Natural Selection Challenge: Kabocha Squash Polenta

Kabocha Squash Polenta

So…does anyone remember when I entered the world of food blogging in 2012? No? Could be because I started a dozen draft posts and only published three.

The intent of this intended series was to recreate one Natural Selection dish off each week’s changing menu. The idea was that I wouldn’t have tasted the dish, and would have nothing to go on but the menu description. I wouldn’t know if I came even close to what the chef intended. But I would know if it tasted good.

Funny story, I began this post on May 17, 2012, referencing a restaurant dish listed for the week of May 9, 2012. Off to a pretty good start. It is now September 5, 2016. I still have two other drafts for the Natural Selection challenge, and have saved many of the weekly menus with the intent of picking this up again. Maybe I will. But sadly, I will run out eventually, because Aaron Woo’s Portland plant based restaurant, Natural Selection, has since closed. Their menu offered two columns of prix fixe items. One side vegetarian, the other vegan. My original post encouraged you to go there with a friend and order everything off their amazing menu. I can surely steer you to other great restaurants, but if you didn’t have the good fortune to go already, you’ll have to just take my word that some of the nicest folks in town served truly wonderful fine dining creations highlighting plant based food.

Natural Selection
~ a restaurant built on vegetables, fruits and grains. 


As listed on the menu the week of May 9, 2012:

Kabocha squash, polenta and asparagus, rapini, garlic, lemon, hazelnut romesco.


NOTE: Readers, please keep in mind that I am not a recipe writer. This is something I need to work on. Also, yes, pictured here is broccolette, not rapini. I remade the dish hoping to get a better photo than the one I had from four years ago, but rapini was not available. It is a yummy vegetable, but they are not the same thing. I also veered from my original recipe to make the romesco gluten free.

All measurements are approximate.

  • ½ cup hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tomato, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 kabocha squash
  • 1 tbsp berbere spice blend (recipe follows)
  • 4 ½ cups vegetable or no-chicken broth
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 2 tbsp butter or substitute (optional)
  • 1 bunch of asparagus
  • 1 bunch of rapini
  • 1 tsp tamari
  • Juice of ½ lemon

Hazelnut Romesco

  • Toast hazelnuts in a skillet over medium-high heat. They should be very lightly browned, be careful not to burn.
  • Roast 1 red bell pepper. Place in bowl and cover, or in paper bag, until cool enough to handle to peel the skin and remove seeds and stem.
  • Combine hazelnuts, pepper, 1 clove of peeled garlic, tomato, paprika, and vinegar in blender. Add ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil and blend until smooth.

Kabocha Squash

Kabocha is a tough squash to cut into. However, the skins are edible, so there’s no need to peel, unless you prefer it that way.

  • Once you manage to hack it apart, cut into 2 inch cubes. Toss with 2 tbsp olive oil and berbere spice blend. Roast 400 degrees until tender, about 30 minutes.


  • Bring 4 cups vegetable or no-chicken broth to boil (for no-chicken broth I used Better than Bouillon)
  • Whisk 1 cup polenta, simmer until desired thickness, 15-30 minutes.
  • Remove from heat, stir in butter or vegan butter substitute (optional- I’ve made polenta that tastes so creamy it doesn’t seem necessary, but sometimes it needs that extra richness).

Rapini and Asparagus

  • Blanch and drain chopped rapini and asparagus.
  • Heat 2 tb oil in skillet, add 1 clove minced garlic for 30 seconds.
  • Add rapini and asparagus and sauté for about 5 minutes.
  • Add ½ cup no-chicken or vegetable stock, turn down and cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Add 1 tsp tamari and lemon juice from ½ a lemon.

Spoon polenta into bowl, top with kabocha squash, place rapini to one side, asparagus to the other. Serve with the romesco.




Berbere Spice Blend from Terry Hope Romero’s Vegan Eats World

Makes over ½ cup of ground spice blend

  • 6 green cardamom pods or ¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 6 allspice berries or ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon coriander sides
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 3 tablespoons ground hot or sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. If using the cardamom pods, open them with your fingers or the tip of a sharp paring knife and remove the seeds. I usually find it easiest to slice each pod horizontally, break open the pod and shake out the seeds. Discard the empty pods.

2. In a skillet over medium heat toast together the cardamom seeds, allspice berries (but not the ground allspice if using), coriander, cumin, fenugreek, peppercorns, and cloves for 2 to 2 ½ minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove seeds immediately when fragrant and fenugreek seeds have darkened slightly.

3. Grind the toasted spices with the ground paprika, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, salt and cinnamon in a coffee grinder as fine as you can make it. Store in a clean, dry glass jar and cover tightly. Keep in a dark, cool kitchen cabinet and use within 3 months for the best flavor.


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