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Delightful Winter Squash

One of the first times I got my hands on a big kitchen knife was when I carved my first pumpkins for Halloween. I remember it vividly, because it was a serious moment, when it was impressed upon me that" this is not a toy." You could say it was a formative experience, since I now wield the big knife for my living. It undoubtedly adds to that early experience that the pumpkin cutting was so dramatic, as we pulled the sturdy plug from the top and reached in to scoop out the slimy innards. Up to my chubby elbows in fibrous pumpkin strands, I was excited about eating the seeds, too. Of course, it was all just an appetizer course for trick or treating, adding to the anticipation.

Now, I look to pumpkins and their brethren for many savory dishes, as well as desserts. The sweet, creamy flesh of squash is a perfect complement for spices, hearty meats and beans, and adds natural sweetness and great flavor to anything with a sweet and sour component, like Asian soups or a salad.

That pumpkin you put out on the stoop is quite versatile and just one of the cornucopia of so-called winter squashes harvested in the fall. They are distinguished from summer squashes in that they are good keepers, and will last all winter long in a root cellar.

The sturdy skin of the winter squash is one of the reasons that it keeps so well. It's also one of the reasons that many cooks are intimidated by squash cookery, as they may be daunted by the prospect of wielding a knife on such a big, hard object (like I was on that long-ago Halloween eve).  Luckily, with a few tips on how to approach a winter squash, it should be as easy as (pumpkin) pie.

Firstly, it is good to know that small squashes, like Sweet Dumpling and Delicata, have thin, tender skins, making them easier to cut. Butternuts are almost as tender, so if cutting squash is a barrier, those are good varieties to get to know.

For all squashes, you will have an easier time cutting them in half if you remove the stem. If you have a meat hammer or mallet handy, you can just give it a whack and it will usually pop right off. Alternatively, pry it off with a spoon. Then, set the squash on its bottom or side, whichever is most stable. With one hand on the spine of your chef's knife (careful of your fingers) and one on the handle, cut the squash in half, rocking the knife from side to side and using a little body weight to get through. If it is just too hard (or your knife isn't sharp), try this oven trick.

Preheat the oven to 400⁰F, and then slide the whole squash in for 5-10 minutes. When you take it out, the outer skin will be softened enough to pierce with a knife. Really big, hard squashes, like the Hubbard, will often be pre-cut into pieces by your co-op produce experts. My farmer friends break theirs up with an axe, or simply put it in a paper bag and drop it on the ground until it breaks open.

Once your squash is halved, you can choose your method of peeling. Some folks like to have at the halved squash with a peeler, and this works well with smooth squashes, like butternuts. Deeply grooved or thick skinned squashes will foil the average peeler. I find that a very safe way to peel and cube squash for cooking is to cut halved squash into slices, then lay them flat and use your chef's knife, with your free hand bracing the spine again, to cut straight down to trim the skins. You can also hold the slices upright and use a peeler or paring knife, whichever is more comfortable. Once the slices are peeled, you can cook them as they are or chop them in chunks.

Winter squashes are a perfect match for the cold season in so many ways. Their dense, creamy texture, bold orange colors, and sweet, subtle flavors make them a cook's best friend in the winter kitchen. Use their sweetness to balance the other flavors in your dish, like the vinegar or lemon dressings I use in these recipes. I'm partial to roasting, because of the way it concentrates and caramelizes the squash, but you can steam, sauté, braise, or simmer your squash pieces in soup.

Each variety has its own unique personality. I have taught a class on the joys of winter squash in which I roasted cubes of several varieties and served the students a sampler plate, to illustrate this point. People are amazed at how distinct and different the squashes are.

From smallest to largest, here are the squashes:

  • Sweet Dumpling, Delicata - great "single-serving" squashes, perfect for halving and baking. You can serve them hot with butter and brown sugar, or stuff them with any number of fillings, from savory to sweet. Their flesh is yellow-orange, mild tasting, and quite juicy, and the rinds are tender enough to eat.
  • Acorn - a little big for a single serving, these are classic, yellow-orange fleshed squashes. Creamy, nutty, and sweet, they're great for when you just want a cup or so of squash puree for a recipe. They are also a good size to slice or cube, without having more than you need.
  • Butternut - the smooth textured, bright orange flesh of the butternut is perfect for cubing and roasting, or for pureeing for pies and cakes.  Bonus points for having the long neck, which can be sliced crosswise to make beautiful rounds for roasting or layering in a gratin.
  • Spaghetti - Spaghetti squash is the oddball, bred for its stringiness and not as sweet as the others. Cut and roasted or steamed, the flesh of the squash can be scooped and served like spaghetti, with sauces or in salads.
  • Red Kuri - a meaty, drier textured squash, with a vibrant red-orange flesh. Excellent for most purposes, it won't add excess moisture to recipes like gnocchi or muffins.
  • Kabocha - like Red Kuri, kabocha has a meaty, almost flaky texture that roasts to a wonderful bite. Excellent cubed in soups, curries and roasts because it holds its shape and absorbs flavors.
  • Pie Pumpkins - unlike your Jack-o-lantern, these have thick, sweet flesh, a good moisture content, and a very smooth texture. Roast or steam for pureeing for soups, or baking.
  • Hubbard - the behemoth of squashes, these grow to 50 pounds. You will find chunks of it for sale, with its distinctive blue rind. A meaty, dry squash, perfect for steaming, roasting, or soup.

From the hand-sized dumpling to the behemoth Hubbard, winter squash deserves to be a valued ingredient in your repertoire.

Find delicious squash recipes and more squash information in the Sweet & Savory Winter Squash collection.