I'm attracted to the color orange. I'm not talking about orange hued drapes, throw pillows or shirts, but orange food. Pumpkins, sweet potatoes, carrots, and oranges are all among my favorites, but right now I'm crazy for winter squash, most especially the common variety called butternut.
Butternut squash is an unassuming member of the rowdy family of cucurbits, the name given for this group of winter squash that have especially tough skins. Compared to some of their cousins—the thick skinned Japanese Kabocha, the dramatically shaped squat turban, and the nubby skinned hubbard— the smooth skinned butternut squash is not distinctive. But what it lacks in appearance, it more than makes up for in taste and ease of preparation.
On appealing attribute is that its nondescript tan skin is quite thin which makes it conveniently easy to peel. Fortunately the flesh under this skin is rich, creamy and lusciously sweet. And while its skin is less dramatic that its other cucurbit relatives, the shape of the butternut, with it's long slender neck and perfectly round curvaceous bottom is actually rather sexy.
Easy to prep and cook, I usually hack off the stem end and then cut the squash into two halves or lengthwise quarters. Typically I leave the skin intact for both roasting and serving. But when I want to serve it in chunks or as a puree it's as easy to peel as a potato. To roast the squash I place the halves or wedges cut side down on a lightly oiled rimmed sheet pan. The seasoning can be as simple as coarse salt and a grinding of pepper, or for an exotic touch sprinkle it with a shower of cinnamon or a fall spice mixture called pumpkin pie spice. For a more exotic flavor profile dust it with some ground coriander or the Moroccan blend called raz el hanout, available in many specialty shops. When using these more unusual spices sprinkle the roasted squash with some diced salted lemons (easy to make at home or found in specialty shops). Roast the cut up squash in a 400°F. oven for 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of the squash, until it is tender when tested with a skewer or the tip of a knife. A drizzle of olive oil added before roasting adds a nice touch.
I prefer butternut squash roasted uncovered because the dry heat concentrates the flavors in the already creamy, flavorful flesh. But if you'd like to serve it mashed or use it in a pureed soup I suggest removing the skin with a vegetable peeler, cutting it into chunks and steaming it over simmering water. It should take 20 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the chunks.
For an especially delicious side dish mash or puree (through a food mill or potato ricer) the steamed squash plain or combined with cooked peeled sweet potatoes. Add a splash of hot apple cider or apple juice until the mixture is of the desired consistency. Butternut squash purees makes a luscious soup when thinned with a can of lowfat coconut milk and perked up with a squirt of lemon or lime juice and some chopped cilantro and jalapeno.
My current favorite is to top halves of roasted butternut squash with a layer of cheese and melt it under the broiler, in the oven, or if the squash has been baked ahead of time, in the microwave. It makes a dish rich enough for an entrée and for a little color—and flavor—contrast I serve the golden orange butternut squash with a bright green mix of braised Swiss chard with garlic and olive oil.