Everyone has a favorite squash. For many it is butternut—a thick-fleshed big boy, ready to feed an army with one go in the oven. For others it is spaghetti squash, being equally at home either with brown sugar and butter or a tomato ragu, and of which I am still contemptuous after years of being promised actual spaghetti for dinner only to be served a plate of squash, which was not in fact spaghetti. And finally, for some, there are the weird ones: Blue hubbards, pink bananas and Marina di Chioggias, which match their descriptors and are never smooth, orange or round.
But for me, right now, it is delicata. Delicata squash are technically a member of the summer squash family, but they prove a good transition from summer’s zucchini to winter’s butternut. Delicata squash cures like a winter squash, making it a good storer. Its flesh is creamy and orange like a winter squash. Its skin is thin enough that it is not only palatable but, in fact, pleasant to eat. I have never peeled a delicata squash and probably never will.
When looking for any winter-style squash, you want it to be free of bruises, soft spots or wormholes. If you are going to eat the squash within the next week or so a bruise won’t hurt you. But if stored in a cool garage for months on end, a bruise can mold and rot and take a good chunk of the flesh with it. If this happens, simply cut around the affected parts and cook the rest as you would.
Also, look for squash that is heavy in the hand and with firm skin. As a squash ages it will lose its moisture. A squash that feels light in the hand is often past its prime and will need extra doctoring-up when cooked.
My favorite cooking method for my favorite squash is pan roasting. It is how I cook a delicata 90% of the time. The other 10% are split evenly between simply cutting in half and filling the cavity with sausage and baking or slicing paper thin, skin and all, and tossing into a salad. I just had a lovely salad at The Cook’s House with raw squash, greens and pears, and I recommend heading over there, ordering a Cocchi Americano to start, and seeing if you like squash raw.
There are two keys to roasting successfully. One, don’t over-crowd. Julia Child made this term famous when referring to cooking mushrooms, but it applies to anything roasted in a pan or in the oven. The vegetables, via heat, will evaporate-off some of their moisture, yielding a concentrated, crispy crust. For that evaporation to happen there must be space for the hot air to move between the pieces and wick away the moisture.
Two, give the vegetable time to brown. If cooking in a pan, heat the fat, add the veg and then hold your nerve and give it time to cook. The more you stir, the more the food will get mashed up and break and won’t develop that nice crust. I am not a grouchy cook, but a surefire way to get me to bark at you is to walk up to a pan with vegetables roasting in it and start stirring absent-mindedly.
After those two points the rest is just nuance. The thickness of the slice will give you a slightly different end result. Thicker will have a bigger contrast between the crust and the flesh. A thinner cut will be more chip-like. How tender the final product is is up to you, as well as how long you let it cook. Remember you can eat it raw, so a little bit of bite won’t poison you. If you don’t want it to brown much more but want it more cooked-through, put the pan in the oven.
Any squash can be substituted for the following recipes but will require peeling before cooking. And remember that delicatas do not store as long as the winter babies, so maybe pass over the hubbards for another week or so and eat the delicatas while the getting’s good.
Roasted Squash with Beets, Dukkah and Yogurt
I was re-introduced to dukkah this summer when my good friend Barb would regularly have it out as an appetizer. It is one of those magical foods that are more than the sum of its parts. At it’s most simple it transforms pita dipped in olive oil and lends many a fall root vegetable a savory, toasty, nutty accent. Roughly translated, dukkah means to pound. Traditionally the nuts and seeds would be crushed in a mortar and pestle. I usually use a food processor but be sure that the nuts are fully cooled or you will end up with more of a paste than a crumble. Crumble is what you’re after. The recipe will make more than you need. It will store for weeks.
1 medium delicate squash
1 small beet
½ C yogurt
1 bu flat leaf parsley or mint, leaves picked
½ C hazelnuts
½ C almonds
½ C pistachios
2T sesame seed
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 T each dried mint, oregano and thyme
- In a 350F oven, toast the nuts and seeds until toasty and fragrant (about 10 minutes). I do this in separate batches because different nuts will toast at different rates. Sounds finicky but just use the same pan over and over again. It takes some time but not many dishes and is worth it.
- Allow nuts and seeds to cool completely
- In a food processor blend the nuts, seeds and herbs with a heafty pinch of salt until crumbly
- Peel the beet with a vegetable peeler and then grate on the largest hole of a box grater
- Cut the delicate squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the guts and then cut into ½ moons about ¼”thick
- In a large, heavy bottomed frying pan, heat a glug of neutral oil until just smoking
- Add the squash and season with salt
- Resist the urge to stir the squash, let it brown and bubble on one side and then flip to brown the other side
- Taste or prick a piece to see if it is tender all the way through. If not finish in the oven until it is.
- Remove the squash from the oven, toss with the raw, grated beet, parsley some olive oil and a pinch of salt
- Transfer to a serving dish, drizzle or dot with globs of yogurt and then sprinkle the dukkah over the whole lo
Delicata Squash with Chicken Thighs
Chicken thighs are my favorite piece of the bird. They have a good amount of fat under their skin and they are rich in flavor. Crisping the skin of the chicken and then cooking the squash in the chicken drippings adds richness to the squash without adding additional fat. It also has the added benefit of being a highly efficient one-pan dinner. This paired with a sharply dressed green salad and a glass of sherry or light red wine is my paradise.
4 chicken thighs, skin on
1 medium delicata squash
8 springs of thyme, leaves picked
pinch of chili flakes
2 T sherry vinegar (or a squeeze of lemon)
- Bring the chicken thighs up to room temperature and season with a good pinch of salt
- Heat an oven to 400F
- Cut the delicata squash into ½” thick rings and scoop out the guts with the edge of a spoon
- Heat a large frying pan with a just a bit of neutral oil (a tsp or so just to give the skin some extra sizzle strength)
- Pat the thigh skin dry and sear, skin side down, until nicely browned
- Remove to a plate
- Toss the squash, thyme, chili flakes and a healthy pinch of salt into the frying pan and toss to combine and coat in the chicken drippings
- Allow to brown lightly on one side and then stir spreading the squash evenly across the pan. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to brown the squash in batches.
- Place the browned thighs, skin side up, on top of the squash
- Place the whole pan in the oven and cook until the chicken is cooked through (about 15-20 minutes)
- Remove from the oven and sprinkle the vinegar over the squash, cover with tin foil, let rest for 5-10 min
- Transfer to a serving dish being sure to pour the pan juices over the squash and chicken