Winter squash are legendary for their versatility and hardiness. Ideal for soups, roasting, stews (Japanese or French to give two examples), and even some baked goods, they also are relatively resistant to damage and have long shelf lives — no padded carriers or stress when bringing home a few from the market.
The sweetness and solidity of winter squash makes it a great partner for the sharp and tangy flavors found in Mexican cooking. One delicious way to make this pairing is by simmering squash in tomatillo, tomato and chipotle chile sauce for a tasty vegetarian side dish, burrito filling, or taco filling.
The recipe starts with a classic Mexican salsa technique: pan-roasting tomatillos (like in my basic roasted tomatillo salsa). As the heat of the oven chars and cooks the vegetables, new and interesting flavors are created. The charred vegetables and their juices go into a blender with smoky chipotle chile puree and pan-roasted garlic to create a sauce with tanginess, sharpness and heat1.
Next, onions are cooked in a sauce pan to build more flavors. Once they are soft, the sauce and squash are added to the pan. Everything simmers together until the squash is ready. Top with toasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro, and/or cheese, and you have a delicious side dish or filling for tacos or burritos.
Squash in Tomatillo, Tomato and Chipotle Chile Sauce
- chipotle chile puree see note
- 3 garlic cloves unpeeled
- 411 grams whole tomatoes or a 14.5 ounce can (the fire-roasted variety might be ideal)
- 300 grams tomatillos husked and washed
Vegetables (all amounts after peeling and seeding)
- 200 grams white onion (1 medium)
- 700 grams butternut squash (approximately 4-5 cups)
- salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons)
- toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- queso anejo (aged white cheese)
- queso fresco (fresh white cheese)
Make the sauce
- Turn on the broiler.
- Place unpeeled garlic cloves in a dry skillet over medium heat. Cook, turning them occasionally, until the garlic is soft, about 10-15 minutes. Remove to a plate. After they cool, peel the garlic, chop fine, and put into a blender jar.
- Add the chile puree to the blender jar (see notes). If you aren't a fan of chile heat, start with less. It's not hard to add more after the dish is finished (i.e., mix a puree into a sauce), but it's hard to take it away.
- Put tomatillos on one half of a baking sheet that has sides (juices will be running as the vegetables roast).
- If using fresh tomatoes, put them on the other side of the baking sheet. If using canned whole tomatoes, cut them into bite-size pieces, put into a bowl, and set aside. If using using canned diced tomatoes, put them into a bowl and set aside.
- Place the sheet pan under broiler, about 2 or 3 inches away from the heat. Broil until blackened on both sides, turning now and then (they cook at different rates, so you might need to turn them at different times, and remove some as they finish cooking). Put the tomatillos in the blender jar, and the roasted tomatoes into a bowl (if using fresh tomatoes).
- Blend the garlic, chiles, and tomatillos until smooth (you could also use a mocajete or mortar and pestle, and a lot of patience, to make the sauce).
- If using fresh tomatoes: when the tomatoes are cool, core them, peel off the skin, roughly chop, then put into the already blended salsa. Do not blend after the tomatoes are added — you want pieces of tomato, not a puree.
Prepare and cook the vegetables
- Dice the onion.
- Cut the squash into 3/4" cubes (more or less -- make smaller or larger as you like)
- Heat some oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft and starting to turn golden.
Pour in the sauce and cubed squash and stir well (watch out for splattering as the sauce hits the hot oil).
Salt to taste (try about 1 teaspoon to start).
Reduce the heat to medium low and cook until the squash is tender.
Garnish with queso anejo (aged white cheese) or queso fresco (fresh white cheese), cilantro, and toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas).
Adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen
Tomatillos can be found in many grocery stores and nearly all Latin markets. Unlike tomatoes, they are pretty good in the off-season.
Chiles can be complicated: There are two ways to use chipotle chiles in this recipe, dry or canned. Either way, you end up with a puree of the chile.
For canned chiles, open a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (available at Latin American groceries and even some upscale grocery stores). Pour the whole thing into a blender jar. Blend until smooth. Scoop out the puree onto plastic wrap in 1 tbsp blobs or as a big log. Store in the freezer. When you need some chipotle puree, simply slice off what you need. (This is my preferred method -- it's so easy.)
For dried chiles, remove the stem and seeds (be sure to wash your hands well after touching the chiles), then soak them in hot water for about 30 minutes. Drain and put the chiles in the blender jar. Discard the soaking liquid.
- Use a different winter squash or pumpkin instead of butternut squash.
- Toss the cubes of squash with oil, salt and pepper, and then roast. Add the squash as above, and simmer until everything is fully heated (this might be a few minutes if the squash is fresh from the oven, or many more if you roasted it ahead of time and put it in the refrigerator).
Blogging Historical Note
Back in the early days of blogging — 2005! — a version of this dish was prepared for Slashfood’s Great Pumpkin Day (image from the Wayback machine) and Elise Bauer’s Great Pumpkin Carve Up Cook Off (Unfortunately, an image for Elise’s event is not on the Wayback machine).
Culinary Historical Note
Squash have been eaten in the Americas for thousands of years. Squash seeds dating to 9000 B.C. have been found in caves in the Americas, and it’s possible that squash might have been the first vegetable cultivated by humans in the Americas.2. Over the millennia we have figured out countless ways to cook the plant. In Mexico you’ll find preparations that use nearly the entire plant: flesh, seeds, blossoms, and even the tender shoots. The flesh is used in soups, stews, as a taco filling, and even as a dessert 3. The seeds have high nutritive value and wide range of uses including as a thickening agent for sauces, such as the complex and elegant sauce called pipian or mole verde4. The blossoms are used in quesadillas and soups.
Originally published on October 24, 2005; Updated 11/26/2017
- The sauce could probably be used in many ways: in enchiladas, tacos, etc.
- This tidbit is from Waverly Root’s 1996 Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World
- Nancy Zaslavsky’s A Cook’s Tour of Mexico has a recipe for pumpkin stewed in syrup, a favorite in Puebla
- Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking has a phenomenal posole with a pumpkin-seed-based sauce