A celebration of winter squash

Winter Squash

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Just when you feared that autumn would limit your cooking repertoire as you watched fresh-picked zucchini and vine-ripened tomatoes disappear from your farmers market, along comes winter squash to the rescue. 

You already may have noticed the stunning displays at supermarkets and farmers markets; the  variety is dazzling. From the more popular acorn, butternut and spaghetti squashes to the lesser-known buttercup, delicata, kuri and turban, winter squash should be what’s on your menu for dinner. And although each variety may differ in flavor and texture, most can be prepared in the same manner and, better yet, served in boundless ways. 

Unlike summer squash such as zucchini, crookneck and yellow, winter squash has a hard, generally inedible shell and seeds. I say “generally” because some of the thinner-skinned squashes such as delicata have skins that can be eaten if they are roasted until crisp. 

And, of course, pumpkin seeds are transformed into a downright addictive snack when dried, roasted and salted. Those roasted seeds also can be an exciting seasonal garnish for desserts such as ice cream or crème brûlée, or a flavorful addition to homemade chocolate bark or toffee.

When buying squash, choose ones that feel heavy for their size and have unblemished skin. The heavier the squash, the more edible and less dried out the flesh will be. Unlike summer squash, winter squash can be stored at cool room temperature for 30 to 180 days. Therefore, if you happen upon a good deal on squash, a real metsieh (bargain), stock up. You will always have the makings of a great meal at hand.

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Winter squash can be steamed or baked. And because most varieties are thick-skinned and difficult to peel, the easiest way to do this is to simply cut the squash in half, top to bottom and remove the seeds and stringy fibers with a serrated spoon. If your squash is too hard to cut, simply pierce the outer shell three or four times and microwave the whole thing for one to two minutes. This will soften the shell and make it easier to cut. 

Once halved and cleaned, place squash halves flesh-side down onto a lightly oiled, parchment-lined baking sheet or in a steamer basket over lightly boiling water. Cook until fork tender, let the squash cool slightly and then scoop the flesh out of the shell. 

If you prefer roasted, cubed squash, butternut is your best choice. Use a peeler to remove the smooth skin, then cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Cube, dice or cut the squash into wedges and toss or brush them with olive oil. For added flavor, sprinkle with any combination of herbs and spices and roast the squash in a 425-degree oven until it is tender and just charred on the edges, 25 to 30 minutes.

The shape of acorn squash beckons to be filled. Clean and bake your acorn squash as described above, removing it from the oven just as it starts to soften. Turn the shells over and stuff them with any number of fillings. For example, you could use an herb-vegetable stuffing made from cornbread or sourdough bread, herbed grain pilafs, or spinach or baby kale soufflé batters. Once filled, bake the squash until it is completely tender and the fillings are warmed or, in the case of soufflés, fluffy and fully cooked. 

Squash is so versatile that you can serve it every day for a week and your family will be none the wiser. For mashed-potato lovers, create an even creamier puree of squash, enriched with butter or oil and milk or coconut milk. For French-fry lovers, simply cut peeled, uncooked squash into wedges or half-inch by two-inch long strips, toss in olive oil, season with salt and/or chili powder and bake them in a hot oven until crisp.  

Or simply toss cut-up squash with root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips and an entire bulb of garlic (cut horizontally in half) with olive oil. Empty the vegetables onto a large baking pan, season them with coarse kosher salt, and scatter fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage over the mixture. Roast in a 425-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until tender. Squeeze cooled garlic cloves out of their skins and toss back into the squash. Serve as a side dish over steamed couscous, cooked rice, polenta, wheat berries or faro. Or, fold the roasted vegetables into cooked pasta that has been tossed with olive oil. Sprinkle with crumbled feta or goat cheese, if desired, and serve.

Spaghetti squash can be roasted in the shell just like any other squash. Place the seeded halves cut-side-down in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Add a half-cup of water to the dish and roast the squash in a 425-degree oven until tender, 25 to 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, rake the strands free from the shell lengthwise with a fork. Transfer the “spaghetti” to a serving bowl, toss with butter or olive oil, and a variety of herbs and spices. Or top with a rich marinara sauce and garnish with grated Parmesan cheese.

You can easily turn your cooked squash into a fabulous soup. For the silky-smooth variety, fill a blender or food processor halfway with cooked squash. Add a cup or two of warm chicken or vegetable broth and puree. Add more squash and broth as needed to reach desired consistency. Soup can be reheated before serving and garnished with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, fresh cut chives and even some of those roasted pumpkin seeds. To add depth and intrigue to an ordinary bean or vegetable soup, add roasted squash cubes to your pot of soup just before it is finished cooking. 

Squash pairs well with spices such as cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon and cloves, and dried fruits such as snipped apricots, raisins or cranberries. Tossing squash with herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary and cilantro, and either lemon, lime or orange juice, will turn an ordinary side dish into a spectacular one. Drizzling cooked squash with maple syrup, honey or pomegranate molasses, or sprinkling it with brown sugar, will accentuate its naturally sweet flavor. 

Speaking of naturally sweet flavor, you can cook, puree, drain and mix two cooled cups of squash,  puree with two eggs, a dash of salt and vanilla extract, a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk, a tablespoon of flour, one cup of brown sugar, spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, together in a bowl. Pour the mixture into an unbaked pie shell and bake in a 375-degree oven for about an hour. Voila, a delicious pie that can be enjoyed year-round, not only on Thanksgiving. You can also add the cooked puree to your favorite pancake or waffle batter, or fold it into muffins, scones or quick breads. If you think I’m wild about squash, you would be correct!

Besides being delicious, squash is also healthy. A good source of vitamins A and C, it also provides significant amounts of potassium and fiber. 

So why not start exploring the varieties of squash at your market and the different ways you can prepare it. Along with two of my favorite recipes below, I hope I’ve given you a reason to think of squash as more than just a holiday decoration.

Bon appetit!


Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].