They're one of fall's most visual offerings, foods so colorful you make them the centerpiece on your Thanksgiving table. Or maybe you like to pile these jewel-toned veggies on the stoop next to the jack-o'-lanterns come Halloween.
What you really should be doing is eating them, those brightly striped, sometimes weirdly shaped, more often than not hard-as-a-rock autumn gems known as winter squashes.
I came late to the squash party. For much of my cooking life, I relegated this quintessential fall offering to the "no way, no how" list of ingredients. I'm bad enough with a chef's knife, let alone a cleaver (I once managed to nearly take off a fingertip while slicing cake), so trying to peel and then whack a Hubbard or acorn squash into cookable pieces seemed a guaranteed trip to the ER.
Better to limit my family's squash-eating to the easy summer varieties such as zucchini and yellow crookneck, which are a snap to slice and dice into a stir-fry or gratin or grate into a chocolate cake.
My kids, I'm sad to say, didn't put up much of an argument. While all happily gobbled (pureed) squash as babies, by the time they were in elementary school none would have touched butternut squash with a 10-foot pole, let alone a fork. Then two years ago, a copy of "Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home" landed on my desk.
She's a crafty one, that Martha, practically Double Dog-daring us into rethinking everything we thought about squash with one simple, delicious-sounding recipe. Today, one of my daughter Catherine's favorite fall dishes is her "Gratineed Baked Squash Halves," or acorn squash baked with garlic-and-sage-infused cream and then topped with melted Gruyere. She starts asking for it about the time school starts.
Generally, summer squashes are picked young, when the skin is still soft and the fruit is small, while winter squashes are allowed to mature. That's why many varieties, including acorn and buttercup, have such hard, thick skin. But not all are daunting to work with: the only thing that stands between you and the sweet orange flesh of the oblong-shaped delicata squash, for instance, is a vegetable peeler, or a half hour in a hot oven. (Roasted, the skin is quite tender.)
Small and sweet sugar (pie) pumpkins -- yep, they're actually a type of squash -- also are extremely easy to prepare for cooking; just wash, cut in half, remove the stem and scrape out the seeds and fibers. Then, they can be roasted, steamed, grilled, boiled, microwaved, grated or stuffed in any way you can imagine.
What I'm learning, with the help of several new cookbooks, is that the winter squash is well worth exploring. You can't beat its versatility. Appetizers, soups, stews, side dishes, breads and muffins, vegetarian entrees, desserts -- there's a way to sneak squash into virtually any meal. Creative types even can use the shell as a serving bowl for soups and stews. And don't forget about the seeds, which can be toasted for a snack or garnish.
Happily, the weather's been kind in Western Pennsylvania, so there's a wide variety of cooking pumpkins and squashes available at your local grocery store and farmers market. Among the offerings at Janoski's in Clinton, for example, are acorn, butternut, spaghetti and delicato squashes; Schramm Farms in Penn, Westmoreland County, has all that plus those thick and bumpy Hubbard squashes, which, once you hack your way to their dense yellow-orange flesh, prove mighty tasty. At Farmers Market Co-op of East Liberty, Brian Greenawalt of Greenawalt Farm also has green and orange kabocha (also known as Japanese pumpkin), which has an exceptionally sweet flavor.
PG VIDEOCanned pumpkin has gotten expensive enough (a 15-ounce can costs about $2.50 at Giant Eagle) that a growing number of people are trying to make their own from scratch from sugar sweets, said Mary Pat, a part-time "vegetable pusher" at Schramm's, which sells them for 45 cents a pound. (In general, 1 pound fresh winter squash equals 2 cups peeled and cooked pumpkin.)
She said, "So many are buying for the first time."