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I can think of no vegetable better than butternut squash to satisfy appetites piqued by the cold winds of fall. The satisfying starchiness of this squash is harmoniously balanced by its velvety texture and its earthy flavor, with notes of almonds, sage and pumpkin. Even the warm orange color of the butternut is appropriately autumnal.
Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. His column appears every Wednesday.
Like other members of the squash family, including zucchini and pumpkin, butternut squash is native to the Americas, and was first cultivated by Native Americans. The butternut is specifically a winter squash, meaning it is harvested at the very end of the summer when it is fully ripened. It has a thick, inedible skin, which makes it suitable for long-term storage.
When buying butternut squash, look for a squash that feels heavy for its size. This is an indication that the squash is ripe, but not too old. Butternut squash in this condition will keep for up to one month if stored in a cool, dry place.
Tough and bitter when raw or undercooked, butternuts demand time and effort to reveal their best qualities. Dark, damp autumn days are pleasantly warmed by the slow cooking, which softens their starch and heightens their natural sweetness.
Butternut squash are wonderful simply roasted in their skins and then scooped out of their flesh and served with a bit of butter or olive oil, salt and pepper. The roasted squash also can be added to casseroles, soups and salads, and goes very well with pork or venison.
Other winter vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower and bitter greens combine nicely with butternuts in all manner of dishes.
I enjoy sautéing cubes of squash in olive oil with onions and garlic and then tossing them with cooked pasta, cauliflower, kale and parmesan cheese for a quick, filling vegetarian entree. But, the first thing I do each fall when the butternut squash arrives is to make soup.
Since butternut squash is well-complimented by a wide array of seasonings, you should think of this recipe as a basic blueprint for a variety of soups. Exactly the same method can be used to highlight different sides of the butternut's personality. The sage and thyme can be replaced by smaller amounts of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger for a sweet, almost pumpkin pie-like soup. This soup also is excellent with Asian flavors such as coconut milk, lemongrass and curry.
If you strain this soup through a fine-meshed sieve after you puree it, you will get an incredibly smooth soup that is substantial in flavor yet light enough to serve as the first course of a hearty fall feast.
For a richer soup, you can add milk, cream and shredded cheese - I recommend Parmesan, Romano or Gruyere - shortly before serving. The resulting soup will be substantial enough to make a meal when accompanied by bread and a salad.
I think this recipe will be best if you make your own chicken broth. If you use store-bought broth, opt for a low-sodium variety, so that you have the greatest flexibility in seasoning the soup to your own taste.
Butternut squash soup
Serves 4 to 6
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 large butternut squash (2-3 pounds)
6 cups homemade chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel the butternut squash and slice off the woody stem and base. Split the squash open lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and the stringy pulp that surrounds them. Slice the squash into half-inch cubes.
2. In a soup pot over medium heat, sauté the onion, carrot and garlic in the olive oil until softened - about five minutes.
3. Add the chopped herbs and sauté for another minute.
4. Add the butternut squash and the stock to the pot. Bring to a boil briefly and then simmer for 25-30 minutes.
5. Using a hand-held blender, thoroughly puree the soup, or puree it in batches in a blender or food processor. Return it to the pot and season to taste with salt and pepper.
6. Either heat the soup and serve immediately, or store in the refrigerator and reheat when ready to serve.
Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. Comments may be sent to him in care of reporter Julia O'Malley at email@example.com.