Every month, we’ll feature an ingredient that is either seasonal or inspired. While we still believe a chef should never give her secrets away, we’ll also provide you with some basic recipes for you to play with and adapt to make your own. Like any art form, cooking should be personal and expressive, so we encourage you to always follow your own palate—and your bliss.
I had never even seen butternut squash before I moved to America. I thought, “What the heck is that orange thing? For the longest time, I didn’t know the difference between pumpkin and butternut squash—it all looked the same to me.
So what is the difference? It turns out butternut squash and pumpkin belongs to the same family. A pumpkin is actually a type of squash. Squash is considered a fruit and it grows on a vine. In the U.S. we usually break down the type of squash to winter and summer squash, depending on when they are harvested. One thing that separates pumpkin from other squash is its spiky, thick stem. The other is that its seeds are edible. Pumpkin can be grown in many parts of the world whereas different varieties of squash require more particular growing conditions.
Still, the flavor profile is pretty much the same. I love working with butternut squash for its rich color and texture. It also takes on different flavor profiles well so you can really play with it. It’s a winter squash, which is why you see it on so many menus this time of year—but just because every restaurant is using it doesn’t mean they actually know how to use it, if you know what I mean. It needs Mawa’s touch.
Here are my two favorite ways to work with butternut squash:
Vegan Butternut Squash Soup
In order to make a really delicious and hearty soup you need really good quality nutmeg and coconut milk. I use coconut milk instead of cream because to me, cream is like a cheap date; it’s easy to use, but it doesn’t have a lot of substance. Coconut milk has more depth of flavor and a more supple consistency. It’s not quite as heavy on the palate and it’s better for you. Make sure your coconut milk is a good quality organic brand that isn’t processed. You want the kind in the can, not the carton. You can get good brands at Whole Foods or at any health food store.
There is nothing better than homemade chicken stock, but if you are a vegetarian, a lazy person, or both, a really good vegetable stock will work just fine. It’s the same deal with the nutmeg; anytime you work with a whole spice and grind it up yourself with a mortar and pestle it’s going to taste 100 times better than the already ground variety you buy at City Market. It’s always worth that little bit of extra effort to work with ingredients from scratch, trust me.
If you want to spice things up (as I always do) add curry. This gives the soup a more exotic flavor profile. There are a million varieties of curry, so we’ll have to save that topic for another blog on another day.
In the meantime, here’s a basic recipe for a really good vegan butternut squash soup from The New York Times (link to: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1014339-creamy-cashew-butternut-squash-soup). I invite you to make it your own and let me know how you do!
Sautéed Butternut Squash
This is the simplest preparation, but it lets the ingredient speak for itself. When you sauté, all you need to do is peel the skin, de-seed the flesh, and cut the squash into 1” cubes. Throw it into a pan over medium-high heat with some olive oil, salt and pepper—you don’t need any maple syrup or any of that sweetener garbage. You want to be able to taste the product, not the sugar! Butternut squash already has it’s own subtle sweetness, which is why it pairs so well in savory dishes. Cook until the squash is tender and be careful not to burn. You may have to play with the heat a little since every stove is different, but just keep an eye on it and make sure your pan doesn’t get too hot since it does take about 10 minutes for the squash to cook through.
Sautéing is also a great way to prep the squash for other dishes. Make one good batch from one decent sized butternut squash and put it away for another dish on another day. You can throw it in a salad (I love it with spicy greens, like arugula tossed with a little pomegranate and some maple roasted pecans for crunch for the perfect holiday side). Or add it to an omelet, frittata or quiche (so delicious paired with a little Parmesan cheese). For tasty vegetarian lasagna, try this recipe from Epicurious that uses butternut squash filling with hazelnuts and a rich, white sauce made the good old fashioned way, from your basic roux. (Link to: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/butternut-squash-and-hazelnut-lasagne-105911)
Play, play, play!
Once you’ve tried these recipes, try tweaking them to your liking. With the soup you can add different herb combinations for different flavor profiles: curry for an Indian slant, sage and thyme for traditional American, basil and oregano for Italian. I loved the hazelnut pairing from the lasagna and have used it in other butternut squash preparations. You can always top with a little Greek yogurt and a swirl of Siracha for a really pretty presentation and balanced flavor. Serve with a really good crusty bread—I love the bread from Avalanche Cheese company. Whole Foods also has decent rustic varieties that work well here.
This is where the spice of life comes from—it has to come from you! And trust Mawa when she tells you: the passion in your food will come through and that is the secret ingredient.
With sugar and spice,