Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Winter Squash 101 (Plus 18 Recipes!)

Come autumn, they crowd the produce aisle like so many tough-skinned soldiers, boasting their seasonal orange and green hues like a silent, immovable army. Thrown at an enemy, they will wreak havoc untold. Made into soup, they will be your best friends forever. Or even foreva.

What I’m saying is: You may fear them. You may love them. Either way, winter squash should be in your kitchen, and eventually your stomach.

So let’s learn a little more, shall we?


Often overshadowed nutritionally by leafy greens and cruciferae, gourds pack some impressive wholesomeness of their own. Pumpkins and butternut squash are astronomically high in vitamin A, while acorn squash is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and thiamin. All varieties are virtually fat-free and comparatively low in calories, with spaghetti squash being particularly lean.


If you’ve ever purchased them pre-cubed or in the depths of summer, winter squash may seem prohibitively expensive. Happily, it is not always thus. Bought whole and in season, they’re pound-for-pound one of the most economical vegetables, ever. My local supermarket often hocks them at $0.69/lb., and will go even cheaper if they don’t think anyone is buying.


Soups, purees, risottos, quickbreads, chilis, stews, casseroles, roasted sides – oh, where to begin? There are so many wonderful options for cooking winter squash, it’s tough to choose any one to reflect upon. So here are some general notes:

  • Acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin take particularly well to warm, autumn-y flavors and spices. You’ll frequently find them in recipes using maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, apples, and pears, among other October-like foods.
  • Since these kinds of dishes tend to be sweet, I find kids and picky eaters tend to dig ‘em.
  • This doesn’t mean gourds don’t pair with other ingredients. You’ll find meals where they mix with ricotta, kale, pork, curry, and tomatoes, just to name a few non-fall foods.
We go into specific recipes in just a minute, but first, a word about…


Here’s the rub. While almost everything else about winter squash is praiseworthy, they can be a hideous nightmare to break down. Last night, I had to beat a sugar pumpkin ON MY KITCHEN FLOOR to get it open. Forget peeling it. After a few college tries, my brand new OXO stainless steel y-shaped peeler crumbled like the mid-‘90s Knicks.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little harsh. Slicing up a spaghetti squash isn’t all that bad. And you can buy almost any gourd pre-cubed. Heck – most recipes even ask for canned pumpkin puree, which eliminates the whole hacking process.

But if you still want to buy the pretty in-store gourds, there are a few things you can do to make the cleaving process way, way easier:
  • Halve your squash lengthwise, seed it, and roast it until the insides are easily scoopable. (50 – 90 minutes)
  • Halve your squash lengthwise, seed it, and microwave it until the insides are easily scoopable. (10-30 minutes)
  • Poke a bunch of holes in your squash, and microwave it until easily pierced with a fork. (If you should attempt this, MAKE SURE to poke many deep holes in your gourd and remain in the kitchen as it cooks. If the squash starts making noise, you risk explosion. Also, I’m not sure I would try this with a pumpkin.)
Obligatory warning: Though you’re still very much encouraged to try it, be super careful when chopping winter squash. Use a sharp knife and keep your eyes on your work at all times.

That done, let’s get to the food. Each of the following recipes has been cooked, loved, and featured on Cheap Healthy Good or in my column at Serious Eats. Enjoy!


Butternut Squash

Everyone needs more orange in their diets. And if you've ever sipped a stellar Butternut Squash Soup (like the ones listed here), you know that its namesake gourd is the way to get it. Shaped like a '70s lamp base and delicious almost any way it's prepared, butternut squash also make an excellent cudgel for defending against invading vikings.

Butternut Squash Apple Cranberry Bake
Butternut Squash Gnocchi
Butternut Squash Lasagna with Raisins and Pine Nuts
Butternut Squash and Pear Soup
Butternut Squash Risotto
Roasted Butternut Squash with Moroccan Spices
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Acorn Squash

Classically prepared with maple syrup in rings or slices, acorn squash is a squat, deep-green vegetable that resembles a particularly verdant pumpkin. Clocking in at one or two pounds, they also make excellent free weights.

Classic Baked Acorn Squash
Curried Apples and Acorn Squash

Spaghetti Squash

Confession: I used to hate this stuff, believing it was merely a poor substitute for actual spaghetti. Oh, what a dummy I was. Adaptable to a plethora of different cuisines, the oblong, yellowish squash's versatility has made it a welcome meal base. It's a bit different from other winter varieties in that the flesh doesn’t come out in chunks, but as slim, pasta-like strings, making it much more fun to play with.

Spaghetti Squash Casserole
Spaghetti Squash Puttanesca
Spaghetti Squash with Ricotta, Sage, and Pine Nuts


Ah, pumpkins. Nature’s ottomans. Bright orange, ridged, and ranging in size from a few ounces to half a ton, pumpkins are sometimes dismissed by Americans as mere Halloween decorations. But anyone who’s seen one decomposing on the neighbor’s lawn knows: there’s more to pumpkins than their nigh-impenetrable exteriors. These recipes all use canned pumpkin, but roasted, pureed fresh pumpkin would substitute nicely. (Check in Monday for a Pumpkin Butter recipe, too.)

Pumpkin Bread
Pumpkin Orzo with Sage (Vegan / non-vegan)
Pumpkin Turkey Chili

Other Squashes (Buttercup, Delicata, Kabocha, etc.)

Though we only hit on a few types here, there are dozens - maybe hundreds - of winter squash varietals available in grocery stores, farmer's markets, and pick-your-owns worldwide. Kabocha and Delicata are more common gourds, but I encourage you to experiment with what's available. Roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper is always a good way to start out.

Roasted Delicata Squash with Thyme
Roasted Winter Squash and Kale
Savory Buttercup Squash Pie

And that’s a wrap. Readers, what are your favorite ways to prepare winter squash? Do you know any other ways to ease the prep process? Why is the sky blue? The comment section is ready for your good words.


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