Tips for Cooking Winter Squash

There are numerous varieties of what we call winter squash. To name a few that are familiar acorn, delicata, turban, butternut is just a beginning to the varieties available in grocery stores, at farmer’s markets and in seed catalogs for home gardeners. We call them winter squash because they keep well and can be stored without refrigeration through the winter. Many people are intimidated by winter squash. Their skins are hard to cut through and sometimes their size breaks the general rule “never eat anything larger than your head”. Fortunately, these are both easy challenges to overcome and it’s worth it because winter squash is delicious, highly nutritious and versatile to cook with.

Winter squash can be roasted, baked, steamed or sauteed. The trickiest part of cooking with winter squash is cutting into the raw squash. One way to avoid that is to cook the squash whole, seeds and all. It’s a good idea to pierce the squash down to the cavity with a sharp knife in one or two spots for steam vents. Place the squash on a baking tray or shallow dish and bake it until it reaches the desired softness in a 350 oven. For example, if you’re going to stuff and re-bake the squash, it should be a bit firmer than if you’re going to use it in a pie or bread recipe. Cooking time ranges from about 30 – 45 minutes. Remove it from the oven and carefully cut it in half, working slowly to allow the steam inside to escape without burning yourself. Allow it to cool a bit before scooping out the seed cavity.

If you are confident and safe with a knife, and it it’s a small variety of squash, you can cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and fiber from the center, then bake the halves upside down, in a shallow baking dish with about 1/2 inch of water (enough to come above the cut edge of the squash). Same temperature and time guidelines as for whole squash method. The seeds can be removed from the fiber and toasted in the over to eat as a snack or grind up as a topping on squash soup, or rolled onto the outside of the log or ball variation of the recipe below.

At this point, you can sit down and eat squash, or stuff the squash then eat it, or make squash soup, or squash pie, or squash bread or, anything else that calls for cooked squash or pumpkin, like the recipe that follows.

I made up this recipe for a fall harvest party when I was in a pinch for hors d’oeuvres; though I’ve since browsed the internet and find I’m not the only one to have made it up. I’ve made and served it twice with slight variations and it’s been a huge success both times:

Chevre and Squash Spread – It looks a bit like processed cheese food product, but tastes much better and is much better for you because it’s real food! Goes great on crackers, bread and veggie sticks.

Main Ingredients:

1/2 – 1 pound chevre (soft goat cheese any soft, creamy cheese will work)

1 cup cooked – any winter squash will do; so far I’ve made it with red curi squash and sweet pie pumpkin.

1-2 tbsp lemon juice

Seasonings:

Herbs, spices, chilies, citrus rind – anything you can imagine to create a variation on the basic combo of the squash and cheese. Make it sweet, savory or spicy; whatever thrills you at the moment. I added piri-piri (a Portuguese chili sauce) in place of lemon juice to one batch; fantastic!

Preparation:

If you have time, allow the cheese to soften. If not, you’ll just have to work a bit harder or longer on making the spread smooth. If you have a food processor, this recipe can be made in about 5 minutes, not counting the cooking time for the squash. Otherwise it will take 10-15 minutes, depending on the tools you use.

In a bowl, mash the peeled squash with a fork or potato masher until it’s smooth. Blend in the lemon juice and any seasonings, then add the cheese a few tablespoons at a time, blending continuously until all cheese is smoothly incorporated into the squash. You can adjust the density of this spread by changing quantities of either main ingredient, depending on your taste or dietary considerations.

I kept the leftovers to snack on over the next couple of days and the flavor improved so chill it for as much time as possible before serving. Pull it out of the fridge about 1/2 hour before serving to allow the blended flavors to come out and to make it easier to spread or dip into.

Variations:

These variations may require more cheese to maintain the shape, depending on how dry and dense your squash is.

Take the chilled spread from the fridge. Shape it into a log or ball and return it to the fridge to get firm. Take it back out and roll it in nuts, seeds, herbs or spices; serve immediately or chill again to serve later. Or,

Place the log or ball in a shallow bowl or dish. Top with any number of salsas, jellies, sauces or chutneys. For example, top with warm mole sauce (spicy, savory, chocolate sauce of Mexico) or hot pepper jelly and serve with corn chips.

The spread can be applied to crackers, bread or veggies with a frosting bag and tip as a decorative topper or base for smoked meat or fish hors d’oeuvre trays.

This recipe is easy to make, and easy to make your own way. Enjoy it.


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