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The farm fields are looking sparse, but that doesn't mean you have to stop eating seasonal food. Long before we had refrigerators to keep things fresh, and airplanes to carry pineapples to Canada, folks found ways to survive the winter with what they could grow and keep. Enter: winter squash. Despite the name, winter squash grows in the summer, slow and steady. The plant's winding vines spread yards away from where it is planted, tangling with its neighbors until it's unclear what grew where.

In the fall, before it gets too close to a freeze, we wade through this mess to see what we can reap. Sometimes the vines will shrivel and die, letting us "collect" squash more than "pick" it.

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Unlike most fruit and vegetables, winter squash isn't always better when it's fresh. While it's edible right away, winter squash is often left to "cure." This simply entails leaving the squash in a warm, dry place for a few days or weeks. Some farmers will leave picked squash in the field if they're expecting warm weather. Others will collect the squash and keep it in a heated room, like this:

A "cured" squash will be sweeter than a fresh one and will have a stronger skin. It will keep much longer in your kitchen, where it should be kept in a cool, dry place. Check out the Washington Post for more on curing and storing your winter squash.

Varieties

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Winter squash come in a broad range of shapes, sizes, and colors. The most common are the green, creased acorn squash, the bowling pin-shaped butternut squash, the oval striped delicatta squash, and of course the Halloween favorite -- the pumpkin

Want to impress your friends with more exotic types? Tell them about white pumpkinspink banana squash, or blue hubbards.

While they may cook at different speeds (so check them often!), many types of the squash can be used interchangeably in recipes.

What To Do With Winter Squash

Roasted

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My go-to way of cooking winter squash is roasting it. Not only does it bring out the rich, sweet flavor of the squash, but it also warms my house with the oven going on cold winter nights.

Squash can be roasted with a splash of olive oil, salt, and any favorite spice (I think cumin is excellent) on a baking sheet in a 400º oven until soft. There a few different cutting methods that will get you different results:

  • Cut squash lengthwise, scoop out seeds, and put face-down on bake sheet. Pierce tops with a fork in a few places and put a splash of water in the pan. Though it will take a while to cook, this method is extremely easy, and ideal if you want to scoop out the cooked squash to use in something else later
  • Cut a small, creased squash (like acorn, carnival, or even delicatta) lengthwise, scoop out seeds, then cut along creases to create slices. Roast slices on both sides until slightly browned and caramelized. Peel off the skin once cooled, or just eat the slice as-is. This can stand alone as an excellent side, or be put on top of a salad or pasta dish
  • Some squash are easier to peel than others. If you have a smooth-skinned squash (like butternut), consider peeling it before cutting it open and removing the seeds. Then dice the squash into 1-inch or 1/2-inch pieces to roast. This extra work on the front-end means less time in the oven and a ready-to-eat product that can be easily added to another dish
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2015-11-27 17.19.40

Soup

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Soup is a perfect winter-time treat with squash. They really lend themselves to the velvety texture you look for in a blended soup, and the taste can be taken in very different directions.

It's easy to make it up as you go along:

  • Sauté onions or leeks in oil until melted, add additional flavorings (garlic, ginger, cumin, curry, hot pepper... get creative!)
  • Add peeled, diced squash and stir to coat
  • Add vegetable broth (consider adding coconut milk, too, for vegan-friendly creaminess) to cover the squash and simmer
  • When squash is fall-apart soft, blend soup, add extra spices to taste, and enjoy

Here are some recipes to check out:

Tarts & Galettes

There's plenty to say about savory tarts and galettes (that's a free-form pie, made on a flat baking sheet), but much of it will have to wait for another day.

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2015-11-25 14.41.00

I do want to mention, though, that roasted squash (following the methods laid out above) is excellent in a savory tart or galette. This year for Thanksgiving I made a variation on the New York Times Kuri Squash, Mushroom and Kale Tart with Rosemary Crust (at left).

I use either the Smitten Kitchen crust (check out their excellent recipe for Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette) or the Chocolate and ZucchiniOlive Oil Crust, which is vegan and very easy to make.

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With a crust in hand, a smooth squash layer can be enough, or add some extra veggies on top for an impressive dinner.

Spaghetti?!

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Not all squash are destined to be spaghetti, but the aptly-named spaghetti squash sure is. The flesh of this unique squash, when roasted (in the first manner, above) results in a mess of thin strands of squash.

Scoop out the cooked squash and top with a favorite pasta topper (tomato sauce, pesto, or anything else). Folks will be shocked to hear it's not pasta (and gluten free!).

Seeds, Too

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Growing up, Halloween was marked by costumes, candy, pumpkin carving, and of course, pumpkin seed toasting. But pumpkins are just one of the many winter squash with tasty seeds.

Before tossing your seeds in the trash, consider separating them from the squash flesh, tossing in a little oil and salt, and toasting them in the oven at about 350º until browned. You'll have to stir and check them often to prevent burning, but the salty snack is worth it. They make a great addition to salads or topping to your squash soup.

Looks like they should have made the list of 8 Veggies Where You're Missing Half The Fun, too!