BEHOLD THE BUTTERNUT: INSPIRATION FOR AUTUMN SCRATCH SUPPERS
Butternut squash, introduced to the public in 1936 and working hard ever since, doesn’t have the cachet of kabocha or the drama quotient of a Blue Hubbard or Red Kuri. What it does have going for it is widespread availability, great versatility, ease of peeling, good, reliable flavor, and now … cuteness.
That’s right. Say hello to a relatively new cultivar on the block, the NutterButter. It stopped me in my tracks about a month ago, when I first saw it at Keith Stewart’s stand, at the Union Square Greenmarket. Two or three of them have provided ballast in my market bags (and lots of good eating) every week since.
NutterButter, which was released in 2011, was developed by Dr. Jodi Lew-Smith, director of research and production at High Mowing Organic Seeds, in Wolcott, Vermont. “This variety was selected for high brix (sugars) levels, good flavor and medium size,” the company’s blog of December 7, 2011, read. “Fruits weigh around 2.5 pounds and measure an average of 4” wide by 7” tall.”
I’ve spent far too much time on the High Mowing website, but it is absorbing. This entry, from two weeks ago, gives insight into the discernment, not to mention the heavy lifting, it takes to grow, harvest, and cure (who knew?) fields of winter squashes. When judging ripeness, for instance, one must pay close attention to the stem—or, more correctly, the peduncle. Too bad it sounds like a relative you want to keep a very close eye on. But no matter. “Let peduncle be your word of the day!” Paul Betz wrote. “There will be a change from green and fleshy to more corky and dried. It’s important … to give the plant the opportunity to get everything it can to the fruit.” No wonder farmers wince when they see customers on the prowl for a jack o’ lantern use the, er, peduncle as a handle.
Like bigger butternuts, the NutterButter has a compact seed cavity, which translates to a greater proportion of meaty orange flesh, and its small size makes it even more versatile—at least in my kitchen, where cooking for two is the default position. Whacked in half lengthwise and seeded, it can be baked or roasted cut side down, just like an acorn squash, but the flavor is far richer. One NutterButter is a convenient platform for an individual main course; pair it with a hearty farro and mushroom pilaf, and you’ve got Meatless Monday covered—especially if you’ve cooked up the farro ahead of time and have it waiting in fridge or freezer. Before a few more recipe riffs, though, it makes sense to discuss a couple of butternut basics: how to peel one, and how to roast the seeds.
To peel: Vegetable mavens Deborah Madison and Alice Waters have this down pat. First, cut the squash crosswise in half, right where the straight neck meets the bulbous part that houses the seeds. Peel it in long, even strokes with a sharp knife or sturdy Y-shaped vegetable peeler, then slice, dice, or cut the flesh into large cubes. Next, cut the round part in half, scoop out the seeds and fibrous bits, and peel that as well—or, if the squash is large, save the halved bulb and roast, unpeeled, another evening.
To roast the seeds: When my friend and former colleague Greg Lofts explained that he doesn’t pick over or rinse pumpkin and squash seeds before roasting, it was a revelation: All the pulpy, stringy bits caramelize and turn sweet, nutty, and delicious—and the fact that you don’t waste a thing is pretty great, too. Greg’s technique is in the November issue of Martha Stewart Living and it deserves to become an instant classic. For every two cups seeds with pulp, toss with one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil and season with coarse salt (and perhaps a bit of cumin or smoked paprika if so inclined). Spread the mixture on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast in a preheated 300º oven, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the seeds are crisp and the pulp is caramelized, 50 to 60 minutes. Yum.
Okay, so what’s for supper? Roasted or baked butternut (see above) is a no-brainer side for chicken thighs (season with s & p and bake at 350º until done), particularly when you gussy up the squash with a robustly flavored compound butter. Start with room temperature butter and work in some finely chopped shallot and fresh thyme or sage, say, or a dab of harissa, puréed chiles in adobo, or an Indian spice blend.
I also love a Provençal squash gratin. In Simple French Food, the masterful Richard Olney cuts pumpkin or squash into tiny dice, tosses it with persillade and flour, then puts it in an earthenware dish and bakes it in a low oven for two hours or so. Beneath the resulting deep, rich brown crust, “the squash should have melted to a near purée, the cubes retaining perfectly their form but ready to collapse at the touch of a fork or a tongue.”
Olney’s tian de courge may sound simple (and sexier than hell), but my weeknight version requires a brisker approach, one that goes something like this. Walk in the door and turn on the oven to 375º. Peel the squash and cut into roughly 1-inch pieces. (You can even do this in the morning—odds are, you won’t be losing much nutritive value—and refrigerate the squash in an airtight container.) Toss with olive oil and salt and spread on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast until tender and caramelized, 30 to 40 minutes. (Stir a couple of times during roasting so the squash cooks evenly.) Finely chop a couple of garlic cloves and cook in olive oil for mere seconds—it should be softened but not browned. Stir in a handful of chopped parsley, and then toss the persillade with the squash when done.
By this point, I’ve poured a bourbon or glass of wine and considered the contents of fridge and pantry. Sometimes I shovel the squash over arugula, add some leftover cooked white beans (or not), drizzle with walnut or pumpkin-seed oil, and serve up with pan-fried fat pork sausages—a staple in our kitchen because they cook so quickly.
And since bitter or spicy greens set off the sweetness of squash so well, broccoli rabe is another easy partner. Cut off the tough ends and blanch the greens first; fish them out with tongs and drain, then salt the water, return it to a boil, and cook cavatappi or other smallish tubular pasta. Reserve a cup or so of the cooking water before draining the pasta and set both aside. Chop the blanched greens into manageable pieces and sauté in olive oil with a little garlic, red pepper flakes, and, if you have it, some chopped fresh rosemary. (If you really want to get fancy, kick off the sauté with chopped pancetta.) Add the roasted squash, the pasta, and enough pasta water to give a saucelike consistency, gently tossing until all is nicely hottened up. Season to your liking and serve with Parmigiano and good olive oil, for drizzling. I’ve just decided this is what we are having for supper on Halloween. All I need is candy corn, for dessert.