Thursday, November 4, 2010
Over the winter we use a lot of butternut squash at the restaurant. Last year I got a hair to try to break down every ounce that the restaurant needed over the fall, winter, and first part of spring. I set a goal to try to break down 1 ton of it through the slower months. I got 1600 pounds last year and have pretty much decided not to attempt it again. That is 1600 #'s that was bought, stored, washed, trimmed, peeled, de-seeded, cut, and stored for dinner and banquet service. I know butternut squash well. I could easily "break" one blindfolded.
There are lots of different types of "squash" but mostly they fall into two categories. Summer squash (crookneck, patty pan, and even zucchini fall into this category) while available at the grocery store year round, as the name suggests are really only in season in late spring to late summer. I am not the biggest fan of their soft textures, and lack of flavor (they are mostly water). They also don't have a very good shelf life and you will never see them as a vegetable on my menu. Winter squash come in a wide array of shapes and colors and usually come around in late September locally. At your market you will probably see butternut, hubbard, danish, delicata, and spaghetti this time of year and chances are they were grown locally. Oregon harvests huge crops of winter squash and pumpkins that grow really well in our climate. The butternut I regard as king of all of them though as they have a much better yield (usable portion) and better flavor profile. The greatest thing about winter squash in general is the shelf life. From the store they are easily stored in your garage or pantry for 6 months, ranking them up there with apples and onions for storage through cold months. After cutting they will last in your fridge for at least 3-4 days, prolonged by laying a damp towel over the cut squash.
sidebar- always amazes me that nature takes care of that herself. an apple off of a tree will last months properly stored, as will potatoes, onions, root vegetables, pears, some stone fruits, and winter squash. Nothing grown in summer lasts that long but instead is replaced by something else coming into season. This time of year there is nothing else coming into season, so those foods have to last much longer then their spring and summer counterparts. Before trucking, and megamarts these are the only things people had to survive the winter, they are also some of the most versatile ingredients in your kitchen. If you don't think there is some higher power involved think about that for a few minutes.
The whole neck of the butternut is seedless (down to the bottom ballooning seed pod) so once peeled you have more real estate to work with than any other squash, leaving me room to make the cuts as large or small as desired, and allowing me to have them more even and equal to each other in size. Also important to wash your squash as they do grow on the ground and can be pretty muddy, then pat it dry because wet squash will slide your cutting surface. With a sharp knife cut the stem top part off. Then cut the bottom off so it will not bounce around on your cutting board. Cut just above the ballooning section, and then peel it. I use a knife but you could use a peeler. The skin is very thick and strong so go slowly, and you should be getting enough off to see some orange flesh (the outline of the flesh that is against the skin is discolored in comparison to the orange "meat" of the squash). Then while still round peel the bottom section, then half and remove the seeds. Cut all into the desired shape. Once you start peeling, the squash will leach a watery substance that will coat your hands. I like to call it butternut glove. It is very hard to get off of you so work one squash at a time if your even in a situation that calls for more than one.
Flavors pair really well with brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, butter, cream, and nuts. Like almost everything I cook, I really like to keep it as simple as possible. I like to roast it with some butter or olive oil, and salt until its just tender and serve it. You could also boil it and then puree it. Roasted squash soup is popular at my house and the restaurant. Roasted until cooked through with some onions, salt and garlic, then pureed with some good stock and a touch of cream will give you a great starting point. Look to change it up with herbs of all sorts (I really like thyme and oregano with butternut). I read once that the pumpkin puree you buy to make pumpkin pie isn't actually pumpkin at all but butternut. Inexpensive, sustainable, local, and in season.