butternut

Where I come from, butternut is the name of a squash. If you say the word, you mean the squash. The squash, of course, is neither butter nor nut, and does not taste specifically buttery or nutty; neither does it look like any nut you’re likely to see, nor like any butter you’d want to eat.

But, as it happens, it goes very nicely with butter and with nuts. Melt the one and sprinkle the other, or use both in a soup with the squash. Or whatever. Butternut squash is one of the most agreeable squashes, as far as I’m concerned; complaisant in the cooking, the flesh a rich orange hue on the eyes, the texture neither grainy nor too stringy, and the taste soft and sweet and round. It’s not dissimilar in these respects to pumpkin, but it’s smaller, it’s easier to handle, and it has a much higher ratio of flesh to entrails. And it has perhaps the most appetizing name of all the winter squashes.

Seriously. Butter? Nut? Compare with kabocha, acorn, spaghetti (I mean, yes, spaghetti is nice, but come on, butter and nuts are really nice), Hubbard, delicata, buttercup – well, that’s not bad, but I think nut beats a flower – or pumpkin. The only negative to the name is its resemblance to better not, and even that is a plus for those of us who like plays on words: “Should I pass on the squash ravioli?” “You’d butter nut.”

Where does it get its name from? Is it somehow an exocentric compound, a bahuvrihi? No; it seems to take its name directly from the nut called the butternut. The butternut is an oily walnut, hence the name (honestly, I think macadamia nuts are butterier, but I guess they didn’t have those around in the 1700s when the walnut got the name). I don’t know that those who gave the squash that name in the 1940s thought it tasted like it; actually it tastes closer to roasted chestnut. More likely they used the name because of the colour. Butternuts were used sometimes to home-dye fabric, thus giving the cloth and a colour the name, and some of that fabric was used for some Confederate soldiers’ uniforms, which is why Confederate soldiers were sometimes called butternuts (whether there was also any intended impugning of their manhood I’m sure I don’t know). Not seen any of them lately? Well, butternut cloth is about the colour of the skin of a butternut squash: a light grey-yellow-tan kind of colour.

Of course, you can use butternuts with butternut squash if you have some and you want to. Walnuts can sometimes make my mouth sore, so I lean more towards pecans (though if it comes to nut butters, I prefer almond butter – to me, peanut butter seems a bumptious second to the almond kind, though the almond kind is runnier and has to be stirred). Here’s a recipe I made this weekend (as I tweeted it) for what I have decided to call butternut bacon soup, although there are no actual butternuts in it (if you make it, you can use them in place of the pecans and I’m sure it will be splendid). Actually, I didn’t use butter, either, but you certainly could.

  1. Quarter and slice an onion and fry it in red palm oil. Add a minced clove of garlic. Toss in a bit of maple syrup so it will caramelize.
  2. Halve two butternut squashes and scoop out the entrails. Put them face down on a baking sheet in a 400˚F oven.
  3. Once the onion is caramelized, add a litre of chicken stock.
  4. Once the squash is soft (the baking sheet will be all wet with squash sweat), take it out and let it cool face up.
  5. Clean the baking sheet off because you’re going to use it again right now, unless you’re just made of baking sheets.
  6. You didn’t turn the oven off, did you? It needs to be on still, at 400˚F.
    What? Well, turn it on again then.
  7. Get out your kitchen scissors and snip up about 3/4 of a pound of bacon onto the baking sheet. I like the Danish style but whatever.
  8. Add a bag of pecan pieces. Um, I guess 100 grams or so. As much as you easily hold in your hand in a bag. As many as you want, OK?
  9. Add them to the baking sheet, I mean. With the bacon. Which you cut into strips about 1 cm wide, right? Mix them together and spread out.
  10. Well, so read all the instructions before starting. Or do you want me just to do this for you?
    Stick the baking sheet in the oven.
  11. Cut the squash off the skin. Or the skin off the squash. Anyway, you want the squash into cubes that you can smush. Toss the skin.
  12. By the time you’ve done that, it’s probably about time to pull the bacon and nuts out and stir them up and smooth them out. Do that.
  13. Sprinkle some curry powder over the bacon and nuts. Stick them all back in the oven.
    I use Sharwood’s.
    Some! Like, to taste!
  14. Grab the squash by handfuls and smush it up and drop it into the stock. Stir it. Add a can of coconut milk and a couple ounces of sherry
  15. Once the bacon and nuts are all roasted – the bacon is looking towards crispy – I don’t know, ten minutes? Shit, I just look…
  16. Anyway, take it out and add it to the soup. Stir it all. Give it 10 or 15 minutes to simmer.
  17. Purée? You wanted it to be that smooth? Well, you could have done that before adding the bacon and nuts if you wanted. Too late now.
  18. I think the texture is nice, OK? I like it like this.
  19. If you happen to have some candied cashews lying around the house (like, in a bag, not on the floor), you can sprinkle them on each bowl
  20. Oh, I know what I was forgetting! Sprinkle some brown sugar on the bacon and nuts if you want before putting them in the oven.
  21. Yeah, it’s a little on the sweet side. Your call. Also you may feel like adding more salt. Or not.
  22. Anyway, this makes enough to feed two people several times this week. I hope you have room in the fridge.
  23. Did I mention the sherry?
    Oh good.
    Well, you can drink some, too, you know.

There you go. Butternut squash is winter comfort food. Butternuts are, um, oily nuts. The word butternut is appetizing, probably not really because of its pattering sound like that of pecan pieces being dropped on the floor, I mean on a baking sheet, but just because butter and nut both bring tasty images to mind so quickly. Squash is not a pretty word but just eat it, OK?

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