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Winter warrior: Squash

It’s squash season and operators are satisfying demand with creative takes on this versatile veggie.

Something happens once the weather turns cold: Customers who wouldn’t eat squash if their dining locations gave it away suddenly can’t get enough of it. Luckily, operators are more than willing to satisfy this demand in the form of soups, sides and entrees. butternut squash soup

Squash’s seasonality plays an important part in the menu planning process at the University of Massachusetts, according to Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining.

“What we’re doing with squash is basically building recipes around it,” Di-Stefano says. “You really want to feature that seasonal fare and do so in a delicious manner. We want to use the squash as a means to deliver proteins like lentils and chickpeas, and whole grains like quinoa. Plus, with squash, there’s so much you can do with it, so it’s easy to keep it from being boring.” 

Beyond the traditional butternut squash, Chef de Cuisine Anthony Jung says he likes to experiment with different varieties of squash such as delicata, spaghetti or buttercup.

“What I really like about the delicata squash is that it is pretty much all edible,” Yung says. “You can eat that skin, and the texture really holds up well to roasting or caramelizing. You get this great base. It’s all edible and it’s different. We’re going to be serving squash for the next eight months here, so the more variety we have, the better for our students.”

Jung also praises the tradition of stuffed acorn squash. To prepare that, chefs scoop out the seeds but save the innards to roast off and put in soups. Then they brush the squash with oil, add a little salt and pepper and roast it. Meanwhile, they prepare the quinoa stuffing by cooking the quinoa and seasoning it with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger. Once the quinoa is in its squash bowl, they roast the squash for a few more minutes to finish the dish off.

“Another great dish we did for a special was a roasted butternut squash and apple soup,” Jung says. “The base for the soup is very basic with just the butternut squash and apples. But we can garnish it how we like. We used cinnamon, creme fraiche and dried apples, and we served apple chips with it. We really try to highlight the best of the fall flavors but also textures.”

Tom Serafin, director of food services for Concord Hospital in New Hampshire, says his department wows squash-loving customers with a black bean and butternut squash burrito. For that dish, the butternut squash is steamed and combined with black beans, refried beans, onions, cumin, cinnamon, a little salt and fresh salsa.

“That is an incredibly popular dish,” says Serafin. “We also have a great harvest maple chicken, which is a chicken  tenderloin dish where we roast the chicken along with cubed butternut squash, sweet potatoes, Red Bliss potatoes, fresh thyme and pepper. We roast all that together and then drizzle maple syrup over it. The chicken absorbs the flavors of the vegetables as it’s roasting.”

Another simple dish that the department makes is roasted fall vegetables, which feature butternut squash, zucchini, onions, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and Red Bliss potatoes.

“We usually just season that with a little Mrs. Dash, and we serve it with baked chicken or a pork tenderloin,” Serafin explains. “What I really like about squash is how versatile it is. It complements flavors rather than overpowers them. We participate in an agreement with a local farm, so we really try to maximize the produce that’s available from them. That means we are using squash, potatoes, carrots, etc. right up through Christmas.”

Scott Bruhn, executive chef at Iowa State University in Ames, says squash is a great choice because it is so readily available. He also loves how the flavor complements other components.

“If you roast squash, it brings out a great sweetness,” Bruhn says. “It goes well with the richness of cheese and butter, especially in our butternut squash risotto. For that, we peel the butternut squash and cube it. We use a vegetable base as a liquid as well as some water and white wine. We sauté some garlic and onion in butter until they get soft, add the squash and the rice and slowly start adding the liquid.  Right at the end, we add some butter, salt, pepper and grated Asiago cheese.”

Squash also will be important in a new concept called Simple Plate, which the department plans to open in the spring semester. Bruhn says there are plans to offer a quinoa-stuffed acorn squash and a roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and Craisin salad with a Dijon vinaigrette, which they’ve also served as a warm dish. “It’s great either way,” he says.

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