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’Tis the season for … winter squash

Acorn squash (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Winter squash is a favorite autumn treat — and one of the most popular is the acorn.

Cucurbita pepo L. var. turbinata has a very hard, ridged shell with a pointed bottom — in the shape of a giant acorn. They’re fairly round — between 5 and 8 inches long and 4 or 5 inches across — and weigh from 1 to 3 pounds. Traditionally deep green with orange spots, new hybrid varieties come in many colors, including white and yellow.

When cooked, the acorn has a nice soft pulp that can be scooped out and seasoned as a side dish. But it really shines when the cavity in the center is stuffed with meat or grain.

Winter squash was one of the earliest foods cultivated by Native Americans. Squash seeds as old as 9,000 years have been unearthed in Mexican archaeological digs. Because squash was buried with the deceased to provide nourishment for the long journey to meet the Great Spirit, they’re often found in ancient burial grounds. Along with corn and beans, winter squash is part of the triad of Indian food staples. The term acorn squash first appeared in print in 1937.

Like other winter squashes, acorn squash is a pure, concentrated food, rich in complex carbohydrates and sugars. One of the easiest vegetables to digest, squash is often given to babies. It makes a filling dish despite the fact that it is relatively low in calories (83 calories in 1 cup of cooked, mashed squash).

Acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, served with a salad on the side (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

All winter squashes, including acorn, are excellent sources of fiber and vitamin A. Other nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, folic acid, several B vitamins, potassium, manganese, copper and tryptophan.

Acorn squash are prized for their durability. The almost impenetrable, tough shell gives this squash a shelf life of up to six months when stored at about 50 degrees F in conditions that are neither too humid or too dry. Hot, dry air will cause it to lose moisture, while temperatures below 50 degrees F will damage it. This is why they should never be refrigerated and do better at room temperature.

When picking out your squash at the farmers’ market, the skin should be free of soft spots, cuts or cracks. Unlike a summer squash and most other vegetables, the bigger it is, the better — though 3 pounds is the limit.

It can be hard to tell when an acorn squash if ripe. Usually, a ripe squash will have an orange spot where it was laying on the ground while growing. The green shell should be dull, with a little yellow and orange. Too much yellow and orange can mean that the squash is overripe; a shiny, dark green shell with no orange or yellow means it’s not ripe. It should be heavy for its size; if it is too light, it may have lost moisture and dried out from storage.

When you cut it open, the deeper the orange, the riper — and sweeter — the squash will be. An overripe squash will be dry and stringy. If not quite ripe, the squash will be a lighter yellow on the inside, and not quite as sweet. If soft or brown spots appear, use immediately. Cooked squash can be frozen or stored in the fridge up to four days.

Don’t be afraid of cooking with acorn squash; once you’ve cut through the tough shell, acorn is one of the easiest to prepare. It is naturally sweet with a fine woven texture a rich flavor that falls somewhere between pumpkin and butternut squash.

Because its skin is so hard, acorn squash is most often served cooked in its shell. You can soften the shell a bit by piercing and baking at 350 degrees F for 15 to 20 minutes, or microwaving it for a couple minutes. If you just can’t manage to cut it in half, you can cook it whole: Pierce the skin with a sharp knife in a few places; then place on a baking sheet and cook between 350 and 400 degrees F for an hour or longer, depending on the size of the squash. When done, it should yield to pressure when squeezed gently. It is then easy to cut in half, scoop out the seeds and remove the flesh from the shell to use in recipes.

You can serve the baked halves (or quarters) unstuffed, seasoned with butter, salt and pepper or herbs and spices. Seasonings that go well with acorn squash are sweet spices (cinnamon, ginger) or savory ones (parsley, sage, thyme).

The best way to use this squash is to cut it in half lengthwise (along the ridges that go from point to stem), bake, and then stuff it. Fillings can be sweet, savory, or spicy — they’re only limited by your imagination! Spicy pork sausage or hot pepper flakes can add zip, while maple syrup, honey or brown sugar will enhance its sweetness.

Cooking with squash is not only easy and fun, but tasty and aromatic — so enjoy! Here are a couple of ways to stuff your squash for a main dish entree.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Quinoa

(Note: Brown rice, couscous, millet or barley would also work well.)

Ingredients:

2 acorn squash

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup quinoa (or another grain)

1/2 cup broth

1/2 cup water

Pinch of salt (optional)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion

1 large apple

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon fresh minced sage

1/4 cup fresh minced parsley

1/4 cup fresh minced leaves from celery

1 Tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup black currants or cranberries

1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/3 cup Feta cheese, crumbled

1 cup extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (for topping)

1 to 2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley, for garnish

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper for easy cleanup.

To prepare the squash, cut in half from the tip to the stem with a sharp chef’s knife (this is the hardest part). Remove the seeds and fibers with a large spoon, and discard. Rub the inside lightly with a tablespoon of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and turmeric. Place cut side down on a cookie sheet.

Roast the squash about until the flesh is easily pierced with a fork — 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and reduce heat to 375 degrees F.

While squash is baking, prepare the quinoa. Rinse the quinoa, then place in saucepan with broth, water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 12 to 15 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is fluffy.

Heat oil in skillet. Peel and dice the onion, add, cover, and cook on low 5 minutes. Wash, core and dice the apple, and add to the skillet. Peel and mince the garlic, and add. Cook another 7 minutes or so until soft and caramelized.

Stir quinoa into the skillet, along with remaining seasonings — sage, parsley, celery and lemon. Stir in cranberries, walnuts and feta cheese.

Taste, and adjust seasonings if needed.

Spoon filling into the squash halves. Top each squash half with 1/4 cup shredded cheese.

Return to oven and bake 15 minutes until warmed through and cheese is melted.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with fresh minced parsley.

Serve with a salad of fresh greens.

Serves 4 as a main course.

 –

Bulgur Stuffed Acorn Squash

Ingredients:

1 acorn squash

1/4 cup bulgur 

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup boiling water

1 Tablespoon cooking oil

1/2 link breakfast sausage (optional)

1 large onion

4 ounces sliced mushrooms

1 clove garlic

1 egg, beaten

1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons grated cheddar cheese

 –

Directions:

Bake squash as explained above for 1 hour, until very soft; test for doneness. You can make the stuffing while the squash bakes.

In a small pan, place bulgur and salt, add boiling water, stir, cover, and set aside.

In skillet, heat oil or butter. Add sausage, if using. Peel and dice the onion, add and cook 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook 7 to 10 minutes longer. Peel and mince the garlic, stir in, and cook 1 minute longer. Stir in the cooked bulgur, beaten egg and cheese. Set aside.

Remove squash from oven and cool until you can handle it. Remove the seeds and fibers, and discard. Remove the pulp without breaking the shells. Mix the pulp with the stuffing, stuff back into shells, sprinkle each half with an additional tablespoon of cheese and bake until heated through and cheese is melted. Serves 2 as a main course. Serve with a tossed salad and fresh-baked bread.

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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