100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 8, Pickled Butternut Squash Salad at Coltivare
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg These ingredients shouldn't go together, but they really, really do.
On any given night (except, oddly, Tuesdays) the line of people snaking out the door and crowding in the entrance might seem perplexing to the average, first-time diner at Coltivare. The new Heights-area restaurant from the folks who brought us Revival Market has been packed since day one, but once you try the food, it's easy to see why.
The small menu (fewer than 50 items in all, including sides and desserts) is carefully crafted to bring out the maximum amount of flavor from simple ingredients combined into artful dishes. The basic cacio e pepe pasta is the best in town, while the homegrown greens are about as fresh as can be: They're plucked right out of the backyard garden for dinner each evening.
There's one particular dish that haunts my dreams, though, in the best way possible. I crave it at all hours of the day. It's healthy enough to make me think, "Yeah, I could eat that for a nice, light lunch," and decadent enough to satisfy even when I'm wanting something a little fancy.
The pickled butternut squash salad is my favorite thing on a menu of hits at Coltivare. When I first encountered it, I thought it sounded strange and unappetizing. Butternut squash, I thought, should be reserved for ravioli filling then topped with a sage and brown butter sauce. It should be baked and sprinkled with brown sugar as a Thanksgiving side dish. But pickled? Much to my surprise, pickling butternut squash brings out the natural flavors in an incredible way. It's not as sweet, of course, but it's still deep and earthy, and because it's essentially raw, it's got an interesting crisp bite to it.
Paired with the pickled butternut squash are a few halves of roasted, lightly browned Brussels sprouts, whole walnuts, buttery homemade croutons, balsamic shallots and a drizzle of a balsamic vinegar reduction. The result is a lot of acid from the vinegar and butternut squash tempered by the meaty walnuts and warm, green Brussels sprouts. The shallots add a hit of unique, savory umami that lingers in your mouth even after you've moved on to another course.
In theory, the dish is alarmingly simple. It's the unusual pairing of ingredients that makes it such a standout salad. Coltivare is full of dishes that make me think, "Of course those things go together! Why didn't I think of that?" And the pickled squash salad is no exception.
Order it as an appetizer (though don't plan to share) or enjoy it for a light dinner, then follow up with a delectable dessert. Whatever you do, though, get this dish at Coltivare. I imagine that, like me, you'll be very pleasantly surprised.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.