It has only been in the last five years that I have begun to really appreciate winter squash. Growing up it was a dreaded vegetable, both oddly textured and an unnatural color in my mind. It was only ever served boiled and mashed, and even if it happened to make its way to the table with copious amounts of butter and maple syrup incorporated, I still couldn’t get very excited about eating it.
Eventually, through experimentation that began with my mother’s recommendation of what varieties to stay away from (beginning with the one my grandmother had always cooked -- mom hadn’t been thrilled with that boiled squash, either) as well as encouragement from various cooking magazines with fantastic pictures, I did learn some really important things about winter squash that changed my feelings about this vegetable completely. When it comes to basic mashed squash, I really do prefer the texture of buttercup to butternut. Roasting winter squash is so simple yet produces one of my favorite side dishes ever, slightly browned, caramelized pieces of sweet squash balanced by the perfect amount of sea salt. Butternut squash soup, sometimes made with an apple or two is a delicious meal to come in from the cold to. Baked in its skin, used as a base for pasta dishes or soufflés, substituted for pumpkin in pie or found in a gratins and curries, winter squash shines with versatility.
By the end of February, the season for winter squash is coming to a close. During the summer growing season, winter squash is as susceptible to cold weather and frost as any summer squash or cucumber, most preferring warm soil and temperatures. When they are mature and ready to pick, their skins ripen and become hard, protecting the squash and allowing it to be stored throughout the winter. Squash with harder skins store better than those with more tender skin, but you need to make sure that any squash you are planning to store is in good shape -- no blemishes or soft spots with a good 2 inches of stem. By this time of the year, not only have we eaten our way through lots of last summer’s harvest, but some of the squash is just petering out in its storage ability. Check carefully -- either in your own storage or at the market -- to avoid cooking with sad, squishy, and punky squash.
If you are lucky enough to find some at this late winter date, Delicata squash have become a new favorite of mine. As soon as I heard that you can eat the skin -- yes, you can eat the skin -- I knew I had to learn more about this variety of squash, as peeling winter squash is the one thing that I find tiresome about cooking it. Generally between 6 and 8 inches long and 3 to 4 inches in diameter, Delicata are a beautiful pale, buttery yellow, striped lengthwise with dark green, bright yellow and orange. At first, all I did was lots of roasting -- just cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, slice into moons and roast after tossing with a little olive oil and salt. It was so easy to work with I quickly moved onto sautés. The following recipe was inspired by a dish that I had at The Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, Vt. They served their version over delicious ricotta gnocchi; I found mine to be the perfect light supper over rice.
with Onion and Apple
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 Delicata squash, cut lengthwise, seeded and sliced into one-half inch thick moons
One-half medium onion, French cut (from stem to root end)
1 firm apple, cored and sliced into wedges (I left mine unpeeled)
One-half teaspoon thyme
One-quarter cup chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
One-quarter cup apple cider Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and squash and sauté until squash just starts to soften around the edges and onion is beginning to turn translucent. Add half of the apple, sprinkle on the thyme and stir to combine all. Add the stock or water and cider and cover pan, venting slightly, allowing to simmer/steam until the squash is soft and stock has reduced a bit. Add remaining apple and continue to cook until newly added apples are cooked to a consistency that you like, adding additional stock or water and more thyme if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over rice.
Play with the consistency -- if you like things on the saucier side, use a bit more liquid; if you prefer things drier and maybe even a bit caramelized, use less. It’s easy to see how the addition of a bit of curry powder or garam masala and some sliced almonds would change the dish completely and effortlessly, transforming this meal into something warm and a bit exotic. You could also use any other kind squash, although you would have to peel it, and take care to cut it into pieces that would cook at the same time as the onions and apples.
There is so much to love about this recipe that I hope you try it, experimenting with it a little to get to something you would consider comfort food on a chilly night. And as the Delicata disappears from the shelves and we are left with the hardier varieties of winter squash, I do find myself surprised at how they challenge me to be creative in finding new ways to love them. After all those years of avoiding and making excuses, the fact that these rich, sweet, satisfying and versatile vegetables are now such an integral part of my winter menu still surprises me, not to mention that I am very proud that through trying all these "new" ways of eating winter squash, both of our kids have come to love it as well. One culinary generational bias conquered!
Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.