When I started food blogging in 2006, I would see this vibrant pumpkin-like vegetable on international blogs. I had not seen it sold in India until three-four years ago, when Namdhari’s, a supermarket chain in Bengaluru, started stocking butternut squash around this time of the year. You will also find it being sold on most online platforms around now.
Butternut squash has a yellowish skin and an orange flesh that turns deeper in colour and sweeter as it ripens. Since it belongs to the same melon family as pumpkin, they have a similar flavour profile. Both are excellent sources of vitamin A, with butternut squash having a higher concentration of it. The important nutritional edge that butternut squash has over pumpkin is that a cup of baked squash gives 340mg of omega 3 fatty acids in the form of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), the recommended daily intake being 1,100mg of ALA for women and 1,600mg for men.
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A couple of years ago, I had saved seeds from a store-bought squash and to my surprise, I had a few prolific vines giving me a bumper harvest of butternut squash. In the case of this vegetable (technically a fruit), this isn’t much of a problem as it is one of the world’s longest keeping fruits. If unblemished and intact, it will keep for almost three months at room temperature.
There’s an interesting fact I learnt from The Tao Of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe. When you cut a piece of butternut squash, a sap-like liquid oozes from the cut surface. Spread it over the cut end with the fingertips. It forms a resinous seal on the surface, protecting it from drying out, rotting or moulding. You can then keep it at room temperature for a few weeks or in the refrigerator for even longer.
Peeling its thick skin can pose a problem. Most peelers are not sturdy enough to do the job and peeling with a knife can risk injury. There are two ways around this. Roasting the squash makes the peels soft and edible, so you don’t need to peel. Pressure-cooking chunks of squash with peels for soup and blending gives a super-smooth texture. If you must peel, though, try this trick of stabbing it all around with the pointed end of a knife, microwaving the whole vegetable for 30-60 seconds, and you will be able to peel it with a regular peeler.
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Here are some of my favourite ways to cook with butternut squash:
—The scooped out cavity of a butternut squash makes it a good vehicle for stuffing. Half a butternut squash stuffed with a mix of spiced grains, dried fruit and nuts makes for a filling and elegant main course vegetarian or vegan dish.
—A pressure-cooker soup with butternut squash is my favourite thing to do with this vegetable. I love to combine this with the flavours of a Thai curry, finishing off with coconut milk.
—Roasted butternut squash is an excellent salad ingredient. You could meal-prep by cutting two-three squashes into chunks (seeds and core removed). Keep this in an airtight box in the fridge to add to salads.
—Puréed squash can go into the making of muffins and tea cakes, all of which require less fat and sugar due to the moisture and natural sweetness.
Butternut squash salad
1 medium-sized butternut squash
2 tsp olive oil
4-5 kale leaves (or any other greens)
1 cup cooked chickpeas
Quarter cup pomegranate arils
For the dressing
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp apple cider or any other fruit vinegar
1 clove garlic, grated
Slice the two ends of the squash. Halve and scoop out the seeds. Cut into bite-sized pieces. Toss the pieces in 2 tsp oil and two pinches of salt. Preheat the oven at 180 degrees Celsius. Lay out the pieces of squash on a baking tray and bake for 25 minutes until cooked through. Slice off the thick middle stalk of the kale leaves and blanch in boiling water for two minutes. Remove, squeeze dry and chop roughly.
In a bowl, combine the roasted butternut squash, chickpeas, pomegranate arils and kale. Whisk together the dressing and pour over the salad. Toss until well coated. Serve immediately.
Spiced Butternut Squash Soup
1 medium butternut squash
1 tbsp coconut oil
3 cloves garlic
1-inch piece ginger, sliced
2-inch stalk of lemongrass (optional)
1 fresh or dried red chilli
1 stick cinnamon
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
200ml coconut milk
For the garnish
Toasted pumpkin seeds
Slice the two ends of the squash. Halve and scoop out the seeds. Cut into large chunks. Heat the oil in a pressure cooker and add all the ingredients except coconut milk. Sauté on high flame for two-three minutes. Add one cup water and pressure-cook for five minutes (i.e. reduce flame after one whistle and cook on low flame for five minutes). Open the cooker once cooled, transfer the contents to a blender and purée until smooth. Pour this back into the cooker. Add the coconut milk and stir over a low flame until heated through.
Divide between two-three bowls. Squeeze fresh lime juice and garnish with pumpkin seeds or coconut chips.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods.