This chef's primer to hard winter squash

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

This is hard-squash season, even in South Florida where the piles of brightly colored squash are one of our only indicators that winter is approaching. Some people think those squash are only for decoration and have no idea how to prepare them. But they can all essentially be cooked the same way. The hard job is processing them or cutting them up for cooking.

The easiest way to prepare any of these varieties is to cut them in half through the middle, scoop out the seeds and any membranes and then either microwave them in a bit of water or bake them from 45 minutes to an hour, until tender.

I like to add a simple glaze during the last 10 minutes of cooking. For it, I mix some orange juice, cinnamon and ginger ale or apple cider with brown sugar, maple syrup or honey.

Or, if you eat dairy products, use a high-quality butter such as Plugra and sea salt along with fresh-ground black pepper.

Here's a primer on the most common varieties you'll find during the next few months.

Acorn Squash: The easiest to find in supermarkets. As its name suggests, this winter squash is shaped like an acorn. I love it because it's easy to slice into halves and fill with butter. A small acorn squash weighs from 1 to 3 pounds and has sweet, slightly fibrous flesh. Its dark green ribs run the length of its hard, blackish golden-yellow skin. I've also seen golden and multi-colored varieties in the market.

Banana Squash: This winter squash has the shape and color of a fat banana. It grows up to two feet in length and about six inches in diameter. Its bright orange, finely-textured flesh is sweet. Banana squash is often available cut into smaller pieces. Try roasting it.

Buttercup Squash: Part of the Turban squash family (hard shells with turban-like shapes), it has sweet and creamy orange flesh. This squash is much sweeter than other winter varieties. It can be baked, mashed, pureed, steamed, simmered or stuffed.

Butternut Squash: Available year round, these squash are cream colored and shaped like a vase. The deep-orange flesh is usually very sweet similar to that of a sweet potato. It is loaded with beta carotene and has a nutty flavor. Some people say it tastes like butterscotch. It weighs from 2 to 5 pounds. The more orange the color, typically the more ripe and sweet the squash will be.

Delicata Squash: Also called peanut squash, this is one of the tastier winter squashes. It has very creamy pulp that tastes a bit like corn and sweet potatoes. It's a lighter yellow in color and makes incredibly creamy soups. It ranges from 5 to 10 inches in length. The squash can be baked or steamed. The Delicata squash is actually an heirloom variety that's new to the modern culinary world.

Fairytale Pumpkin Squash: These are often used for decoration. The fruits are flattened on the ends but each rib is deep and beautiful. It looks just like Cinderella's coach from the Disney movie. The Fairytale Pumpkin has deep orange sweet and flavorful flesh.

Hubbard Squash: The extra-hard skins make these giant, blue-gray skinned squash one of the best keeping varieties. These are irregularly shaped, with a skin with warts.

The flesh is dense, and I think not as sweet as the other varieties. Hubbard squash is often sold in pieces that you can cut into chunks and boil or roast.

Spaghetti Squash: Also called vegetable spaghetti or noodle squash, they are shaped like a small watermelon that is creamy yellow. When halved lengthwise, seeded and steamed, baked or microwaved until tender, the flesh separates into strands that resemble spaghetti. Try pulling the strands from the shell with a fork and serving them in the "half shell." Add a sauce or melted butter and parmesan.



1 cup brown basmati rice

1 1/2 cups water

2 acorn squash (about 2 pounds each), halved, seeded

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon butter

1/2 medium red or yellow onion, minced

1/3 cup chopped almonds

1/4 teaspoon each: minced garlic, salt

1 apple, unpeeled, cored, chopped

1/4 cup dried cherries, halved

Combine the rice and water in a medium-size saucepan. Heat to a boil; cover. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook 40 minutes until tender.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 400 degrees. Place the squash, cut side down, on a greased, foil-line baking pan. Roast 35 to 40 minutes until you can easily insert a fork from the skin side.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add butter; swirl until it melts. Add onions; cook, stirring often, 10 minutes until the onions become golden. Add the almonds; cook, stirring often, 5 to 8 minutes until the almonds give off aroma. Stir in the garlic and salt. Cook 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

Add the onion mixture to the rice in the saucepan; toss to combine. Add the apples and cherries; mix well.

Turn the squash halves over. Remove squash from the oven when done. Reduce heat to 300 degrees. Divide the rice mixture among the squash cavities, packing down the filling and mounding the top. (Leftover filling can be used as a side-dish-refill component of the meal.) Cover the squash loosely with foil; return to oven. Bake to heat through,10 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 499 calories, 14 percent calories from fat, 8 grams total fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 104 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams total fiber, 9 grams protein, 19 milligrams sodium.

Adapted from "Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen" (HarperStudio, 2009) by Mollie Katzen.


(c) 2009, Sun Sentinel.

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