Break Out Of Your Butternut Rut With Honeynut

If forward-looking farmers have their way, the era of bland vegetables will soon come to an end. Produce bred for volume and transport instead of flavor will be a thing of the past as growers cultivate new varietals that taste like the absolute best versions of themselves.

This winter, the oversized, water-logged butternut gets upstaged by a new variety that, at first glance, looks like its mini-me. One-third of butternut’s size, it has the same hourglass shape and smooth, tahini-colored skin. But honeynut is rich with concentrated squash taste and intense sweetness. This depth of flavor sets it far apart from blah butternut — and makes it a must-eat on the menu at Dig Inn and beyond.

Created by Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek in collaboration with Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, honeynut was destined for greatness. Aspects of its origin story were shared in the 2015 Chef’s Table episode featuring Barber, and now, a whopping 90% of squash farms in the Northeast grow the crop. Honeynut has appeared at some of the best restaurants in America, from NYC’s Eleven Madison Park to Boston’s Sofra.

Dig Inn’s own supply of these pocket-sized squashes comes from Tyler Dennis and his four-year-old Alewife Farm in Kingston, New York. Dennis first learned of honeynut while apprenticing in his early 20s at the groundbreaking, relentlessly innovative restaurant-and-farm Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

In stark contrast to the well-run operations at Stone Barns’ four-season farm, Dennis struggled through his first year at Alewife. Lacking farm experience beyond his apprenticeship under farm director Jack Algiere and a summer spent on a French olive orchard, he learned through trial and error. So much was new to him: the land, the production systems, the process of marketing his vegetables to buyers. Yet, even with all his challenges, Dennis was committed to growing the finicky honeynut as one of his inaugural crops. He loved its texture — lighter than butternut with a thin, edible skin similar to delicata.

Tyler Dennis (right) and his Alewife team

Four years after planting Alewife’s first honeynut seeds, Dennis has become so adept at coaxing remarkable flavor from his fruits and vegetables that he counts his friend (and honeynut’s collaborator) as a devoted customer.

“I love Tyler Dennis because he’s one of those farmers who makes me look like a better chef,” Barber says. “He’s obsessed with flavor, and lucky for me, he has the talent and tools to make his ingredients sing.”

This symbiotic relationship between farmers and chefs has blossomed in recent years, thanks in part to restaurants like Blue Hill that work to blur the edges between kitchen and field.

“The chefs I work with are artists who have a deep appreciation for great produce and the work we do as farmers,” says Dennis, who studied art history at Cornell. “They inspire me to try new things and push in different directions, and vice versa.”

Along with Blue Hill and Dig Inn, Alewife’s produce makes its way into acclaimed New York City restaurants like Jean-Georges, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, and The Dutch.

Carrots getting a bath at Alewife Farm in Kingston, NY

The partnership between Dig Inn and Alewife began last September after Dig Inn’s Sourcing & Sustainability Manager, Taylor Lanzet, stumbled across a crate of “exceptional” honeynut at the Union Square Greenmarket. Intrigued, she chatted with the farmer at Alewife’s tent: Dennis, who revealed his concern that his honeynut harvest would go bad before he was able to sell it. (Honeynut’s thin skin makes for poor long-term storage.)

Lanzet was delighted. She now had an opportunity to introduce a superlatively sweet squash to Dig Inn guests — and, at the same time, buy a large enough supply to help alleviate the stress of a farmer whose work she admired. Dig Inn committed to buying 3,000 lbs of honeynut for its early winter menu.

The resulting dish, Honeynut & Greens, features honeynut two ways — as a sweet-tart pickle and a slow-roasted, spiced jerky. One of Dig Inn’s recipe developers, Wally Henriquez, drew inspiration from an eggplant bacon when creating the jerky. She sliced the squash very thinly and coated the strips with a pumpkin spice marinade before roasting them.

“At first, I wanted to create a honeynut chip,” Henriquez says. “When testing it, I took the pan out of the oven a bit too soon, and it ended up having a more chewy-crisp jerky consistency. We immediately fell in love with it and ditched the chip idea.”

Tossed with fresh kale, tangy goat cheese, toasted pepitas, and a creamy roasted onion dressing, honeynut has found its way into thousands of Dig Inn bowls. Thanks to farm liaisons like Lanzet who form real relationships with growers and chefs like Henriquez who jump at the chance to experiment with new ingredients, restaurants on Dig Inn’s level have the ability to help small farms thrive — by taking a tiny squash and making it a very big deal.

Honeynut & Greens is on the menu through January 31. But don’t worry — you can make our squash pickle and jerky all winter (or year!) long with the recipes below.

Honeynut Squash Pickle
Works with butternut, red kuri, and kabocha squash

Ingredients:
2 honeynut squashes (about 1.5 lbs)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup water
½ cup agave nectar
1 ½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp whole black peppercorns
2 tsp juniper berries
2 tsp whole allspice berries
1 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick

Directions:
1. In a 1-quart saucepan, combine all ingredients except for honeynut.

2. Over high heat, bring the mixture to a boil. Then remove from heat and strain, saving the liquid. Allow this brine to cool to room temperature.

3. With a vegetable peeler or sharp knife, peel the honeynut squashes. Then cut off the stem ends, halves the squashes, and deseed.

4. Using a mandolin set to the thinnest setting, slice the honeynuts widthwise to create short half-moon slices.

5. Fill a large mason jar with the honeynut slices and pour the strained brine over to cover the slices completely.

6. Allow the squash to pickle for at least 1 hour and up to 1 week.

Honeynut Squash Jerky
Works with butternut, red kuri, and kabocha squash

Ingredients:
3 honeynut squashes (about 2.25 lbs)
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup maple syrup
¼ cup pumpkin spice
4 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp dried sage
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 tsp sea salt

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 300° F.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk olive oil, maple syrup, all spices, and salt until combined.

3. With a vegetable peeler or sharp knife, peel the honeynut squashes. Then cut off the stem ends, halve each squash, and deseed.

4. Using a mandolin set to 1/8”, slice the honeynut squash lengthwise to create long slices.

5. Add honeynut slices to the spice marinade and rub until all slices are completely coated.

6. Lightly oil a baking sheet with 1 tbsp canola oil. Spread marinated squash slices on the sheet in a single layer.

7. Roast in the oven for approximately 25 minutes.

8. Allow the jerky to cool completely (approximately 1–2 hours) before removing from pan. Jerky should be chewy-crisp.

9. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

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