We call it “winter” squash, but that’s a misnomer. Like most vegetables, the butternuts, acorns, Hubbards, and delicatas piled on shelves at this time of year are planted and picked during the warm growing season we just eat them in the winter. They’re close cousins of the zucchini and pattypans overwhelming your garden in July and August–all are members of the Cucurbita genus–though the relationship is akin to that of green bell peppers and red. Summer squashes are picked when young and immature, when seeds and skins are still tender. Winter squashes are fully grown–picked in September and October–with seeds ready for planting and thick skins that keep them fresh and edible well into winter.
That long tenure on the vine provides more than a hard shell; it also gives the flesh time to develop the sugars and the rich, warm color that is these squashes’ glory. Packed into all those bright-orange cells are alpha and beta carotenes, lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Winter squash isn’t just delicious and comforting–it’s perfectly good for you. And versatile, too: Cook it down into soups, fold it into pastas, toss it in salads, or simply roast it with a bit of oil and salt until golden-brown (450* is a good temperature). The only real challenge is removing that thick rind–a task made easier by a good, sharp peeler or a paring knife. But the skins of some varieties, like kabocha and delicata, are tender enough to be eaten when cooked.
Like most cultivated fruits–and, botanically speaking, squashes are actually fruits–the first varieties didn’t arrive in their present delectable form. Native to Mexico and Central America, they were prized more for their edible seeds than their bitter, meager flesh. It took time for them to be selected and hybridized into varieties that were sweet and abundant. Christopher Columbus introduced the first squashes to Europe; soon other explorers were bringing the seeds to farther-flung destinations. Today, exotic varieties like the smooth-fleshed kabocha–a Cambodian native–are returning to the Americas and gaining ground on local favorites such as ‘Waltham Butternut’, which was bred at the University of Massachusetts Field Station in Waltham, Massachusetts, and still dominates the market.
This ancient fruit has come full circle. Its season is long, but there’s no better time to enjoy it than fall, when our cravings turn from tomatoes and corn to something heartier. The following recipes–which range from a a rich pasta alla vodka to a Thai-inspired stir-fry with chicken to a simple squash-and-spinach salad to a “spaghetti” that grows in your garden–are proof of its versatility. Enjoy it now. As the growing season comes to an end, this is nature’s sweetest goodbye.
Winter squash isn’t a typical ingredient in this classic Italian American pasta dish, but the spicy, creamy pink sauce is the perfect foil for its sweet flavor. If you’re a stickler for seasonal herbs, swap out the basil for chopped arugula (especially the peppery mature variety). Total Time: 45
Pasta alla Vodka with Roasted Winter Squash
Yield: 6 servings
Heat oven to 450°. Toss squash with 2 tablespoons olive oil, sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, and a generous grind of pepper. Roast until tender and browned on the edges, 25-30 minutes, stirring once partway through cooking.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt to the water for cooking.
While squash is roasting, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and starting to brown, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper, stirring to combine, and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes (with juices), vodka, and 1 teapoon salt; cook an additional 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, lowering heat if sauce starts bubbling too vigorously. (You want a gentle simmer.) Stir in cream, cook an additional minute, and set aside.
While sauce is simmering, turn water to high heat and cook pasta according to package directions, until just al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water and set aside.
Drain pasta, return it to the pot over medium-high heat, and toss with squash and reserved pasta water. Stir in tomato-vodka sauce and cheese until thoroughly combined. Cook until sauce is thickened and pasta is nicely coated, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, toss with basil, sprinkle with extra cheese, and serve.
Note: The sauce gets its fiery kick from red-pepper flakes; those with sensitive palates may want to use less of that ingredient. Any short dried pasta will work here; we're particularly fond of farfalle ("bow ties") and traditional penne rigate.
Winter squash isn’t a typical ingredient in this classic Italian American pasta dish, but the spicy, creamy pink sauce is the perfect foil for its sweet flavor. If you’re a stickler for seasonal herbs, swap out the basil for chopped arugula (especially the peppery mature variety).
Total Time: 45
Thai Chicken, Butternut Squash, & Onion Stir-Fry
This hearty stir-fry is inspired by the robust flavors of Thai cuisine. If you get all of your ingredients prepped and organized before proceeding, this Thai chicken is a breeze. Serve with steamed rice or–as a twist–with lettuce leaves for wrapping.
Total Time: 55
Yield: 6 servings
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup mirin, rice wine, or dry sherry
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch, divided
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 4 teaspoons vegetable or peanut oil, divided
- 1 small (about 1 pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 onion, peeled and cut into chunky wedges
- 8 medium-size garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint or cilantro (or 1/4 cup of each)
- 1/3 cup crushed roasted unsalted peanuts (optional)
InstructionsWrap chicken-breast slices in plastic and use a mallet or rolling pin to gently pound them very thin. (Don't worry if some pieces tear.) In a medium-size bowl, whisk together soy sauce, mirin, and water; add chicken, toss to combine, and chill 15 minutes. In another medium-size bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons cornstarch and sesame oil; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together fish sauce, broth, lime juice, sugar, black pepper, and 1 teaspoon cornstarch; set aside.
Drain chicken, pat dry, and toss with cornstarch-sesame oil mixture until thoroughly coated. Heat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a large (14-inch) nonstick frying pan (or a wok) over high heat until just smoking. Add chicken, using tongs to separate and spread pieces out, and cook, stirring, until both sides are well browned and interior is almost cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
In now-empty pan, heat remaining 2 teaspoons oil until smoking and cook butternut squash, stirring occasionally, until just tender and browned on the edges, about 6 minutes; transfer to bowl with chicken. Add onion wedges to pan and cook, without moving, until nicely charred on one side, about 1 minute; continue cooking for an additional minute, stirring frequently. Push onions to the outside edge of the pan; in the center, add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Move onions back to center of pan, add reserved chicken and squash, and stir in fish-sauce mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, garnish with herbs and crushed peanuts (if using), and serve immediately.
Spinach, Walnut & Kabocha Salad with Sweet-Onion Vinaigrette
This salad isn’t just delicious, with its flavors of sweet squash, walnut, and pickled onions–it’s economical, too. While the squash is roasting, whisk together vinegar, sugar, and salt and quickly pickle some sliced red onion for 15 minutes. When that’s done, the pickling liquid becomes the base of the vinaigrette.
Total Time: 40
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 1-1/2 pounds kabocha squash, stem and seeds removed, skin on (see "Note," above), and cut into 1-inch-thick wedges
- 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1-1/2 teaspoons table salt, divided
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup rice vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 small red onion, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges
- 8 ounces baby spinach leaves, about 5-6 cups
- 1/2 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped
InstructionsPreheat oven to 400°. Brush squash wedges with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle all over with 1 teaspoon salt plus ground pepper to taste. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and arrange squash slices on it. Roast until tender, 20-25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, sugar, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add onion to vinegar and let sit at least 15 minutes (up to overnight). Put spinach leaves in a salad bowl and set aside.
In a small heavy-bottomed skillet, toast walnuts over medium-low heat until fragrant and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool; then add to salad bowl.
When squash is tender and cool enough to handle, cut into 1-inch chunks and add to salad bowl. Remove onions from vinegar mixture with a slotted spoon, reserving vinegar mixture, and add to bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar mixture and remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Pour one-third of the dressing over the salad and toss to coat lightly. Serve salad with extra dressing on the side.
Note: The skin of the kabocha squash becomes very tender with roasting, so there's no need to peel it if you don't want to.
Spaghetti Squash Mediterranean-Style
Total Time: 40
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 1 spaghetti squash (about 3 pounds), quartered, seeds removed
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium-size onion, diced small
- 1 medium-size fennel bulb, diced small
- 1 medium-size carrot, peeled and diced small
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, plus extra to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
- 2 small zucchini (about 8 ounces total), trimmed and diced
- 1/3 cup minced fresh basil
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
InstructionsSet a steamer basket into a Dutch oven or other large pot. Fill with water just to bottom of steamer; arrange squash in basket, skin side up. Cover, set over high heat, bring to a boil, and steam until flesh is very tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium-size pan over medium heat, add olive oil. Add onion, fennel, carrot, salt, and pepper; cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and red-pepper flakes (if using); continue cooking until onions are translucent, about 3 more minutes. Add tomatoes and zucchini; lower heat to a simmer. Cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in basil. Taste sauce and add more salt if needed.
When squash is done cooking, remove it from pot and let cool until it's safe to handle. Use a fork to scrape the flesh into the pan; it will form strands. Toss gently to coat. Transfer to a bowl and top with cheese. Serve hot.