Mother Nature is a pretty smart cookie. She gives us the green vegetables of spring—asparagus, peas, and artichokes—when you can practically taste the grass and smell the dew. The blazing sun of summer brings the fiery reds and yellows of tomatoes, corn, peppers, and summer squash. And then those reds and yellows mellow into the sweet golden orange of fall. The leaves begin to turn, the days grow shorter, the air is cool and prime for football, and you just know the bright-orange pumpkins are out there in the patch, waiting to be picked. That’s when I know I’m ready to put winter squash on my menu at 1789 Restaurant in Washington, D.C.
I try to follow the seasons when making my restaurant menus, mostly because flavors are at their best but also because I like to keep my cooking in sync with local rhythms. When vegetables are eaten in season, their nutrients are at a peak. And when it comes to winter squash, that genius Mother Nature makes cooking seasonally especially easy. With its sweet, nutty flavor, squash lends itself perfectly to the meats of autumn—duck, venison, pork, turkey—all of which love to have a little something sweet beside them. And squash has a savory side, too, which makes it a versatile vegetable in the fall. I use my favorite Squash varieties in dishes as diverse as gratins, pastas, salads, and bread puddings. My pastry chef loves winter squash in pies, too. The possibilities are endless, provided you first learn to baby squash a bit so it releases all its potential.
Roast to enhance flavor; then use it as a base
While winter squash can be steamed, sautéed, or microwaved, I prefer to roast squash whenever possible, especially before using it in other dishes calling for squash purée. Roasting helps reduce the moisture level (winter squash is 89% water), which intensifies the flavor and also gives me the opportunity to season the squash while cooking it. After cutting small squash in half or larger squash in pieces, I season it with maple syrup to enhance sweetness, orange juice to heighten flavors, and butter to add richness.
I roast the squash for 40 to 45 minutes at 400°F in a baking pan or on a rimmed baking sheet flesh side down, which allows the most flesh to caramelize. To testl for doneness, lift the squash with tongs and poke with a paring knife. I never peel squash before roasting it—when raw, squash is notoriously difficult to peel, but when cooked, the flesh is easy to scrape out.
Once the squash is cooked, cooled, and separated from the skin, it’s a terrific base for soups, puddings, pies, breads, biscuits, or ravioli filling. To evaporate moisture and concentrate flavor, sauté the flesh in a dry pan for a few minutes. The cooked squash has a much creamier texture than you’d expect from a fibrous vegetable. It also reheats beautifully and freezes well. I like to freeze it in serving sizes to use later in a variety of recipes or as a side dish.
If I want to use well-defined squash pieces in a recipe, like in a pot pie or in the Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, I’ll first peel it and then dice, slice, or julienne the raw squash and roast or sauté it just until done. I never boil squash, as its delicate flavor would be lost.
Squash’s subtleties need the right seasoning
The sweet and savory sides of winter squash both benefit from subtle flavor boosts. Traditional autumn and winter spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger are a good place to start, but there are smoother ways to highlight the delicate flavors of squash.
I like to focus on the two major characteristics of winter squash flavor—sweet and nutty. Sweetness balances spicy food. You go to the sweetness on a plate for soothing refreshment—when eating a spicy curry, for instance. A roasted sweet dumpling squash is fabulous filled with a curried rice mixture and topped with yogurt. Sweetness also balances smokiness; just think of bacon and maple syrup, or ham and pineapple. Bacon, prosciutto, sausages, and ham of all kinds match very well with squash. You can add squash to lentil or bean soups. And squash works very well with truly savory flavors such as tomatoes and sharp, salty cheeses (see the Butternut Squash & Potato Gratin recipe).
Handle squash safely
Squash skin is very tough, and it can be a struggle to cut. To keep things safe, work on a flat surface and, to secure a solid base, trim a sliver from the bottom or one side of the squash and let it sit flat. Use a large, sharp knife and keep your fingers out of the way. Insert the tip of the knife into the side of the squash and cut down, rather than attacking the squash with the full breadth of the blade.
I usually don’t peel any squash other than butternut because the contours are so unruly. When peeling butternut, you can use a vegetable peeler, but you might want to wear gloves, as there’s a green, gluey substance under the skin that gets on your hands and seems to stay there forever.