The first time I tasted a winter squash, naturally it was butternut. I was at a restaurant, and the menu item that intimidated me least was a ravioli filled with butternut squash and goat cheese. Not yet an adventurous eater, I had never tasted either. The kind server explained that butternut squash tastes like sweet potatoes and goat cheese is like fancier cream cheese. As I recall, the sauce was primarily melted butter. There were also likely fried sage leaves on the scene. This was the ’90s. I declared these ravioli the best thing I’d ever eaten.
So you can imagine how excited I was a while later, when a friend and professional chef offered to make us squash and goat cheese ravioli for dinner one crisp autumn night. Things were going great: The filling had the rich, savory, balanced quality I remember from my introduction to squash at that restaurant. He substituted wonton wrappers for homemade pasta to form the ravioli, a shortcut I use to this day.
Unfortunately, it all went very wrong when he drizzled the sauce, a maple “gastrique,” all over the just-boiled ravioli. I tasted one and thought: Ruined. I could have melted a stick of butter to pour over these, and we would have had a better dinner.
It should be against the law to combine already-plenty-sweet winter squash with apples, maple syrup, brown sugar, figs, honey or raisins. I’ve read many recipes for squash that call for more than one of these and then throw in cinnamon or another pumpkin pie spice, resulting in . . . dessert. These cloyingly sweet recipes work against everything that makes great cooking: Complexity, contrast, balance and depth.
Thai restaurants lit the way for me when it comes to cooking winter squash. Whenever I spy pumpkin or squash curry on a Thai menu, I order it. A chile-kicked, herbaceous, coconut-rich bath complements tender winter squash the way sticky-sweet ingredients cannot, making the vegetable robust and meaty.
After the disappointing, one-dimensional butternut squash soups I made by following typical recipes, I started to go the opposite way, always marrying cold-weather squash with bold and spicy ingredients to offset their mellow sweetness and bring out their savory side.
While I’m not a vegetarian, I do stick to a mostly plant-based diet. And I’m always looking for ways to displace at least some meat with vegetables. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to add cubed butternut squash, along with pinto beans, to ground turkey for a warming fall supper. Chili powder, chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, cumin and ground black pepper combine for a heat that doesn’t singe. I make that spicy paste in the blender with a secret ingredient: Raw cashews. They lend the mouth-filling richness you expect in chili that usually comes from beef.
Nuts feature in all three of these surprising squash recipes for that reason. While there is something decadent about the melting texture of cooked winter squash, it needs a fair amount of fat to achieve its true potential.
I also use cashews in my delicata squash nachos, which until now has been a recipe I’ve restricted to my own solo lunches. The first time I threw it together, I was dying for nachos but lacking tortilla chips. What if I roast delicata squash slices and lay on the nacho works? I topped the squash semicircles with black beans, onions, red peppers and pickled jalapeños. When the vegetables were tender, I rained grated cheese over the sheet pan and ran it under the broiler until it bubbled at the edges in that seductive nacho way. I still endorse this variation and even bought pepper jack for recipe-testing purposes.
But in the end, I decided to share the recipe the way I make it now: Topped with a cashew-based vegan nacho cheese. Adding a bit of the liquid from a jar of pickled jalapeños makes this sauce reminiscent of what you get out of a pump-operated canister at the ballpark. But in a good way.
I hesitated making these for my husband, Dan, because I knew he’d reject the notion of nachos that require a knife and fork, which these do. The utensils may be contrary to the spirit of nachos, but the flavor is true to them. After mild protest, Dan ate two helpings and took the leftovers for lunch the next day.
I’m sure you could nacho other kinds of squash, but I wouldn’t know. I make this dish so often for the weeks that delicata is in season that when it disappears, I’m all set with this dish for another year.
Finally, there’s peanut and kabocha squash stew. Like Thai curries, this is a dish that makes obvious the superiority of spicy heat over sticky syrups when it comes to squash. I was first inspired to make these kind of peanut butter-enriched stews when Carla Hall whipped up one with sweet potatoes on “Top Chef” in 2010. Kabocha squash works perfectly in place of the usual sweet potatoes here. It’s the naked heat of dried red peppers and a finish of fresh jalapeño paste—as much as you dare—that makes this stew powerful enough to turn you off brown sugar glazes forever.