When I first started cooking with any intention, I wasted a tremendous amount of money. One day, years ago, I was home from college for the summer and a few friends came to visit for the weekend, and we decided to make a curry for dinner. The recipe we picked was, of course, one with thirty ingredients, most of which were spices. My parents tossed me their debit card and we went to the store.

We spent eighty-four dollars. To make one pot of curry. And you know why? Because we bought a jar of every spice on that list. All of which were, of course, organic. And at least five bucks a pop. I have learned since that the most wonderful thing about health food stores is the bulk section, specifically the bulk herbs and spices. Heed this!: Never buy a jar of spices, because you can buy them by the teaspoon (or tablespoon, or whatever) at your local co-op for fifty cents, which saves you tons of money – and, since you’re not buying a whole jarful at a time, you don’t have to worry about it going stale. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes we make when stocking our pantry: spices, especially pre-ground spices, lose their potency quickly, and when you leave a jar of curry powder in the cabinet for a year before you finally get around to making that great vindaloo recipe you’ve been hanging on to, I can promise you it will hardly taste like anything except the twenty chilies you had to put in.

So there’s tip number one for the day. Tip number two, which I try to emphasize often in this blog: substitute whenever and wherever you can. When I was first getting the hang of cooking for myself, I made sure to follow new recipes to the letter the first time I made them, and then allowed myself to adapt them as needed. I think this is important for a beginning cook, but now that I’ve got a better sense of things, I do it less often, and have become more of a recipe-as-guide person, as opposed to a recipe-as-law. I love reading a recipe that has notes for variation, because it means that whoever developed it played around with it a lot before releasing it to the wind, and it also gives more of a springboard for ideas of different directions that I can take with it.

This second tip is the main reason I’ve never made spaghetti squash – well, at least not until this afternoon. It feels like such a… unitasker. If I’m going to make something with winter squash, I grab one arbitrarily from the pile at the grocery store. (Or farmers’ market. Of course.) Spaghetti squash seemed almost gimmicky to me – it’s squash, and it can be made into ribbons? Who cares?

I picked one up last week. I caved.

Okay, okay, the pastasquash is fun. I admit it. You can wrap it around your fork, suck a piece down like a noodle, and pile it up into a lovely orange tower of angel hair. But it’s squash, which everyone in their right mind loves, and so it goes terrifically with simple, earthy flavors. I’m using only two – sarsaparilla and sage. One trendy, one classic, both delicious.

You know how you make broth with a bundle of aromatic herbs? I followed the same idea here. When I split the squash down the middle to bake, I put sarsaparilla in the pan, underneath the cavity of the squash. This helped the flavor really permeate, without that annoying texture of, well, wood. No one likes eating bits of wood.

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Spaghetti Squash with Sarsaparilla and Sage
serves 2-3

1 spaghetti squash
olive oil
2 teaspoons sarsaparilla
2 dried sage leaves, crushed
salt to taste

Preheat to 350. Halve spaghetti squash lengthwise, and scrape out seeds and goop. Put 1/4″ of water in the bottom of a pan large enough to hold both squash halves, and put a teaspoon of sarsaparilla in the place of where you’ll put each half. Drizzle a bit of olive oil in there, too, then put each squash half over the little piles of sarsaparilla. Cover tightly with aluminum foil or a good lid, then put in the oven and bake until soft, 30-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes.

Take a look at which way the strands are going. You meat-eaters will know that it’s best to cut meat to make the fibers as short as possible – the opposite is true here. With a fork, gently loosen the strands of squash – with the grain, not against it. Pile onto a plate and top with sage and some good salt.

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