The nip of frost in the air and the smell of wood smoke outdoors are sublime companions to the scents of cinnamon baked apples and nutmeg-laced butternut squash in the kitchen. This is the perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with the bounty of winter squash. It’s also a great time to raid the farmers’ markets and pumpkin farms to pick up the squash in every hue and flavor. It’s hard not to load the car with pie pumpkins, buttercups, Turk’s turbans, blue Hubbards, Japanese pumpkins and kabochas.
Pumpkins are the kings of winter squash. Pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, and pumpkin is also very good when baked and mashed like potatoes.
For years, the most popular winter squash was acorn squash, mostly because it was commonly available year-round. This the baseball-sized green ribbed squash with bright orange flesh. But there are so many others available now that there’s no need to limit yourself. Delicata squash, oblong cream to yellow with dark green stripes, and Sweet Dumplin’ are some of the sweetest squash you’ll ever eat. They have rich orange flesh like butternut but are infinitely sweeter.
Now’s the time for harvest
Winter squashes begin ripening in August and continue through October. Although most winter squash can be harvested when young and used like zucchini, the point of growing winter squash is usually to keep them over the winter. Winter squashes are ready for harvest when the rind is hard enough so that you cannot make a dent in it with your fingernail. This means they’ve cured enough to store well. By the time the first frost arrives, the squash should all be ready to harvest.
As soon as Halloween is over, many farm stands have piles of pumpkins they would like to sell at reduced prices. Even the groceries have reduced-price pumpkins. Pie pumpkins, which have thicker flesh and usually are less than twelve inches in diameter, are the easiest to store and cook.
Winter squash store easily
All winter squashes store well so you can stock up now for the winter. To control fungal problems in storage, wash squash well with soap and water. For extra protection, wipe them down with vinegar, making sure to get the stem end. They are best stored on wire racks or someplace with good circulation and cool conditions such as the basement. Squash should ideally be stored at 50 to 55 degrees, and if your basement is warmer than that, be sure to check them periodically for rotting.
All it takes to bake most winter squash is to cut it in half and invert them on a rimmed cookie sheet. You can remove the seeds before baking, especially if you want to toast the seeds, or you can bake with the seeds intact and remove them after baking. They will come out easier this way.
Bake for an hour or so, depending on the size of the squash, at 350 degrees and serve with butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, or stuffed with wild rice, apples and cranberries. All winter squashed are cooked the same way, and can be interchanged in almost any recipe.
Bake some for the freezer
The cooked flesh freezes well, and if you measure it into freezer bags in one cup batches, it’s ready to pull out for use whenever the mood hits to make muffins or squash bread.
Spaghetti squash is a little different in that when it is cooked, you can separate the flesh into strands that really do resemble spaghetti. The “spaghetti” is delicious with a little butter and parmesan or even spaghetti sauce. And it doesn’t have the high calories of pasta.
Full of nutrition
Winter squashes and pumpkins are full of vitamin C, vitamin A and fiber. The pulp is a delicious way to put extra fiber into spaghetti sauce, soups and stews. I even found a recipe for spaghetti squash dressed with pumpkin sauce. What could be healthier?
Although one of my favorite winter squashes is the butternut, I’m quickly replacing that favorite with kabocha squash. It has dark orange rich creamy flesh and is a wonderful addition to mac and cheese, not to mention an endless variety of soups and vegetable dishes.
Toast the seeds
And don’t forget about the seeds. Pumpkins and squash seeds are packed with magnesium, potassium and fiber. Rinse the seeds to remove the pulp, dry and toss with olive oil and salt. Toast in an oiled pan at 300 for 10-30 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to avoid burning.
Stuffed Squash (Acorn, delicata, any small squash)
Slice squash into one-inch rings and remove seeds and membrane
2 oblong or round squashes, cut into 1 inch thick slices, seeds removed
6 T. butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 ½ T. curry powder
2 apples, diced
2/3 c. apple juice
½ c. cranberries
Saute onion in butter, add curry and cook for one minute. Add the rest of the ingredients and sauté until liquid evaporates. Place squash rings in a shallow baking pan, fill with saute mixture and bake at 350 for 40 minutes.
Butternut squash or pumpkin gratin (a Thanksgiving tradition in our house)
3 c. torn day-old bread (your choice – whole grain makes it more healthful and a bit denser
2 c. cooked squash (any with rich orange color – butternut, pumpkin, kabocha, buttercup)
2 T. olive oil
1/2 c. chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 c. ricotta cheese
1/4 c. Parmesan cheese
3 T. chopped parsley
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
fresh bread crumbs or panko
Cover bread with hot water and let stand until softened, 3-5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Saute onion and garlic in oil until tender. Mix bread, squash and rest of ingredients in a large bowl. Add onions and garlic. Spread in oiled 2 quart casserole and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake, uncovered 35 minutes until slightly puffed and beginning to brown.