Winter squash, in all shapes, colors and sizes, fill the market bins at this time of the year. I like to display a variety on my kitchen counter like pieces of art. All too often, I skip cooking these hard beauties because the task feels daunting.
However, a beautiful tower of golden roasted, sliced delicata squash at St. Lou’s Assembly in Chicago jolted me out of my kitchen laziness. Fantastic. As we gobbled up the tender, slightly sweet squash, skin and all, I vowed to rethink squash at home. Especially since the squash in my display basket clearly mocked me.
Looking for insight, I turned to Deborah Madison’s stunningly beautiful tome “Vegetable Literacy” (Ten Speed Press, $40, 2013). In her chapter on the cucurbit family she says there’s no apparent reason to avoid, shun or fear this plant family. Winter squash sports more nutritive value, loads of fiber and vitamins than summer squash. They also prove a great value for the dollar, in part, because, they keep well for weeks. Most squash — winter and summer alike — make fine soups, add texture to stews, bronze beautifully on a grill or in the oven and take to savory seasonings as well as acid and sweet additions.
OK, that’s enough of a sales pitch. I say let’s cook ‘em while we can!
Acorn squash are everywhere, but these days, butternut, spaghetti, delicata, blue Hubbard and sweet dumpling appear regularly at supermarkets and produce stores. I chose small specimens, free of blemishes and soft spots. Look at the stem end — where it was attached to the vine — it should not be too dried out or bruised.
Most winter squash enjoys a steamy environment for cooking. So, cook them whole (pierced to allow steam to escape) in the oven or microwave, or speed up the cooking by cutting them into pieces and adding moisture (water, broth, oil) during cooking. Cooked squash keeps several days in the refrigerator and can be frozen. This means it’s now a weeknight option.
The simple roasted squash recipe below can be made with nearly any winter squash. Butternut is relatively easy to peel and dice. You can roast other squash with the peel still on, but I like to cut it into wedges so I can easily scoop the soft flesh away from the peel. When roasting squash, don’t skimp on the oil — it works to retain the moisture in the flesh.
Stuffed squash makes a great meatless main course or elegant side to a roast chicken dinner. My favorite combination of rice, green chile, corn and cheese makes a terrific stuffing for acorn or delicata squash. I like the dark green vegetable flavor of poblano chiles in contrast to the sweet flavor of winter squash.
When stuffing squash (or bell peppers for that matter), the trick is to cook the squash to tenderness first. Then, season the squash and the filling mixture. A few minutes in the oven will blend the flavors together. Alternatively, skip stuffing the squash. Instead, stir 3 or 4 cups of the simple roasted butternut into the rice filling for a hearty side dish.
SIMPLE ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Wedges of acorn squash, sweet dumpling or blue Hubbard (peel on) can be substituted; after roasting, scoop the soft flesh away from the peel.
1 medium-large butternut squash, about 2 pounds or 2 packages (12 ounces each) diced butternut squash
1/4 cup expeller-pressed canola oil, safflower oil or olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Chopped fresh or dried herbs
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Trim top (stem end) off the butternut. Cut butternut crosswise in 2 pieces — one the long skinny “neck” and the other the bulbous bottom. Peel each of the pieces. Cut each in half; scoop out the seeds and fibrous pulp. Cut the flesh into 1 to 1 1/2 inches pieces.
Transfer squash to a rimmed baking sheet. Add oil; toss to coat well. Sprinkle with salt.
Roast squash, stirring once or twice, until tender and golden, 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven. Serve sprinkled with herbs.
ACORN SQUASH WITH CHEESY RICE AND POBLANOS
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 55 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Instead of using the microwave oven, you can bake squash in a 350-degree oven until tender, about 40 minutes. You also can use sweet dumpling or delicata squash. After halving the squash, cut a small slice from the uncut ends so the squash halves sit level.
4 small (about 1 pound each) acorn squash, halved, seeds and fibers removed
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1 medium-size white onion, chopped
2 medium-size poblano chiles, halved, seeded, chopped (or 1 poblano and 1 red or yellow bell pepper)
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups cooked white or brown rice
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each: thyme, black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 1/3 cups shredded Chihuahua or Monterey jack cheese
3 green onions, trimmed, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Put squash halves, cut side down, in a single layer in a microwave-safe baking dish. (Work in batches to accommodate your microwave oven). Add about 1/2 inch of water to the dish; cover with lid or plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high, turning dish if needed, until a fork can be inserted easily in the flesh of the squash, 13-15 minutes. Keep covered while you cook the remaining squash. (Refrigerate cooked squash halves up to two days.)
For filling, melt butter or heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and poblano; cook until tender, 5-6 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, 1 minute. Stir in rice, corn, salt, thyme, pepper and allspice; heat thoroughly. Remove from heat. Stir in cheese, green onions and cilantro. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange cooked squash halves cut side up in oiled baking dishes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon a quarter of the filling into each squash. Cover with a sheet of oiled aluminum foil.
Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Serve hot with a squeeze of lime.
ROASTED DELICATA SQUASH RINGS
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Vary the spice rub on the squash to suit the rest of the meal. Try everything bagel seasoning blend, Old Bay or pumpkin pie spice.
2 medium-large delicata squash, about 1 1/2 pounds total, ends trimmed off
2 tablespoons expeller-pressed canola oil, safflower oil or olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons favorite spice rub
Balsamic glaze, optional
Pumpkin seed oil (or other nut oil), optional
Chopped fresh chives or green onion tops
Cut squash crosswise into 1/2-inch thick rings. Use a serrated grapefruit spoon or clean hands to pull away and discard the fiber and seeds in the center of each ring.
Put the rings in a single layer in a microwave-safe 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Add 1/2 cup water. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high until nearly tender when pierced with a fork, 5 to 6 minutes. Let stand, covered, a few minutes. Drain off the water.
Arrange squash on baking sheet. Brush both sides with canola oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and spice rub. (This can be done several hours in advance; let stand covered at room temperature.)
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roast squash, 10 minutes. Flip the pieces over; roast until edges are golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter. Serve garnished with a drizzle of balsamic glaze, pumpkin seed oil and chives.