Winter squash are prominently displayed at grocery stores during the fall and winter months, but many shoppers pass them by because they don’t know how to prepare them. I used to look at the hard exteriors of the squash and move on because I had no idea what to do with them. Winter squash actually are easy to prepare and a healthy addition to any meal. They’re a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. One-half cup of cooked winter squash has only 40 calories.
Winter squash is picked when it is fully mature and has a thick, inedible skin. This thick skin provides a protective covering for the squash and allows for a long storage life. Winter squash can be stored for three months or longer in a cool, dry place, preferably in a single layer.
Three of the most common winter squash are butternut, spaghetti and acorn squash. Butternut squash is tan in color and has a long, bell-like shape. Spaghetti squash is oblong or oval in shape and yellow in color. Acorn squash gets its name because it is actually shaped like an acorn. It is dark green in color and has a ridged rind or skin.
When shopping, look for squash that are heavy for their size, free of soft spots and have a dull sheen (a shiny skin is an indicator the squash is not fully mature).
All winter squash bake well. Cut the squash in two, scoop out the seeds and brush the cut surface with oil. Place the cut side down in a baking dish with 1/4 cup of water. Bake uncovered at 350 F until the flesh is soft. The hard shell of the squash can be difficult to cut in two, so be sure to use a sharp, heavy-duty knife.
All types of winter squash can be baked in the same way, but not prepared the same. Once butternut or acorn squash is cooked and cooled, it can be peeled away from the skin, cut into cubes and used in soups, stews and casseroles along with other vegetables. Butternut and acorn squash can be used interchangeably in recipes.
Spaghetti squash is used differently. It was given its name because of its spaghetti-like interior. Once cooked, use a fork to peel away the flesh from the skin to form long strands like spaghetti. You can serve it with any type of pasta sauce, in the same way you would serve spaghetti noodles.
My recipe for Butternut Squash and Brown Rice Pilaf uses squash in a flavorful way that showcases its sweetness and pairs beautifully with the nutty brown rice. It’s the perfect fall side dish!
BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND BROWN RICE PILAF
This is a great side dish for a simple fall meal … or as a new Thanksgiving tradition! It’s delicious either hot or at room temperature.
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, halved and seeded
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons butter
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large stalks celery, diced
1 large bell pepper, seeded, ribs removed and diced
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cups instant or parboiled brown rice
1 cup water
1 (14-ounce) can vegetable or low-sodium chicken broth
2 green onions, root end removed, white part and green stalk, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 1/2 tablespoon dried sage
1. Grate the squash through the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor.
2. Heat oil and butter in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until soft and lightly colored, 5 minutes. Add celery, bell pepper, tomato paste, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook, stirring for 3 to 5 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat. Add squash, in batches if necessary, and stir until it has reduced in volume enough so that you can cover the pan.
3. Increase heat to medium-high, pour in water and broth, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered, stirring once or twice, until rice has absorbed most of the liquid and squash is tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
4. Add green onions, oregano and sage; gently stir to combine. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 8.
Angela Shelf Medearis is an award-winning children’s author, culinary historian and the author of seven cookbooks. Her website is www.divapro.com. Read Gina Harlow’s blog about food and gardening at www.peachesandprosciutto.com.
(c) 2014 King Features Synd., Inc., and Angela Shelf Medearis