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A tiny squash that's packed with flavor

honeynut squash
Elspeth Hay

When Brewster farmer Ron Backer first read about honeynut squash, he knew he wanted to grow it.

"It is four times sweeter than a butternut; they’re about a third the size and it was grown and developed by a combination to my knowledge of Cornell School of Agriculture, Dan Barber from Blue Hill Farm in the Hudson Valley and a couple of geneticists in Wisconsin," he said.

In fact, Barber and the plant breeders worked hand in hand to develop the honeynut over a series of squash generations. Barber met plant breeder Michael Mazourek when he came in for a meal at Blue Hill’s restaurant, and challenged him to make a better tasting butternut. Mazourek started with a cross between a butternut and a buttercup, and together they cooked, tasted, and compared generation after generation, until finally they got the honeynut. Ron says there are all kinds of thing to love about it

"It is easily sized for two people, it has a small amount of seeds, you can eat the skin, and it has very high levels of beta carotene."

And despite the fact that honeynut was bred for flavor instead of the usual yield, it’s still incredibly productive.

"We had a couple of hundred on the first two harvests from 4-6 plants," he said. "That’s an immense amount, and I was just overwhelmed with its success, particularly here on Cape Cod and particularly in a drought, and it appears to be very resistant to pests."

Ron isn’t the only grower excited. Honeynut seeds first became widely available in 2015, and by 2017, the breeders estimated it was being grown at 90 percent of large squash farms in the northeast. Since then, word of mouth has gotten the attention of smaller growers like Ron and happy eaters.

"We had friends over for dinner who are not of a fresh fruit and vegetable persuasion and he scooped two halves of a honeynut and just kept eating it and we did nothing to it was just that sweet period."

I asked if he made anything else with the honeynut, besides roasting.

"No," he said. "I just want to have that consistency and I love the color of it. And um, I don’t know! But we have a few hundred in my wheelbarrow outside my shed and I know we’re going to be using it for a while! The — not a negative — but unlike butternut which can last for 8-10 months this is reputed to last 2-3 months so we’re going to be having it a lot and I know we’ll have it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the holidays."

I made a honeynut squash soup the other night with garlic and cream and sage and chicken stock, and the squash was incredibly good — sweet and dense, like a butternut shrunk down and intensified. It made me think about the ways plant breeding changes with its goals — how much time we’ve spent focused only on yield over the past hundred years, and how different the future could taste if we keep widening the scope.

Honeynut & Butternut Squash Soup

I combined honeynut and butternut squashes in this soup so that it's flavorful without being too sweet. The combination is just right, and roasting them in the oven first makes them easy to scoop out from the skins. If you decide to add the mushroom garnish, I like oyster mushroom strips best, but most anything will work!

1 honeynut squash

1 small butternut squash

4 tablespoons olive oil, butter, or bacon fat

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 minced shallot

2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4-inch rounds

1 (packed) tablespoon fresh sage, finly chopped

4-6 cups chicken stock

1/2-3/4 cup heavy cream

salt, to taste

optional: thinly sliced mushrooms sauteed in bacon fat until crispy, to sprinkle on top of the soup

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Meanwhile, cut the squashes in half the long way, scoop out the seeds, and place them face down on a rimmed baking sheet with a little bit of water. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the skin starts to shrivel slightly and turn golden brown. Cool for 10-15 minutes (or overnight), and scoop out the squash flesh.

In a large heavy pot over medium heat, warm up the olive oil, butter, or bacon fat. Add the garlic, shallot, and carrots to the pot and cook, stirring often, until fragrant and softened, about 8-10 minutes. Add the squash, sage, and 4-6 cups of the chicken stock as needed for desired thickness. Stir well and bring to a gentle boil. Turn the heat down to low and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes, or until the carrots are completely tender. Puree using an immersion blender. Add salt to taste and adjust salt and chicken stock as needed for desired flavor and thickness. Pour in the heavy cream, mix well, taste, and add more as desired. Serve piping hot, with the optional garnish of crispy mushrooms.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.