How fantastic are fall and winter squash? They're packed to the gills with antioxidants, dietary fiber, Vitamin A and carotenes, fill you up for just a few calories, and can be prepared in approximately seventy billion ways, from sweet to savory.
Plus they're in season right this very second, generally cheap as the dickens, and add glorious color and fabulous flavor to your holiday feasts.
But how do you tackle the beast? Butternut squash can be unwieldy to butcher, some varieties like turban, hubbard and kabocha look all gnarled and knobbly and scary, and how the heck do you cook them?
Let's quash all those worries right this second, starting with selection.
Buying and storing
Don't try it 'til you've knocked it. A prime candidate will feel heavy and firm, with no visible nicks or soft spots. A fully grown squash will have slightly matte skin, rather than glossy; the flesh will be a bit sweeter. Look for deep, rich color on the exterior and a dry, rounded stem still attached, if possible.
A winter squash will keep from one to three months if it's stored in a cool, dark place (and not near apples which will cause accelerated decay), but if you know you'll be consuming it sooner, a brightly-colored or curiously shaped squash can make a fabulous table decoration.
Butternut squash presents a particular challenge because of its oblong shape. To halve it, slice off the top and the bottom so it sits flat on a secured cutting board. Rest it on the widest end, and using a heavy knife, slice down vertically. If you face resistance, use a mallet - ideally rubber - to tap gently on the tops of both sides of the blade. Work as slowly as you need to.
For more spherical squash, depending on the variety and how you're going to cook it, you can either cut a circle around the stem, angling inward with a paring knife and scooping out the seeds, cut the top off like a lid, or cut in half along the meridian or equator. Many winter squash have very thick skins and flesh, so again, use a sharp, heavy knife and take your time to avoid accidents.
In any case, you'll need to scoop out the seeds and guts as cleanly as you can, using the edge of a spoon. For an extra treat, rinse the seeds clean in a colander, shake them dry and discard the guts. Then spread the seeds on a sheet pan, spray or drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in a 300° oven for 10-20 minutes or until golden brown. Keep an eye on them so they don't burn, and once they've cooled, eat them as-is or sprinkle with paprika, cumin or your favorite spices.
To peel or not to peel?
Peeling squash is, frankly, a pain, but for some preparations, it's key. If you're going to be roasting cubes of squash, nothing beats the caramelized flavor of browned, irregular edges. So take the time to smooth down knobs and delve into divots with a vegetable peeler or cheese slicer while the squash is still whole.
If you're going to be working with the squash in a method that's less texture-dependent, leave the skin on and bake the squash, halved at 300°, with the cut side down until it's soft enough to peel off. Pouring boiling water over squash in a baking dish also aids removal.
Plenty of squash varieties have perfectly edible and delicious skins that actually add extra flavor and texture, while some are simply too thick to be pleasant. Roast it up, take a nibble, see what you think, and either scoop or savor.
There's really no wrong way to cook a squash, making it one of the versatile vegetables around. They're great grilled, pureed, steamed, broiled, boiled, baked, fried, mashed and more. Here are a few of our favorite preparations to grace a holiday table.
Halved, roasted squash on the savory side
This works especially well with butternut and delicata squash.
1. Pre-heat the oven to 400°F.
2. On a cutting board, carefully cut the squash in half. Make sure to trim off any hard stem parts and scrape out innards.
3. Prick the flesh with a fork, brush or spray all surfaces lightly with oil, sprinkle the cut side with a little salt and place face-down on a cookie sheet.
4. Roast for 40-50 minutes until you can easily pierce the squash with a fork.
5. Once it's cook enough to handle, peel off the skin, then chop, cube, mash, stuff or leave whole and serve.
It's smashing with a little bit of melted butter, Kosher salt, and coriander or paprika. Add grated Parmesan if you're feeling especially wacky, or stuff with your favorite rice pilaf or seasoned breadcrumbs. Spherical, thick-skinned varieties like acorn or hubbard can be used as bowls for your favorite cream soup.