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TODAY

Monday, May 27

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I think we all know someone, or are someone, who will turn their noses up at the mention of squash. I think when those people think of squash, they think of baby food, or at least overcooked, mushy, bland yellow pulp. But it doesn't have to be that way. Now that we're older and our taste buds are more refined than they were when we were five, we can even tell the difference between types of squash.

There are hundreds of varieties of squash, but you'll probably only be able to find 5 or 6 in your local grocery. I'll give recipes for three of the most common ones. We're at the beginning of squash season, so there should be plenty of time for you to try these out.

There's one tool you're going to need in order to cook squash safely. A knife. Preferably a 6-8" chef's knife. This is the one I have and love. Not cheap, but I haven't cut myself since I got it. I haven't used it, but this knife got good marks from Cook's Illustrated and it's much, much cheaper. The most important thing to look for when choosing a knife is to get one that feels comfortable in your hand. If it feels awkward or slippery, you're more likely to cut yourself.

Acorn squash
Acorn squash are very easy to find and will keep for 3-6 months if wrapped loosely in newspaper and stored in a cool, dry, dark place. Check the stem to make sure it isn't moldy. If it is, the inside is likely rotting. These often weigh between 1 and 3 pounds. They have a sweet but slightly fibrous flesh (everyone needs more fiber, right?) that has a very mild flavor but also absorbs other flavors easily. Most acorn squash are green, but growers are now producing varieties that are golden or multi-colored.

Butternut squash
Butternut squash are also easy to find in your supermarket. These will last for 1-3 months if stored properly. They're often beige colored, but the oranger they are, the sweeter, riper, and drier they are. This is a very watery squash and tastes similar to sweet potatoes. Watch for mold on the stem when purchasing, and store in a cool, dry, dark place wrapped lightly in newspaper.

Spaghetti Squash
Spaghetti squash is also fairly common. They're the largest of the three varieties I'll discuss here, easily weighing 2-5 pounds. They vary in color from white to yellow but the yellowest ones are the ripest and the best to eat. You'll find ones that are light cream-colored and they'll be tough and fiberous and bland, so look for a very yellow squash. The nice thing about these is that their flesh resembles spaghetti. It softens as it cooks and you simply pull it away from the skin with a fork to get long, skinny tendrils.

Winter squash are excellent sources of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and fiber. They also contain a fair amount of protein, and some of them are low in carbohydrates. However, while they're good for you by themselves, the things put on top of them are rarely good for you.

For example, one of the most common methods of cooking acorn squash is to cut the stem off, cut it in half, and fill the cavity with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and bake at 350 for 1 1/2 -2 hours. Delicious and yummy, but not exactly good for you. I'll try to present recipes for each squash that are at least not really bad for you, and are tasty, too.

Savory Stuffed Acorn Squash
1 sausage, or 1/2 cup of boca crumbles or similar item
1 acorn squash
1/2 tablespoon of melted or very soft butter
1/2 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of dijon mustard
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme (1 teaspoon of dried)
Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Remove the sausage from the casing, mash with the tines of a fork, and cook over medium heat until the sausage is fully cooked and crumbled. Drain off the grease. Cut the stem off the squash and then cut the squash in half so you have two cups. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and strings. Place cup side up on a baking pan. Put half of your sausage, or crumbles, into each half. In a small bowl combine the butter, olive oil, mustard, and thyme. Put half of this mixture in each cup, sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the flesh is very soft and tender. Makes two servings.

Easy Butternut Squash Soup
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 large garlic clove
1 1/2 tablespoons chipotle in adobo puree (comes in a can, but it's awesome)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 (16-ounce) cans chicken broth, plus water to cover if necessary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

To peel the squash, slice it like you would a canteloupe and then use a potato peeler to remove the skin. Combine all the ingredients into a large pot and add water if the ingredients stick up the chicken stock. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a fast simmer and cook for 20-30 minutes or until the squash is tender. (If you cook it too long, the squash will fall apart which means you won't have to puree it to get a creamy soup.) Puree with stick blender, or in a standard blender in small batches. This recipe is perfect for making in a crockpot. Peel and cut the squash the night before and place in the refrigerator. Wake up 10 minutes early, dump everything into the crockpot and cook on low for 8 hours. Come home to jealous neighbors and a wonderful dinner. Makes two-four servings.

Adaptable Spaghetti Squash
1 large spaghetti squash

Cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon. Place cut-side down in a baking dish. Fill the dish with 1/4 inch of water and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until the skin pierces easily with a fork. Remove from oven, turn right side up, and let cool for a few minutes. Using a fork like a rake, running the tines over the flesh. The flesh should peel away and look like fine spaghetti. Repeat until all the flesh has pulled away from the skin. You can serve with anything you'd normally put on pasta. A simple, delicous, and easy topping is to dot each serving with a tablespoon of butter, sprinkle on some parmesan cheese, add a little fresh-cracked pepper and eat.

Spaghetti squash can be a lower-carb alternative to cooking with regular pasta. It also has much more fiber and vitamins and minerals. It is a bit of work, so I'd suggest cooking a couple squash at once, bagging and freezing them. They'll keep for 1-2 months in your freezer and on those nights when you don't know what to make, pull one out and pour some sauce over it, nuke it and eat in front of the TV instead of eating ravioli out of a can.

If you'd like a very tasty, but buttery sauce, try this:

Lemon Butter Shrimp
4 tablespoons of butter
1/2 pound of peeled shrimp
2 tablespoons of capers
1 roma tomato, diced
2 tablespoons of lemon juice (about 1 small lemon)

In a medium-high skillet, melt the butter and cook until the butter begins to turn brown. Add everything but the lemon juice to and stir constantly for about 3-5 minutes or until the shrimp turn pink. Pour over squash, sprinkle lemon juice on top, toss and serve. Makes two servings.

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