November 4, 2013

Cooking the Books: Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za'atar from "Jerusalem"

Oh, Jerusalem. You beautiful, delicious cookbook. I am SO glad I bought you. This past week I cooked my third recipe from Jerusalem, and much like the first two (Pistachio Soup and Basmati & Wild Rice with Chickpeas, Currants, & Herbs) it was fantastic. It's possible that I lucked out and chose three exceptional recipes, but based on the popularity of this cookbook, I think it's more likely that the entire book is just that awesome. The recipes and flavors are solid, even if some are a bit labor or time intensive. Thankfully, today's recipe was a breeze.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini and Za'atar is a simple roasted vegetable medley elevated to new heights with a few carefully chosen condiments. Once the squash and onions are roasting away in a hot-as-the-sun oven, you whisk together a quick sauce of tahini, lemon juice, garlic, water, and salt. It's so simple that your expectations of its effect may be low, but the creamy sauce is this dish's secret weapon, balancing out the sweet squash and onions with its lemony tang and slight sesame bitterness. A sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and za'atar (a spice mix of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt) finish off the dish with a nutty, earthy flourish. You can absolutely enjoy this as an entrée as-is, or pair it as a side to some simply-prepared legumes or grains (lentils, chickpeas, bulgur, and farro sound like good options).

My recipe notes:

1.  The tahini sauce was on the thick side for me, so I thinned it out with a little water and some extra lemon juice. Again, this is SO GOOD. Don't be skimpy when drizzling - I used a heavy hand and enjoyed every last bit. I would suggest drizzling right before serving, though - if you mix the sauce in with the vegetables beforehand the texture of the dish gets a little chalky.

2.  When I went shopping for the ingredients I had written down "1 large butternut squash" without noting the pounds called for (2 1/4 pounds). I ended up choosing a monster-sized squash that was over 4 pounds. Oops. No worries, as the rest can be used for another recipe (maybe this Curried Butternut-Coconut Bisque?), but I'd suggest weighing your squash in the store to avoid buying more than you need. One other squash-related note: The recipe asks you to leave the skin on the squash, which weirded me out since I always peel butternut squash. I left the skin on and, what do you know, it's good - similar to delicata squash skin (thin and not at all tough to chew). Lesson learned - butternut squash skin is edible!

3.  Unless you cook a lot of Palestinian food already, you'll likely need to purchase za'atar for this recipe. I couldn't find any at my local co-op, but I did find ground sumac, one of za'atar's star ingredients. I used this recipe from Gourmet to make a quick homemade za'atar with the sumac, some thyme (I used 2 teaspoons of dried), sesame seeds, and salt, and found it to be quite tasty. You can make your own or purchase za'atar at a local Middle Eastern market or spice shop.

4.  The recipe calls for a small amount of pine nuts (less than 1/4 cup), and while I had some In my freezer already, I can understand not wanting to splurge on an expensive ingredient when it's not the focus of the dish. I think you could use a less expensive nut like walnuts or almonds instead, or you could be super thrifty and toast up the seeds of the butternut squash! My squash provided over 1/4 cup of seeds that toasted up into crunchy, roasty bits of goodness that would fit in wonderfully atop this dish. I used the same technique as directed for the pine nuts, pan-toasting the seeds in a teaspoon of oil with a dash of salt until golden brown and fragrant (about 10 minutes on my stovetop). You can see how similar the outcome is below.

Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za'atar
slightly adapted from Jerusalem
makes 4 entree or 6 side servings

1 butternut squash (about 2 1/4 pounds), seeds removed and cut into 3/4 inch by 2 1/2 inch wedges
2 red onions, halved and cut into 1 inch-wide wedges
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons tahini paste
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon za'atar
Kosher salt and black pepper

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees. In a large bowl, add the squash, onions, 3 tablespoons oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and a generous amount of black pepper and toss to coat vegetables. Transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet or two, being careful not to crowd the vegetables (you want them to roast, not steam). Roast for 30-40 minutes, tossing halfway through, until vegetables are caramelized and tender. The onions might cook faster than the squash, so keep an eye on them and remove early if necessary. When squash and onions are done, remove from oven and let cool.

While the vegetables are roasting, make the tahini sauce and roast the pine nuts. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, water, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lemon juice until smooth. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice and/or additional water if the sauce seems too thick - you're looking for sauce that's easily drizzle-able (totally a word). Set aside. Bring a skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil, pine nuts, and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the nuts are golden brown and fragrant, about 2-5 minutes. Transfer nuts and oil to a plate to cool.

When ready to serve, top warm or room temperature vegetables with a generous drizzling of the tahini sauce and sprinkle with the pine nuts and za'atar. 


  1. I finally got around to making this and it's great. Thanks for posting it.

    1. I'm glad you liked it! I am obsessed with the tahini sauce and put it on all sorts of stuff now.