Nosh: Squash and Black Bean Chili

I just had my first delivery from my winter CSA.  I enjoy a good cold-weather crop; all those root veggies and dark greens and winter squashes are among my favorites, though it is true that since I became an adult I haven’t met a vegetable I didn’t like.

With one exception.  I’m looking at you, jicama.

Among the pickin’s was a nice big butternut squash.  If you’ve heard that my general approach is, “If it’s a gourd, I want to eat it”, then let me assure you the stories are true.  It was like angels packed my CSA box, because not even a full day before–less than 24 measly hours–I came across this recipe for pumpkin-black bean chili.

Wait, hold on a second…the recipe says “pumpkin”, but I’m talking about using butternut squash like they’re interchangeable.  What gives?

Here’s the deal: for the most part, they are.  Entirely.  Squash and pumpkin are all part of the same family; in much of the world they call all the variants (butternut, acorn, kabocha, etc) “pumpkin” and reserve the term “squash” for thin-skinned varieties like the pattypan.  Since the flesh of the (American term) pumpkin–and I mean the pie pumpkin, not the jack-o-lantern pumpkin, which is generally bred for its shell and not its meat–and the butternut squash are nearly identical in flavor, texture, useability in recipes and cooking characteristics, they are about as interchangeable as two different food stuffs can be.  So pumpkin and butternut squash = same, and that means I am ready to tear into my recipe, right?  Right?

Now what?

Getting into the squash itself is easily the biggest obstacle between you and dinner, but it can seem daunting.  The skin of a butternut squash is thick and hard, and impervious to things like vegetable peelers, small knives, and in all likelihood flamethrowers, but it can be overcome!  Don’t let it dissuade you from getting at the delicious meat just on the other side of the skin.  There are a couple of different ways to get at it, and equally valid depending on what you want your end product to look like.  Since the recipe calls for a puree, I’m going to roast one half whole and scoop it out of the skin; the other half, I’m going to peel before cooking and dice so I can roast the squares.  Step one: cut the squash in half lengthwise, and using my favorite, most underappreciated kitchen tool, scoop out the seeds with that unglamorous multi-tasker, the teaspoon.

Cut in half lengthwise, dig out the seeds.

Then coat one of the halves with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, put it cut side down on a baking sheet and into a waiting, pre-heated 350° oven.  You don’t have to peel it…you don’t have to oil up the skin side, either, but you can and should leave the skin on this one.  Forget about it for the next half an hour.

Dicing and roasting the other half of the squash is a little more complicated at first.  It does have to be peeled.  Cut the straight neck away from the bulb, stand the neck on end and slice down, keeping as close to the skin as possible.  For the bulb, I find that it’s easier and less dangerous to cut the bulb into slices along which you can guide your knife blade.  With patience and practice you’ll be able to dispatch the skin within a matter of a few minutes (though I’m not gonna lie; the first time I cut a butternut squash I think it took me like twenty minutes and I’m pretty sure I was crying by the end. It’s a good thing it’s so delicious or else I might never have gone back and tried, tried again).

Once it’s peeled, chop the squash into whatever size squares you feel is appropriate for your needs (I like them on the smallish side) and toss it in a pan with some olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.  Or whatever flavors you prefer.  Cumin.  Coriander.  Oregano.  Cayenne.  They all work, so let your imagination roam free.  It’s your kitchen.

To the oven with ye!

I roasted the unchopped half for about an hour (flipping once midway through) and the chunks probably forty minutes or so (stirring after twenty minutes).  The unchopped half is done when you can sink a knife into the thickest part of the neck and it meets with no resistance.  Let it get cool enough to handle and then take your beloved teaspoon and scoop that flesh straight out.  It’s so soft, it won’t be a problem.

Now that’s soft.

And then mash it with the back of your spoon, or a fork, or a masher-type thing if you must use specialized equipment.  You could throw it in the food processor, but really, why?  Anyway.  You’ll have something that looks like this:

Mmmmm, mashed butternut squash. Now set it aside for later.

Move on to the rest of your chili.

The fun thing about chili is that it’s always hearty and filling, even if it’s meatless.  It can come together quickly, once you get the ingredients assembled.  And it really is open to whatever ingredients you have around the house, though I know the hardcore Texas all-meat, no beans people would probably come for me with pitchforks and torches if they heard me say that.

I have profound love for the Texas chili.  If I got boneless beef chuck in my CSA box I would make some, but that’s not the case so all-meat chili people…lighten up.  It’s not personal.

Assemble your first round of ingredients.

Stage One ready to go in five…four…three…two…

I know you were all waiting for this, right?  Here’s what I did differently:

The recipe does not call for hot peppers; however, I fully intended to add some in there, because I like spicy food.  But we didn’t have any, so I also added a ground chipotle powder, which gave it a nice starter kick and added to the overall smokiness of the dish, which I thought was necessary to add in since I didn’t have fire-roasted tomatoes, as the recipe calls for.  When I realized I wanted more heat, I went for the spicy mainline and added a shot of sriracha.  Perfect!  I added cinnamon, because for me it’s not chili unless I toss a little cinnamon in there.  Not much, no more than a quarter teaspoon (unless you’re a junkie).  It’s just enough to cause that warm, savory cinnamon goodness to linger in the background.  If you think it sounds crazy you don’t have to add it, but I don’t make chili without it anymore.  And it only calls for eight ounces of beer, but that would mean that four ounces would be left over in the bottle.  It was the middle of the day, I still had Zumba to go to, it didn’t make sense that I would have leftover beer and not drink it, but it made less sense to have a pre-workout beer.  The entire bottle went in the chili.  You need to let that simmer for a little bit longer than the directions say, to burn off the additional alcohol, but your nose knows when it’s ready for the next step.  When the smell coming from the pot is one of savory harmony instead of hot beer, it’s ready for your next round of ingredients.

Rinsed black beans, crushed tomatoes, mashed squash, and corn. Seems like the start of a party.

And then these?  In.  I put the tomatoes in first and let them hang out in the beer and onion mixture that was in the pot already, just to let the liquids mingle and create a symphonic welcome for the beans and the rest of the veggies.  Once it’s cooked together for a few minutes, put in the rest of the goodies, taste and season.  Tinker, if necessary, since your taste is different than mine.  Depending on what kind of beer you use, you might want to add a little honey or sugar to balance the tartness.  You may want more sage, or more smoked paprika.  Mine was a little thicker than I wanted it to start, so I added some vegetable broth.  Bring it to a boil, and then simmer it for 45 minutes, stirring fairly regularly.

I’d show you a picture of it cooking but frankly, chili in process is an un-lovely thing to photograph.  It looked like a bad science experiment.

I made mine a little early in the day and let it sit while I went to Zumba, and I do recommend giving the flavors that extra time to mingle in the pot.  (Note: that post-chili-making downtime is also beneficial in getting your boyfriend to make cornbread.  But I digress.)  The full sweetness of the squash was completely evident, and the hearty earthiness of the beer and sage and browned onions harmonized into a lovely background.  I took some of the roasted chunks of butternut and used that as a topping, so I could enjoy little pockets of pure squashy love in my chili, along with the traditional toppings of cheese and scallions and some chopped pickled jalapenos.

Voila! Dinner, she is served!

The leftover nuggets of squash can be used in a million ways.  You can wrap them with refried beans and chicken into a burrito.  They can get tossed in pasta.  You can reheat them in the microwave–or saute them with some onions, mmmm!–for a side dish.  I had them with my lunch today, topping a pita with salad and hummus and blueberries and feta.

Hands off. This is MY lunch.

This chili would also be a great way to dispense with some Thanksgiving leftovers, as I would imagine it would be fantastic with turkey replacing one of the cans of beans.  Toss some of the carcass in to simmer at the beginning to really add that turkey flavor.  Wow.  Now I know my post-Thanksgiving project.

The recipe as it’s printed does say that you can use canned pumpkin (NOT the pie mix!) and that’s totally viable, especially if you want to make this fairly quickly, as the squash from scratch does take some time.  But if you’re looking to learn about how to take butternut squash from its raw state to cooked, this provides you with two suggestions.  If you’re looking to be in control of your food, understand what you’re eating, and want to ensure that your food is as additive-free as possible, then take the extra time to cook from scratch.  And seriously, those little squash nuggets go with everything.

Enjoy!

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