Our menu changed the day fresh pre-cut butternut squash and sweet potatoes came into the house a few weeks ago. It's not that I don't like orange vegetables. Or that I don't know they are one of the best sources of beta carotene. I do.
But honestly, some of the whole orange vegetables are a pain to cut up, which makes them inconvenient. So the fresh but already cubed vegetables, now available in the produce section, quickly have become regulars in my house.
Take butternut squash. The way I've traditionally cooked it is to split it in half, scoop out the seeds and then roast or microwave the halves. Good enough. But peeling and seeding the raw squash and then cutting it up was something that kept for another day. Any other day.
Sweet potatoes are another much-loved, hard-to-peel vegetable. Rock hard, it took the promise of caramelized sliced and sauteed sweet potatoes to propel knife and peeler action. Pre-cut sweet potatoes, however, like butternut squash, love to be roasted, made into a quick soup or pureed.
So when does convenience trump cost? In this house, it is when otherwise there wouldn't BE a vegetable, or specifically, an orange vegetable. Laziness wins out more than virtue.
Roasted Butternut Squash or Sweet Potato Cubes
Although these vegetables are quite different in taste, they are cooked the same way in these recipes. Size matters. The smaller the cut, the quicker it cooks. If adapting to a larger cut, cook longer. Since packaged pre-cut varieties may not be in perfect cubes, keep an eye out for small bits that will cook more quickly and remove if beginning to darken too much for personal preference or add a few minutes later than the larger cubes. These vegetables reheat very well in pan, oven or microwave.
1 (10- to 12-ounce) package cut-up butternut squash or sweet potatoes
1 to 2 tablespoons preferred cooking oil, drippings or butter
Freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss vegetables with oil. Spread in one layer over foil-lined baking sheet. Bake until soft, about 20 minutes, or continue baking until tinged with brown and caramelized. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Heat very large frying pan with oil, add squash or sweet potatoes and cook until soft or caramelized, as preferred.
Toss the cubes with slivered or torn spinach or turnip greens. Let wilt. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (This is a bit easier to do in a frying pan.)
Add chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and oregano.
Toss with curry before or after cooking.
Toss the vegetables with 1/4 cup lime juice, the grated rind of a lime, 1/2 cup cilantro leaves and 1 to 2 teaspoons freshly ground cumin and a dash of hot peppers before roasting.
Roast vegetables separately, removing when cooked, and toss with chunks or cubes of roasted onions, white potatoes, turnips, etc.
Apple and Butternut Squash or Sweet Potato Soup
1 to 2 tablespoons preferred cooking oil or butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 to 2 apples, cubed or sliced
1 (10- to 12-ounce) package cut-up squash or sweet potato
4 to 6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
Freshly ground pepper
Heat oil in a heavy pot. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the apple and squash or sweet potato and cook over medium heat 10 minutes. Add 4 cups of the stock, bring to a boil, cover and continue cooking until vegetables/fruit are soft, about 20 to 30 minutes. Add more stock as needed. Remove from heat. Puree with an immersion blender in the pot or remove the solids with a slotted spoon and puree in food processor or blender until smooth. Return to the pot. Taste and add more stock as desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper. May be made ahead several days and reheated.
Add slivered, torn or whole greens for the last few minutes.
Cook onion and apple until soft, then add already roasted or cooked vegetables and stock. Cook briefly together before pureeing as above.
Stir curry powder, cumin or chopped garlic into the cooked onion. Cook briefly before adding remainder of ingredients
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.