The treasure of the autumn fields lies in the sunset-hued, gorgeous globes hiding between low-lying, tangled vines. They are known by many names, but are all members of the winter squash family. Their tough, coarse outer skin is forbidding, but once its protective covering is penetrated, the rich vegetable core is revealed.
Squashes have been cultivated for 9,000 years and were valued for their protein and oil-rich seeds. Winter squashes mature into hard-skinned, starchy vegetables that store well into the winter months.
Winter squashes have much more flesh and less water than their softer, more delicate summer squash cousins, such as zucchini. The starchy flesh of winter squashes turns sweet when cooked, and they are high in vitamins and potassium.
Everyone knows the beautiful butternut, with its long, high-yielding neck, and the ridged acorn with its fun shape. My favorites, though, are becoming more popular and offer even richer flavor and often more meat. Try the red kuri for great bright flavor and rich meat; the mighty kabocha, which is round and multicolored; and the buttercup.
Don’t forget the giant Hubbards that come in deep green, light blue and deep orange-red; they could feed you for a week. And miniature squashes such as Jack-be-littles, munchkins and sweet dumplings look cute and taste wonderful.
With winter squashes, the harder the skin the better; hard skin indicates that the squash was allowed to mature before harvest. Look for a firm, solid stem end that is dry, not mushy. Inspect the complete squash, avoiding soft spots that may have developed on the ground side. Store in a cool, dry, dark place.
The first step is to cut the big guys down to size. Carefully, with a large heavy knife or cleaver, cut the squash in half, or into about 1-pound pieces if it is huge. Remove the seeds and save if you like to toast them.
To microwave, cut the skin away. Place in an appropriate container with a little water and seasonings, cooking until tender. This is the fastest way to cook winter squash.
To steam, cut the skin away and steam over water, or preferably a spice-seasoned broth, until tender. Steaming is best for small squashes.
Baking is my preferred method to concentrate the full, rich flavor. Place in an ovenproof dish with the flesh side up. Season the squash and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until fork-tender.
After you have cooked the squash until tender, it is ready to join other vegetables in your favorite recipes. Squash can also be sliced, seasoned and grilled. Cooled tender squash is great in salads and pastas. And you can cook squash until really tender and then puree it.
Squashes love maple syrup, honey and sugar to round out their already rich flavor. They stand up to fierce spices such as ginger, hot chilies and peppers, and, of course, are great with cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.
Or you can take squash on the wild side with ginger and spice in Gingered Roasted Squash.
Gingered Roasted Squash
2 medium squashes, such as buttercups or similar-sized medium golden or green acorns
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh ginger root, peeled and diced fine (about 1 small plump root)
1 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup sherry vinegar (or rice wine vinegar)
2 teaspoons fresh coarsely ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Trim both ends of the squashes flat. Cut the squash in half at the equator. Spoon out the seeds and connective tissue. Place flesh side up in an ovenproof dish.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the ginger and cook until it starts to soften, about 5 minutes.
Add the maple syrup and the vinegar, raising the heat to medium high. Cook the liquids until reduced to syrup-like thickness, about 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Whisk in the pepper, salt and cinnamon. Spoon the mixture over the surface and center of the squashes. Add a cup of water to the baking dish.
Place the dish on the lower rack of the oven, cooking until the squash is fork-tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size and thickness of your squash.
Remove from the oven. Transfer to warm serving plates. Sprinkle with chives and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 360 calories, 12 grams fat (29 percent fat calories), 67 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram protein, 74 milligrams sodium, 7.1 grams saturated fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 149 milligrams calcium, 0.5 gram fiber.