Mediterranean squash with beans and cous cous

Tonight marks the official start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims fast daily from sunup to sundown. To mark the occasion, I made a mediterranean-inspired meal out of the squash and other vegetables from our weekly CSA (community-supported agriculture) share. The recipe follows, but first a note about Ramadan tradition.

Growing up, my mom was in charge of making sure the kids were up with enough time to eat before the start of the fast. Even as a young teenager, I remember hauling myself downstairs in the thick of the night to a kitchen sizzling with activity. Often, my mom would make fresh parathas, or fried bread, to accompany omelettes spiced with cayenne. The greasy parathas would sit in my belly for the better part of the day, making the fast a lot easier to endure.

The hardest part was lunchtime at school, when we were required to sit in the cafeteria for a certain period of time before we could go outside to play. The thinking is understandable: You want kids to have to eat before they get distracted by socializing, but it was a brutal rule for fasters. I’d sit there, watching my friends eat, and try not to focus on the thirst and hunger I felt. It was difficult at the start of the month, but my body would adjust to the new eating routine in a week or so, after which I really don’t remember minding the fast at all.

Ramadan is calculated based on the lunar calendar, which is a tad shorter than the solar one. When I was young, the month fell in the winter and the sun would set by 4:30 p.m. or so in California. The fast was bearable, especially since that was just enough time for me to come home and nap until I could eat. When we were ready to eat, we would begin our meal with Ramadan-specific snacks for the “iftar,” or opening of the fast. My mom would make South Asian treats reserved for Ramadan, such as a peppery fruit salad called “chaat” and crispy, fried samosas filled with ground beef. Everything would taste phenomenal after hours of not eating, and the spices would hit my palate with welcome relief. After a short break, we’d have our regular dinner meal. I’d always try to eat a little extra later in the night to steel myself for the following day.

The whole thing has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older. For one, the summertime fasts we are currently experiencing are very long. The iftar won’t happen until after 8 p.m., making it a long day. I’ve also lost some of my childhood zeal for the novelty of fasting, and for how it made me feel grown up because I could accomplish what my parents and other elders were enduring. But it’s not lost on me that the hardest part about fasting now is not having those fresh, made-from-scratch meals that lured us into what could have been a difficult tradition. What I would give for a flaky paratha to start my day, now that I am on opposite coasts from my mom.

The distance may be better for my waistline, however, since the meal I ended up making this evening was quite a bit healthier than those parathas.

I used cinnamon, cumin, sumac, dates and honey to firmly plant this dish in the Mediterranean region. Serve with whole-wheat cous cous (made with a 1:1 ratio of cous cous to water, and a touch of butter and salt) and, optionally, beans. I used cannellini beans, soaked overnight and cooked in a pressure cooker, added to sauteed onions and tomatoes.

Here’s how to make the squash:

1. In a shallow pan, start by sweating 1 chopped onion with 1 tsp. salt. After about 5 minutes on a medium-low flame, add 2 chopped garlic cloves and 1 seeded, sliced jalapeno. (Go easy on the pepper if you don’t want it too spicy.)

2. Add your spices to this mix: 1 tsp. cumin, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp sumac and 7 pitted, sliced dates. Allow them to cook until you can smell the fragrance of the spices.

3. Add 2 chopped zucchini and summer squash, or any combination of squashes you prefer/have on hand. Cooking time will vary slightly on what you use and how small you cut it, but I went with 1/2″ cubes and was done cooking in 15 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium and stir often as you go.

4. Check the salt and add a drizzle of honey if the dish needs it to balance out the spice.

Serve warm with cous cous and beans. And happy Ramadan!

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