We've been meaning to make this for a while. The version at Afghani House, in Sunnyvale, is excellent, and recreating that was the goal, though of course with a non-tomato-based meat sauce, because of Xta's allergy/intolerance. This was based on some recipes we found on the internet, mostly this one. We were cooking for five, so we upped the quantities. Next time, I think we'll double it over again, in order to get more leftovers out of it. (We ate what was left for lunch today.)
Keep a salt shaker handy, and some water (preferably filtered, if your tap water has mineral or chemical flavors in it).
- ~2 tbs nut oil (almond or walnut) -- we decided to go with a nut oil because olives are definitely not native to Central Asia, whereas I'm pretty sure they've had pistachios and almonds for a very long time.
- 2.25 to 2.5 pounds cubed butternut squash -- Start with a roughly 2.5 to 3.0 lb squash. Cut it into halves or quarters with a very large knife (alternately, Alton Brown suggests a clean wall-board saw, for cutting hard squashes), scoop out the seeds and strings, then cut along the axis every 1.5" to 2", carve the rind off each piece, then cut down into pieces that are no more than 2" in any dimension.
- a generous 1/4 cup of sugar -- I just poured the sugar into our pyrex measuring cup, and I'm sure I was slightly over the actual 1/4-cup line. I used basic white sugar. Some kind of reasonably fine blond sugar would be just as good, and even a brown would probably be OK (though you might have to work it a bit to get the spices mixed in properly). Mix the four spices listed immediately below into the sugar, stirring thoroughly with a fork.
- 3/4 to 1 tsp cinnamon; keep on the low side if you're grinding from sticks (fresh ground spices typically retain more flavor than stuff that's bought already ground; the aromatics start floating away as soon as the spice is ground up; this same advisory applies to the other spices in here)
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- experimentation with spices is encouraged; we tried switching out some of the nutmeg and clove in favor of fenugreek, on our second attempt, and that was quite nice
For meat sauce:
- ~2 tbs nut oil
- 0.5 to 0.75 pounds ground lamb and/or beef -- you want a coarse enough grind that it won't fuse together into patties (you can replace with something like Morningstar Farms Crumbles if you're vegetarian; I've done this a few times myself)
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped (we used a red and a yellow, cut into pieces smaller than 1 cm)
- 1 large, 2 medium, or 3 small cloves of garlic (maybe the volume of the last joint of my index finger; though I have significantly-longer-than-average fingers -- I can play a tenth chord on a piano -- so this is perhaps not the most useful reference point)
- 1/2 to 3/4 tsp ground coriander
- about 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger root (you really need a microplane grater to get the right texture)
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground black pepper (or more, or less, depending on how spicy you want it)
- 7-10 oz of Haig's Muhammara (1 to 1.5 of the 7oz tubs) -- This is a paste of roasted red bell peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses, which we've used in other situations where we were trying to approximate the mix of fruity, vegetal, and savory qualities you get from roasted tomato.
- 2-3 Tbsp pomegranate molasses (which our local Whole Foods keeps in the baking aisle, along with rosewater, fairly close to the maple syrup) -- To enhance the sweet/fruity notes, which are supposed to be stronger in this dish than you'd get in, say, a ragú.
- 1 cup of some kind of mild broth (we used 1 tsp of white miso, stirred into 1 cup of water)
- Note: If you don't have problems with tomato, you can replace the muhammara, pom molasses, and broth, with a 12-16 oz jar of tomato sauce (something simple, without heavy spicing that will interfere with the other flavors), or 12-16 oz of a home-made pomodoro or roasted-tomato sauce. Depending on whether your tomato sauce is already on the sweet side, you might still want the pom molasses, or a teaspoon or two of brown sugar.
For yogurt sauce:
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- a few sprigs of garden-harvested mint, leaves torn off and crumbled between your fingers (maybe 1/2 Tbsp of dried flakes?)
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- at some point I started usually adding some sumac to this; it's not traditional, but it's yummy
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large dutch oven (ours is 8.5 quart, though that was somewhat larger than absolutely necessary), heat about two Tbsp of oil (enough to coat the bottom of the vessel) over medium-high heat. Dump in the squash pieces. Salt lightly. Keep turning the pieces with a silicone spoon to make sure every surface gets a chance to be seared and lightly caramelized. After about 5-10 minutes, you should have your squash lightly browned. Sprinkle over the sugar/spice mix, stir to coat. Pour just enough water (maybe half a cup?) into the pot to make a very thin layer across the bottom. Put in oven and set a 30-minute timer. When the timer goes off, you can just turn the oven off and crack it open to cool, and leave the dutch oven there while you finish cooking the other stuff.
In a large skillet (we were using a 12", and it ended up pretty full), heat 2 Tbsp oil (again, enough to coat the bottom) over medium-high. Dump in the onions, salt lightly, and sauté until translucent and starting to brown (maybe 7-10 minutes). Add ground meat and spices. Brown the meat, stirring constantly to prevent clumping and to ensure even cooking. Add muhammara, pom molasses, and broth. Stir thoroughly, lower heat to medium or medium low, and maintain at a low simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, for ~20 minutes (until sauce is noticably thickened).
In a bowl or serving vessel, stir together yogurt, mint, and garlic. Add salt and pepper if desired. (You can always add those at the table.)
Serve over a bed of white or brown rice, or couscous. Cooking the starch using a touch of lemon juice (maybe 5% of the cooking liquid?), with a pinch of saffron stamens, and perhaps some other spices like cardamom pods, would not be a bad idea. (We did couscous with lemon and saffron.)