There's the versatility of, say, a boneless, skinless chicken breast—it tastes bland and uninteresting pretty much no matter what you do with it, so it "goes" with everything, like gustatory khaki—and then there's the versatility of the butternut squash, which is so outrageously goddamn good that you could wrap it in a dirty sock and still enjoy eating it. Consequently, humankind will never run out of ways to celebrate it.
This may seem like excessive praise, directed as it is toward a big, dumb gourd and not some foodstuff more outwardly sexy, like pork belly or duck breast or something, but that's only because you have lousy food opinions. Butternut squash is devastatingly good when cooked well—particularly when roasted, so that it sweetens, and its flavors flush, slightly nutty and fragrant, with a smooth texture and satisfying heft, oh God, oh God, waaaaant. It just doesn't look like much, sitting there on a bed of straw in a sad bin in the unsexiest corner of the produce section, by the bulk bags of yellow onions and the ribbed and hostile-looking acorn squash.
Actually, it kiiiinda looks like a dick and balls. There it is. I friggin' said it. And we've been holding this against the butternut squash for too damn long. It's not fair! Butternut squash is divine. We'll roast and eat some, and you'll see. Roasted butternut squash makes a wonderful base of operations for a whole host of delicious food preparations—as the star of a bisque or paired with some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in ravioli filling, it's brain-melting—but also, it's great just as a thing to stab with a fork and put inside yourself.
So yeah, let's do that.
First, of course, you will need to acquire a butternut squash. Many supermarkets will give you the option of purchasing a vacuum-sealed plastic tub of pre-cut butternut squash hunks, an offering which is not only a waste of money and indestructible packaging materials, but also an offense against even the schlubbiest 21st-century schlub's modest notions of self-reliance. No! Get an actual butternut squash. It's the big, sorta pale-orange-colored gourd that, again, is shaped more than a little bit like a dick and balls.
You'll want a butternut squash that doesn't have any punctures, cuts, or gross-looking scars on its rind; however much stem it has, the stem should be undamaged. The squash should feel heavy and dense when you pick it up. "How heavy?" you are screaming into the cold winter night, perched on the rooftop and shaking your fist at the yawning heavens—"Damn you, how heavyyyyy?" Heavier than the other ones at the supermarket. Handle a few different butternut squashes, pass them back and forth from hand to hand, hold them in front of your pelvis and waggle your eyebrows suggestively at a nearby elderly person, and you'll get a sense for which butternut squashes feel heavy and dense and healthy, and which ones are feeble and hollow, and how many months it will be before you are allowed to take off the electronic monitoring anklet.
Once you've got your butternut squash, take it home and preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Now, unsheathe your largest and most terrifying kitchen knife, and also, uh, your largest and most terrifying potato peeler*, and wrangle the butternut squash into cubes. This is a multi-step process.
First, with the knife, hack a half-inch off the very top and very bottom of the squash, so that it's flat on both ends and you can stand it up on a cutting board. Next, with the peeler, peel the skin off that fucker. This is a little thicker and tougher than the skin of, say, a cucumber, but comes off pretty readily; you'll have it off the whole thing in 90 seconds. Now, with the knife, bisect the squash lengthwise, so that you've got two basically identical halves, each with a mighty shaft and a big ol' bulge down at the bottom, if you know what I mean. Again, the butternut squash will put up a bit more resistance to the knife than a cucumber, but not nearly as much as an acorn squash or a huge Halloween pumpkin or a polar bear, so be grateful you're not cubing one of those, not least because a polar bear will fuck you up pretty good if you come at it with a knife (or without a knife).
Check out the inside of this thing. The bulbous lower end of each half features a cup-shaped region full of seeds and weird, slimy shit; scoop this out with a spoon, scraping the firm sides of this cup-shaped area to make sure all that gunk is outta there. (The seeds are edible, but not as tasty as pumpkin seeds; go ahead and toss 'em.)
Now, flip the squash-halves over so they're flat-side-down. With your knife, and cutting lengthwise, slice each half into inch-thick strips; then, cut these crosswise into roughly one-inch cubes. I mean, they are not going to be cubic. Let's just get OK with that right now. They will not be cubes. But they will be vaguely geometric-looking, and you will just have to cut them some slack. You're not building a goddamn house out of them. The important thing is for them to all be more or less the same size, so they'll cook more or less uniformly, and look more or less not ridiculous on a plate.
*If you do not have a potato peeler, fear not, for you may still have some tasty butternut squash. Follow the steps above, skipping (obviously) the part where you peel the squash with a potato peeler. When you get to the part where you slice the squash-halves into long strips, cut the strips in half crosswise, tip them over on their sides, and cut the skin off with your knife, taking care to cut off as little of the inner flesh as you can manage. It'll be annoying, but not as annoying as reading this far and then not having some butternut squash to eat.
So you've got all your squash-cubes ready to go. Season the cubed squash by tossing it with some good extra-virgin olive oil (the 400-degree oven should come in juuuuust under the smoke point of good extra-virgin olive oil, usually thought to be around 405 degrees Fahrenheit), a nice big pinch of salt, and a nice not-quite-as-big pinch of freshly cracked black pepper.
Many butternut squash preparations will have you dousing the shit in maple syrup or brown sugar or molasses or whatever. They do this because it allows their authors to tell you that you can cook your butternut squash in 20 minutes, which is not enough time for the squash to develop its own sweetness fully. But, if all you're looking for is a sugar fix with minimal time commitment, I mean, it only takes like 10 seconds to tear open a bag of granulated sugar and go at it with a fucking spoon; hacking a big-ass dick-and-balls-shaped gourd into inch-sized cuboids was a weird choice from the jump. If your reason for making butternut squash is that you think you'd enjoy the taste of butternut fucking squash, on the other hand, leave the sweeteners out and accept that you're gonna have to cook it a bit longer. The result will be worth it.
That is to say: extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and black pepper. That's it.
Now, arrange your squash-cubes in a single layer on a big baking sheet, stick them in the oven, and set a timer for 20 minutes.
"But food person!" you are saying, "20 minutes? Weren't you just on some shit about how you have to cook your butternut squash for a long time to 'develop its sweetness' or whatever?" Yes, dammit, yes. But you have to toss the squash midway through, to ensure it cooks evenly. So. When the timer goes off, open the oven, note the sweet, nutty aroma rising from it, note your sudden desire to eat some fuggin' butternut squash, note how your trunk and extremities shrivel visibly as all the moisture in your body rushes to your mouth—and, bite down hard on your hand to help yourself focus. Move the squash-cubes around a bit with a pair of big spoons or some tongs or your two least-favorite paperback books or whatever. Then sock 'em back in the oven and set the timer for another 20 minutes.
When the timer goes off again, the squash-cubes will be lightly browned here and there, soft enough that you can slide a fork into them with ease, and ready to eat.
Really, this is just the beginning of enjoying butternut squash. You could stuff an entire cookbook with cool things to do with it once it's roasted to slight caramelization and fork-softness. Soups and bisques and salads and purées and pasta fillings and pies and breads and casseroles and so on, all of them amazing and delicious. Before you can experiment, though, first you must train yourself to be in the presence of roasted butternut squash without your eyes rolling over white and the reptilian core of your brain zapping you into a feeding frenzy. You'll have to eat a lot of the stuff to get there.
Start by parking a heap of it next to some fresh baby arugula tossed with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, olive oil, and lemon juice. Gather all of the above onto your fork, and into your face. The cheese will do some magic to bridge the peppery arugula and the sweet, nutty squash; you'll drop your head like a marionette whose string has been cut and make a noise of enjoyment so intense it borders on outrage. From squash!
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. Image by Sam Woolley.
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