The Local Ingredient — Honeynut squash

This butternut might look small, but it packs a big flavor.

Photo by Michael Cummo

Morning Glory Farm occasionally tries a new or unique vegetable variety with varying success — and sometimes without any success at all. Take okra. They struggled to grow and harvest this finicky Southern specialty one year, but no one bought it. “No one wanted to use it, and no one cared,” said farmer Simon Athearn.

But it’s a different story with a new squash variety the Edgartown family-owned farm harvested this fall called Honeynut, the “Mini-Me” of butternut squash, which fits in the palm of your hand. It’s been out only a few weeks, and Vineyard chefs are hailing its flavor and starring it on menus. Even the cashiers at the farmstand ringing out the vegetable bring it up in conversation.

“Have you tried it?” asks Jan Buhrman of the Kitchen Porch Catering company in Edgartown. “Oh my God.”

“I was worried about their diminutive size,” says Simon. “I kept being afraid people wouldn’t want such a small thing.” Now, he says, he probably won’t be able to keep up with demand.

The size of the “adorable” mini butternuts, as the farm sign reads — four to five inches in length, compared with regular-sized butternuts of 10 or 11 inches — is actually perfect, making it an easy side for home cooks. Split down the middle and roasted, the mini halves fit neatly and easily on the plate with fall dishes like meatloaf, coq au vin, or Vineyard scallops, and add that beautiful rich burnt orange color as well. Their flavor is sweet and nutty.

“It was one of the first things I sampled out of the field to test, and it was obvious immediately the richness was there,” says Simon. “I think the Honeynut is the most flavorful squash this year, hands down.” He says the farm — the Island’s largest — grew 12 squash varieties this year. Second most flavorful, he believes, is the blue Hubbard squash, a pumpkin-sized blue squash great for hollowing out and stuffing, and next, the Long Island Cheese, a tan-colored heirloom squash variety with “really good flesh.”

Simon says Jan Buhrman brought some of the mini butternut seeds to the farm last year after an event at Blue Hill Stone Barns restaurant and farm in New York, where many fields experimenting on flavorful vegetables is done in conjunction with Cornell University. Jan said she saved the seeds from the squash last year, dried them and handed them out to all her friends with gardens, including Morning Glory. “This has got to get out there as quick as possible. It’s way too delicious,” she said.

Simon further researched the crop by watching videos and reading articles on Honeynuts, and then bought seeds from Harris Seeds of New York, which also works with Cornell. In the spring, the farm planted the new crop and waited more than 100 days for results.

When the honeynut (and other) squash come out of the field, they are “cured” in the greenhouse, Simon notes. Fans are set to a warm mid-70s temperature for about three weeks (a timeframe often debated among farmers). The length of time and temperature of curing squash is debated by farmers, he notes, but the process hardens the skin and condenses the sugars.

Simon says his wife Robyn recently served the roasted Honeynut brushed with sesame oil and sprinkled sesame seeds and cayenne pepper “for the kids.”

Jan Buhrman tops the squash out of the oven with some Mermaid Farm feta cheese and a pinch or two of her dukkah spice, a combination of nuts, sesame seeds, and herbs including cumin, coriander, and mint. She suggests eating the skin of the squash, too, for its nutrients though some people (including this cook) don’t enjoy the texture.

At Chilmark Tavern, which closed for the season last weekend, chef Jenna Sprafkin combined roasted strips of the mini-squash with chorizo-flavored butter and bits of the chorizo sausage.

This is one unique vegetable that will be in the fields and on plates again next fall.

“We’ll be planting significantly more next year, especially considering how the restaurants have loved it so much,” says Simon.

The Local Recipe: Roasted Honeynut Squash Sides

Serves 4

When you buy at the stand for roasting, pick out fairly uniform sizes, so they finish cooking about the same time. The roasting time can vary, so always check to make sure squash doesn’t “collapse.” The sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg on top is delicious, but you can experiment with garam masala spice, cardamom (and honey), or other favorites.

2 Honeynut squash
Olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter
Cinnamon, to taste
Maple syrup, local honey, or brown sugar, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, if you have it. With a knife, split the squash in half lengthwise. Scrap out the seeds with a spoon. Brush with olive oil and place, cut-side down, on the baking sheet. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, or more depending on the size. Poke with a fork or use your finger to touch the squash. It should feel soft but not collapsed.

When cooked, remove the baking sheet from the oven. Turn the squash over and put a dab of butter in each. Sprinkle to taste with salt and fresh pepper. Add a pinch of cinnamon, and a taste of either maple syrup, local honey, or brown sugar. You can serve right away, or reheat in a hot oven when ready to serve.