Butternut Squash with Walnuts and Vanilla

Even though it’s 90 degrees here in Sacramento in mid October (are we having weird weather this year or what?) the pumpkins and butternut squash are out in numbers at the market. One of the things I love about winter squash is that you can buy one and then take your time to figure out what to do with it. They last for months as long as you keep them cool and dry. Here’s an easy side dish, perfect for Thanksgiving or any cool weather meal, using butternut squash. The vanilla makes you think you are about to eat something sweet, and in a way you are, as the squash has a natural sweetness, but this really is a savory dish. The combination of walnuts, thyme, ginger, vanilla, and squash may seem weird, but oddly it works.

You can either boil the cubed butternut squash with some bay leaves, or roast them until you get a little browning – in which case omit the bay leaves. Roasting will caramelize the squash a bit, giving a little more flavor, and the squash cubes will hold their shape better. Boiling the squash will yield softer squash and a little flavor from the bay leaves.

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Butternut Squash with Walnuts and Vanilla Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 4.

We're using butternut squash for this dish, but you could easily use kabocha squash instead, or any firm, easy-to-peel, winter squash. You can either boil or roast the squash, directions are given for both methods.

Ingredients

  • 1 butternut squash, about 2 pounds, peeled, seeds removed, flesh cut into 1-inch cubes (see how to cut and peel a butternut squash)
  • 3 bay leaves (if boiling the squash)
  • Salt
  • 1 heaping cup of walnuts (can substitute pecans or pine nuts)
  • 2-3 Tbsp butter
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Black pepper to taste

Method

1a If roasting Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat the cubed squash with a little vegetable oil and spread out onto a baking tray. Sprinkle with salt and roast until the cubes begin to brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven.

1b If boiling Put 4 cups of water into a medium-sized pot and add the bay leaves. Bring to a simmer. Add the squash to the pot. Boil, covered for 10 minutes. Drain.

2 Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and toast the walnuts. Stir frequently or they will burn. Once they they start to brown, and you can smell the aroma of toasted walnuts, remove from heat.

3 Melt the butter in the pan with the walnuts over medium-high heat. Toss the walnuts to coat with butter, then add the squash. Toss them to coat with butter.

4 Add the grated ginger, vanilla extract, black pepper, a little salt and dried thyme and toss once more. Turn off the heat and squeeze some lemon juice over everything. Taste for salt and lemon and add more to taste. If you want this to be a bit more luxurious, mix in another tablespoon of butter or two before serving.

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23 Comments

  1. liz

    I think I will try making that into a soup with pecan garnish. The ingredients sound delicious but I don’t like the texture of squash unless it is pureed.

  2. kate

    Hi Elise-

    Love your site. Would love to make this, but I HATE walnuts. Really intensely dislike and won’t eat. Is there a nutty alternative you might suggest?
    Thanks!

    Sure, try pecans. ~Elise

  3. Garrett

    I made this using butternut and persimmons, and replacing the walnuts for hazelnuts. I served the whole thing over soba noodles. Excellent dish, Elise!

  4. Dianne Oelberger

    Looks great! Can I make this a day ahead as we’re driving weds. for Thanksgiving? Thanks.

    Yes, you can easily make this ahead and just reheat before serving. ~Elise

  5. Patrice

    Will this be very rich? Sort of heavy? I’m trying to figure if I should pair with something simple like grilled chicken or something more robust. Thoughts?

    It’s a starch, with butter and walnuts. It’s not light. ~Elise

  6. Nathalie

    I made this today and it was very good. The taste really surprised me. The pumkin was a bit dry but not too and the texture was nice and firm. I roasted it in the oven and I did not have thyme so I left it out. It was great anyway. Thanks!

  7. daveg

    Couldn’t we save a cooking step, and add the walnuts to the 400 degree oven alongside the squash after about 10 minutes?

    Then toss the hot walnuts and squash with butter and seasonings in a warmed serving dish, and it’s ready without the stove-top step.

    What do you think, should that produce the same result?

    You could try it that way and see if it works for you. I find that toasting walnuts is rather unforgiving, unlike roasting squash. It’s almost impossible to overcook the squash. It is easy to overcook the walnuts. They can go from lightly toasted to irreparably burnt in no time. ~Elise

  8. Jodi

    Pistachios would work for those who don’t like/are allergic to walnuts. Think of the colors! This does sound really yummy. We had buttercup squash with dinner last night. More to come from our garden, and some butternuts, too. Mmmmm-mmm. Will definitely do this recipe soon!

  9. Elizabeth

    I tried this for dinner tonight. It was a sophisticated change from the rest of my squash recipes (which, ok, consist of roasting it and eating it with butter and lots of parmesan). The vanilla was definitely an unusual undertone, but, like you said, it works. I like the ginger, too.

  10. Dara

    Beautiful lighting in this photo, Elise! The crunch of the walnuts is a very nice foil for the tender butternut and I love the kick of the ginger.

    Thanks Dara! I kinda liked the dappled light in this shot. ~Elise

  11. marla {family fresh cooking}

    I love this as a savory side & also add a splash of maple (maybe cinnamon instead of thyme) and this would be a dessert for me. I would go with roasting the squash over the boil method – love that caramelization. Always dig the nuts too. Great recipe Elise! xo

  12. Natasha

    Truth is, I’ve never tried butternut squash. My background is in Russian Ukrainian cooking and this isn’t exactly a staple in the Russian food world. Is it like pumpkin?

    Yes, it’s like pumpkin, but easier to peel. ~Elise

  13. ellen

    Sounds delicious! Butternut squash is one of my favorites. I personally prefer to roast mine when I make it for any recipe. Seems to preserve more of the flavor. I’ll be trying this one tomorrow!

  14. chefgodzilla

    Made a soup of this (all but the walnuts); Slightly roasted the nuts and used them for garnish. My wife and son-avowed squash-haters actually finished theirs! Bravo, Elise!!

  15. Rivki Locker

    Looks delicious! I never knew butternut squash could last so long! Anyone know how long you can count on it surviving in the fridge? I’d love to stock up while it’s in season….

  16. Fara

    I made this dish this past weekend and it was delicious with rave reviews. I recommend roasting the butternut squash.

  17. Lauren

    Woah, this is good. When this recipe showed up in my inbox I immediately bookmarked it as a must-try — and tonight I did. I roasted the squash, which was fast and delicious. A whole cup of walnuts/pecans seemed a little much to me, and I only had about half a cup (of walnuts+pecans) anyway, so that’s what I added and it was plenty. Plus, fewer nuts lowers the fat content. I also had no fresh ginger, so I tossed in a little powdered ginger, but only about 1/4 tsp. — I was afraid the ginger would be overpowering otherwise, and I love the taste of butternut squash as it is. Also used only about 1 tsp. vanilla for the same reason. Based on another reader’s recommendation I topped it off with some goat cheese that got wonderfully creamy as it softened on the hot squash. A new fall favorite! I’m thinking of trying to get this on the Thanksgiving menu.

    P.S. Thanks for including the “how to cut and peel a butternut squash” instructions — they saved me from simply slaughtering it!

  18. martha

    Great recipe! I omitted the black pepper and salt (personal tastes) and used ginger powder in place of the fresh ginger. Fresh thyme would make a nice adjustment, but my plant died this spring. My final thought is, while I loved the vanilla undertone, I couldn’t help wondering why it is part of the recipe name… by the time the ginger and lemon were added, it was not a prominent feature of the dish, lovely though it sounded.

  19. Leisureguy

    Extremely delicious and interesting dish. I roasted the squash (why throw out water-soluble vitamins?) after tossing it with Lucini Fiery Chili Olive Oil. That spiciness, along with the black pepper, was an interesting counterpoint to the butternut sweetness (augmented by the vanilla flavor), the lemon’s acidity, and the ginger’s bite. Great combination.

  20. Leisureguy

    Oh, one other difference: I never bother peeling butternut squash (or eggplant or carrots or most other vegetables): it’s a great flaming pain and, so far as I can see, totally unnecessary. The peel softens greatly in cooking and simply adds fiber.

  21. Jess

    Making this for the second time tonight—this is a fast favorite around these parts. Wanted to note an interesting thing I heard recently (and will be trying tonight)—if you have a tough-to-peel squash, you can apparently stick it in the microwave for a couple of minutes to soften the skin and make it easier to peel, cut, etc. It shouldn’t stay in there long enough to really cook it–just enough to make it give a little.

  22. Alison

    Yes, Jess – but also best to pierce it once or twice before microwaving. It does indeed make it easier to peel. I just bought 2 organic butternuts so may try eating the skin too!

    A great Mexican place in Seattle serves a dish that uses butternut with manchego cheese. It’s delicious. I often use feta instead as the saltiness works splendidly with the sweetness of the squash.

  23. RH

    I made this last night and it was okay. I used pumpkin seeds in place of most of the walnuts because it seemed like the thing to do, and I definitely recommend decreasing the quantity. I used 1/3 C and that was plenty.

    I did think this was missing something, but I’m not sure what. Next time I’ll try using orange zest, and orange juice in place of the lemon juice.

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