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Squash in Winter: So Many Varieties, So Many Interesting Tastes

The most familier types of squash are, acorn, butternut and Hubbard. But there are other winter squash that are as sweet as they are nutritious, with names like Sweet Mama, Sugar Loaf, Delicata and Heart of Gold. (File PHOTO BY GINGER PINSON/ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS)

The most familier types of squash are, acorn, butternut and Hubbard. But there are other winter squash that are as sweet as they are nutritious, with names like Sweet Mama, Sugar Loaf, Delicata and Heart of Gold. (File PHOTO BY GINGER PINSON/ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS)

I have a confession: I prefer mashed winter squash to mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are reliable, but they can be bland and mealy unless augmented with prodigious quantities of butter, salt and milk. Winter squash are blank canvases that can show off a wide range of cuisines.

Winter squash can be flavored with spices, sweets or salt (or all of the above), roasted or cooked in soup, cut into fries, used in pasta dishes, risotto or pies. Although each variety of winter squash has its own subtle taste, at their best their flavor reminds me of roasted hazelnuts or walnuts, with a hint of sweetness.

They can be stuffed with grains, nuts and fruits, or other vegetables. They’re economical to buy, they store well, and they’re high in fiber and vitamins A and C. The only burdensome part is peeling them if you’re using them for soup; and ridding them of their fibers and the seeds, which themselves can be baked and eaten. If you’re roasting them, you can spare yourself the peeling and scoop out the flesh after it’s baked, or eat it, both flesh and skin.

The squash I cook most often are the butternut, the acorn, the delicata and the buttercup, all of which are easily adapted to any winter squash recipe. Hubbard squashes, the enormous gourds with a skin like steel, are more trouble than I want to take. The butternut has a particularly fine, satiny texture for soup, and acorn, delicata and buttercup squash are well suited to roasting. When you fill a roasted squash with, say, cooked barley and dried fruits, you have a meal in itself, or a side dish.

Delicata and butternuts are fairly easily peeled with a good vegetable parer. Buttercups have such bumpy, uneven, tough skin that the best way to deal with them is to cook them until they soften and then peel them, or scoop out the flesh.

Stuffed Winter Squash

This is an easy meal to make, although it requires a few steps. The barley is cooked ahead of time and then augmented with dried fruits and nuts. The squash is then stuffed with the barley mixture and heated in the oven. What I like about this dish is that you can improvise a mix of flavors and textures by incorporating seeds, fruits and spices.

Ingredients

1 buttercup squash. The buttercup is a large green squash shaped like a wheel of cheese. Its flesh is dense and rich in flavor. Halve the squash, and scoop out the fibers and seeds.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 cups dried barley

4 cups water, or vegetable or chicken stock

2 apples or pears, cut into medium-sized chunks

1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries or cherries

1/2 cup walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds, optional.

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, and then one tablespoon fennel seeds.

pinch nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom or coriander, to taste

salt and pepper

In a saucepan with a cover, add the olive oil and heat gently. Add the diced onion, the teaspoon fennel seeds and saute until the onion softens. Add the dried barley and stir to coat it with the oil and fennel seeds. Add four cups water or vegetable or chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Then fluff with a fork.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Now add to the cooked barley the cut apples or pears, the dried fruit, the nuts, the fennel seeds, the pinch of spice, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook in a 350-degree oven for about 2 0 minutes. Cover it with foil for the first 10 minutes, and then uncover it for the last 10 minutes so it browns nicely. If you want to moisten the top, you could drizzle a little olive oil, or put a pat of butter on top to melt as the squash heats.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.