Around this time every year, as I finish preserving tomatoes and ponder the results with equal parts satisfaction, gratefulness, and relief (it’s hot work, people, hot!), I become sort of possessive and protective of my tomato larder.
All that work, and I don’t want to use any of it. I want to hoard it, save it for when the snow flies and I really, really need an injection of summer memories.
So between now and then, I look for tomato sauce alternatives to serve over pasta or gnocchi, like this quick, easy and flavorful butternut squash sauce, for a weeknight-doable dinner. Normally, butternut squash sauce can be mildly sweet and just a tad bland, but ingredients borrowed from Thai cuisine pump up the flavor without masking the inherent squashness of the butternut.
Butternut squash is hands-down my favorite winter squash. It has a gentle chameleon quality to it that works equally well in desserts and savory dishes, and pairs wonderfully with other autumn fruits and vegetables.
When choosing butternut squash, remember that the good stuff is in the neck — the larger the neck, the more squash flesh you’ll have. The round bulb at the end is the seed pod and contains mostly, well, seeds (save those seeds and roast them like pumpkin seeds with a little olive oil and sea salt — delicious!).
For extra quick dinner prep, you can peel and chop the squash the night before — store in a container in the fridge.
Speaking of … peeling butternuts has always been a quirky challenge for me, finding the best method that spares my fingers (and my patience). Vegetable peelers work okay, but butternut skin is very thick and requires two or three passes of the peeler to remove it all. Roasting the squash makes the skin very easy to simply pull off, but it’s only practical when you need roasted squash (which you don’t in this recipe).
A knife goes faster: make a nice, flat cut above the rounded seed pod, like in the photo above. Cut off the stem end on the top of the neck. Stand the squash neck vertically on the flat cut and use a sharp knife with good weight to slice off the skin down the side of the neck.
Although the butternut squash sauce looks thick, creamy, and heavy, it’s actually fairly light and won’t weigh down your tummy. The secret Thai ingredients add a savory boost without stepping over the edge into a curry.
I love this served over gnocchi, but if you want to get all winter squashy with your bad self, spoon it on to cooked spaghetti squash — healthy, dairy-free, and gluten-free!
Easy butternut squash sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into small dices
1 young leek, thinly sliced (white and light green parts only) (or sub with a scallion)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2/3 cup coconut milk
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup pancetta, diced and cooked until crispy (optional, for garnish)
grated Parmesano-Reggiano (optional, for garnish)
Heat oil in saute pan over medium until shimmering. Add the butternut squash dices and allow to cook, stirring frequently, until all edges are golden (8-10 minutes). Toss in the leeks and saute until they begin to soften, then sprinkle in the minced garlic. Cook until the garlic becomes aromatic. Pour in the water, along with the sesame oil and fish sauce. Stir well to mix.
When the squash is soft and mashable, turn heat to low and run a stick blender through the pan to smooth out the mixture. (Or, use a large tined fork or potato masher.) Stir in the coconut milk until completely blended. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary (adding salt and black pepper.)
Serve over gnocchi, pasta or spaghetti squash. Top with crispy pancetta* and grated cheese, if desired.
*For extra flavor, saute the pancetta in the oil as a first step. Remove to a plate when cooked and crispy. Then continue the recipe with the diced butternut squash.