A little roasting, a bit of spice: Tips from a new butternut squash fan

Roasted Butternut Squash with Onions and Peppers

I never was a big fan of butternut squash.

Growing up, my mother always boiled it then seasoned it with nutmeg. I just didn’t like it. It was watery and flavorless, except for the flavor of the nutmeg, which I did not enjoy.

Later, when I tried cooking it for myself, I steamed it, thinking that perhaps it wouldn’t turn out so soupy. Steaming helped, but it still seemed hardly worth the effort of peeling, seeding and chopping.

Eventually, I think at a friend’s house for dinner, I tasted butternut squash that had been baked. What a revelation. It was flavorful and creamy, not watery at all. And when I learned that with this method, there’s no need to peel the squash, I was sold.

To bake a butternut, cut it in half, scrape out the seeds, season the flesh with salt and pepper, and lay the halves, flat side down, on a baking sheet that you have lined with aluminum foil and sprayed with a cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour or until the squash is soft. Let it cool a bit then scrape out the soft flesh, add butter, salt and pepper and serve.

The difference between the boiled or steamed squash and the baked is night and day. Baking improves the texture of the mash and retains all the sweet richness the squash has to offer. In short order, it made a butternut fan out of me.

Recently though, I’ve taken one more step into butternut heaven. I’ve been roasting the peeled and cubed butternut squash with onion and bell pepper and something to add a bit of heat.

Lately, my favorite heat source is harissa flavored olive oil. I splurged on a bottle at one of those fancy olive oil stores and now I can’t get enough of the stuff. It’s not cheap — $15 for about 12.6 ounces — but it brings a really nice, easily controllable heat to a dish.

Harissa is a Tunesian chili pepper puree made from a variety of roasted peppers, garlic, spices and oil. The flavored olive oil is clear, with a slightly orange hue.

Roasting the squash with the red onions creates a rich, sweet, almost meaty flavor that is nicely offset by the bitterness of the roasted peppers and the spicy heat of the harissa oil (or heat from another source, such as chili oil, some fresh, chopped Thai chilis or a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flake).

We love it as a side dish, particularly with pork chops. My husband loves it cold, atop a green salad. The next time I make it, I may add some garlic to the mix, then serve it hot in a warm tortilla with some queso fresco cheese, some crunchy shredded cabbage, and a squirt of lime juice to finish.



Roasted Butternut Squash with Onions and Peppers

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, chopped into bite-size chunks

1 red onion, coarsely chopped

1 red pepper, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of harissa (or 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large roasting pan or on a half-sheet pan, toss the squash, onion and pepper chucks with your olive oils (or olive oil and crushed red pepper). Add salt and freshly ground black pepper and toss again.

If there are too many vegetables for a single layer, use two pans.

Roast in a preheated, 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, then give the vegetables a stir and roast for another 20 minutes. Stir again, and roast for 10-20 more minutes, until the mixture has started to caramelize and you have achieved the desired doneness.

Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share recipes and comments with her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

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