In WITF's Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

Food Wednesdays: Winter Squash

Written by Donna Marie Desfor, Culinary Consultant and Chef | Oct 18, 2011 6:59 PM

This time of year is a favorite of mine.  The colors are suddenly turning bright vivid hues of yellow, orange and red.  The crisp autumn air begs for those warm weather clothes, and still by mid-day it’s pleasant enough to be outside soaking up a bit of the sun.  And, then, there are those amazing aromas that seem to waft through the air, no matter where you find yourself:  the scent of vanilla and pumpkin pie spice; the roasting of charcoal and smell of hickory, applewood or mesquite.  The range and depth of flavors that become available now and in the coming months makes this one of the most exciting times of year in the kitchen.  Every option for preparation is available, from the quick steam and cooking in the microwave to the long, slow roasting and braises in the oven or on the grill.  Its fall and the whole bevy of winter squashes are beginning to make their appearance in the markets alongside the root vegetables.  While both are versatile and tasty, winter squashes tend to hold my attention through the winter months simply because of their versatility and range of flavor. 

Winter squashes, acorn, butternut, delicata, kabocha, and spaghetti, to name but a few, are generally in season from October through March.  Though, like many fruits and vegetables, they are becoming available almost year round, the highest quality in terms of taste begins about now, and remains fairly consistent throughout the winter months.  Though considered a vegetable in cooking, botanically speaking, squash is a fruit (being the receptacle for the plant's seeds)!

Choosing a squash requires little more than finding one that feels heavy for its size (heavier suggests a small seed cavity and more usable flesh inside) and knowing a bit about what each tastes like.  After that, a few tips on preparation, and you are on your way to a super-delicious meal. 

Each variety of winter squash has its own flavor, sweetness, color, and texture, not to mention its ideal uses.  Acorn, butternut and delicata are generally baked, pureed in soups or glazed and roasted.  Spaghetti squash, named for its stringy flesh, is generally steamed or roasted and can be served with a simple sauce.  When selecting your squash, look for soft spots, which may mean that a squash has been improperly stored.  It’s best to keep your squash in a very cool space, but not in the refrigerator.  They will last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months if kept cool with plenty of air to circulate around them. 

Acorn:  available in three colors (green, orange, and white), it is the sweetest and least stringy of the winter squashes.  It is best prepared baked or steamed and then roasted.

Butternut: one of the most popular and therefore available squashes, almost year round.  It has a creamy texture when cooked and is excellent baked or steamed.  It is also easy to puree once cooked and is delicious as a puree as a base for soup or when used with other root vegetables in purees.

Delicata:  similar in looks to an elongated football, it has green stripes and a creamy pulp that tastes similar to sweet potatoes.  Delicata is best when baked.

Kabocha: a japanese squash suitable for frying and stir-frying because of drier and less fibrous interior.  It is dark green with white and orange spots and striations.  It is also suitable for baking and steaming, and for use in purees.

Spaghetti: elongated and pale yellow in color, spaghetti squash gets its name for the spaghetti-like shred the flesh yields once baked. 

The winter squash is one vegetable you never need tire of when you see it in the produce section.  Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.  Once you see how easy it is to use winter squash, your imagination is your only limit. And, once you taste these delicious squashes, It's easy to see why this time of year is any cook's favorite

Chef’s Tip for speedy cooking:  To decrease the often lengthy time needed to bake, roast, or cook winter squash, place peeled and cut squash into a large microwave safe bowl.  Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water and cover tightly with cling film.  Microwave on high for about 5 minutes and let rest in the microwave oven (without opening the door) another 5 to 10 minutes more.  The squash will be par cooked and you can reduce your recipe cooking time in about half. 

Try this wonderful Butternut Squash Bisque from a previous Food Wednesdays column.

Recipe:  Oven Roasted Spaghetti Squash

While there are recipes for quick steaming the spaghetti squash, I prefer oven roasting for a far superior texture and a more developed, concentrated flavor.  To steam, cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and place the squash cut side down in a large heavy pot, filled with about 1/2-inch of water.  They do not have to lie perfectly flat, and I prefer that they don’t to prevent scorching of the flesh.  Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the squash is cooked through, about 20 minutes.  Carefully remove the squash from the pot to a sheet pan or platter and cool just enough to handle.  Using a fork, rake the flesh from side to side to release the steamed strands.  Use the spaghetti squash strands in your favorite recipe.

Ingredients
1 spaghetti squash, choose a small but heavy for its size squash (smaller squash tend to be more flavorful)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Preparation
Put the oven rack to the lower third position and preheat oven to 400° F.  Line a rimmed sheet pan with aluminum foil. 

Using a sharp knife carefully cut the squash open lengthwise.  Scrape out the seeds, and then rub the flesh of the squash generously with olive oil.  Place cut sides down on the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes.  Carefully turn the squash so the flesh/cut-side is up and roast until tender, about 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven and cool just enough to handle. 

Using a fork, scrape the flesh of the squash from the skin, and separate the spaghetti-like strands.  Remove the strands to a warmed dish and reserve until ready to use.

Toss the squash in a pan with sautéed vegetables and herbs, or top with your favorite sauce or dressing.  The squash is cooked when it comes out of the oven; you can re-heat or sauté on the stove top, according to how you plan to serve the squash. 

Microwave method for faster roasting:  If you are in a hurry, split and seed the squash.  Place cut-side up on a microwave-safe dish.  Microwave on high about 8 minutes, then finish in the oven by rubbing with a bit of olive oil and roasting (cut side up) in a 400° F oven for 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender.


Recipe: Butternut Squash and Wild Rice Salad
Serves 4 to 6 

butternut squash wild rice salad.witf

This salad is the perfect autumn spin on warm bacon and spinach salad.  It comes together easily; I sauté the squash with the bacon to coax out the warm nutty flavors of the squash.

Ingredients
1 cup wild rice, prepared according to package (to yield approximately 2 to 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup chopped bacon (from about 4 strips of bacon)
2 tablespoons butter
1 small shallot, chopped fine
1 small to medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1/2-inch dice (to yield approximately 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried dates, pitted and chopped
1/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
Coarse or kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, to season
Fresh parsley leaves or chives, finely chopped to garnish (optional)
8 cups baby spinach leaves, washed and spun dry (optional)

Preparation
Place a large, heavy-bottomed skillet (that has a lid) over medium heat.  Add the bacon and render the fat.  When the bacon is almost crisped add the butternut squash and cook without disturbing until caramelized, about 4 to 6 minutes.  Reduce the heat and add the butter.  When the butter melts, add the onion and sauté until the onion is translucent and the squash is softening, but holding its shape.  Add the cranberries and the dates, then the orange juice.  Cover the pan and steam-saute the mixture about 3 to 5 minutes until everything is soft and cooked through. 

Remove the lid, add the rice, the thyme and the sage.  Toss gently to combine.  Sprinkle fresh parsley or chives to garnish. 

If serving as a side dish, serve immediately.  If serving as a topping to a spinach salad, divide the spinach between serving bowls and top with equal amounts of the butternut squash and rice mixture.  Drizzle a bit of the remaining pan sauce over each salad to dress the greens.  Serve immediately.

Recipes and Photo Copyright © 2011 by Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, llc.  All Rights Reserved. 
Copyright © 2011 WITF, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Published in Donna Marie Desfor

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