Winter in New York may seem like a remarkably inconvenient time for seasonal cooking, and I won’t deny that it’s a more challenging season than others. Walking around the farmers’ market this time of year leaves much to be desired. The vibrant colors of fall are long gone, and in place of that liveliness are, well, a whole lot of varieties of potatoes. And while potatoes are wonderful in their own right, a full meal they do not make. Luckily, with a little persistence, you can find some really great local produce.
A lot of winter foods are diamonds in the rough—they just need a little TLC to be transformed into something special. Winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn, kabocha, delicata, and so on) falls into that category. Squash begins to appear in farmers’ markets in the fall and sticks around for several months, making it a wonderful winter staple to become familiar with. It’s also dirt cheap, which doesn’t hurt either.
Butternut squash in particular is often used in soup, but I think it’s at its best when cut into cubes, simply seasoned, and roasted. The natural sugars in the squash caramelize in the oven, and the outside becomes crispy while the inside remains lusciously tender. Plus, it’s a starchy vegetable, so the result is usually pretty filling. In today’s recipe, when combined with lentils and goat cheese, the salad is undoubtedly hearty enough to be a main dish. As a bonus, you can wash and dry the seeds and roast them with olive oil for about 20 minutes. They make an addictive, nutrient-packed snack.
The only down-side to squash is its unyielding outer peel. Many a cook will confess to having lost a battle with a squash in an effort to peel it, but don’t give up! Squash may be sold pre-cut, but you save a lot of money by buying a whole one, plus you otherwise wouldn’t get the seeds inside. If you don’t have a vegetable peeler sharp enough to cut through the squash skin, cut the squash in half cross-wise so that you have a flat edge on which to balance it, and then use a sharp knife to cut thin slices down the sides. You’ll lose a little of the squash flesh, but your fingers will be safe.
As for the other ingredients in this recipe, dried lentils and cheese are always in season. Lentils are somewhat underrated, but I always keep a stash in my pantry. They cook very quickly as compared to other dried beans, and they’re quite versatile. In this dish, the lentils are cooked al dente, which makes a nice base for the soft squash. Goat cheese adds a rich creaminess and elevates the salad from good to somewhat decadent.
If you’re not familiar with pimenton (smoked paprika), I do recommend that you track it down and start experimenting. It’s a wonderful spice with a unique smoky flavor that’s both sweet and a little hot. Traditionally it’s used in Spanish cooking, but I find myself putting it on everything from roasted sweet potatoes to eggplant to braised greens. It can be tough to find in your average grocery store, so an adequate substitute would be sweet paprika with a bit of cayenne or chili powder. If you appreciate spice, I would actually add a dash of cayenne to this even if you are using pimenton. I like the way a little heat contrasts the sweetness of the squash. The original recipe also calls for mint and arugula, neither of which is in season here, but I found the dish was still tasty and well balanced without them. If you’re lucky enough to live in a warmer climate, you may want to try including them, as I can see a little green being a welcome addition to the salad. One of the great things about this dish is that it’s pretty easy to double (or triple) the recipe, so it would work perfectly as part of a potluck or dinner party.
Spiced Squash, Lentil, and Goat Cheese Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit
3/4 cup French green or black lentils
6 cups 1-inch pieces peeled seeded sugar pumpkin or butternut squash (from about one 2-pound whole pumpkin)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon hot smoked Spanish paprika
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup thinly sliced mint leaves (optional)
4 cups baby arugula (optional)
1. Place lentils in small bowl. Cover with cold water and soak 10 minutes; drain.
Cook lentils in boiling salted water until tender but firm, about 30 minutes. Drain lentils. Rinse under cold water, then drain.
2. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place squash in large bowl; toss with 2 tablespoons oil, cumin, paprika, and sea salt. Arrange squash in single layer on baking sheet; roast 20 minutes. Turn squash over. Roast until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool.
3. Combine lentils, squash, and oil from baking sheet with arugula (if using), half of goat cheese, mint (if using), vinegar, and 1 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among plates; sprinkle remaining goat cheese over.
Freya Bellin works in corporate training by day and is a food writer by night. She lives in New York City and is enthusiastic about local farmers’ markets, restaurants, and healthy living. She writes weekly for www.markbittman.com.