Super winter squash is not as tough as it seems

Winter squash appears to be a tough case, but under that peel is an easy-to-cook gem of nutrients and taste

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If potatoes are the workhorse of the American diet, winter squashes are their cousin, the burro: They have the same work ethic and are just as versatile (if not more so, as everything about a squash is edible, even the plant) but have a somewhat more stubborn demeanor and are therefore underappreciated.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
Squash dishes include, bottom left, roast squash with red onion and garlic, and squash, cranberry and cream cheese ice cream, top. Varieties of squash on display include turban squash, top left; orange Hubbard, right, and delicata, bottom.
Click photo for larger image.

Even with the necessity of having to remove a tough peel and scrape out seeds and pulp, though, winter squash are remarkably easy to cook into a variety of dishes.

A simple, two-step method of roasting squash can be easily adapted to all sorts of results. Not only that, but they're bursting with nutrients; squash contains more potassium per serving than a banana and lots of Vitamin A. What's more, the leftovers transform easily into new dishes. Don't be afraid of making too much -- with so many possibilities for what the leftovers can become, it all will be eaten in some form or another.

The diversity of potential begins in the field, before the squash ever makes it to your table. There are hundreds of varieties of winter squash out there, even if the only ones you commonly find in the store are acorn, butternut and ornamental pumpkin. A trip to a farm stand or a seed retailer will quickly yield possibilities such as delicata, Hubbard, kabocha and turban squash.

Coming in all shapes and sizes, winter squash (with the exception of the spaghetti-type squash, which has a stringy flesh) share many common characteristics and can all be cooked in the same way. It's just as easy to make a blue Hubbard or a delicata pie as it is to make a pie from a bright orange pumpkin. Even better, the new flavors added by a slightly different squash will subtly set your pie apart from the rest of the crowd.

The difference in taste between the various squashes are surprisingly tangible when you try two kinds side-by-side, though somewhat more difficult to detect when you eat one variety by its lonesome.

The delicata is a fairly small, sweeter squash with a softer meat than many other types have.

The Hubbard is a large, somewhat warty variety with a flesh that's a richer version of an ordinary pumpkin. Because of its size, the Hubbard is a great choice if you want to plan on having leftovers.

The kibocha is not much larger than an acorn squash and has a similar flavor, even if its texture is a bit drier. Because it has a smooth rind, it's easier to peel than an acorn squash.

The turban squash is very tough to peel because of its unusual shape, and the resulting flesh is not as vibrantly flavored as its counterparts. It's generally raised as an ornamental and, although edible, perhaps makes a better centerpiece than it does a culinary treat.

A winter squash's skin and seeds are really not that difficult to remove. Once the squash is cut in half, the seeds and pulp can be scooped out as a single mass with a large serving spoon. As for the rind, it can easily be pared from smooth-skinned squashes with an ordinary vegetable peeler.

If the skin is somewhat more irregular or warty (as with a Hubbard or an acorn), the easiest way to peel them is to cut the squash into 3/4-inch slices, then cut the peel from each of the more manageable pieces with a sharp knife.


Jesse Sharrard demonstrates techniques for cutting squash. First, slice it before peeling.
Click photo for larger image.
Cut the peeled squash into pieces of about 3/4 of an inch.
Click photo for larger image.

(Another way to peel an acorn squash is to slice it with a heavy, sharp knife through the 'valleys' between the ridges. This helps eliminate having to peel in the 'valleys.')

After peeling, preparing squash is as easy as cutting the slices into chunks, tossing them with spices and oil and roasting them for 20 minutes.

You can change the character of the roast squash by including other fruits or vegetables with it while it's roasting, or by tossing it with sauces or garnishes once it comes out of the oven.

One of my favorite ways of serving winter squash involves adding cranberries for the last five minutes of roasting and tossing the squash/cranberry mixture with cream cheese and maple syrup right after it comes out of the oven. The cheese melts around the squash, melding with the syrup and cranberries to make a very tasty sauce. The next day, I'll puree the leftovers and use them for ice cream or pie.

If I'm in the mood for something more savory, I'll often roast my squash with red onions and garlic, finishing it by tossing the mixture with balsamic vinegar before it goes to the table. Any leftovers convert quickly and easily to soup. If you prefer a leftover that doesn't involve transforming the texture of the dish, the squash mixture works well on a bed of mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette as a lunchtime salad.

Really, though, these suggestions are just the beginning. You can substitute mashed or pureed winter squashes of any type into whatever recipe that calls for pumpkins or sweet potatoes: fritters, cakes, muffins, souffles, quiche, ravioli ... the possibilities are virtually limitless.

Leftovers happen. It's a fact of feeding your family that not everything will always get eaten the first time around. The question is, what do you do with them? Winter squash makes it easy to transform what remains into a tasty treat that everyone will love. What follows are a couple of variations on the roasted winter squash theme, with ideas of what they can become in their second (or third) life.

Also, I've included my basic pumpkin pie spice formula. Because the same spices work so well together in so many ways, it's a handy time-saver to have it mixed up and ready to go.


BASIC PUMPKIN PIE SPICE MIX

PG TESTED

  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons ginger
  • 1 tablespoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves

Combine well. Store in a covered container or resealable bag for up to one year.

Makes about 1/3 cup.

-- Jesse Sharrard


ROASTED WINTER SQUASH WITH CREAM CHEESE AND CRANBERRIES

PG TESTED

  • 8 cups winter squash, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, cut into small pieces
  • 2 tablespoons real maple syrup or honey

Toss squash in bowl with spice, salt, and olive oil. Arrange in single layer on cookie sheet with rim. Bake 15 minutes.

Toss cranberries with pinch of sugar in bowl used for seasoning squash. Add to cookie sheet with squash. Bake an additional five minutes or until squash is soft and easily pierced with fork.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Add cream cheese and syrup or honey and gently fold into hot squash with rubber scraper until cream cheese has melted and mixed with cranberries to form bright pink sauce around squash. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6 with leftovers, or 8 to 10 without.

-- Jesse Sharrard


WINTER SQUASH, CRANBERRY AND CREAM CHEESE ICE CREAM

PG TESTED

  • 4 cups pureed winter squash with cranberries and cream cheese (see previous recipe)
  • 3 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup (or honey)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine puree with half-and-half and milk in a large saucepan or Dutch oven and bring to simmer for five minutes.

Beat egg yolks, brown sugar, maple syrup and vanilla together in stainless steel bowl. Ladle 1 1/2 cups hot milk and squash mixture into egg mixture while stirring constantly with whisk. Then, whisk contents of bowl into saucepan with remaining milk and puree. Add spice and salt. Stir constantly over very low heat for 10 minutes or until mixture starts to thicken. Strain if desired. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions.

Variation: Squash, cranberry, and cream cheese custard, using the same ingredients.

When egg, milk and squash mixture has thickened, divide into 8 1/2-cup custard dishes and bake in water bath at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted at center of custard cup comes up clean. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes in water bath and then carefully transfer to wire rack for 5 to 10 minutes; then let cool in refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Store covered to prevent film from forming over top. Straining mixture before baking will result in a smoother texture in the finished custard.

Yields 1 1/2 quarts of ice cream or 8 1/2-cup custards.

-- Jesse Sharrard


ROASTED WINTER SQUASH WITH RED ONIONS AND GARLIC

PG TESTED

  • 8 cups winter squash cut into 3/4-inch cubes
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 2 medium red onions cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic broken open with flat of knife
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Arrange in single layer on a cookie sheet with a rim. Bake for 20 minutes or until squash is soft and pierces easily with fork. Transfer into a serving bowl and toss with balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.

Variation: Substitute curry powder for pumpkin pie spice.

Serves 4 to 6 with leftovers or 8 to 10 without.

-- Jesse Sharrard


WINTER SQUASH, ONION AND GARLIC SOUP

PG TESTED

  • 4 cups leftover roasted winter squash with red onions and garlic (see previous recipe)
  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • Pinch of cumin
  • Salt to taste

Mash leftover squash mixture with potato masher. Mix with milk and spices. Simmer 20 minutes. Taste, add salt as necessary. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 1-cup servings.

-- Jesse Sharrard


Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 16, 2006) Jesse Sharrard, who wrote this piece on squash that appeared in Food & Flavor on Nov. 2, is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. The school was misidentified in the original version of this story.

Jesse Sharrard is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and author of the Corduroy Orange food blog. He can be reached at jwsharrard@corduroyorange.com .


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