this winter-squash dish is a dark-season delight

There’s an Indian-spiced winter squash dish that’s heavy in my rotation right now, and it’s making me so happy and also all kinds of nostalgic.

how it started

When I first moved to Oregon 30 years ago, neither my partner nor I were very good at cooking. It was all pasta and student stir fry, if you know what I mean.

Bored with our options, we hoofed it down to Powell’s City of Books (the big one in downtown Portland) hunting for cookbooks that would give us some more interesting-but-achievable options.

One of those is Neelam Batra’s The Indian Vegetarian. It’s one of the few actual cookbooks I ever do anything with anymore. My original hardcover version has been falling apart for years. I just recently replaced it and I’m thrilled to bits.

The book served me incredibly well for the whole period of time when I was a Person Who Cooks. Sure, some of the recipes were more work than I was willing to put in, although plenty were surprisingly simple and totally delish. Under the book’s tutelage, for many years I called myself The Bean Queen. (Tarka = magic!) But some of its best offerings are in the In Love With Vegetables chapter.

I reliably made those recipes for years of home meals and potlucks. But then I moved, and lived alone, and pared things down to the most simple and basic. A step up from student stir fry, but not by much.

how it’s going

Recently, though, I’ve found myself in a similar position to the one I was three decades ago: My basic cooking is boring me, especially as we keep slogging through this pandemic. It was time to crack the books again.

And, since it’s winter and therefore the season, I resurrected my favorite winter-squash recipe, pumpkin with fenugreek seeds. (I substitute butternut squash for the pumpkin, finding sweeter and a lot easier to work with. But any squash will do.)

One of the things I like about this dish is that it’s very achievable. Yes, you do need to have some hand — and the fenugreek is really the star in this show. But once you are stocked, you’re good for a long time. And you know what? You don’t even really need all of the spices (except the fenugreek), especially when you know what you like about the recipe.

what you need:

  • One onion
  • Oil or ghee to coat the bottom of a pot
  • One medium-sized butternut squash, or whatever you’ve got on hand.
  • 2 tsp fenugreek seed (technically you should grind these first, but I don’t.)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cayenne (see note below)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 cup water

The official recipe also calls for garnishes of garam masala, which I haven’t made in decades, and cilantro, which I don’t care for. You do you.

how you make it:

  • Chop the onion and sauté it in oil until it’s starting to brown.
  • Peel and cut your squash into cubes. (Bonus: Toast the seeds for a nutritious snack!)
  • Measure out the spices. I toss them into a shot glass or small glass.
  • Once the onions are brownish, add the squash and swish it around a bit.
  • Then add the spices, swish around a bit, and quickly add the water so the spices don’t burn.
  • Simmer until everything is soft and yummy.

That’s it. The dish requires a fair bit of chopping and a little bit of measuring, which makes it one of the most kitchen-intensive things I make these days. But I love it so much that the energy expenditure feels worth it, and I’ve totally been craving it this winter.

If you, like me, are someone who doubles the spice in most recipes, I recommend against trying that here. I have high tolerance for heat, but this is too spicy to eat by itself — even when I cut the cayenne in half. Lately, I’ve been putting it over gingery lentils with a tarka topping, and then it’s lovely at full spice. If you plan to eat it alone, reduce the cayenne or eliminate it entirely.

why winter squash?

Squash is a winter-wellness powerhouse, with high levels of important immune-supporting nutrients. Just one cup of cooked butternut squash provides the official daily minimum dose of Vitamin A, 25 percent of your daily fiber, and good amounts of Vitamin C and several of the B vitamins.

If you toast the seeds, too, you’ll also get good doses of zinc and magnesium. These make a lovely, crunchy garnish, or a savory snack while the squash is cooking.

Furthermore, the squash, oil and especially the fenugreek seeds are significantly moistening — an important antidote to winter dryness.

Plus, it’s simple, savory and feels like a hug on a cold, dark day.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.


—Dr. Orna



Header photo by Maciej Rusek on Unsplash.