Everything and the Kitchen Shrink: Squash smorgasbord: from acorn to zucchini

The cornucopia of golden colors on our produce shelves heralds the arrival of autumn. Smooth-skinned and warty, stripped and speckled, salami and disk-shaped, dwarf and giant - the gourd family delights the eyes with its beauty and variety.

As I piled a variety of hard-skinned squashes into my cart, a fellow shopper curiously peered in and surveyed my picks. We started to squash schmooze and she wondered how to select and cook the heartier, more intimidating winter squashes. I dished out a little squash back-story, that they are bi-seasonally categorized - summer squash and winter squash. The former are thin-skinned, small-seeded and fragile since they peak in the summer and are harvested when immature, like zucchini, pattypan and yellow crookneck. Winter squash like the butternut, delicata and pumpkins are harvested when the fruits are fully mature, usually early fall through winter, which makes the skins hard and inedible.

For my five faves, let's start with the acorn squash, a small sibling in the family, only about 6 inches around, weighing in at 1 to 2 pounds, shaped like its namesake, an acorn. Baking enhances the sweet flavor of the flesh by caramelizing some of the sugars and - an added bonus - conserves some of the precious nutrients like beta-carotene. Simply cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, dot with butter, sprinkle sea salt and bake until fork tender.

The banana squash is the big mama of the bunch, a sausage-shaped gourd averaging 20 inches in length and topping the scale at 12 pounds. It's usually sold in prepackaged chunks in the supermarket for practicality. It comes in designer shades of blue, orange and pinky-yellow, the latter reminiscent of a banana skin. Its creamy orange flesh is dessert divine and offers a fruity and buttery flavor to your recipe. Bake or steam this squash for a milder flavor, or pan-fry slices like plantains and serve as a Latin side dish.

The beige-colored butternut is a bell-shaped beauty, that's thin-skinned so it can be easily peeled down to its sweet, golden flesh. When baked it enhances its nutty, fragrant taste similar to a sweet potato and can be topped with a maple-pecan crust, melted herb goat cheese, panko bread crumbs, or pureed and added to soups, bread puddings, muffins, souffles, custards and pies.

The delicata (aka peanut or bohemian squash) has a tasty, creamy flesh much like the sweet potato. This squash also has its pedigree papers, an heirloom variety, and recently surfaced into the culinary world after 75 years in hiding. The delicata can be baked like a potato, enjoyed skin and all.

The mini watermelon-shaped spaghetti squash with pseudonyms including noodle squash and "squaghetti" is so called since its flesh morphs into spaghetti-like strands when cooked. Rake out the golden strands with a fork and serve like a pasta dish topped with marinara sauce.

I'd pass on the Hubbard squash, which is bulky and can have a bitter aftertaste. But I love the turban squash as a table centerpiece or a ramekin for fall soups.



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