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.
Why It Works
- Steaming squash in a leaf wrapper keeps the flesh tender but juicy and imparts earthy, aromatic flavors.
- Cutting the squash and mushrooms to the same size ensures even cooking.
- A small amount of cornstarch binds excess liquid for a sauce that's glossy and spoonable.
- Yield:Makes 2 packages, serving 4 to 6
- Active time: 15 minutes
- Total time:2 hours 15 minutes
- 2 dried lotus leaves or two (2-foot) sheets parchment paper
- 2 ounces (55g) dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated in boiled water until softened, drained and water reserved, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon (8g) cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil
- 8 ounces (225g) ground pork
- 1 medium clove garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) shaoxing wine
- One 2- to 2 1/2- pound (900-gram) winter squash, such as butternut or honeynut, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
In a large, heatproof container, cover leaves with hot water, weighing leaves down with a plate if necessary to keep them submerged, and soak until soft and pliable, at least 1 hour. (Skip this step if using parchment paper.)
In a small bowl, whisk together 6 tablespoons (90ml) reserved mushroom water, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, and pepper until smooth and combined; set aside.
In a wok or 12-inch skillet, heat vegetable oil over high heat until smoking. Add pork and cook, stirring occasionally and making sure to break up any large chunks, until well browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, stir in mushrooms and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes longer. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in wine and cook until slightly evaporated, about 30 seconds longer. Stir in sauce mixture and cook until liquid is glossy and thickened, about 1 minute.
In a large bowl, stir together pork mixture, squash, and salt until well combined and squash is coated.
If Using Lotus Leaves: Drain lotus leaves and pat dry with paper towels. Arrange each lotus leaf on a small shallow bowl or plate, with matte side facing up. Divide squash mixture between both lotus leaves, spooning to form an even mound. Working with one leaf at a time, fold each side of leaf over the top to form square package; flip package in bowl so that stem side is facing up.
If Using Parchment Paper: Arrange each piece parchment paper on a small shallow bowl or plate. Divide squash mixture between both pieces of parchment, spooning to form an even mound. Working with one piece of parchment at a time, fold each side over the top to form square package; flip package in bowl so that folded sides are on the bottom.
To Steam: Bring water to boil in a clean wok with stacking bamboo steamers or another steamer setup large enough to hold one package in its bowl at a time (if using a wok with stacking bamboo steamers, you can cook both packages at once; if using a different steamer setup, you may need to cook one package at a time, or you'll have to set up two side-by-side steamers to cook both at once). Steam squash packages in their bowls until squash is soft and cooked through but not mealy, about 45 minutes (you can use a cake tester, bamboo skewer, or instant-read thermometer probe to pierce the package and test the texture of the squash, which should offer no resistance); be sure to check water level occasionally, topping up with more boiling water if needed to prevent steamer from going dry. Remove packages from steamer. Cut small opening in packages and serve.