The envoys of fall arrive to greet us well before the autumnal equinox. Gourds, which include pumpkins, winter squash, and those warty, odd-shaped decorative miniatures, begin showing up in supermarkets and roadside stands in late summer. Appearing even before the leaves start changing, they're a distinctive harbinger of autumn. For the gourmet, they're a key ingredient in a variety of seasonal dishes.
Squash is the fruit of plants from the gourd family. Squash originated in the western hemisphere and was being consumed by man at least 5,000 years ago, probably longer. Summer squash, such as zucchini and pattypan, although usually available year round, peak in the summer months. Summer squash is distinguished by thin, edible skins, soft seeds, and a high water content. Highly perishable, it will last less than a week in the fridge. Winter squash, e.g., butternut, acorn, spaghetti, etc., is firmer fleshed with thick skin and requires longer cooking. It should not be refrigerated and will keep in a cool dark place for up to a month. Choose squash with a bright, firm skin that is free of bruises. Squash is a good source of vitamins A, B2 and C, as well as niacin, potassium, and iron.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP
One two-pound butternut squash, peeled and chopped into medium dice
Two tablespoons sugar
Five tablespoons butter
One small onion, chopped
One quart water
One cinnamon stick
Two ounces heavy cream
Salt & white pepper to taste
In a soup pot sweat the squash, sugar, and some salt in the butter, covered, for three minutes. Remember sweating, as opposed to sautéing, means low heat. We do not want to brown the butter or the squash, just soften it. Add onion and sweat ten minutes more. Add water and the cinnamon stick and simmer, covered, for thirty minutes. Remove cinnamon and puree soup in a blender for at least one minute. Then pass through a fine mesh chinois or strainer. Finish with cream, salt and white pepper to taste. A final option is to sprinkle some nutmeg on it just before service.
Some recipes instruct you to roast the squash first in the oven. I've tried it both ways and found that the roasted squash, (which inevitably browns to some degree), produces a darker, unappealing colored soup. Sweating and simmering the squash renders a soup with a more vibrant hue.
BAKED ACORN SQUASH
I have two recipes for baked acorn squash that I like. I never can decide which I like better so I usually make one half of the squash one way, and the second half the other. I have also never measured the ingredients. I begin either recipe, or a combination thereof, with one acorn squash. Cut it in half through its poles, (as in north and south), and scoop out the seeds. You can save the seeds and roast them if you like. Place the halves flesh side down in a covered baking dish, (such as Corningware), with enough chicken stock to come at least a quarter inch up the side of the squash. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove the squash, drain the fluid, and turn the squash over, flesh side up. Cover the flesh with:
Butter to taste. (I like 2-3 tablespoons per half but you can adjust it accordingly).
Brown sugar. Just sprinkle it on until the entire half is lightly coated.
Powdered Cinnamon. A light dusting over the entire surface.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Here's where the recipe can go one of two ways. After applying the above ingredients add either 1) allspice and ground cloves and/or nutmeg or 2) 2-3 teaspoons of soy sauce per squash half. Allspice and cloves are strong spices so I would sprinkle them lightly. Now put the squash back into the oven for 10-15 more minutes, flesh side up, without the lid. Try each recipe on each half of the squash and choose your own favorite.
Spaghetti squash is so named because the flesh, after being cooked, separates into golden colored strands reminiscent of its namesake. Choose specimens that are yellow in color. Green ones are immature. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and cook it flesh side down in a quarter inch of chicken stock for a full hour at 350 degrees in a covered baking dish. Check it by turning it over and poking it with a knife or a fork. Continue to cook if it is not soft all the way through. It may take more than hour depending on the size. Once it's done, simply scrape out the pulp and treat it exactly like spaghetti. Add your favorite tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.