Butternut Squash in Coconut Milk

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When I was younger, I didn’t get the deal with pumpkins. I didn’t like their texture and taste. They reminded me of the mushy congee cooked in pumpkin broth, which was pretty much akin to baby food. And not surprisingly, it was a regular item on the menu of many kindergartens or primary schools. Teacher: “Look at the vibrant orange color! So much nutrition in one spoon!” Me (in silence): “No thanks.”

Nevertheless, I ate them dutifully, like the good student that I was. Then came university time when meal planning meant being creative with reduced-to-clear produce and simple dishes that involved minimal ingredients for maximum benefits. Influenced by my then-roommate Phuong and the need to eat healthily, I started cooking pumpkin soup more often.

Unlike in Vietnam, supermarkets in Singapore carry more types of pumpkins, both from local producers and imported from Malaysia and Australia, depending on the season. They come in different shapes and of different price points. Some are affordable, while some are not, so the supermarkets slice them into quarters or wedges and sell them individually.

Being new to Canada, I was blown away by the variety of pumpkin and squash here. I’m still not their biggest fan, but seeing the number of recipes featuring pumpkins to celebrate fall, I jumped on the wagon. No more soup, let’s make a dessert instead, and what screams more Vietnamese desserts than coconut milk?

Initially, I used buttercup squash but it turned out to be a disaster. The squash cubes could not hold their shape and disintegrated into strings, which wasn’t pleasant to eat. Then with the advice of a friend, who works as a chef, and the good souls at Leslieville Farmers’ Market, I switched to butternut squash. It was a success! The cubes were tender and sweet, and their flavor imparted into the coconut milk, calling for very little sugar used.

As a shortcut, I used canned coconut milk, which is thicker than freshly-extracted one and tends to curdle when boiling too quickly. To avoid that, I first diluted it with some water, which will allow more leeway in maintaining the smooth consistency of the broth, and only added more coconut milk near the end. This is to replicate the two stages of the traditional extracting method: the first yields the concentrated milk (used later in the cooking process), and the second yields a thinner liquid (used as a broth to cook the ingredients).

What you’ll need:

400 gr butternut squash, cut into 3-cm cubes
1 cup coconut milk
¾ cup water
1 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp salt

To garnish:
Toasted sesame seeds
Roasted unsalted peanuts

Here’s how:

1) In a medium pot, submerge the squash cubes in ½ cup coconut milk and 3/4 cup water. Simmer for about 30-35 minutes until they are tender.
2) Add in the remaining ½ cup coconut milk, sugar and salt.
3) Let the coconut milk lightly boil again and turn off the heat.
4) Serve hot, garnish with sesame seeds and peanuts.

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