I love to play with my food — but not when I’m paid to cook. I learned a long time ago to test a recipe thoroughly before promising it to a client (oh, the unfortunate raspberry souffle).

But sometimes a dish is destined for success. The ingredients are just too good to mess up.

That’s what happened yesterday.

For the past seven years, I’ve cooked dinner the weekend before Christmas for two sisters and their extended family. To avoid redundancy, I’m always looking for new things to do with meats and vegetables. (Some things, like the apple layer cake and the Christmas sugar cookies, are non-negotiable.) That’s how I sold the two on a side dish of roasted butternut squash, sweet potatoes, maple syrup and cranberries.

I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to approach this dish: Roast the veggies with the syrup and watch a burnt, smoky mess evolve. Use too much maple syrup and watch it devolve into a “shouldn’t-this-be-dessert?” side.

But come on. Sweet potatoes? Maple syrup? Dried cranberries and spiced pecans? How could it miss?

It couldn’t. My squash & sweet potato side was the star of the meal.

“How did you make these?” a few guests asked.

Little did they know: It was child’s play.

***

We leave tomorrow for our annual drive to the Midwest and Christmas with my family. The annual trek to Pryde’s; the annual dinner at Bluestem; the annual quest to see if we can make the 1,000-plus mile journey without … stopping … for fast food. The boys are as enthusiastic as ever. (Not.) The husband and I just giggle. I’ll let you know how we do.

***

Maple-Roasted Sweet Potatoes & Butternut Squash

A more organized blogger would have a pristine recipe for you and a gallery of beautiful pictures. I am not that blogger. This dish came together on the fly, and clients hate it when I hold up dinner in order to take photos. Trust me when I tell you the end result is lovely — all burnished orange, glistening red and flecked with green. Trust me, too, when I tell you that your own palate is the best guide to turning out something that’s savory, slightly sweet and totally unexpected.

Cube a couple cups of peeled butternut squash and sweet potatoes. (If you’re not a squash fan, leave them out. If you like squash better than sweet potatoes, use more of it.)

On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the cubed vegetables with a healthy amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes. Toss with a spoon, then roast an additional 20 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, melt 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of pure maple syrup in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. (If you have a lot of squash and sweet potatoes, melt more, using a 2:1 ratio of butter to syrup.) Season with salt and pepper, then add 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of dried cranberries. Remove from the heat.

Take the baking sheet out of the oven. Pour the butter-maple syrup mixture over the vegetables, and toss it well. Taste for seasoning, then place the pan back in the oven for an additional 5-10 minutes. Be sure to watch it to make sure the sugar in the syrup doesn’t burn.

When heated through, take the baking sheet out of the oven. Turn the squash and potatoes into a pretty bowl. Sprinkle liberally with candied pecans (I like Trader Joe’s sweet & spicy). Garnish with finely chopped parsley and scallions. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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