What vegetable may be round, oblong or spherical, smooth or bumpy and comes in a variety of rich autumn colors? Hint: It can sit prettily on the kitchen counter through March, waiting for someone to figure out its full range of possibilities.
The answer is winter squash.
The most common types of winter squash are butternut, acorn and spaghetti. Others include buttercup, banana, Cushaw, delicate, Hubbard and turban. A plentiful variety exists within each type of squash, with a choice of sweetness, color and size.
Winter squash differ from summer squash in part because they are kept on the vine to full maturity, when the seeds are completely grown. Winter squash tend to have a harder exterior that helps to maintain their freshness when stored in a cool place over the long winter months. The most notable difference between winter and summer squash is that winter varieties are only served cooked, while most summer squash can be eaten raw, as well as cooked.
The most unusual winter squash is the spaghetti squash. When fully cooked, the scooped-out flesh resembles spaghetti and can be used in place of noodles in a savory dish or sweetened up with a bit of honey, cinnamon and butter for a sweet, spiced treat.
Butternut squash, with a more traditional texture, is generally beige on the outside, with rich, orange flesh inside. This squash makes for a tasty soup or may be simply split in half, drizzled with honey or maple syrup and butter or olive oil, plus a pinch of salt and pepper, and baked until soft. Other varieties have a flesh similar to that of the butternut, kind of like a pumpkin that is rich and creamy when cooked.
The many rich fall colors of winter squash add a piquant touch to any holiday table with little effort. Treating the squash like a Halloween pumpkin by cutting a hole in the top and scraping out the majority of the flesh is the first step. This flesh can be baked in a casserole, cubed and added to stuffing, creamed into a wonderful side dish or even made into soup. More ideas on how to cook up squash turn up in an Internet search. A vegetarian cookbook may also offer other innovative recipes.
A fun bonus comes in using the squash shells as soup bowls. Save each squash top, garnish the tasty winter soup and add the natural lid to surprise guests with the wonderful treat within. Smaller varieties can be used as bowls for dips or as creative containers to serve salad dressing at the table.
For strictly decorative use, winter squash make a long-lasting base for a seasonal flower arrangement, either as a place accent or centerpiece. Another special touch comes in carving small shapes into different-sized shells and placing small glasses with tea lights in the bottoms. To add extra sparkle, press small crystals or other light-reflecting stones into the outer rind. Now, that’s a posh squash.
Sugar Pumpkin Pieby Judith Fertig
When small sugar or pie pumpkins come on the market around Halloween, snap up a few to make a delicious pumpkin pie filling. This seasonal Thanksgiving pie has a lighter and fresher flavor than a traditional pie. If possible, use a local honey. Good spices matter, too: Buy a whole nutmeg and grate it into the filling and select Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon for the strongest flavor. It even works to make and freeze the fresh pumpkin puree in 3-cup measurements ahead of time for quicker holiday preparation.
Makes one 9-inch single-crust pie 1 3-lb sugar or pie pumpkin 1 cup crumbled cinnamon graham crackers Â½ cup chopped pecans 2 tsp canola oil or melted butter 4 large eggs, lightly beaten Â¾ cup wildflower, clover or other amber-colored honey 1 cup half-and-half Â½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg Â½ tsp ground Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon 1 tsp salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350Â°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil and set aside. 2. Cut the pumpkin into large chunks; remove and discard the seeds and stringy matter. Place the pumpkin pieces, cut-side down, on the baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a fork. Let cool. 3. Remove the rind with a sharp knife and place the cooked pumpkin in a food processor. Puree until smooth. Measure 3 cups of puree for the pie. 4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375Â°. Combine the graham crackers and pecans in a food processor and process until theâ€¯mixture has the consistency of fine crumbs. Pour in the oil or melted butter and pulse until blended. Pat this mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan. 5. In a bowl, using a hand-held mixer, beat the pumpkin puree with the eggs, honey, half-and-half, spices and salt until smooth. Pour the filling into the prepared pie pan. Place the filled pie pan on a cookie or baking sheet. 6. Bake the pie on the middle shelf of the oven for 55 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the filling is glossy on top. Let cool before cutting and serving.
Judith Fertig is the author of the award-winning Prairie Home Cookingâ€¯and All-American Desserts cookbooks.