If I were a farmer, I’d grow a lot of winter squash. Magnificent and hefty, winter squash varieties span a range of beguiling shapes and colors, some sporting weird veins, odd netting and warts. They’re squat, long, pear-shaped and utterly charming. Most winter squashes are New World natives and happily, many of the heirloom varieties are returning to our kitchens. My squash collection, displayed on our dining room table, is an intriguing and ready-to-eat centerpiece. Who needs flowers?
Find a vast array of different winter squash at our farmers markets and in our local food co-ops. Choose squash that is rock-hard and free of bruises and soft spots. The stems should be firmly attached to avoid mold. Avoid squash that feels light for its size, indicating that it’s drying out. Winter squash can be stored for several months in a cool, dry, dark place.
Of all the varieties, butternut squash is my favorite. It’s relatively thin-skinned, smooth and the easiest to peel. Its pretty deep-orange flesh roasts up to become earthy-sweet and slightly nutty. The long neck is just right for slicing into half-moons for roasting. Because the skin is relatively tender, I don’t often bother to peel it before roasting. Instead, I simply slice or cube it. Next, I slice the bulb in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds, then slice the rest as well. (Save those seeds for roasting.)
Too often butternut and other squashes are served laden with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, which is OK for dessert. But they’re better off seasoned with hot chiles or savory herbs to balance the subtle sweetness. Good companions for any winter squash are sage, rosemary, parsley, thyme and cilantro; cumin, red chile, ginger and coriander. A drizzle of lime or balsamic vinegar perks up any roasted squash. Sharp cheeses or salty cheeses such as feta, cheddar, gorgonzola or Parmesan also work well.
When oven-roasted, slices of butternut squash turn a lush caramel brown while their flavors concentrate and intensify. Leftovers are wonderful puréed into a soup, or cubed and stirred into risotto, or tossed with pasta and cheese.
Instead of roasting only one butternut squash for a dish, it’s a good idea to roast two. The extra will keep nicely in a covered container in the refrigerator for at least a week. Roasted squash is one those dishes whose wonderful flavor belies its utter simplicity.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.