Beneath the sweet banality of butternut, there is its alter ego: a deep earthiness that can only be coaxed out by pushing the squash around a little. No boiling, or braising, or baking will find it. A wide pan and searing dry heat, though, swaps the facets of butternut’s personality from sugary-soft to full-bodied and a little bit savory — the perfect accompaniment to a crisp-skinned roasted chicken.
This "Master Cleanse chicken" is one of our all-time favorite recipes on the site. It's a brilliant recipe from Sara Kate, who brushes a blend of lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup on a bird, with a wink to that spicy diet fad. This is good for you in all sorts of ways — burnished and juicy, ready to be sliced up and eaten along with this savory butternut side dish.
Now is the time to lug out that prized cast iron pan and employ its cooking chops. If you don’t have one, that’s ok, too. Reach for the widest sauté pan or skillet you’ve got, at least 10 inches wide, preferably 12. Crusted cubes of finished squash, resembling blue-ribbon hash browned potatoes from a back country diner that couldn't care less about big city reviews, only come about by way of enough space to sizzle free of steam.
Things don’t get complicated here, but you have to participate. First, you’ll need to stay on top of the heat, adjusting it down as you go. And most importantly, you’ll have to man the fond, those precious bits at the bottom of the pan that intensify as the minutes pass and that become an integral garnish, not something to get washed away in the sink or flicked off the top to the side.
In the end, this tumbling pile of squares with their caramelized edges that stick in your teeth in a very good way, gets a drizzle of puckery pomegranate-spiked balsamic vinaigrette to play off the inherent sweetness that’s mulling around in the background. Shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano, thin enough for silhouettes, promise the salty bite that balances it all.
And what to pair with this perfect side dish? Try it with roast chicken — you can't go wrong.
Pan-Seared Butternut Squash with Balsamic & Parmigiano Shards
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
5 fresh sage leaves, sliced into a very thin chiffonade
Leaves of 4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 medium (2 pound) butternut squash, peeled and cut into uniform 3/4-inch cubes, about 5 cups worth (if buying pre-cut squash, you’ll need about 1 1/4 pounds)
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses (See Recipe Note)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings, to serve
Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch cast iron pan, or a large sauté pan or skillet, over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the thyme and sage and fry them for 30 seconds. Add the squash, immediately toss to coat with the oil, and spread the squash out into as much of a single layer as possible. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Lower the heat to medium and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or longer, stirring occasionally, until the sides of the cubes vary from light to dark brown and the squash is tender all the way through when poked with a fork. Pay attention to the heat under the pan, taking care not to burn the outsides before the middles are soft, but don’t fear failure if a few of the cubes darken to near black here and there. As the squash cooks, stir and scrape often with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula that can do the work of getting the tasty bits up off the bottom of the pan without scraping it silly.
While the squash cooks, briskly whisk together the molasses, balsamic and olive oil and set it aside.
As soon as squash is tender throughout, sprinkle with salt and pepper, adding more to taste. Transfer the butternut to a platter and drizzle with the balsamic vinaigrette. Scatter the shards of cheese over top and serve immediately.
Leftovers, if any, can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days and reheated in a hot pan until warm. They are also excellent in an arugula salad with red onions and more of the same balsamic dressing.
- Honey can be substituted for the pomegranate molasses but will lack the tartness that stands out over the butternut sweetness
Tara's new book Choosing Sides includes 130 fabulous recipes for side dishes to complement any entrée and complete meals for every occasion. → Find it at an independent bookshop, local library, or on Amazon: Choosing Sides: From Holidays to Every Day, 130 Delicious Recipes to Make the Meal
(Images: Tara Mataraza Desmond)