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Pumpkin Curry

I hadn't thought about it until recently, but our apartment in Portland is the first place I've ever lived that doesn't have a yard. No grass, no trees, not even a balcony for potted plants.

It's a nice apartment, and we like it, but for a girl who grew up in the country, who apprenticed on farms, who lived in a cabin in East Tennessee, something vital is missing from my life right now.

I recently read an interview with a wildlife advocate who talked about our modern separation from nature. Of course, it's an obvious problem. Even those of us who love to be outside--whether it's hiking or kayaking or just being out in a garden--are profoundly separated from wild places. For most of us, nature is a place we visit, not somewhere we abide.

The point of the interview seemed to be that this disconnect--the wall we have built between humanity and nature--is largely responsible for our reluctance to preserve wild places. How, after all, can we value and preserve something that we have no relationship to; that seems as foreign and distant to us as the peak of Everest?

For me, however, in these recent days, the message seems to be that I need outdoor space almost as much as I need food and water. Merely sitting in a weathered wooden chair in the modest garden where we're housesitting makes me feel more at ease. It takes the edges off.

I think this is why I enjoy the farmer's market so much. When I consider how much time I spend indoors, being able to do some of our shopping in the open air is a small salvation. It is a much more human activity than pushing a rattling cart through dimly lit aisles of dead food. Farmer's markets are full of things I actually want to eat, and I can think about our dinners for the week with a clear head.

A couple weeks ago I bought my first winter squash of the season (I know!! Can you believe it's already that time of year!). When I'm out of fresh ideas, I usually just roast winter squash, which is hardly a bad way to go about things. But this time, taking cues from some Thai meals I've had lately, I thought of curry.

Curry is a perfect autumn dish--it's warming and richly flavored, but can also take advantage of the vast array of produce available this time of year. Pumpkin curry sounds bit odd at first, but trust me when I tell you that pumpkin isn't just for pie and seasonal beer. Pumpkin responds really well to all kinds of spices, and is a killer match with coconut milk, chiles, and lime.

Curry is something you should make to your taste. We love a viciously spicy curry with plenty of fish sauce and lime to round it out, but you may prefer a less pungent dish. Always taste curry paste and chiles before using them--some curry pastes are not very spicy at all, and others are witheringly hot. You may find that you need more or less than this recipe calls for. Same goes for the chiles--we added 2 extra chiles to our curry and it was spicy, but by no means too hot. However, some chiles are quite a bit spicier than others. Tasting is always your best bet in order to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Other articles you might enjoy: Tomato Chickpea Curry with Whole Spices, Thai Fish Cakes with Nam Prik, Thai Clam Pot

Pumpkin Curry
Serves 4

Note: Winter squashes vary quite a bit. Some are denser than others, and some have thin skins that are pleasant to eat while others have thicker, less palatable skin. I used a red kuri squash for this curry (I've also seen it labeled as "potimarron" squash), left the skin on, and found it barely noticeable in the finished dish. If you don't think you'll like the skins, though, peel the squash before cooking (depending on how thick the skin is, you may need to use a paring knife). Cooking time also varies for winter squash--start by steaming the squash for 5 minutes, then check on it and see if it needs more time. The squash should be tender when pierced with a knife but still firm and not at all mushy.

Trim, seed, peel (if necessary), and cut into 1-inch cubes:
           One medium (about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds) winter squash such as red kuri, butternut, or pumpkin
Steam until just barely tender, about 5 to 8 minutes.
Heat in a large skillet over medium:
           2 tablespoons vegetable oil
When the oil is hot, add to the skillet:
           1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
Sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add:
           4 cloves garlic, minced
           (1 to 2 hot chiles, such as serrano or Thai, minced)
           1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
           1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed of its tough outer layers and chopped
           2 to 3 tablespoons green or red curry paste, homemade or store-bought
           1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the steamed squash along with:
           1 cup canned coconut milk
           1 cup water
Bring to a simmer and allow to reduce until the coconut milk thickens slightly, about 5 to 8 minutes. The curry should be somewhat saucy.
           Fish sauce to taste
           Lime juice to taste
Serve the curry over rice and garnish with cilantro and lime wedges.

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Preheat the broiler and place a rack in the upper third of your oven. Slice into 3/4-inch thick slices:
           About 6 to 8 ounces stale bread
Spread the slices with...