joyous, preoccupied, like he had also done while fully alive and without a brain tumor. I will forever remember that remnant of him that stuck around and communicated with those of us that were gathered around the room. That was the year I was the cooperative preschool president and our teacher, wise one that she was, told me about how the musical part of the brain is the first to come and the last to go. That's what was happening to my dad, I witnessed it. So powerful.

    So sorry you had to experience the death of a beloved friend but she will live on through your writing about her, and that is a gift.

  14. You almost made me want to fix squash salad (no mean feat). The article about music made me teary. Sounds like food for the spirit.

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