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Summer squash is done; now it’s spaghetti squash season

Spaghetti squash (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

It’s October. Summer squash has disappeared from farmers’ markets. But winter squashes — summer squash’s robust cousins — are just getting into their prime.

One of the earliest to mature from the winter squash family is the spaghetti squash. When roasted, it forms strands (hence the name) rather than a pulp like its other winter squash cousins.

Spaghetti squash is often touted as a substitute for pasta — but it is totally different. Yes, it forms strands — slippery, slimy strings that are not as long as spaghetti, so you can’t twirl them. It is not chewy and does not taste at all like pasta. It is, of course, a vegetable — not a grain.

But spaghetti squash is delicious. Its crispy texture and slightly sweet, subtle flavor make it a popular vegetable. Sweeter than its summer squash cousins, yet not as sweet as its other winter squash relatives, spaghetti squash readily absorbs spices and sauces. It can be steamed, boiled, baked, broiled, or cooked in a microwave or a crock pot.

It is low in calories (a 4 ounce serving has just 37 calories) and high in fiber, folic acid, vitamin A, the minerals potassium and manganese, and some omega 3 fatty acids. The fiber in squash may help prevent cancer-causing chemicals from attaching to colon cells, thus lowering the risk of colon cancer. The potassium in squash helps reduce hypertension. Vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant, also has anti-inflammatory properties. It prevents the oxidation of cholesterol in the blood, and may help with regulating blood sugar levels. Some carcinogens in cigarette smoke cause vitamin A deficiency, but smokers who eat lots of vitamin A-rich foods like squash may lower their risk of getting emphysema, according to Dr. Richard Baybutt, associate professor of nutrition at Kansas State University.

Spaghetti squash carbonara, stuffed in the shells (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Like other cucurbita, spaghetti squash are members of the gourd family, which includes many vegetables from cucumbers to zucchini, winter squashes, melons and pumpkins. These New World natives trace their roots to Central America, where they have been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. In fact, winter squashes were so important to the Native American diet, they were buried with the dead to provide nourishment on the final journey.

At harvest time, a mature spaghetti squash can range from 2 to 8 pounds. The shell will be a light tan to golden yellow, and the surface quite hard and difficult to scratch with a thumbnail. At the market, look for the heaviest squash you can find for its size, with a hard, smooth shell that is even in color and free from bruises or scars. Avoid those with a greenish tint; this indicates that the squash was picked unripe. 

They don’t need to be refrigerated and will keep for several months when stored in a cool, dry place (55 to 60 degrees F). However, the flavor is best when it is eaten soon after harvest.

To prepare the squash for cooking, wash thoroughly. You don’t need to cut the hard shell open. Your first step is to cook it — by baking, boiling or microwaving.

To bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, place on a baking dish, and pierce through the rind several times with a sharp knife. Bake about 40 minutes, and test by piercing with a fork; it is done when the flesh is tender.

To prepare on the stove, bring a pan of water large enough to hold the entire squash to a boil, then carefully place the squash in the pan. Test it after about 20 minutes by piercing with a sharp knife or fork; it is done when the fork passes through.

To cook it in the microwave, place in a microwavable glass or ceramic dish with a little water, cover, and cook about 10 minutes. You can also use a crock pot to cook it while you’re at work. Make sure your squash is small enough to fit in the crock pot; pierce with a fork a few times, add 2 cups water, cover, and cook for 8 to 9 hours.

The cooking time will vary depending on the size of the squash and the particular oven or microwave, so be sure to test for doneness periodically; you don’t want it to get too mushy. Once the squash is cooked through, cool until you can handle it, then cut it in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds from the center — they’re great roasted! The spaghetti-like strands should be visible around the width of the squash.

The skin should be hard, and should begin to separate from the flesh. Insert a soup spoon between the shell and the insides, and run it around the rind to separate the flesh from the rind. Invert onto a large plate or bowl and pull off the shell. You can now separate the strands by combing with forks or spoons. There will be a much larger volume of strands than would appear from looking at the squash in its shell.

The squash is now ready to serve. It will taste great served warm with some Parmesan cheese. Serve it hot as a side dish with a little bacon or butter and salt. For a salad, serve chilled with your favorite vinaigrette. Add fresh tomatoes or red peppers and herbs like parsley, cilantro or chives.

Spaghetti squash also makes a nice main dish served hot with marinara, Alfredo, pesto, cheese or clam sauce. Add herbs or garlic for added flavor.

If you have more than you can use, freeze the cooked flesh in freezer bags. Defrost a bit, and steam for about 5 minutes or until hot when ready to use.

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Spaghetti Squash Carbonara Casserole

Ingredients:

4 strips bacon

1 large yellow onion

4 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup cottage cheese

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese

About 4 cups spaghetti squash strings

10 ounces baby spinach OR 1 bunch fresh Italian parsley

1 to 2 cups diced cooked ham, optional

For optional crispy topping:

2 Tablespoons bread crumbs

2 Tablespoons shredded cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Cook bacon over medium heat (a heavy or cast iron skillet works best) until crisp. Remove and set aside.

Peel and dice the onion. Cook in 1 Tablespoon of the bacon drippings over low heat, 5 to 10 minutes until golden and nicely caramelized. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, beat eggs with salt, pepper, paprika and turmeric. Stir in cheeses. Stir in the spaghetti squash strands, greens, and ham, if using.

Place into prepared (buttered) casserole dish. For a nice presentation, bake in the squash shells on a cookie sheet.

Sprinkle with topping and bake at 375 degrees F about 45 minutes, or until firm and golden on top.

Serves 4 to 6.

Vegetarian option: Substitute the bacon with tempeh and/or sauteed mushrooms.

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Spaghetti Squash Pie

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Ingredients:

2 eggs

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 1/2 cups cooked spaghetti squash strands

1 1/2 cups cornmeal

1 single prepared pie shell (homemade or store-bought)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, beat the eggs. Beat in sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Fold in the spaghetti squash strands, and stir in the cornmeal. Pour into prepared pie crust. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees F; then lower heat to 350 degrees F and bake 20 to 30 minutes more, or until it tests done when pierced with a fork.

Serves 6 to 8.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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