Make time for winter squash

October 29, 2008|By JANET K. KEELER / St. Petersburg Times

Winter squash is a versatile ingredient. When cooked, most are slightly sweet, sort of a cross between a starchy potato and a sweet potato. The flesh is usually silky smooth except in the case of spaghetti squash, which is stringy like pasta. Winter squash, unlike summer zucchini and yellow crookneck, have tough outer skin that's not meant to be eaten. Peel before cooking or roast with the skin, the buttery flesh eaten much like a baked potato.

My favorite winter squash is acorn, and I subscribe to a very simple preparation method. Because the tough guys can be difficult to cut in half, I pierce the skin a few times with a sharp knife and microwave on high for about 5 minutes. This softens the squash enough to halve without risking losing a finger.

Place the squash, seeds and all, cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet spritzed with nonstick spray and roast for about an hour at 350 degrees. You'll know when the squash is done because the halves begin to implode and are soft to the touch. Let cool for a few minutes, then remove seeds and scoop flesh into a bowl. Add butter and season with salt and pepper. To me, that's autumn at it's simplest. For more challenging preparations of harvest produce, try these recipes. Some you might want to tuck away for Thanksgiving dinner.


Common winter squash

Ever wonder what those alien-shaped things in the produce section are? Here's a guide.

o Butternut: Bright orange, creamy flesh; not stringy. Thinner skin can be peeled easily, and cubes add flavor and nutrition to casseroles and soups.

o Acorn: A favorite for stuffing. Yellow-orange flesh is slightly sweet, if a little watery. Good alternative to baked potatoes.

o Calabaza: Oval variety whose skin looks like wood grain. Also called a West Indian pumpkin. Bright orange flesh under thick skin. Roast for best results.

o Buttercup: Similar to butternut in taste but a bit sweeter. The dark green rind has distinctive stripes that can sometimes be silver.

o Spaghetti: This has long been the dieter's substitute for pasta because the stringy flesh separates into long strands when scraped out with a fork after cooking. Best cut in half, seeded and baked.

o Pumpkin: It's for more than pumpkin pie. Peel and use chunks in vegetable soups or puree to fill homemade raviolis.

o Turban: Aptly named, because it looks like a hat. Turbans can be baked, steamed or simmered, and also look mighty fine in a table centerpiece.

o Delicata: An elongated, striped variety that usually weighs less than 1 pound. Yellow, sweet flesh.

Winter Squash Soup

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, cored, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapeno chilies, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 1/2 pounds winter squash, such as butternut or acorn, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 cups chicken stock or water
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup grated Manchego or Pecorino Romano cheese

Melt the butter in a large stockpot over moderate heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato, garlic, jalapeno and salt and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add the squash and stock and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until the squash is falling apart and soup is thickened slightly.

Puree soup with an immersion blender, or use a blender and return soup to a clean pan. Add the milk and heat gently. Stir in the cheese and adjust the seasonings.

Serves 4 to 6.

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