If you are an even occasional vegetable cook, you're probably already friends with zucchini and his cousin summer squash, but the hard winter squashes have always been a bit more ... distant. Butternut, acorn, delicata and all the rest of them: They sit there, unrefrigerated, unmoved by your entreaties, hiding themselves behind their thick skins. But don't mistake their shyness for aloofness, because deep inside, they're sweet and tender. OK, I'm going to stop with this stupid vegetable psychology.
The point is this: Winter squashes, once you get past the intimidation factor, are fantastic vegetables, no harder to cook than a potato, and they have a unique combination of texture and flavor. The different varieties will vary, but most share a clean, clear sweetness, a scent like flowers and wet earth, and a texture, properly cooked, like a juicy sweet potato.
To amplify their autumnal goodness, lots of recipes call for brown sugar or maple syrup, which I approve of, but lately I've been enamored of a more – how shall we say? – aggressive approach: roasting them in sausage fat. Something about that lardy goodness makes the squash -- butternut, in particular -- smoother in texture, its flavor rounder and more intriguing, both more fruity and mineral. Does that make sense? OK, well, whatever. I'm telling you to roast a perfectly good, perfectly healthy vegetable in the fat that melts out of sausage. Most people don't need much of a "why" after that.
But I'll give you a "why" anyway. Different fats have different effects on food. There is the question of the actual flavor of the fat, of course -- who can deny that butter tastes different from corn oil? But there is also something a little more obscure, a little more alchemic at play, too. Extra-virgin olive oil ingratiates itself with fresh tuna unlike any other oil -- it actually slides its way in between tuna's fibers, making it exceptionally luscious. Butter and olive oil bring out sautéed garlic's flavor in totally different ways; rounder and softer in the butter and brighter in the oil.
And so I think there's some of that kind of magic going on when you roast squash in sausage (or bacon, or pork, or chicken, or duck) fat that's utterly unlike cooking it in olive oil, which is what I'd always done before. (I'd bet butter or shortening, for our vegetarian and vegan friends, would be delicious as well, but they wouldn't have the same savoriness.) The texture goes from moist and pleasant to silky, and the flavor deepens, dropping about an octave, which allows its high, vegetal sweetness to sing a little more.
Sausage-fat roasted butternut squash
- 1 pound fresh pork sausage (hot, sweet, Italian, etc., is up to you. Just make sure it's not lean. Or substitute enough bacon or chicken or other meat fat to give you a generous coating on the bottom of your pan.)
- 1½ pounds butternut (Other hard-skinned squashes, like acorn or delicata, are also great, but may finish cooking at different times; the denser it is, the longer it takes, usually.)
- Olive oil, as needed
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 400°.
- Place a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat with a splash of olive oil, just enough to coat the pan. (If you don't have a big pan, use two medium-size ones; you need to hold all the squash slices in one layer.) With a sharp paring knife, prick holes all over the sausage links. Wield one of the links and dip it into the pan; when it's hot enough to give you a light, mellow sizzle on contact, place the sausages in. You're not trying to char them, just leave them alone and let them slowly render out their fat.
- Cut the squash: I don't bother peeling them, because the skin comes off easily once it's cooked and it helps to keep the squash's shape while cooking. Cutting hard squash freaks some people out. Don't be scared. You'll be fine, but you will want a good, sharp knife. Some suggest resting the squash on a towel and using a rubber mallet to bang a cleaver through it, but if you are the sort of person that owns a rubber mallet and cleaver for kitchen use, you probably don't need any encouragement from me. For the rest of us, plunge the tip of the knife into the middle of the squash lengthwise, and push down on it, like a lever, to cut through. Then turn it around and repeat on the other side to split the halves. (Do this in three strokes if your knife isn't long enough, etc.) Scoop out the seedy part with a spoon, and cut the squash slices 1½ inches thick.
- Check on the sausages; if they're lightly browned and starting to look nearly halfway cooked, flip them to start rendering the other side. By now, there should be a generous slick of greasy goodness in the pan. Once there's a little pool of the stuff, set the sausages aside and turn the heat up to medium.
- Salt and pepper the squash chunks generously, and place them in the pan for a couple of minutes, just enough to start to change the color a bit. Don't worry about browning them; just get them to start turning from bright orange to yellow. Flip the squash, tuck the sausages back into the pans, and put them in the oven. Right about now, your house is going to smell fantastic, and will continue to do so possibly well after you're tired of it.
- Check on the pan after 15 minutes; if the pan-side of the squash is nicely browned, flip the pieces and, if you haven't already, take out the sausages. Continue roasting until you can slip a paring knife in and out of the squash with no resistance, another 20 minutes or so. Say hello to your new little friend.
Note: Some people can't imagine roasting hard squash without some maple, brown sugar, cinnamon or some such. I'm not going to stop you, but I'd suggest adding those things when you check on them in the oven. I also wouldn't stop you from tucking in some chile flakes, orange peel, onions or hearty fresh herbs, like rosemary or sage. But that's up to you.