Butternut Basil “Fries”

French fries are delicious! But the effect they have on our bodies (inside and out)…not quite so. We catch of whiff of the buttery smell as we drive by the local McDonald’s, gaze longingly across the table when our skinny friends order them on ladies’ night dinner. And when we give in to our primal need to fatty foods and relish in one crispy salty bite… we immediately hate ourselves and feel a little dirty, as if we cheated on our waistline or clean-green diet plan or what have you in the worst way possible. I have never been the type to feel guilty about what I ate. “Everything in moderation” means I am allowed to eat one French fry at ladies’ night dinner with one hand without promptly slapping myself with the other.

Aren’t I?

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A few months ago I posted a recipe on Sweet Potato Satay, and this recipe is in that same ilk: taking unhealthy foods that I crave and love, but transforming them into something wholesome, with more taste and pep than my original favorite (better still, it comes without the side dish of guilt and self-loathing). It’s the flavor you want to focus on, not the name. While “Satay” makes us think of chicken, we can have the flavor without the mean. While “fries” brings to mind fat and dangerous hydrogenated oils, we can have even better flavor and nutrition without losing the salty crisp we love.

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Why I love Butternut Squash:
I developed this recipe while making one of my favorite comfort foods: butternut squash mac and cheese! Traditional macaroni and cheese packs a lot of butter and multiple varieties of cheese, and is consequently fantastically rich and creamy and perhaps the most glorious dinner ever. However by using stronger cheese, like a sharp white cheddar or Swiss or even blue cheese, we can use less than if we used a mild cheddar. And replacing half the cheese with butternut squash (and adding plenty of fresh herbs and spices like basil, scallions, chives and nutmeg) not only eliminates a lot of the fat, but also adds a lot of nutrition and flavor! Recipes for this are to be found in most cooking website and women’s health magazines, and is usually suggested as a way to get children to eat vegetables (however unknowingly). But it’s also great for adults who love this classic casserole and would like to enjoy it without hating themselves for it. While Butternut Squash is aptly named for it’s (you guessed it) buttery texture and flavor, it also have a unique taste of its own, very like pumpkin but much less powerful. It’s also loaded with fiber and Vitamin A, and herein lines the beauty of swapping this delectable ingredient into classic macaroni and cheese. Butternut squash is also really easy to find these day, and you can buy it already peeled and cut and cored.

It’s the same story with French fries: while potatoes my themselves are healthy, any inkling of nutrition is lost from them once they hit the fryer. Sure, if you make fries at home you are welcome to bake them. But while you revamp the nutrition, why not also transform the flavor?!

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Like other squashes and potatoes, it is hard to get butternut squash to mimic the crispy-crunchy (yet soft in the middle) texture of the average fast-food fry unless it is deep fried in oil. Scrumptious, but quite contrary to my purposes. By roasting, and then sauteing the “fries”using canola oil (much heart-healthier than hydrogenated oils used at fast food chains) I came as close as ever to the soft-center/crunchy-outside combo that I wanted by. It takes a little longer, yes. But I promise the few extra minutes will be well-worth the wait!

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1 bulb butternut squash, peeled and cored
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Fresh basil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 tablespoons canola oil
salt and pepper
fresh lemon

1. Slice the butternut squash into strips, about the size of steak fries. Thinner fries will cook faster, but may also fall apart due to the softness of the squash, so aim for a good 1/2-3/4 inch thickness.

2. Toss the slices with 2 cloves of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil (use pure, not extra virgin). If you don’t have pure olive oil, Canola is fine.

3. Bake the slices until soft at the edges, about 15-20 minutes. While they bake shred your Parmesan cheese and finely chop a few basil leaves. Go crazy with your herbs! If you don’t have basil, go ahead and try scallions, rosemary, parsley, oregano…and FRESH Italian herb you have. Do not use the dehydrated kind unless you have nothing else.

4. In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil over medium-high heat. Carefully add the fries and cook until the sides are browned and crispy, about 5-10 minutes.

5. Remove from heat. Toss with Parmesan cheese, basil, salt, freshly cracked black better, and a spritz of fresh lemon juice.

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This is such an easy, heart-warming, and flavorful treat. It’s not only a great alternative to regular fried snacks, but it tastes a lot better too. The combination of creamy squash, sharp cheese, and fresh herbs and spices make make it a perfect appetizer for football games, dinner parties of just a night in with friends (no more envying the skinny girl!). These tastes great by themselves, but also pair well with your favorite pasta sauce (red or white), a pumkpin-flavored beer or a refreshing glass of chilled white wine.



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