Winter Squash: Seasonal Side Dish

by Jane Wangersky | November 7th, 2014 | Cooking Basics

pumpkins-228474_1280It’s the time of year when the zucchini finally gives out to make way for its late-season relatives. Winter squash comes in dozens of different shapes and colors, with imaginative names like butternut, delicata, and Calabaza, but inside it’s all much the same — lots of seeds and orange or yellow sweetish flesh. Though it’s far from my favorite vegetable, I’ve learned to make it taste good, with a little work and a lot of cooking.

The work usually begins with cutting the squash in half. It’s the only way to get the seeds out, and two halves cook more quickly — well, less impossibly slowly — than a whole squash. You may want to use a grapefruit spoon to dig out the seeds and the stringy bits around them. You may also want to dry the seeds to eat them as a snack; your oven’s going to be on for some time anyway.

If you can’t cut the squash in half — give up and go south for the winter. Nah, just cook it whole, it’s better than hurting yourself trying to hack into something that hard. Make some slits, if you can, for the air and steam to escape.

Just now I mentioned stringy bits. Well, spaghetti squash is all stringy bits, but that’s good — you can use them as a pasta substitute. So if what you’ve got is spaghetti squash, take out the seeds, but don’t start in on the stringy bits or you’ll have nothing left. Apart from that, treat it as any winter squash, but if you’re going to put pasta sauce on it, cook it without any seasonings except maybe a little salt.

Once it’s halved and seeded, you may want to cut the squash into smaller pieces or just cook the halves. For smaller pieces, peel the halves before cutting. Toss the cut pieces in butter or oil and season (we’ll talk about seasonings later). Cook them in a greased dish about half an hour at 350℉. All the times I’ll give are approximate — keep checking on your squash. It’s done when you can pull the flesh apart easily with a fork.

If you’re leaving the squash in halves, you have a hollow that can be filled with any number of things. Try prepared turkey stuffing, but make it on the moist side and add it only in the last 15 minutes of cooking. Canned baked beans, especially the sweeter flavors, make a nice stuffing in winter. Or you may just want to brush the inside of the halves with butter, salt, and spices (especially the ones usually used for sweeter dishes, like cinnamon and ginger). They can go on at the beginning, but sugar or honey should wait till at least halfway through so they don’t burn. Cook the halves in a greased dish, with a little water to keep them from scorching, for 45 minutes to an hour at 350.

Winter won’t seem so long if the winter squash is at its best.

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