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.

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