Squash may just be the strangest of all messengers.
But whether it was the kabocha squash bathed in beer batter, striped delicata caramelized golden brown, or cubes of acorn squash simmered in soup - with its shell a serving vessel - this colorful fall vegetable packed a flavorful punch Wednesday when it took center stage in an "Iron Chef"-style cooking competition to raise student awareness of local, regional and seasonal food.
"It takes an extra step to know which foods are locally produced," said Tim Hodges of University of Montana Dining Services. "But it's worth their time to find out."
The inaugural "Squash Off," held in UM's busy University Center, gave a trio of three-member teams just 45 minutes to create a squash-driven dish from six varieties of multi-hued flesh, and was organized by Students for Real Food. The group works toward sustainability and social justice in the food system, and forms collaborative relationships with sustainable businesses in Missoula.
Judges from Missoula's food community included Laura Waters, owner of Red Bird restaurant, Posh Chocolat owner Jason Willenbrock, Biga Pizza's Bob Marshall and Missoula Independent food columnist Ari LeVaux, all of whom flanked Hodges to score the three teams in presentation, technique, taste and sustainability. The latter took note of how well the team used its ingredients and whether they found ways to compost castoffs, such as peels.
Though the competition was less an "Iron Chef" Bobby Flay vs. Rick Bayless bout, and more an Average Joe vs. Jane throwdown, the judging panel had its work cut out, particularly when considering the culinary artisanship found on ingredient lists.
PEAS Farm caretakers Rick White, Ethan Smith and Jason Mandala pulled fingerling potatoes and carrots from the earth just a day ago, and sprinkled homemade aioli - a rich French mayonaise that accompanied French-fried squash - with the three-alarm cayenne grown on the farm.
"A PEAS intern shot an elk in the Rattlesnake," said White. "I helped butcher it, and got meat to put in the stew."
Missoula Urban Demonstration Project team members Kara Lawrence, Krystal Wolf, and Alex Kuennen prepared squash lasagna with goat cheese bechamel. The homemade pasta featured a home-cured prosciutto from a farmers market pig leg.
And "Team Squash Babes" - Students for Real Food member Hannah Van Arsdell and her roommates Julia McMahon and Teal Potter - topped lentil burgers with homemade apple, onion and golden raisin chutney.
In the end, the PEAS Farm team took home the spoils - a result of squash acumen, a tableside musical accompaniment, and a little ditty about the dirt it takes to grow your own food.
For more information, read Thursday's Missoulian or go to Missoulian.com.