It’s the 31st of October. Had the clock struck midnight on this Hallow’s Eve without the current Pick of the Month post, the world as we know it would have ended. Or, perhaps more accurately, Megan would’ve called and complained that I’d grossly neglected our favorite month.
And I do. Really love October. More so than any other month of the twelve. But it’s always very busy, with a husband’s and a daughter’s birthday, and Halloween, and football, and watching leaves change and such. This month, I’ve also had to throw in a long weekend at the beach and the obligatory never-ending renovation of our house. Excuses, excuses, I know. But, panting heavily from all this fast typing, I’m crossing the finish line with what in hand? None other than one of my very favorite vegetables: The Butternut Squash.
I know that I am in danger of running into the proverbial ground my incessant stories of “discovering” a food that I entirely missed out on in childhood. Be warned, because today is no exception — I do not remember knowing anything about the existence of the irreplaceable, aptly named butternut squash until sometime in my twenties. Maybe I’d seen one in the grocery, passing it by as if it were an inedible gourd — useful only in a fall centerpiece, replete with too-brightly dyed silk leaves and some oversized polymer acorns. Oh, what I did not know.
This squash is one of the ultimate seasonal vegetables. It is part of a delightful family of squashes known as the winter variety (as opposed to the summer squashes, like yellow crookneck and zucchini). These vegetables differ from their summer counterparts by being harvested when the fruit is fully mature and the skin is a tough outer rind (this helps them to have a very long shelf-life — so when they’re on sale this month, buy several and use them over the next few weeks or month). The butternut is admittedly not the prettiest of the bunch; that award might fall to the sister acorn squash, with its deep green and orange color and thick ridges. The butternut is the one that’s quite bulbous on one end, with a more slender neck protruding to one side (not unlike an elongated Mr. Potato Head), and is pale, slightly-anemic tan in color. But don’t be fooled: the color and flavor of the inside turn this unwanted stepchild into the Belle of the Ball. When you get a good one, it is sweet, creamy, buttery, pure October. They provide nice amounts of beta-carotene, fiber, and are an excellent source of vitamin A. They can be steamed, boiled, roasted, and even grilled (I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a method that takes the fruit back to its South American roots).
Today I have a few of these beauties on my kitchen counter, and have chosen to make Stuffed Butternut Squash, from the Joy of Cooking. I’ve made this once before, and if I can recall, it involves roasting the squash halves, scooping the flesh, mixing in some sautéed apples and fresh sausage, and stuffing it all back into the shell. A meal by itself (although a side salad and bread wouldn’t hurt). Sweet, spicy, and filling. But I must say that my very favorite preparation of this month’s Pick is Butternut Squash Soup. Every time I have served this, it has outshone everything else at the meal. I really only make it in the fall and occasionally into the winter, because you need a wonderfully sweet and flavorful squash for it to be worthwhile and tasty. I’ve tried a number of recipes — many are gingered or heavily spiced with the aromatics of the season, and while that has its place, the winner in my book was published in the November 2001 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. It’s a very interesting method: you sauté the seeds with some shallots, then add water, and steam the unpeeled flesh in the liquid. You then peel the cooked squash (this is so much easier than peeling a raw one) and puree with the strained steaming liquid. Sounds complicated, but it’s really not — and makes the most flavorful soup of its kind. It calls for the addition of a little heavy cream at the end, but I’ve found that if you have a good squash, it doesn’t even need it.
If you are now inspired, or simply curious, enough to buy yourself a butternut, please be warned: they (along with all the winter squashes) can be very difficult to cut. Get yourself a good chef’s knife — no, you don’t have to spend $80, but perhaps $25 — and be sure you’re on a non-slippery surface when cutting. They can be peeled with a regular vegetable peeler (with extra elbow-grease) and can leave a funny film on your hands when peeling. But once you get used to all this, if you’re like me, you’ll relish the process. You will know that it is a means to a buttery, creamy, delectable end.