Well after the Halloween jack-o-lanterns have been tossed in the compost and Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie crumbs are long gone, pumpkin and other winter squash varieties are still a mainstay on my cool weather menus. Decidedly beautiful on the counter or table, these seasonal vegetables are also a welcome addition to warming winter dishes.Winter squashes, which actually start arriving in fall, come in a rainbow of colors and a range of shapes, and their uses are just as varied. For each of my children, winter squash was one of their first foods, and one that they continually look forward to eating as fall approaches each year. That’s great because in addition to being versatile and easy to prepare, winter squash is packed with carotenoids, such as the beta-carotene that gives its flesh a lovely orange hue. Many varieties also supply good amounts of vitamin C, niacin and potassium, making this nutrient-rich vegetable well worth adding to your recipe repertoire.
My go-to method to cook winter squash is to bake it. Pre-heat your oven to 350°F. Rinse your squash of choice and slice in half. Sometimes the rind can be thick, so be careful when slicing. Scoop out the seeds and place the squash, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet, roasting pan or jelly roll pan. Add enough water to reach about half an inch up the pan and carefully place in the oven. (See why you need the rims?)
Alternatively, if you like a little more caramelization on your squash, skip the water (and the rims) and place your squash face up on the baking sheet. Cooking time will depend on the size and variety of squash. Check periodically to make sure that there is still water in the pan. If not, add more. The water will add moisture to the squash and protect it from burning as it bakes. To test for doneness, poke the skin of the squash with a fork or knife. If it pierces easily and the underlying flesh of the squash yields to the fork, it is ready!
Once slightly cooled, the squash can be scooped out of its rind, mashed with a fork and mixed with spices like a touch of cinnamon or nutmeg. As my children have gotten older, we’ve incorporated ground or fresh ginger, paprika, dried fruit, cumin, curry powders, black pepper, fresh and dried herbs like thyme and sage, apple juice, and even orange zest into our dish. The sweet Apple Pear Sauce over squash is always a big hit. Also cooked squash can be added to soups and casseroles for extra creaminess or pureed as a dip. I love it with tahini, ginger and miso, like in this version!
Although I am very partial to the ever pleasing butternut, like in this Butternut Kale Salad, I also like to keep my squash stash rotating with other varieties, such as red kuri, delicata, spaghetti, acorn, kabocha and any other unusual variety that I find in the produce department. Usually I will try out a new squash as a stand in for butternut in Butternut Squash Soup, or add it to hearty Winter Vegetable Stew. While most squashes can be prepared as above, spaghetti squash, with its noodle-like flesh for which it is named, is a bit different. I still bake it and then pull the strands out of the rind with a fork, and toss them with sauce like pasta. Try it with Eggplant Bolognese for a healthy twist on traditional Italian.
Acorn squash also offers another squash alternative — this one with a beautiful presentation too. After baking, you can fill the acorn squash’s bowl shaped cavity with the stuffing of your choice, cover with parchment or foil, and bake for another 20-30 minutes. Acorn squash stuffed with Apple pilaf with a side of Curried Apple Chutney is particularly good. Other good combinations for squash stuffings are Basic Millet with the addition of chopped dried apricots and toasted almonds, or Bulgur with Spinach and Pinenuts. Baked delicata squash and pie pumpkins also work well filled and baked, and look lovely on any plate.
Cooked squash also makes a great substitute for sweet potatoes. Substitute squash in these recipes for Sweet Potatoes with Collards and Adzuki Beans, Tempeh Curry, or as a mash with smoked almonds. And this may surprise you, but you can even use butternut squash in dessert recipes! Your guests will never guess the secret ingredients this delightful dairy-free chocolate mousse.
Got a favorite recipe of your own? How will winter squash show up on your table?