I almost resisted posting this recipe in February because butternut squash is something that everyone seems to be done with by now. It's like pumpkin spice lattes. Does anyone drink/want them after December?
What helps to make butternut squash feel more exciting is to shake up the spices. When I was in Myanmar a couple of years ago working on the Burma Superstar cookbook, kabocha squash was fairly common, often stewed with turmeric and ground chiles in curries. And in Kerala in 2004, I sampled a mind-blowing combination of black-eyed peas, coconut, and pumpkin. If vegan cooking was that good everyday....
This recipe goes to a different part of the world: Israel. Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi is one of those rare books that inspires so-called foodie people and more casual cooks. Several months ago, I overheard two women at Book Passage in the San Francisco Ferry Building talking about how fun they found the book. Part of it is all the vibrant photography--it really makes you want to eat more vegetables.
In this particular recipe, Ottolenghi contrasts sweetness of the butternut squash with bitter/sour za'atar and tahini. While I needed to pick up za’atar and tahini paste to make it, everything else I had on hand. Za’atar can mean many things (the book contains an essay on the subject), but in this context it’s a spice blend consisting of dried hyssop leaves (also called za’atar), sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. I bought a small packet to sample, which was actually just OK. Next time I'll ask the friendly folks at Oaktown Spice Shop to help me find a better blend.
The hardest part about acquiring tahini paste isn’t finding it—I nabbed a tin at the produce market around the corner from my apartment—but rather stirring its oil back into the thick sesame paste. I ended up dumping it all in the Kitchen Aid and mixing it thoroughly with the paddle attachment. The next time I need to buy tahini, though, I'm going to seek out the one made by Soom Foods, which apparently tastes amazing and doesn't separate.
After reading the recipe, my first impulse was to peel the butternut squash before roasting it. I didn’t, though, following the instructions instead, and I’m glad I did. The skin blisters and its texture contrasts with the soft squash flesh. Yet it’s hard for me to not tinker with a recipe. Instead of pine nuts, I opted for pumpkin seeds. The authors warn that the tahini sauce paired with the squash is assertive; I tamed it slightly by stirring in a spoonful of plain yogurt, though next time I'd leave it out just to see.
I’ve made the recipe a couple of times, once with red onions (per the recipe) and once with shallots (the day I was out of red onions). Both work as long as the onion pieces are large enough to prevent burning while roasting. (If using shallots, add them to the pan 10 minutes into roasting the squash.).
To serve with the squash, I made lemony, parsley-flecked farro, roasted cauliflower, and a butter lettuce salad topped with pomegranates. This dish would also be a natural fit with roast chicken or lamb meatballs-- or on its own for a light meal.
I’m looking forward to trying more vegetable recipes from the book, especially when summer comes and I can give that whole chopped tomato and cucumber salad idea a try. In the meantime, this recipe will keep me happy for a while.
Roasted Butternut Squash and Onions with Tahini and Za’atar
adapted from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012)
Serves 4 to 6
1 butternut squash, seeded and cut into cubes
2 small red onions or 3 large shallots, sliced into large wedges
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons tahini paste
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons yogurt (optional)
a handful of pumpkin seeds or pine nuts
Za’atar, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 450F. On a rimmed sheet pan, combine the butternut squash and onions or shallots with olive oil to coat lightly. Season with salt and pepper. Roast until the butternut squash is cooked through and lightly charred, about 35 minutes. If the onions start to get too dark before the squash is ready, pull them out of the pan. If using shallots, add them 10 minutes into the roasting time.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, lemon juice, and garlic until smooth. Season with salt and whisk in a spoonful or two of water until the sauce can drip off your spoon easily. Taste the sauce. If it is too strong and bitter, stir in the yogurt.
3. Heat a thin film of olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Toast the pumpkin seeds until they crisp and pop. Season with salt and remove from the heat.
4. To serve, spoon the roasted vegetables onto a platter. Drizzle the tahini sauce over the top and garnish with pumpkin seeds and a few pinches of za’atar.