Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Despite what the name might suggest, winter squash doesn't grow in the winter. The name actually refers to the fact that most varieties can be stored and used throughout the winter. Though just like onions, garlic, and potatoes, winter squash -- like butternut squash, for example -- needs to be cured for long term storage.
All types of winter squash belong to the same genus (Cucurbita), which is packed with a number of species (just how many is up for debate), but most of the edible types of squash fit into just three. You'll find a lot of familiar types of winter squash in C. pepo (acorn, some pumpkins, delicata -- and summer squash too!) and C. maxima (Hubbard and kabocha), while butternut squash hangs out in C. moschata along with some more obscure varieties (Musquée de Provence and Long Island Cheese).
Yet some of those obscure varieties get put to very good use. Did you know your can of pumpkin purée is likely made from C. moschata cultivars, including butternut squash? Melissa Clark makes her pumpkin pies with butternut squash, and not just because she thinks they’re easy to work with -- she made several trips to the farmers market, lugged home a variety of winter squashes, and taste-tested the roasted purées from them all. Butternut squash won.
More: Not convinced? Make your own authentic pumpkin purée.
Prolific writer and vegetable expert Elizabeth Schneider is also a big fan of butternut squash: “It packs in more dazzling golden-orange flesh (2) per penny than any other variety. With its small cavity (3) and easily pared thin skin (1), there is minimal waste.”
Look for butternut squash at your farmers market or local grocery store; given their ubiquitousness, you might be inclined to think that butternut squash has been around forever, but in fact, it's a fairly new type -- the original butternut squash was introduced commercially in 1944.
When selecting a butternut squash, or any type of winter squash, look for a heavy, rock-hard squash with the stems still attached. And if you want to make your life easier, choose butternut squash specimens with thick necks and less of a bulbous ball at the bottom (4) -- they're easier to peel and break down. If you still end up with one with a big round bottom though, it’s okay, breaking down a butternut is more manageable than it seems.
After you've scooped out seeds (5), don’t waste them, they're tiny, but tasty -- roast them! Or take Deborah Madison’s advice and put the whole pile of goop to good use: “You can use the seeds and fibers to make a quick soup stock for a winter squash soup or risotto. If you’ve roasted the squash first, you can still use them, along with the cooked skins.”
More: Butternut squash seeds are also used to make a flavorful finishing oil.
Start your day with a breakfast sandwich piled high with roasted squash, proscuitto and a fried egg, or use those same ingredients to fill a quiche. Combine butternut and sage in scones or spread squash butter on a piece of toast as you dash out the door.
Butternut squash just may become your favorite salad ingredient: in panzanella, kale salad, or a bagna cauda salad. If you’re looking for something heartier, give your salad a boost with beans or seeds. Or warm up with a bowl of butternut squash soup made with sherry, cider, or even miso and coconut.
Appetizers and Side Dishes
Drinks count as appetizers, right? We say yes. So start off your evening sipping butternut squash liqueur while you nibble on hard squash hummus or squash butter crostini with blue cheese and bacon. Grab a few bites of butternut squash chips and dirt candy (which tastes better than it sounds) and get ready to pass around the side dishes. Butternut squash lends itself to so many preparations: puréed, braised, roasted in thin strips, caramelized in wedges, or mashed into a gratin.
Dinner and Desserts
For the main event, tuck your butternut squash into a tagine, galette, risotto, or hearty stew. Or pair it with pasta, either stuffed inside or tossed on the top. For dessert, bake butternut squash into cookies, bread pudding, or a loaf cake laced and iced with brown butter. Or try butternut squash in a torte or ice cream.
Tell us: What's your favorite way to use butternut squash?
Photos by James Ransom