Baked acorn squash was my breakthrough vegetable, the first one I voluntarily dared to put in my mouth.
Until then I was your basic potatoes and sweet corn kid. I camouflaged peas in my mashed potatoes and held my nose when I ate green beans. Beets, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers - wouldn't touch 'em, even if we'd grown them in our garden.
But I doctored up the already-sweet flesh of acorn squash with brown sugar and butter and mmm, a veggie almost as good as a piece of pumpkin pie.
As luck would have it, I grew up - and grew to love all those vegetables I used to turn up my nose at, especially roasted beets. And I've never outgrown my love of baked acorn squash, its hollowed-out cup filled with butter and brown sugar, or if I'm feeling indulgent, real maple syrup. On a chilly fall night, it's a meal to remember.
Availability: Winter squash starts to show up in late summer/early fall and is a grocery-store staple through winter. Although the sizes, colors and varietals vary, the flesh is generally interchangeable in recipes.
Selection and storage: Look for ones that are firm and heavy. If they feel light, the squash has dried out. Store them at room temperature in a cool, dry spot. If they are blemish- and bruise-free, they should hold for several months. Do not store in plastic bags; moisture can accumulate and cause rot.
Preparation: As a matter of preservation, winter squashes have tough, thick skins and peeling them takes a strong knife, agile hands and some upper-body strength.
Although butternut squash can be peeled with a vegetable peeler, most will need to be cut into wedges first. Remove the fiber and seeds (save those to toast), then peel wedges with a small knife. Once peeled, they can be cut into chunks.
When peeling smaller squash, such as acorn, slice off the base so the squash sits squarely on the countertop or cutting board. Cut it in half, then follow its curve. Again, discard fiber and seeds and cut into desired shape.
Squash can be roasted, baked, steamed or boiled. It can be pureed until silky or cut into bite-sized chunks. Or you can pierce the skin of the squash and bake whole until tender. Once it has cooled, the skin easily peels off and the fiber and seeds can be scooped out with a spoon.
Winter squash has an affinity to brown sugar, maple syrup and honey and autumn spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Add it to lamb stews or roasting meats. Most squashes can be substituted for pumpkin in pie recipes.
Nutritional value: Winter squash is high in fiber, complex carbohydrate, beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium. One cup has 80 calories.
Fun fact: If you're feeling puny and down on your luck, eat some kabocha squash. In Japan, this varietal is considered a symbol of good health and luck.
Sources: From "Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce" by the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (Jones Books, 2004); "The Good Cook" by Anne Willan (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004); "Vegetables" by James Peterson (Morrow, 1998)
Squash, Raisin and Pine-Nut Gratin
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 pounds winter squash, peeled, seeds discarded and cut into 1-inch chunks
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 cup grated parmesan cheese (divided use)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a medium baking dish. Toss squash with butter, raisins, pine nuts and half of the cheese in dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake until squash is tender when pierced with a knife, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove foil the last 30 minutes of cooking and sprinkle with remaining cheese so that gratin browns.
Per serving (based on 4 servings): 470 calories, 27 grams total fat, 12 grams saturated fat, 47 milligrams cholesterol, 47 grams carbohydrate, 18 grams protein, 506 milligrams sodium, 7 grams fiber
From "The Good Cook" by Anne Willan (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004). Recipe analysis provided by the Kansas City Star.