One result of the time I’ve spent in India over the years is that I’ve become an Indian food snob. And it’s not just that I’m reluctant to eat in what I know will be mediocre Indian restaurants. It’s that I don’t want Indian restaurant food, no matter how good. (Okay, well, if it’s really good, that’s different.) But what I really want is home food. And while I own multiple Indian cookbooks, some excellent, the recipes I treasure most are those that have been passed on to me by friends and acquaintances who cook this food in their own kitchens. Once I know a home cook has made it, I know I can make it too. (There’s a wonderful blog called Eat and Dust about food in old Delhi, and the intrepid writer, Pamela Timms, is also writing a book. She’s now testing the recipes she gleaned from all the folks who make and sell these various dishes on the street, including a version of chana bhatura (basically, spicy chickpeas with fried bread) that she claims took her a day and a half to make. More power to her, and I will happily read about her adventures, but I can’t quite imagine it.)
So, when I was thinking of writing about butternut squash, I knew there were a lot of different ways I could go with it. Butternut squash has been a staple in my kitchen for years, decades, even. I’ve used butternut squash into soup and risotto. I’ve roasted it and steamed it and pureed it. I’ve added it to pasta and salad. I’ve used it in lieu of pumpkin in bread and pie both. It is, as you probably know, extraordinarily versatile. But when it came down to picking a recipe to write about this week, I went with one I got years ago from my Sri Lankan-born friend Sonia who said it was in the spirit of her Auntie Iris, who lived most of her life in Colombo. What I love about Auntie Iris’s butternut curry is that it is very easy to make, doesn’t require fancy ingredients and tastes fabulous. I’ve been eating it over rice, but it also occurred to me that it would also make a fabulous soup. So, I sacrificed a bit of the curry as curry and turned it into soup and did not regret it. Auntie Iris is, sadly, no more, but this recipe makes me think of my dear friend Sonia, living far away in Geneva, and it makes me think of all of my various friends in their kitchens, all over the world, cooking food I always like to eat.
Not surprisingly, you start with a heap of peeled and diced butternut squash.
You put it in a pot and fill it partway up with water and 1/4 can of coconut milk and cook it until the squash is soft. If you’re making the curry as curry, then you can drain the squash. But if you’re going to make soup–or even think you might make it into soup–you should save the cooking liquid. (I made separate stock using the squash seeds, but then as I was draining the squash, I realized the cooking liquid would be perfect for soup and would save a step.)
Meanwhile, you saute red onion with garlic and ginger in a large saute or frying pan. When the squash is drained, you add it along with some red pepper flakes and a bit of brown sugar:
Once the pan and squash are both hot, you add more coconut milk, which gets quickly absorbed by the squash:
At that point, you’re done except for the seasoning–a little lemon juice, some cilantro if you have it. Some jasmine rice, and you’re done. If you want to make the curry into soup, you can puree it with some of the liquid you cooked the squash in and perhaps a bit more coconut milk. The resulting soup is smooth, creamy, gingery and delicious. Either way, this curry encompasses the best of home cooking and is a fine way to use some of your winter’s supply of butternut squash.
Auntie Iris’s Butternut Curry
- 1 large butternut squash, peeled and diced
- 1 large or 2 small red onions, peeled and diced
- 2- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
- 1-2 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 can coconut milk (light is fine)
- 1 tbsp. brown sugar
- red pepper flakes, to taste
- juice of half a lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
- chopped cilantro (to taste)
- Peel the squash, scoop out the seeds and chop into cubes. Put the squash in a pan with some water (about halfway, don’t cover) and approx. 1/4 can of coconut milk and 1 tsp. salt. Boil until tender
- If you have a mortar and pestle, you can pound your ginger and garlic together into a rough paste. Otherwise, mince the garlic and grate the ginger. (I used the wonderful young ginger from Old Friends Farm in Amherst so didn’t have to peel it–I just grated it as is.) Dice the red onions.
- Heat oil in a saute pan. Add the onions, garlic and ginger and cook until soft. Add a stick of cinnamon.
- Meanwhile, when the squash is tender, drain out the liquid (saving it if you’re making soup) and add the cooked squash to the frying pan. Stir until squash and onion mixture are combined.
- Add some cayenne pepper to taste, the tablespoon of brown sugar, more salt if needed and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
- Cook on high heat so that both the vegetables and the pan are quite hot, and then pour in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of coconut milk. The pans should be hot so the coconut milk is absorbed quickly by the squash.
- Once the coconut milk is absorbed, squeeze half a lemon over it. Serve with chopped cilantro on top.
- To make soup, put some or all of the butternut mixture back into a saucepan (minus the cinnamon stick!) and add back in some of the squash cooking liquid. Puree with immersion blender right in the pot. Add more coconut milk to taste.
More Butternut Squash Recipes
A lovely looking soup from Hampshire’s own Sarah Ryder: Autumn Bisque with Bacon and Crispy Leeks