Let’s Cook Some Squash, And Get Through This Winter
10:02 AM EST on January 27, 2024
I’ve often thought of winter as the time of drab food. Summer is when produce shines, when bright tomatoes and juicy peaches and delicate eggplant offer up their vibrant bounty. Besides, what can grow out of cold ground and inches of snow? I reveal my embarrassing agricultural ignorance to you not in search of pity, but in the hopes that if you too feel that food in the winter is the party pooper to summer’s social butterfly, you trust me when I hold you by the shoulders, shake you within an inch of your life, and scream into your ear: Winter has more to offer than bland potatoes.
Though some squash varieties, including butternut, are usually harvested in the summer or fall, they are common winter foods because they can easily keep for many months. Thus, squash is a winter food, and has historically been a main contributor to the tyranny of drear in my winter diet. As SAD as this is in retrospect, it’s no wonder: Most of the squash I ate growing up was simply roasted with oil, salt, and pepper, and served as a side to some other meal. As I got older and could exercise increasing eating agency, I ensured that squash’s biggest role in my life came not on my plate but in a groupchat I’m in with friends from home called “butternut squad 🧈🥜🍠.” But this winter I have come to embrace squash—the real thing, not the emoji—and across several dishes I have practiced two tried and true tricks for making the fruit both flavorful and substantive: Make it the main dish, and add chickpeas.
The first strategy is fairly self-explanatory: Making squash the centerpiece of the meal means lavishing it with the complementation and flattery a side dish never receives. The adding chickpeas part may require more explanation. I love garbanzos like I love em dashes and songs featuring Maren Morris: with fervor and zest, yelling about this love to anyone who will listen. I do believe that canned chickpeas are one of God’s most generous gifts to the world (I haven’t yet leveled up to soaking dried chickpeas, but I don’t feel particularly bad about that). Chickpeas are versatile: They can be manipulated to either creamy or crunchy texture, to match with and complement surrounding ingredients as you desire. Similarly, they don’t bring a lot of flavor on their own, but can soak up whatever you cook them with (much like squash!). Plus, they’re high in protein, allowing me to eat veggie-heavy meals while maintaining sustenance throughout the day.
The pairing of squash and garbanzo also takes a cue from a longstanding, ecologically sound, and spiritually rooted Indigenous agricultural practice known as the Three Sisters. When grown together, corn, beans, and squash each provide benefits to their fellow sisters: structure, nitrogen, and shade, respectively. I do not have a Three Sisters garden, so I am less immediately concerned with these plants’ agricultural reciprocity than I am with their nutritional complementarity. Per ethnobotanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, the sisters offer a nutritional triad to the humans that nourishes their mutual growth: Corn provides starch, beans provide protein, and squash provides vitamins. To be clear, chickpeas themselves aren’t typically a variety of beans used in Three Sisters gardens, as they grow in bushes rather than on vines that would snake up a stalk of corn. But garbanzos certainly satisfy the nutritional complementarity of pairing legumes with squash—a strategy that I’ve found to be sound for nourishing my own body. (If you’re interested in learning more about Indigenous foodways and ecological knowledge, I suggest reading Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, as well as Enrique Salmón’s Eating the Landscape. Both are excellent.)
As this blog is about chickpeas only peripherally, I saved the following all-important point about squash for last before we dive into some recipes: CHAR IT. If you read my eggplant essay from the summer, you’ll recall that there is nary an offense that I hate more than undercooking vegetables. Whether roasting or sautéing, adding some color to your veg adds a profound upgrade of flavoral and textural interest as well. You are simply not letting your produce live up to its potential if you stop cooking it once it has merely transformed from raw to soft. With only time and some high heat it can transform from raw to soft to magic. Do not deprive yourself of magic, you dummy.
Winter Squash and Wild Mushroom* Curry (Madhur Jaffrey and David Tanis, NYT Cooking)
On cold winter nights nothing beats a flavorful sauce with bright vegetables, and that’s exactly what Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for squash and mushroom curry delivers. You might notice, if you click that link up there, that it does not deliver chickpeas.
Here I must confess that my appetite for mushrooms is finicky. I can appreciate the occasional portobello or oyster, but not reliably. Sometimes I’m turned off by the fungus’s mix of chewy and umami, and I can’t predict when that’ll happen. Thus it’s increasingly rare that I’ll use mushrooms in any food I make with the intention of eating it for multiple meals in a row, as there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to enjoy it meal after meal without ever feeling low-level nausea (I wish I was kidding). So when a dear family friend recommended I make this curry, I decided to problem-solve. You can probably see where this is going. Not trying queen of Indian cooking Jaffrey’s method wasn’t an option, after all. My solution was a little crazy, but entirely worth it: I swapped the mushrooms for chickpeas.
Jaffrey is a master; accordingly, the very first thing she has you do is char the squash. Once peeled and chopped (a big, heavy chef’s knife is your best friend here!), you throw your cubes into a skillet with oil and salt until they’re browned. This serves to develop and lock in the fruit’s flavor, as well as solidify each cube’s structure, so they don’t simply disintegrate into the sauce later. Don’t skip this step, lest you’ll miss the joy of savoring perfect little jewels of squash as you eat.
Once you’ve properly sautéed your squash, you remove it from the pan and proceed with a fairly standard curry-making method. Sauté your aromatics in oil, making sure to add them to the pan in the specified staggered order so none burn. That’s shallots and salt, then mustard and cumin seeds, then garlic, ground coriander, cayenne, turmeric, and chiles (I used minced jalapeño with its seeds removed because I’m a wimp). Then you add your mushrooms, or if you’re like me, your drained chickpeas (I used a roughly 20-ounce can), letting them crisp up a bit and absorb some spice. Return the squash to the pan, and add coconut milk. The recipe calls for three quarters of a cup of coconut milk, but I was not interested in having a half-empty can of coconut milk laying around in my fridge, so I added the whole 15-ounce can, which worked well. Let this all simmer together for a while; taste and adjust until you’re satisfied. Take it off the heat and stir in some lime juice to brighten things up.
This recipe is divine, and it is taking everything in me not to make it again for dinner tonight.
Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar (Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jerusalem)
If you’ve had your fill of stews and curries this winter—couldn’t be me, but I accept that my taste is simply superior to yours—perhaps a sheet-pan dish strikes your fancy. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi developed a great recipe for squash with onions and tahini sauce in their 2012 cookbook, Jerusalem, and everyone to whom I serve it demands the recipe after eating it. Here it is, with my own adaptations incorporated:
Preheat your oven to 475 °F—yeah, we’re gonna char the fuck out of this squash. Peel and cut your squash into three- or four- inch chunks—again, use a big-ass knife for this. Toss your squash chunks, as well as red onions you’ve cut into wedges, on a sheet pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and throw it into the oven for a while. You can even add in some whole peeled garlic cloves if you’d like. Stir regularly, but not so frequently that you prevent the all-important char. Once your squash chunks are soft on the inside and have some crispiness on the outside, and your onion is properly caramelized, they’re done.
Crucially, also roast some chickpeas! Drain a can or two, coat them in olive oil and salt, and maybe some cumin if you’d like, and throw them into the oven with your squash. Make sure to use a separate pan, however, because they’ll get crispy a lot faster than the squash, and as much as I’m for char I’m against incinerating your precious garbanzos. In short, keep an eye on your chickpeas and pull them out of the oven before your squash.
For the tahini sauce, I use Samin Nosrat’s recipe rather than Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s, though they’re not too different. Mix your tahini with a lot of lemon juice, a lot of minced or grated garlic, some cumin, and some salt. Add ice water a couple teaspoons at a time until it’s creamy and pourable.
To assemble, spread your squash and onions across a serving platter or your plates, drizzle over the tahini sauce, and sprinkle the chickpeas, chopped parsley, pine nuts, and za’atar—a delicious Levantine spice mix easily found in many grocery stores—on top.
I deeply enjoy eating food from the Middle East, including many foods I grew up learning were “Israeli food,” but that personal habit is intertwined with a political and cultural reality that requires us all to be cognizant of the state of Israel’s intentional and systematic destruction of Palestinian lives and communities, and thus necessarily its agricultural and eating practices. Tamimi, a co-author of this recipe, is Palestinian, and during the ongoing genocide of his people he has spoken about the ways Israel and its allies work to eliminate Palestinian foodways. Tamimi also has emphasized the importance of food as a “cultural narrative” and spotlighted a variety of cookbooks by Palestinian authors. So, enjoy your tahini and your za’atar (preferably not sourced from Israel), and don’t be numb to their cultural meaning and position as weapons of colonialism.
Herby Pasta with Squash, Tomatoes, and Onions
Like squash, pasta is another food I once shied away from cooking for myself. Before I realized I could—say it with me—Just! Add! Beans! to whatever my heart desires, I struggled to find recipes that would be filling enough (I typically cook vegan, so adding cheese or meat was off the table). But pasta cravings are real, so one night I whipped up this dish that was both quite yummy and quite satisfying.
Start with your squash (I used butternut, but I’m sure any would work well). The method here is similar to the sheet-pan method above: peel and chop squash and red onion in one-inch chunks, then coat them in olive oil, salt, and herbs of your choice (don’t miss some dried oregano) on your pan. Throw them into a hot oven—maybe 425°F—and cook for a while, tossing occasionally, until they’re cooked through and charred to your satisfaction.
Also roast your chickpeas, the same exact way as before: coated in oil and salt. Remember not to keep these in the oven as long as your squash.
As that’s going, boil the pasta of your choice—orecchiette is my favorite—in salted water until al dente. After the pasta’s done, drain it, saving a cup or so of the water. Toss the pasta with some pesto; this was a lazy meal for me so I used store-bought pesto, but if you want to whip out your food processor or mortar and pestle to make your own, knock yourself out and invite me over, please.
If you decide to go the homemade pesto route, keep in mind that winter is decidedly not prime herb time. If the pickings of good fresh herbs at your grocery store are slim, there are a few stopgaps to consider. My favorite strategy for buying a bunch of basil is to just buy a whole basil plant; It’s much cheaper and keeps the leaves a lot fresher than the pre-picked ones because they’re, uh, still alive. If there are no basil plants in sight, consider making another herb the star of the show. I find that cilantro and parsley are more abundant than other herbs in the winter, and there are plenty of great recipes out there for pesto that use them. Indeed, expanding your definition of pesto can help you imagine a flavor-packed sauce more suited to winter’s seasonality: I’d be more than happy to spoon any combination of olive oil, pine nuts or walnuts or pistachios, salt (as either salt, cheese, or both), and bright flavor (herbs, spinach, lemon juice, fresh garlic, sundried tomatoes—the possibilities are endless) onto my pasta.
Regardless of the origin of your pesto, add a lot of it. More flavor is better! Always! Here’s where you can add some splashes of that pasta water if you’d like—it can make things creamier and easier to toss—but don’t add too much; we want to create a sauce, not pesto-flavored water.
Once the squash and onions are done, throw them into the saucy pasta alongside your chickpeas and a couple handfuls of halved cherry tomatoes. Mix, and you’ve got yourself a beautiful medley of vegetables, all with different textures, that’ll satisfy your pasta craving without leaving you hungry an hour later.
If the presence of a big butternut used to conjure up dread for you—if you’d look at it and imagine the endless flow of terribly bland yellow flesh withering on the side of your plate—I hope I’ve been able to squash that fear and replace it with anticipatory delight. A delicious, versatile fruit-vegetable that comes in its own container and keeps forever? Nothing could be better, except for maybe chickpeas.