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Winter Rainbow 

Few things beat roasted winter squash, in all its varieties

Acorn, buttercup, butternut, carnival, delicata, Hubbard, kabocha, red kuri, spaghetti — seeing the different varieties of winter squash displayed in our local grocery stores brings a poetic expression to my eyes. An expression that is, covertly, the expression of a scheming cook. From dark green acorn to deep orange red kuri, from smooth-skinned butternut to warty Hubbard, winter squashes are a kaleidoscope of shapes, colors and flavors that offer plenty of material to the creative kitchen artist.

First, a tidbit of information: The designation "winter squash" refers to when they are eaten. Winter squash, in fact, are neither grown nor harvested in the winter. They grow during the summer and are harvested in late summer and fall, then stored and eaten throughout the winter. Thanks to their thick, hard skin, they keep well for several months (stored in a cool well-ventilated place), and this characteristic explains their historic success among people who did not have refrigerated storage facilities.

Then, a tidbit of history: Squash was a staple food of Native Americans. In particular, the inhabitants of the Eastern Woodlands (present day eastern United States and Canada) interplanted squash with corn and beans in a system called the Three Sisters, which exemplifies a worldview mindful of the interrelation of living things. Corn stalks provided support for the beans, which, in turn, contributed nitrogen to the soil, thereby helping corn thrive. The broad leaves of low-growing squash preserved soil moisture reducing the use of water and inhibiting weed growth. The Three Sisters complemented each other nutritionally as well, and could be eaten fresh or stored for later consumption.

Finally, a few tidbits about savoring winter squash: The following is a recipe for a side dish. My favorite kind of squash for it is the red kuri (aka, Uchiki kuri, or curry squash, a moniker I personally do not like). I sometimes mix and match different types of squash, except when I cook butternut squash, which I consider a prima donna that does not like to share the stage, at least for this act.

If the chosen squash is relatively soft-skinned, like delicata, simply cut it in half and remove the seeds. I used to employ a melon baller for this task, which conveniently allows you to follow the curvature of the internal cavity of the squash at hand. Last year, though, I tried using a grapefruit spoon and that has become my tool of choice. The tiny teeth of the grapefruit spoon, in fact, are particularly helpful in removing the threads.

Spray a baking sheet with olive oil and place the squash halves on it, cut side down, then bake at 375 degrees F for 45 minutes — more or less, depending on the size and thickness of the pieces — until the squash is soft, easily pierced with a knife. The time requirement is really variable and I suggest that you keep a close eye on what is in your oven after the first half hour. In time, you will learn the time requirements of your favorite types of squash.

If the squash is hard-skinned, pierce it in a few places with a knife and bake it whole for 25 minutes at 375 degrees F, then let it cool slightly, cut it in half, seed it and bake as above for another 40 minutes or so until the squash is ready. This method is substantially better, not to mention safer, than breaking your knife while trying to halve a squash (which has happened to me once).

While the squash is baking, spray a small frying pan with olive oil, let it warm up on medium heat, then add some chopped onion. The amount of onion depends on the size of the squash and your personal preference. My basic algorithm is half a pound of onion for three pounds of raw squash. Add some chopped fresh herbs to the onion: rosemary, thyme and any other herb you like. Let the onion cook over low heat, covered, until it is quite soft (15-20 minutes), adding one to two tablespoons of water or vegetable broth to the pan to prevent the onion from becoming too dry and possibly burning. At the end of the cooking time, sprinkle salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste, then turn off the heat and keep warm until the squash is ready to be seasoned. Instead of the onion, you can use one large leek or two small ones cut into 1/8 inch-thick slices.

When the squash is ready, take it out of the oven and let it cool completely on the baking sheet. Depending on the kind of squash, the skin may just peel off, at least in part. Use the grapefruit spoon (or melon baller, or a spoon) to scrape the flesh, and place it in a bowl. Add the cooked onion (or leek) to the squash. With a fork, mix and mash the two ingredients. The alternative I use with butternut squash (baked and mashed as explained above) entails roasting for about 20 minutes, together with the squash, 5-7 unpeeled garlic cloves wrapped in foil. After the cloves are cool enough to handle, peel and mash them before adding them to the squash, together with some minced fresh or sautéed sage, or parsley.

Regardless of the variations you choose to execute, the resulting side dish can be served warm or at room temperature as accompaniment to pretty much any kind of entree. It always tastes different, depending on the squash(es), the flavor of the onion and the herb(s) of choice.

Some squashes, like buttercup and kabocha (whose skin, I just discovered, is edible) may be a bit dry, in which case I suggest to push the recipe given above a step further to obtain a delicious soup. This is exactly what I did one day, when I realized that the beautiful buttercup squash I had just baked was too dry for its intended purpose. Follow the steps until you are ready to mix and mash the cooked squash and onion. Warm up two cups of vegetable broth and two cups of water and add them to the squash, mixing well as you proceed. I guess that an immersion blender would be useful at this point, but I don't have one, so I use the food processor to purée the diluted squash in batches. Let the processor run for a short time to get a chunky soup, or longer for a smoother more homogeneous texture.

Pour the puréed squash in a pot big enough to also hold additional water, which you can add until the soup reaches the consistency you like. My preference is for a rather dense soup. Warm up the soup and serve it hot, possibly sprinkled with some crumbled goat cheese or roasted squash seeds.

Short detour right before the finishing line to get the squash seeds roasted. Separate the seeds from the pulp and wash them in hot water to remove the slimy substance that covers them. Dry them well with a towel, then spread them on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Roast the seeds at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes or more, until they are golden brown, stirring them a couple of times.

Parting thought: Squash soup will nourish your body and cheer up your soul, just what you need on a cold, rainy day — or any day, for that matter.

Roasted Winter Squash with Onion and Herbs

Ingredients:

Winter squash of choice, about 3 lbs.

1/2 lb chopped onion

Olive oil

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary and/or other herbs of choice

1-2 tablespoons vegetable broth

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Method:

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Halve and seed soft-skinned squash, then place on oiled baking sheet, cut side down.

Bake for 45 minutes or until flesh is soft and easily pierced with a knife.

For hard-skinned squash, pierce with a knife in several places, then place on baking sheet, whole, and bake for 25 minutes.

Let cool, then halve and seed, and place on an oiled baking sheet, cut side down.

Bake for 40 minutes or until flesh is soft and easily pierced with a knife.

While squash is baking, cook chopped onion and herbs covered over low heat in olive oil until onion is quite soft, 15-20 minutes.

Add vegetable broth, as needed, to prevent onion from sticking to pan.

Add salt and pepper, to taste.

Remove skin from squash, scrape as needed, and place flesh in a bowl.

Add onion, mix and mash.

Adjust seasoning, as needed.

Serve warm or at room temperature as a side dish.

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Simona Carini

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