One time, when we were kids, our mother—an avid and accomplished cook—stunned my older brother and me when she presented us with plates of food that looked and smelled like pesto spaghetti but, upon tasting, proved itself to be something else entirely: sweet, delicate strands of spaghetti squash slicked in bright green basil sauce. We were amazed—after all, we were only kids—at our mother's sleight of hand.
Spaghetti squash, though not as close a kissing cousin to pasta as I remembered it, is light and almost floral in flavor, and takes well to a variety of sauces. And even though I'm not as easily amazed these days, there's definitely still something special and surprising about the way it transforms from an ordinary raw squash to those thin strands that pull away from the peel once it's cooked.
Here's the thing, though: Spaghetti squash is delicious, but it can be a be a challenging ingredient to work into everyday cooking. It's too light and watery to add to soups or stews, and it's not quite satisfying enough, despite its name, to substitute for pasta, at least when it comes to filling you up—I'm not on an Atkins diet, after all.
But last week, while shopping at my fancy-pants food co-op, I had an epiphany: why not pair it with bread? I grabbed a gorgeous-looking squash, and by the time I'd biked home, I'd figured out exactly what I'd do with it: toss its strands with a bright, lemony, parsley pesto, mound that mixture onto crisp crostini, and top 'em with prosciutto to amp up the flavor just a bit.
You can roast spaghetti squash whole, but the whole process takes far less time if you split the squash in half lengthwise, baking it cut-side down in a moderately hot oven. To prevent the bottom from scorching and speed things up even further, I add water to the bottom of the pan—water is a far better conductor of heat than hot air.
As for the pesto, I use a base of toasted walnuts and parsley flavored with lemon zest, though basil would work just as well. To get the creamiest, clingiest pesto, you want to form a tight emulsion. You can do this the traditional way by slowly dripping olive oil into a mortar and pestle as you smash your herbs and garlic, but the food processor is a more modern solution; The key is to combine all of your other ingredients first, and drizzle in the oil with the machine running (I add a handful of Parmesan at the end as well).
Served on top of slices of toasted sesame baguette, they were an instant hit as hors d'oeuvres at a recent dinner party I threw for friends, though they'd be just as delicious as open-faced sandwiches for lunch or a light dinner. Just surprising enough that they still give me a hint of that childhood wonder, but with flavors familiar enough to be totally comforting.