A Better Winter Squash Recipe

Combining sweet and heat to balance the flavors.

A cooked Musquee de Provence pumpkin.
A cooked Musquee de Provence pumpkin.

Winter squash comprises the more well-known vegetables, pumpkin, butternut, acorn, spaghetti, and kabocha. There are others, including Hubbard, delicata, Kuri, carnival, and honeynut.

Usually, we think of winter squash as a sweet dish, and many recipes will add brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey to bring out the sweetness of the squash and layer on more flavor.

But I suggest taking the squash in the opposite direction and pairing it with spicy flavors to complement the natural sweetness.

There are two basic methods of flavor combination. The first is to combine similar flavors or the second is when opposites attract.

In the wine world, this is why we pair sweet wines with dessert, but they also match with spicy food.

You can use any of the winter squash varieties in these recipes. They have similar textures, you will only need to adjust the cooking time depending on the size of the squash.

Sweet Squash

In the winter squash world, pumpkin pie leads the tradition of combining sweet flavors. Turning winter squash into dessert and away from the healthy, vitamin-packed vegetable that it is.

Winter squash is naturally sweet. But not as much sugar as carrots or beets. For reference, squash has about 3 g sugar per cup, less than carrots at 5 g sugar per cup, and beets, 9 g sugar per cup.

I will agree that adding a bit of cinnamon and maple syrup to your squash will get your kids to eat it.

But when you explore the pairing of opposite flavors, winter squash can be a building block of many other types of meals that don’t have the traditional sweet taste we are familiar with. These savory meals are better for everyday eating.

Hot Chili Peppers

The “heat” that I am talking about comes from spicy peppers or dried chiles.

The peppers don’t need to be super spicy, and you can temper the fire by using just one or two. When you eat spicy peppers, they shouldn’t be so hot that you can’t taste the other ingredients.

And as “food that grows together, goes together,” both items need a long summer growing season. The squash is ready to pick at the end of the summer or early fall. Peppers can take a long time to grow, ripen and turn red.

Two Simple Recipes

The first recipe is my essential roasted vegetables but seasoned with dried chili powder and oregano. Serve this as a side dish or top a bowl of rice and beans.

It’s okay to buy the squash already cut up at the store. One of the better cut and bagged vegetables is butternut squash. If prepared squash gets you eating more vegetables then it works. If you want to use this product to make the soup recipe, just roast the cubes for 30 minutes before adding the cooked squash cubes to the soup and blend.

The second recipe, the soup. The soup is a simple dish to create once you roast the squash ahead of time. Making the soup only takes about 15 minutes.

I don’t mind turning the oven on for an extended period in the colder months. By cooking the squash whole, you don’t have to cut it up or peel it. You can do that after cooking when it’s softer and more manageable to cut through the skin.

You can cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds, but if you have any reservations about cutting a whole squash, try the method below to cook it without cutting.

Chili Roasted Butternut Squash

  • 1 butternut squash
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 °F. Cut the squash in half, separating the top, cylindrical portion from the bulbous bottom. Peel both parts of the squash with a sharp vegetable peeler or use a knife. Cut the bottom bulb in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut the squash into one-inch cubes. In a large bowl, toss the diced squash with the oil, salt, chili powder, oregano, and black pepper. Spread out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cook in the oven for about 30 minutes, until tender. Remove from the oven and serve.

How to cook a whole pumpkin

The easiest way to cook winter squash is to roast it whole. Turn the oven on to 400 °F, put the squash on a baking sheet, with parchment paper if you have it (for easy clean-up). Then put the whole thing in the oven. Depending on the size of the squash, it will take 60–90 minutes to cook. Press on the outside of the cooked squash with your finger, when the squash is done, it will make a dent and start to collapse.

You can also cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds and then cook the squash halves on a baking sheet. I usually cook my squash with the cut side down. This helps to prevent a crust from forming on the edges. The crust is useful if you were serving the individual pieces, but avoiding it will make it smoother when pureeing.

When the squash is done, remove it from the oven and let it cool. Now you can easily cut into the flesh. Scoop the flesh away from the skin and save. Depending on the squash you might want to puree the flesh, in a food processor or blender, to achieve a smoother texture for pies and this winter squash soup.

Southwestern Winter Squash Soup

  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • ½ large onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1–2 hot pepper, chopped (optional)
  • 1–2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups winter squash puree
  • 1–2 cups water or stock

In a soup pot, sauté the onion and peppers in the oil over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the hot peppers, garlic, oregano, cumin, and salt, stir and continue cooking for 2–3 more minutes. If the vegetables start to brown, add a little water. Add the squash puree and 1 cup of water. Puree with an immersion blender to blend in the vegetables. Add additional water if desired to reach your preferred consistency. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Vegan Nacho “Cheese”

The first time I made this soup, I used a Hubbard squash with a prominent nutty flavor. The finished soup, with the southwestern flavors, resembled nacho cheese sauce.

I am not one to imitate dairy products, but this was surprisingly satisfying to eat.

I would enhance this soup recipe with a bit of nutritional yeast and add less water at the end. Serving a slightly thicker soup with corn chips makes a great vegan snack food.

Sweet-heat is a flavor combination to undertake.

Even if you don’t like spicy food, give the sweet-heat combination a try. It will open up a new world to your winter squash dishes. And avoid typecasting squash in a traditional heavy sweet holiday dish, by making one of these recipes, appropriate for any night of the week.

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Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her on her blog Food Demystified, Twitter @juliehouse, and Facebook @fooddemystified

A chef trying to get others to cook their own food

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