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News / Life / Food

Winter squash versatile, delicious

Variety provides options for baking, soups, curries, more

By Beth Dooley, Star Tribune
Published: January 17, 2024, 6:01am

Winter squash — orange, green, striped, gray, red — represents the colors and flavor of fall.

Though actually a fruit, squash promises endless variations of soups, stews and curries as well as cakes, breads, scones and pies. Survey the whimsical sizes and shapes with alluring names — Aladdin’s Turban, pie pumpkin, delicata, honeynut. Try the winter kabocha, whose flaky texture makes a fine mash; the Koginut’s firm flesh is well-suited to stir-fries; and that sweet dumpling, with a lush, velvety texture, makes a lovely soup or pie. More old-timey varieties of squash are coming to market each year as growers discover heritage varieties that grow so well here.

Once the squash is harvested, it is “cured” — just set it aside in a cool, dry place so the skins harden. This ensures it will last through winter; the longer squash is in storage, the tougher the shell becomes, and it’s said they sweeten with age (just like us). Store cut-up squash unwrapped in the refrigerator. Avoid using plastic bags, as plastic traps moisture and makes the squash slimy, shortening its life significantly. Better to refrigerate the cut pieces uncovered on the shelf. When you go to use it, slice and discard any discolored sections.

Use caution when wielding a knife to cut squash. Some, like the Hubbard, can be so tough, I’m often tempted to use an ax or toss it from the roof of my car to split it. Instead, put the squash on a cutting board and whack off a thin slice from the base so it stands firm and even. Then cut from the top downward to slice it in half; scoop out the seeds and fibers. After that, you might slice away the skin and then chunk the squash up for roasting in a hot oven or simmering in a soup or curry. Or, take the easier route and bake the halves on a sheet pan until they’re so tender they collapse on themselves.

The density and color of the flesh will determine the flavor and consistency of the dish you’re making. Pale, easy-to-cut squash makes a thin mash, best for working into a risotto or simmering into a soup. The denser, brightly colored flesh will make a wonderful, rich-tasting stew and is fabulous simply roasted and slathered with butter. Seems the harder the squash and the darker the meat, the richer the flavor and denser the texture will be.

While there are nuanced differences among all these many different varieties, much will depend on their growing conditions and when they were harvested. Be prepared to taste and season the different squash as you go because while they are relatively interchangeable, no one squash tastes exactly like another. (I skip spaghetti squash; it bakes up to produce stringy fibers that can be sauced like pasta, but why bother?)

Winter squash is a reliable and unfussy pantry staple. It will wait patiently until you’re ready to cook. As the temperatures plummet, I keep squash at the ready — it’s the backbone of my autumnal kitchen. Whether it’s going into a soup, stew or buttery golden mash, squash answers the question of what’s for dinner on a blustery, bone-chilling night.

Winter Squash Curry

Serves 4 to 6.

This is Indian comfort food, spicy and warm — perfect on a cold night. The squash is cut into chunks and roasted first to give it crisp, sweet edges. Serve over rice, mashed potatoes or mashed squash. Leftovers, if you have them, are wonderful the next day.

1 lb. winter squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ½-in. pieces

1 tbsp. olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tbsp. coconut oil or butter

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 c. diced carrots

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 tsp. curry powder, or more to taste

½ tsp. ground coriander

½ tsp. ground cumin

½ tsp. ground turmeric

1 c. coconut milk

2 tbsp. lime juice, or to taste

Chopped cilantro for garnish

Lime wedges, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, toss the squash with the oil, salt and pepper and spread out on a baking sheet. Roast until the chunks are lightly browned and tender, about 30 minutes, tossing halfway through. Set aside.

In a large, heavy pot, heat the coconut oil over medium heat and sauté the onion, garlic, carrots, bell pepper, curry, coriander, cumin and turmeric until the vegetables are tender and the spices are fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the roasted squash along with the coconut milk and the lime juice. Bring to a simmer and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Serve garnished with the cilantro and lime wedges on the side.

Roasted Squash With Chickpeas, Honey and Za’atar

Serves 4 to 6.

Roasted with warm spices and a lick of honey, this simple dish can easily be made ahead. It’s a wonderful side to chicken or, when topped with a dollop of yogurt or crème fraîche, it makes a fine light dinner. From Beth Dooley.

1½ to 2 lb. winter squash, peeled seeded, and cut into 1-in. thick chunks

1 c. cooked or canned garbanzo beans, drained and patted dry

2 tbsp. hazelnut oil or olive oil

1 tbsp. honey

1 tbsp. za’atar, or more to taste

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ c. chopped toasted hazelnuts, for garnish

¼ c. chopped cilantro, for garnish

Lemon wedges, for serving

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, toss the squash and the garbanzo beans with the oil, honey, za’atar and a pinch each of coarse salt and pepper. Arrange the squash and beans in a single layer and roast until golden and tender, about 30 minutes, shaking the pan and flipping the squash halfway through. Transfer the squash to a serving platter and garnish with the chopped nuts and cilantro. Serve with lemon wedges.

Squash Soup With Apple and Ancho

Serves 4 to 6.

Here, traditional squash soup gets a lick of smoke and heat from ancho chile pepper and a bit of tangy sweet from local apples. Here’s where the sweet dumpling squash with its lush, creamy, sugary flesh is a great fit, but any local winter squash will work nicely (except spaghetti). Top this with toasted rough bread and crunchy pepitas.

2½ to 3 lb. winter squash

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 shallot, chopped

1 tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped

½ tsp. ground ancho chile powder or chile powder, to taste

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

Generous pinch cumin

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 c. chicken or vegetable stock

½ c. apple cider

Pepitas, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds and fibrous interior. Place the squash, cut side down, on the parchment. Roast the squash until very tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove and allow to cool. Scoop the flesh from the squash (you should have a little more than 2 cups) and set aside.

In a large, heavy soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat, then sauté the shallot, apple, chile powder, cinnamon and cumin until the shallot and apple become tender, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the stock, apple cider and squash. Increase the heat, bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Carefully transfer the mixture to a blender and purée. (When puréeing hot soup in a blender, never fill the blender more than halfway. Remove the plastic piece in the lid and cover with a dish towel to prevent steam from building.) Return the soup to the pot and serve garnished with pepitas.