Winter Squash and Sweet Potatoes

There is something magical about the marriage of sweet potatoes and butternut squash. They have similar textures and colors, but the flavors are unique to each. Combine them with white potatoes and you have a dish of exquisite sweet earthy flavors perfect for the winter season.

Grocery stores and farmers’ markets have all manner of winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Butternut squash is commonly available, but this dish is a great chance to try some other squashes like kabocha, Hubbard, Kuri, buttercup or even sugar pumpkins. Each squash has a somewhat unique flavor although they may be hard to tell apart unless you have them side by side.

This dish can be seasoned according to your culinary bent – with fresh or dried herbs, cheese, bacon or pancetta. However you season, be sure to use plenty of fresh ground black pepper and a hint of red pepper for a delectable main course or side dish.

Simply put, you will first make a seasoned creamy sauce, then cook the potato, sweet potato and squash slices until tender and finally layer them, pour over the sauce, top with cheese and bake.

Butternut, sweet potato, white potato bake

(serves 8 as a side dish, 4 as a main dish)

Roux (sauce)
2 T. butter
1 oz. pancetta or bacon (optional)
¼ c. finely minced onions or shallots
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
¼ c. flour
1 ½ c. milk (skim or 2%)
Approximately ¾ c. grated Parmigiano cheese
½ t.salt
½ t. fresh ground black pepper
¼ t. ground red pepper

1 large baking potato
1 medium sweet potato
Half of one small squash (save the other half for another dish)
½ c. grated gruyere, asiago or crumbled goat cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Peel and cube the potatoes and squash into ½” cubes. Add to boiling water and boil gently until tender, about 4-5 minutes (may take longer, depending on the density of the squash). You want them easily pierced with a fork, but not falling apart. Drain well.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter and add the pancetta or bacon if using, cooking until crisp. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low, add flour and cook for about two minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly. Continue stirring over low heat until the sauce thickens. Add the parmesan, salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Arrange vegetables in a shallow baking dish and pour sauce over the vegetables. Top with cheese and any desired herbs. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes. If desired, you can then put the dish under the broiler for 3 or 4 minutes until it is golden. Let stand ten minutes before serving.

This dish goes well as a side with any smoky meat such as barbecued ribs or smoked sausage. A perfect accompaniment is homemade applesauce, dusted with cinnamon.

Melted sweet potatoes

I just read that North Carolina, where I now live, is the largest sweet potato producer in the country, eclipsing even California and Mississippi. There’s a reason it’s our state vegetable (did you know that all states have an official vegetable?). 

When you go to the farmers’ market or grocery store here, you will usually find three or four different varieties, unlike other states where you just find the traditional orange sweet potato. We have the orange globe-shaped ones, but also have red, purple and white, in all shapes from round to oblong to long and skinny.

Red-skinned sweet potato

Why always candy-sweet?

I grew up with the traditional “candied yams” prepared for the holidays and frankly, didn’t much care for them. Whose idea was it anyway to put marshmallows on top? As I matured, I did grow to love baked sweet potatoes with butter and salt. I realized that I just didn’t like them candy- sweet since they have enough sweetness on their own. 

My family is not particularly enamored of this healthy, delicious vegetable so if I buy them and they tend to be forgotten and languish in the pantry until they become shrunken and disgusting. But they are so good for us that I really want to add them to our diets. They are superstars for Vitamins A and C, not to mention fiber and a host of other nutrients.  

Red-skinned sweet potatoes have white flesh

Found: the perfect recipe

So, in my spare time now, I’ve been investigating ways to prepare them in different ways, to get my family to eat them. I’ve found the perfect way, one my family is raving about: melted sweet potatoes. 

It’s quite simple actually. You simply slice and toss with seasonings of choice and melted butter. Olive oil will work, but the best flavor comes with a splurge of butter or ghee. Then you bake at a high temperature, turning once, and then finish with a splash of broth. The outsides are crispy-delicious and the insides are meltingly creamy. Voila! And if you really like the sweet aspect, you can drizzle them with maple syrup when they come out of the oven. 

Ready for the oven

Melting Sweet Potatoes

(also works well with white potatoes)

  • 1 sweet potato, scrubbed but not peeled, sliced ½ inch thick
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • ½ c. broth (vegetable or chicken)
  • 2 T. butter
  • 1 t. chopped fresh herbs (can be omitted, my favorite combination is sage and thyme)
  • Salt and pepper 

Preheat the oven to 475. Melt the butter in the microwave with the herbs if using. Toss the sweet potato slices well and put them in a single layer in a cast iron or metal roasting pan (don’t use glass). 

Roast 15 minutes until the bottoms are crispy and caramelized. Flip and roast 15 minutes more. Then add broth and roast another 15 minutes. 

Serve hot, drizzled with maple syrup, or sprinkled with crumbled feta or goat cheese.

Garden Cakes

There’s something so cozy and wholesome about potato pancakes. They’re crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and a wonderful palette awaiting a dollop of sour cream or applesauce.

Although I don’t have an ethnic tradition of latkes in my background, I’ve taken a traditional recipe from a Jewish friend of mine and adapted it to use whatever is coming in from the garden or left over in the fridge.

This is one of my favorite ways to use leftover mashed sweet and white potatoes around the holidays. The best part is that you can use your imagination and creativity to combine all sorts of vegetables and seasonings.

The basic recipe:

1 c. mashed or grated sweet potatoes
1 c. mashed white potatoes
½ small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 egg
½ c. flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion and garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Mix all ingredients in large bowl and drop by large spoonfuls into pan glazed with olive oil. Pat the cakes flat. Saute until browned; flip and brown on the other side. Alternatively you can place on parchment or a silpat on a cookie sheet and bake for about 15-20 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Repeat with the rest of batter.

Serve warm by themselves with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream and a dollop of applesauce or currant jelly or whatever other jelly you have on hand. Or serve cold over a fresh salad dressed with vinaigrette and sprinkle with goat cheese or feta.

Riffs on the recipe:

Swiss chard ready to chop

1 cup of any combination of grated raw beets, carrots, parsnips, finely chopped greens

You can also add cooked grains (quinoa, bulgur, oatmeal), mashed cooked beans (black, garbanzo, lentils). Just remember that the drier the mix, the more binder you may need such an additional egg.

Check the recipe tab for zucchini latkes and quinoa cakes