There are no vegetables better suited to celebrating autumn on the table than winter squash.
From massive, almost impenetrable blue Hubbards to the aptly named delicate and easy-to-slice delicata, there is a squash to be cooked for breakfast, lunch, or dinner - even dessert.
Grated winter squash is a lovely addition to breakfast muffins and pancakes. It can be pureed into soups, sautéed and layered under cheese and bread crumbs in gratins, or used to fill savory tarts and sweet spiced pie. You can even toast the cleaned seeds for a snack.
Pale yellow, tan, and bright orange flesh hides inside almost shell-like skin, which often needs to be coaxed open with the heat of an oven, a sharp knife, or both.
All squashes - summer and winter - are in the same family and share preferences for growing and ripening during the heat of summer.
The varieties we refer to as winter squash are so named because their characteristic firm flesh and thicker skin allow them to be stored and eaten months after local zucchini is a fleeting memory.
While there are many similarities in flavor among various varieties of winter squash - and substitutions between them in many recipes is to be encouraged - there are real differences to be appreciated.
The main differences between varieties are in sweetness and moisture content. Drier-fleshed buttercup, kabocha, and red kuri can be used for fillings that will not weep, and will maintain their texture in soups or stews.
Delicata and butternut, with a bit more moisture, will cook quickly and remain tender, offering a nutty sweetness to vegetable medleys or gratins.
Culinary varieties of pumpkins, such as lobed Long Island Cheese pumpkins, are distinctly superior in flavor, texture, and sweetness to watery and flavorless "jack-o'-lantern" or field pumpkins.
Warty, striped, splotched, and beautiful winter squash can also be useful as cooking or serving vessels and tureens.
A favorite in my family are the chili black beans, cooked on the stove top and served in individual roasted buttercup squash "bowls." The squash, which is well seasoned and roasted till tender and sweet, can be scraped from the skin along with the beans.
These same pre-roasted squashes, or one family-size beauty, would also look and taste great filled and baked with corn pudding or moist bread stuffing.
While every winter squash has something to recommend it - and all deserve a place in the kitchen - I find myself using butternut squash most often. I especially appreciate the seedless cylindrical section of the butternut's "neck," which is easy to peel and slice or cube.
Butternut squash has a sweet, nutty flavor that marries well with savory and sweet spices, flesh that purees smooth and fiber-free, and a texture that can hold its shape when roasted in cubes or semicircles, making for great presentation.
Butternut squash is the secret ingredient in my popular Red Lentil Soup, the key ingredient for my fallback autumn potluck casserole with cheese and cream, and the substitute once the Sweet Sugar pumpkins run out for my Pumpkin Almond Strudel.
In short, butternut is my go-to squash.
Peeling winter squash can be a challenge. Thin-skinned varieties (butternut, delicata, and sweet dumpling) can usually be peeled with a sturdy paring knife while whole or after being cut into chunks.
The harder-skinned squashes can be daunting. It's best to partially or fully cook thicker-skinned squashes whole (on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven), as they are then quite easy to cut open, skin, and seed. Even a short time in the oven will make it easier to slice open a squash with a thick skin. Pierce the skin several times with a skewer or sharp knife to allow steam to escape.
If the recipe truly requires cutting open a large, heavy squash before cooking, try this method: Place the squash on a cutting board, stem end facing you. Position the blade of a heavy chef's knife horizontally along the length of the squash. With a hammer or mallet, repeatedly tap the back of the blade near the handle and drive it into the squash until it breaks in half. (This is actually rather fun.)
For larger varieties (such as Hubbard or large banana squash), settle the squash on some newspaper, on the counter or on the ground, and use a sharp cleaver to split the hard rind open. (This is also fun.) Or use the chef's knife method described above. Once you have a slit cut, bang on a hard surface and pull apart. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard, or set aside if you plan to roast the seeds.
Here is a quick lesson in the various forms of winter squash.
Acorn: An easy-to-find small-lobed (acorn-shaped) squash often served sliced and roasted, baked or stuffed. Because it has such hard skin, it is easiest to par-cook before cutting open. The flesh is a golden color, with only a hint of natural sweetness. The most common variety has a dark green skin. Select an acorn squash with fewer yellow streaks on the rind; the more fully green and the more mature when picked, the better the flavor. Acorn squash can also have an orange or cream-colored shell.
Buttercup: A delicious variety, buttercup has sweet-tasting, creamy orange flesh. The rind is a bit thick, however, so baking it whole is easier than peeling or cutting it raw. It is roundish, dark green with lighter stripes.
Butternut: This is a well-known and often-used variety with a cylindrical neck and bulbous base. The beige skin is easily removed when raw, and the flesh from the cylindrical portion is free of seeds. The orange flesh is moist, sweet, and not stringy, with nutty flavor when cooked. It has a great texture for both eating roasted or pureeing, as it has no fibrous bits.
Delicata: This small, cylindrical squash with a striped yellow-and-green skin has sweet orange flesh, which when cooked is tender and nutty. Because of its size and delicate skin, it is an easy squash to cook with. When roasted in rings, or split and stuffed, the skin is often tender and edible.
Hubbard: This classic storage squash has a thick, bumpy skin that can be dark green, blue-green, or orange. There are several varieties available, including a huge blue-grey squash that will last all winter in a cool room. This thick-skinned squash is often par-cooked to soften before cutting and seeding. The yellow-orange flesh is sweet but can be grainy.
Spaghetti: This yellow, football-size squash, when cooked, has flesh that forms strands that resemble spaghetti when pulled apart with a fork. Further seasoning and preparation are suggested to enhance these vegetable noodles.
Sweet dumpling: This is a small squash, similar in size to acorn. The flesh is deep yellow to orange, and a little more creamy, sweet, and dry than that of acorn. The skin color is pale yellow with dark green (and occasionally orange) striping.
Kabocha: This orange-fleshed winter squash has a striated green rind. It's sweeter, drier, and less fibrous than other winter squash, which makes it great for baked goods, soups, and purees.
Red kuri: A Japanese variety also known as "baby red Hubbard," this squash has an orange-red skin and is round with a slight teardrop shape. The flesh texture is very smooth and creamy, with a savory, chestnut-like flavor.
Pumpkin: There are many varieties of pumpkin available - and only a very few are worth cooking with. Try small, sweet sugar pumpkins and pie pumpkins, the French Rouge Vif D'etampes (a well-lobed, red-orange Cinderella pumpkin), and Long Island Cheese (with skin the color of butternut squash, also well lobed). If you can't find a good pie pumpkin, substitute the puree of butternut or red kuri squash.
Turban: This squash may be best for decoration. It is unusual to look at with its hard, multicolored, turban-shaped form. The flesh is hard to get at and often lacks flavor.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, minced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons cumin seeds or ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground hot peppers or flakes
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
4 tablespoons grated fresh ginger (approx. ½-inch piece, minced fine)
2 carrots, chopped fine
2 sticks celery, chopped fine
1 large butternut (or other hard winter) squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
2 cups cleaned and cubed assorted other root vege tables, such as celeriac, parsnip, turnip, potato
8 to 10 cups water or vegetable stock
2 cups red lentils
1 28-ounce can chopped or crushed tomatoes
1 to 2 cans coconut milk
1. Heat olive oil in a large soup pot. Add onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are soft and just browning. Add spices and cook another few minutes, stirring often.
2. Add all the chopped vegetables, water or stock, and lentils. Stir well and bring to a boil. Simmer gently till the vegetables are soft and lentils have become paste, about an hour.
3. Add the tomatoes and coconut milk and continue cooking another ½ hour. Season well with salt and black pepper. Adjust other seasonings to your taste.
4. This soup can then be pureed or partially pureed as you like with an immersion blender or carefully in a stand blender. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving.
5. Optional: Stir in or garnish with chopped cilantro, browned butter, and/or thick yogurt (full-fat Greek style is especially good) seasoned with toasted chopped pecans, minced garlic, salt, and pepper.
Per serving (based on 12 servings): 244 calories, 11 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 243 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes: 6 medium "logs" or 20 3-4 inch turnovers - serves 8-12
2 cups cooked, peeled, and seeded pie pumpkin, butternut, or other not-too- moist squash
1/3 cup heavy cream
2/3-3/4 cup sugar (the amount will depend on the sweetness of the squash)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
10 sheets phyllo
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2-2/3 cup sugar, or as needed
2/3 cup sliced almonds
For the filling:
1. In the bowl of a food processor, place the cooked squash, eggs, cream, sugar, spices, and orange rind. Process until smooth. Adjust sugar and seasonings as desired.
To assemble the logs:
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick mat.
2. Cut the 13-by-18-inch phyllo sheets in half to make two equal rectangles measuring 6 1/2-by-18 inches and stack together.
3. Place one phyllo sheet on a clean counter. Brush with butter, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly over the butter, top with another sheet of phyllo, and repeat the butter and sugaring. Top with a third layer of phyllo, brush and sprinkle as before. Dollop 1/6 of the filling (a little less than 1/2 cup), centered about one inch from the bottom edge. Fold about 3/4 inch over each side of the filling and begin to roll from the bottom, tucking the bottom edge over the filling layer and making sure the filling is completely enclosed as you roll. Carefully place strudel, seam side down, on prepared pan. Repeat the process until you have made all six strudels. Brush the tops of each with butter and sprinkle sliced almonds on top. Press the almonds into the butter so they will adhere well when baked. Sprinkle the top of each with a bit more granulated sugar.
For individual triangle-shaped turnovers:
1. Place one of the precut sheets of phyllo on a cutting board or counter and brush the right half of the dough lengthwise with butter - it doesn't matter if this is done with exactness. Sprinkle approximately 1 teaspoon sugar over the butter. Fold the left half of the dough over to cover the buttered and sugared side. Brush this top layer with butter and sprinkle with one tablespoon sugar. Place a large tablespoon dollop of filling centered about ½ inch from the bottom edge. Fold flag-style on a diagonal back and forth from the bottom to the top, encasing the filling and ending up with a neat filled triangle. Make sure to butter the edges well so they adhere.
2. Continue until you have used up the dough and the filling.
3. Brush the tops of each triangle with butter, divide the sliced almonds between the tops of the triangles, and sprinkle each triangle with a ¼ to 1/2 teaspoon sugar.
4. Cook at 350 degrees, the larger log-shaped strudels for 25-30 minutes and the smaller triangles for 18-20 minutes, until lightly browned and puffy.
5. Serve warm or at room temperature with cinnamon whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or as they are. These turnovers can be frozen before baking and cooked directly from the freezer.
Per serving (based on 12): 287 calories, 5 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 82 milligrams cholesterol, 153 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 6 servings
6 small sweet dumpling or other small winter squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon dried coriander powder
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
3 cups cooked black beans (if using canned beans, rinse well)
1 teaspoon chipotle, canned or dried
1 stalk celery, minced
1 roasted red pepper, skinned, seeded, and minced
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
6 to 8 plum tomatoes, chopped coarsely, or 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes
Up to 1 cup water, vegetable stock, or chicken stock as needed
Salt and pepper to taste
5 leaves fresh basil, minced
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pierce each squash with a knife and place on an oiled baking sheet. Cook whole for about 20 minutes or until just a bit softened. Remove from oven and cool long enough to handle. Cut off the top (stem end) of each squash, reserving. Scoop out the seeds and stringy flesh carefully. (Save seeds if desired for roasting.) Season the flesh of each squash with a bit of salt and pepper. Return squash, cut side down, to baking sheet and continue to cook until it softens and the edges are browned. They must be cooked through, but should still retain their shape and structure.
2. Meanwhile, warm the olive oil in the bottom of a 2-quart saucepan or sauté pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook over medium heat until the onion is softened and browning. Add the cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds and cook a few minutes more to toast the spices slightly. Add the beans, chipotle, celery, thyme, and tomatoes and simmer for ½ hour to 45 minutes, adding as much water or stock as needed to keep from sticking. Stir often. Beans can be more or less soupy, as desired. Season well with salt and fresh pepper. Stir in basil before serving.
3. To serve, cut just a thin slice off the bottom of each squash to allow it to sit on the plate securely. Place squash on platter or individual plates. Fill with warm beans. Set the lid askew or alongside as garnish if desired.
Per serving: 225 calories, 9 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, no cholesterol, 37 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings as an entrée; 6 to 8 as a side dish
1 tablespoon butter
4 to 5 pounds of peeled and sliced winter squash, such as butternut, delicata, acorn (1 large butternut or 3 to 4 average delicata squash would be perfect)
1 cup grated fontina, aged cheddar, or young aged gouda
1 cup heavy cream
2 fresh sage leaves, minced finely (or 1/4 teaspoon dried sage)
1 teaspoon yellow or brown mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried chile peppers, such as Aleppo, Urfa, or ancho
Several gratings of fresh nutmeg, or 1/4 teaspoon of dried nutmeg
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an ovenproof baking dish or casserole large enough to hold the squash in single overlapped layer.
2. Layer the squash across the baking dish, overlapping each piece slightly. Sprinkle all over with grated fontina, cheddar, or gouda.
3. In a mixing bowl mix cream with the sage, mustard seeds, chile, and nutmeg. Mix well and pour evenly over the squash. Sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese.
4. Cover with foil and bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until squash is soft and the cheesy cream is bubbling and browned.