The Butternut squash, in one form or another, has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years; however, the most popular today was developed just up the road in Waltham in the 1940s. Unlike their summer counterparts such as zucchini and yellow squashes, butternut and its close relative’s pumpkin, Hubbard, and kabocha develop hard outer skins and firm flesh, which allows for over-wintering in storage.

The beauty of the butternut is in the flesh; when roasted or simmered it becomes a creamy, slightly less sweet version of pumpkin crossed with the sweet potato. And while its flavor is similar to pumpkin, its unique savory edge lends itself to distinctly different dishes and seasonings than those of its pumpkin brethren.

Butternuts are easy to pick out at the farmers’ market or grocers look for squashes that are uniformly beige, smooth and dull-skinned, and free of blemishes. Green stripes are an indication of being under-ripe. Butternuts should be in the two to three-pound range for normal recipes and will yield about three to four cups of cubed squash or puree for a recipe. Butternut also freezes well in both raw and cooked forms.

Cutting the butternut can be a difficult and somewhat dangerous endeavor given its hard outer shell. Simply starting with a sharp, heavy knife is the easiest way to proceed. After carefully removing any remnants of the stem at the top, carefully cut the squash in half, separating the thinner neck from the round bulb. Carefully cut both in half, Scoop the seeds from the bulb end, and keep them for roasting–-just like pumpkin seeds. The halves now are ready to be roasted as is or peeled and diced according to your recipe.

With the holidays upon us, having some quick go-to recipes is a must. Butternut squash in your pantry will make you a star in your kitchen. A simple squash puree in a blender with a splash of cream and spices makes a quick soup. Toss cubes with olive oil and roast, and then drizzle with a wonderful local maple syrup as a quick side dish. Roasted chunks are great to stir into pasta or mash instead of potatoes. Add diced, cooked, and cooled butternut to salads, omelets, or anywhere a bright taste and splash of color is needed. Roasted cubes also make a fantastic base for hummus that can be prepared by substituting the butternut for the garbanzo beans and lowering the amount of added oil and water.

Regardless of how you cut the butternut squash, scoop it, roast it, or pureé it—butternut squash is one of our local seasonal favorites that adds savory warmth to any holiday occasion.

Braised Butternut Squash with Figs, Rosemary, and Thyme

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 cup yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 butternut or other winter squash (2¾ to 3 pounds)
  • 1 cup dried or fresh figs, stemmed and halved
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • ½ cup vegetable or chicken broth
  • 4 teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary or thyme, plus sprigs for garnish
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

Peel squash and cut into ¾- to 1-inch chunks (about 4 cups.)

In a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and golden.

Add squash, figs, orange juice, broth, rosemary, and salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Once it boils, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork.

If liquid remains, remove figs and vegetables with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl; simmer the remaining liquid uncovered until reduced to 3 to 4 tablespoons. Pour liquid over the squash mixture.

Garnish with additional rosemary and thyme sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish