Kung Pao Chicken and Butternut Squash

It’s the end of October, and squashes, gourds, and pumpkins are everywhere — on people’s doorsteps, dining tables, and planted like portly pebbles on city park displays. But it doesn’t take witchcraft to turn winter squash into a hearty meal. It doesn’t even take a long time to cook! Here, some butternut squash slices are steamed first, then quickly stir-fried. And for a little scare, in keeping with the season, I’ve given them a Sichuan kung pao lick of spice.

Nevermind carving jack-o-lanterns, then! Actually, butternut squash are one winter squash variety that’s vastly recognized as food, because its meaty interior has little room for illumination. They’re easy to peel and chop into cubes, strips, or to roast whole and scoop out. This dish could be made using just about any squash, though denser varieties like this or kabocha would be optimal over stringier types like traditional pumpkin or (a no-no) spaghetti squash.

This unexpected ingredient gives a fiercely flavored dish like kung pao chicken a sweeter, softer edge. The classic version from Sichuan province gets its heat from whole, dried chilies and numbing effect from Sichuan peppercorns. The numbing-hot combination is commonly referred to as ma la and is a signature flair of the region. It can be as spicy as you like, depending on how many chilies and peppercorns you add. Even with a mild dose, though, these flavors infuse the dish for a really unique sensation.

Unlike the glossy, saucy stir-fries of Canton or Fujian, this Sichuan dish is made in a “dry stir-fry” style. Plenty of oil is heated up in a large pan or wok, then the chilies, peppercorns — and garlic and scallions in this recipe — are tossed in to flavor the oil. Chicken is quickly browned, followed by the pre-cooked squash, and it’s all over with a few spastic stirs, provided your pan has maintained a very high heat. Don’t add another ingredient before the pan and oil have had their chance to get right back up to temp, and it’s smooth sailing.

The addition of butternut squash not only adds sweetness and textural contrast, but it’s a great way to get more nutrients into this typically meat-based dish. Lots of Vitamin A and C as well as vibrant color collide with a festive chaos (or kung-pow!) — and I rather like the way the squash begins to smear off onto the chicken while stir-frying together. Even the oil is bright orange at the end.

If the name sounds too gimmicky for you — Kung Pao Chicken and Squash? — consider it both a trick and a treat.

Kung Pao Chicken and Butternut Squash
(makes 3-4 servings)

1 lb boneless chicken breast or thighs
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
pinch of salt and white pepper
about 1 lb portion of butternut squash
2 scallions, cut to 2″ segments
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4-10 small, dried red chilies (I’ve used dried chiles de arbol for lack of finding Chinese dried red chilies such as seven star)
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
steamed rice for serving

Slice the chicken against the natural grain of the meat into small, bite-size pieces about 1″. Combine in a bowl with the soy sauce, cornstarch, and pinch of salt and white pepper and mix well. Let sit to marinate while preparing the rest of the ingredients (or cover and chill up to overnight).

Peel the butternut squash. Scrape out the stringy seed pocket well with the edge of a spoon. Slice into even-sized segments (if using the hollowed part of the squash) about 2″ long and 1″ wide. Or, if using the top part of the squash, cut into even-sized chunks. Set the squash on a steamer rack or basket inside a pot with a lid and fill with 1-2 cups water beneath. Bring water to a boil, then cover the pot to steam the squash for 5 minutes. (Do not oversteam or else squash will fall apart.)

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed wok or fry pan over a high flame. Once the oil begins to pop and sizzle a little, add the chilies and crushed peppercorns. After waiting a few seconds, the oil should be slightly fragrant; add the scallions and garlic. Wait another few seconds until the oil is fragrant with the aromatics and very hot. Add the chicken and stir to disperse the pieces evenly across the pan. Wait a few seconds to brown the pieces a bit, then stir occasionally for 1-2 minutes. Add the steamed squash to the pan and stir. Season with salt to taste. Stir another couple times, tasting and seasoning with more salt as necessary. Remove from pan to serve immediately, with rice.

Cost Calculator
(for 3-4 servings)

1 lb boneless chicken thighs: $5.99
1 lb butternut squash (from CSA — last pickup of the season!): $2.00
2 scallions: $0.50
2 cloves garlic: $0.10
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns: $0.25
6 dried chilies: $0.50
2 teaspoons soy sauce: $0.20
1 teaspoon cornstarch: $0.10
4 tablespoons vegetable oil: $0.35

Total: $9.99

Health Factor

Five brownie points: You’ll need a little oil to dry stir-fry effectively, but the oil is what flavors the entire dish, too. And unlike at many take-out Chinese restaurants, the chicken isn’t deep-fried before being stir-fried here. Adding a vegetable in equal portion to meat is an easy way to make a well-rounded meal here, and butternut squash provides folate, potassium and calcium in addition to all that Vitamin A.

Green Factor

Six maple leaves: It’s the right time of year to eat winter squash — when they’re freshly harvested, healthy and firm. Don’t let them sit as a display for too long or it’ll lose a bit of flavor! These are easily found from local farms right now, and responsibly raised chicken is fortunately found all-year round, too. Yet I didn’t find the chance to dry some homegrown chilies or scope them out at the market, so these as well as the other seasonings like soy sauce and Sichuan peppercorns are imported.

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