While there are seasons for almost everything in Cuba, there is no particular season for calabaza, Cuba’s equivalent of butternut squash. Available year round, it’s almost a staple of the Cuban diet, part of a category of the cuisine called vianda (root vegetables) that include sweet potatoes, malanga (taro), and yucca, a fibrous white-fleshed tuber. Vianda are an important element of Cuban meals, a common accompaniment to meat, rice, and beans.
Since I associate butternut squash with fall, I’ve been cooking with it more lately. We often go through one or two a month, an impressive feat given how large they are, at eight pounds or more. One of my favorite things to do with butternut squash is to grill it, with the peel on. The added bonus is that my husband does the grilling. All I have to do is slice a squash in half crosswise, then cut it into quarters. After brushing it with a little olive oil and sprinkling it with salt and pepper, I hand it to my husband, who broils it on high on our gas grill for 20 minutes. He tends to like things blackened. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the exterior of it is well charred. Cut away the blackened skin, and the flesh is velvety and smooth, almost spreadable like jam.
One evening, while we were getting ready to have guests over, I was in a pinch, looking for something to serve before dinner. I reached into the fridge to find some leftover grilled calabaza. On another shelf of the fridge, I located a big, white hunk of cheese that a friend had smuggled in from the Cuban countryside (that's another story, to follow in an upcoming post). In our pantry, I reached for some Trader Joe’s crackers, just as our friends rang the doorbell. After greeting them, I poured wine and set out the impromptu appetizer on a wooden cutting board.
As my friends complimented it, the word inventar came into my mind — the Cuban word describes an act in which you make do, create, or simply make something up. Cooking in Cuba, with all of its difficulties, is a daily act of inventing.
Grilled Calabaza (or Butternut Squash)
1 calabaza or butternut squash
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Cut the squash in half, crosswise. Cut each half into quarters and clean out the seeds and fibers. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Grill on high for about 20 minutes, until tender and slightly blackened. Slice into smaller pieces and serve immediately or at room temperature. It works well as a side or an appetizer with any white cheese (like queso blanco or feta) and crackers.