I’m such a fan of Autumn. Between the crisp air, the vibrant hues, and the new crop of seasonal produce popping up at the farm market, what’s not to love? I tend to go heavy on squash dishes this time of year. With so many delicious varieties to choose from, it’s hard not to be excited. Like many, my “go-to” is butternut, but I sometimes tire of the usual flavor profile that accompanies it. Don’t get me wrong: nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, and sage are all wonderful. The flavors are familiar and comforting. Sometimes, though, I crave something different and creative to awaken my tastebuds. Last week, this Roasted Butternut Squash and Wild Rice Salad did just that.
While I’m not someone who follows a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, I do love good meatless meals. Well-composed vegetable dishes have so many interesting flavors and textures to explore. As far as I’m concerned, delicious food is just that: delicious. (This has always been my approach to eating in general: it’s all about flavor. I choose foods that taste good to me, and allow myself to enjoy everything in moderation. It’s a win-win when “what tastes good” has numerous nutritional benefits, like this salad. By the same token, when I’m out to dinner and that Salted Caramel/Chocolate Chantilly Napoleon is winking at me from the dessert menu, it’s a safe bet that I’m going to have a taste of that too.)
Let’s talk about this salad’s creamy sunflower seed and cilantro dressing, because it’s really what made this dish a standout for me. When I first read about it in Heidi Swanson’s “Roasted Pumpkin Salad” recipe on 101 Cookbooks (a beautiful blog that you should absolutely read if you don’t already!), I was surprised to find that it contains no dairy whatsoever. It’s essentially an emulsion of sunflower seeds, olive oil, lemon juice, and honey. Luxuriously textured, with a warm, nutty flavor, I couldn’t believe that I was eating something guilt-free. The flowery cilantro, against the deeper, caramelized flavor of the squash and onions, was a nice surprise. It combined the best of fall with a “pop” of brightness. At the risk of waxing poetic, it reminded me of those token summer days we get here in the Northeast amidst the falling leaves. Just lovely.
I diverged slightly from Swanson’s original recipe in some of the ingredient ratios to accomodate our personal preferences, in addition to adding some dried cranberries to the finished salad. (I love the balance of tartness and sweetness that cranberries bring to autumn dishes like these.) Given its hearty components, the salad was satisfying enough to work as a main course. We enjoyed it as lunch for several days. Normally, for a rice- or grain-based salad, I’d cut the onions and squash into a smaller dice than I did here. The small red onions I picked up at my local farm market were too adorable to serve any way but whole, so, following the example of the original recipe, I went with it. We actually found that the larger vegetables made the salad feel more substantial, so it worked well as a standalone dish. This will definitely be finding its way into my permanent recipe rotation, and I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to any of my friends—card-toting carnivores and vegans alike.
Want to brush up on winter squashes? This primer from Epicurious is a nice guide to exploring your local market’s selection.
- 1, 3-pound butternut squash, peeled and cleaned
- 10-12 small (about the size of golf balls) or 2-3 standard-sized red onions
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, or another neutral oil suitable for roasting, divided
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/3 cup unsalted roasted sunflower seeds*
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro**
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 3 cups cooked brown and wild rice mix, slightly warm or at room temperature
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (375 degrees F, convection). Cut the butternut squash into 1 to 1-1/2 inch cubes. Peel the red onions. If using small onions, trim off the ends. Cut larger onions into 1 to 1-1/2 inch wedges. Place squash cubes and onions on separate rimmed baking sheets. Toss the squash cubes to coat with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Repeat with onions, using 1 tablespoon olive oil.
- Roast squash (40-45 minutes) and onions (about 30-35 minutes, depending on size---I didn't keep a close enough eye, and some of my small onions were verging on overcooked. I pulled them out just in time!), flipping with a thin spatula halfway through. Both squash and onions should be soft and caramelized, but still retain their shapes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
- In a blender or food processor, combine sunflower seeds, olive oil, honey, lemon juice, water, and salt. Blend until smooth, scraping as needed. Season to taste with additional salt, and freshly-ground pepper. Transfer dressing to a bowl and stir in chopped cilantro. Set aside until ready to assemble the salad.
- In a large bowl, toss together cooked rice and dried cranberries. Fold a few generous spoonfuls of dressing into the rice to coat.
- Add squash cubes and roasted onions and gently toss, being careful not to break up the squash. Drizzle the salad with additional dressing on your platter or individual plates, and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro for garnish. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.
**If you don't enjoy cilantro, a mix of parsley and thyme would be lovely here, as would basil.