I tend to play favorites—harboring sweet spots for certain things over others. Thankfully, I don’t have children, a litter of puppies or multiple spouses (I’m looking at you, Bill Henrickson) to inflict this habit upon. Instead, I focus my favoritism on inanimate objects: a particularly sturdy treadmill at the gym; a wooden utensil that’s part spatula/part classic cookie dough spoon; a new chunky ring that I’d like to wear at the exclusion of all other jewelry. Feelings don’t get hurt this way, you see.
More than these things, though, I play favorites with food. Pet ingredients seem to constantly come and go. Toward the end of summer it was smoked paprika, but at the moment I’m into briny, chunky crystals of kosher salt. And where gruyere was once popping up in many creations, I’ve been increasingly turning to manchego. The favoritism runs toward baking as well: dried cherries are the only dried fruit that will do these days. And the abundant stash of walnuts in the pantry has lately given way to pecans.
Produce, I suppose, lends itself naturally to pet-ingredient status: grapefruits in January, sweet corn in July, honeycrisp apples in September, asparagus in May. As the waves of crops show up in the markets, I find myself head over heels for some new ingredient. That ingredient will sometimes show up in something I’ve cooked or baked several times a day, or maybe even in more than one meal a day.
This winter, unquestionably, my favorite has been butternut squash. I know I’m not alone here. Like pinor noir was in the wake of Sideways, butternut is a trendy, hot commodity (or as trendy and hot as a gourd can get, at least) that’s definitely flirting with over-saturation. It’s everywhere. But, for me, I still can’t get enough.
Tarts, bruschettas, risottos, salads, soups—you name it. My chief Thanksgiving regret, in fact, is that I took the pumpkin pie route, rather than making a cinnamon-scented butternut pie. Even when I’m not using butternut as an ingredient in a recipe per se, (say, when I’m in a pinch for a quick dinner) it’s so satisfying to simply hack up a butternut, toss it in oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and roast it in a hot oven.
This recipe takes that simple roast and ups the ante a bit. It pairs thin fingers of butternut with half moons of fennel, letting the butternut’s sweet richness tame the sharpness of the fennel. It has you roast both the butternut and fennel (along with some whisps of onion, flakes of dried chiles and a couple shakes of fennel seeds) until the vegetables caramelize at the edges and the butternut gets creamy-soft and the fennel just loses its crunch.
The vegetables make a lovely, hearty side dish. And any leftovers have infinite possibilities. We tossed our leftovers with whole wheat pasta, a squeeze of lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and some crumbled feta. I didn’t really need a new reason to call butternut my favorite, but this recipe has provided one (or two, if you count the leftover pasta!).
Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel
1 1 1/2-pound butternut squash, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, halved crosswise, then cut lengthwise into 3/4-inch-wide wedges
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cut lengthwise into 1-inch-wide wedges
1 large onion, root end left intact, then cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon red chile flakes
salt and pepper
Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with foil.
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss to coat. Spread the vegetables on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast until vegetables are tender and browned, turning once, about 45 minutes. Transfer to shallow dish and serve.
[Original inspiration for pairing the butternut and fennel was this recipe.]