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No noodling around: Pair versatile spaghetti squash with favorite sauces and ingredients

During the autumn, a large white bowl full of colorful winter squash sits on my kitchen counter, taking the place of fresh-cut flowers. To me, they are just as pretty.

Plus, you get the added benefit of getting to eat them, which feels doubly efficient.

Each fall, it seems there are more and more varieties and colors to choose from, ranging from the soft pale blues of Hubbards to dark green Acorns and fiery red oranges of Kuri squash. I love how these brilliantly hued squash show up at just the right time, when days turn dark and we’re in need of a little vibrance.

It’s hard to pick a favorite among the many available varieties, each one so different and beautiful, but spaghetti squash gets extra bonus points in my mind for being the most interesting and versatile.

The “vegetable” spaghetti squash is what we see most often see in grocery stores: pale yellow in color and oblong in shape. There are other lesser-known varieties, too, such as Hasta la Pasta, a vivid orange spaghetti squash with a bit more sweetness, and Orangetti, developed in the 1980s, as well as the smaller varieties of Goldetti and Tivoli.

All of these pasta-sounding names offer a hint of what you will find inside. When cooked, the flesh of spaghetti squash separates into fine spaghetti-like strands, which – if you are unfamiliar – may seem strange at first, but this is just how they are.

Spaghetti squash and other winter squash are technically fruit, members of the Cucurbitaceae family, the same family as melons. Around 1936, the Burpee Seed Company brought spaghetti squash from Japan to the United States, where it gained only limited popularity.

It wasn’t until the past few years that spaghetti squash saw a rise in consumer demand and only within the last two that it reached its stardom status. Perhaps this is because people are discovering it’s not only filling and inexpensive, but also a low-carb, gluten-free, paleo-friendly option.

It’s been an exciting trend to witness; I always love when humble characters finally get a little love and attention. Clearly people are beginning to see the health benefits and culinary potential of spaghetti squash and seeking out new and different ways to prepare them.

Cooked spaghetti squash has only 10 grams of carbohydrates per cup and 42 calories, while other winter squashes, such as butternut or acorn, average 22 grams of carbs and 84 calories. In comparison, 1 cup of cooked pasta has about 43 grams of carbohydrates and 220 calories. Both pasta and spaghetti squash offer 2 grams of fiber, but spaghetti squash provides the added benefit of vitamins A and C, beta carotene and potassium. It kind of seems like a no-brainer.

As far as flavor, spaghetti squash is mild and not as sweet as many of its relatives. This may disappoint those who have come to love the depth and nutty sweetness of butternuts, acorns or Kobachas. There are some who may even consider them a bit dull – which almost offends me – because, as with many mild characters, it takes time to get to know them and enough patience to allow their originality to reveal itself. Sometimes we can be too quick to judge.

If you find them dull, it’s most likely due to operator error. Wink.

Think of spaghetti squash the same way you would pasta or rice – as a vehicle for whatever deliciousness you want to pair with it – and your results will be far more appetizing. So don’t be afraid to dress them with something robust, spicy and rich.

What I’ve come to love about them is their versatility. At home, when our fridge is completely empty and I see a spaghetti squash sitting on the counter, I can relax, knowing it could easily be dinner for two, with the addition of a few simple ingredients from the pantry. An average sized, 3-pound spaghetti squash will yield about 4 to 5 cups of flesh, which – if you are a hearty eater – serves two or three people. For vegetarians, this is a godsend. But even meat-and-potato lovers can come to appreciate their usefulness. Believe it or not, I’ve seen even the most hardened veggie critics, including picky kids, soften to the idea of spaghetti squash once they’ve tried it.

There are several ways to cook spaghetti squash. You can steam them, microwave them and roast them in the oven, the last being my preferred – if not only – method.

I cut them in half horizontally to create two round “bowls.” Of course, you can cut them the long way, but this way is cuter.

If you want them to be able to stand upright on a plate, like a round bowl, slice just a sliver off each end, creating a stable base. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon (which are also good for roasting) and place them on a parchment lined sheet-pan, flesh side down in a 425-degree oven. Roast them until they are soft, about 30 to 40 minutes, and easily pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. Think of this part as “boiling the pasta,” or “cooking the rice.” To save time, you can do this the night before and refrigerate.

Take them out of the oven, turn them over and let them cool enough to handle. Fluff up the strands, season with salt, pepper and olive oil (or butter) and use this as a jumping off point for simple healthy weeknight dinners.

Treat each like a “spaghetti bowl,” topping the fluffed seasoned squash with your favorite sauce and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan, then eating it all right out of the shell. Alternately, you could turn each into a “chili bowl,” adding your favorite chili, a dollop of sour cream and grated cheddar.

To serve spaghetti squash as a side, think “loaded baked potato,” with butter, sour cream, bacon and chives. Or, serve it my favorite way: dabbed with butter, drizzled with real maple syrup and sprinkled generously with salt, a little white pepper and a pinch of freshly ground nutmeg.

Enchilada Stuffed Spaghetti Squash

If beans are not your thing, feel free to substitute lean ground meat, chicken or even cooked whole grains. They can be prepared vegan, sans cheese. Or, if you prefer, “cheese-it-up” as my husband likes to say, by adding shredded cheddar or jack into the mix.

2 small spaghetti squash (about 2 pounds each)

1/2 onion diced (about 1 cup diced)

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup fresh or frozen corn (one ear)

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 cup cooked black beans, riced and drained (or, substitute browned ground meat)

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon coriander

1 to 2 teaspoons fresh chopped jalapeño

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish

Optional toppings: chopped avocado, hot sauce, sour cream and 1/4 cup shredded cheddar, jack or Mexican cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut spaghetti squash in half, and scrape out seeds. Place on a parchment lined or greased baking sheet, cut side faced down, and place in the hot oven for 40 minutes. While they are roasting, make the filling.

Sauté the onion in a skillet with olive oil, on medium high heat, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add garlic, turn heat to medium and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes until garlic becomes fragrant and golden. Turn heat to medium low, add jalapeño, corn and peppers, and stir occasionally for 5 minutes. Add beans, spices, salt and tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Turn heat off and stir in cilantro. Mixture will seem salty, but remember you will be mixing this with under-seasoned spaghetti squash, so the salt will disappear.

When spaghetti squash is done, use a fork to carefully fluff and stir the inside of the squash, scraping it from the sides. You will have enough filling for four halves or for two very hearty and mounded halves. Incorporate a little filling at a time, mixing it together with the spaghetti squash. If adding cheese, mix a little into the squash and black bean mixture and use the remaining for the top. (At this point you could refrigerate, and bake at a later time) Or, return the stuffed squash into the hot oven and bake for 10 to 15 more minutes, until heated through and/or cheese is melted.

Garnish with cilantro and serve. You could also top with sour cream, hot sauce or chopped avocado.

Serves: 4

Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Mushrooms, Garlic and Sage

1 small spaghetti squash (about 2 pounds)

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 an onion, diced

12 to 16 ounces sliced mushrooms (cremini, shittake or chantrelles)

4 to 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

3 tablespoons fresh torn sage

Salt and pepper to taste

Generous pinch nutmeg

1/4 cup grated Romano cheese (or Parmesan)

Drizzle truffle oil, optional (but delicious)

Toasted pine nuts, optional

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut spaghetti squash in half, scrape out seeds with a spoon, and place open side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 30 to 40 minutes

While squash is baking, heat oil and butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Sauté onions until just tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, turn heat to medium and saute until they begin to release their liquid, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic and sage and continue cooking until mushrooms brown, about 4 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper and nutmeg.

Check squash by piercing with the tip of a sharp knife to see if it’s done.

When tender, take out of the oven, turn over and let it cool slightly until cool enough to handle. Gently scoop the spaghetti squash into the saute pan with the mushrooms and stir to incorporate. Taste for salt, and add more if necessary. Stir in most of grated cheese, saving some for garnish.

Place in a serving bowl, top with remaining cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil and sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.

Makes: 2 to 4 servings

Spaghetti Squash Fritters with Garam Masala and Minted Yogurt Sauce

There’s a little joke in our house, or maybe just in my head, that no matter what the vegetable, if I turn it into a fritter, my husband will eat it. These Spaghetti Squash Fritters are no exception. Tender roast spaghetti squash is mixed with an egg, flour, scallions and Garam Masala to create a flavorful batter. Golf ball-size dollops are dropped into a hot skillet with sizzling coconut oil, and the fritters develop a crispy golden crust. They are served with a slightly spicy Indian yogurt-mint sauce. Full flavored enough to be an appetizer, they also can be made into bigger patties and served alongside wilted greens, rice or dal for a vegetarian meal.

For the fritters

2 1/2 pounds small spaghetti squash (4 cups, cooked squash)

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 egg

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoon Garam Masala spice

For the yogurt mint sauce

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1 tablespoon chopped ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 scallions, chopped (green and white parts)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut squash in half, scrape out seeds with a spoon and place open side down, on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the oven and roast for 40 minutes or until tender. (You could do this the night before and then refrigerate.)

While the squash is roasting make the sauce, placing all the ingredients in a blender, yogurt first. Blend until smooth, scraping down sides if necessary. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.

When the squash is done scoop out flesh (you should have roughly 3 ½ to 4 cups). Place in a bowl and mix with egg, baking powder, salt, sugar, spices and scallions. Add flour and stir to combine.

Heat a nonstick or cast-iron skillet. Melt coconut oil, ghee or add oil over medium high heat. When hot turn heat to medium, and place spoonfuls of the batter in the hot skillet, either appetizer size or entree size. Cook until golden brown on each side, then place on a rack or sheet pan in a 350-degree oven to cook through to the middle, about 10 to 15 more minutes.

Serve with the minted yogurt sauce.

Makes: 14 to 16 appetizer fritters, or 4 entree portions or 2 large fritters per person

Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Eggplant Puttanesca

Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Eggplant Puttanesca is robust and full-flavored, hearty and filling while remaining vegetarian and healthy. While the spaghetti squash is roasting in the oven, sauté onion, eggplant, red bell pepper and garlic until tender and fragrant. Stir in crushed tomatoes, a splash of red wine, capers and olives, and simmer gently until flavors deepen and meld.

When the squash is done, season with salt, pepper and olive oil, then spread it out on a large platter. Top with the flavorful eggplant puttanesca, sprinkle with fresh Italian parsley and finely grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

3 pounds spaghetti squash

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 small eggplant, cut into a small 3/4-inch dice (4 cups), skin on

1 red onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes

Splash red wine

2 tablespoons capers

2 to 3 tablespoons sliced olives, such as green or kalmata

Fresh Italian parsley, for garnish

Grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut squash in half, scrape out seeds with a spoon and place open side down, on a parchment lined baking sheet in the oven and roast for 30 to 40 minutes or until tender. While the squash is roasting make the sauce.

In a large heavy bottom skillet or dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add diced onion and eggplant, and saute, stirring often for 3 to 4 minutes. Add garlic and red bell pepper, turn heat down to medium and continue cooking until eggplant is tender, about 10 more minutes.

Add crushed tomatoes, splash wine, chili flakes, salt and pepper, and simmer on low heat, 5 to 10 more minutes. Add capers and olives.

When squash is tender, scoop it out into a bowl and toss well with salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place it on a platter, spread it out and top with the sauce. Sprinkle with fresh Italian parsley and grated cheese.

Makes: 4 servings

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feastingathome.com.


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