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Don't be scared of squash: Tips and recipes for getting delicious results from winter varieties

Don't be scared of squash: Tips and recipes for getting delicious results from winter varieties

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Over-easy eggs nestled inside rings of buttery, roasted acorn squash with hints of cumin and nothing else — simple ingredients that belied a rich meal that tasted like fall and gave me a new appreciation for winter squash’s versatility.

I know what some of you are thinking. Winter squash can be too much trouble. Where summer squash is easily recognizable, easy-to-handle (and therefore chop and slice) and has a mild flavor that lends itself to being thrown on the grill next to burgers or stuffed into picnic casseroles with gobs of cheese, winter squash is a bit more complex.

For starters, just knowing the varieties of squash is a lesson unto itself. There’s butternut, kabocha and acorn, delicata, honeynut and spaghetti, to name a few. Even sweet little sugar pumpkins — known to some as pie pumpkins — can be turned into the most flavorful pumpkin purée you’ve never had and will eliminate the need for the canned stuff.

Yes, there are some tricks and tips when working with them, but master some quick shortcuts, and you’ll find that winter squash varieties are more than approachable — they’re downright delicious.

To get you started, I made some simple recipes using three kinds of popular seasonal squashes — butternut, acorn and spaghetti — and I’ve included some pointers along the way. Oh, and I threw in a quick method for making homemade pumpkin purée.

Acorn squash

Perhaps one of the most visually appealing of the squash family, acorn squash is mostly dark green (some have yellowish splotches) with distinctive ridges that run from stem to bottom and, as the name implies, is sort of shaped like a giant acorn. Inside, the yellow-orange flesh is a little bit sweet and almost reminiscent of a sweet potato when roasted. Acorn squash can be a bit tough to cut into when raw, so softening is in order.

Tip: Pierce the squash a few times with a knife, then place the whole squash in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 2 minutes to soften. This squash doesn’t need long periods of time in the microwave because it’ll cook quickly. You just want it soft enough to cut with minimal resistance, not fork-tender.

Once the squash is soft, cut off the top and bottom — about an inch or so from each end — and discard. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and pulp. You can fill each half with your favorite stuffing, or simply drizzle with maple syrup or olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast at 400 degrees until tender. Or as I did, slice the squash into rings, and then go around the insides of each ring with a knife to pull away the seeds and pulp.

Note: Acorn squash skins are thin and delicate and totally edible.

Slightly runny yolks are rich enough, but pair them with earthy acorn squash for a sublime twist on the traditional eggs-in-a-hole, which usually involves cracking eggs inside holes cut out of bread slices. I’m a big fan of cumin on my eggs, and here it elevates the squash, too. It’s easy enough for a Sunday morning for two, and sophisticated enough for brunch with guests.

Spaghetti squash

Pale yellow and oblong with a very mild, slightly sweet taste, spaghetti squash has risen in popularity lately as folks looking to cut calories substitute this squash for pasta. That’s because when the squash is cooked, raking your fork over the flesh produces stringy clumps that, to some, replicate the mouthfeel of angel hair or similar pasta.

I will never mistake stringy spaghetti squash for pasta strands — and I’m not sure that’s even fair. This squash has noteworthy merits all its own, namely that its light flavor is the perfect base for lots of toppings that can turn a halved squash into a full meal, no pasta necessary. Spaghetti squash is also easier to handle when it’s softened.

Tip: Pierce a few times with a knife and place whole squash in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 5 minutes. You might need an additional minute or two if your squash is very large. When cool enough to handle, cut off the top and bottom. Cut the squash lengthwise and remove the seeds and pulp. In many recipes, you’ll roast the squash halves cut-side down for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees before stuffing it with your favorite filling — in my house, that’s a mixture of cooked and chopped chicken, pesto, Italian cheeses and diced tomatoes — and putting it back in the oven to heat through and melt the cheese. (You could top this with marinara sauce, cheese and pepperoni, or Alfredo sauce and chicken, and so much more.)

You can also cut the squash into rings and roast them that way, and, in fact, some say that the roasted rings are better. Why? They produce intact strands when pulled from the skin. But when you scrape a squash half with a fork, it often breaks the strands.

Note: Spaghetti squash skin is thick and rough and doesn’t taste good. Eat the insides and throw the outsides away.

Butternut squash

The signature bell shape and light peachy exterior give this one away. Butternut squash has a rich, earthy flavor that’s similar to roasted pumpkin, and it makes a good substitute for pumpkin in all sorts of recipes. But butternut squash is notoriously challenging to prep when it’s raw — arms of steel may not even be enough here. So we go back to our trusty softening step.

Tip: Place whole squash in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the size of your squash. If it’s on the smaller side, check it around 3 minutes. Once soft, cut off about an inch of so from the top and bottom and discard.

Note: To peel or not to peel? When fully roasted, you can eat the skins of butternut squash, but I’m not sure many people do. Most recipes call for it to be peeled, and that’s likely how most people prefer to eat it. Again, wait until the squash is soft before peeling. It’s easier, though you can peel it when it’s raw if you have a good peeler.

Cut it into chunks (minus the seeds and pulp), then drizzle with olive oil and your favorite spices (simple salt is divine) and roast about 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven. You can also slice it lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and pulp, and roast cut-side down for about 30 to 40 minutes at the same temperature until fork-tender.

The soft insides are perfect for a dip made with tangy goat cheese and cream cheese, hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, and topped with festive cranberries and crunchy pecans. Just throw everything but the topping ingredients into a food processor, and you’ve got a stellar appetizer for your holiday parties.

Sugar pumpkins (also called pie pumpkins)

These are the pint-sized pumpkins in the produce area of your grocery store or farmers market that weigh about 2 to 4 pounds. Beyond serving as decorations all around your house, they’re great for making homemade pumpkin purée.

Slicing these in half is much easier than some of the other squashes. Feel free to cut off the top, or not, then cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and pulp and place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Roast at 400 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until the insides are fork-tender.

When the pumpkins are cool, scoop the insides out and place in a food processor. Process until smooth, then use in pumpkin pie, pumpkin cakes and anything else that calls for pumpkin purée. Refrigerate until ready to use.


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