Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Why I do not attempt to cook, or, a recipe for butternut squash tagine

I still mostly eat like a twelve year old child. Usually I’ll rely on the pizza or Turkish food we have at work events and take out/packaged mac and cheese for evening sustenance, but I’ve recently been plagued by thoughts of my insides becoming pickled, or the color of Velveeta, and have decided to try to grow up a little bit. I’ve also recently gone pescatarian (by the “If it has dreams and I can imagine hugging it, I feel not okay eating it” logic), which means that my chicken stir fry/soup standbys are now mostly out of the question. I’m coming along veeerrry slowwwwly, and this is a story of one of those times when that one time I was feeling really ambitious one day around dinner time.

It was autumn, so I decided not only to cook but to cook a topical, themed thing. I was going to make squash, it was going to be wonderful, I was going to pack lunch for daaaayz. I went to the grocery store after work and picked up everything I needed plus a lot of Nutella and coffee creamer. I trundled home, and got to work.

Under the watchful eye of Cheese, the more voluminous of my two cats, I arranged everything on my counter, and read all of the directions first. Every recipe I found was appended with “Easy!” “Simple!” and/or “Quick!”, so I figured I was safe. I was excited. Cheese was excited.

I figured wrong. My recipe asked me to cut my butternut squash into cubes. I, mistakenly thinking that a butternut squash was more like a summer squash than a slippery armored monster, attempted to cut into it, and promptly bent the tip of my cheap, rarely used knife.

Okay, so, I was apparently doing this super wrong.

But the beauty of the internet, that great external brain, repository of the knowledge of generations and reason for many a misplaced feeling of intellectual superiority, is that if you run into a brick wall of vegetable recalcitrance, you can Google your way out of there. No need to call your dad and be subjected to “You’re a butternut squash,” jokes. No need to stare in sad consternation at the root vegetable on your countertop, wondering if you can eat its skin as it wonders how long it will take to break your spirit.

And the abject horror of the internet, as ever, are the comments. That is also unfortunately where many answers to many questions can be found. Reading through the comments of an article looking for pearls of wisdom is much like rowing through a Pacific garbage patch hoping to find a mage at its center who will tell you, for once and all, whether category 2 plastics are recyclable in your city.

I eventually found the answer I needed, though! I should cut the squash in a way I had definitely not already cut it and had already made impossible and peel the skin with a potato peeler, which I do not own.


I did the only thing that seemed logical at that point, which was test every knife I owned against this thing. I eventually settled on a cleaver and a paring knife for peeling attempts. By this point, I was losing touch with reality, and Cheese was visibly upset. I slapped half of the squash I had succeeded in cutting onto the floor due to improper stabilization of my cutting board. I almost wept, but I rallied and continued on.

I took a break from squash vivisection to get everything into their proper pots, and let them simmer. I took several deep breaths, and prepared for the final few cuts. I lined up my knife, and leaned all of my weight into it. Somehow, the first thing that felt off was the handle in my hand. As I began to lean all of my weight on the knife, something felt off. The handle wasn’t quite fitting my hand the way it had earlier. I realized with the jarring horror of missing a step or saying “Yeah you too!” when a server tells you to enjoy your meal that I was leaning all of my weight into the knife’s blade. I threw it down and inspected my hand, which was somehow totally fine.

In the end, all was well and I finished the stew and it was pretty good and I ate it for lunch and dinner for three days. Cheese is still traumatized and I will never attempt to cut a vegetable ever again, or at least until I forget this happened.

The moral of this story is that you should not assume that things are easy because the internet says it is so. Also, avoid cooking brand new things when you’re tired and also inexperienced. Also also, leave butternut squashes be. They are not worth your fingers, or your dignity.

12/2/15 Addendum:
After posting this on Zulip, the internal chat system of the RC Community, a bunch of lovely folks made some awesome recommendations about cookbooks/cooking resources and how to not grievously injure myself. A list of the books and sites they recommended is below, mostly so I remember them: the books skew towards scientific approaches to cooking, because programmers!

How to Cook a Butternut Squash in the Microwave
Ceramic Knives, for to avoid slippage and stabbing yourself
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Cooking for Geeks
On Food and Cooking
The Four-Hour Chef
Modernist Cuisine (written by the former CTO of Microsoft/a thing you can buy Matt Parker if you love him a lot)
Cook's Illustrated (from this article by Sumana Harihareswara)
The Food Lab
How to Cook Everything, The Basics

And finally, a new tagine to try for when I forget my fear!

From this exchange I also learned that it is possible for spaghetti squash to explode gruesomely and for raspberries to burst into flame when microwaved. Pearls.


  1. Seems like you're pretty good on cookbooks to look at, but I really love The Best 30-Minute Recipe. The recipes are pretty straight forward, and consistently come at least close to 30minutes to make (despite my slow prep skills). They're also consistently tasty, as Cook's Illustrated recipes tend to be.

    1. Oh, super cool-- thank you for the recommendation!