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Baked squash will warm up winter

January 25, 2019

When we go to the grocery, we typically look for the freshest produce available, with one exception: winter squash. Although both summer and winter squash are warm-weather crops, the summer varieties (e.g., zucchini) are harvested when they’re immature, with thin, edible skins and negligible seeds. Winter squash (e.g., acorn and butternut) are allowed to mature on the vine, developing tough rinds and large seeds.

As you may recall from your early history lessons, squash has been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years. Squash was introduced to early European settlers by Native Americans, most notably as one of the “three sisters” of planting: corn, beans and squash. Corn stalks provided a trellis for climbing beans, and the squash vines shaded out weeds and helped the soil retain moisture. In addition to their contribution to the overall growing process, squash were important because they could be stored and eaten during the lean winter months. Which brings us back to the supermarket. Winter squash are one of the few vegetables you can confidently add to your cart, even if they haven’t been freshly picked.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen butternut and acorn squash in generous supplies, so we opted to prepare some acorn squash with an apple-cranberry stuffing (see photo). The most difficult feature of winter squash is their very thick, tough rinds. You’ll need your heftiest, sharpest knife to cut the squash in half. Be sure to save the seeds so you can roast them for a healthy snack.

Once you’ve scraped out the seeds and stringy bits, place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Depending upon which recipe you consult, some will advise cut side down, while others instruct cut side up. I prefer to place the cut side down to let some steam form in the cavity, keeping the flesh moist. Another variation in the cooking approach is whether or not to add water to the pan. If you want to concentrate the flavors, roasting without water is better.

Cooking times will vary with the size of the squash and the recipe you’re using. If you’re planning to stuff the squash halves, you can add the stuffing about two-thirds of the way through, finishing the cooking with the stuffing in place. If you’re going to purée the squash or cube it to add to a salad or other dish, you’ll want it thoroughly cooked so you can separate it from its skin.

Acorn squash are shaped just as their name implies, like an acorn. They’re usually very dark green with mottled yellow or orange highlights and noticeable ribs. You can also find golden, white and striped acorn squash, which can be used for colorful table decorations as well as delicious side dishes. The most common variety of acorn squash cultivated today is known as Des Moines squash.

Originally introduced to the market by the Iowa Seed Company in 1913 under the name Table Queen, this was the first squash variety to be commercialized. Small in size, somewhat heart-shaped, greenish-black in color, deeply ribbed and delicious in taste, the Table Queen became the standard for individual acorn squash, now called Des Moines.

When you’re selecting acorn squash, choose those that feel heavy for their size and have hard, deeply hued rinds. Avoid any with cuts, nicks or soft spots. The rind should be dull, not shiny, the latter being an indication the squash was picked too soon. Your squash will keep for months if stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area. But in our house, these little beauties don’t have to wait very long to find their way to the table.

Roasted Acorn Squash

1 medium acorn squash
olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste*

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil; set aside. Cut the squash in half lengthwise with a sturdy, sharp knife. Separate the halves and use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp; reserve seeds  to roast. Lightly coat the inside of the squash with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the halves on the baking sheet skin side down. Cook until tender when pierced with a fork, 35 to 45 minutes. *Note, if using the squash in a sweet (not savory) dish or with fruit-based stuffing, substitute a sprinkle of brown sugar for the salt & pepper. 

Savory Stuffed Acorn Squash

2 cooked acorn squash halves
1 t olive oil
1/4 C diced onion
4 oz lean ground beef
salt & pepper, to taste
1/8 t cumin
pinch cayenne
1/8 t cinnamon
1 pressed garlic clove
1/2 C cooked rice
1/4 C  black beans
1/4 C quartered grape tomatoes
1 T chopped cilantro
2 t sunflower seeds
1/4 t orange zest
2 T shredded cheddar cheese
sliced green onion for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 F. Place the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the ground beef, breaking it up into a small crumble. When the meat is slightly browned, season with salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon and garlic. Stir to combine and cook until browned throughout. Transfer meat to a mixing bowl and add rice, beans, tomatoes, cilantro, sunflower seeds and orange zest. Mix well to combine; spoon filling mixture into the cavity of the squash and sprinkle with cheese. Place in the oven long enough to melt the cheese, about 5 minutes. Garnish with sliced green onion. Yield: 2 servings.

Fruit Stuffed Acorn Squash

2 cooked acorn squash halves
1T butter
1 apple
1/4 C dried cranberries
1/3 C chopped pecans
1/2 t orange zest
1/4 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1 T brown sugar
1 T orange juice

Preheat oven to 375 F. Melt the butter in a nonstick skillet over medium low.

Peel, core and chop the apple into a fine dice. Add the apple to the skillet and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Stir in dried cranberries, pecans, orange zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sprinkle with brown sugar and cook until glazed, about 3 minutes. Pour in orange juice and stir to dissolve any brown bits.

Spoon filling mixture into the cooked squash halves and bake until heated through, about 10 minutes. Yield: 2 servings.