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Butternut is an autumn star

Pumpkin may be autumn’s icon, but America’s favorite fall flavor arguably is butternut squash.

Those little pie pumpkins certainly are cute in their corpulence. Their taste and texture, however, don’t always match up, so food processors figured out years ago that marketing other hard-shell squashes as “pumpkin” fulfilled consumers’ culinary expectations.

The proof is in the pudding er, pie. Libby’s produces 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin, according to a 2016 Epicurious article. The orange flesh in the can, however, isn’t truly pumpkin but rather a proprietary strain of tan-skinned squash related to butternut. The result is a denser, sweeter, more flavorful product than pumpkin.

Because American lore has assigned such affection to the pumpkin, Libby’s doesn’t make the distinction between it and its Dickinson squash, which is all well and good with the FDA. The realm of “golden-fleshed squash,” which includes pumpkin, is conveniently nebulous yet specific enough for the legalities of food processing.

The government even allows companies to combine different squash varieties into one puree. If one type of squash doesn’t grow well in a particular year, the government’s loose interpretation of “pumpkin” keeps the country in spiced lattes, muffins and holiday pies.

But really, we all could be making those recipes with great results using fresh butternut squash.

It’s not a tall order. A good source of fiber, butternut squash’s balance of natural starches and sugars makes for supremely satisfying wintertime dishes. It’s also an excellent source of vitamins A and D and high in potassium and magnesium.

As its popularity has soared, butternut squash has started turning up peeled, seeded and diced in plastic containers in produce departments. The gluten-free trend elevated butternut squash’s status to “spiralized” noodle substitute. Stores that don’t stock it fresh in their refrigerator cases carry frozen butternut squash.

It’s far more economical, however, to break down whole squashes and freeze them at home. The squash doesn’t even require blanching, just packing into resealable plastic freezer bags.

Smooth-skinned, butternut squash readily submits to a vegetable peeler. And its elongated neck is entirely free of seeds. What seeds it has are packed into a small cavity.

Leftover cooked squash also is well worth freezing for use in another recipe. Simply scoop roasted squash from the skin into a freezer-safe container.

Although roasting is my preferred way with butternut squash, I’ve recently become a fan of plain, steamed squash, perfect as a mild backdrop for distinctive spice palettes. Recently I served steamed, diced butternut squash folded into couscous with a Moroccan-style stew of goat and dried apricots.

Another bonus: The steamer basket set over simmering water cleans up much more easily than a baking pan covered in caramelized bits of roasted squash.

A similar North African flavor profile is featured in this hearty, vegetarian stew. And it wouldn’t be squash season without a silky-smooth pureed pumpkin soup that’s even better with butternut.

Butternut Squash Stew with Pomegranate Salsa

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1-inch piece peeled ginger root, grated

3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1 Serrano chile, stemmed, seeded and chopped

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, preferably low-sodium or no-salt-added, plus juices

1 large carrot, scrubbed well and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 medium (about 1-1/2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

4 to 5 ounces baby spinach leaves, chopped (4 cups loosely packed)

15 ounces canned chickpeas, preferably no-salt-added, rinsed and drained

1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon Tabasco, harissa or other hot sauce of your choice

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

12 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large saucepan over medium heat. Once oil shimmers, stir in the coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom and cloves; sizzle them for a few seconds, then add the onion, stirring to coat. Cook until translucent, for 3 to 4 minutes, then add the ginger, garlic and Serrano chile. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until soft, for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and juices, the carrot, squash and enough water, if needed, to barely cover vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, for 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in the spinach, chickpeas, cilantro and hot sauce; season lightly to taste with the salt and black pepper. Cook for just a few minutes, to wilt spinach and heat chickpeas through. Remove from heat; cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile in a small bowl, stir together the pomegranate seeds, scallions, lime juice, mint and remaining oil.

Serve stew warm, over steamed rice or other whole grains, if desired, with salsa on top or served alongside. Stew may be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months. Salsa may be refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Makes 6 to 8 servings (8 cups).

— Recipe adapted by the Washington Post from “Eat Yourself Calm: Ingredients and Recipes to Reduce the Stress in Your Life,” by Gill Paul (Hamlyn, 2014).

Roasted Pumpkin and Pear Soup with Apple Relish and Bacon

1 (2- to 3-pound) butternut squash, cut in half, seeds scooped out and reserved

3 pears, peeled, cut in half and cored

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 fresh thyme sprigs

4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with a knife

1 yellow onion, peeled and diced

1 large carrot, peeled and diced

1 rib celery, diced

1/2 fennel bulb, diced

3 strips bacon, cut into chunks

4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1-inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated

1/4 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes

Zest and juice of 1 orange

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 quart chicken stock or vegetable broth, plus more to thin soup

1 cup heavy whipping cream, plus more to thin soup

Optional garnishes: Apple relish, bacon and/or pumpkin seeds (recipes follow)

Preheat oven to 375. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

Place the squash and pear on a baking sheet. Drizzle the olive oil over all and generously season with the salt and pepper using hands to evenly coat. Turn squash and pears cut sides down on baking tray. Divide and tuck the thyme and smashed garlic under squash. In a mixing bowl, toss the onion, carrot, celery and fennel with a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt and pepper; spread mixture on other baking tray.

Roast vegetables in preheated oven until squash is blistered and soft and onion mixture is lightly caramelized, for about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove vegetables from oven and allow to cool completely. Discard thyme and garlic. Scoop flesh of squash from shell and place with pears and onion mixture in a food processor. Pulse, in batches if necessary, to create a very smooth puree.

In a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-low heat, cook the bacon until crispy; remove from pot and reserve. Add the minced garlic, grated ginger and red-pepper flakes and cook until very fragrant, for about 1 minute. Add the orange juice and zest and the wine, scraping to incorporate any brown bits, and cook for 10 minutes to reduce liquid. Add vegetable puree, the syrup, broth and cream. Bring soup to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes to marry flavors.

Strain soup through a hand strainer for a finer texture. If soup is too thick, thin with additional stock and/or cream. Soup may be made 2 to 3 days ahead; keep in an airtight container in refrigerator.

Garnish soup with bacon bits, apple relish or squash seeds. Garnishes may be made ahead of time. Store relish in refrigerator.

Makes 12 to 16 servings.

Apple Relish: Toss together 2 finely diced Fuji apples, with skins on, along with 2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh parsley and 1/2 teaspoon chopped, fresh tarragon.

Squash Seeds: Wash and dry reserved squash seeds. Toss in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake in a 275-degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes, stirring often so they do not burn.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.