Sweet dumpling, buttercup, butternut, delicata - even the names of winter squash are tempting. And, these winter squash live up to their names.
From appetizer to dessert, winter squash fit in anywhere. Their sweet flesh ranges from deep-golden to darkest orange and adds welcome color to winter dishes.
They are low in calories, rich in fiber, and those golden-orange colors signal that they are a good source of beta carotene and vitamin A. Winter squash keep for months and are easy on the budget. A grouping of this attractive squash can even have a second role as a decorative autumn display while it waits to be cooked.
The name winter squash refers to their eating season rather than their growing season. Winter squash are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. If kept in a cool, dry place, they can be stored for at least four months. A good place to keep them is in a basement or garage as long as the temperature does not go below about 45 degrees.
When storing winter squash, spread them in a single layer so air can get to them. Choose winter squash that have some of the stem attached because this protects the cut end from rotting.
From the smooth bell shape of the butternut squash to the gnarled, anything-goes shape of the Hubbard to the ridged acorn shape of the acorn squash, winter squash come in many forms and sizes. Most delicata squash will weigh about 1 pound, butternut and buttercup about 2 pounds, but 5 pounds for a Hubbard would be considered small.
Several winter-squash varieties have a hard rind that can be quite daunting to cut. In the case of the large Hubbard squash, I try to buy cut pieces from the produce section. An entire Hubbard, often weighing 10 pounds, is usually more squash than I (or most families) need, and cutting into this huge squash is difficult at best.
For other hard-skinned squash, such as buttercup or acorn, I use a cleaver or large knife and a rubber mallet. Steady the knife where you want to cut through the squash and tap it firmly with the mallet until the squash is cut all the way through. Be careful that the squash is firmly in place so squash and knife do not slip around.
Pumpkins, which also belong to the winter-squash family, benefit from this cutting approach. Butternut and delicata squash have a thinner rind that can be peeled with a vegetable peeler.
Winter squash lends itself to many types of cooking. The easiest way to cook or precook winter squash for a recipe is to cut it in half and bake it in about 1/2 inch of water until it is soft.
The seeds can be scooped out easily after the squash is cooked, and the soft flesh can be spooned or cut away from the rind. The cooked winter squash then can be roasted, mashed or pureed for different recipes.
For soup, I peel one of the thin-skinned squash varieties, cut it up and cook the raw squash with the soup. Spaghetti squash makes me laugh. It looks as if it has a smooth flesh, but it separates into spaghetti-like strands after it is cooked. This squash can be used as a "vegetable" spaghetti in pasta recipes.
Once winter squash is cooked and the seeds discarded, the cavity can be stuffed. A mixture of bread cubes, dried fruit and/or nuts, butter and appropriate herbs makes a good filling.
The Japanese often deep-fry strips or chunks of winter squash as part of a tempura mixture. Winter squash is less fibrous than pumpkin and can replace pumpkin in a pie or tea bread.
The sweetness and texture of the flesh of winter squash can vary. Butternut, buttercup and delicata varieties are consistently sweet. They work well for roasting with olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper.
Acorn, Hubbard, kabocha and pumpkins are less sweet, but have a dry texture that works well for purees and stuffings. Use brown sugar, honey or maple syrup to add sweetness.
Their mild nature makes winter squash a suitable match with many spices, herbs and other flavorings. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger blend well with winter-squash recipes.
Thyme, rosemary and parsley add color and work well with winter-squash dishes. Pecans, walnuts, garlic, onions and dried fruit are other good pairs for these versatile vegetables.
Elinor Klivans is the author of Fearless Baking: Over 100 Recipes That Anyone Can Make (Simon & Schuster).
Maple Syrup Winter-Squash Pie
1 unbaked cold pie crust in a 9-inch pie pan
one 2-pound winter squash, butternut, buttercup or delicata
2 large eggs
1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold heavy (whipping) cream whipped to soft peaks with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon maple syrup for serving with the pie