November 17, 2010
Risotto ingredients

Photo by Judith Hausman

Got some butternut squash in the pantry? Whip up a barley risotto using chicken stock, barley, sage and, of course, butternut squash.

Here’s my theory: The writers of Invasion of the Body Snatchers used a Hubbard squash as the model for the pod from which the characters’ “doubles” emerged. Have you ever had a good look at them? Tapered at the ends and ridiculously huge, warty-skinned and an unearthly gray-blue, these tasty winter squash could easily contain a body. What a clever defense to scare you away from cooking them!

We know their tricks though. Hubbard and the other cousins of your jack-o’-lantern, whether squat, splotched, smooth or striped like a caliph’s turban, are delicious and versatile. They make eye-catching centerpieces, too.

Simply cut the hard squash in halves or pieces and remove fibers and seeds; then bake, microwave, steam or boil the squash. Smoother varieties, such as butternut, can be peeled before cooking; the flesh of bumpier ones can be scraped out of the skin afterwards. Don’t eat the rind. Keep water to a minimum to avoid losing flavor and nutrients. Use some now and freeze some for later.

All over the world, versatile squash is used for pies, savory casseroles, pasta filling, pancakes and soups. The sweet, dense flesh responds to many seasoning palettes: Southwestern chilies, Indian curry, New England-style cinnamon, apples and maple syrup. The dark-orange color indicates Vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene (an antioxidant), and they’re a good source of Vitamin C and potassium, as well. Stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place, these hard-shelled squash are “good keepers.”

Acorn Squash

As its name suggests, this winter squash is shaped like a blackish-green acorn. It has sweet, slightly fibrous flesh and a deeply ribbed, hard skin. There are now golden and multi-colored varieties as well. I like to halve and stuff acorn squash with a grain pilaf, mixed with dried cranberries and sautéed onions. Bright orange, yellow-fleshed Turban squash is similar to acorn.

Butternut Squash

Pale, creamy-tan and shaped like a vase, butternut squash has a sweet, nutty flavor. The deeper the orange color inside, the riper, drier and sweeter the squash. Use the cooked pulp to make gnocchi or a ravioli filling, lightened with a little ricotta. I stir either pulp or small cubes into a barley risotto with sage, or puree it with stock, orange or apple juice and light cream for a soul-warming soup. Kabocha, a pretty Japanese squash, has a similar, rich sweet flavor but is often drier and flaky when cooked.

Delicata Squash

This is one of the tastier winter squashes, with creamy pulp that tastes a bit like sweet potatoes. Its skin is also edible. The delicata squash is actually an heirloom variety, originally introduced by the Peter Henderson Company of New York City in 1894, and was popular through the 1920s. Then it fell into obscurity for about 75 years, possibly because of its thinner, more tender skin, which isn’t suited to transportation over thousands of miles and storage over several months.

Hubbard Squash

The extra-hard skin makes these one of the best-keeping winter squashes, up to six months in the right cool, humid conditions. Hubbard squash is often sold in pieces because it grows so large. The dense, yellow flesh may require longer cooking time and is a favorite for sweet breads and pies. I also roast rings of it and toss them with balsamic vinegar, smoky bacon and onions.

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