Of Autumn & Butternut Squashes
October is here – the weather is taking its cue and obediently turning cooler. The lazy, unscheduled summer days of school holidays have given way to a more structured routine, to children back at school, to weeks more strictly divided into weekdays and weekends. Central heating has been switched back on, summer clothes have been wistfully stowed away and warmer, bulkier pieces now hang in the wardrobe. Much as I love spring with its blossoming flowers and its promise of the summer up ahead, autumn is an equally strong contender. And not just because it’s my last chance to hold on to bearable weather before the stark, grey, bone-chilling winter arrives.
I love how this season brings with her a treat for all the senses. Metereologically, autumn begins in September, but really it’s in October that we get to see her in all her glory. The leaves turn colour, going from green to a gorgeous mix of reds, oranges and yellows and each year, without fail, I feel compelled to take about 739 photos of stunning trees all over the Lincolnshire countryside. The air is crisp and redolent with the smell of wood smoke wafting from chimneys. Out for a walk with the dog, I find myself drawing in lungfuls of this aroma and wishing, as I always do this time of the year, that I could buy it in a bottle. Or a can even. I am not fussy about such matters. Meanwhile, providing the background score to this beautiful autumnal scene is the rustle and crunch of the fallen leaves underfoot.
Back home in the warmth of my kitchen, I try to hold on to these outdoor sights, sounds and smells of autumn. There’s only one thing for me to do to extend this autumnal experience indoors – cook up a favourite vegetable – the butternut squash. Not only is it in season right now, but it also conforms to the colour October has found itself associated with.
Now the pumpkin might have been an even better fit, I agree, and you can definitely substitute it in this recipe but to me, butternut remains the most flavourful of all squashes. Yes, the pumpkin has a lot going for it – the aesthetically pleasing shape, sexy ridges, a range of beautiful, glorious colours and, I suspect, a great PR team – how else do you get yourself figured not just in a fairy tale (Cinderella) but also be the mascot of an annual tradition (Halloween)? (And look, I even got a few miniature ones to model for this photoshoot!).
The butternut squash, on the other hand, shuns publicity, is generally one dull colour on the outside and an awkward shape. But where the pumpkin has style, the butternut squash has substance. Its superior flavour and texture means that it pairs beautifully with dals, lentils, beans, vegetables, pasta, rice, sausages and almost anything else you can think of. It even tastes great on its own, simply roasted and seasoned. The following recipe is just one example of its versatility.
So, if the buzzwords of the season are ‘cosy’, ‘orange’, ‘squash’, I can readily get on board with that. Especially if it means tucking into something as delicious and nutritious as this.
- Butternut squash is not the easiest thing to cut up – I find that microwaving it before wielding the knife helps. Prick holes with a fork all over the squash, then microwave on high for about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the size. Do this in one-minute bursts, so you can turn over the squash after each minute. When cool enough to handle, peel and chop as required.
- I would be really pleased if you could roast the squash as I have specified in the recipe. I find that doing this intensifies the flavour of the vegetable. I put it in the oven while I prep the other ingredients and by the time I am done frying the onion and tomato mixture, the squash is ready to go in. However, if roasting is not an option, you can make this dish entirely on the hob – just add the squash after the tomato puree has dried up, add a tiny splash of water, cover and cook until the squash is done, stirring regularly.
- Panch Phoran (or Puran), the eastern Indian mix of five whole spices is getting increasingly easy to buy here in the UK. However, it’s easy to make your own if you have the ingredients at hand. There are two versions of this spice mix – one that uses mustard seeds like I do, the other uses a lesser known spice called radhuni. The rest of the spices are the same in both versions.
- There are two options with this dish – you can make it savoury (which I prefer) or sweet & sour (which I find most people like, as squashes do work well with a hint of sweetness).
- As you can see from the photos, I used chopped onions to make this recipe but only because I had some to use up. However, I specify sliced onions in the recipe because they work a lot better in terms of texture.
- The sweetness of butternut squash varies greatly, that’s why you’ll need to taste and adjust the flavours to your preference.
Bengali - Style Butternut Squash
For the Panch Phoran Spice Mix:
- 1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 tsp nigella seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
Rest of the Ingredients:
- 1 medium butternut squash, about 1 kg, peeled (see note 1 above) and chopped into 1" cubes 6-7 cups chopped volume
- 1+2 tbsp ghee, measured in liquid state or a flavourless oil
- 1 Indian bay leaf omit if you don't have it but please do not use European bay leaf
- 1-2 dried red chillies, broken into smaller pieces leave whole or omit if you don't like too much heat
- 2 large onions, sliced thinly about 300 g peeled weight
- 4 fat cloves garlic, peeled and sliced crosswise
- 1 tbsp grated ginger
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/2 cup pureed tomatoes or passata
- salt, chilli powder, lemon juice to taste
- sugar, to taste optional
- coriander leaves to garnish
- If roasting the squash (see note above), preheat the oven to 200°C. In a small bowl, combine all the spices under 'Panch Phoran'.
- In a large bowl, toss the squash cubes with the 1 tbsp ghee/oil and a light sprinkling of salt. Spread out on two large baking trays lined with foil so that the cubes are in a single layer. Bake for 10 minutes, then stir and spread out again. Bake for 10 - 15 more minutes until the cubes are cooked through and begin to char in places.
- Meanwhile, place a heavy, preferably cast iron pan over low heat. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of ghee/oil and when hot, add the panch phoran mix, the bay leaf and the red chillies. Stir and fry gently for about 30 -40 seconds until you can smell the spices. You want them to go a shade darker, no more.
- Add the onions, increase heat to medium and saute, stirring regularly, until they turn golden. Now add the garlic & ginger, stir and fry for about 2 or 3 minutes.
- Add the pureed tomatoes/passata, turmeric powder and stir. Increase the heat and stir frequently until all the liquid from the tomatoes evaporates and the mixture has an oily glaze. Season with salt and chilli powder to taste.
- If not roasting the butternut squash, add it to the pan now with some salt and a splash of water (I do realise that I just asked you to lose all the moisture in the previous step, but the frying of the tomato paste is necessary for the flavour to develop), cover and cook, stirring once or twice until the vegetable is cooked through.
- If roasting the butternut squash, add it to the pan with any juices left in the tray. Stir well and fry for a minute or two. Turn off the heat, taste and add lemon juice as needed. If making it sweet and sour, add sugar to taste. Mix well and serve garnished with chopped coriander leaves.