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Winter wonders

The best winter squash recipes reject the sweet and kick up the heat

Joy Manning Special to The Washington Post
Kabocha squash is especially velvety and flavorful, but you can substitute the more common butternut or even sweet potatoes in kabocha squash and peanut stew. [Contributed by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post]

The first time I tasted a winter squash, naturally it was butternut. I was at a restaurant, and the menu item that intimidated me least was a ravioli filled with butternut squash and goat cheese. Not yet an adventurous eater, I had never tasted either. The kind server explained that butternut squash tastes like sweet potatoes and goat cheese is like fancier cream cheese. As I recall, the sauce was primarily melted butter. There were also likely fried sage leaves on the scene. This was the '90s. I declared these ravioli the best thing I'd ever eaten.

So you can imagine how excited I was a while later, when a friend and professional chef offered to make us squash and goat cheese ravioli for dinner one crisp autumn night. Things were going great: The filling had the rich, savory, balanced quality I remember from my introduction to squash at that restaurant. He substituted wonton wrappers for homemade pasta to form the ravioli, a shortcut I use to this day.

Unfortunately, it all went very wrong when he drizzled the sauce, a maple "gastrique," all over the just-boiled ravioli. I tasted one and thought: Ruined. I could have melted a stick of butter to pour over these, and we would have had a better dinner.

It should be against the law to combine already-plenty-sweet winter squash with apples, maple syrup, brown sugar, figs, honey or raisins. I've read many recipes for squash that call for more than one of these and then throw in cinnamon or another pumpkin pie spice, resulting in ... dessert. These cloyingly sweet recipes work against everything that makes great cooking: complexity, contrast, balance and depth.

Thai restaurants lit the way for me when it comes to cooking winter squash. Whenever I spy pumpkin or squash curry on a Thai menu, I order it. A chile-kicked, herbaceous, coconut-rich bath complements tender winter squash the way sticky-sweet ingredients cannot, making the vegetable robust and meaty.

After the disappointing, one-dimensional butternut squash soups I made by following typical recipes, I started to go the opposite way, always marrying cold-weather squash with bold and spicy ingredients to offset their mellow sweetness and bring out their savory side.

While I'm not a vegetarian, I do stick to a mostly plant-based diet. And I'm always looking for ways to displace at least some meat with vegetables. So it wasn't much of a stretch for me to add cubed butternut squash, along with pinto beans, to ground turkey for a warming fall supper. Chili powder, chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, cumin and ground black pepper combine for a heat that doesn't singe. I make that spicy paste in the blender with a secret ingredient: raw cashews. They lend the mouth-filling richness you expect in chili that usually comes from beef.

Nuts feature in these surprising squash recipes for that reason. While there is something decadent about the melting texture of cooked winter squash, it needs a fair amount of fat to achieve its true potential.

Like Thai curries, peanut and kabocha squash stew is a dish that makes obvious the superiority of spicy heat over sticky syrups when it comes to squash. I was first inspired to make these kind of peanut butter-enriched stews when Carla Hall whipped up one with sweet potatoes on "Top Chef" in 2010. Kabocha squash works perfectly in place of the usual sweet potatoes here. It's the naked heat of dried red peppers and a finish of fresh jalapeño paste — as much as you dare — that makes this stew powerful enough to turn you off brown sugar glazes forever.

Turkey and Butternut Squash Chili

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup raw cashews

1 chipotle chile in adobo, plus 1 tablespoon of the sauce

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound ground turkey

2 cups diced butternut squash (about 10 ounces, from a 1 1/2-pound squash)

2 medium onions, cut into small dice (2 cups)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, preferably no-salt-added, drained and rinsed

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with their juices

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish

Lime wedges, for serving

Combine the broth, cashews, chipotle and its adobo sauce and the chili powder in a blender; puree until smooth.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat; once the oil shimmers, add the ground turkey and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring to break up any large clumps. The meat should be cooked through, with no trace of pink.

Reduce the heat to medium; add the squash, onions, garlic, cumin, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions have softened.

Add the cashew puree, pinto beans and the diced tomatoes and their juices, stirring to incorporate. Increase the heat to high just long enough to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium or medium-low — just enough to maintain steady bubbles at the edges. Partially cover and cook for 35 minutes, until the squash is quite tender. Uncover and stir in the cilantro. Serve hot, with more cilantro and the lime wedges. Serves 6.

— Adapted from a recipe by food writer and cookbook author Joy Manning.

Kabocha Squash and Peanut Stew

Kabocha squash is especially velvety and flavorful, but you can substitute the more common butternut or even sweet potatoes here. Cut the peanut butter by up to half for a leaner dish.

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 large onion, chopped (1 1/2 to 2 cups)

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice (1 cup)

1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice (1 cup)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

2 cups (10 ounces) peeled, cubed kabocha squash (from one 14- to 16-ounce squash)

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, preferably no-salt-added

1 (14.5-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, with their juices

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped, plus more for serving

2 jalapeños (seeded or not), ground to a paste with the flat of a knife or mortar and pestle, for serving

1/4 cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped, for serving

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and bell peppers; cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until they have softened.

Add the tomato paste, ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander and salt; cook for about 1 minute, until the tomato paste darkens slightly and the spices become fragrant. Add the squash and stir to coat.

Pour in the broth and crushed tomatoes; increase the heat to high. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low (enough heat to maintain steady bubbles at the edges); cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until the squash is so tender it breaks apart easily.

Thin the peanut butter by combining it with a ladleful of the stew in a medium bowl, stirring until smooth and pourable. Scrape the peanut butter mixture into the pot, and stir to combine. Add the cilantro leaves.

Use a potato masher to break up the squash (right in the pot), leaving some pieces intact for a chunky texture. Serve with ground jalapeño paste, topped with the chopped peanuts and more cilantro leaves. Serves 6 to 8.

— Adapted from a recipe by food writer and cookbook author Joy Manning.