What do we do with winter squash? Bake it or steam it, mostly; probably mash it; maybe stuff it; once in a while, make it into pie. Here’s something more exotic you can make with it: oskhovok manti, Uzbek steamed dumplings.
They’re surprisingly great. Winter squash likes a touch of sweetness, which it gets here from fried onions. Add a spoonful of sour cream and you’ve got a recipe for fun, so this is an approach worth knowing about. After all, not only are winter squash rife with vitamin A, in winter they’re the only squash we’ve got.
About 15 years ago, I spent a morning in the Nu’mankhojaev household (OK, no more Uzbek surnames) eating mass quantities of oshkovok manti while drinking Georgian and Armenian brandy and watching “Caspar, the Friendly Ghost” dubbed in Russian. That’s the sort of breakfast you don’t forget.
True, it did seem a little early in the day to be drinking brandy. On the other hand, in the next room, baby sister was whipping out manti by the dozen, so we were very far from drinking on empty stomachs.
They stuff manti with a variety of things in Central Asia: meat, herbs, greens (including clover, to celebrate the spring equinox), even fried onions and mashed potatoes, which make a sort of steamed equivalent of Polish potato pierogi. The Uzbeks have various decorative ways of folding the manti too. They enjoy this luxury because manti don’t have to be as strongly sealed as ravioli. Being steamed, rather than boiled, they don’t get knocked around in cooking.
For instance, you can take a golf ball-sized lump and roll it into a circle, put in a filling, fold the dough over it like a clutch purse and crimp the edges together (a shape also seen in Chinese dim sum). You can roll out a 4-inch square and fold the corners up to meet over the filling, crimping to make a sort of pyramid. Or you can fold the square over the filling into a long rectangle, pinch the short sides closed and leave the long side open, except for one pinch in the middle for sturdiness. However you fold them, always set manti upright when you steam them, with the seam at the top, to make sure they don’t leak.
The Nu’mankhojaevs were living in Namangan, in the densely populated Ferghana Valley of northeastern Uzbekistan, and baby sister was using a folding method I’ve never seen before or since. It makes an attractive scarab shape. The accompanying photos show how to do it. (When you wrap the paste around your index finger to seal the manti, make sure you’re joining in the same direction as the second fold. Otherwise, the flaps of paste will pull back and the packet will fall apart.)
You can fold manti any way you like, but in my book, the scarab shape is the coolest-looking.
You can use any hard winter squash you want. I used butternut squash here. If you have extra filling, freeze it or mix it with noodles and sour cream. Makes about 16 to 20 dumplings.
Ingredients for filling
- With a large serrated knife, cut the squash in half. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Bake the squash halves at 350° F until soft, 45 minutes to an hour. When cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh from the rind with a spoon and mash it.
- Fry the onions until golden. Mix with the squash paste and salt, cayenne, cinnamon and turmeric.
Ingredients for pasta
- Put the flour in a large mixing bowl, stir in the salt and break the eggs into the bowl. Add the water and form into a kneadable dough, adding more water or flour if needed. Knead firmly until smooth and elastic, about eight minutes. Cover the paste with plastic wrap at least ½ hour to rest.
- Cut the ball of paste into 8 equal pieces. Remove one to work on and cover the rest with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. Roll the first piece in a pasta machine as for fettuccine (next to finest thickness). Cut into 4-inch squares to make manti.
- Dip the bottoms of the mantis into melted butter as they’re finished to keep them from sticking to each other or the steamer, and set on a work surface covered with plastic wrap. Put as many as will conveniently fit at one time into your steamer, probably 3 or 4, and steam over boiling water until the raw dough aroma is replaced by the smell of squash, about 20 minutes. Set aside while working on the rest of the paste and filling. Manti reheat well in a microwave oven.
- Serve one, two or three manti per person, with sour cream to taste.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.