Savor flavors of fall with acorn squash

Baked acorn squash filled with rice and dried cherries is finished with a sprinkle of chives. BY JACK CLEMONS
October 22, 2012

Squash season is here, and the evidence is piling up from roadside stands to supermarket aisles. Sometimes called gourds, squash belong to the same family as pumpkins, melons and cucumbers. They share a tough, typically inedible skin over firm flesh surrounding seeds in the center. Indigenous to North and Central America, squash have been cultivated for thousands of years. Native Americans introduced squash to the European settlers in this country, who adapted the name from the Indian words for the vegetable, loosely translated as “something eaten raw.”

There’s a wide array of squash varieties available in the autumn months, from miniature pumpkins sold as holiday decorations (although you could eat them) to my favorite, the acorn squash. Aptly named for their resemblance to seeds of the oak tree, acorn squash are usually deep green in color, often with a splash of orange near the stem. Fairly uniform in size, they’re about six inches long and weigh between one and two pounds. Their tough skin gives them the hardiness to keep for several months in cold storage.

The deep vertical ribs on the outside of the acorn squash make peeling the skin a daunting task, but provide great structure for a robust container. Most commonly, acorn squash is prepared by baking or steaming. They’re cut into halves, and the seeds and stringy fibers are scraped away. Just like pumpkin, the seeds can be toasted and eaten as a salad garnish or snack.

When making a dish that uses the squash as an edible bowl, they’re cooked until almost done, then filled with stuffing and (sometimes) further baked. For a dish that calls for the flesh to be puréed – as in soup or pie – the squash can be microwaved or steamed and the pulp scooped from the skin. You don’t want to boil acorn squash, as the process damages the texture and destroys its slightly nutty flavor.

Acorn squash has the versatility to meld with all sorts of ingredients, becoming a sweet side or a savory main course. The first recipe here uses the combination of butter, maple syrup and brown sugar to create a flavor profile with hints of grandmother’s sweet potato casserole. This works equally well and turns out less sweet if you substitute honey for the maple syrup and omit the cinnamon.

The second recipe adds a sharp twist to the flavors with the use of red pepper flakes, garlic and lime juice in a spicy vinaigrette. This dish looks beautiful on a serving platter because the horizontal slices of squash have a lovely scalloped edge. You’ll need good arm strength and a very sharp knife to cut the squash this way; if you want an easier approach, trim the squash into wedges instead.

The recipe in the photo has dozens of variations. This one features dried cherries, onions and brown rice cooked into a pilaf, then stuffed into the baked squash halves. You could readily substitute raisins, minced prunes or any small pieces of dried fruit. I’ve also made it with quinoa and sun-dried tomatoes, which isn’t as sweet but just as pretty. For a heartier main dish, slice the squash lengthwise before baking to leave more room to mound stuffing and fill the cooked halves with a mixture of ground beef, rice and chopped pecans.

With all the ways to feature acorn squash - from soup to dessert - you can spend all of autumn savoring its subtle flavors.

Baked Acorn Squash

1 acorn squash
2 t butter
2 t maple syrup
2 t brown sugar
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and strings. Place the halves, skin side down, in a baking dish. Place 1 t butter, 1 t maple syrup, 1 t brown sugar and tiny pinch of salt in each half.

Sprinkle each piece with a scant dusting of cinnamon. Fill the baking dish with 1/4 inch of water. Bake until tender, about 55 minutes. To serve, cut each half into two pieces. Yield: 4 servings

Peppered Squash

2 acorn squash
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
2 T olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/2 t salt
juice of 1 lime
2 T olive oil
1/4 t red pepper flakes
pinch cayenne
1 T snipped chives

Preheat oven to 450 F. Halve squash lengthwise; cut off and discard stems. Scoop out seeds and strings.

Cut squash into half circles about 3/4-inch thick. Whisk together salt, pepper and olive oil in a bowl. Add squash and toss to combine. Place squash slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Cook until tender, about 35 minutes. When squash is done, press garlic clove onto a cutting board. Add salt and mash into a paste. Combine garlic, lime juice, olive oil, pepper flakes and cayenne in measuring cup and whisk to emulsify. Drizzle squash with vinaigrette and sprinkle with chives. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Stuffed Squash

2 acorn squash
1 t butter
1 chopped onion
2/3 C brown rice
1 1/3 C vegetable broth
1/3 C dried cherries
salt & pepper, to taste
snipped chives or parsley

Preheat oven to 375 F. Slice the squash in half crosswise and scrape out seeds and strings. Place the halves, flesh side down, in a baking dish. Fill the dish with 1/2 inch water. Bake squash until tender, about 55 minutes. While squash is cooking, melt butter in a saucepan and add onion. Cook over medium heat until softened, stirring frequently. Add rice and stir to combine. Pour in broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. Stir in cherries and adjust seasonings. Stuff squash with hot rice mixture and garnish with herbs. Yield: 4 servings.