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.
Put seeded (unpeeled) squash halves on a rimmed baking sheet, season with butter, salt and pepper, orange juice and maple syrup; then flip them over.
Roast until the skin is blistered and browned and the flesh is tender. When cooled, the skin will peel off easily.
A few minutes in a dry sauté pan helps concentrate the flavors.
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.