Last week, I was asked to prepare some butternut squash for the volunteers at Second Sunday, the garden program hosted by Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School. The Outdoor Education Coordinator there, Jen Finnegan, has been using this year to transition HM’s extensive gardens to part farm model, with students planting and growing a wide assortment of vegetables and fruits that can be sampled in the classroom and possibly incorporated into some of our school lunches in the future. On the second Sunday of each month, parents and community members gather to do necessary maintenance that can’t be accomplished during classroom time – adults and kids alike are welcome.
When Jen left a crate of butternuts on my back porch I wondered if I was meant to be feeding the Marine Corps at Quantico, but after slicing and dicing a few different ways, there was plenty for volunteers to sample and each take home one or two, with a few left over for me. I wanted to make sure everyone left with the knowledge that these funny-shaped hard veggies were more easy to cook than they imagined and I think I succeeded in swaying a few reluctant cooks.
I’m a huge fan of fall and winter squash, which I can’t say was true when I was a child. My mother was only able to get me to consume acorn squash if the cavity was filled with melted butter and maple syrup – still not a bad way to go. But over the years, I have come to love the flavor of these hard vegetables, how easy they are to prepare and their incredible versatility.
We typically think of green vegetables as the antioxidant powerhouses, but winter squash are antioxidant treasures of their own because of their high levels of cartenoids, the colorful pigments that become Vitamin A. The bright orange beta carotene in hard squash is one of the most important because it yields more Vitamin A that other carotenes. That’s good news for cancer and heart disease prevention as well as boosting your immune system to fight infection.
And while we may think of winter squash as a Thanksgiving kind of thing, they are staples in a diverse number of ethnic diets from Africa to Asia, South America to India. That means the applications for winter squash in your seasonal menus are almost endless, providing the opportunity to explore a dizzying array of worldwide cuisine.
So how do you cook it? Start simple. For the Second Sunday volunteers, I roasted, which provided the base for a number of recipes as well as sumptuous snacking. Start by peeling and cutting in half top to bottom — I find holding it straight up on a cutting board and peeling down gets most of the peel off without too much trouble (once peeled it is a little slippery so take care) — but butternuts are the one squash that you can actually cook and eat without peeling.
The skin is thin, so when roasted yields a softer version of itself but a nice contrasting bite to the soft flesh. I find it easier to remove the seeds before roasting, which is cleanly accomplished with an ice cream scooper. Then you can dice or slice in crescents, place in a baking dish, drizzle or toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper (add dried or fresh thyme or sage here if you like) before placing in a 400 degree oven for about 20-25 minutes. Thicker chunks will take longer so use a knife to test – when there’s no resistance, it’s done. You can also just roast the halves flat side down and scoop out the flesh for recipes where a puree is needed.
From here, you can head in many directions. Soups are the obvious road and magazines this time of year are abundant with recipes. One of my favorites is a simple Thai version. I actually like to make this with a Kabocha squash, but butternuts are perfect and can be found easily at your grocer. This Southern Living recipe for Three Sisters Salad, using the Native American “sisters” of beans, corn and squash, was a huge hit in late summer; you can substitute thawed frozen corn for fresh. My own Three Sisters Chili has become a household favorite, especially when paired with Maple Cornbread Muffins (both vegan, but your non-vegan friends will never know). For pasta lovers, a Ravioli with Roasted Squash and Thyme is about as easy as it gets for a quick weeknight meal.
While butternuts and other winter squash may look a bit intimidating, they are far easier to take on than many realize. They are packed with seasonal flavor and protective nutrients. Even just dressing your roasted cubes with a bit of sage, goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds makes a quick and elegant side dish (even kids like it, really). So have fun exploring.
Next time: Brussels Sprouts!
For more information on Hollin Meadows Second Sundays, email Jen Finnegan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's Note: To view these recipes, click on the PDF files in the upper right hand corner of this story.