Or, like, just get really good at cooking squash

By Stacey Ballis
October 12, 2018
Photo by Claudia Totir via Getty Images

Squash is especially abundant this time of year, and it can be tempting to load up your basket with all shapes and sizes. Butternut, spaghetti, delicata, Kuri, acorn, pumpkins and the like abound. But as you begin to explore this autumnal bounty, it is essential to avoid some classic squash mistakes.

One, winter squashes can be difficult to prep. Their very hard exteriors and unwieldy shapes are a kitchen disaster waiting to happen. Your first order of business with any squash is to render it stable on your board. This means either halving it or cutting the ends or sides off so that it does not wobble about. A sharp, serrated knife is your friend when it comes to hard squashes as the teeth grip to get your slicing started. Once halved, remove the seeds with a large spoon, return it flat-side down to your board, get a good grip, and slice. If you are buying a very large squash, don’t be afraid to ask the produce team to halve it for you at the store; they have the equipment and expertise. If you do need to use it whole, be sure that the one you choose at the store sits pretty flat. You can always put them on the floor of the store to check this.

When you get a squash home, wash it with a mild soap and water solution, or vegetable wash. The number of people who might have handled it are legion, and you cannot account for their hand hygiene. The minute you cut through the rind, your knife will pull any germs from the surface right into the part you’re going to eat, so a quick bath will ensure food safety.

Some squashes, like butternut, have a sticky sap-like substance just under the rind that can become much like a layer of Krazy Glue on your skin, so I often use a pair of latex gloves for squash work, which both helps with grippiness and protects my hands from the sticky. A heavy duty vegetable peeler can take the rind off. I like a Y-shaped peeler for this because it pivots a bit easier over the shapes.

Many grocery stores carry pre-cubed peeled butternut squash or pre-halved squashes, and while usually I don’t recommend too many pre-prepped ingredients, this is one case where I wholeheartedly advocate their use. If your recipe calls for a prepped ingredient in the squash family and your local store carries that, go for it. Squashes are really hardy, so they will not have lost their oomph just because the produce folks did the heavy lifting.

Once you get your squash prepped, you can store the flesh in a zip-top bag in the fridge with a slightly damp paper towel to prevent drying out, and it will last up to week in your crisper drawer. As long as the pieces are dry to the touch, not slimy, and smell fresh, they will be safe to use. If you are bringing home whole squash, store in a cool spot in your pantry until you want to use them. If you are lucky enough to have a root cellar or cold storage, feel free to stock up; squash can last months. Don’t store whole ones in the fridge, because that level of cold isn’t really necessary and they take up too much real estate.

Finally, when it comes to cooking, roasting in a hot oven is almost always your best choice for both flavor and texture. Boiling and steaming add too much moisture. Squashes are like sponges, they will soak up extra liquid. This is great in soups and stews, where that liquid is full of flavor, but even if you need some mash or puree for use in a recipe, I recommend roasting and then smooshing for the flavor unless your recipe specifically calls for something else.

Last bit of advice: Be careful with pumpkins this time of year. Not all varieties are delicious, most are frankly pretty bland and starchy, and best used decoratively. If you are looking to cook pumpkin, look for ones labeled pie pumpkin, or talk to your produce manager about the best pumpkin for your needs. Pro-tip: Butternut squash is completely interchangeable with pumpkin, so feel free to swap it out. I have made my famous pumpkin soup on more than one occasion with only butternut and no one was the wiser. Good quality canned pumpkin is really the best for any recipe that calls for pumpkin puree or mashed pumpkin.

Finally, if you are looking for a delicious way to celebrate the arrival of squash and root vegetables alike, check out my ratio for a wonderful salad that will use whatever you have in endless variety. Or try my golden squash soup, which you can use with any orange-fleshed squash you find, it is particularly delicious with butternut or Kuri.

Golden Squash Soup

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

2 pounds orange fleshed squash like butternut or kuri, peeled, seeded and cubed (or equivalent in fresh cubed or frozen)
1 large can pumpkin or butternut squash puree (29.5 ounces organic, and not pumpkin pie filling!)
2 quarts chicken or vgetable stock
2 medium (or one large) yellow onions, chopped
1/2 stick butter
Fresh ground nutmeg
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

Prep squash if necessary by peeling, de-seeding and cubing in large chunks. Sauté onions in butter until soft but not browned, add squash and pumpkin. Pour in enough chicken stock to just come to the level of the vegetables—some points of things should be sticking out. Cook over medium heat till very soft, about 35-45 minutes. Blend with immersion blender or in batches in regular blender till very smooth, and for extra-velvety soup strain it with a mesh strainer. Add cream and season to taste with salt and pepper and fresh nutmeg.

This soup freezes beautifully, and I often make a double batch and freeze half without the cream in it. Is also good without the cream, and you can amp up the flavor with any variety of spices or spice mixes like vadouvan, chili flakes, garam masala or even barbecue rub.

Toppings

My favorite way to top this soup for the holidays is:

½ cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
8-10 amaretti cookies, crumbled but not powdered
Blend together right before serving and garnish each bowl or cup with a generous spoon.

The soup can also be topped with:

Crushed gingersnaps and mini marshmallows
Crème fraiche mixed with crystallized ginger
Candied orange zest and toasted pine nuts
Toasted gingerbread croutons
Caramel corn
Whipped cream blended with cranberry sauce
Crouton with melted asiago or manchego cheese
Fried sage leaves
Curried nuts (pumpkin seeds, pecans, walnuts)

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