By Murray Schulman
For many years, Thanksgiving has been the subjects of my November food column. You have shared with me the emotions, the flavors, the stress, the hard work and the pure joy that is part of this great American holiday.
As you all know by now, I am not allowed to alter the traditional Thanksgiving meal. My family stresses the point that “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Frankly, in my usual low-key and humble perspective, you don’t mess with perfection. Yes, I hear you out there. Perfection is in the realm of a higher power. But, Thanksgiving dinner at my home comes pretty close. Although I am held to the traditional, I do manage to slip at least one unexpected item into the menu each year. Maybe they won’t realize that it is something different. I just can’t help myself.
At this time of year when we feel that fresh clean nip in the air, I have always had a special craving for what many refer to as winter squash or hard squash. My go-to varieties include spaghetti squash, acorn squash and my all-time favorite, butternut squash.
Squash has been around in the Eastern United States, Central Mexico and Peru for around 8,000 years. It has been a staple in the Native American diet since before recorded history. In fact, squash, pumpkins and gourds are all members of the Cucurbitaceae family. In other words, they are all related. Yet different. There are hundreds of different varieties of squash.
Unlike many other types of produce, squash is mainly used in the fresh market. Here in the United States, fresh markets sell around 750 million pounds of squash valued at nearly $285 million each year. Yes, Americans enjoy quite a bit of squash and why not? A one-cup serving of squash provides about half of the daily requirement of vitamin C and 4 ½ times the daily requirement of vitamin A. Squash contains virtually no fat and very little sodium. It is an excellent source of potassium and manganese and is a good source of calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6 and folate. Squash is high in fiber and it gives us the sensation of being full without consuming many calories.
The best part about squash is that it is incredibly versatile. It is a great accompaniment to a wide variety of foods and is perfectly fine as a stand-alone meal choice. Depending on the variety of squash that you choose, it is equally delicious either sweet or savory.
At my house, Liz and I are constant users of squash. All summer long, squash was an almost-daily inclusion in our meal choices. Roasted, grilled, baked. Sliced, diced, slivered, quartered or halved. Stuffed, stewed or raw. The variety is endless. In the winter we switch to the hard squash varieties. Spaghetti squash with diced tomatoes onion, garlic and aged Romano, Asiago or Parmesan cheese with a drizzle of olive oil is nothing short of amazing. Acorn squash quartered and baked with a dab of butter, a sprinkle of salt and black pepper and a drizzle of honey is a delight.
Then there is my absolute favorite. Liz and I will make a meal of butternut squash. Sure, the slightly sweet recipes are great and very popular. But the recipe that I am going to share with you here is savory scrumptious and my hands-down favorite.
I tend to make a larger quantity than normal. Not because I can eat more than usual. I make extra because I enjoy this squash recipe the next day every bit as much as I do on the day that I make it. So, this recipe starts with three good-sized butternut squash.
Before doing anything else, wash the whole squash thoroughly. This is a “must do” with any produce. But it is vital with anything with an exposed skin like melons and squash. The reason is that without washing, when you cut through, your knife pulls any contaminants that are on the skin through to the flesh that you will be eating. Once you have washed the squash, cut each squash in half the long way end to end. Remove the seeds, leaving the well completely clean.
Prepare your sheet pans with parchment paper and a very light spray of non- stick spray. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees on convection roast or 450 degrees on conventional roast.
Arrange your squash halved on the lined sheet pans alternating the direction that the well faces. As you know, I can’t just leave well enough alone. I decided to fill the wells of the squash with canned pumpkin. After all, squash and pumpkins are related. I figured that they should hang out together and get acquainted. Anyway, once the wells are filled, sprinkle each squash half with a light dusting of kosher salt, a nice pinch of ground black pepper and a pinch of sage. Again, just for a little pop I sprinkled a bit of chopped chives just onto the pumpkin filling. Using my oil sprayer, I add a very light coating of olive oil. With the tips of my fingers I massage the olive oil and spices into the flesh of the squash. Make sure to gently press the chives well into the pumpkin filling.
Slide those pans into the preheated oven and let those beauties roast for 45-55 minutes. The finished squash should be nicely browned and tender when you gently squeeze the sides.
Let the finished squash rest for at least 30 minutes. If just Liz and I are going to enjoy this, I will scoop the flesh into a serving bowl, mash it all together and go to town.
Now, as I was saying earlier, I like to slip something a bit different into the traditional Thanksgiving menu. In this case, I will plate these squash on a big fancy platter. Our guests can help themselves. I can hardly wait to see the reactions.
This winter and maybe even at Thanksgiving, be bold. Roast up some winter squash and amaze yourself and your guests with this delicious old but new option. Enjoy and have a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving. IAH