Super-Squash for Fall Cooking

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

Red Lentil Dal with Winter Squash and Tarka

Winter squash is often called a “super food” because of its excellent nutrient profile.  A cup of butternut squash cubes, baked, has a mere 56 calories, 4.5 grams of dietary fiber, over 300% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin A, 35% of the DV for vitamin C and over 10% of the DV for magnesium and potassium, according to the ESHA Research software program.  It’s also a super-ingredient among chefs and home cooks as it brings warm colors and vegetal meatiness to fall cooking. 


The term “squash” generally refers to four species of the genus curcubita and includes what we call summer squash, winter squash, pumpkin and even knobby gourds, best used for decoration.  Round, orange, ridged squash are generally called pumpkin.  Summer squash is eaten in the immature stage when the skin is thin and edible and winter squash is eaten in the mature fruit stage when the seeds are matured and the skin has hardened into an inedible rind. Winter squash can be stored for months if held under the right cool, dry conditions.   (Reference 1, 2, 3) Varieties and names of winter squash vary by region; popular ones include Acorn, Ambercup, Autumn Cup, Buttercup, Butternut, Calabaza, Carnival, Cushaw, Delicata, Gold Nugget, Kobacha or Green Hokkaido, Hubbard, Spaghetti, Sweet Dumpling, and Turban.


The large, familiar jack-o-lantern varieties of pumpkin such as Spirit and Connecticut Field are Halloween decorating classics. While edible, they tend to be stringy so cooks seek out other varieties such as the smaller Sugar Pie pumpkin, the white Caspar with deep orange flesh and an Italian heirloom variety Marina di Chioggia with a bubbly blue rind.  It’s fun to bake a large edible pumpkin or similarly shaped winter squash and use as tureen for soup, stew or chili for Halloween and fall gatherings.  Scrape out some of the tender squash to go with the soup.


There’s more to winter squash than “bake with butter and brown sugar.”  How about roasted squash cubes on a fall pizza or tossed in a salad with hearty greens? Add cubes of roasted squash to risotto and pasta or fold a puree of golden squash into macaroni and cheese and ravioli filling. Swap cubes of squash for summer veggies in your next Thai curry or Chinese stir-fry.  I even saw a hot chocolate recipe with a puree of winter squash added for thick, hearty texture. 


Squash is a rich source of dietary carotenoids (particularly lutein, alpha-carotene, and beta-carotene), the pigments that give color to yellow, orange and red vegetables.  Some are precursors to vitamin A and some function as antioxidants.  Intake of carotenoid-rich foods is associated with a reduced risk of cancers and other diseases, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.  (Reference 4, 5, 6)

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto



Try this antidote to a stormy evening, my version of dal, inspired by one of India’s typical, highly nourishing and simply delicious lentil dishes. It is enriched with winter squash and tomatoes, a source of the bright red carotenoid pigment and phytochemical lycopene. 


The dish is a chance to explore Indian seasonings. Turmeric, best known here for giving curry powder bright orange color, is a root that has been used medicinally in India, China and other Asian countries for well over a thousand years. The active ingredient is curcumin which functions as an antioxidant.  Research with turmeric regards its functions as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and other conditions and as an anti-cancer agent. (Reference 7, 8)  


While the lentils cook, make a Tarka to stir into the soup before serving, adding another layer of flavor and texture. Tarka includes oil-popped mustard seed, onion, garlic, cumin and the spice blend, garam masala.  Garam masala is an Indian spice blend and there are various recipes for it.  I buy it in a jar for convenience but you can check an Indian cookbook or website to make your own.   


Cutting and cooking whole squash can be intimidating and even dangerous.  Many squash have stickers with useful cooking instructions or check References 9-11 below.  If you’re short on time grab a bag or box of cubed, ready-to-cook butternut squash in the produce department of many markets.


 Red Lentil Dal with Tarka (Indian Lentil Soup  with Spiced Oil)

I adapted this from a recipe demonstrated at an International Association of Culinary Professionals Conference by Julie Sahni, Indian food expert and cookbook author.  It makes a satisfying vegetarian one-dish entrée with protein-rich lentils.  You can substitute yellow Canary lentils which, like red lentils, cook down into a lovely texture for soup. My favorite accompaniment is a whole wheat version of the Indian bread naan. 

3 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 cups red lentils, rinsed, drained and picked over to remove any stones or  discolored lentils

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground, dried  turmeric

1 pound (3 to 3 1/2 cups) cubed peeled butternut or other winter squash

1 can (14 1/2-ounce) diced tomatoes (with liquid)

Tarka, recipe follows

Fresh cilantro


In large heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, combine water, lentils, salt and turmeric.  Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes or until lentils are soft and falling apart.  Add squash and tomatoes (with liquid) to lentil mixture; return to a simmer and cook another 15 to 20 minutes or until squash is tender.  While cooking Dal, make Tarka.   Cool Dal.  With an immersion blender, blender or food processor, blend soup until smooth. Return to pot and stir in Tarka.  Cover and reheat.  (For a thicker consistency, boil gently, uncovered, till reduced to desired consistency.)  Top with sprigs of fresh cilantro.  Makes 4 entrée or 6 side dish servings.

Tarka (Spiced Oil)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil such as canola

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed

2 teaspoons cumin seed

1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or more to taste (optional)

Heat a medium skillet (with a lid near the stove) over medium-low heat.  Add oil.  When oil is warm add mustard seed and cover skillet to contain seeds as they pop.  After 20 to 30 seconds or when seed stop popping, remove cover and stir in cumin seed, onion and garlic.  Cook uncovered, stirring often, until onion is soft and golden.  Remove from heat and stir in garam masala and cayenne pepper.  


























Copyright © Lorelle S Del Matto 2012


lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.


  1. Lizzie Kirschner says

    This looks so delicious- I can’t wait to make it for my friends! Speaking of squash, do you have any healthful yet flavorful pumpkin pie recipes? Also, hope that you’re doing well and have had a great autumn so far!!

    • Hope you’re fall is going great!

      My friend Cheryl served us a great pumpkin pie last year and she got the recipe from the back of a can of Farmer’s Market Organic Pumpkin. I have not made it yet. I’m sharing it with a class I’m teaching tomorrow at the Pine Lake Club on Healthy Holiday Eats. The recipe:

      1 15-oz can pumpkin, 1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk, 2 eggs,lightly beaten, 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/4 tsp ground ginger, 9-inch pie shell.

      Method: Mix pumpkin and spices; slowly mix in remaining ingredients. Spoon into pie shell and bake 15 minutes at 425 degrees then reduce heat to 350 for 35 -40 minutes. Cool before serving.

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  1. […] Read more about its health-promoting properties in my blog with an Indian-style recipe for Red Lentil Dal with Winter Squash and Tarka .                […]

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