Winter squash screams fall.* Between garish jack-o’-lanterns, warty gourds, and pumpkin spice everything, the hefty, orange fruit is everywhere in autumn. And while I eat and enjoy American winter squash classics—butternut soups, pumpkin breads and pies—”holiday fatigue” quickly sets in. Sure, those classic preparations are comforting and familiar, but too much of a good thing leads to taking that good thing for granted. So how do you keep squash interesting? How do you keep it delicious? And how do you still capture the spirit of fall and family time?
*And, yes, winter.
My favorite squash recipe in recent memory was a dish we served at BISq, a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. We wrapped large sections of blue kuri or acorn squash in banana leaves and roasted them until they were fork-tender, and we served the squash simply, with a relish of pumpkin seeds and herbs. While the dish was uncomplicated, it channeled the delicate flavors and textures of squash and elevated them: The banana leaf imparted an herbaceous, earthy flavor, and the gentle, moist cooking method kept the squash juicy without any hint of mealiness. The dish reminded me of lo mai gai (lotus leaf–wrapped sticky rice). So why not try to combine those dishes?
I’m here to report that squash cooked in lotus leaf is, as my old chef would put it, “nails” (it’s delicious). Compared to banana leaves, lotus leaves have a sweeter, intensely tea-like flavor that complements the sweetness of squash. Because of that aromatic intensity, I found that the dish held up well to the more pungent and savory flavors traditionally found in lo mai gai: ground pork, dried shiitake mushrooms, garlic, soy sauce, and oyster sauce.
To keep the cooking time relatively short and the serving simple, I cut the squash into small pieces and fold them into a cooked mixture of the remaining ingredients before steaming. Steaming the squash releases a considerable amount of liquid, which can make the resulting sauce thin and watery, so I also add a small amount of cornstarch to bind that excess liquid and produce a glossy sauce that coats the squash evenly. This is a simple, family-style side dish that can hold its own anywhere—whether it’s in the weekly dinner rotation or on the holiday table.
I tested this recipe with butternut squash, honeynut squash, blue kuri squash, and red kuri squash; they all worked well. If you cannot find lotus leaves, banana leaves work as well, but the flavor will be different. You can also use parchment paper in place of the leaves—you won’t get the flavor the leaves impart, but it’ll still create a moist cooking environment.